Every day we hear someone say “I’m blessed” referring to just about anything. It’s usually the receipt of something: a goal achieved, support or endorsement, a gift or acquisition, money. Although the words “I’m blessed” imply that the receiver credits God for the gift, which may be legitimate, the type of blessings spoken of by Jesus, the apostle John and the Psalmists are quite different.
What we consider a blessing is often still the same as it was when Jesus walked the earth. At the time he taught the Beatitudes, the “blessed” ones were considered to be those who lived on a higher plane than everyone else. Either:
- They were gods.
- They were humans who had gone to the world of the gods.
- They were the wealthy, upper crust. They were those with many possessions. The blessed were those people and beings who lived above the normal cares, problems, and worries of normal people.
Matthew (reflecting Jesus’ thoughts) uses the word “blessed” in a totally different way. It is not the elite who are blessed. It is not the rich and powerful who are blessed. It is not the high and mighty who are blessed. It is not the people living in huge mansions or expensive penthouses who are blessed. Rather, Jesus turned it upside-down and pronounced God’s blessings on the lowly: the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek, and the mourning.
So, when you read the Beatitudes do you see yourself in one or more of those blessed groups? This is the way I always looked at them; as separate groups. That is until I started doing some research. Then I had a real eye-opener.
With the help of my friend Rev. Nathan Carlson. I’ll tell you what I found.
Setting the Scene
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. (Matt 5:1-2)
Matthew wrote his gospel many years after Jesus spoke on the mountainside. In his view, the ‘crowds’ included the new groups of Christians who would be reading his Gospel. His intention was for a closer look at this part of the teaching, targeted to disciples already living in a post Easter, post Ascension, post Pentecost times. Therefore, although the ‘disciples’ who were mentioned may have included only Jesus’ current 4 disciples, it most likely referred to all those who were part of the crowd, or indeed, all readers of Matthew’s gospel, including you and me!
Some have understood the beatitudes as teaching the true meaning of either Torah or prophetic pronouncements upon Israel. And the beatitudes borrow heavily from themes and phrases found in the Prophets and Psalms, which you can see by reading the Relevant Scriptures at the bottom of this article. Thus, Jesus could be viewed as explaining the meaning and fulfillment of texts well known to his Hebrew listeners who would have interpreted Jesus’ teaching as concerning the coming of the promised land of Israel.
Therefore, note that there are multiple parallel thoughts running through the beatitudes: the Hebrews on the hillside were expecting the creation of the state of Israel, Christians (who existed at the time Matthew wrote his gospel) were expecting the Kingdom of Heaven on earth at Christ’s second coming, and those who believe that the Kingdom of God is the individual’s inner relationship with God anticipates that relationship for each seeker of God.
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,
The purpose then of these beatitudes is not to prescribe actions necessary to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, but to describe the type of characteristics expected to be seen in those who are in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven, here, refers specifically to God’s reign on earth.
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit for Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
Whereas Luke (Luke 6:20-26) only mentioned the poor who are in a state of financial and physical need and excluded those who are wealthy, Matthew included the qualifier “in spirit”, opening the inclusion of everyone. Various meanings of the words “in spirit” have been suggested, however, Rev. Carlson believes the best use for them relates to those who are entirely dependent upon God’s grace, mercy, sovereignty, and care. There is supporting evidence throughout the Gospel of Matthew and it makes sense with what follows in these verses. For the Jewish community, the poor are those missing a homeland – themselves.
Blessed are Those who Mourn for They will be Comforted
This should be understood as those who mourn the loss of the things of this world that reflect the will of God and the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. They will be comforted by the restoration of the kingdom, whether it be land, the second coning or our inner connection with God.
Blessed are the Meek for They will Inherit the Earth
If you equate “meek” with “milk-toast”, you are not alone. But my friend and Hebrew/Greek/English translator, Dr Frank Leeds, gives us a much more accurate way to visualize what the Greek speaking folks of the time understood ‘meek’ to mean.
Greek is loaded with ‘picture’ words and English simply does not have the language to fill in the difference. Meek is a horse term which the New Testament is full of. Here is the picture: A horse is by its very nature, scared to death of fire. It sees fire and it bolts away to save its life. When the Romans used horses for military purposes, they often used them at night and soldiers at night needed torches to see properly. Light a torch and the rider had a crazy horse to deal with. However, by training a horse, a torch could be passed in front of its eyes and it wouldn’t move. Taking its cue front the calm of its rider rather than the fire of the torch, the horse was declared to be “MEEK”. What was going on around the horse, no matter how frightening, the horse took its perspective of life from its rider not from its environment. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek” he is saying, “Blessed is the man who does not get all bent out of shape and scared to death about what is going on around him, but is strong enough to take his cue from his master. It is a description of the person who does not ‘fly off the handle” but remains perfectly in control. It is about a person who has reached beyond his or her nature. It is a person who takes their cue from God.
So, the meek reflect the character of Jesus as the suffering servant. Those who have been used and abused by tyrannical political systems and have the strength to not fight back. Those who exhibit the peaceful nature of the Kingdom. Those who confront power not with power but with God’s love and promise as their fortifying backbone.
Can you now accept being called ‘meek’? I can.
Promised to the meek is “the earth”. In the prophet’s words in Isaiah, the same concept is used to signify the earth being not the globe but the promised land of Israel. This is the long-awaited hope of the people of Israel; that that for which they mourned the loss, will be restored to them. Or It will be given to those who reflect the nature of Jesus with the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are Those who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness for They will be Filled
Like Luke, Matthew raised up those who are hungry, but also those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The idea of hunger and thirst relating not just to the physical body, but also to the spiritual body, already existed in Psalms. What does it mean, however, to hunger and thirst for righteousness? This addition cuts several directions.
