The Old Testament, the Apocrypha and the Dead Sea Scrolls
Blessed are the poor in spirit...
Blessed are those who mourn...
Blessed are the meek...
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...
Blessed are the merciful...
Blessed are the pure in heart...
Blessed are the peacemakers...
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake...
Blessed are you when men revile you...
The nine beatitudes are statements of blessedness and are also conditional promises.
If, for instance, the believer is ‘poor in spirit’, then the promise to or description of them which follows is automatically theirs. Yet these blessings are not earnt - as Jesus comments further on in His speech, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees - who worked extremely hard to fulfil the requirements of the Law through their interpretations and study of the Scriptures - paled into insignificance alongside that which Jesus’ disciples were to display (Mtw 5:20).
Of course, their righteousness was based upon ‘works’ - that is, they tried to acquire a relationship with God based upon their self-effort and justification before Him of doing all those things that He had laid upon them. Such an attitude showed (as we will see) that they were anything but ‘poor in spirit’ and that they needed not just a reformation of the way they were following after God but a total abandonment of their ways in order to gain what they thought they might one day possess (or that they already possessed if they were really ‘good’).
Jesus turned the Judaism of His day on its head and insisted not on righteousness for acceptance but acceptance promoting righteousness - those who knew that their lives didn’t match up to the requirements of the Law were immediately accepted while those who strove to attain acceptance found themselves rejected (Luke 18:10-14) because achievement bred pride and was seen to be forcing God’s hand to accept rather than to rely upon His great mercy.
In one sense, we should see the requirements in chapters 5 to 7 as being incomplete without the work of the cross, resurrection and ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which so transformed those who received Him that they found that their lives were changed round from disobedience to the requirements of God to almost natural - or supernatural - obedience to all that God desired from them.
Therefore, with the cross in mind, we can see that the declarations of blessedness upon those who Jesus highlights must necessarily be a matter of God’s grace and not of self-effort and works of the Law. This also holds true for the entire discourse from beginning to end - although God requires man to exercise His will, man needs to come to the realisation that no amount of good work will ever cause himself to reach the level of perfection.
Therefore, Matfran is correct when he notes that
‘To interpret it legalistically as a set of rules is to miss the point; it represents a demand more radical than any legislator could conceive, going far beyond what human nature can meet, a demand for perfection (5:48)’
and Mattask that
‘In [the Sermon on the Mount] we find crystallised into the form of direct instructions the teaching of Jesus about the way men and women must tend to behave when they have become subject to the reign of God...Much misunderstanding and frustration are caused if we regard the precepts contained in this section as rules which can be obeyed literally by anybody, under any circumstances, by the exercise of the human will...’
Although the fulfilment of all the beatitudes (as well as the complete discourse) must necessarily lie in the future after the resurrection, they must also be a present reality among all those who fulfil the conditions of the beatitudes and who are already beginning to experience the shadow of all that will come fully on the Day of Pentecost.
Additionally, when Jesus talks about there being nine different types of people (that is, the poor in spirit of 5:3 and so on), He is not talking about nine separate believers but of one.
Just as there is one fruit of the Spirit expressed in nine ways (Gal 5:22-23) and each person may find that they can express one but struggle with others, so Jesus is talking about nine different aspects of one believer. Yes, some display being poor in spirit better than others but elevating one trait of a believer above another is to make some believers more acceptable to ourselves and to fail to see that all nine characteristics should be traits of the believer’s lifestyle and of the way he reacts in society in general.
Breaking these beatitudes down, we can see that each beatitude is ‘made up’ of three specific parts which come together to form one complete whole. Firstly, there is the attribution of ‘blessedness’ (which I will attempt to define and understand below), followed by a description of the person to whom this applies (such as ‘poor in spirit’). Sometimes, the label does not give us an obvious meaning - for instance 5:4’s ‘those who mourn’ could be taken to refer to all who feel sorrow so that the beatitude could be taken as referring to sadness in general or the commentator may attempt to find a specific application and state, perhaps, that what is primarily being meant is grief over sin. Jesus taught the crowds who came to Him in parables and did not always give them interpretations to go with His teaching (Mtw 13:10-17) so it is quite possible that Jesus is allowing His hearers to think about what is being said and to get from it themselves Truth that will be useful to them (Mtw 13:51-52).
Finally, a statement is included which gives a reason for the blessedness of the person described. In the final beatitude, Jesus expounds this more than in the previous eight before going on to speak of generalisations of His disciples in terms of ‘salt’ and ‘light’ (5:13-16 - see here).
As I have previously noted here, the beatitudes are only one part of the section which runs to 5:16 and which deals with the people of the Kingdom. Even though we may concentrate on these nine concise statements, we need to remind ourselves not to neglect to consider carefully the following two generalisations.
I don’t like the word ‘blessing’ - it happened from an early age as a christian, I admit, and probably equates in similarity with adults who have turned against food items simply because they were force fed them as a child by some masochistic grandmother or other who decided that their grandchildren needed to have their character built.
Okay, okay, so I’m being unfair, but my aversion for the word is firmly rooted in the type of christian circles I used to mix with when I was first saved.
Leaders and congregations alike would utter the infamous words (to me, at least) that ‘God wants to bless us’ without either defining what they actually meant by the word or by illustrating it from their own experience as to what a person like me should conceive of as being ‘blessed’. I mean, how was I supposed to know if God was actually blessing me if I didn’t know what emotion that should evoke in me as a response?
Was it a gooey feeling, a feeling of elation or giggling that couldn’t stop? Was it something that gave you a light-headed feeling or did you pass out under the sheer weight of being blessed so much that it overcame you?
Then there were others who talked about receiving ‘such a blessing’ from something that happened that, to me, didn’t sound too much like what I’d call a blessing at all. Was that what a blessing was?
Uh-uh - not me, I certainly didn’t want that!
But, as I grew in my understanding of God and His ways, I came to realise that God, by His very nature, wanted to ‘bless us’ simply because He desired to give good gifts to His children - but did that really mean that I should take my sight off a one litre Talbot Samba and place it on a three litre Ferrari? Was that what was meant by being ‘blessed beyond measure’?
I guess that’s why the word has always conjured up in my mind a definition that is empty and which can’t be defined and, coming to an entire passage of nine statements which opens each one with the word, I am naturally averse to throw myself headlong into trying to understand Jesus’ words without, at least, first trying to settle in my own mind once and for all what that first word means.
Strangely enough, Jesus’ use of the word has nothing to do with God blessing His children - that is, we aren’t looking at Jesus saying that, for instance, God blesses the poor in spirit with the Kingdom of Heaven but that the poor in spirit are blessed because they have the Kingdom of Heaven as their inheritance.
This is an important differentiation and we must be careful to remember as we approach these beatitudes that Jesus is speaking of (super)natural consequences that come about through the attitude and experience of the disciple, not necessarily as a direct action of God upon the disciples even though this is implied in a couple.
‘Blessed’ here means, then, something similar to our ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’ and is more akin to a settled state of contentment in a believer’s life than anything imposed upon them externally.
As Matfran comments
‘”Blessed” is a misleading translation...which does not denote one whom God blesses...but represents the Hebrew...“fortunate” and is used...almost entirely in the formal setting of a beatitude. It introduces someone who is to be congratulated, someone whose place in life is an enviable one. “Happy” is better than “blessed” but only if used not of a mental state but of a condition of life. “Fortunate” or “well off” is less ambiguous. It is not a psychological description, but a recommendation’
Therefore, rather than my old circle of christian acquaintances seeing in the word ‘blessing’ something that emanated from God, true blessing is in living out the attributes of the beatitudes and of finding, as a consequence, that a promise of contentment is being fulfilled in their own lives.
