The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)
In the Old Testament, God told Abraham that he would bless all the nations of the world. As his descendants grew into the nation of Israel, God made it clear that they would bless the nations by modeling God’s character for them, and to do this, they needed to be holy, or “set apart” from them. But instead of being different from the kingdoms around them, Israel constantly sought to be like them and diminished their witness in the world. When Jesus came on the scene preaching about the kingdom of heaven, he gave this sermon which describes the lifestyle and expectations for those who follow him, the True King.
God’s favor rests on those who the world looks unfavorably on.
The theme of the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) is the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus had been preaching about in Matthew 4:17 and 23. Because of this, there’s also a great emphasis in these chapters on the difference between Jesus’ followers and the rest of humanity; between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the world.
Several differences between these two kingdoms are found in the kind of people that are celebrated in each. These differences are spelled out in the “beatitudes” (Matthew 5:3-12; from the Latin for “blessing”), where Jesus makes it clear that God evaluates people very differently from the ways the world is prone to.
Before looking at the beatitudes, it should be pointed out that the word “blessed” here means more than “happiness”. Certainly there is a profound sense of happiness in following Jesus, but Jesus is speaking of something far deeper. “Blessed” refers to those who have experienced God’s favor and approval, and it is often the case that such people have also experienced the world’s rejection (see 1 Cor. 1:26-29). God’s kingdom then is made up of the kind of people they world would never expect, such as:
“the poor in spirit” (v. 3). In the Old Testament, to be “poor” didn’t refer so much to one’s economic status as their posture before God. It refers to those who lean on God alone to rescue them while acknowledging that, as sinners, they have nothing to offer him. While the world may be tempted to think that God’s kingdom is for those who are strong and self-reliant, Jesus says that it is the weak and helpless to whom the kingdom belongs.
“those who mourn” (v. 4). The mourning Jesus has in mind here is mourning over sin, to grieve over the fact that we have nothing to offer God (being poor in spirit). It is those who honestly confess their sins who shall be comforted, not the ones who ignore, excuse, or minimize them. Paul epitomizes this in Romans 7:24-25 where he cries out “Wretched man that I am!” and follows that up with “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
“the meek” (v. 5). Those who are poor in spirit and mourn over their sins have a proper view of themselves in relation to God, and this naturally produces meekness. In gratitude to God, the meek are free from the need to defend and promote themselves and are thus free to serve the interests of others. The earth will be inherited not by the strong and proud, but by those who recognize their smallness before God.
“those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (v. 6). It is difficult for us today to appreciate the intense hunger and thirst that Jesus’ original audience experienced in a time when food and water were often scarce. In view here are those who with great desperation desire that their lives would conform to God’s will. Such people will be filled with the conformity they seek and turn around and desire more of it!
“the merciful” (v. 7). The merciful show compassion to those in need, and they can’t help but do so. After all, those who have experienced God’s mercy will want to share that mercy with others. Jesus illustrated this in the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35. The inconvenience of being merciful is also illustrated in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).
“the pure in heart” (v. 8). The “pure” heart is one that is single-minded and undivided. It serves God and others without ulterior motives and steers clear of hypocrisy and deceit. It doesn’t surrender part of itself to Christ but all of itself. James commends this in his epistle: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (4:8).
“the peacemakers” (v. 9). We all love the idea of peace. But being a peacemaker often involves strenuous effort and tears. It’s something to be actively pursued (Psalm 34:14) and maintained (Ephesians 4:3). God himself is the ultimate peacemaker in sending Jesus to die for our sins and reconcile us to himself. As “sons” who imitate him, we are called to make peace by proclaiming the gospel to those who don’t yet know him and by working to resolve conflicts with others.
“those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (vv. 10-12). Many in this life will refuse our attempts at peacemaking, and that is where this reality comes in. Since Jesus was persecuted, we who follow him can be certain that we will be persecuted as well; so certain, in fact, that persecution itself becomes a sign that we belong to him and thus something we can rejoice in (see Acts 5:41; cf. John 15:18-25).
- If our culture were to come up with its own version of these beatitudes, what do you think it would sound like? How is Jesus celebrating the opposite of what our modern culture celebrates?
- Meekness is often considered a weakness (i.e., being a pushover). In what ways is it actually a sign of strength?
- Is Jesus saying in verse 4 that Christians should always walk around being bummed out? Why is this mourning necessary for us to have “life…abundantly” and experience “fullness of joy” (John 10:10; Psalm 16:11)?
- Read the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37. In what ways was it an inconvenience for the Samaritan to show mercy to this man? What are some opportunities in your life right now to show mercy to someone, and what inconveniences will that entail?
- Where you do you struggle to have a single-minded (“pure”) devotion to the Lord? Are there areas of your life that you have not fully surrendered to him?
- What does persecution look like in our modern context? Do you count it as a blessing or something to be avoided? Why?
- Spend time praying for the Holy Spirit to make these qualities more and more present in your life.
1 Samuel 16:7b – “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”