by David Flatt
Synopsis: As he guides us in a study of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, David explains the meaning of "blessedness" and the purpose of the Beatitudes.
The first minute of a speech is said to be the most crucial part of a presentation. The presenter will either gain or lose his audience. As Jesus began to preach to the crowd gathered on a hillside in Galilee, he captured their attention by declaring certain characteristics which would bring blessedness and advance the mission of the kingdom.
Most refer to the introduction to Jesus' sermon as the Beatitudes—qualities which will bring happiness. After all, isn't the faith Jesus authored designed to bring our lives happiness? If Jesus intended to make our lives happy, some of the traits He identified seem counterproductive. How can we find happiness through poverty, grief, hunger, and persecution?
Before individually considering these traits, we need to understand what Jesus meant by "blessed." Many have explained blessedness as simply happiness. Some translations even use the word "happy" in the place of the Greek word makarios. While this term could be used to identify happiness, Jesus is describing something deeper than mere happiness. Happiness is momentary and fleeting. It is dependent on something good occurring to us.
Such a shallow understanding of blessedness has many negative unintended consequences. Many people seek Jesus to make them happy, hoping that He will give them health and wealth. Of course, Jesus never once promised health and/or wealth in exchange for following Him. Others who seek Jesus under the misguided preconception of happiness are often led to reject Jesus when they become unhappy when facing difficult circumstances. On one occasion, when Jesus was teaching, He refused to feed the assembled multitude; as a result, many left Him, never to return (John 6:66). Understanding blessedness as happiness will only lead to disappointment at best, and total rejection at worst.
The blessedness Jesus indicated in this sermon, as well as in other teachings, has to do with peace and contentment. Blessedness comes through faith in Jesus Christ. The tranquility He promises is not dependent on our circumstances in life but comes through the knowledge of our sins being forgiven. The joy of salvation is a sustaining state of mind even when life is difficult. We will not likely be happy when others mistreat us, a loved one dies, or a saint rejects Jesus; however, we can experience blessedness even during such sad and unpleasant times. Despite what may happen in life, citizens of God's kingdom retain the hope of eternal life. This is the value and beauty of what Jesus offers through the Beatitudes.
The Beatitudes have been explained countless times. Each generation that seeks to become part of God's kingdom must learn what these traits are and how they are to be practiced in life. What can be said about them as a whole? Their purpose is indicated by what Jesus says next (Matt. 5:13-16). What is the design of the Beatitudes? Why did Jesus select these traits? While this was briefly referenced in last month's article, we need to look closer at their purpose. Jesus is describing how citizens of His kingdom are to think and behave. More fundamentally, He is teaching us what it means to be human, and what it looks like when we live according to divine principles.
In the beginning, God made mankind as the pinnacle of His creation. Genesis records,
God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth (Gen. 1:26-28).
God distinguished humans from the rest of creation by giving them His image and endowing them with a soul. We bear the image of our Creator. Additionally, as His image bearers, God made us stewards of His creation. As opposite compliments of one another, male and female, Adam and Eve were to multiply and replenish the earth through marriage (Gen. 2:2-24). They were to subdue God's creation. As they obeyed God and brought harmonious order to the earth, creation would glorify the Creator.
Adam and Eve brought glory to God as His image bearers and stewards of creation for a time. However, both rebelled against the Creator. Satan planted evil desire into the heart of Eve by appealing to lust and pride. The first couple sinned against God. When the fall occurred, life in this world forever changed. Sin, decay, and death would now become part of the human experience. God would begin humanity's redemption through the seed of woman (Gen. 3:15).
Ever since, Satan has continued to promote evil in the world through the gods of lust and pride. Generation after generation has rebelled against their Creator and turned to the idols of money, sex, and power with devastating results. Such idolaters have yearned to find happiness, meaning, and fulfillment, but have only found delusion, misery, and emptiness.
In this sermon, Jesus begins to tell us how to find satisfaction and contentment by giving up our idols. Being human is not about worshipping ourselves. Being human is not about living to gratify our every sensual impulse. Being human is not about acquiring power through oppression. Rather, being human is about reflecting the image of God to bring Him glory. Now, consider how all this works through the Beatitudes.
