The Beatitudes

BEATITUDES, THE. At the outset of His public ministry, as Matthew records it, the Lord issued that Manifesto known as the Sermon on the Mount. In it He announced the principles which would govern the citizens of the new spiritual order He had come to inaugurate. To to be sure, God’s kingdom is a term which covers a vast ambit, but Paul’s summary (Rom 14:17) disclosed its innermost nature, “The kingdom of God does not mean food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Whatever its eschatological and cosmic dimensions, therefore, that kingdom is the quality of life which one experiences when by faith in the Gospel he submits himself to the rule of redemptive love. The opening passage in that Manifesto (Matt 5:3-12; cf. Luke 6:20-24) is a series of epigrammatic statements which are at once delineation and demand, the so-called beatitudes. Positioned at the threshold of Matthew’s unique biography, this passage immediately makes clear that a distinctive personality-pattern together with an equally distinctive life-style ought to characterize the disciples of the Messiah who is also Master, since the indicative here is implicitly an imperative. Several things about these epigrammatic statements require brief comment.

For one thing, though they are expressed in a striking diction which is pithy and poetic, it is no doubt true that parallels to them can be adduced from the OT and the Talmud. This, however, does not detract from the originality of Jesus, viewing Him on a purely human plane. To abstract these insights from a mass of lit.—much of it, in the case of the Talmud, spiritually worthless—remit and cast them into an integrated ideal is evidence of a creativity nothing short of genius.

For a second thing, the much-disputed structure of the passage deserves at least a passing glance. Some scholars have argued that, on the analogy of the Decalogue, there are ten beatitudes; others count nine; still others have tried to reduce them to seven. Taken naturally, though, they appear to number eight, with the last one repeated for emphasis and shifting from the third to the second person. Ingenious attempts have been made to show a progressive development of thought, but such attempts smack of artificiality and contrivance. Little may be legitimately asserted, it would seem, except that these beatitudes view Christlike character from varying perspectives, emphasizing the loving righteousness which grace produces. Centering in that theme—the loving righteousness which grace produces—these behavioral principles reveal the attitudes which ideally stamp the disciple as a disturbing non-conformist. They italicize the need for grace by italicizing the disciple’s own unrighteousness, his insufficiency and failure, his need for ardently pursuing God’s righteousness, and his need for actively implementing that righteous ness even though he may suffer at the hands of an unrighteous world. To find any tightly articulated structure in the passage, one suspects, is to engage in eisegesis.

For a third thing, one is impressed by the Savior’s extraordinary skill in the use of mindstretching paradox. Taking the beatitudes ad seriatum, He talks about wealthy paupers (v. 3), happy mourners (v. 4), unaggressive conquerors (v. 5), lusting saints (v. 6), self-enriching benefactors (v. 7), realistic visionaries (v. 8), militant pacifists (v. 9), and winning losers (vv. 10-12). Thus Christ compels the merely indolent and curious to react with either serious reflection or offended withdrawal. Of course, the paradox is inherent in the nature of God’s kingdom which, as Paul Bretcher has pointed out in The World Upside Down or Right Side Up? inverts the whole scale of secular ambitions and virtues, precisely as Nietzsche perceived when he protested against Christianity’s transvaluation of values. In a sinful world, true righteousness stands on its head, despised as weakness, cowardice, and stupidity. In God’s kingdom worldly standards are turned topsyturvy and the divine norms of righteousness are luminously seen in all their rightness. So, as Bretcher epitomizes the beatitudes, they teach dignity, joy, security, ambition, justice, wisdom, peace, and conformity, all upside down from the perspective of the unrighteous world; and, conversely, right side up from God’s perspective.

