J ust 10 verses. Just 150 words.1
If the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is the heart of Jesus’s radical teaching, then the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) are the heart of that heart. They describe the inner attitudes of a follower of Christ, attitudes which bear fruit in the outward actions described in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.
The word “beatitude” means a state of supreme bliss. Most English Bibles start these statements of Jesus with the word “blessed”, but in many ways “happy” is a clearer translation.2The original word in the Greek New Testament was makarios, which meant a kind of Divine joy, a secure joy that cannot be shaken by circumstances. It is a joy that no one can take away from us, as Jesus promised His disciples some three years later, just before the crucifixion (John 16:22).
Of course, Jesus was not speaking Greek when he taught His disciples on that mountainside. He was speaking Aramaic, so he probably used a common Aramaic expression, beginning each statement with ashere. This was an exclamation that we could translate as “O the blessedness of…” or “O the bliss of …” It shows that the joy we are promised is for now. It is not a glimpse of future glory, but something that has already started (and will become full and complete in heaven). The joys that Jesus describes are not a beautiful fairytale to sigh over; they are real life for Christ’s followers.
This short passage (Matthew 5:3-12) has been analysed in many ways. Some see it as nine beatitudes, one for each statement beginning “Blessed are”, but more often it is viewed as eight beatitudes, the last one being extra long (v.10-12). J. Oswald Sanders divides them into four passive personal qualities followed by four active social qualities.3
G. Campbell Morgan considers that Jesus is describing a sevenfold happiness related to character, a character which will result in persecution, for which reason Jesus adds the eighth beatitude about enduring suffering.4 Some have pointed out a logical flow, each beatitude being a step towards the next one.
The analysis does not matter much. What is important is what Jesus said.
G.K. Chesterton wrote of the whole Sermon,
On the first reading of the Sermon on the Mount you feel it turns everything upside down, but the second time you read it, you discover that it turns everything right side up. The first time you read it you feel that it is impossible, but the second time, you feel that nothing else is possible.5
At the very beginning are three beatitudes which seem to the world to be paradoxical nonsense: they value what the world despises, and seek what the world strives to avoid. They appear to claim that happiness is to be found in poverty, sorrow and powerlessness.
Most people are on a quest for happiness, but generally find it elusive. Their thirst cannot be quenched, or not for long. Satisfaction soon fades, leaving an aching void. There is only emptiness and an all-pervading loneliness. Modern humankind’s desire for pleasure has led to an abyss from which there seems no escape. For true and lasting happiness is not found in the places where people tend to seek it: money, pleasure, power and status. Augustine was right when he said that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. True joy can be found only in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Many sections of the modern Church, sadly, are emulating secular society and unwittingly embracing its ideals, causing the loss of this spiritual reality, the loss of the inner life, the loss of the power of the Holy Spirit, and above all else the loss of Jesus Christ Himself. This has been a problem for the Christian faith throughout the ages. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians illustrates how quickly and how far Christians can fall away from the reality of Christ by embracing the values of the world.
Persecution has often been the sifter and purifier of faith that kept the believers clinging to their blessed Lord Jesus. These are the ones who “triumphed over [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death”. (Revelation 12:11)
The Beatitudes are the heart of the heart of Jesus’ teaching. His followers will enjoy blissful happiness as they model their lives on Him, even though it may seem nonsense to the world.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
The first beatitude is the foundation on which all the others are built. It is about the poor in spirit, that is, those who recognise their spiritual need. They are the people who know they have nothing to offer God, that neither wealth, nor knowledge, nor family, nor nationality, nor natural temperament and personality are anything before the Lord. We might translate the first words as: “O the bliss of those who know themselves to be spiritually inadequate!”
The Greek word used here for “poor” means destitute, like a beggar. In a spiritual context, such poverty creates total dependence on God – and here is where total joy is found.