Rather than expecting God to bless His children for the sole purpose of making them giggly and floppy (which, okay, God does do on occasions), we should see the context here to make us look at the believer’s life in terms of a real life changing and sustaining experience where God sweeps aside material gifts and concentrates on attitudes that the believer either has or situations that the believer experiences which cause him to be able to live peaceably and contented within, growing closer to God and deepening His relationship with Him.
Sure, material gifts may delight for a time but the inner peace of contentment satisfies forever.
Mathag sums it all up rather nicely when he comments that
‘Rather than happiness in its mundane sense, [blessed] refers to the deep inner joy of those who have long awaited the salvation promised by God and who now begin to experience its fulfilment’
The poor in spirit, therefore, are happy and contented because their attitude of heart secures for them the right of entry into the Kingdom of Heaven (5:3). Similarly, the persecuted for Christ’s sake can be content with their lot in life simply because it shows them that they stand in the line of the great men and women of faith who have gone before them (5:11-12).
Happy, contented, fortunate, inwardly joyful, satisfied - these are all words that colour our understanding of what it means to be ‘blessed’, but the possession of material gain is far from Jesus’ intention here.
The Old Testament, the Apocrypha and the Dead Sea Scrolls
The beatitudes were by no means an uncommon form of instruction in Judaism and Jesus is not coining some great new literary form or religious teaching method by speaking to the crowds in such a form.
Even in the OT, beatitudes are scattered through the text (most of which occur in the poetic books of Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) but what is often different about them here is that, although Jesus specifically outlined the cause for the person’s blessedness, in the OT it is often lacking (I Kings 10:8, II Chron 9:7, Ps 1:1, 2:12, 32:1-2, 33:12, 34:8, 40:4, 84:5-6, 106:3, 119:1-2, 128:1, 137:8-9, 144:15, Prov 8:32, Eccles 10:17, Is 30:18).
Although a definite reason sometimes could be affixed from verses which follow after the initial attribution of blessedness in the verses cited (see, for instance, Ps 1:1 and the reason for blessedness which could be affixed from 1:3), they are not necessarily obvious and the punchiness of Jesus’ words bring it home to the listener immediately why it is the person is considered to be blessed.
On a couple of occasions, though, the exact form of the beatitude which Jesus uses is displayed for the reader to see. In Prov 3:13-14, we read that
‘Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gets understanding, for the gain from it is better than gain from silver and its profit better than gold’
but the only other direct parallel in the OT contains the additional alternative consequence of those who are negatively blessed when it records (Prov 8:34-36 - my italics) that
‘Happy is the man who listens to me [that is, Wisdom], watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For he who finds me finds life and obtains favour from the Lord; but he who misses me injures himself; all who hate me love death’
Even though there are a couple of direct parallels here in the OT, the brevity and direct statements of Jesus make it easier for the hearers to retain the actual wording, even though the OT give explanations which seem to define the way in which the Scripture has to be understood. With Jesus’ words (notably 5:4) there are various interpretations which can be placed upon the text and the meaning is not necessarily easily discernible.
I could only find two occurrences of beatitudes in the Apocrypha but they’re quite illuminating. In the Wisdom of Solomon (attributed to a composition date of 150-50BC and therefore closer to the time of Jesus than any OT Scripture), there stand two beatitudes following on from one another. They read (3:13-14)
‘Blessed is the barren woman who is undefiled, who has not entered into a sinful union; she will have fruit when God examines the soul
‘Blessed also is the eunuch whose hands have done no lawless deed, and who has not devised wicked things against the Lord; for special favour will be shown him for his faithfulness’
and bear most of the hallmarks of the type of beatitude which Jesus used with two main distinctive variations. First, the person to whom the attribution is affixed, though referred to just once, is defined twice in accordance with the deeds that they have committed as being deserving of the reason for blessing which subsequently follows. This may indicate the legality of the reward - that is, blessedness is considered to be the wages due for a life that is acceptable to God because of the things that have been performed.
This shouldn’t be pushed too far, however, for the paucity of references in the Apocrypha do not warrant such a far reaching conclusion, but the contrast with Jesus’ beatitudes is significant. Only in Mtw 5:6 could a ‘work’ be defined but, even here, it is more in keeping with an attitude of heart rather than a demonstrable act.
The only place where a list of beatitudes occur is Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 25:7-9 (attributable to a date of c.180BC) where there is no defining reason for being blessed just as in most of the OT passages. The form is also different to the list of Jesus’ beatitudes and ‘Blessed’ does not prefix each statement.
Contemporary with the time of Christ however, are the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) and a list of beatitudes are recorded on scroll 4Q525:1-6 translated in Fitzmeyer (page 118). I shan’t quote the entire passage here but the form of the beatitudes parallels the OT closely by pronouncing blessedness upon an individual without giving any reason for it as Jesus does.
Here, though, righteous deeds are not necessarily being taught as being the reason for the blessedness of the individual as they were in the Apocrypha’s Wisdom of Solomon.
Therefore, although beatitudes can be shown to be a literary form stretching back into Jewish history, the actual structure is somewhat varied and cannot be tied down to a formula that had to be adhered to for the statement to be considered as a beatitude.
Jesus’ statements, therefore, are not unique in many areas - such as the listing of many beatitudes together, the prefixing of the word translated ‘blessed’, the definition of the person to whom the blessedness is ascribed as being apart from a work of the Law or in the reason being given for the blessedness which follows both the pronouncement of blessedness and the definition of the one blessed.
Perhaps the only definite point that can be made about the passage is that it places Jesus into His time as a Jew speaking to Jews who was using a format which was known and used in the nation of His day.
On other occasions (Luke 6:20-23), Jesus veiled His statements behind words which weren’t defined (the ‘poor’ of 6:20 rather than the ‘poor in spirit’ and the ‘hungry’ of 6:21 rather than ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’) so that the beatitudes became similar to His parables (Mtw 13:10-17) - able to reveal Truth to those who were seeking it but having the capacity to hide it from those who had grown weary of listening.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
One of the dangers of accepting Luke 6:20-49 as being a concise version of the same discourse recorded for us in Matthew is that it throws up the necessity of having to choose between which version is the more original and, therefore, accurate.
For instance, in the present case in question, would we need to think of Matthew’s
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit...’
as being an explanation added to Jesus’ briefer words in Luke of
‘Blessed are you poor...’
or has Luke precised what Matthew has recorded more accurately?
Mathag seems, at first glance, to accept the former with all the implications this will give us as to the correct interpretation but goes on to conceive of both ‘poor’ and ‘poor in spirit’ as being virtually the same, the former referring to material scarcity while the latter is taken to indicate spiritual wealth [sic] noting that
‘...poverty and piety often went together...’
