The Beatitudes Part One – Matthew 5:1-6

In Matthew 5–7, when Jesus gives his most famous sermon on a mountainside, he presents a new standard for defining God’s Kingdom and God’s people.

Interpreting this message is not an easy task. One survey listed 36 different interpretations. Fortunately, many can be dismissed without much thought. The one that makes the most sense, and the one that I believe is correct, is called “inaugurated eschatology” and falls in line with Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom. Inaugurated eschatology has an “already/not yet” understanding where the instructions in this narrative should be the goal of every Christian to live out, but understanding that until Christ returns, it will never be fully complete (Blomberg).

This first lesson will focus on the first half of the Beatitudes contained in Matthew 5:1-6.

Before diving into the passage, let’s make a few preliminary observations about this passage.

  • From a cross-reference to Luke 6:13 and following, we know that this takes place after Jesus had chosen the twelve. “When daylight came, He summoned His disciples,  and He chose 12 of them—He also named them apostles:” (HCSB, unless otherwise noted all passages will be from this translation).
  • We know from Matt 4:23-25 that Jesus had spent a considerable amount of time in ministry in Galilee. 23 Jesus was going all over Galilee,  teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.  24 Then the news about Him spread throughout Syria.  So they brought to Him all those who were afflicted, those suffering from various diseases and intense pains, the demon-possessed, the epileptics, and the paralytics.  And He healed them. 25 Large crowds followed Him from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.”
  • From Matt 4:23-25, we also see that Jesus was well known throughout the region and had developed a large following.
  • The message contained in the Sermon on the Mount was directed at His disciples, not just the 12 but all of His followers. What Jesus is asking can only come about through surrender to the Savior. Jesus is telling us to “Live like this because you are saved.”
  • The Beatitudes are a package deal; we can’t pick and choose those we’d like to follow and discard the more challenging ones. Of course, this is true of all Scripture. We can’t follow the ones we like and ignore the ones we don’t. If we are honest with ourselves, when we look at the Beatitudes, they are likely the complete opposite of what we would choose. John Stott wrote, “The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly the least obeyed.”
  • Our behavior will flow out of our beliefs. Correct understanding leads to Christlike behavior. We must not only know what to believe; we must understand how to behave. While Jesus teaches content throughout the Sermon on the Mount, these opening words deal with character. Jesus is emphasizing throughout this sermon that His disciples are to be different. Tozer once wrote about this, “It appears to me that too many Christians want to enjoy the thrill of feeling right but are not willing to endure the inconvenience of being right.”
  • Depending on the translation you use, it might contain the term “blessed” or “happy” when describing the Beatitudes. A true understanding of this passage lends overwhelming weight to the use of “blessed.” The term “blessed” occurs at least 55 times in the New Testament and is almost always used to denote a sense of God’s approval based on righteousness, which rests ultimately in a love for God. Blessedness is filled with the light of heaven, which thrives on trial and persecution, glories in tribulation, not endures but overcomes the world, and expects its crown in heaven. A true Christian has a serene and untouchable joy that comes from walking forever in the company and the presence of Jesus (Barclay).

Now a quick look at the structure:

  • There are eight Beatitudes, the first four will be covered here and the other four in the next lesson.
  • Verses 3 and 10 are bookends and speak of a present assurance… “kingdom of heaven is theirs.”
  • The other six are future promises… “will or will be.”
  • The Beatitudes serve as an introduction to the central part of Jesus’ teaching, where He places expectations on His followers.
  • This same sequence appeared in the Old Testament at Mt. Sinai. God redeemed Israel and reminded them of His blessings before giving the Law.
  • The Beatitudes are not separate statements.
    • Each one represents a solid truth for life.
    • Each stands on its own but is linked progressively to the one that follows.
    • Each builds upon the previous one.

Let’s look first at the two introductory verses, 5:1-2:

1When He saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain,  and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. Then He began to teach them, saying:

From the surface, it might appear these two verses are relatively simple and straightforward. However, there is actually quite a bit going on here.