Poverty, inadequacy and destitution all sound very unattractive in the world’s eyes. This should not surprise us. It could be said that poverty of spirit marks the dividing line between those who follow Christ and those who do not. “There is no more perfect statement of the doctrine of justification by faith only” than the first beatitude, says Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, explaining that this beatitude must come at the beginning of the list because
there is no entry into the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, apart from it. There is no-one in the kingdom of God who is not poor in spirit. It is the fundamental characteristic of the Christian and of the citizen of the kingdom of heaven, and all the other characteristics are in a sense the result of this one.6
This beatitude is nothing to do with material wealth or lack of it. Elsewhere Jesus teaches that we should not be attached to material possessions.7 Yet a rich person can be poor in spirit – Abraham and Job are examples – and a poor person can have a proud and self-sufficient spirit, cutting them off from God.
Jesus’s first hearers may have understood this distinction better than modern readers of the Sermon on the Mount. To be poor and without any resources, therefore powerless, therefore needing to trust completely in God are concepts all included in the Hebrew/Aramaic words for “poor”. Poverty, humility and helplessness were all wrapped up together. Someone who had nothing could only look to God for help.
The promise made to those who are poor in spirit, that is, to all Christians, is the kingdom of heaven. The same promise is repeated in the last beatitude, with a range of other promises between.
The kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God as it is also called in the New Testament) is the reign of God in the hearts and lives of His people. The Kingdom of God is a Divine society where God’s will is done perfectly, as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). Its citizens know that they are empty and have nothing; they can only trust and obey the King.
O the bliss of those who realise that, spiritually, they have nothing and are completely dependent on God.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)
This beatitude is probably even more perplexing to the world than the first one, as its basic meaning is “O the happiness of those who are unhappy!”
Just as the first beatitude used the strongest Greek word for “poor”, so the second one uses the strongest Greek word for “mourn”, describing a passionate outpouring of grief for a lost loved one. In this beatitude, however, the primary meaning is not sorrow because of a bereavement or other personal troubles, but sorrow for three other causes.
Firstly, there is a desperate sorrow for our own sin, unworthiness and spiritual failure, knowing that this grieves the Holy Spirit. This sorrow follows naturally from being poor in spirit. It is the attitude of Isaiah when he saw the Lord in the temple and cried out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).
This is the godly sorrow which “brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10). It is the sorrow of the “broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17) which God does not despise. Rather, He takes away our mourning and gives us the oil of gladness (Isaiah 61:3, NRSV). We are comforted by the many promises of forgiveness that fill His Word and the joy of salvation is restored to us (Psalm 51:12).
Indeed, the joy of salvation is a happiness we cannot truly experience until we have felt the sorrow of conviction for our sins, a sorrow so deep and sincere that it leads us to repentance. This happens not only at the time when we commit our lives to Jesus, who died to take away our sins. It also happens repeatedly as we walk with Him for the rest of our earthly lives. If we are honest in examining ourselves, we will find sins of thought, word and deed every day, sins that cause us to mourn as we confess them in prayer and simultaneously to rejoice as we know ourselves forgiven.
Secondly, there is the sorrow that arises from having our hearts broken by the suffering we see in the world around us. To weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15) is to be like our Lord Jesus, who wept with the grieving friends and relatives of Lazarus, even though He knew He was going to raise Lazarus to life again (John 11:11,33-35).
Sometimes there is an extra reason to mourn for others – not only their suffering but also the sin that caused it. In the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah pours out his heart and we see that he is overwhelmed with a double sorrow: (1) the suffering of his people who have been taken in exile to Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem and (2) the sins of his people which brought about their downfall at the hand of God. Six centuries later, Jesus wept over the same city and for the same two reasons: their stubborn sinfulness and the suffering it was to bring them (Luke 19:41-44).
Thirdly, Richard Chenevix Trench describes a mourning that arises “out of a sense of exile here, of our separation from the true home of our spirits, out of a longing for the eternal Sabbath”.8 This too is a sadness included in the promise of comfort and joy.
Jesus promises that those who mourn in these ways will find superlative happiness in God.
Such sorrow is an inward sorrow, between each of us and our Lord. There is no sense in this beatitude that Christians should be dour and moody with those around them. Although we never read of Jesus laughing, He surely made others laugh with His humorous images of planks of wood in our eyes or camels being threaded through needles. He went to wedding receptions and made sure there was plenty of good wine (John 2:1-10). In fact, He was criticised for enjoying the normal pleasures of life (Matthew 11:19).
The Christian life is a serious business but we should not be over-solemn as believers in earlier generations sometimes were. Just as there is no advantage in material poverty, so there is no advantage in general misery. Neither poverty nor misery are good in themselves. The promise of this beatitude is only for particular kinds of mourning. Nor should we force ourselves to seem always bright and bubbly, as some today feel is essential for Christians.
We should grieve over our own sins, over the suffering and sins of others, and as we yearn for our heavenly Home, but God’s comfort gives us inexpressible joy.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
In the third beatitude, we must again overcome the hindrance of the English language to understand what Jesus is really saying. Meekness is neither weakness nor grovelling. It is about voluntary powerlessness in our relationships with other people. It is about controlled strength. At the same time it is about gentleness, teachability and deep humility. It is something like that greatly undervalued fruit of the Spirit, self-control (Galatians 5:23) but even better, for the meek person is not so much self-controlled as God-controlled.
The Greek word is praus, which is also used for domesticated animals or for breaking in a horse. A meek believer is like the young donkey on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem (Mark 11:1-7). Although the colt had never been ridden before and could have been expected to try to throw off anyone seated on it, it chose to submit to Jesus’s control. A meek person wants to take Jesus’s yoke, like an ox, and learn from Him (Matthew 11:29).
Meekness does not exclude righteous anger. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defined praotes (meekness) as the happy medium between too much anger and too little anger. A meek person does not react with anger about insults or injuries done to himself or herself but may be rightly angry about what others are suffering or about an insult to the Lord.
Moses is described as the meekest person on earth (Numbers 12:3, sometimes translated as the most humble) but we know that he was on occasion very angry (Exodus 11:8; 32:19). Jesus drove the money-changers and merchants out of the Temple courts with a whip (John 2:13-16).
The promise for the meek is that they will inherit the earth. This is the very last thing to be expected, humanly speaking, for those who are not assertive on their own behalf, who do not claim their rights, who make themselves the servants of all. Such a person would be expected to succumb as prey to the power-play and plotting of others. Yet it is a promise that goes back to one of David’s psalms:
For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and it shall not be. But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. (Psalm 37:10-11 AV)
A person who is truly meek is always satisfied and content, as if they owned the whole world. Paul told the Corinthians he had nothing yet possessed everything (2 Corinthians 6:10). He also told them that “all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours” (1 Corinthians 3:21-22) and that one day they would judge the world (1 Corinthians 6:2).
There is great joy for the meek and humble who lay their own rights to one side and seek to serve others.
In the topsy-turvy kingdom of heaven those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 1:52; 14:11), the first will be last and the last will be first (Matthew 20:16), the sad will be happy and the meek will inherit the earth.
1 In the New International Version translation
2 It is confusing that the English “happy” has its roots more than 500 years ago in the Middle English word “hap” meaning “good luck”, which suggests a joy dependent on circumstances. That is the exact opposite of what Jesus is teaching here. The nuances and shades of meaning that the word lost half a millennium ago should not be applied to it now. It should be understood simply as happiness in its plain everyday 21st-century meaning.
3 J. Oswald Sanders, The World’s Greatest Sermon (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1972), pp.24,30.
4 G. Campbell Morgan, An Exposition of the Whole Bible, Chapter by Chapter in One Volume (Grand Rapids MI, Fleming H. Revell, 1959) p.410.
5 Quoted in Sanders, The World’s Greatest Sermon, p.22.
6 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Vol.1. (London: Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1959) p.42.
7 For example, Matthew 6:19-21,24-33; 19:16-30.
8 Richard Chenevix Trench, Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, drawn from the Writings of St. Augustine with Observations (London: John W. Parker, 1844), p.8.