More especially though, he notes (my italics) that the phrase
‘”the poor in spirit”...refers to the frame of mind characteristic of the literally poor. Thus, by the added “in spirit”, Matthew or the tradition before him has not “spiritualised” the Lukan (and probably original) form of the beatitude...He too means the literally poor, but he focuses on their psychological condition or frame of mind. The poor are almost always poor in spirit; the poor in spirit are almost always the poor (cf Bauer...who notes that the two phrases were synonymous in the Judaism of Jesus’ time)’
His equation that
materially poor=poor in spirit
is so inaccurate a statement as to warrant the question whether he’s actually read the passage accurately enough and whether, perhaps, he’s more concerned to equate a natural phenomenon with a spiritual one. As I noted above, Matthew pointed out that parables were told in order to both hide and reveal Truth from listeners and, in the record of Luke 6:20, it sits very easily that Jesus is meaning more than those lacking physical possessions will receive a Kingdom because of no better qualification than that they have very little in this world that they can call their own.
His equation is, therefore, inaccurate and, as will be seen below, if we understand the phrase ‘poor in spirit’ correctly, it is not true that the materially poor are normally ‘poor in spirit’. Certainly, in the area of poverty that my wife and I once lived and amongst the area in which I once joined with others to reach with the Gospel, the materially poor could rarely ever be said to be ‘poor in spirit’ and inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven - especially as we were the only ones amongst them who were christians!
But other commentators make an equal mistake by diving in to the phrase ‘poor in spirit’ without first attempting to define what the phrase meant in the time of Christ. As far as I’m aware, there is only one other place in first century Jewish literature where the phrase ‘poor in spirit’ occurs and that is in the Dead Sea Scrolls (if they’re accepted as being first century!) in the War Rule (1QM 14) where the returning victorious army sing the ‘Psalm of return’ and, the following morning, go back out onto the battle field to take up their original positions of the previous day before the battle was enjoined.
There, they rejoice in unison and praise the name of the Lord who has given them such a victory and proclaim that
‘...Among the poor in spirit [there is power] over the hard of heart, and by the perfect of way all the nations of wickedness have come to an end...’
These two separate phrases declare opposites which are being contrasted. In the latter, those who have a way of living that is perfect before the Lord triumph over those who are considered to be wicked and, in the former, the poor in spirit find power over the hard of heart.
What the phrase ‘poor in spirit’ seems to mean, therefore, is the antithesis of ‘hard of heart’ and, if this holds true for the rest of Judaism and is not just a specialised meaning attributable to the group who produced these scrolls, a similar meaning must be inherent within Jesus’ words in Mtw 5:3, so that the people would have been able to understand what Jesus is actually saying with clarity. After all, there are no other OT or NT passages which use this phrase, so a Biblical definition is not altogether possible.
But what does this ‘hardness of heart’ actually mean? In the NT, there a number of passages which hint at a meaning.
When Jesus was about to heal a man with a withered hand, he turned to those present, knowing that their religion taught them that to do such a thing was tantamount to disobedience to God and asked them to make the decision themselves, saying (Mark 3:4)
‘Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’
but they remained silent, being unwilling to change their interpretation of the commandment regarding rest on the sabbath (Ex 20:8-11) in which they understood work to encompass even the work of God. Therefore Jesus (Mark 3:5 - my italics)
‘...looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand”. He stretched it out, and his hand was restored’
Again, when Jesus had risen from the dead and subsequently appeared to His disciples, He (Mark 16:14)
‘...upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw Him after He had risen’
So convinced had they been that Jesus could not have risen from the dead, that they refused any testimony which proclaimed it to be any different, hardness of heart being tied in with unbelief here also.
Finally, the phrase ‘hardness of heart’ also occurs in Mark 10:5 in a response to a Pharisaic question as to whether it was lawful to divorce one’s wife. Jesus’ response was not standard Rabbinic teaching - even though some of the rabbis would have sided with Jesus’ interpretation - and He explains the giving of the commandment as being a result of the Israelites’
‘...hardness of heart’
That is, Moses allowed divorce at that time simply because He was not expecting the nation to change. In other words, it was concession - though legislated to make sure that sin was removed from its practice - because of the unbending nature and attitude of the Israelites at that time. There was coming a time when no grounds would be justifiable for divorce save adultery (Mtw 5:31-32) but, because that time had not yet come, the legislation was written. But it certainly didn’t command divorce as some of the Pharisees taught.
By contrast, therefore, though the hard of heart are a people who remain unmoved to the movings and words of God and who choose to live out their own will throughout their experience, the poor in spirit are those who remain pliable to the Lord, who have not set themselves fast into a way of living that they will not turn from regardless of the things that are brought before them.
So, the consequence for the poor in spirit’s willingness to change is that they find, in their change, they gain entry into the Kingdom of Heaven because they lay aside those ways of living which they carry out when they hear the good news of the Gospel delivered to them through Christ.
The commentators, as noted above, seem to have missed the point of Jesus’ words and, apart from Matfran who takes the DSS passage no further than merely citing its existence, go on from a literalistic interpretation of the phrase to define what is best included in the third beatitude (5:5 - see below where they have been quoted with their comments on this section but applying to ‘meekness’).
But pliability or changeability seems to be what Jesus has in mind here and, as such, it makes a fitting introduction to the series of beatitudes which outline the necessary characteristics of the believer.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted
Although we found a point of reference in the Dead Sea Scrolls for us to be able to define what the phrase ‘poor in spirit’ meant in the preceding beatitude, we have nothing here that automatically reveals to us the meaning and intention of Jesus’ words.
Even if we were to take the beatitude in Luke’s Gospel (which we discussed previously and concluded that the passage was not the same discourse but a different one given on a separate occasion), we would do no better, for Luke 6:21 is substantially different, recording the words
‘Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh’
throwing, perhaps, a different interpretation on the beatitude than was uttered at the time of Matthew’s discourse.
Even an appeal to OT Scriptures fail to improve our interpretation and the commentator’s suggestions of a parallel passage in Is 61:1-2, partially quoted (or ‘read’ would be better for He was referring to the Isaiah scroll) by Jesus in the record of His visit to Nazareth in Luke 4:16-30, tell us only that the Servant of the Lord was to
‘...comfort all who mourn’
without defining for us what type of mourning is here in mind. I have said this above previously - but it is worth repeating - that the parables of Christ were given to the multitudes who followed after Him so that those who were seeking the Truth would find it, but that those who had already grown hard of hearing would not (Mtw 13:10-17). Many of them will have heard the parable of the sower and only perceived it on a natural and purely superficial level, wondering why a sower going out to sow seeds on various soil types had anything to do with the Kingdom of Heaven.
All very quaint stories, no doubt, but was that what they’d come out from their homes to hear? Obviously the reputation of this preacher had to have been blown up out of all proportion for, although they heard and understood His words, they would have failed to have perceived their spiritual meaning unless they had either come to Him privately for an explanation (Mtw 13:10, 36) or took the teaching away with them in their memories and thought about it.
This is similar to what must have taken place regarding the first three recorded beatitudes in Luke’s account of a speech (Luke 6:20-21) and what was definitely the case in this current one which can mean just about anything we’d like to make it out to say!
The danger, though, is to take it literally and so see in Jesus’ words no more than a reference to those who are sorrowful through bereavement, sadness of heart, depression, material loss or some other phenomenon known to man and then fail to grasp the full implications of Jesus’ intent.
If Jesus is only saying that those who are sad will one day be cheered up, we are doing no more than those who came to Jesus to hear the parables and who only went away with the literal words and storyline which could not possibly have benefited them. After all, it stands to reason that the sad will, one day, no longer be sad!