For another thing, the Lord offers a radical solution to the age-old problem of the summum bonum, the question which since Plato has intrigued philosophers. What is life’s supreme good and how does one attain it? How does one become a beatus possidens of whatever may be the highest value? Jesus affirms that the summum bonum is a right relationship with God and man. This right relationship, He declares, brings an experience of beatitude, an abiding happiness independent of circumstances, a deep soul-joy which is a foretaste of the heaven faith foresees. The Lord assures mankind that, when one is rightly related to God, he shares something of God’s character and of God’s felicity mentioned in Paul’s phrase, “the blessed God” (1 Tim 1:11). With divine authority Christ holds out what is elsewhere never found, the secret of the summum bonum, that philosopher’s stone which transmutes the dross of simple existence into the gold of beatitude, now and eternally. His obedient disciples are promised in superlative degree that happy life sketched in the first Psalm.

To turn, then, to these remarkable paradoxes, notice in v. 3 the beatitude attached to and inseparable from poverty of spirit. Penury, in and of itself, is plainly no cause for congratulation, though Jesus often identifies Himself with the poor people of His time as over against the rich. Neither is blessing annexed to that spiritlessness indistinguishable from a lack of energy and enthusiasm, a dragging, hangdog depression and dearth of vitality. The poverty of which the Savior speaks is a consciousness of spiritual bankruptcy, an overwhelming sense that one is destitute of any claim to righteousness. It is the confession that, apart from God’s sheer munificence, one is worthless, without a penny to his credit. The poverty is that of Isaiah 66:2b, “This is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” It is the exact opposite of that illusory superiority claimed by the Laodicean church, “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev 3:17). Motivated, therefore, to beseech God for the sovereign exercise of His inexhaustible philanthropy (Titus 3:5), the beggar who admits his spiritual destitution enters here and now into that all-enriching fellowship with the Father which is the deepest happiness of the kingdom.

The second beatitude in v. 4 likewise has a specifically spiritual rather than an inclusively generalized significance. The mourning Jesus mentions is neither the grief of bereavement nor the sadness of nostalgic memories and forfeited opportunities. It is not the painful regret of the lawbreaker facing condign punishment for his transgression. It is not, in Paul’s language, “the sorrow of this world.” It is, rather, that “godly sorrow [which] produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret” (2 Cor 7:10). It is the mourning of the guilt-confessing sinner, cognizant of his disobedience and evil, the heinousness of his rebellion against God, and the sheer malignancy of his motives (Luke 18:13). It is that mourning which unintentionally yet inevitably brings the heart’s-ease of forgiveness, the comfort of reconciliation, as God welcomes the prodigal back to the joy of the Father’s home (Luke 4:18; 15:1-24).

The third beatitude (v. 5) is open to misunderstanding because, a startling paradox, it fuses a commendation of non-aggression with the guarantee that the unassertive individual gains, nevertheless, what the pushy person finally forfeits. On the surface, the Lord may appear to be advocating a spineless cowardice. Actually, however, He is urging that His own courageous example be followed (Matt 11:29). Meekness is not a sign of craven weakness. Consider the strength required by the last beatitude: hounded nonconformists, hated even to the point of martyrdom, must possess unwavering conviction, dauntless bravery, and remarkable self-control. Consider, too, the powerful figure of Moses, that paragon of meekness (Num 12:3). This trait, therefore, is really that disciplined gentleness central to the concept of the gentleman whose manliness integrates virility and courtesy, harnessed energy and self-secure humility. Renouncing force, domination, anger, violence, and revenge (Eph 5:21), the disciple in meekness does not press his own claim nor battle for his own interests. Related to God in submission and dependence, security and contentment (Matt 6:25-34), he in the end gets the most out of life. While anticipating heaven, he enjoys earth to the full (1 Tim 6:17; cf. Ps 37:11).

The fourth beatitude (v. 6) brings front and center the insatiable longing, the passionate discontent of the Christian who yearns to see God’s righteousness ruling both in his own life and everywhere around the world as well. His all-consuming ambition is voiced in the prayer, “Thy kingdom come” (Matt 6:10). The gnawing desire that human life be marked by conformity to the divine will, a holy love which reflects infinite Pity and Purity—this is the delectable hunger and delicious thirst which the disciple experiences. At the same time, he experiences the indescribable satisfaction which comes from the sensed reality of God’s righteousness which he already possesses by faith. He is satisfied, moreover, by the Biblical promise that some day man’s earth will be filled with God’s righteousness as the waters fill the sea. Unsatisfied, yet satisfied, the disciple keeps on longing for the total and triumphant reign of righteousness personally and globally.

The fifth beatitude (v. 7) assures the Christian that the merciful will obtain mercy. This principle of reciprocity, “Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38)—only with an immeasurably multiplied return when God is the Donor!—emerges again in the petition, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). Our Lord, therefore, is reminding His followers that, just as God’s forgiveness enables them to practice forgiveness, so God’s mercy enables sinners, who are often stony-hearted avengers, to exercise mercy. They trust in a love which self-sacrificially meets the demands of justice and then moves infinitely beyond the confines of courtroom equity. As experiments of mercy, they become agents of mercy. Forgetting their own rights, they do not sternly insist on an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. They do not condescendingly reach down from a superior level to their moral inferiors. The cross prohibits any proud self-righteousness. Liberated from pharisaic legalism (Matt 23:23), compassionately and generously, with no expectation of return, NT disciples carry out the OT norm, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8). In exercising mercy, they remain the amazed and grateful recipients of mercy.

The seventh beatitude (v. 9), even more sharply than the fifth, shows that discipleship is not simply a matter of passive piety, an ascetic cultivation of one’s own soul in a sort of monastic isolation from the evil world. The seventh beatitude discloses the social repercussions of discipleship as the citizens of the kingdom energetically battle for peace. Blessed with the peace of God, they function as catalysts of forgiveness and agents of reconciliation (James 3:17). In a world of money-makers, policy-makers, and war-makers, their role is that of peacemakers on every level of life, not excluding the international scene (Heb 12:14). In playing that role, they encounter misunderstanding and frustration (Rom 12:18), but, disowned by a violent world, they are owned as His children by the God of peace (Luke 10:6; Heb 13:20).

The concluding beatitude (vv. 10-12) is apparently repeated for the sake of emphasis. In repeating it, our Lord rephrases it, shifting from the third to the second person, and thus indicating that all these beatitudes must be applied to themselves by His disciples. Knowing the world’s reaction to the ideal He has been projecting, Jesus now seeks to shatter any illusion which His followers may entertain as to the success which awaits them. By nature, human beings crave acceptance and approval, security and status. The attitudes and actions the Savior has been inculcating might seem to assure, if not hearty commendation, at least shoulder-shrugging toleration. When lived out, this ideal contradicts and challenges the world’s cherished ideals, hence the disciples need not expect bouquets and plaudits. On the contrary, they need to be braced for hatred, every imaginable calumny, relentless opposition, and sometimes the fate of those martyred prophets who championed righteousness (1 Cor 4:13); yet paradox once more looms up. Undeserved affliction is to be a source of rejoicing, exuberant rejoicing. Undeserved affliction will mean that the suffering disciples belong to the spiritual peerage of all past ages (Heb 11:32, 40). In eternity they can expect a reward commensurate with their sacrifice (2 Cor 4:8, 18).

“The secret of the Lord,” then, precisely as David affirms, is with those believers who accept His kingship and obey His rule (Ps 25:14; cf. the entire passage). The secret of beatitude is no esoteric mystery. It is openly proclaimed by Jesus at the outset of this regal manifesto. There is a quality of experience, a kind of life which can be had by trustfully bearing His yoke and humbly becoming a disciple of the Master-Teacher (Matt 11:29).


R. C. Trench, Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (1886); R. C. H. Lenski, Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (1943); F. A. Findlay, The Realism of Jesus (n.d.); W. R. Nicoll (ed), The Expositor’s Greek Testament, vol. 1 (n.d.); D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, vol. 1 (n.d.); A. W. Pink, An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (1950); H. Windisch, The Meaning of the Sermon on the Mount (1951), S. M. Gilmour, tr.; E. T. Thompson, The Sermon on the Mount and Its Meaning for Today (1953); P. G. Bretscher, The World Upside Down or Right Side Up? (1964).