THE LIFE OF A DISCIPLE: COMMENTARY ON THE BEATITUDES
by Steve Clark
Jesus teaches us how to stake our lives on God and the coming of his reign on earth
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 4:17).
At the time in Jewish history when Jesus spoke these words, one of the things that people were most concerned about was God's coming to reign. About 20 years before this the rule of the last Jewish king in Palestine had ended, and Judea and Samaria were now under Roman government — under pagan rule. Jews believed that pagan rule in the land of Israel was an abomination. God was the one who was supposed to reign. The Jews at this time were looking for the rule or reign of God.
What we receive from Jesus in the beatitudes is a teaching about how somebody who believes that the kingdom is at hand, and who is staking his life on the kingdom of God, should live.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 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. You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:2-16).
Verses 3 through 12 are the beatitudes. The term comes from the Latin beatus, 'blessed'. The beatitudes portray the character of a disciple of Jesus. Verses 13 to 16 describe the effect the disciple is supposed to have on the world around him, if his life conforms to the beatitudes.
There are eight beatitudes (taking verses 10 and 11 as one beatitude), and they can be grouped into two sets of four. The first set is concerned with the way the disciple relies on the Lord. The second set focuses on the disciple's relationship to other people as a result of his reliance on the Lord. There is even a one-to-one correspondence between respective beatitudes in the two sets: verse three corresponds to verse seven, verse four corresponds to verse eight, and so on.
This is easier to see if we examine the meanings of some of the words and phrases involved. For example, 'poor' in verse three corresponds to 'merciful' in verse seven. The relationship may not seem obvious; however, 'merciful' can also be translated 'generous', which fits with 'poor'.
Again, 'those who mourn' in verse four probably means 'those who repent'. This fits well with the 'pure in heart' in verse eight. It is easier to recognize the correspondence between 'the meek' (verse five) and 'the peacemakers' (verse nine), and between 'those who hunger and thirst for righteousness' (verse six) and 'those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake' (verses 10 and 11).
Putting all this together, the beatitudes match up like this:
Blessed are the poor in spirit...Blessed are the [generous].
Blessed are [the repentant]...Blessed are the pure in heart.
Blessed are the meek...Blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.
Now let us look at each beatitude in greater detail in order to grasp the meaning of each one and relate it to the overall picture.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
'Blessed' means fortunate, one to whom good things have been given. In this setting, we might take it to mean 'truly fortunate' or 'most fortunate of all'.
Truly fortunate, then, are the poor in spirit. The term 'poor' here probably does not mean just materially poor; that is one reason why 'in spirit' is added to it.
In the Old Testament, 'the poor' often refers to people who rely on God to provide for them, who are faithful to God. When Psalm 9 says, "The needy shall not perish", its meaning goes beyond simple lack of material goods. 'The poor' are people who lack means to provide for themselves, so they rely on the Lord to provide for them.
The spiritually poor — the poor in spirit — are people who lack not so much material resources but a certain type of self-reliance. They don't rely on their own gifts, skills, resource; they look to the Lord.
Theirs, says Jesus, is the kingdom of heaven. Note that the kingdom of heaven is the reward in both the first and the eighth beatitudes. That probably is meant to indicate that all the rewards that are mentioned are really the kingdom of heaven in one way or another. In other words, the beatitudes tell what kind of person we have to be in order to receive the kingdom of heaven, to dwell under the reign of God.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted
The term 'mourn' seems straightforward. But for most of us it actually isn't, because in scripture mourning was not only something you did when you were unhappy. To be sure, you did mourn on certain occasions when you had been deprived of something, as when somebody died. But mourning customs were used in other ways as well.
For example, one of the ways of showing that you were seeking pardon, or tuning to a person for help or direction, was to use the mourning customs. That was a way of expressing submission, and also a way of expressing repentance. When you repented, you mourned. In that way you showed sorrow for your past action, but you also expressed that you were looking for a new way of life.
Jesus, then, is saying, blessed are those who submit their lives to God, who are repentant of their past disobedience, who seek a new way of life.
Such people, he says, shall be comforted. The word for comfort there is parakaleo. This has the same root as parakletos, or Paraclete, referring to the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Spirit is sometimes called the comforter. Parakaleo could also be translated 'strengthened': the Holy Spirit, the comforter, the strengthener, comes to provide the strength, the assistance, the comfort lacking to somebody on his or her own resources.
Another way to state the second beatitude, then, is, blessed are those who turn away from their old ways and submit to God, for they shall be given strength and comfort — quite likely by the giving of the Holy Spirit.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth
Being meek does not mean getting pushed around. Meekness means not always insisting on one's own way, not always belligerently fighting for what one wants, but taking the attitude of a servant.
This beatitude is derived from Psalm 37: "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" (verses 10-11). The psalm is about people who are not in a position to overcome the power of the wicked and need to rely on God. It is a promise that God will establish them such that they will inherit the land. 'The land' might mean the earth, or perhaps the land of Israel, but it at least means a place of resource and power.
Jesus is saying, blessed are those who don't rely on their own devices, who don't take matters into their own hands, but who rely on the Lord to establish them, for they shall inherit the land.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied
Righteousness here probably means the righteousness that Jesus is going to teach about in the course of the Sermon on the Mount. It is those who want to see this kind of righteousness in their own lives, and in the lives of others, who will be satisfied.