Mathag, following on from the previous beatitude, notes that
‘...we find the eschatological expectation of the downtrodden and poor, those who suffer’
interpreting their mourning in terms of
‘...the seeming slowness of God’s justice’
At least Mathag here equates sorrow with something spiritual, but his understanding of the passage is more centred in the mourners’ expectation that God will move either on their behalf or for others who are being unrighteously suppressed, looking to God to go against the naturally oppressing foe and deliver them, restoring their peace of mind and settling their sorrow into serenity and comfort.
But Jesus did not come to deliver His people Israel, for instance, from the hand of the oppressing Roman armies as the Jews would have liked - He rather came to deliver the believer from those things which oppress them within, demonstrated through the removal and expulsion of demonic forces wherever He travelled.
If man’s worst enemies are within (Mark 7:14-23), then it is from within that a man must be delivered. And, if there is true sorrow of heart then it must be based upon what one sees as the Truth about oneself on the inside and the desire to be free from those enemies, rather than sorrow within an external situation which God is now going to move upon and expel.
There is no point God changing a situation that we find ourselves in if, on the inside, we find ourselves unchanged. Just as the Israelites were delivered from Egypt and yet remained true to the character of Egypt within themselves, so too there needs to be a change within a believer initially characterised by a godly sorrow which grieves over the state of one’s life before Him.
Therefore we shouldn’t be going too far wrong if we interpret the mourners here as being grieved over the results of sin or of sin itself, and Jesus’ words will relate to two specific types of mourning that are acceptable to God:
1. Godly grief over our own sin and way of life
Just as Isaiah exclaimed (Is 6:5)
‘Woe is me! For I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips’
and David (Ps 51:1,4)
‘Have mercy on me, O God...for I know my transgressions...against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned’
so, too, the believer needs to face up to the truth about Himself and not put to one side to ignore those areas of His life that are displeasing to God. There is a sense in which the believer needs to mourn and be sorrowful for those things in his own life that set him aside from being fully pleasing to God and so find comfort from God in His dealing with the problems recognised.
2. Godly grief over another’s sin
Paul found that, instead of raging anger aimed at those who were living as enemies of the cross and yet had the name of ‘brother’ (though he did experience anger on occasions), he mourned (II Cor 12:21) because, although they had sinned, they had not chosen to repent of their ways and doings.
This attitude is paralleled in the OT in Ps 119:136 where the writer confesses that
‘My eyes shed streams of tears because men do not keep Thy law’
There is a need, therefore, for believers to mourn and feel sadness over those who continue to choose to live a life that is opposed to the will of God. This cannot be forced upon them but God will comfort these people in that they see the repentance of God’s enemies and their turning from disobedience to service of God (see also Ezek 9:4, Deut 9:18, Num 16:4).
This should only be taken as a secondary interpretation of the beatitude in as much as repentance relies upon a correct freewill response from each individual man and woman (see 'Repentance' here). Primarily, then, sorrow over personal sin is much more likely to be comforted with power to transform the individual because, by that sorrow, conviction of sin, recognition of unworthiness and a turning to God for forgiveness and change are already present.
II Cor 7:10 is the central passage with which to understand this beatitude where we read Paul as saying that
‘...Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death’
a verse which pushes us away from a more literalistic interpretation of the beatitude from referring to anyone who is sorrowful to one who is grieved over their sinful condition and actions.
But, it goes further and speaks consequently of repentance as a christian (the entire Sermon on the Mount was spoken to disciples - not unbelievers - as previously noted - Mtw 5:1-2), of feeling sorrow and of turning to God for forgiveness and change.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth
Because the phrase ‘poor in spirit’ (Mtw 5:3) is understood in terms which are an interpretation of a literalistic understanding of the phrase, the description ‘meek’ which occurs here is taken to mean virtually the same thing by most commentators.
Therefore Mathen states that
‘There is very little difference between being “poor in spirit” and being “meek”. Nevertheless, there is a slight distinction, namely this, that the first designation describes the man more as he is in himself, namely, broken-hearted; whereas the second pictures him more definitely in his relation to God and the fellow-man’
but these demarcations are purely arbitrary. As I noted under my comments on 5:3, the War Scroll of the DSS indicates that the phrase ‘poor in spirit’ was not a phrase which was taken literally in first century Judaism but a term which indicated that the person was pliable to God, useful for His service and, therefore, the opposite of what it meant to be hard-hearted.
By an extension of this characteristic (even though the link is somewhat tenuous), the commentators’ interpretation of the phrase ‘poor in spirit’ could mean what they normally hold it to mean, but the underlying concept is of pliability not meekness.
The meek, then, as Mattask notes
‘...are those who humble themselves before God because they acknowledge their utter dependence upon Him’
but this should not be taken to mean that the meek are those disciples who have no resources at their own disposal and so have to be meek because they can do nothing else (apart from getting depressed about it, that is! I’m sure that some depressive illness can be seen to be rooted in the person’s lack of potency in the face of powers and situations that will not change. Though, in Christ, it does not follow that everything we don’t like will be removed or altered, we know that there is power from God to effectively change those things which are a hindrance - but peace and contentment to tolerate those things which shall remain for the time being).
As Matmor comments
‘Meekness is quite compatible with great strength and ability as humans measure strength, but whatever strength or weakness the meek person has is accompanied by humility and a genuine dependence on God. True meekness may be a quality of the strong, those who could assert themselves but choose not to do so’
Therefore, meekness is not a natural characteristic of a life which is at the lower end of the material scale for a person may still live independently by their own strengths rather than look to the One who requires to be all things to all men. By contrast, the richest man on earth may be meek if he chooses to live before God in utter and total dependence upon Him rather than to live from his own self-sufficiency, authority and power.
When we come to a fuller understanding of what that means with regard to a relationship with God or how one can develop a correct relationship with Him, the words of the commentators concerning their interpretation of the ‘poor in spirit’ in 5:3 are relevant here.
Meekness before God is displayed in a believer’s honesty to face up to the facts regarding the paucity of their own spiritual life and their willingness to both change and be changed. These are the people who have nothing to rely on with which to gain acceptance before God unlike the self-righteous, the ‘proud’ and the self-sufficient.
Contrasting these two ways of living, Jesus told the parable of the publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 where the former found acceptance before God because of his willingness to throw himself onto the mercy of God, knowing that, in himself, he had nothing that he could appeal to in order to gain Divine acceptance. The Pharisee, however, thought that his life was really pretty neat and deserving of special attention by God - but, being proud of his own self-effort, he failed to gain acceptance.
So, when Jesus came with a Gospel which undermined their interpretation of the Law and which chipped away (or, rather, removed altogether) their importance as interpreters of the Law with all that meant, they naturally rejected the purposes of God for themselves (Luke 7:30 - this refers primarily to John the Baptist) for, to do otherwise, would have undermined their own unique position over the nation of Israel.
Peter also came to terms with his own unworthiness before Jesus from an early point in his service (Luke 5:8) but it was this recognition of his spiritual barrenness that caused Peter to be willing to be changed to be the type of person that he was required to become. Having said that, there still remained hardness in Peter’s life that was finally broken through by the experience of his denial the night before the crucifixion (see the notes here).
It is this recognition of the need for change that characterises the meek, for they are continually aware of their own incapabilities and of their need for God to act on their behalf.
