The Eight Beatitudes

Ordinary 4A

Matthew 5: 1 12

Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount is recorded in St Matthew's Gospel, 5: 1 to 7: 29.

Introduction to the Eight Beatitudes

The following notes are taken from the One Volume Bible Commentary, Editor J. R. Dummelow, 1946.

The great interest of the sermon is that it is a more less full revelation of Christ's own character, a kind of autobiography. Every syllable of it He had already written down in deeds; He had only to translate His life into language. With it we may compare the wonderful self-revelation in John 17, but there is an important difference. There we have His self-revelation as Son of God, holding communion with the Father in a manner impossible to us; here we have Him pictured in His perfect humanity as Son of man, offering us an example, to which, if we cannot in this life completely attain, we can at least approximate through union with Him. In this sermon Christ is very near to us. The blessedness which He offers to the humble and meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the seekers after righteousness, and the persecuted for righteousness' sake, He first experienced Himself, and then commended to others. And the power by which He lived this life is the very power by which we also must live it the power of secret prayer. St. Luke tells us that the night before this sermon was delivered was spent entirely in private prayer (Luke 6: 12).

The sermon is very important for a right understanding of Christ's conception of "the kingdom": It is "the kingdom of the heavens". It exists most perfectly in heaven itself, where angels and glorified saints live the ideal life of love and service, finding their whole pleasure in doing God's will and imitating His adorable perfections. This blessed life of sinless perfection Christ brings down to earth in His own person, and makes available for man.

Every baptised Christian is taught to pray, "Thy kingdom come," and that is interpreted to mean, Let Thy will be done by men on earth as it is done by angels and saints in heaven. The kingdom, then, is just the heavenly life brought down to earth, and its aim and standard is nothing short of the perfection of God Himself, 'Be ye therefore perfect - especially be ye perfect in love even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect'
(5: 45). Of this kingdom God the Father is King (c.p. the phrase 'kingdom of God,' used by the other evangelists, and the ancient Doxology to the Lord's prayer), but Jesus Himself exercises the immediate sovereignty, being the Father's full representative and endowed with all His powers. He is expressly called King only in Mt 25: 34 40, but His regal authority is sufficiently implied in the Sermon on the Mount, where He appears in the character of a divine legislator (521 f.), as the judge of quick and dead (7: 21 23), and as the sole revealer of absolute truth (7: 24 26)

The inward and spiritual view of the kingdom, which is prominent in the Sermon on the Mount, is not inconsistent with its identification elsewhere with the visible Church of Christ (l6: 18 19), which includes both worthy and unworthy members (13 47). Our Lord identifies His Church with the kingdom of heaven (16 19), because it is the divinely appointed means of establishing it. To it is entrusted the awful responsibility of implanting and nourishing the spiritual life of God's children. As to unworthy members of the Church, although they are 'in' the kingdom, they are not 'of' it.

The profound impression which the Sermon made at the time has been surpassed by the impression which it made on subsequent generations. The Mount of Beatitudes has become to all the chief nations of the world what Sinai was to Israel, the place where an authoritative moral code, and what is more than a code, an authoritative moral ideal, was promulgated. Not even the most sceptical deny that it shows originality and genius of the highest order, and reveals a character of unequalled moral sublimity. The many parallels and resemblances to this sermon adduced from rabbinical writings, some of which are quoted in the commentary, rather enhance than detract from its unique character. Its use of current rabbinical phraseology only throws into greater prominence its matchless originality and independence. But what struck the hearers even more than its moral splendor and originality, was the tone of authority with which it was delivered (7: 29).

Jesus spoke, not as a scribe dependent on tradition, nor even as a prophet prefacing His words with a 'Thus saith the Lord,' but as one possessed of an inherent and personal claim upon the allegiance and obedience of His hearers. In His own name and by His own authority He revised the Decalogue spoken by God Himself on Sinai, and declared Himself the Lord and Judge of the human race, before whom, in the last great day, every child of man will stand suppliant-wise to receive his eternal recompense. It is sometimes said that the Sermon on the Mount contains little Theology and no Christology. In reality it expresses or implies every claim to supernatural dignity, which Jesus ever made for Himself, or His followers have ever made for Him.

Analysis of the Sermon.

1. The Beatitudes. What kind of persons are really blessed or happy (5: 3 12).

2. The relation of Christ's disciples to the world as its salt and light (5: 13 16.)

3. The relation of the New Teaching to the Law and the prophets as their fulfilment. It repeals ancient ordinances which were imperfect and transitory, expands the moral and spiritual principles of the OT. to their full development, and in so doing enables Judaism to become the religion of the human race (5: 17 48).

4. Practical instructions in righteousness for the citizens of the kingdom, forming a striking contrast to the ideas of righteousness current among the Scribes and Pharisees. Alms, prayer, forgiveness, fasting, wealth, freedom from anxiety, rash judgments, reserve in communicating sacred knowledge, persistence in prayer, the two ways, the necessity of good works, stability of character (6: 7 27).