  • There is an allusion to Moses going up on Mt. Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments.
    • Many commentators and theologians view Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as a new Moses or new lawgiver.
    • However, Jesus is not proclaiming a new law, but teaching a legitimate interpretation of God’s will contained in the Torah.
    • We could view this as the formal inauguration of Jesus’ Kingdom; the King sets out His plan by which His kingdom is identified, and His rule administered.
  • The Greek reads “the mountain”, but Matthew used this expression elsewhere to refer to the hill country around Capernaum. The accepted site of this location is on the NW shore of the Sea of Galilee.
  • Jesus moves away from the crowds.
    • The primary audience for the message was His disciples.
      • The first circle was the 12 who are named.
      • The second circle was other serious followers, which we know about from Luke 10 and Acts 1:15.
    • The third circle was the crowds who had various levels of interest, but not followers, or who were opponents of Jesus. Although we can’t be sure from Scripture exactly when the religious leaders of Israel first became aware of Jesus and began to track Him it is highly likely that they were at least aware of Him by this point since the latter portion of Matthew 4 alludes to extensive teaching and His name being well known throughout the region.
  • Three clues point to the significance of the Sermon on the Mount.
    • Jesus began to teach when he had sat down. Often a Rabbi gave instruction when he was standing or walking about, but his official teaching was done when he had taken his seat. So, the fact that Jesus sat down to teach his disciples is the indication that this teaching is central and official (Barclay).
    • Matthew goes on to say that He began to teach them, some translations have when he had opened his mouth. This phrase is not merely a fancy way of saying, he said. In Greek, the phrase has a double significance.
      • It is used in a solemn, grave, and dignified message. It is used, for instance, of the saying of an oracle. It is a natural introduction to a very important message.
      • It is also used when someone really opened their hearts and fully poured out their minds. It is used for intimate teaching with no barriers between people. Again, the very use of this phrase indicates that the material in the Sermon on the Mount is no chance piece of teaching. It is the grave and solemn message of the essential things; it is the opening of Jesus’ heart and mind to those men who were to be his right-hand men in his task (Barclay).
    • The Sermon on the Mount is greater even than we think. Matthew, in his introduction, wishes us to see that it is the first official teaching of Jesus; that it is the opening of Jesus’ whole mind to his disciples; that it is the summary of the teaching which Jesus habitually gave to his inner circle.

Now let’s dig into the first four of the Beatitudes. These first four are God-focused.

It is important to stop and think about the order of the two sections of the Beatitudes. As noted above, the first four are God-focused, and the last four, which will be presented in the next lesson, are people-focused. Jesus does this with intentionality. Our vertical relationship with God needs to come first, and then our horizontal relationships with others will reap the benefits. How can we, as inherently sinful people, love others if we don’t first love God? Sure, some may have ok or even what they consider strong relationships with others while not having a strong relationship with God. However, if our vertical relationship is not right, our horizontal relationships will never reach their full potential. For example, if we don’t fully understand how broken and sinful we are, how can we truly forgive and extend grace to others when we feel wronged? When our identity and value are grounded in Christ, it is much easier (NOTE: it may not necessarily be easy) to extend forgiveness.

First, let’s touch on the concept of “blessed.” It occurs at least 55 times in the New Testament and is almost universal in emphasizing a sense of God’s approval founded in righteousness, which ultimately rests in a love for God. Some translations may have the word “happy.” However, this word misses the mark. The root of the word “happiness” is “hap,” which means “chance.” Human happiness is built upon chance. But the Greek word for “blessed” is makarios, which describes the gods. The inference here is that there is a godlike joy as a Christian (Barclay).

