1. And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:
2. And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
3. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
4. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
5. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
6. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
7. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
8. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
9. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
10. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
12. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matt. 5:1–12)
The Beatitudes of Jesus were blessings, but of a different nature than beatitudes issued by churchmen. When men pronounce a beatitude, it is a prayer or expressed hope for grace, joy, or God’s blessing. Beatitudes issued by our Lord, however, are far more; they are divine decrees, statements of fact. When Jesus said, “Blessed are …” He was saying, “You are in a place of happiness and joy…”
The Beatitudes have been used by modernists and secularists, in part, no doubt, because they are positive promises of blessing and blessedness. All that is required for such misuse is to define what Jesus is blessing. Once you define the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, etc., you have a divine blessing on that definition. When those terms blessed by Jesus are defined contrary to their meaning and to the rest of Scripture, you have remade a Jesus of your own imagination into an ethical iconoclast who opens the door to a whole new morality. This, of course, is often the goal when humanists quote Scripture.
The Beatitudes are so eloquent, and are so pleasant to our ears and hearts that it is easy to read them casually, as poetry rather than as the profound declarations they are. In a related vein, Alfred Edersheim made a point of emphasizing that the idea that Jesus was merely repeating common rabbinical teachings actually represents a complete misunderstanding of those teachings and the works-oriented basis of their religion. Edersheim, himself a Jew who converted to Christianity as an adult, described how Jesus used well-known expressions, but that the meaning of His words was far removed from rabbinical tradition. One example he gave was the “poor in spirit” expression Jesus used. His was a very positive statement:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The rabbinical equivalent was a millstone they hung around their bearer’s neck:
Ever be more lowly in spirit since the expectancy of man is to be food for worms.2
The Beatitudes were statements with substance, in part because our Lord’s words constituted a different teaching and imperative than rabbinical thought and therefore represented part of the clear break Jesus made with the religious leaders of the day. This break had begun with His cleansing of the temple and was already a very public split, as is obvious in our Lord’s direct challenge to the Pharisees just prior to exorcising an unclean spirit in the synagogue during Sabbath worship (Luke 6:6–11), a demonstration which so angered them that they began to plot His destruction.
To the modern English ear, the Beatitudes sound like general moralisms to which most can agree. That is because such is the modern view of ethics. Yet we must not read the Beatitudes as a list of human qualities and behaviors identified and passively blessed by Jesus. Rather, they describe spiritual attitudes, demeanors, and responses that are necessary for men to find themselves in the Kingdom of Heaven in a state of blessedness and joy.
Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit
The first beatitude is “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The word spirit refers to a breath or breeze. It refers to a non-material man, but not to the dualistic idea of an ethereal part of man. Man’s spirit here is his real nature as created by God; it is our true self. The word poor refers to a crouching beggar as he would present himself in public asking for alms. My father liked Goodspeed’s translation of verse 3: “Blessed are those who feel their spiritual need.” It is therefore describing humbleness before God by those who are convicted of their inadequacy.
To be blessed we must see ourselves as coming to God as beggars for His mercy, willing to bow our wills before His throne. We tend to think of ourselves as being as good as we can be and better than most.
Those who are “poor in spirit” have addressed their basic problem, that of sin, as Jesus acknowledged that “theirs is,” presently, the Kingdom of Heaven. They have renounced their false pride and prostrated themselves as beggars before the wealth of God’s mercy and grace.
Blessed Are They That Mourn
The second beatitude is closely related to the first: “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” This continues the image of the man who feels his spiritual poverty, who crouches as a beggar before a holy God. Here, he mourns for his sinfulness, and so repentance is here represented.
The promise is comfort, a resolution to their mourning, because God does not leave us as beggars or as mourners, but makes us new creatures in Christ. This is why each of these beatitudes is phrased as a positive blessing resulting in our happiness.
God does not convict men and bring them to confession and repentance to condemn them, but to regenerate them, and there is no greater comfort than to know forgiveness and adoption as a child of God.
Blessed Are the Meek
The third beatitude is “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” Few people are inspired by the idea of meekness, because the modern connotation is one of a weakness that produces a timidity that approaches cowardliness. Unfortunately, some have adopted such a “doormat Christian” as a false view of Christian love.
Remember, Jesus is not describing human tendencies which He can pronounce good, but rather moral and behavioral responses God requires of man. Having just said we should know our spiritual poverty and mourn for it, He now commands meekness. This too is a moral and behavioral response to God. As opposed to the wildness of the unregenerate man’s rebellion, the meek man is one who is tamed, disciplined for service.
The blessing quotes Psalm 37:11, “But the meek shall inherit the earth.” The Hebrew word for meek means “to kneel” as a servant would before his lord. The meekness was a submission to God as Lord. For this reason, meekness is listed as a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). The meek man is the one who is disciplined for God, who has replaced his self-will for self-control. He knows obedience and faithfulness, so our Lord here speaks of the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
The meek shall inherit the earth. They are submitted to God and part of His eternal Kingdom. All the glorious future of God in time and eternity is theirs. They are victorious because they serve, in meekness, the victorious Lord of lords.
Blessed Are They Which Do Hunger and Thirst after Righteousness
The fourth beatitude is “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” This, along with the previous three involves a self-awareness that we can only find ourselves in God. We so readily accept our spiritual poverty, mourn for our sins, and turn from our self-will to be disciplined by God that we “hunger and thirst” for God’s righteousness, which is the same word used for justice throughout the Scriptures, both Hebrew and Greek.
The emphasis in the first four beatitudes is clearly personal. One could object that hunger and thirst for righteousness would know no limits, but the primary focus is personal because the promise is so clearly so: “for they shall be filled.” The intense desire for righteousness will be a self-fulfilling goal, because the righteousness of God is readily available to those whose quest is disciplined by obedience to the Word.
Blessed Are the Merciful
The fifth beatitude is: “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” Our mercy is a warped and twisted one if it represents an accommodation of evil as the modernists so often demand it should be. There must be parameters for our compassion and pity that distinguishes between good and evil. Our mercy must reflect God’s and so it must be in terms of His righteousness.
The publican (tax collector) cried “God be merciful to me a sinner.” It was only because he knew he fell short of God’s righteousness that he cried out for mercy. He was “poor in spirit.”
God’s mercy can never be abstracted as a standard separate from His righteousness. Even God’s mercy to us involved the necessity of our death penalty being exacted in the death of Jesus. Our mercy must therefore reflect both the mercy and righteousness of God.
Mercy is then the consideration we have for others because we are so fully aware of God’s mercy to us.
Blessed Are the Pure in Heart
The sixth beatitude is “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” Here we take pause, for those who most desire the blessing of Jesus will likely respond to this declaration with the thought, “My heart is not pure; how can I expect to see God?” Those who are poor in spirit, who mourn for their sin, who are the meek of God, and who hunger and thirst after righteousness will know their heart is not pure.
God knows the condition of our heart better than we do. This beatitude in the context of the others: Our Lord would not mock us by promising a reward for which we would never qualify, so the purity of heart cannot be an absolute moral purity.
The Greek word for pure here is katharos, which refers to a purging or cleansing, and our English word catharsis comes from it. Our hearts need a purging or cleansing, a change from the red of our blood-guiltiness to a state of being white as snow. Remember, Jesus was not speaking as a modernist who sees a sinful human condition and pronounces a blessing on it. Jesus was saying a blessing on those whose hearts were purged by God. The Ethiopian cannot change his skin, nor the leopard his spots (see Jer. 13:23). Likewise, man can not change his nature, but God can.
The doctrine of justification teaches us that we have been declared righteous before God’s court, even though we are “yet sinners.” The pure in heart, likewise, have been purified by God while yet sinners.
The blessing here is that the pure in heart will see God. How is this a blessing when all men will see God at judgment day? Moreover, God is a spirit and we are told no man hath seen Him. But remember Jesus would tell His disciples, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9). Those who have their sins purged by the atonement of Jesus will, by the regenerating power of the Spirit, see Him for who He is, God in human flesh.
Blessed Are the Peacemakers
The seventh beatitude is, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” This peace is the shalom or peace of God. His Son came to make all things new and to establish His Kingdom. His shalom is a broad concept, as the word can mean prosperity, health, salvation, and more. This blessing on those who seek peace is on those who promote His Kingdom order and the blessings that flow from it. They are the servants of the Kingdom, the shalom-makers. Of all the beatitudes, this one most implies positive action, as there is no passive peacemaking possible. So, it is not referring to “just getting along” and certainly not to sweeping things under the rug to avoid conflict, but to activity in terms of Christ’s Kingdom.
The reward here is one of identification as a child of God, one who honors his Father and preserves and develops what is His. Jesus Himself will identify us as, and call us, the children of our Heavenly Father.
Blessed Are They Which Are Persecuted When Men Shall Revile You
The last beatitudes are blessings on those “persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and “when men shall revile you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake … great is your reward in heaven.” Jesus, who would be killed for His faithfulness, is blessing those who suffer for theirs.
The persecuted here are the pursued, those who will be targets of contempt and, at times, far worse. The reviled are those who are the reproached. The world does that for what it falsely condemns the Christian; it calls him the problem, hateful, the killjoy, the repressor of human rights, prude, a dangerous element because he would deny men their human rights, etc. Merely being categorized under one of these labels is an indication we are part of His Kingdom and its eternal reward.
The key here is that we must actually suffer for either righteousness (v. 10) or for the Lord (v. 11), not for our personality or boorish behavior. The reward is both present and future: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 10) and “great is your reward in heaven” (v. 12). The blessing is for those who now stand for Christ and His righteousness and suffer for it. Their reward is that Jesus says they are citizens of the Kingdom now and in eternity.
The Beatitudes are blessings on those who serve the Kingdom of Heaven. They are the blessed of God by the decree of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is thus truly the Magna Carta of our liberty, one no political power on earth can ever threaten.
1. The title is from my father’s concluding line in a 1954 radio address entitled “For Thy Sake,” part of our unpublished manuscript titled Good Morning, Friends.
2. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Originally published 1883. Book III, chapter XVIII.