Jesus teaches that blessedness can begin to be experienced by those who are poor in spirit. When we give up our false sense of moral superiority and acknowledge our sinfulness, we can begin to know blessedness. When we realize we cannot save ourselves by ourselves, we can begin to know blessedness. When we humbly admit that our wisdom is weak and inadequate to guide us through life, we can begin to know blessedness. Such acknowledgments of poverty will cause us to mourn and grieve. Recognizing our idolatry and its proof demonstrated by specific acts of sin must cause deep sorrow. We must feel a sense of shame and regret in how we have rebelled against our Creator and hurt other people in the process. We must be willing to name our sins and own their disastrous consequences. Such lowliness produces a meek spirit. While we have been resisting God by our pride, we now are willing to humbly yield all we are and all we have to Him and His Son.
The Greek word dikaiosunē is difficult to translate into English. Most commonly, the term is translated as "righteousness." We typically consider the term to carry a moral definition. While this is true, the word comes to life when thinking of it as "justice." We will consider righteousness in more detail later in this lesson, but for now, this definition will suffice (Matt. 5:20). The Jews most certainly hungered and thirsted for justice. They were an oppressed people. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans all had oppressed the Jews. Over the years, they had hoped justice would come through a political revolution. Justice would bring liberation.
In Paul's letter to the Romans, he explains how the righteousness, or justice of God, was revealed by what He did for humanity through Jesus the Messiah (Rom. 1:1-4, 16-17). No, the Messiah did not offer legal justice which led to the political freedom for Israel as a nation. The justice and liberation Jesus offered were greater than those which were political. He offered deliverance from the powers of darkness, sin, decay, and death. Those who hungered and thirsted for this righteousness would be filled.
Additionally, the justice that Jesus brought to the world was an act of divine mercy. Rather than condemning humanity for its rebellion, God sought to save humanity through the sacrifice of His Son. God offers us what we do not deserve: mercy. He offers pardon from a sentence of eternal death. The cross of Jesus is the place of mercy (Rom. 3:25). Those who expect to receive God's mercy are expected to become ministers of His mercy. We are to lovingly extend what we ourselves have received from God in Christ: mercy.
For the first time in the sermon, Jesus mentions the heart. He seeks to purify our hearts. While this quality does involve a moral element, Jesus emphasizes more than just being morally clean. Jesus wants our hearts to be completely open and reserved for God. He wants God to fill every compartment of our heart.
As the Shema sought to convey (i.e, the liturgical prayer consisting of three Scriptural passages recited twice daily by observant Jews [Deut. 6:4-9, 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41]), God wanted the children of Israel (and by extension, also us) to love Him with all our heart, soul, and strength (Deut. 6:4-5). As long as we keep pieces of our hearts for ourselves, we will never see God.
We would expect peaceful people to be blessed people. Peace is rarely known today. For us to have peace with others, we first must make peace with God. The Preacher of this sermon is the Agent through whom we make peace with God (Eph. 2:13-18). We make peace with God by fully surrendering ourselves to Jesus. Afterwards, we are to help others do the same through the Gospel.
How could anyone experience blessedness through persecution? This certainly does not fit the preconceptions many have about Jesus making people happy. Perhaps this Beatitude, more than any other, most powerfully makes the point about the greatness of what Jesus offers.
Becoming part of God's kingdom may cause our lives hardships. Suffering gives us opportunities to share in the suffering of Jesus. It creates opportunities to endure and forge character. If we allow endurance to have her perfect work in us, we will not be disappointed in the outcome. We will experience hope (Rom. 5:1-5; James 1:2-4).
The Beatitudes were an attention-getting introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and continue to be deeply challenging. They are surprising qualities which cannot be understood through worldly philosophy or modern conventions. None of these qualities will be found among those who establish world empires. Seldom are they observed among political leaders. Certainly, they are not perceived as good for business. Those displaying such attitudes and behavior would not be considered valuable by someone trying to start a revolution.
The Beatitudes are staggering ways of thinking and behaving. They represent how God, as Creator, intended humanity to live, bring Him glory, and advance His kingdom on earth. However, we cannot become part of God's kingdom, nor useful in advancing its borders, nor able to reflect His glory to the world until we are willing to bring our lives into harmony with the Beatitudes.
Author Bio: David Flatt and his family have labored with the Thayer Street congregation in Akron, Ohio since 2008. He can be reached at email@example.com.
"The Mount of Beatitudes," the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount.