A Study in The Beatitudes, Part I

It feels a little trite to write a year in review at the beginning of 2021. As we all look ahead to the new year, many of us are spending some time this week reflecting on what happened last year and how we would like our lives or ourselves to change for the better. Resolutions are made, plans often get off to a great start in early January, only to lose steam by early to mid-February.

I’d like to write something a little different.

Just over a week ago, I decided to sit down to reread the Gospel of Matthew. As I read the text during Christmas week, I paused over a section of Matthew entitled The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). I wanted to understand them so that I might be able to explain them to someone else, and an unexpected surprise happened. Reading these verses brought me what felt like timeless comfort. I wanted to better understand why.

The Gospel of Matthew

In the Christian Bible, Matthew’s Gospel is the first gospel to appear in the New Testament. While most scholars agree that of the four Gospels, the Gospel of Mark was written first, Matthew opens the New Testament by boldly proclaiming Jesus Christ as the long-awaited Messiah (as does the earlier written Gospel of Mark). The order the Gospels appear in the New Testament writings, however, is perhaps not as important as are their consistency of message, purpose and overall coherence within the context of the biblical text.

The word gospel simply means good news. It is the good news that God sent his one and only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to offer salvation to those who admit their need for God. It is the good news that the long-awaited Messiah and King to come as foretold by the Old Testament prophets, had entered into history to save fallen mankind. To a broken world in need of redemption and restoration, both then and now, this decisive, miraculous divine act is indeed good news. 

The Beatitudes

The Beatitudes are an introduction to The Sermon on the Mount, the first of five discourses in the Gospel of Matthew which are directly attributed to Jesus. Matthew collected and organized stories and sayings of Jesus that have to do with life in the church and presented them in a way that they could be referred to for teaching. It is a teaching Jesus gave to His disciples with guidelines for how they ought to live. The bar is impossibly high, but this is also the standard that is given for those who have made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. When viewed from man’s perspective, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of comfort to be found in this sermon. But is there?

How can I read this or any other Gospel?

As you read the Gospel of Matthew, it can be helpful to ground yourself in the who, what, why, when, where and how to gain insight into the meaning of the text. Some questions to ask might be: Who is speaking? Who is being spoken to? What is being said and why? What does this passage tell me about God and how I ought to respond? What application might this have for my life? This is not an exhaustive list of questions; it is simply a starting point for further research and reflection.

This is not to say that the truth the text explains about God and the realities of the human condition change over time. This truth is timeless. But it is important, for instance, to understand what the original hearers would have understood, the historical context within which the author was writing and the author’s purpose in writing down what he did in order to avoid misinterpretation or a misapplication of the text.

In the case of Matthew, the text was probably written down some thirty to fifty years after the events happened, somewhere between 60 A.D. – 80 A.D. This gap in time might make some contemporary readers uncomfortable. After all, how can we trust a news report that was several decades old when it was written down? We consume news differently, and we are accustomed to instant access in reporting of news, good or otherwise. We need to remember that the men and women who witnessed these ancient events believed they had heard the very words of life based on what they had seen and experienced. Their lives were so changed by what they had witnessed, they risked persecution for themselves and their families to tell everyone they met about what happened. 

Christian, think about that for a minute. The assurance of salvation you have rests only in what God has done. This is an indisputable fact. But have you ever reflected in gratitude for God’s provision of those first followers of Jesus who were also able to participate in your salvation by faithfully reporting to others what had happened? What if they hadn’t told anyone? Instead, they chose to share the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection and many of them perished because of it.

Meanwhile, in The Beatitudes

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). 

The very first time I heard this verse as a child, I thought it didn’t apply to me. After all, I wasn’t poor. The children on the other side of the world who my mom often referred to when I wouldn’t eat my vegetables were. I’ve never known a day of hunger in my life. To understand this verse as referring to those who are financially poor, however, is to miss the point (and an important prepositional phrase). It refers to those who admit poverty in spirit, who come to the realization that they need God and are unable to save themselves through their own good deeds; these are the ones who will inherit the kingdom. 

One way to think of this kind of poverty is in understanding that there is a moment-we’ll call it a turning point-in a person’s life when a carefully constructed self-image of who that person thinks they are comes crashing down, perhaps due to some kind of failure. This is not a question of a loss of self-worth which has more to do with guilt feelings (feeling bad). It has to do, rather, with the realization of true guilt that exists in the human heart which persistently urges us to choose wrongly and is present even when the person doesn’t feel bad about it. It is an understanding of our true heart condition which is our guilt before a perfect, holy and just Creator God. 

This leads us to verse 4: 

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).

There has been so much mourning in 2020, perhaps by many who have been previously unafflicted. Loss of a loved one. Loss of health. Racial injustice. Job loss. Loss of social contact. Even loss of precious freedom. These circumstances lead to mourning, but they are not the type of mourning that is being referred to here. The mourning this verse refers to is a mourning that results from an understanding of both personal and corporate sin. Sin is what separates us from God and creates that deep ache that we seek to soothe in things other than intimate relationship with Him. As verse 3 explains, mankind is spiritually bankrupt before God (“poor in spirit”). The mourning in verse 4 is a deep feeling of loss based on this admission of guilt. It is an understanding that the world is not the way it is supposed to be; I am not the way I’m supposed to be. This mourning comes with an understanding that there is no “fix” to the situation which we can devise. There is not enough chocolate, wine, sex, friendship or even religion which can fix what is broken inside us. But there is promise, and that promise comes in the truth of who God is and in what He has done. His promise of comfort is for those who mourn their sin.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).

For the typical New Yorker, this is a tough one. We don’t exalt “meek.” We equate meek with weak. Meek people don’t speak up for themselves. They get left behind. New Yorkers lift up the go getters, the leaders, and the people who get things done. While these are not necessarily bad qualities in and of themselves, there is a misunderstanding of the English word meek which undervalues this Christian virtue. The meek, as we understand meek, don’t get promoted, don’t get the girl and don’t get the raise. They don’t speak up for themselves. To be meek, however, is not to be weak. It is rather a type of humility or restraint. Meekness is akin to the man or woman who receives training in martial arts from a master trainer, and out of reverence and respect for his or her sensei, understands that the training received requires restraint, wisdom and discernment for proper application. Max Anders and Steven K. Weber explain, “The term Matthew used here is much misunderstood. Meekness is not weakness. Quite the opposite; it is ‘strength under control.’”[1] To be meek is first and foremost a humility before God and then before others, putting other’s needs before one’s own. Those who are meek before God have a promised inheritance in the future kingdom. 

These are just a few things that came up as I reflected and researched on The Beatitudes this week. It reminded me that the timeless comfort I felt as I read these verses does not come from my own self-reliance, worthiness or my performance. It comes from the promises of God offered to someone like me who admits daily my own need for a Savior. It also helped me to understand on a deeper level the importance of developing character in line with biblical values and growing in Christian virtue. This is a New Year’s resolution which I can work towards.

I hope to get a second post out next week as I reflect further on this passage. Please feel free to comment below.

Happy New Year my friends!

Peace,

Alison

Photo credit: pixdeluxe on http://www.istock.com


                  [1] Max Anders and Steven K. Weber, Commentary on Matthew in the Holman New Testament Commentary, Volume 1 (Nashville: B&H Publishers, 2012). E-book on http://www.Lifeway.com.

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