As Mattask notes (I have changed ‘poor in spirit’ to ‘meek’ to prevent the reader from getting confused. All these quotes come from the relevant parts of their commentaries which deal with the first of the beatitudes at 5:3)
‘...[the meek realise that they] can do no good thing without divine assistance, and...they have no power in themselves to help them do what God requires them to do’
‘...they are the ones who have become convinced of their spiritual poverty’
and Matmor that they are
‘...those who recognise that they are completely and utterly destitute in the realm of the spirit. They recognise their lack of spiritual resources and therefore their complete dependence on God...[they are] people who have nothing, no resource but God’
There must come a time in a person’s life when their own efforts to be ‘someone’ are broken so that they no longer rely upon their own ability to enrich themselves and so turn to God for their righteousness (for salvation and acceptance before God) and, in general, His provision.
In the life of Moses, the man who was recorded as being the meekest man on earth in his day (Num 12:3 - did Moses actually write this?!!), this recognition of his own inability to do what he wanted, came in his failure in Egypt to release his nation Israel (Acts 6:23-29, Ex 2:11-15), Moses being an extremely reluctant hero when God returned to Him to call him for service (Ex 3:11,13, 4:1,10,13). From that time, even when he found himself accused by his own brother and sister, it was God who intervened and justified His servant (Num 12:1-8), though even the meek can be tempted to throw away sound reason (Num 20:10)!
In the context of the spiritual life, then, meekness is not just a realisation of one’s inability to perform what is required, but a turning to God and a reliance upon Him for all the provision that one needs.
This is the reason why many (maybe even ‘the majority’) of conversions occur when a person is going through a crisis experience. It is not until a person comes face to face with the realisation of their own inability to sort themselves out to live a life that is pleasing (not just to God but even to themselves) that they will be willing to look to God for an answer to their predicament.
This beatitude is almost a direct quote from the LXX’s version of Psalm 37:11. This verse should be read in the context of the previous one which completes the meaning by stating (my italics)
‘Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look well at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall possess the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity’
Even though the meek recognise their lack of provision, they are the ones who, in the end, receive the promised inheritance just as here, in this third beatitude, Jesus teaches that they shall inherit the earth. In effect what that means is that there is nothing that will not be made available to them so that they have provision and resource from God for everything that they are needed and need to do.
And yet, eschatologically, the meek will receive everything created for, looking to God and dependent upon Him, they are unlikely to do what is displeasing to Him.
But dependence upon God is the key. Without this, even the initial entry into the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be attained.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied
This beatitude could be read a number of ways due to the alternative translations and interpretations that can be placed upon the Greek word translated as ‘righteousness’ in the RSV. The three options I’ll mention here are
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for right-standing with God...’
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for right-living before God...’
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice...’
As to which is the correct interpretation, one cannot say and, from the other Scriptures which lie scattered through the Bible, each one could be correct. What’s important, then, is to make sure that our interpretation is fully in-keeping with the mission of Christ to Israel.
Mathag, who takes the correct translation to be the third of these, comments (my italics) that
‘In keeping with the preceding [beatitude], the fourth beatitude names the literally hungry and thirsty - that is, the downtrodden and oppressed - who especially hunger and thirst after the justice associated with the coming of God’s eschatological rule...The poor, the grieving and the downtrodden (that is, those who have experienced injustice) are by definition those who long for God to act’
Although the Scripture may be taken to be referring to justice in the context of the coming of God’s Kingdom, Mathag’s wording is just too strong. Perhaps the author knows only the upright poor, grieving and downtrodden in society, but the majority of such people - as well as those who are grieving rich or oppressed people in positions of authority - seem to want nothing more than personal vengeance!
True, God might be one way that they will set about getting their way and of achieving their ends, but the majority of people, I would suggest, want vengeance not justice.
One wonders, also, how a people who are desiring the justice of God to come could ever conceive that the same justice which would throw off the oppressor would not stop at condemning the individual who has also transgressed the Law of God and who lives as an enemy of the requirements of God upon their own lives. Would not the person who realised His own standing and condition before God rather cry ‘Mercy!’ than ‘Justice!’ for, in doing the latter, he will condemn himself (Romans 2:1)? After all, judgment is without mercy to those who show none (James 2:13).
But, having said that, in the cross we do see God’s perfect justice satisfied in Christ where God’s anger is finally satisfied against a rebellious world and where the barriers to a reunion between man and God are removed. Therefore, while ‘justice’ is a possibility as a translation, it does seem to be just a bit too ‘deep’ a meaning to wrap up within Jesus’ intent as He utters this beatitude.
Better, rather, and more relevant to His hearers are surely either one of the other two possibilities which speak either of right-standing with God (the Bible’s ‘justification’ - see my notes here) or of right-living before God.
Mattask uses the definition for justice to see in the beatitude the desire for right-living before God and this may be the case. He notes that the hungry and thirsty
‘...are those who, because they long to see God’s final triumph over evil and His Kingdom fully established, long also to do what is right and just themselves’
This links the two concepts together and Matfran notes that the idea of ‘justification’ (right-standing before God) is possibly not a meaning of the word that the author of the Gospel intends his readers to understand from his use of the Greek word.
Most commentators go along with the idea of desiring to live right before God but Matmor is careful to point out that
‘...[the author] is not suggesting that people can make a strong effort and achieve the righteousness of which he is writing: it is a given righteousness, not an achieved righteousness’
so that, even if we see the fulfilment of desire as achieving a life that is acceptable to God, we should not think that self-effort has made it happen but, rather, that the desire to live right has been met by God who changes individuals to be more like Himself.
However, on the web site previously cited, I discussed briefly the differing interpretations of this word group in the Greek and concluded that it is not always easy to differentiate between the two meanings when the word occurs, even though some would universally take one meaning above the other in nearly all the contexts.
For instance, when we come to Mtw 6:20, it is difficult to choose between the two and both may be equally true. Whichever we choose here, though, could be equally correct with the other we discard - and, indeed, could have been equally meant by Jesus as He taught the multitude of disciples gathered about Him. Though Jesus taught almost certainly in Aramaic rather than Greek, both interpretations are possible as recorded for us in Matthew.
Perhaps the best explanation and interpretation of Jesus’ words here is another Scripture - Is 55:1-3 - where hunger and thirst are said to be satisfied in the making of an everlasting covenant with God. Isaiah proclaims, in the words of God
‘Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David’
so that right-standing with God and not right-living before God will be in mind and the beatitude will be pointing towards the establishing of the New Covenant through the work of Christ in the death, resurrection and ascension which was to take place a few years later.
When a person desires earnestly to get right before God, then, there will come a satisfaction in the life of that individual as they achieve the purpose towards which they’ve set themselves, not because they have the ability of and in themselves, but because God delights to restore men and women into covenant with Himself.
From right-standing must necessarily come right-living as the power of God changes individuals to reflect the person of Christ but, primarily, the thought is here taken to mean that, when individuals earnestly desire a restored relationship with God, they shall find that their target is reached.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy
As I noted above in the previous parable, the danger of desiring justice to be made known throughout our experiences when it is dependent upon the wrongs we’ve suffered is that we find ourselves judged as we ourselves would judge and so fall under the same condemnation when God has to judge - for we do the very same things.
Rather, our call should be for mercy for, in desiring men and women to see the errors of their ways and repent rather than to be judged for their sin and be punished, we find that the mercy which we would bestow is the very same mercy which we receive.
But a definitive interpretation of the beatitude is far from easy and the parallel passages cited to explain this saying don’t always offer straight forward interpretations, needing some application and change to see them as perfect examples.
