See yesterday’s notes for an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with what have traditionally been called the Beatitudes: nine statements in the form of blessings. (Have a quick read of them now.) Traditionally, these Beatitudes have been read as though their primary purpose were to tell us how we should live as followers of Jesus. One often-quoted line is this: ‘the Be-atitudes are the attitudes we should be’. (Clearly, ‘blessed are the grammatically correct’ is not one of them.)
Now it’s true that these nine attitudes are appropriate behaviour for a Christian, but that lesson is secondary to what’s really going on in the text. Jesus isn’t saying ‘if you want to be blessed’ or ‘if you want to be happy’ you need to try hard to be poor in spirit, to be meek, to be peacemakers. He’s not saying ‘if you want to inherit the earth you need to be meek’, or ‘if you want to see God you need to be pure in heart’. Those things may indeed be true, but here they are not conditional promises from God: if you can somehow be this, then God will give you that. The primary purpose of the Beatitudes is not to tell us how we should behave. The primary purpose was to tell the crowds who were listening something about Jesus, and something about the kingdom of God that Jesus was bringing in.
In fact, before we even hear the Beatitudes, we can get some clues about what’s going on from the setting. Notice the physical physical location in which Jesus was teaching:Matt 5:1-2 ‘Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.…’
And what did Jesus teach while he was up on the mountain? If you cast your eye over the rest of chapter 5, you’ll see that the overall theme of the sermon is Jesus’ own relationship to the Old Testament law. He says that it isn’t about obeying the letter of the law, but entering into the spirit of the law. He famously sums it up in this way:Matt 5:17, 20 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them… For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’
Then Jesus goes on to quote various understandings of the law using the phrase ‘you have heard it said…’ (referring to the Old Testament, or popular Jewish understandings of it), and then he says ‘but I say to you…’. This is a pretty audacious claim. This is what the law says; but I say to you! Adding all this together, when we see Jesus up on top of a mountain redefining the Law – and talking about how he has come to fulfil it – Jesus is making a pretty big claim. Because the last person to be up a mountain and presumptuous enough to tell everyone God’s law was none other than Moses himself. But even then, he was only repeating the words of God. However, here we have Jesus in a similar situation to Moses, announcing ‘but I say to you…’ In effect, Jesus was claiming to be greater than Moses. And just as Moses brought the law to govern how God’s special people should live, so Jesus was bringing a new way of life that would govern those who enter into God’s new kingdom. So by ascending a mountain to give his own teaching on God’s requirements – his own ‘law’, if you like – Jesus is hinting that he is the fulfilment of the Old Testament. He’s none other than the Messiah, God’s chosen one!
This becomes clearer when we look at the Old Testament background to what Jesus says, particularly in the first few Beatitudes:Matt 5:3-4 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’
Jesus isn’t simply singling out the ‘poor in spirit’ or ‘those who mourn’ for special blessing. In these two verses he’s saying ‘Isaiah 61 is about to be fulfilled’. Now, if you know Isaiah 61 (like Jesus’ hearers did), you’ll know that it’s all about the coming kingdom of God:Isa 61:1-3a ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion’
It’s interesting that this is pretty much the first thing Jesus teaches in Matthew’s gospel after his baptism and temptation. (It’s even more interesting when we look at Luke’s gospel and see that the first thing Jesus teaches also involves Isaiah 61. It’s the well-known story of Jesus going into the synagogue at Nazareth, opening the scroll to Isaiah 61, and reading the first two verses. He then sits down and says ‘today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’) So by saying ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’, and ‘blessed are those who mourn’, Jesus is claiming to fulfil the promises made in Isaiah. The crowds around him would have known what he was quoting, and what that passage was about – the coming kingdom of God. The first two Beatitudes, then, simply say ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’. (Which incidentally, are the first words Jesus says in Mark’s gospel!)
A similar message is behind the third Beatitude (Matt 5:5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’), taken from Psalm 37:10-15, which is about waiting and trusting God to bring justice. Jesus is saying that the poor and oppressed will be vindicated, and those doing the oppressing will be judged. And that’s what connects it to beatitude number four (Matt 5:6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled’), since those who are deeply desiring God’s righteous rule in the world will, when the kingdom comes, be satisfied. (See Psalm 107:5-9.)
The remaining five Beatitudes have a similar grounding in Old Testament images of the coming righteous rule of God. So what Jesus is saying through these Beatitudes is essentially this: ‘I am the fulfilment of God’s promises in the Scriptures; the Messiah, God’s anointed. I am here to bring in the kingdom of God. And that will be a good day – a happy day, a blessed day – for those who are poor, who mourn, who are meek, who long with all their heart for justice.’
Now, although ‘blessed’ is the traditional translation, in context it doesn’t really capture the Greek word used in Matthew’s Gospel, nor the Hebrew word behind it. Some modern translations go for ‘happy,’ but that seems a little trite. The kingdom of God results in much more than happiness; its coming is a cause for joyous celebration! It’s the means by which all our deepest needs and longings will be filled! ‘Joyfully satisfied’ is the closest I can come up with: joyfully satisfied are the poor, the meek, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness – for the kingdom of God has come! Joyful satisfaction is found in following Jesus and entering into the kingdom of God. Despite how much you are struggling now, Jesus brings hope, comfort, and the promise of justice.
So what do the Beatitudes tell us? Primarily, they announce good news. They announce that in Jesus, God’s kingdom has come – and that’s a message of great joy and a source of ultimate satisfaction. They’re not conditional promises: if you try hard to be meek and to mourn, you might one day inherit the earth and be comforted. Rather, they’re an announcement of good news that sets the scene for the rest of Jesus’ ministry:
Good news for everyone who knows their spiritual poverty, because God’s unfathomable riches have been made available in Jesus!
Good news for everyone who mourns over the state of this world, because God has brought comfort in Jesus!
Good news for everyone who is meek and powerless in this world, because God is bringing justice through Jesus!
To think about
Has this changed the way you think about the Beatitudes? If so, how?
How is the message of the kingdom good news for you?
And here’s the money question: if you were to explain the gospel (“good news”) to a friend in light of the Beatitudes, how would this change what you said?