1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him.
2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek , for they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
This section of teaching, recorded in Matthew , chapters 5 to 7, is the longest piece of teaching from Jesus in the gospels. It comes towards the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been baptized by John and has been tempted by Satan in the wilderness. After the temptations are over he began to preach and gather disciples. Matthew summarizes Jesus’ early ministry in the passage immediately preceding the one we are going to look at: “And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis from Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.”(Mt. 4:23-25)
Jesus has begun His ministry. He is gathering disciples and has begun to travel throughout the surroundings regions preaching, healing, and casting out demons. His ministry causes a tremendous stir and so “great crowds followed him” from all around the area. Who is this person? What gives him the power and authority to heal? These must be the questions that were on the minds of people that encountered Jesus in His travels. Now we hear what Jesus has to say for Himself in the Sermon on the Mount. What will He have to say? What will He want to communicate?
Matthew tells his readers the setting for "the sermon on the mount". “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them...” It is seeing the crowds that initiates Jesus going up the mountain and sitting down, a signal that he is going to teach. His disciples, those who have begun to follow him already, come over to him to hear what he has to say. The phrase “And he opened his mouth and taught them” is just a way of indicating that Jesus is being deliberate and that what He going to say is important.
Jesus' Sermon on the Mount begins by talking about the kingdom of heaven. Well, what is a kingdom anyway? A kingdom has a king, subjects, a place, and the ways of the king and his kingdom. It is where this particular king is reigning. So when Jesus teaches, He is not just advocating rules or giving advice. He is talking about a place or, more accurately, a realm where the ruler is God. And what is God’s kingdom like? What is God like as a king? Who are His subjects? And what are the ways of God? You can see that Jesus speaks about all these things in the beatitudes. We learn about who the subjects of this kingdom are: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, etc. We are learn about the king. He is One who gives the kingdom, who comforts, gives the earth to His children, and so on. Jesus is telling them about the wonder and goodness of living under the reign of God.
Jesus begins His Sermon on the Mount teaching with a list. It is almost like a poem. Each of the first nine lines begins with the word “blessed.” Each of the first 8 lines has a second half that begins “for theirs is” or “for they shall,” thus giving a reason for why these people are blessed. If you study the first 8 lines, you notice that the first and the eighth end exactly the same: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is present tense, meaning that right now, these people have the kingdom of heaven. In all the lines in between these two, the second half begins “for they shall...” These are all future tense, meaning that they will be fully realized only in the future. What is the significance of this structure? Well, I think it means a couple of things. First of all Jesus is speaking about the kingdom as a present and future reality. We can truly possess the kingdom of heaven here and now on the earth. We can enjoy the truth of this, at least, to some extent. But the greatest fulfillment of having this kingdom will, for us, come in the future. It is a real hope that affects our lives profoundly now, but one we look forward to seeing completely fulfilled. Secondly, I don’t think Jesus is describing separate groups of people here. The structure is like a sandwich. It begins and ends in the same place. Jesus is describing one group of people, those who have the kingdom.
The people of the kingdom are blessed. It might help if we begin by considering what the word “blessed” means. The word “blessed” always implies that the one doing the blessing is God. To be blessed is to be favored or honored by God. “Blessed” is a passive term. The one who is blessed is receiving from God His notice and favor.
So who are those who are blessed in the kingdom of heaven? And why are they blessed? Well, in looking over the list, we are immediately struck that Jesus is saying the unexpected, to say the least! The qualities of the blessed on Jesus’ list are not at all what we think of when we consider those we believe to be blessed. I think Jesus’ listeners thought they had a pretty good idea of what makes someone blessed, as do we. To be blessed is to be wealthy, have good health, be secure and protected, have great success in one’s endeavors, to be particularly good-looking, athletic, or charismatic. These are the qualities we tend to associate with being blessed. Aren’t these some of the things we have in mind when we pray for ourselves or others to be blessed? When we moved out here to Illinois three years ago, my deepest prayer to God was that He would bless my children. We had lived in New Jersey for almost nine years and were well established and had a terrific group of friends. It was wrenching to move. So I asked God to bless us in this endeavor, but especially to bless my children. What I had in my mind was that he would keep them from any suffering, provide them with great friends right away, make them successful and well liked by all.