The parable of the unjust steward (Mtw 18:23-35) is often cited here but the teaching is that mercy given by another should influence the way an individual shows mercy on their fellow humans who also need mercy from their own hand. The picture of the king is necessarily God in this passage and the unjust steward is expected to bestow mercy and forgiveness upon his fellow servant when it is extended to him from God Himself.
As such, the parable teaches about a correct response of men and women when Divine mercy is received, whereas this beatitude speaks of mercy being given and that, as a consequence, the same mercy will be received.
Mattask puts both together, though, and is quite correct when he says that disciples
‘...endeavour to reflect in their dealings with others something of the mercy God has shown to them; and the more they do so, the more God’s mercy is extended to them’
Although this definitely shows the need for God’s mercy to be received by individuals before it can be reflected from us, it doesn’t actually answer the main teaching of the beatitude.
It is also uncertain whether we should accept Mtw 7:1-2 as paralleling this beatitude where Jesus says (my italics)
‘Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get’
for the idea is to prevent believers from condemning themselves through their condemnation of others. But in Luke 6:37-38, where Jesus once more taught on this subject on a separate occasion, forgiveness is spoken of as being bestowed upon those who forgive and mercy must surely be in mind here also (see additionally Mtw 6:14, James 2:13).
The beatitude, therefore, has to be seen as teaching that God’s bestowal of mercy upon an individual is dependent upon mercy being given to others who live around them. A balance needs to be struck here between, on the one hand, calling upon God to judge sin and bring in righteousness throughout the earth and the bestowal of mercy upon individuals who stand in a wrong relationship with Him.
As believers, how far is it possible to continually show ‘mercy’ towards people who refuse to acknowledge their ways are displeasing to God and who continue to live as enemies of righteousness? Just as it was noted on the web page dealing with Repentance on the area of giving forgiveness to those around us (see my notes on 'Repentance' here), there must be an acknowledgement of personal sin in an individual’s life before they are able to receive effective forgiveness from the people who they’ve wronged.
Therefore the disciples are told to continually forgive their brother when that person shows a willingness to acknowledge their sin (Mtw 17:4) and, in like manner, mercy must be shown when mercy is sought. But to grant mercy to individuals who do not want mercy - and who have decided to live antagonistically against others - is not mercy at all but tolerance.
Neither is Jesus teaching that men and women must show mercy towards those around them before God in Christ will forgive them their sin - as it may be applied to the initial step into the Kingdom - but that, as His disciples give and show mercy to those people, they will find that God will also show them mercy when they turn to Him for forgiveness.
Mercy imparted to those around us who need us to show that response to them will effect mercy given by God when we turn to Him for a similar response and in a similar situation.
The work of God therefore seems to be implied in the last phrase for it would be wrong of us and going too far to expect that the world would respond to us with mercy when we show mercy to its ways. This, surely, is not the point for the world judges harshly those who have previously shown mercy (just lift up some of the more popular newspapers and gossip columns to witness this truth!) and what we gain from the world’s hand is not representative of what we bestow upon it.
The saying, then, does not hold true in each and every situation and a response of mankind in requesting mercy must be present before mercy can be effectively bestowed. Turning a blind eye to the sin and offence of society is certainly not mercy and only allows Christ to go without witness in the world - but putting our resentments to one side when approached for mercy is necessary and fitting for a follower of Jesus Christ.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
Although the heart in modern day society is more associated with the emotions and feelings, first century Jews understood this organ of the human body more as the centrality of the human individual and the seat and origin of those things which came out through them.
There are other concepts that the heart was used for but, when we look at Mark 7:20-23, we get some idea of the problem in mankind when we read of Jesus as instructing His disciples that
‘What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man’
and, in Mtw 12:34, that it is
‘...out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’
Although our present day humanistic interpretations would see men and women as pretty good people with just a few negative traits that sit on the peripheral of the person they are, the Bible is not frightened to say that the problem with mankind is not those things that happen to them but what springs up from within their very person.
The heart, then, needs dealing with - which it is in Christ - and the Scriptures outline Christ’s work where we read of the old nature being crucified with its passions and desires (Rom 6:6, Gal 5:24). However, this is not what is being spoken of here even though it’s tempting to see an allusion to what was to be made available to believers after the cross and resurrection.
Instead, we would not be going too far wrong if we understand the phrase ‘pure in heart’ to be referring to those who have a singleness of purpose and intention concerning the things of God. Therefore James writes that the believers (James 4:8) are to
‘...Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind’
the use of the typology of the hand being associated with being a sinner and, therefore, of what is done in the body, our deeds, whereas purification of the heart is associated with those who are of a double-mind and so caught between at least two options (the same dual use of hands and heart are used by the psalmist in Ps 24:3-4).
This was also the case in the lives of the Israelites of Elijah’s day and, when he’d gathered them together along with the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel, challenged them (I Kings 18:21)
‘...How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Ba’al, then follow him...’
Purity of heart, therefore, is to have a singleness of purpose in our intentions in a specific area of our lives or in a particular situation in which we find ourselves. This purity of heart was necessarily to be a requirement of those who believed (I Tim 1:5, II Tim 2:22) but, amongst those whom Jesus met, it was a problem that resurfaced its head on regular occasions (John 6:66, Mtw 8:18-22) and which Jesus was to return to (Luke 14:25-33) for there are certain affairs in the lives of men and women which pull away from a pure and sincere devotion to God.
But God requires purity of heart - that is, a singleness of commitment to both Himself and His ways if He is to be able to use the believer effectively. Barclay is right when he paraphrases the beatitude as
‘...Blessed are those whose motives are absolutely unmixed, whose minds are utterly sincere, who are completely and totally single-minded’
but, far from Jesus going on to talk about God being able to use the believer who is single-minded, He speaks of this trait as being the requirement of being able to see God.
A singleness of purpose, therefore, leads the disciple on to be able to see God - and therein lies His blessedness - but this also needs some clarification. Perhaps the best Scripture to illuminate Jesus’ meaning is Heb 11:27 where it says of Moses (my italics) that
‘By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible’
Heblane interprets the italicised phrase as
‘he kept seeing continually’
‘The emphasis...falls not on endurance but on continually seeing, as it were, the unseen God...The reference is not to the awesome event at the burning bush...but to a fixed habit of spiritual perception’
and Hebbruce that
‘...Moses’ lifelong vision of God was the secret of his faith and perseverance’
We aren’t looking at some momentary and once-only vision or manifestation that Moses carried with himself throughout his life but a continuing perception which caused him to be able to witness God’s hand moving in situations even when it was not apparent that God was present.
The man of God, then, who has singleness of purpose and unswerving commitment to follow after God will necessarily see God move in situations when others fail to see Him, for His eyes are set upon His presence continually.
There is still an eschatological hope but it is best not to take it as Jesus’ original intention. In I John 3:2-3, for example, purity of life now is tied up with seeing God as He is in the future where the apostle writes
‘...we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And every one who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure’
and, in Rev 22:3-4, if taken as literally to be fulfilled at some point in the future as it appears to need to be, tells us (my italics) that
‘There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall worship Him; they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads’
Although there is necessarily hope for the future, Jesus is taken to be teaching about the present. The pure in heart, therefore, are the disciples who have singleness of purpose in following after the ways of God and, to a great extent, of following after God Himself, will be the people who will witness God moving in situations when others, less committed, will not.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God
In Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ (which I saw on it’s opening night in London with John Cleese present - and, I hasten to add, before I ever became a christian), I remember one of the crowd standing at the very back when the Sermon on the Mount was being delivered and mishearing this beatitude as ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers...’, his acquaintance standing close by explaining that it wasn’t just cheesemakers that were being referred to but all people who made dairy products.