Now let’s unpack verse 3. “The poor in spirit are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

  • In Greek, there are two words for poor.
    • One describes a person who works for a living, a person who serves their own needs, not rich but also not destitute.
    • The other describes absolute and abject poverty; the root word means to crouch or cower and describes the poverty of those forced to beg on their knees…describes a person who has nothing at all.
      • The humble and the helpless.
      • Someone who, because they have no earthly resources, put their whole trust in God – this is the correct interpretation for this verse.
  • Those who believe this will display two characteristics.
    • They will become completely detached from material things because they know that “things” don’t have the power to bring happiness or security.
    • They will become completely attached to God because they know that God alone can bring them help, hope, and strength.
  • Just think about those two characteristics again. They are exactly the opposite of what the world teaches and promotes. It is also characteristic of the false prosperity Gospel.
  • The beginning of repentance is the recognition of one’s spiritual bankruptcy – one’s inability to become righteous on one’s own, that we have no spiritual resources on our own.
  • Those truly poor in spirit are those that realize that “things” mean nothing, and God means everything.
  • Apart from Christ, we are spiritually powerless and bankrupt.
  • It doesn’t matter if your resume says pastor, CEO, general, professional athlete. It only matters that it says “poor in spirit and redeemed by the blood of the lamb.”
  • Christ is calling on His followers to realize that they are spiritually destitute without Him and to surrender to His Lordship. If we do that, we enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Verse 4. Those who mourn are blessed, for they will be comforted.

  • The word used for mourn is the strongest word in the Greek language for mourning.
    • It is the word used for mourning the dead.
    • The passionate lament for the loss of a loved one.
    • In the Septuagint, it is the word used to describe Jacob’s grief when he believed that Joseph was dead in Gen 37:34.
    • It is a type of grief that takes such a hold that it cannot be hidden.
    • It is a type of sorrow that not only gives great heartache but also unrestrained tears from our eyes.
  • This Beatitude can be viewed in three ways.
    • Literal meaning – sorrow can show us two things.
      • The kindness of others…when charity is offered.
      • The comfort and compassion of God.
      • Many of us have discovered the compassion of others and God when they go through sorrow-filled trials.
    • The sorrow we see around us in a broken world – we learned from the first Beatitude that we are to be detached from things, but we were never intended to be detached from people.
      • Christianity is caring.
      • Blessed are those who care intensely for the sufferings, sorrows, and needs of others.
      • Think about how the world would be if we didn’t care about the needs and suffering of those less fortunate than us.
    • There is little doubt about the first two meanings, but the overwhelming thrust behind this verse is a deep sorrow for our sins and unworthiness.
      • What was Jesus’ first word when He began to preach in Matt 4:17…Repent!
        • We can’t repent unless we truly are sorry for our sins.
        • Often what changes us is when we suddenly confront. Something which opens our eyes to what sin is and what sin does.
      • It is when we realize how spiritually bankrupt we are.
      • It is a heart condition that needs mending.
        • Are we really sorrowful when we sin?
        • If sin doesn’t bother you,…that should bother you.
      • It is only when we are truly sorrowful for our spiritual bankruptcy that the grace of God can be brought into the picture.
      • That is what the cross does.
        • What goes through your mind when you view the cross?
        • There are many thoughts that could come to mind.
        • But what we should consider is, “That is what sin can do. Sin can take the loveliest life in the entire world and smash it on a cross.”
        • The cross should open our eyes to the horror of sin.
        • Christianity begins with a sense of sin.
        • Blessed are those who are intensely sorry for their sin, heartbroken for what their sin has done to an infinitely holy God and Jesus.
        • When we experience that we will be comforted, we will have a sorrowful heart, and God never despises a broken or contrite heart Ps 51:17 The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. God, You will not despise a broken and humbled heart.
        • There’s a story of a man who continually rededicated his life and prayed the same prayer, “Lord, take the cobwebs out of my life.” His pastor had heard this once too often, and when the man prayed the same prayer again, the pastor answered in prayer, “Lord, kill the spider.” Repentance requires change.
        • The way to the joy of forgiveness is through the desperate sorrow of a broken heart.
  • Are we really sorry, a deep, heart-wrenching sorrow for the sins we have committed, and are we quick to confess and repent? When we confess and turn away from those sins, we receive forgiveness and remove that burden.

Verse 5. The gentle are blessed, for they will inherit the earth.

