WEEKLY SERMON BLOG
Matthew 5:1-12 - “The Beatitudes”
To understand this sermon it is helpful to be somewhat familiar with the context in which it is found (the early portion of the Gospel of Matthew). At the closing of chapter four Matthew informs his readers that:
What we read is that in the second year of His earthly ministry, Jesus the Christ was going throughout the entire region of Galilee teaching, preaching and healing. As He did so His reputation increased as more and more people heard about the miraculous things He was doing. Matthew tells us that the content of Jesus’ preaching was the gospel of the kingdom. What precisely did Jesus preach about the Kingdom? To answer that question Matthew cites one of the sermons that Jesus gave during this period of time. The implication from the narratives of the Gospels is that when Jesus taught the people He did so for an extended period of time. Given that it takes only a few minutes to read this sermon, it is likely that what we have in this Gospel is not everything Jesus said, but contains the essence of Jesus’ teaching at that time. It is a sermon about what it means to repent and become a part of God’s Kingdom.
From the sermon itself, and from the flow of the Gospel, we also have insights into how the sermon was intended to be heard by Jesus’ original audience. First, the things Jesus says in this sermon specifically contradict the prevailing teachings of the Rabbis, Pharisees, and Scribes. Jesus was correcting the understanding of the Law, the Kingdom of God, and the way of salvation that were commonly accepted by Judaism at that time. Additionally, the content of the sermon is rooted in the secrets (mysteries) of the Kingdom of God. The Jews were naturally expecting that when the kingdom came, it would take the form of a global empire centered in Judah with the Messiah ruling with absolute power over everyone and everything. The Jews would be in a position of power and privilege and the Gentiles nations would all be subjugated under Messiah’s authority. Therefore the expectation was that the arrival of the Kingdom would be a utopia and no special preparations would be necessary to live within it other than being a faithful Jew. However, Jesus would present to them teachings about the ethics, behavior, and spiritual life that would characterize life as subjects of the Kingdom of God in light of the fact that though the King had come, and He was gathering subjects, the active reign of the Messiah over the world be delayed. The Kingdom of God for a time was going to exist among the kingdoms of men.
Also, this was not a sermon Jesus taught only once, but represents His ongoing teaching as He went from place to place encountering different groups. Therefore it should be understood that the specific sermon recorded here in Matthew, which took place on a hillside (5:1) is not the same sermon recorded by Luke in his Gospel, which took place on a level place (6:17).
Finally, according to Matthew’s introduction Jesus, directed His instruction to His disciples, but a large crowd was in attendance and heard these things as well and so in a secondary sense He was teaching them as well (5:1-2).
I. What are the Beatitudes?
This is a question that has been answered in a number of different ways over the centuries. Some interpreters have suggested that the beatitudes outline the lifestyle that is necessary in order to receive eternal salvation. Others interpreters have suggested that Christ was giving ethical commands here; not for the purpose of explaining the way to gain salvation, but which outline the sort of life that Christians are supposed to live. Still another suggestion has more of a theological angle. This third option is that the things Jesus is teaching here apply only to those living during the Millennial reign of Christ on earth, and therefore along with the rest of the things said in the sermon, the beatitudes are not applicable to Christians living in the current age.
The word “beatitudes” derives from Latin and refers to the reception of blessing. The beatitudes are a literary form of expression that was used often in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms (1:1; 34:8; 65:4; 128:1), and occasionally in the New Testament as well (John 20:29; 14:22; James 1:12; Rev 14:13). Basically, this type of saying was employed to designate a type of person as one who was blessed by God because of some characteristic about them. Therefore, in light of the literary form of the beatitudes, it is clear that they are not meant to be understood as imperatives or commands regarding what one was to be or do. This means that the first two suggested interpretations are ruled out. In regard to the third, there is nothing in the context that suggests that what Jesus teaches here applies only to a specific age in the future. Clearly the instruction does relate to those who are a part of the Kingdom of God; but other portions of the NT make it clear that the Kingdom of God exists in the present age, and not merely during the Millennial reign of Christ (Acts 28:23; Rom.14:17; I Cor.4:20; Col.1:13; 4:11). In addition it is difficult to understand why Jesus would teach this as He did before the listening crowd, since it is certain they would have assumed (lacking a statement to the contrary) that these things did apply to them. Therefore the third interpretive suggestion is not correct either.