Introduction to Matthew 5: 1 12

The eight beatitudes are an official statement by our Lord of the qualities he requires in the members of his kingdom; he reverses completely the standards of happiness accepted by the world. He was speaking primarily to the men he had just chosen, but also to the crowd gathered about him eagerly awaiting the realisation of the kingdom. The fundamental in their lives must be what was fundamental in his: the love of God and man. He wanted men who were willing to imitate and become like him; he asked nothing of them that he himself did not practise.

They were expecting a kingdom to destroy the domination of Rome by force of arms; he had come to destroy sin. He did not want soldiers for his kingdom, he wanted saints. The conquest of self, and false human standards, was the training required for membership. They must be prepared to follow him in poverty, in patience under affliction and persecution; not retaliating but forgiving, merciful and peace-loving; clean of heart i.e. not satisfied with outward observance, but completely given up to the pursuit of personal holiness, the Union of mind and will with God.

They will find happiness ('blessed') in the kingdom, because he has guaranteed it, and he is God. The kingdom, while primarily the church on earth, is to last forever; final happiness is to live with Christ eternally. (The second part of each beatitude is a synonym for either the church militant or triumphant.)

The eighth beatitude is developed especially for his disciples, who are addressed as 'you'; the cross is to be their special badge; it will identify them with him.

Some Notes on the Text 

On examining different Gospel commentaries, it soon becomes clear that there are several ways of numbering them. Arrangements vary from seven to ten beatitudes.

There are many ways on interpreting them. Our notes are intended to highlight a number of points to help you in your meditation on this wonderful passage. We draw heavily on "The One Volume Bible Commentary" Ed. By J. R. Dummelow. Macmillan 1946.

Verses 1 and 2

Jesus sees the crowds he had previously been working among, seeking him out. Far from trying to avoid them, he makes preparation to take them into his closest confidence. He finds a place to sit ready to share some concentrated teaching, and sits down. His close disciples take that as a signal that they may approach, that the master is ready. We do not know what mountain or hillside Jesus went up, and we do not need to. He is already being seen as the new Moses, and, as expected, he therefore gives his teaching on a mountain.

Verse 3

Our Lord proclaims his first beatitude:

"Blessed (i.e. Fortunate, in a truly good state, well off) are the poor in spirit those who know they are spiritually poor; who know their need for God. They are already citizens of God's Kingdom, and enjoy the benefits of being ruled by God"

Verse 4

Jesus continued:

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

Our Lord is referring here to those who experience sorrow of acutest kind. Four categories of sorrow are incorporated in this saying:

a) The sorrows that God sends or permits, if received with humility and submission ever refine and ennoble the character, and elevate it into closer union with the Father who created it with that capacity.

b) Those who mourn for the sorrows of others out of caring sympathy, are rewarded by the very exercise of that kind act of compassion, and find many comforters in their own real sorrows.

c) Those who mourn for sin, acknowledging its ugly presence in their own thoughts and actions.

d) Those who mourn for the sins of others, who pray earnestly for their conversion in God's own good time.

Our Lord says they will be comforted, which in this case also means strengthened. The faculty, which is exercised by the true mourner, is strengthened by use. Those who bear their sorrows patiently grow in patience. Those who sorrow for others grow in sympathy. Those who sorrow for their own sin deepen their penitence. Those who intercede for the sins of the world grow in the likeness of the Lord himself.

The comfort comes from God through the exercise of the spiritual faculty.

(This section based on Dummelow)

Verse 5

And now the third beatitude:

"Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth."

The word meek is one Christians often avoid using due to ridicule from non-religious people. It does not matter what word or phrase we use instead. It will in turn be rubbished by those who do not share our faith.

We should cling proudly to this tenet of our faith. The words are a prophecy that meekness will prove a greater power in the world than pride and aggressive force. Meekness would therefore outmatch any forces pitched against it, whether arising from pride of race, and privilege, learning, imperial power, culture, intellect, or external magnificence. The first three centuries of the Church's history of suffering and Rome's attempt to exterminate it, demonstrated this truth: that the meek exercise a wider spiritual influence than any other type of character.

Verse 6

The fourth beatitude:

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."

What could be more demanding than to receive adequate food and drink! Blessed are those who give righteousness an even higher priority. Biblical righteousness, of course, always refers to "Torah": God's holy will made known to us. Blessed are those whose primary food is to feed on his Holy Word, seeking to unlock its vast treasures, and trying to manifest them in holy living and conversation.

Verse 7

The fifth beatitude:

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."

Jesus declares unequivocally that our salvation is made dependant upon our showing mercy to every creature that can feel. This has been largely sidelined by some sectors within Christianity.

