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, 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 receive 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 others 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 they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
(Matthew 5:1–12, ESV)
What is it to be “blessed”? I think this question is at the core of understanding the importance of the Beatitudes to Jesus’ earthly ministry.
This post serves as the introduction to a ten-part series on the Beatitudes. For the following nine posts, I will be examining each of the Beatitudes and writing about why the qualities Jesus talks about are blessed, and how we should approach each of these statements.
Some of these are qualities that Christ-followers are called to emulate and seek after at all times (to be poor in spirit, to be meek, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, and to be peacemakers), while others are qualities that are temporal (to mourn, to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and to be reviled and slandered). Six are eternal qualities of citizens of the Kingdom, and three will pass away after the Kingdom comes in its fullness and restores Creation to what was intended from the first breath of God to call light out of darkness.
So, what is it to be “blessed”? As someone who has lived in the South nearly all my life, I have heard some variation on the phrase “bless your heart” more times than I can count. It is a cultural joke that generally stems from the time-honored wisdom of mothers everywhere to “say only nice things” about people. I usually hear it when the blessee has done something worthy of pity, or that a “less nice” person would scoff and laugh about.
Is this what Jesus means? No, and we should be quick to banish the possibility from our minds.
The modern English dictionary has several definitions for the word “bless.” In modern usage, “bless” can mean to invoke divine favor upon someone, to express reverence for God, to express gratitude for an act or a gift. The modern definition is definitely tinged with a deep historic embedding of Christian thought in the formation of the modern language. In Jesus’ day, a “blessing” was a word of acceptance, a proclamation that the person doing the blessing stood behind the person being blessed. In the days of the Patriarchs, the rights to rule over the household were conferred through blessing (reference Isaac unknowingly blessing Jacob instead of his firstborn, Esau, to find out how important this was in their culture).
The Greek word being rendered as “blessed are” in each of the statements in the English translation of the Beatitudes is the word makarios, which means “happy, blessed, to be envied.” In addition to reading the Beatitudes as “Blessed are…” you could also read them to say “Happy are…” but it is also appropriate to say “You should envy those who are…” Or, maybe, to avoid confusion with the sin of Envy you could render it “You should yearn or desire to be like those who are…”
As I said above, there are six qualities that are blessed which are permanent attributes of Kingdom citizens – to be poor in spirit (humility), to be meek (gentleness), to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, and to be peacemakers. These are the attributes that we are to strive for, to yearn after. I would say that it is especially appropriate to render these six statements as “You should yearn or desire to be like those who are…”
There are also three qualities or experiences which are temporal, and which will be removed when the Kingdom comes in its fullness to restore the creation to what the Creator intended: mourners will be comforted and mourning will cease (Revelation 7:17); the persecuted will possess the Kingdom of Heaven and persecutions will come to an end (Revelation 21:4); finally, those reviled for the sake of the Gospel will rejoice to be counted like the prophets, and the revilers will be made to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ (Philippians 2:10-11). To me, rendering these statements by Jesus as “Blessed are” or “Happy are” is especially appropriate, because it highlights that the merciful hand of God is with those who mourn, and divine favor is upon those who suffer for the cause of righteousness. These are qualities and experiences which all Kingdom citizens will possess or face at some point.
What further contrasts these three from the other six is that while the permanent attributes are characterizations of the Kingdom citizen, the three temporal attributes are either consequences of the Fall or reactions by the fallen world to the encroachment of the Kingdom. Mourning results from death and loss, which results from the sin of Adam. Persecution, revulsion, and hatred are reactions by the parasitic hold of sin on the world against the truth and health of the Kingdom.
You will note that I keep referring to the Beatitudes as qualities or experiences of Kingdom citizens. The Beatitudes form the first part of the discourse known as the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew (a similar sermon is found in Luke, and contains a shorter but similar list of blessings). The focus of Matthew’s gospel account is on what Jesus’ message means for the Jewish people, and it is steeped in references to Judaism, to the teachings that grew up with the rabbinical traditions. Part of the backdrop of the culture during Jesus’ ministry was a kind of Jewish nationalism that looked for a strongman Messiah who would kick out all of the Gentile oppressors (such as the Roman Empire) and restore a righteous kingdom on earth at Jerusalem. There were multiple rebellions during the time by people looking for the fulfillment of the words of the prophets in mighty men. Some of these people flocked to Jesus because they thought he was setting the stage for his own populist uprising that would restore the line of David to kingship in Israel.
In many ways, the Sermon on the Mount reads to me like a manifesto of what it actually means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. The beatitudes are like Jesus’ response to people saying, “we want to see God’s kingdom here and now!” with Jesus responding “Okay, but just so you know, this is what that looks like!” This reading has one significant potential for error: it can seem like Jesus, through the Beatitudes, is laying out a checklist for what someone outside the Kingdom needs to do to get inside the Kingdom, like what someone outside the United States might be expected to do to be legally allowed to live within the United States. This is not the case. Therefore, I insist on calling the statements in the Beatitudes “qualities” and not “acts” or “works.” The Beatitudes look for the blessed to be meek, not to act meek. One is the truth of a person, the other is hypocrisy. The Beatitudes are not what someone must do to become a Citizen; rather, a Citizen is already in possession of the Beatitudes.
Another way to think of the qualities enumerated in the Beatitudes, especially the six that I call “eternal” qualities, is to view them in the same way as the fruits of the Spirit. Just as the fruits of the Spirit are qualities that evidence a transformed life – rather than being acts or deeds that in themselves transform that life – so too are the qualities enumerated in the Beatitudes evidences of those who are already members of the Kingdom of God. I’ve tried to come up with secular parallels to this, using my hypothetical immigrant to the United States, but everything I come up with is rooted in the deeds of the one seeking citizenship – there are no uniquely “American” qualities that I can enumerate, if I’m being objective and putting aside patriotism for the sake of this essay.
Over the next several months, I invite you to explore each of these qualities with me. If, during your examination, you find that there are particular areas you struggle with or are especially difficult for you – do not be discouraged or overly dismayed! Our God has blessed us with a Comforter that speaks to us in our weaknesses to build us up, to urge us to growth. I find that I especially struggle with purity and against apathy towards injustice, as well as against pride in myself. But I know by faith that my prayers for mercy and acceptance are heard, and I now rarely see a day that goes by where some kind of growth is not evident to me. The Way of the Cross is not an easy or quick road, and our walk along it will not be finished in this life.
It is my hope that this series will bless you as you join me in examining that which Our Lord has called “blessed.”
Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.