- First, righteousness indicates a right relationship with God. This meaning absolutely applies to this verse.
- The second meaning of the word in Greek means justice, specifically God’s justice. This then has something to do, potentially, with the judgment at the end of the time.
- Considering the oppression of Israel’s people by the Romans, ‘justice’ also refers to the coming of God’s will to provide Israel with a homeland.
The fulfillment of these would be a right relationship with God and for the Kingdom of Heaven to be perfectly represented in the new ‘earth’ spoken of in the previous verses.
Blessed are the Merciful for They will be Shown Mercy
Mercy, the act of forgiveness even in the face of the unforgiveable (as Jesus demonstrated on the cross for his crucifiers and mockers) unveils the true nature of the Kingdom of God in the present kingdom. This then is a mark of a right relationship with God which will be made apparent as those who are merciful have already received God’s mercy and at the final judgment will receive God’s mercy.
Blessed are the Pure in Heart for They will See God
This has often been mistreated as a matter of Christian thought and is worth exploring. Some recent and historical Christian teaching has suggested this to be a matter of moral or ethical purity: “I need to keep my mind pure; I need to keep my actions pure; I need to keep my mouth pure”. This value, while commendable, does not seem consistent with the original language. The original Greek used the term “katharoi” whose first meaning is “purified by fire”. One commentator suggests that a good translation would be “Whose heart is unalloyed”. The person whose heart is not a mixture of two things, but single minded, of single purpose, of single devotion; this is the one who Jesus speaks of here. Then we can see that those whose hearts are single-mindedly focused on God without including any other gods or devotion to anything else alongside God; those people will be the ones who see God.
Blessed are the Peacemakers for They will be Called Children of God
The focus here is on the Hebrew word “Shalom”. Shalom is not a passive peace but a peace forged out of the hard work of reconciliation between God and humanity and humanity and itself. Peacemaking in the sense of uniting individuals’ hearts with themselves, uniting conflicting people with one another, uniting people to God who have been estranged, and even uniting the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven with the current reality. These people are the peacemakers. The conclusion of this verse should be translated Sons of God. Sons of God is a phrase used early in scripture to denote the angels in heaven. Therefore, peacemakers on earth act as the angels in heaven bearing God’s message to all.
Blessed are Those who are Persecuted Because of Righteousness, for Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
This verse does not address all who are persecuted, but rather those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, which as we have seen is living a right relationship with God and their desire to see the justice of the Kingdom of God reflected in the world. This concludes the words spoken by Jesus on the hillside to the crowds. Notice that up to this point all the beatitudes begin with “blessed are those.” This will be important in a moment.
Bracketed by verse 3 and 10 in which the received blessing is the Kingdom of Heaven, Mathew may have, and likely did, include verse 4-9 as being the same blessing, while providing further augmentation of what characteristics would be found in those who reach the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are You when People Revile You and Persecute You and Utter all Kinds of Evil Against You Falsely on My Account. Rejoice and be Glad, Because Great is Your Reward in Heaven
Jesus in this moment inserts Himself into the equation in the same place as righteousness in the verse before. He becomes, for Matthew and us, the righteous one. This verse is seen by some as a Matthew insertion because it points to the time after Jesus was on earth in the flesh. Verse eleven makes little sense in a context in which many are following Jesus and during which there is little present threat to Him or His followers.
It speaks directly to Matthew’s community of Christian Jewish followers ostracized by both the synagogues and Rome. The reward for faithfully following Jesus through all of this, for standing up for Him and claiming Him is that “your reward is great in heaven.”
We can clearly see that the nine beatitudes were written as much for those who were in the Christian church of Matthew’s day as well as spoken to the first disciples and the crowds.
Even amid persecution and separation from the synagogues and other Jewish groups, Matthew saw Jesus as still calling this community to peacemaking and reconciliation. They, and those who followed after them, would be persecuted for maintaining a right relationship with God – especially as found through Jesus – and their reward was the Kingdom of Heaven. We can also see how the beatitudes today relate, not how the church OUGHT to live, but how the true people of God WOULD live. It is less prescription and more description of the nature of the lives of disciples.
They were poor, potentially, for being disinherited from sacred Jewish spaces, mournful for their loss, meek in taking their cue from God to avoid conflict with oppressors, hungering and thirsting for right relationships with God and for justice, merciful in that they still desired to extend the Gospel to those around them and were quick to forgive those who had wronged them (think Saul/Paul), pure in heart as they believed in and sought God above all things including family and possessions, persecuted by the Roman authorities and those around them, and persecuted from within their own Jewish community and ostracized from it. This, then, for Matthew and his Jesus marked the traits of the authentic community of the people of God and identified the promises for which their hearts longed.
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The meaning of the word ‘beatitudes’ (μακαριότητα in Greek) is ‘the joys of heaven’ or ‘a declaration of blessedness’. As you will see here, they are not limited to only those in Matthew 5.
Blessed are all who take refuge in Him. (Psalms 2:12)
Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Psalms 32: 2)
Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside from false gods. (Psalms 40:4)
Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the Lord delivers them in times of trouble. (Psalms 41:1)
Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. (Psalms 84:4-5)
Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right. (Psalms 106:3)
Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him. (Psalms 128:1)
But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:16)
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (Rev 14:13)
Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” (Rev 19:9)
Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. (Rev 20:6)