Some of you may have a translation that says “meek” instead of “gentle.” Either way, that is not a characteristic that the world promotes. Instead, the world teaches that power and running over others to advance ourselves are to be pursued. But Jesus is teaching the opposite is true.

  • The philosopher Aristotle had a method to define every virtue as the happy medium between two extremes.
    • There was the extreme of excess.
    • There was the extreme of defect.
    • Between these two was the virtue, a happy medium.
    • An example would be.
      • Spendthrift.
      • Miser.
      • The virtue was a generous person.
    • Gentleness by Aristotle’s definition would be a balance between:
      • Excessive anger.
      • Excessive lack of anger.
    • The first way to view this is, “Blessed are those who are always angry at the right time, and never angry at the wrong time.”
    • Let’s address the idea of anger.
      • Selfish anger is a sin – something done to us, and we want to retaliate.
      • Selfless anger can be a moral dynamic to affect the world.
  • There was a second meaning for the Greek word “gentle.”
    • It was regularly used for an animal that had been domesticated.
      • Trained to obey the word of command.
      • To respond to the reins.
      • An animal that had learned to accept control.
    • The meek are those who are powerful but who have the maturity and grace to use that power for constructive instead of destructive purposes. Meekness is not weakness, but rather strength under control.
    • We could reword this verse to say, “Blessed are those who have every instinct, every impulse, every passion under control. Blessed are those who are entirely self-controlled.”
    • But there is a problem with the last part of that phrase, isn’t there?
      • That level of self-control is impossible.
      • Instead, “Blessed are those who are completely God-controlled.”
      • The paradox is that only in serving Jesus do we find perfect freedom and peace.
  • There is a third meaning for “gentle.”
    • The Greeks always contrasted meekness with a term that is translated “lofty-heartedness.”
    • True meekness or humility removes all pride.
    • Without humility, we can’t learn; the first step in learning is acknowledging our ignorance.
      • Without humility, there is no love; for the beginning of love is a sense of unworthiness.
      • Without humility, there can be no true Christianity since we must realize our weakness and need for God.
      • These lead to our understanding that we are the creatures and that God is the creator, and without God, we can do nothing.
    • The third way to view this verse is, “Blessed are those who have the humility to know their own ignorance, their own weakness, and their own need.”
  • Those that have this meekness will inherit the earth.
    • Moses was arguably the greatest leader ever.
    • Num 12:3 “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any man on the face of the earth.”
    • But Moses was far from spineless. Think about this the next time your boy scout camping trip or VBS has a few difficulties. He led over 1 million stubborn and disobedient people on a 40-year camping trip through the wilderness.
  • Let’s stop and consider the progression through the first three Beatitudes.
    • We recognize our spiritual bankruptcy.
    • We are deeply sorrowful about it.
    • We begin to respond humbly to our master, Jesus.
  • Meekness is power harnessed for good.

Verse 6. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, for they will be filled.