Every kind of cruel amusement or cruel punishment, as well as every wanton act of cruelty, is strictly forbidden. The followers of Christ will treat all creatures as does their creator. This demand applies equally to our speech. Words can lacerate more deeply than stripes.

Action taken to alleviate undeserved suffering in any creature will be seen by our Lord as an act of mercy close to his own heart. If we cannot be merciful we will starve our own capacity to receive God's mercy.

Verse 8

The sixth beatitude:

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."

The 'heart' both in the OT and NT., stands for a man's inmost soul, and so the purity here required is not the ceremonial cleanness of the Levitical law, nor even the blamelessness of outwardly correct conduct, but complete purity of inward thought and desire. A thing is pure when it contains no admixture of other substances. Benevolence is pure when it contains no admixture of self-seeking; justice is pure when it contains no admixture of partiality; love is pure when it contains no admixture of lust. A man's heart, is pure when it loves only the good, when all its motives are right, and when all its aspirations are after the noble and true. Purity here is not synonymous with chastity, but includes it.

Just as the liar does not understand truthfulness, and does not recognise it when he encounters it, so the unholy person does not understand sanctity, and cannot understand the all-holy God. But those who cleanse their hearts understand God in proportion to their purity and one day, when they are cleansed from all sin, will see Him face to face (Heb 12: 14; 1 Jn 3: 2 - 3; Rev 22: 4).

(Dummelow)

Verse 9

The seventh beatitude:

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."

Peacemakers are, (1) those who reconcile men at variance, whether individuals, or classes of men (e.g. employers and employed), or nations; (2) those who work earnestly to prevent disputes arising or to settle them peaceably (e.g. by arbitration;(3) those who strive to reconcile men to God and so to bring peace to their souls. They shall be called the children of God because in this aspect they are especially like their heavenly Father, who has sent peace and goodwill down to earth in the person of His dear Son, who is charged with a message of reconciliation.

(Dummelow)

As a technical note of interest, some scholars label the above as the 7 beatitudes and verses 10 12 as an appendix.

Verse 10

The eighth beatitude.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of right, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Here our Lord is affirming those who take him at his word, and seek to live their lives entirely under God's rule. They will later realise that to do so will often cause the deviant and power seeking to oppress them, in some cases even to the point of death. To stand for the cause of true justice for all is very likely to attract the ire of those whose self-serving schemes will thereby be threatened.

Verses 11 and 12

Our Lord now speaks specifically to his close followers and, indeed to all who would follow in their footsteps in the life of the Church.

This short addendum to his main address is modelled on a beatitude but the formal structure now subsides, and Jesus speaks more intimately to those he trusts most. It is not so much "if" persecution will come, but "when" it comes! Jesus confides that those who make it their pursuit to live according to his teaching and try to pass it on, must be prepared for the most bigoted opposition and horrific suffering. To accept this fact in one's heart and to carry on regardless will bring a great blessing.

As if to crown this very special intimation, spoken only to his own, but which included those who followed after them, Jesus then adds that those who, in these circumstances, find it within their hearts to be able to rejoice greatly and celebrate they will be still even more blessed.

This is indeed a privilege for those called to stand before God in the company of the Great Prophets and Martyrs.

Summary

The beatitudes express, (1) the qualifications necessary for admission into Christ's kingdom; (2) the blessedness or happiness of those who possess those qualifications; (3) in St. Luke expressly, and in St. Matthew by implication, the misery of those who do not. Observe that the qualifications of the citizens of the kingdom are not the performance of certain legal acts, but the possession of a certain character, and that the 'sanctions' or promised rewards, unlike those of the Decalogue, are of a spiritual nature. The beatitudes must have been a painful disillusionment to those who believed that the coming kingdom of the Messiah would be a temporal empire like that of Solomon, only differing from it in the universal extension and unending duration.

The virtues here regarded as essential, humility, meekness, poverty of spirit, are the very opposite of those ambitions, self-assertive qualities, which the carnal multitude admired. We cannot doubt that Jesus intended the beatitudes, and indeed the sermon generally, to act like Gideon's test, and to sift out those who had no real sympathy with His aims.

(Dummelow)

Conclusion

And so begins the great Sermon On the Mount, which will continue through to the end of chapter 7. In the ten sayings we have reflected on above (Matt. 5: 3 12) we have a kind of charter, the kernel of a constitution of the Kingdom over which he will reign. But before he allows himself to be seen in such an august position, he sets about modelling the attitudes and behaviour he will require of every person who enlists as one of his followers. Even more wonderfully he will not let us despair that we cannot possibly reach such high standards: he will, through his teaching, and his own actions, provide the Way, impart the Truth, and lead us into the Life for which he is really preparing us. His whole demeanour and teaching style are designed to help us place our total confidence in him as he shepherds us to our true home.

 

Further Reading: Practical Religion: Holy Living.

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