Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Beatitudes: Introduction

Over the next several weeks, I will be posting a series on the Beatitudes as they are recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew (5:1-12). Here I want to make some general observations about the Beatitudes. They read as follows:

"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.'"
1. The Beatitudes are descriptions of Jesus' disciples. It is the disciples of Jesus who are the primary audience of this teaching: "his disciples came to him." He had begun calling His disciples in chapter 4, telling them to follow Him, and now they begin to learn what it means to follow Jesus. He is not giving principles of generic morality which you can plug in to any religion. He is talking about those who follow Jesus (4:19), who suffer for His name’s sake (5:11), who will be judged by Jesus on the basis of their relationship with Jesus (7:21-27).

2. Jesus says these things on a mountain. We are not sure what mountain this is - it could be a reference to the Galilean hills - but obviously the identity of the mountain is not the point. The point is that Jesus was on a mountain. In this way, He was like Moses at Mount Sinai. Both of them delivered from a mountain the words of the covenant that define our relationship with God. God's covenant includes promises of blessings to covenant-keepers (Deut. 28:1-14), and in the Sermon on the Mount we find this especially in the Beatitudes. The covenant also includes the promise of curses on those who forsake the covenant (Deut. 28:15-68), and we find this especially at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in 7:15-27.

3. This is not a normal description of the good life. The world seeks after the good life and argues about the way it is to be found. Is it found by fulfilling your desires now, enjoying this world to the max? Or is it found by the suppression of your desires, resigning yourself to your fate?

Jesus taught that the blessed life is found, not by following some technique, but by participating in the kingdom of heaven. The blessedness of this kingdom does not come all at once. It does not fulfill your desires, neither does it suppress them, but directs them to an increasing and eternal fulfillment. It is a kingdom of hope. It looks to the blessings that come from the God who is in heaven, blessings which begin now and culminate in the age to come.

And one comes to enjoy this blessedness in an unexpected way - it comes through the hard road of discipleship. To enjoy the blessings of the kingdom, you must repent of your sins and turn to Christ. The Beatitudes are an explanation of Jesus' basic proclamation from the previous chapter: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (4:17). Each of the initial descriptions (e.g. the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, etc.) are variations on repentance. And as is made clear by the identical reference to the kingdom in the first and last beatitudes, each of the blessings listed in the other beatitudes are variations on what it is to participate in the kingdom of heaven.

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