Sometimes I wonder whether these little quips sometimes tell us more about the way we interpret the words of Christ than the most intricate of commentaries can, for each of us seem to get understanding from them that, often times, is against the overall thrust of Scripture and, at others, Truth which stands alongside other teaching that we enjoy fighting over to determine the correct meaning.
As the reader will have seen above, there are often a number of correct interpretations that are possible from any single beatitude and, as such, they often act as parabolic in nature, seemingly revealing Truth to those who are seeking it and hiding it away from those who have grown hard of hearing.
This beatitude is, again, open to many interpretations and, if we interpret it to say that, for instance, members of CND are to be called the sons of God, we would going to one extreme and interpreting Jesus’ words in the light of our own humanistic ideas and beliefs. Besides, the movement associated with nuclear disarmament is more concerned with the removal of nuclear weapons than it can be of the introduction of peace - the removal of weapons does not automatically found the nations on peace, it just propels them into different types of war, for man’s problem is what comes from within him, not those peripherals which lie on the outside (Mark 7:14-23).
But, if Jesus is pointing towards all types of peacemakers, then the politician who makes a deal with groups of people to bring about a settlement to take war off the streets would have to be considered as being a son of God even if that politician was more concerned with humanistic principles than they were about the message of the Gospel. And that holds for just about every situation where peace is ‘made’ by the intervention of individuals.
Mathag sees in Jesus’ words a direct comment on the political Jewish movement (known as ‘the Zealots’) who attempted to bring about a peace throughout the nation by the forceful overthrow of the occupying Roman forces. He comments that
‘The Zealots by their militarism hoped furthermore to demonstrate that they were the loyal “sons of God”’
but such an interpretation is very limited in its scope and is reading too much into the Zealots’ importance. After all, Jesus doesn’t actually condemn the Zealots by His words but simply says that peacemakers shall be called the sons of God, leaving the interpretation open that the movement could use Jesus’ words to justify their own objectives (as some of the more militant anti-war political movements of today also do).
Indeed, there are a multitude of varying interpretations and self-justifications that one can get from this beatitude.
What’s needed here, therefore, is some boundary for our understanding of this beatitude and it seems to lie in the actual word that occurs here (Strongs Greek number 1518), the only place where it’s used throughout the NT. The verb form, however, occurs in Col 1:19-20 (Strongs Greek number 1517) where we read (my italics).
‘For in [Jesus] all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross’
If we are to take this verb as a direct interpretation of the meaning of Jesus in Mtw 5:9, we can see that what is primarily in mind is reconciliation with God not any type of peace-making which could be brought about in all types of areas of mankind’s experience.
Both types of peacemaking, however, will naturally be different, for Christ is the one who provides the way for peace to be brought through the sacrifice of Himself and believers are people who apply that victory into the situations around themselves. Therefore Paul notes (II Cor 5:18-19)
‘All this [the new creation] is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation’
Jesus words should therefore be seen to primarily refer to the peace which comes about when a man stands in the gap between God and his fellow man and effects peace and reconciliation between them. Of course, this is looking at the matter before the cross so the full extent of the meaning would have been concealed until the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2.
A secondary meaning - and one that seems to be applicable in certain situations as an ‘extra’ to Jesus’ meaning - is that the disciples have the ability to reconcile men to each other (as Mattask) but, to be able to bring about this peace, one must first be at peace with God so that the peace imparted into the situation is the peace which has already been received from God Himself, neither a tolerance nor even any settlement which demands a stand off rather than true harmonious relationships.
But to apply this beatitude to every situation where a peace (whether that be defined as an absence from war or a tolerance of differing factions) is made does not seem to be the intent of Jesus’ words.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Both in this beatitude and the following one, we hit on a problem within the Church that has yet to be successfully resolved. For some reason, we delight in finding Scriptures to justify ourselves without always allowing the words to hit home with the true meaning and intention of the original.
This Scripture is one of those - along with the following - which is often quoted and cited when the believer is going through a rough time and is looking for some comfort for all the trouble that’s coming their way.
So the boss decides to have a verbal diatribe at us for no good reason and just about everyone we ring up seems to want to stand their ground and not give us what we’re requesting - no matter how nice we’re being.
Therefore, we say, we know what it must be like to be persecuted and that, even now, satan is attacking us because he recognises that we’re children of God and won’t let us be. But we need to examine the contents and reasons for the animosity directed at us in these situations.
Although it may be true that certain things befall us because some spiritual force is attacking the serenity of our walk with the Lord, that does not justify our belief that we are being
‘...persecuted for righteousness’ sake...’
just because we think we are. Difficult situations and problems are the lot of all men and women and they are hardly likely to be able to claim that their tribulations are the result of being persecuted because of their right-standing before God or of their right-living - even though some, with a small amount of religious upbringing do, indeed, see it in these terms.
Should we assert, for instance, that the Kurds are the fulfilment of this beatitude seeing as they’re being persecuted (or so the Western media tell us) by the massed forces of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi nation? If being persecuted is solely the meaning of Jesus’ words, just about anyone and everyone will fall under His comments at one time of their life or other and a few of us at most times in our lives if we are affiliated to some organisation or other.
Sure, people may be persecuted but that does not necessarily mean that they are being persecuted ‘for righteousness’ sake’, a clause which pushes us towards the interpretation that something is being directed at us which is a result of our walk with God rather than at a generalisation of the things we do or could even be a result of the person who shouts at us through not having had enough sleep the night before or because their cat has just died!
There is a sense in which the bad living will be condemned by the people who have a purer lifestyle and, though we shouldn’t press Paul’s words too much, II Tim 3:12-13 certainly seems to imply this phenomena when it says that
‘...all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived’
without defining the persecution of ‘godly living’ as being a reaction to the presence of God but, rather, the lifestyle and deeds of someone who would always attempt to do what is right. There are many in this world who try to live a morally upright life (even though their morals are not always based upon the character of God) and, along with christians, they will be the brunt of many a joke and of many a condemnatory word because of their ‘squeaky clean’ image.
Even these - that is, those outside Christ - will find that things don’t always go well for them in the world because of the reaction from those around them who hate to see a way of living that calls themselves to account for the way that they themselves live.
But this is not ‘righteousness’ as Jesus outlines it. As Mathen notes
‘The persecution to which Jesus refers does not spring from purely social, racial, economic or political causes, but is rooted in religion [sic - I would prefer ‘a relationship with God for ‘religion’ has come to mean just a series of beliefs that are often devoid of any real knowledge of God being more knowledge about Him]’
There is much that happens in the world that, although a demonstration of the evil trying to overcome the good, is not a direct fulfilment of this beatitude which sees those of Jesus’ disciples being persecuted for righteousness’ sake and so having a right to the Kingdom of Heaven..
As Matmor notes
‘[Jesus] does not speak of persecution as such, but of persecution for the sake of righteousness’
and this is the context in which we must define persecution. In the following beatitude we will see persecution defined in terms which relate to the person of Christ, but here we’re looking at a type of persecution which stands separate and distinct.
