What Are The Beatitudes?
Scripture: Matthew 5:3-12
These verses contain what have come to be called the beatitudes. Even many non-Christians throughout history have seen this as some of the best of the teaching of Jesus. However, they have missed the mark by not following this teaching. This teaching, as we discussed in the last post, is for Christians, not for the world. It is teaching that shows that true happiness is defined by Jesus, not by the world. Since this is the case, I think that it is vital that we properly understand what exactly Jesus is teaching here. While space and time constraints preclude me from doing a post on each of these individually (and they each deserve a post or more of their own), I would like to briefly survey the beatitudes for those who may be confused about what Jesus actually meant.
It is important to note that this is not a buffet. As Christians, we don't get to look at these and say "I want a little bit of poor in spirit, no mourning, a little bit of meekness, etc." If we do this, we are not shaping ourselves into the image that Christ demands we become, but are rather shaping ourselves into an image that we think we ought to look like. That is, we are not becoming better disciples by using the buffet method. Rather, Jesus intended for his disciples to embody all of these virtues. Jesus is prescribing how his disciples ought to live, not merely offering a way of living that we can take or leave. We also need to be empowered by the Holy Spirit if we are to have any of these properties.
Jesus calls those who are poor in spirit happy or blessed. But what exactly does it mean to be poor in spirit? Some have interpreted this as a prohibition on all wealth. That is, some believe that you must be physically poor in order to be happy. This is often justified by looking at a parallel passage in Luke's gospel, which seems to indicate that those who are monetarily poor would be blessed and happy. However, we have to remember that Jesus likely taught these things at different times throughout his ministry. That is, this was not a one time teaching. He may have taught it at a different place at a different time with a different audience in a different context. Second, we need to remember that Luke and Matthew are writing their gospels in different contexts. It is likely that what we are experiencing in the Sermon on the Mount is an abbreviation of the full sermon that Jesus gave. This is true for all of the beatitudes.
So what did Jesus mean when he said "blessed (or happy) are the poor in spirit?" Jesus appears to be referencing those who realize their spiritual poverty before God. That is, those who recognize their sinful nature and their position before God are blessed. Those who recognize their spiritual poverty and turn to God in repentance will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who are rich in spirit, who think more highly of themselves than they ought, will never inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. This is consistent with the rest of Jesus' teaching, as well as the teaching of the New Testament as a whole. Pride has no place in God's Kingdom.
Jesus also blessed those who mourn. Did Jesus really mean that mourning makes us happy? To many of us, this sounds like a contradiction in terms. However, this is not what Jesus was getting at. Each of the beatitudes is connected. Jesus is here referring to those who recognized their spiritual poverty in the first beatitude. If that person who recognizes his or her own spiritual poverty then turns around and mourns over sin--the type of mourning that leads to repentance--then that person will be blessed and comforted. Rather than speaking about mourning in general, Jesus is talking about a specific type of mourning--mourning over sin.
Jesus also blesses those who are meek. This beatitude is often less misunderstood than some of the others. To be meek means to be humble and gentle. Inherent in meekness is a quiet submission to God. That is, meekness is a property that submits to God in everything, and it manifests itself outwardly in humility and gentleness toward others. Those who have this attitude will inherit the earth. This likely does not refer to the land, but rather may be akin to something along the lines of "inherit what God has promised to his people."
Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. When we are starving and dying of thirst, we want nothing more than to get a drink and a good meal. In the same way, to hunger and thirst after righteousness means to desire and pursue righteousness. To hunger and thirst after righteousness means to desire righteousness with everything that is in us. But what righteousness? Jesus is not speaking here about self-righteousness, but of the righteousness that comes from God. Those who want to do what is right in God's eyes, no matter the cost, are the ones who are hungering and thirsting after righteousness. These will be blessed by being filled.
Jesus blesses the merciful. Mercy is not giving someone something negative that they deserve, but rather giving them what God wants them to have. A merciful person does not seek the excess of vengeance, although a merciful person will pursue justice. God is merciful, and Jesus, as God in the flesh, expects us to be merciful. Those who are merciful to others will receive mercy themselves, both from God and from other people.
Jesus also blesses those who are pure in heart. This type of heart purity can only come as a gift of the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere in Scripture, we are told that our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). We are told to guard our hearts because everything that we do flows from it (Proverbs 4:23). If everything flows from our hearts and our hearts are deceitful, what does that say about our own works? Heart purity must come from God. We should pursue it, while recognizing that even the desire to pursue such heart purity is a gift of God's grace. The blessing of the pure in heart is that they will see God. Thus, this purity of heart is tied to the holiness without which no one will see God (Hebrews 12:14).
Jesus blesses the peacemakers and declares that they will be called sons (or children) of God. Peacemakers are those who delight in peace and go above and beyond to establish and preserve peace between God and people. Peacemakers do not simply seek a calm atmosphere, as if that is all that there were to peace. Rather, peacemakers realize that there is something much deeper here. True peace is only found in God. If someone does not know God, that person does not truly know peace. These peacemakers will be known for their relationship with the Father because of the way they live peacemaking lives.
Jesus calls those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake blessed. Notice that Jesus is not saying that everyone who suffers persecution is blessed. Rather, Jesus makes it clear that only those who suffer for the sake of what is right in the eyes of God will be blessed. These will receive the same blessing as those who are poor in spirit. Indeed, if we recognize our sin and try to turn from it, we can expect persecution from the world. We can expect the to call us hypocrites and look down on us for what we are doing. Don't lose heart when this happens, because the reward for following through in our Christian walk will be great.
Jesus closes this set of teaching with the proclamation that we are blessed (or happy) when people insult us and persecute us because of Christ. This may sound weird, but Jesus goes on to explain why: the same people who persecuted us also persecuted the prophets who came before us. If we are persecuted for Christ, we are in good company. If we persecute those who follow Christ, we are in the worst company. Jesus is not here commanding us to go seek out persecution. In fact, to seek out persecution for persecution's sake is prohibited by this command. However, our own persecution for following Christ serves as a marker that we are in the company of the prophets, not in the company of those who persecuted and killed them. For this reason, we can rejoice when we face persecution.
The Beatitudes are an amazing teaching, but they mean little to us if we do not put them into practice. This is more difficult than we may think. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to pull us through as we implement these. Indeed, the Holy Spirit must start these things in our hearts and sustain us as we live out these commands. God is faithful, and I believe he will do this.