The Beatitudes – the “blessed are” verses. But Who are they for? And What do they mean? I mean, it’s nice to be blessed, isn’t it? But some of these don’t sound so nice. Who wants to be poor in spirit or in mourning? Probably not too many people. Unless / until we really understand what they mean.
In the introduction to the Sermon On The Mount series, we took a brief look at Jesus intended audience. But that was back then – when Jesus spoke these words. We aren’t those people. There isn’t a group of twelve and everyone else. However, it’s still true today that there are disciples of Jesus. By that I mean the true disciples – the ones who really want to follow in His path. See the Grown Again Christian series for more on that.
Anyway – we have still have today a group of true disciples – and we also have everyone else. And so, while the situation is different, it’s also the same. The more things change, the more they stay the same. That old saying is even true here. At any rate. it’s good for each of us to know where we stand – disciple or not. So I also invite you to check out the Grown Again Christian articles. Which group we’re in will have an impact on what we get out of The Beatitudes.
What is The Sermon On The Mount about?
Before we get into the details of each verse of The Beatitudes, it’s important to know the overall intent of The Sermon On The Mount. I really don’t like sending you all over the place to read things, but because of the way Google does things, it’s kind of necessary. Given that this Sermon has several parts, and readers will be coming into it from any of them, I have set up an overall look at it. It’s right here, including a list of all the various articles in the series.
What is a beatitude?
The most complete, and therefore the longest, description of what a beatitude is all about comes from the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible.
Term derived from Latin beatitudo, it is not used in the English Bible. Technically it means “blessedness” as described in the OT and NT. “Blessed” is translated from both Hebrew and Greek words, to refer to divine favor conveyed to man. It is used more particularly of the Sermon on the Mount, where differing literary forms are used in the two versions of Matthew (5:3–12) and Luke (6:20–23). However, the theological and ethical concept of “beatitude” has a long history in the interpretations of the church of the sense of well-being before God’s presence.
The actual word Beatitude is from somewhere between 1375–1425. We also see that. although The Beatitudes is how this passage and a similar one in Luke are described, the concept goes back to the Old Testament.
The formal utterance “happy is,” or “blessed is,” is a common declaration in the Book of Psalms (used 26 times) and Proverbs (8 times). It is used 10 times in the other books of the OT and 13 times in the apocryphal books. These beatitudes are pronounced upon the person who is righteous, having faith and hope in God. They are signs of a life lived in proximity to Yahweh, in the experience of forgiveness, and in the love and favor of God. Such life is a totality, so such blessings are expressive of holistic enrichment, harmony, and fecundity (the ability to produce an abundance of offspring or new growth; fertility <remember, this is the OT meaning>. — the ability to produce many new ideas.), whether in family life, in temple worship, in public life, or in the interior of one’s own being. The person so blessed is in touch with the fruitfulness of the Creator himself. Such a one lives a fulfilled life, life as God intended it to be lived before him. Only God can bless, for he alone is holy, so when the Scriptures speak of humans “blessing” God, the term has another connotation, that of acknowledgment of God’s mercy, forgiveness, love, and glory.
Two thoughts here.
First, although “happy” is mentioned, the use of the word happy in today’s culture is so far from what the original Hebrew and Greek words portrayed that it’s all but useless as a translation now. We’ll get more into the meaning of “blessed” later.
It’s also important to note that last sentence. Only God can bless, for he alone is holy, so when the Scriptures speak of humans “blessing” God, the term has another connotation, that of acknowledgment of God’s mercy, forgiveness, love, and glory. This reminds me of songs that we sing in church that are about us “blessing” God. The two are totally different in connotation.
In the NT, references to “blessing” occur seven times in the Book of Revelation, three times in the Epistle to the Romans, and once in John’s Gospel. The prominence of “blessedness” in Matthew and Luke gives rise to the technical term, “beatitudes.” There are interesting contrasts between Luke’s “sermon on the plain” (Lk 6:20–23) and Matthew’s “sermon on the mount” (Mt 5:3–12). The pronouncement of the blessings in Luke is done immediately after the selection of the 12 disciples (Lk 6:12–16). Yet the sermon is addressed to the crowd generally and speaks of the advent of God’s kingdom as the reversal of the social conditions of the human race. So Luke balances four blessings with four woes—changing from the present tense to the future tense—to heighten the contrast of the impending reversal of social conditions. His purpose is eschatological (end times) consolation. Houston, J. M. (1988). Beatitudes, The. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, pp. 271–272). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
The emphasis in this portion of the series is about Matthew’s recording of The Sermon on the Mount. The one in Luke is likely a different occasion, sometimes referred to as The Sermon on the Plain. I expect to include a separate article just to discuss the differences between the two.