Just as in 5:6, we are stuck between two interpretations of ‘righteousness’ - Jesus could be translated as saying either that persecution will come about because of the disciple’s right-standing before God or of his right-living because of God’s call upon him. Matmor is probably correct when he notes that both are almost certainly in mind, stating that
‘Jesus is speaking of those committed to God’s cause, and righteousness [that is, right-living] is the kind of conduct appropriate for those who have been given right standing before God’
The reason for the persecution, then, is a result of the disciple’s relationship with God - not a private relationship from which no change can be observed by those around him, but one that is demonstrable and obvious by his acquaintances.
Matfran is sufficiently vague but accurate when he summarises righteousness as indicating
‘...a whole orientation of life towards God and His will’
and Mattask probably too specific in his comments that
‘Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake suffer solely because they uphold God’s standards of truth, justice and purity, and refuse to compromise with paganism or bow the knee to idols that men tend to erect as substitutes for God.
But, what we must guard ourselves against is the idea that, somehow, all those things that befall us as ordinary men and women are somehow a sort of ‘persecution for righteousness’ sake’ so that we justify our own lives as being pleasing before God, persecution being the proof positive that we must be following after the will of God in Christ.
Problematical situations happen to all people not just to disciples of Christ, but those who are genuinely persecuted because they have chosen to live out their right-standing before God by right-living, will have the Kingdom of Heaven as their right because the Kingdom is demonstrated when God gets His will done on earth as it is in Heaven (Mtw 6:10).
Those who do such things are an affront to the way of man.
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you
These two verses are often taken by commentators as not belonging to the eight beatitudes which precede them and it can easily be seen why. The punchiness of the words and the structure is lacking in this statement by Jesus and, instead of the generalisation ‘Blessed are the [third party]...’ there is the more direct ‘Blessed are you...’ which lays the application directly at the disciples’ door.
But the structure of the beatitude is here, however, and the consequence of the experience is outlined in the second of the two verses.
It’s also felt to be a much neater and tighter framework to have eight beatitudes which both start and end with the promise that the recipients possess the Kingdom of Heaven (5:3,10), but allowing these two verses (5:11-12) to stand alone does segregate them into their own section which cannot be joined to the following four verses for dissimilarity.
Some commentators also count the beatitudes as just eight but assimilate these words into the eighth beatitude, noting that both refer to persecution and are, therefore, two aspects of the same intention, as if Jesus is expounding the final beatitude to bring application to His hearers.
But, as I’ve previously said, these words do bear the hallmarks of what is labelled as a beatitude on its own devoid of any association with what precedes it - even more so than some of the OT verses that are cited which only have a ‘Blessed’ and a first clause without giving any promise associated with the people who fulfil the conditions of the definition.
Besides, although these two beatitudes are similar in that they both deal with persecution, they are also dissimilar in that the former deals with persecution ‘for righteousness’ sake’ while here we are considering the specific persecution of association with Christ. The reward is also dissimilar so that we must necessarily interpret them differently.
As I noted above, the first of these two beatitudes speaks about the persecution that comes about because of both right-standing and, subsequently, right-living before God. Though that must necessarily be in view here, the persecution which comes is a direct result not of right-living but of proximity and closeness to Jesus. While 5:10 emphasised being persecuted for doing what was right in God’s eyes, 5:11-12 emphasises more being persecuted for being a follower of Christ regardless of action on the part of the believer.
As will be seen as we look at the words used by Jesus, actions will go hand in hand in a believer’s life and will reap persecution but the words read at first glance seem to imply the state of being a disciple of Christ rather than being a response to right-living.
‘Revile’ (Strongs Greek number 3679) means, in general terms, ‘abuse’, Kittels defining it as
‘to bring reproaches or complaints’
These indicate general insults made towards believers in order to discredit them and may take the form of slander though this is specifically mentioned in the third of the words used by Jesus.
‘Persecute’ (Strongs Greek number 1377) is the same word employed in the previous beatitude and so the meaning is likely to be similar. The root meaning is ‘to pursue’ (Kittels giving the meaning ‘to follow zealously’) and, therefore, the idea seems to be the continual chase after a believer in order to harass and ‘persecute’ them.
‘Utter all kinds of evil against you falsely’ is a phrase which gives a good indication of the outworking of both previous words. The last word here is often taken as being not part of the original manuscript of Matthew but it is difficult to determine whether this should be the case and, besides, the word seems to only explain the intention of the words which precede it and should really be left.
As Mathen notes
‘...Christians were...called atheists because they did not worship a visible god; Immoral because perforce they would frequently meet in secret places; and unpatriotic because they confessed loyalty to Christ as their King and refused to worship the emperor’
Although the commentator parallels persecution of believers with actions that they were doing and which were deliberately taken to be representative of something else which was considered offensive, the reason for the slander is simply because they are who they are and not what they’re doing (see also John 9:34, 8:41, 8:48), therefore Jesus specifically states that all this comes upon them not because of what they do but simply ‘on My account’ - that is, because of their association and allegiance to Christ.
The believers could have been doing the most innocent of things (as believers still do) but, because those around them have decided to take exception to them, they misinterpret their actions as being tantamount to either being culturally unacceptable or as against the will of their gods. This has been true even of the next move of God within the Church as persecuted by the recipients of the previous move of God and one would have thought that, by now, we would have thought through the implications of this beatitude! But, so it is, much to the Church’s shame.
The apostle Peter said much the same as this beatitude in I Peter 4:14-16 where he wrote
‘If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you...if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God’
giving a reason for Jesus’ statement that disciples can ‘rejoice and be glad’ in the now even though He goes on to put the focus not on their present reality but upon the reward which awaits them at some future time ‘in Heaven’. Even so, the idea of God’s glory resting upon persecuted believers is contained within Jesus’ words that such a persecution befell the prophets of old who were also despised and rejected by the people who called themselves the children of God (Church - please take note!).
Rejoicing is, indeed, difficult when persecution is the disciple’s experience and I don’t claim to have mastered it at all - I haven’t even brushed the surface of what this means! But, if we truly believed in the reward of an afterlife where what we have received in this body is turned around to our eternal advantage and benefit, perhaps we would all be able to endure trial patiently.
Finally, following Peter’s words in his letter, he notes (I Peter 4:15-16) that a believer shouldn’t
‘...suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker’
In other words, persecution cannot rightly be said to have fallen on Christ’s disciples when they find that they are being punished for immoral actions. It can only be truly said to be experienced by believers when they have done nothing wrong and yet are still hounded because of their association with Christ.
The Beatitudes, as I’m sure the reader has begun to realise, are almost, on occasions, on a par with Jesus’ parables which revealed Truth to those who were seeking after God and yet concealed Truth from those who had grown tired of hearing.
Though there are a multitude of different meanings that can be extracted from the text, many of them rely more on humanistic principles which have swept through our society rather than on justifiable and sound Biblical exegesis.
I must confess that I was not looking forward to embarking on the Beatitudes and, having now completed these notes, I am still reluctant to release them for lack of certainty at many points of the text and a feeling that I have made generalisations all too often which will not help the believer come to grips with the intention of Christ’s teaching.
But, on the other hand, perhaps these notes are what are needed for, as one of my friends once said to me
‘There are no shortcuts to spirituality’
and the person who wishes to follow Christ needs to take words such as are found in this list of Beatitudes, think them through in his own mind and let the Holy Spirit apply them as they need to be in a personal way rather than to rely on commentaries such as this one.
Developing a relationship with Christ takes time and our ‘instant fix’ throw away society does nothing to develop the depth of spirituality that is desperately needed in today’s Church if it is ever to rise up to meet the need of communicating the Gospel effectively in this and subsequent generations.
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