The beginning of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount has been labelled with a rather odd sounding word. According to Merriam-Webster, “beatitude” refers to a “state of utmost bliss.” While I’m not sure of bliss entirely encapsulates Jesus’ purpose in his most famous sermon, but I suppose it is not entirely unrelated either. The definition by the same source for “bliss” is “complete happiness,” and certainly there is a promised happiness for God’s people; if not now, then someday soon. Furthermore, what you have outlined in the Sermon on the Mount, as we have seen in previous posts, is that Jesus in giving the description of God’s people. We have seen how they act towards God and how they act towards their fellow humans. We have even looked at how action alone is not enough, due to the hypocrisy that is so common in humanity. Working backwards from Matthew chapter 7, what remains is the very beginning of the sermon: the Beatitudes. Jesus begins where we end, by discussing the disposition of the heart of those who are God’s people.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” You know these verses. I know these verses. Your grandmother’s throw pillow has these verses cross-stitched onto it. In examining these, I am not hoping to somehow provide an illumination to the text that has not previously been exegeted. However, it is crucial that we spend time on these words, else we miss the entire sermon. For this reason, I’ll show my cards early. Recall our discussion in the previous Sermon on the Mount posts, that the Golden Rule in Matthew chapter 7 stands as the summation of Jesus’ teaching throughout the sermon. We also saw the link between the Golden Rule and the Greatest Command. Here, in the first four Beatitudes, we see the Greatest Command expressed in new light. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” is expressed by Jesus as “Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn… the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” These first four Beatitudes describe the disposition towards God of God’s people.
Let’s start at the beginning. I don’t usually like spending too much time on individual words, largely because we can quickly become unable to see the forest through the trees. But there are times, like here, where it is appropriate. The word “blessed,” here, is not a verb, implying that this is a one-time blessing along the lines of “if you are poor in spirit, you will be/have been blessed.” Rather, the word is an adjective describing the poor in spirit, along the lines of “blessed ones are the poor in spirit.” I’m using the “poor in spirit” as a stand-in example, but you’ll understand that this applies across the Beatitudes. So, the title given as “Blessed” in the beatitudes can be seen as a continual status of God’s people, not just an individual dispensation of favor. The kingdom of heaven being theirs is certainly a blessing to the poor in spirit, but they are not counted as the “blessed ones” because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Even as I write this, I’m laughing to myself because of the ludicrous notion that those to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs would not also fall into the “blessed ones” category. Perhaps it is easier to see what I’m getting at with the next Beatitude; those who mourn are blessed with comfort, but they are not “blessed ones” because of that comforting. If I am muddying the waters, I will try to be more straightforward. We have, within the Beatitudes, two columns: on the left is the disposition of a person and on the right is the corresponding blessing in response to their disposition. Jesus’ purpose is not to show that the blessings of the right column qualify those in the left column as blessed ones. The converse is also true, that Jesus was also not trying to show that those in the left column receive the blessings in the right column by possession of their disposition alone. Jesus’ purpose in the entirety of the Beatitudes is to show that God’s people are the “blessed ones,” and that they exhibit the outlined characteristics.
To move on, it is necessary to start invoking proof texts. The apostle Paul picks up on the blessed status of God’s people in his letter to the Ephesians saying, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” Jesus himself adds a Beatitude in John’s gospel saying, “Blessed are those who have seen and yet have believed.” David says, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Flip to the beginning of your Bible, “all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you,”
“And all these blessing shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.”
We looked at length at Jesus’ claim that he is the fulfillment of the Law, and now we are beginning to see that he too is the fulfillment of its blessing. Again, don’t miss Paul’s exegesis: “God… has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” If Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of the blessings of the Law, then, within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not only teaching proper understanding of the stipulations of the Law, but also of its blessings. All of which point to the characteristics of God’s people. Just as the Law made stipulations with according blessings, Jesus is presenting both true fulfillment of the Law and true blessing. After all, “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come.” It is with this in mind that Paul can make the claim that he does in Ephesians chapter 1.
Now that we have a few proof texts, let’s build a frame work for the Beatitudes with the whole Sermon on the Mount in view. Working somewhat backwards once again, Jesus is describing the characteristics of God’s people. In doing so, he provides proper interpretation of the Law in order to demonstrate how God’s people interact with the Law through the intentions of their hearts. Jesus begins his discussion on true obedience with the claim that he is the fulfillment of that Law and that only those with greater righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees could do likewise. Jesus also illustrates that the intentions of the heart alone betray a person as sinful. This sets Jesus apart as righteous, and only those who are granted his righteousness can escape the indictment of the Law. Those, then, who belong to Jesus exhibit the dispositions of the Beatitudes. Finally, we can see that those who mourn are not called “blessed ones” because they are comforted, but rather because they are God’s people. In the same way, the “blessed ones” have as the disposition of their heart, not any one of the Beatitudes, but rather all of them.