Notice that there’s an assumption here that Jesus is addressing the crowd in the Beatitudes portion of The Sermon on the Mount. As we say, this may very well be the case. However it’s also possible that none or only some of the crowd was listening to Him at this point. Remember, what Matthew records is that Jesus saw the crowd, but called His disciples over to teach “them”. We really don’t know who “them” is. What we do know is that by the end, a crowd was listening. And that they were amazed at what Jesus taught.
<there’s a paragraph from the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible that I’ve removed at this time. We’ll get to it shortly.>
So that’s the long description. For those that prefer something short, beatitudes are:
The blessings pronounced by Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount on those whose lives exhibit particular characteristics or qualities. These contrast sharply with popular values and outlooks. Manser, M. H. (2009). Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. London: Martin Manser.
Please keep in mind though, that short one in no way describes what a beatitude really is. What it can let us know however, is that if our values and way of life is very similar to the rest of the world – the secular view of things – then we’re probably not exhibiting the characteristics that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount.
The Beatitudes – A view from the top – Jesus’ audience
A view from the top – looking at the Beatitudes. There’s kind of / sort of a pun in there. “The top”. Yes, it’s going to be what we might call a 10,000 foot view. And while we can never really know what God’s thinking, we can get some clues from looking at the descriptions and words included in the Gospels. We’re going to try to do that as well.
We saw in the Sermon on the Mount series description that there were two passages that might tell us something about who the target audience was for Jesus. I invite you to check that out for the details, but here’s the short version of what happened, related to who might have been listening to Jesus. BTW – I said in the series description that we shouldn’t get so caught up with the audience that we lose track of what was said. On the flip side, I think we do need to know enough to realize that those who want to be a disciple of Jesus, even still today, are included in those that Jesus wanted to address.
Here’s the setting. There was a crowd following Jesus. He saw them. Then, seeing the crowd, Jesus calls over His disciples and starts to teach them. We also know that by the end of what we call The Sermon on the Mount, the crowd was definitely listening. We know this, because their reaction to His teaching was recorded.
So – at some point, the crowd joined in to hear the teaching. We don’t know when. However, just knowing something about human nature, those who cared the most about Jesus’ and His teachings would have been the first to come close enough to hear Him. And, they probably would have done it as soon as they possibly could. Then more people would join in. And more. At some point though, many might very well be joining in more because they didn’t want to be left out – rather than because they really wanted to hear Jesus.
That’s why I chose the image at the top. Not because Jesus was in a boat for this sermon. He most definitely was not. But because it shows people who were not His disciples. My belief is that this teaching was for the disciples. But it was also for those who wanted to be disciples.
Even today, two thousand years later, many people have read or heard the Beatitudes, but have varying levels of interest in them. And just as surely, God knew two thousand years ago that people would be reading these words today. So it was for any one of us who might want to be a true disciple of Jesus.
The Beatitudes – A view from the top – all for one, or one for all?
We’re going to look at nine statements that Jesus makes. Each starts with “Blessed are …“. But here’s a question. Is each “Blessed are …” describing a different group of people? Make that two questions. Or, is there one group of people all of the “Blessed are …” statements describe?
So we have two choices to consider. First – that for any given person that Jesus was addressing, one of the Beatitudes will apply to them. Second, for every person that Jesus was addressing, all of the Beatitudes will apply to them. While it’s technically possible that some of the Beatitudes could apply, but not all of them, I believe we’ll see that scenario isn’t what Jesus had in mind.
Now – remember our assumption that Jesus was addressing only those who wanted to be a true disciple. By the time the crowd had joined in, whenever that was, there were certainly many people listening who did not become true followers. The same is still true for those who read them today. That assumption, I believe, is completely valid. Four times, it’s recorded in the Gospels that Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
If you’re not familiar with what that refers to, here’s how Jesus answered when asked why He spoke in parables:
Mt 13:11 He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”
Therefore, assuming that the only ones who would actually understand what Jesus talked about were His disciples. His true followers. Even to this day.
Before we move on, I need to address something you may have already thought of. How many Beatitudes are there? I’ve implied nine, by saying there are nine statements that start with “blessed are …“. If you look up any of this on your own, you’ll read different numbers. I’ve seen 7, 8 and 9 during my research. I like nine. You’ll find out why as we go through them in more detail. However, in the interest of not changing someone else’s words – I will include text from other sources, as they wrote it. In the end, we all have to own our faith, so I leave it to you to come up with the number you care to decide on.