So, how are we to understand the beatitudes? Jesus was explaining what sort of life it was that was truly blessed, and what sort of people find favor with God. Therefore, these were not set forth as virtues to pursue, but as a description of the sort of people who genuinely belong to the Kingdom of God. The word “blessed” means fortunate, or happy; and refers to one who is the privileged beneficiary of divine favor. The eight beatitudes follow a very specific pattern. First they express a type of person who is the object of God’s blessing, and then they express why that sort of person is blessed. The Greek word that is translated as “for” basically means “because” in this context; therefore, each beatitude conveys that there is a reward that belongs to those who possess these moral virtues.
II. What is the Nature of the Promised Rewards?
In the first and eighth beatitude Jesus says that the poor in spirit and those who are persecuted are blessed because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. It is helpful to be aware that the expression “kingdom of heaven” is found only in Matthew. Jews of the first century were cautious about referring directly to God, and since Matthew was writing this Gospel to Christian Jews, it seems that he rephrased Jesus’ original expression “kingdom of God” so as to be sensitive to Jewish piety. Therefore the expression “kingdom of heaven” is synonymous with the expression “kingdom of God”. Elsewhere in the New Testament we read about inheriting and entering the Kingdom of God:
I Corinthians 6:9-11
II Peter 1:10-11
From these verses it is clear that those whose lives are marked by sin will not gain the kingdom of God, but those who are godly will enter into it. The idea in these and other verses is that of becoming citizens of God’s kingdom, subjects of the king Jesus Christ. From the verses that we looked at earlier we see that the kingdom of God has both a future and a present dimension. Further, other Scriptures reveal that being a part of the kingdom of God is equivalent to receiving eternal salvation (John 3:3; Titus 3:5; these verses speak of regeneration providing access to the kingdom of God and being the means of one’s salvation). Therefore, based on what the rest of the NT teaches it is best to conclude here that Jesus was saying in these two beatitudes that the reward that makes those possessing these virtues blessed is that they are the recipients of eternal salvation.
Jesus’ choice to phrase the description of the reward the same in the last beatitude as He had in the first reflects a common pattern in Jewish culture. When a writer or speaker would do this it was intended to bookend a given amount of information and indicate that everything said within the two bookends was of the same nature as the bookends themselves. In other words since the reward for the first and eighth beatitudes is eternal salvation; the clear implication is that it is the reward Christ has in mind for all the other beatitudes as well. The idea is expressing the same thing in multiple ways so as to stress the different aspects of it.
The second description of the reward is that those who mourn “will be comforted” (vs.4b). The comfort that Jesus says belongs to the blessed is not the day by day comfort God gives us in this life (as precious as that is); it is the ultimate expression of comfort that we receive from God when we arrive in His presence when this life is over.
The third description of the reward is that the meek will “inherit the earth” (vs.5b). At the closing of the Book of Revelation we are told that the redeemed will be on a re-created perfect earth and that God will join heaven to earth and dwell with His people. Therefore, a literal aspect of eternal salvation is that the earth will ultimately belong to the redeemed as part of the wealth that comes from being God’s heirs.
The fourth description of the reward is that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. The Greek word translated as “filled” means to be fully satisfied and was used to refer to either animals or human beings eating until they had eaten all they could hold. Therefore the promise is to receive full righteousness just like God’s as a part of what it means to gain eternal salvation.
The fifth description of the reward is that the merciful “shall obtain mercy” (vs.6b). The reward is the reception of forgiveness in Christ not because it was deserved, but as an expression of pure mercy on God’s part.