Finally, we’ve made it through the first word of the sermon. I’ve tried to keep our perspective, so hopefully you haven’t lost the forest. But now that we have investigated whom Jesus is referring to, let’s dig in to these particular characteristics. As previously mentioned, these first four characteristics describe the disposition of God’s people towards God. The first, as I’m sure you know by now, is the poor in spirit. Look to Isaiah chapter 61, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” In this passage about the coming salvation for God’s people, we see what Jesus is calling into Matthew chapter 5. The key thing to notice is the concept of the afflicted poor. In my Bible, there is a footnote in Isaiah chapter 61 that suggests the word “poor” could be translated as “afflicted.” I hope your Bible says something similar, because it is an astute observation that the context of Isaiah 61 supports. The duties, “he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound,” all point to the afflicted poor as those who will be saved for the future glory of God’s kingdom. In is in this context that Jesus says, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The afflicted poor further describes God’s people in the second half of the Beatitudes, but we will get to that in a moment. This first beatitude is also closely linked to the second through Isaiah 61, continuing the passage, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.” Matthew, in writing his gospel, seems to be pointing us to this connection. Just as this passage in Isaiah is brought into context with the declaration “’And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,’ declares the Lord,” Matthew includes the declaration of Jesus just before the Sermon on the Mount, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Look at Psalm 37, “But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” To get a further grasp of this meekness, lets find parallels in the rest of Psalm 37. Verse 9 says, “For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land,” and verse 34 says, “Wait for the Lord and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on when the wicked are cut off.” The psalm also tells us that those who inherit the land do so because “they take refuge in him.” We can then interpret the meek in Matthew 5:5, with little doubt, to be those who rely on the strength of God rather than their own. This is called meekness because it represents a recognition of inferiority in position to that of God. Moses understood this, and was called “very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” His siblings, Miriam and Aaron, missed how necessary this characteristic was, and they faulted Moses for his meekness. It is often said that meekness is power under control, or strength restrained. Note that no example in the Bible supports that adage. Moses was meek, not because he had some inert power that he was subduing, but because he realized he was powerless. Moses is called the meekest man who ever lived because he relied solely on God’s power, rather than his own. This is what is iterated in Psalm 37, and why God gets so angry at Miriam and Aaron for suggesting their strength was of greater value than Moses’ meekness.
Paul understands this clearly and accuses the Corinthian church of having the same thought that Miriam and Aaron had, but about Paul himself instead of Moses. “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
“Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness… I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses… he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Paul also points to Jesus as our example of meekness saying, “I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ.” Paul describes this in detail in Philippians, “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be plundered, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of man. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” So, with Christ as the ultimate example of meekness, the meek are those who understand that God alone is powerful and submit themselves to wait on that power. If Psalm 37 is to be believed, which indeed it is, the meek inherit the earth because they are preserved by God’s strength while the wicked are destroyed under their own strength by God’s justice.
Finally, in the people of God’s dispositions to God, are “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Look at Psalm 107, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble… hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress… For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.” The context for Psalm 107 is justice for God’s afflicted people. Sound familiar? We have already seen three Beatitudes that also seem to find their context related to the affliction of God’s people. Again, I typically don’t like looking at individual words, but here it is also helpful. The work here translated “righteousness” is the same word in Greek as “justice,” with definitions depending on context. Perhaps a sense that captures both definitions in English is one of “fulfillment of the law.” I hope you are starting to see how the Beatitudes fit in so well with the topics Jesus discusses in the Sermon on the Mount! Even with regard to our last two articles, we here see that God’s people hunger and thirst for righteousness, in Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law, and justice in our affliction and humiliation. And in all of this, God’s people are promised satisfaction! “He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!”
The second half of the Beatitudes are relative to the disposition of God’s people towards other people. Up until now, we have spent the lions share of our time discussing the disposition of God’s people towards God, and this is for good reason. Just as the Greatest Commandment is to love God and the second is to love others, it is necessary for us to understand correct disposition towards God in order to understand correct disposition towards others. When the first half of the Beatitudes is understood, the second half becomes quite simple. It could even be suggested that the first half produces the second half. I’m not going to commit to that suggestion with detailed proof right now, but at the very least we can see their connection through Jesus reiterating righteousness, affliction, and the kingdom of heaven.
The hunger and thirst for righteousness of God’s people leads them to be merciful, be pure of heart, and make peace. It is righteous living that preserves God’s people, meaning they will receive mercy from judgment, see God on the day he comes for his people, and be called children of God. I am oversimplifying a bit, but I think it is useful for understanding the passage by stepping back and viewing the section as a whole like this. If you attempt to parse each characteristic out too much, you may run into a bit of a snag with the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” After all, doesn’t the kingdom of heaven already belong to the poor in spirit? This line of thinking is truly being unable to see the forest for the trees. By stepping back, it is clear that those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are the afflicted poor from before. This inheritance of the kingdom of heaven by God’s people is justice for their righteousness. Jesus says this too, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Additionally, before finishing our discussion, it must also be pointed out that this righteousness that spawns such persecution is of Christ. Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others ostracize you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” In these parallel Beatitudes about persecution, Jesus says first it is for righteousness’ sake and then that it is for his sake. So, even from these two verses, we begin to see the righteousness of Christ that is granted to God’s people for justification. If we really wanted to draw connections, we could look again back to meekness and reliance on God, but hopefully by now the point is clear.
In conclusion, the Beatitudes are rich with truths about the Christian’s relationship with God and others. This sets the stage for Jesus to present the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Within them, we see what the disposition of the heart that belongs to God is. This post will conclude our discussion of the Sermon on the Mount for now. By no means have all of the theological concepts and truths presented in this sermon been examined, but we have worked backwards to successfully cover some key subjects. Hopefully we can continue to dig through the greatest sermon ever preached to provide even more understanding about what it means to be God’s people.