Jesus’ list here strikes me as absolutely mind-blowing. The qualities He includes are actually what I would consider indications of someone not being blessed! Do you notice in looking at this list that these are descriptions of a lacking or a longing? I tend to think of one who is blessed as being full, complete, overflowing. Jesus says that those who are blessed are empty, incomplete, and lacking. Of course there is a hint of completeness and fullness here. This is found in the second half of each of the beatitudes. The person who is blessed is favored to have the kingdom of heaven now and a future fullness in comfort, inheritance, satisfaction, mercy, etc. The blessing then that these people receive is not to be poor in spirit, mourning, or meek. Rather, the presence of these qualities is a sign that the person is not cursed, but actually blessed. One can be called blessed when one is poor in spirit because being poor in spirit is a sign that she/he is looking for the very thing God the King is giving: His kingdom. You can see that there is a connection in each beatitude between the person who is blessed and why they are blessed. And it seems that the connection is that when someone is lacking in or longing for these things, he/she is blessed because these are the very things God, the ruler of this kingdom, is looking to give. This King is “into” giving comfort, the whole earth, His own kingdom, mercy, and having righteousness fulfilled. So, it makes some sense that the person who is blessed is the one who is longing for these things.
Notice that these beatitudes are statements, not commands. Jesus is telling his listeners something about the way things are in heaven’s kingdom. He is not commanding those around Him to “be poor in spirit.” He is not making “if...then” statements either. He is not telling them that “if they will be poor in spirit, then they will have the kingdom of heaven.” The only command in these first 12 verses of the Sermon on the Mount comes in verse 12, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven...” So don’t take these verses as commands that Jesus is laying down for us to do. They are not. I believe that as Jesus looked out at the crowds that were gathering around Him, he wanted to draw His followers together and help them to understand more of His kingdom and what real blessing is. He is telling them that the ways of the kingdom are very different from what they are used to in the world. They can no longer decide who is blessed and who is not by whether they are rich and successful. To understand the kingdom, they need to know who God is and what His blessings are about.
These beatitudes are meant to be encouraging to those sitting around Jesus. They have begun to follow Him but they may be wondering whether they are blessed or not. My guess is that they are feeling some awareness of their poverty of spirit, or a deeper longing for righteousness, or a desire to see God in all that they do. Jesus is telling them, “Good news! Being poor in spirit or meek are not indications that God is distant or that He is not favoring you! In fact, these longings are exactly what God is growing in you, so that you are able and willing more and more to receive the wonderful blessings He is offering you!” These attributes are not ones that we wish to be in or remain in. They are uncomfortable because they are about lacks we are currently experiencing in our lives. If we are mourning we don’t like it and wish to be somewhere else. We are tempted to feel that our mourning is not a good thing. But Jesus is encouraging us to see that He is making our longings like His own. He is even growing our longings for the things with which He is filling and will fill us.
God, our King, desires indeed to bless us. We will explore each of these beatitudes in depth in the next few studies, but take a moment to consider the riches of His blessings. To be truly comforted, to see all things set right, to inherit the whole earth, and to be His true children. These are the ways of His kingdom. So it makes more sense to see that to be blessed here and now is to find we are being made ready to receive all these things. Isn’t it wonderful to know that those deepest longings you have, to belong, to be whole, are going to be filled by the very God who put those longings in you in the first place? They are a sign of His work in your life. Is He working? Am I blessed? Where can I see this? Well it appears from this Scripture that we don’t see it from our circumstances, but from what God is doing within us.
As I have pondered over these beatitudes this summer and fall, I can see how God is indeed answering my heart prayers for my children. He did not make them successful and give them a trouble-free life here. In fact, it has been a long, difficult, and at times very painful three years. A few weeks ago, my son Greg and I were together in the car and he was telling me of his longing for heaven. He was talking about how many things he noticed that were not right in the world and they made him long for heaven. I have seen in all of my children at times a greater sense of their poverty of spirit and of their capacity to mourn over their own sins and the twistedness of the world around them. And, I see now that God is indeed making my children blessed. They are growing more ready and willing to receive the comfort , love, and presence of God. He is more precious to them now.
Jesus is telling us about His kingdom. We see that God greatly desires to bless His people in a full and complete way. God is not going to give sparingly--just some comfort, or a small inheritance. And what God is doing in His people now, when He is blessing them, is He is making them able more and more to hope in, receive, long for, the very riches He is giving.
Who are the blessed? Well, we who are His followers are the blessed. And the next time you find yourself mourning over the loss of a loved one or a friendship, or mourning over the distortion and destruction that sin causes, remember this is a sign that you are blessed--God is at work in you and He will give His presence, peace, and comfort someday perfectly.