  • It is probably safe to say that most, if not all, who are reading this do not truly know what it means to go hungry or thirsty for an extended period of time. We live in an age where it is easy to get food, often too much of it.
    • That was not the case in the ancient world; there were no 7-11s, or McDs or food panda.
    • A working man’s wage was one denarius, not a life of luxury.
    • A common laborer might eat meat once a week.
    • The average worker was never far from real hunger and actual starvation.
  • Thirst was an even bigger problem. When my wife and I lived in Thailand, we couldn’t drink water straight out of the tap, but we did have ready access to bottled water. Most of us come from countries where it is safe to drink straight from the tap, and we don’t even give it a second thought.
    • The houses in the ancient world did not have running water; it required trips to the nearest well. And “near” was often a relative term.
    • Think of traveling in those days and being caught in a sandstorm. Often all that could be done was to turn your back to the wind and wait it out, getting parched in the process.
  • Maybe some of us have experienced these shortcomings for a brief period, but it is probably safe to say that none of us have lived like that for our entire lives or even for an extended period of time.
  • The hunger and thirst that Jesus is talking about here is not something that could be satisfied with a snack or a cup of coffee or a cold drink.
    • This hunger speaks of hunger on the level of starvation.
    • The thirst is at the level of severe dehydration or death if fluids aren’t available.
  • Hunger and thirst are characteristics of the oppressed.
    • Jesus is speaking of the spiritual, not the physical.
    • A person who is starving for righteousness, either for their own life or their environment, is not a blessed person.
    • Blessing comes from the assurance that all righteousness will be fulfilled one day.
    • Each of us will be perfected, never to sin again, and God’s kingdom will be purged of all unrighteousness.
  • This Beatitude is both a question and a challenge.
    • How much do you want goodness?
      • As much as the person starving for food.
      • As much as someone dying for water.
      • How intense is our desire?
    • Most of us have an inherent desire for goodness, but…
      • Is it vague or…
      • Is it sharp and intense?
      • How different would the world be if we desired goodness more than anything else?
  • When approached with this understanding, this Beatitude is…
    • The most demanding and the most frightening.
    • But also, the most comforting.
      • Those who are blessed are not necessarily those who achieve goodness, but those who long for it with their whole heart.
      • If it came through achievement, none of us would be blessed.
      • But blessedness comes to all who, in spite of our failings and sinful nature, passionately love God.
      • Matt 6:33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.
  • One other point is only understood by looking at the original Greek structure of the verse.
    • The hunger and the thirst here are understood as the whole thing, the entire loaf of bread, or the entire pitcher of water.
    • How often are we content with partial righteousness…it’s good enough.
    • This verse calls for us never to be satisfied with partial righteousness; we must pursue complete righteousness.
    • We should never settle for, “well, it’s good enough.”

So now that we’ve unpacked the first four Beatitudes, how can we apply Jesus’ message to our lives?

  • Each of us needs to do a serious self-examination of our lives against what Jesus is teaching here. As was mentioned in the discussion of the first two verses, this was a serious, deep from the heart, divine message from God the Son, Jesus, to His people. These are expectations, not suggestions that Jesus has for His followers.
  • Do we really trust God and believe that He will take care of our needs, not necessarily our wants? Growing up in a middle-class family and then living in the mission field in a country where the average laborer makes about $13 a day has opened my eyes to the difference in those two words. I’m not saying that we should seek out or embrace a lifestyle of poverty, although some may feel called to do that. However, I don’t believe it is biblical to live a life of luxury instead of using what God has blessed us with to bless those who are less fortunate. When we free ourselves from the trap of materialism and cling to only one who can bring us what we truly need, Jesus, we gain what the world can never give us.
  • Do we truly mourn and repent of our sins, or do we view the “sinner’s prayer” as a “get out of jail free card?” Being a true follower of Jesus doesn’t mean we can go on living a life of sin and rebellion because we’ve prayed a prayer (which, by the way, is not in Scripture). Jesus said in Mark 1:15, “repent and believe in the Gospel.” True mourning, repentance, and submission to Jesus will manifest itself in the life of a follower of Christ.
  • Does our life exhibit strength under control, or are we a “loose cannon?” Do we submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to shape us and guide us in our daily lives? When we allow ourselves to be Spirit-controlled, we can make a positive impact on this world. However, when we let “self” control us, it will only reap sorrow and hurt others. That is what we are seeing in the US right now. The death of George Floyd is a horrible and tragic event, and it is not right. At the same time, that does not justify some of the actions that have resulted. Those that say Jesus would’ve wept over this incident are correct. Those that say Jesus would accept, condone, or promote the violent actions for change are reading a much different translation of the Bible than the one I read.
  • Do we really long for righteousness in our lives? If we don’t, how can we expect to have it in our homes, our marriages, our families, our workplace, expanding out to the world? We may think that individually we can’t make a difference. If you feel that way, I’d ask that you read John 4:1-42, the narrative of the woman at the well. Here was one woman who was shunned by even her own people, yet after a life-changing encounter with Jesus became a vehicle for change in her community. God can do amazing things when we submit and follow.

I pray that you learned something from this message that you can apply to your life. May God receive the glory for the advancement of His Kingdom. Until next time, be blessed!

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