The standards set in the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount are unlike anything that is known or can even be dreamed of by the old humanity. Left to ourselves, our natural beatitudes would go something like this: Blessed are the rich, for they have it all and have it all now; blessed are the happy, for they are content with themselves and don’t need others; blessed are the arrogant, for people defer to them; blessed are those who fight for the good things in life, for they will get them; blessed are the sophisticated, for they will have a good time.
By contrast, Jesus calls those “blessed” who are poor in spirit, who mourn for sin, who are meek, who hunger and thirst after righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who make peace and are persecuted.
What does blessed mean? The Greek word is sometimes rendered “happy,” but that is not good enough in our day since “happy” has become so debased. The Greek word for blessed is used to describe a person who is especially favored by God and who is in some sense happy or fortunate because of it. Our use of the word happy has to do with how we feel about something, and that is not the idea here at all. Besides, happy is based on the old Anglo Saxon word hap, which means chance, as in “whatever happens” or “happenstance.” Happiness is circumstantial – it is uncertain, temporary, and insecure. The blessedness of the Christian is not temporary or uncertain. It is unshakable.
The Beatitudes. What are the characteristics of those who are blessed by God? This version of Jesus’ sermon reveals eight characteristics, expressed as eight beatitudes. Let’s look at the first five:
1. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” This has nothing to do with poverty, because poverty in itself is not good. Jesus is not endorsing social exploitation, squalor, slums, or starvation. To be poor in spirit is to be poor in the inward man, not in outward circumstances, and (which is even more important) to know it. In other words, to be poor in spirit is to know one’s deep spiritual poverty before God.
The first great principle of the Sermon on the Mount, therefore, is to know that we cannot meet its standards by ourselves. It is not a list of high but attainable goals, as if we could motivate each other like CrossFit athletes, saying, “Come on now, you can do it! Just keep trying!”
2. “Blessed are those who mourn.” Mourn for what? If the first beatitude has to do with spiritual poverty and the hopeless state of a human being before God apart from grace, the second must refer to mourning for sin. And if that is correct, then the comfort promised is the comfort of the Gospel. “Comfort, comfort my people,” wrote Isaiah. Why? Because “her sin has been paid for,” the prophet answers (Is.40.2). That is the only true, effective, and lasting comfort for anyone, and it is just what is promised in Christ’s sermon. We often weep in this life, for our own sin and for the sin around us that harms so many people. But there is comfort in the Gospel, and we look forward to the day when sin will be removed forever and God “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”
3. “Blessed are the meek.” To most people today, meek means weak or lacking spirit, perhaps even cowardly. But that is not what Jesus is commending. Moses was the meekest man of his day, but he was anything but cowardly. A better word for meek would be gentle, but even this has to be explained. It is the gentleness of love, good manners, self-discipline, and, above all, quietly trusting and submitting oneself to God.
Many of the beatitudes are based on Old Testament texts; this one is taken directly from the Old Testament. It comes from Psalm 37.11, which says, “The meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” People like this are genuinely blessed by God. They also possess the earth because they take what God spreads before them and enjoy it, while others fight for more and fail to enjoy even what they have.
4. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” At this point it is natural to think of righteousness as the divine, imputed righteousness that those who have humbled themselves before God and mourn for sin desire. But this is probably not what Jesus is saying. The problem with this view is that righteousness is not used this way in Matthew; the idea of imputed righteousness is Pauline. In Matthew’s Gospel, righteousness refers to actual righteousness, expressing itself in right deeds. The people described in this verse are those who want to be righteous, to do what is right, and also long to see upright actions by other people and in other places. Jesus says they will experience this upright way of life through Himself and the power of His Gospel.
Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach 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 the sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”