"Satisfied" is a word that occurs in other places in scripture. It commonly turns up in places where God feeds people, for example, in the account of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes: "And they all ate and were satisfied" (Matt. 14:20). As it was with loaves and fishes, says the beatitude, so will it be with righteousness. Those who truly seek it will be granted it in full measure.
Looking at the first four beatitudes, we see that they all refer to people who are deprived in some way: the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst. All these are people who are in some way in need.
However, this has mainly to do with a certain attitude, a frame of mind they adopt voluntarily, not just a condition they have fallen into. It is an attitude of reliance on God. The poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst — all are people who don't have what they want and who look to God to provide it for them: material resources, comfort and strength, power, righteousness.
These first four beatitudes say that those who look t God for these things will be provided for. They will be given the kingdom of heaven, they will be given comfort and strength (perhaps of the Holy Spirit), they will be given the land (the inheritance that God has for them), they will be satisfied with the righteousness they hunger and thirst for.
Thus the first four beatitudes deal primarily with how the disciples of Jesus, living in the hope of the kingdom of heaven, rely on the Lord for their needs. The second four, as we will now see in more detail, deal with how the disciples are to relate to others in light of this reliance on God.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy
Another translation of this is, blessed are the gracious, for they shall obtain grace, or favor. Those who are gracious, in the scriptural use of the term, are those who are generous, those who pardon, those who do favors for people.
In this case, the most apt meaning is generous. The Sermon on the Mount is very concerned about almsgiving, and in the original Greek the word for almsgiving is one of the words that can be translated 'generosity'. Those who freely give what they have to other people not because it is an obligation but because they are the kind of people who want to give freely shall themselves be treated with generosity, probably by God.
Once we understand this meaning for the word merciful, that is, generous, we can see the correspondence between that and being poor in spirit. Those who lack resources look to God. God gives them freely, which allows them to be generous; then, because of their generosity, they receive freely.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
The term 'heart' probably means 'intention'. The heart is the seat of the deepest thought and decision. 'Pure' is a term that means that there is nothing that is incompatible with standing in the presence of God. For instance, Psalm 24 says, "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?" In other words, who shall go to the temple and gain God's presence? "He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of his salvation" (verses 3-5).
The beatitude then becomes, blessed are those who do not do the things that are incompatible with going to the temple and worshiping God, whose lives are clean; they shall see God. They will be able to come into God's presence, stand before him, see him.
Compare that with the second beatitude — blessed are those who mourn, or repent, for they shall be comforted, or strengthened. If they are repentant, God will strengthen them and enable them to be pure in heart. And if they are pure, then they can stand before God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God
'Peacemaker' here probably means either those who try to make peace with those around them, that is, who try to live in such a way that they will be in a good relationship with other people, or those who try to make peace between people who are fighting. In this case it is more likely the former. As it says in Romans, "So far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all" (12:18). Peace means more than just not fighting; it means good relationships. Jesus is saying, blessed are those who live in such a way that they are at peace with all men.
They shall be called sons of God. When scripture calls someone a 'son' of something or someone, frequently it means the two have the same character or nature. So be at peace with all men, with everything. He is a God who establishes peace; if you are a peacemaker, you are like your heavenly Father.
We can see the parallel with the third beatitude, blessed are the meek. If you are someone who does not insist on his own way, who does not use his own strength to get things to go the way he wants, you are in a good position to be a peacemaker, who establishes good relationships with those around you, and you share in God's nature.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Righteousness is what Jesus teaches about. If you are really committed to live a life of righteousness, you are going to be persecuted. And that, he says, is a good sign that you will deserve to be in the future kingdom of God.
It is common to hear Christians say, "I'm a nice guy. Why would people persecute me for being a Christian? Why would they talk against me?" Jesus is saying that that is exactly what we should expect. It's normal. He is also saying, don't complain about it. It's a sign that you are fortunate, because your reward is great for suffering for the kingdom of heaven.
Note the comparison with the fourth beatitude. If you hunger and thirst for righteousness in your life. That will lead to your being persecuted, which in turn will qualify you for the kingdom of heaven.
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 greatin heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you
None of the beatitudes before this have mentioned Jesus himself. They refer to God the Father or to righteousness. But as Jesus expands on the last beatitude, it becomes clear that the issue is he himself, as the one who is bringing the kingdom of heaven, the one who is representing God the Father.
Verses 13 to 16 are about the effects of living the life of the disciple. They form a conclusion to the beatitudes.
You are the salt of the earth
There are a couple of possible meanings here. Salt does give taste to things, so Jesus could be saying, the earth doesn't taste very good to God without Christians in it. A somewhat more likely possibility is that salt is seen as a preservative. Meat, for example, is salted to keep it from spoiling. The passage might then mean that Christians are the ones who keep the earth from spoiling.
An even better possibility derives from Leviticus, chapter 2: "You shall season all your cereal offerings with salt; you shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be lacking from your cereal offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt" (verse 13). Salt there is seen as an indication of the covenant with God.
Any of these three could be a reasonable interpretation of the passage. But what Jesus is basically saying is that if you don't live the kind of life that you're supposed to live, you'll be like salt that has lost its flavor and can no longer do what salt does. Should that be the case, you would be totally worthless. It is very important for us to live the kind of life that Jesus has called us to.
You are the light of the world
We are to let our light so shine before men that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven. If we live the life of a disciple, the kind of life Jesus has portrayed, we will be a beacon, a revelation of the reality of God and his coming kingdom, and we will lead men to give glory to God the Father in heaven. That is what we are supposed to be.
[Steve Clark is President of the Sword of the Spirit.]