The sixth description of the reward is that those who are pure in heart will “see God” (vs.8b). Jesus is not referring to having greater clarity in one’s mental perception of God in this life, but the literal experience of seeing God when one has been received into His presence. Seeing God is described elsewhere in Scripture as part of the destiny of those who are saved (Job 19:26; I John 3:2).
The seventh description of the reward is that those who are peacemakers “shall be called the sons of God” (vs.9b). The title “sons of God” in the New Testament is used exclusively to refer to the redeemed (Rom.8:14; Gal.3:26), and therefore only those who are saved possess the privilege of genuinely bearing this title.
III. Defining these Eight Characteristics:
Since Jesus says these eight qualities are characteristic of those whose life is blessed by God and is indicative of those who will receive the reward of citizenship in the kingdom of God; it behooves the believer to understand precisely the nature of the virtues that Christ lists here in the beatitudes.
First, what does it mean to be “Poor in Spirit” (vs.3a)? The Greek word translated here as “poor” is normally used in reference to a person’s material and financial worth. To be poor in the 1st century did not mean that one could not afford everything one might like; it described the situation of those who were genuinely impoverished. To be “poor” meant that one barely had or did not have the resources to provide for the basic necessities of life (food, drink, shelter, and clothing). Therefore, the usual sense of the word is having little to nothing. When applied to the things of the spirit, as it is here, it means that one is aware that they are utterly destitute in regard to spiritual resources that would commend them to God. Such individuals have no other option that to be totally dependent on God for whatever they need in order to find acceptance with God. It is important to stress that this relates to the individual’s awareness. The reason for this is that in reality everyone is spiritually destitute. Those who are blessed by God with eternal life are those who understand this reality and relate to God on the basis of that understanding. In one of Christ’s parables, He gave an example of both being poor in spirit, and its opposite; pride:
Second, in what sense is it praiseworthy to “mourn” (vs.4a)? The Greek word translated as “mourn” means to experience sorrow, sadness or grief as the result of depressing circumstances. Of the nine terms that are used to express sorrow in the New Testament this is the strongest and most severe. It is used to refer to the deepest, most heart-felt remorse and was normally reserved for grieving over the loss of a loved one. Elsewhere we read that Jesus specifically indicated that Isaiah 61 was a prophecy about His ministry (Lk.4:18-21). In this prophecy from Isaiah we read the following words:
In this prophecy we find the very same words that Jesus employs in the beatitudes. The mourning here is linked to the previous characteristic in that it is only those who recognize their spiritual bankruptcy (are poor in spirit) who can truly mourn over their inability to be the sort of people they want to be and should be. Therefore the mourning here is not over whatever unpleasant circumstances we experience in life, but in response to the sin we find in ourselves and in those around us. This mourning also encompasses the sorrow we feel in light of the knowledge of all the misery that is created because of these sins. This does not negate what we are taught elsewhere that the believer is to continually rejoice in the Lord (Phil.4:4); it simply means that both profound joy and deep sorrow reside in the heart of those who truly know God because we know both the goodness of God and the evil that exists because of the Fall.
Third, what does it mean to be “meek” (vs.5a)? The Greek word translated as “meek” refers to that which is gentle or mild. The word was used for the training and breaking of horses so the idea was that of strength under control rather than that which was wild or explosive. Therefore, those who are meek are not submissive merely because they do not have the resources to do anything else. Instead meekness is compatible with possessing great strength because it refers to those who could assert themselves and choose not to. It refers to those who have no desire to use the resources they have to inflict harm or injury of any sort upon others. Jesus identified Himself as being meek (Matt.11:29), and Paul cited meekness and gentleness as defining characteristics of Jesus (II Cor.10:1).
Fourth, what does it mean to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (vs.6a)? Since the hunger and thirst is for righteousness, it is clear that these longings are meant in a metaphorical sense. We see this same sense of spiritual thirst in one of David’s psalms:
This hunger and thirst represent a yearning that is never fully satisfied. And it is a yearning that Jesus says is characteristic of the true believer. Righteousness refers to that which conforms to the nature, will, and instructions of God; therefore, the idea is one who yearns to be everything that God wills and commands him or her to be. One who is never satisfied in this life at the level of righteousness that he or she has attained, and one who continually seeks to advance in practical righteousness.
Fifth, what did Jesus mean when He said “blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy” (vs.7a)? What Jesus says here is very similar to something He taught later on in this same sermon:
Some interpreters over the centuries have suggested that what Jesus is teaching is that our forgiveness of others merits the forgiveness we receive from God. In other words the sinner’s forgiveness before God necessarily follows the choice to forgive other sinners for their sins against us.
This is part of the overall idea that believers must somehow merit being saved by God. However, those ideas contradict the Gospel of salvation by grace which is at the heart of NT theology. What then is Jesus saying? The same point that Jesus is making here is one He made by use of a parable that He employed at a different time in His ministry:
In the story, we are meant to understand that a debt of 10,000 talents is an unpayable debt. Also we are to see that the debt owed by the second servant is miniscule in comparison to the debt of the first servant. The story illustrates that it is incongruous for a person to receive a huge expression of grace and yet afterward to be unwilling to express even a little bit of grace to someone else. The story illustrates a hardness of heart that does not really perceive how unworthy they were to be forgiven, and thus see that forgiveness as a relatively small thing compared with the offenses that others inflict upon them. This means that the individual never truly repented and acknowledged his own wrong, and thus never appreciated the magnitude of the mercy shown to him. At the end of the parable we find that Jesus almost repeats verbatim His teaching on forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount. But in the parable the figure that represents the forgiveness of God precedes rather than follows the forgiveness given to the fellow sinner. Thus, Jesus’ point in both the beatitude and in His comments later on in the sermon are that showing mercy to others is evidence that one has truly received the forgiveness of God, and because of that forgiveness one is among those who belong to the kingdom of God.
Sixth, what does it mean to be “pure in heart” (vs.8a). The Greek word translated as “pure” literally means clean. Because of how this concept was employed in terms of ritual cleanliness, the idea is not that something is relatively clean; rather it is absolutely clean, with no filth of any kind present. This word then came to be used to describe those things that were undiluted and thus pure. In the metaphorical sense in which the word is used here it refers to singleness of heart involving integrity and genuineness. It describes a life where outward actions correspond to what is in someone’s heart; a lack of duplicity reflecting a devotion to the will of God above all else.
At the same time the reader needs to understand that in Semitic thought, the heart is equivalent to the entire inner person including the rational, emotional, and volitional aspects of the individual. The point is that the individual who is understood to be pure in “heart” is pure in every aspect of his person. Jesus expressed this same idea again later in this sermon in the form of a challenge to His disciples:
Seventh, what did Jesus mean by the term “Peacemaker” (vs.9a)? In the Semitic language and culture, peace was more than simply the cessation of hostilities. It was a more positive term. The idea of peace is full relational harmony, so that everything is as it should be. One who actively seeks to promote this peace between people is acting like God Himself, for He is called the “God of peace” (Rom.15:33), and is said to be the author or originator of peace (I Cor.14:33).
Eighth, why would Jesus say that those who are “persecuted for righteousness” are among the “blessed” (vs.10a)? The Greek word translated as “persecuted” carries the sense of intense hostility that makes someone chase after or pursue someone with the intent of doing harm or driving them away. It is not that being treated in this way is a blessing in itself; it is the reason why one is persecuted that qualifies the experience as a blessing. It is because of the presence of righteousness in one’s life. The term “righteousness” covers everything that causes one to be in conformity to the nature, will, and instruction of God. Therefore it is one’s conformity to God that creates hostility in those who have not submitted themselves to God through faith in Christ. There is abundant testimony in the New Testament that it is inevitable that there will be persecution of the saints by those of the world:
II Timothy 3:12
I Peter 4:12-13
As these and other passages indicate, the persecution of the saints by the world is one of the ways that one’s genuineness as a follower of Christ is revealed.
But why did Jesus choose to elaborate upon this beatitude when He did not on any of the others? For Jesus goes on and adds:
Jesus changes from the third person to the second person here, thus making His comments more pointed to His listeners. He spells out that if one finds oneself being insulted, persecuted and slandered for Jesus’ sake (which is paralleled with righteousness), then one is blessed. Jesus adds that when this takes place it is not something to sorrow over; rather it should be a cause for rejoicing. Why? Because that is exactly what happened to the prophets during the Old Covenant; and because one’s reward will be great in heaven (tying in going to heaven as yet another description of the promised reward belonging to the blessed ones).
The reason that this last point needed to be stressed was because Jesus’ audience would not be expecting that they would face persecution for aligning themselves with the Messiah. It was expected that all Israel would join them and together the chosen people would enjoy eternal bliss from that time on. However, as noted earlier in this lesson; the kingdom was not going to manifest itself at that time in the way the OT promised. Instead there would be an intervening period where the citizens of the kingdom of God would find themselves in the midst of the kingdom of men and those two kingdoms would be at odds with one another until the end of the age. With the advent of the Messianic days not all the Jews would believe. In fact, the surprise would be that it was the Jewish leadership who would begin the process of persecution. This reality was why Jesus connected the experience of those who would be His followers to the experience of the OT prophets. Because as the hierarchy of the Jew persecuted the prophets, so they would persecute the followers of the Messiah. Thus, such persecution was not an evidence of failure, but evidence that one was doing the right thing. Though persecution and the other hardships that the saints would endure might make it seem like they were under a curse; the reality was that they were abiding under God’s blessing, assured of the certainty of their eventual salvation.
IV. The Contrasting Characteristics of the World:
Sometimes it is helpful to more fully understand a thing by comparison with its opposite. The reality is that Jesus’ pronouncements of blessing were counter-cultural and always will be. The world looks at what is happy and fulfilling in a way that is diametrically opposite of the way God defines these things.
Before God it is the poor in spirit who are the blessed; to the world it is those who are self-assertive, and who actively believe in and promote themselves.
Before God it is the one who mourns that is blessed; to the world it is those who gain the greatest joy and satisfaction from what this life has to offer.
Before God it is the gentle who are blessed; to the world it is those who are willing to use strength, or power to get ahead, even at the expense of others.
Before God it is those who hunger and thirst for righteousness that are blessed; to the world it is those who are seek to fill their lives with all this world’s pleasures.
Before God it is the merciful who are blessed; to the world it is those who triumph over their enemies.
Before God it is pure in heart who are blessed; to the world it is those who build their lives around the present.
Before God the peacemakers are blessed; to the world it is those who are willing to fight for what they want that will succeed.
Before God the persecuted are blessed; to the world it is those who are not under anyone else’s power that find fulfillment in life.
When one goes to the doctor and gets their temperature taken it is not that one has a fever that is the problem it is what is causing the fever that is the problem. Taking one’s temperature is part of the process of looking for symptoms that may indicate one is not well. The beatitudes function in a similar way. It is not that we are called to pursue these characteristics. We are to see them as a measure of genuine Christianity. If these things are lacking the response is not to try to produce them, but to seek to discover why they are absent. These characteristics are traits of those who are born again. If they are absent; something is wrong with us spiritually. Everyone wants to go to heaven. But are we genuinely heavenly minded people, or are we worldly in our values and perspectives? In other words have we been converted? The beatitudes give us a standard by which to evaluate ourselves to see if we really reflect the life of Christ within us.
In the Bonds of Christ,
Pastor Michael Huard