Now, as far as the question of whether or not all of the beatitudes would apply to one group of people. As I was going through all of it, I feel that it’s one group of people, all of whom will / can exhibit all of the characteristics given in the Beatitudes. We won’t all have every one of them right away. In fact, if we don’t live long enough, we may never exhibit all of them. It seems similar to even becoming a Christian. It’s not like we get baptized and voila – we’re instant Christians, complete in every way. For more on that thought, please see Pop Tart Christians. In the same way, as we grow in our Christian faith, we should also grow in our ability to have each of the characteristics Jesus talks about in The Beatitudes.
Along those lines, let’s return to John Stott, who we also read in the earlier articles on The Sermon on the Mount.
The beatitudes set forth the balanced and variegated character of Christian people. These are not eight separate and distinct groups of disciples, some of whom are meek, while others are merciful and yet others are called upon to endure persecution. They are rather eight qualities of the same group who at one and the same time are meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart, mourning and hungry, peacemakers and persecuted.
Further, the group exhibiting these marks is not an elitist set, a small spiritual aristocracy remote from the common run of Christians. On the contrary, the beatitudes are Christ’s own specification of what every Christian ought to be. All these qualities are to characterize all his followers. Just as the ninefold fruit of the Spirit which Paul lists is to ripen in every Christian character, so the eight beatitudes which Christ speaks describe his ideal for every citizen of God’s kingdom. Unlike the gifts of the Spirit which he distributes to different members of Christ’s body in order to equip them for different kinds of service, the same Spirit is concerned to work all these Christian graces in us all. There is no escape from our responsibility to covet them all. Stott, J. R. W., & Stott, J. R. W. (1985). The message of the Sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian counter-culture (p. 31). Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
That last line there cannot be over-emphasized. There is no escape from our responsibility to covet them all. All of them. Not just one. Not even just a few. But all. It makes sense. Anything less than that means we’re satisfied with being less than Christ-like. And while the reality is that we’ll never meet that standard in this life – it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least want to try. And I mean really try. Like try with with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. As in
Mk 12:30 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
Yeah – that kind of try.
The Beatitudes – A view from the top – when?
When? How about right now. Even for the original disciples, it was “right now”. Here’s that “left out” paragraph I mentioned earlier.
In Matthew’s account, the advent of the kingdom has already commenced, indicated by the use of the present tense. It is addressed to the disciples particularly and is not a general proclamation. The sermon is set within two statements of Jesus: he has not come to destroy but to fulfill the Mosaic law (Mt 5:17); and it is necessary to have a kind of righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (v 20). So these beatitudes are more concerned with the interior life of the disciple, to activate here and now the kind of life Jesus communicates in those who follow him. For Jesus has already inaugurated the kingdom. These eight beatitudes reflect on the traits of those who belong to that kingdom and who therefore reflect Christ’s own life. The people and situations described may seem pitiable by human standards, but because of God’s presence in their lives, they are actually blessed and should be congratulated and imitated. Houston, J. M. (1988). Beatitudes, The. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, pp. 271–272). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
So for us, it’s not later. It’s not when I get around to it. It’s not when I have time. If you think that’s wrong, please see There’s always time for God later. Isn’t there?
One more thing – is this salvation by works?
In a word – No.
First of all, we’re looked briefly at the reality that these words meant, and continue to mean, different things to the true followers of Jesus as compared to everyone else. And so, while “everyone else” may things this is a means of earning salvation – such as being merciful – that’s not the view taken by the true believer.
We’ll see a whole lot more on this topic as we go through the individual verses, characteristics and their associated blessings, that makes this difference abundantly clear.
Here we go …
I think it’s the Peter Pan ride as Disney theme parks that begins with those words – “here we go”. But we’re not off on some little kids ride. We’re certainly not in Fantasyland. No, we’re about to enter the incredibly real world of life as we know it – and the eternity that we’ll learn about.
As we go through each verse, we’ll look at the people of that time – the time when Jesus spoke. Their culture. Their language. Their lives and the impact Jesus’ words had on them. And we’ll try to put ourselves in a frame of mind and spirit to understand why those words were so important to them. Hopeful words that promised rescue from the life they lived. And hopefully show why we today, even with all the things we may have in this life, also need to be rescued. Rescued and brought to an eternity that’s so much better.
And so, with that – here we go…
|↑1, ↑4||Houston, J. M. (1988). Beatitudes, The. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, pp. 271–272). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.|
|↑2||Manser, M. H. (2009). Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. London: Martin Manser.|
|↑3||Stott, J. R. W., & Stott, J. R. W. (1985). The message of the Sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian counter-culture (p. 31). Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.|