The Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3–11, may be the best-known words of Jesus, besides John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer. But popularity is no guarantee of understanding, and many people know nothing more about the Beatitudes than to call them “the blesseds.”
Understanding the form and force of biblical sentences beginning with the word “blessed” opens for us enriching vistas of Christian hope. Recognizing the role of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount fills out the context, helping us understand and apply these words of Jesus.
Words of Good Fortune
The word “beatitude” came into English from Latin. The Vulgate (the standard Latin translation of the Bible from roughly AD 400 to 1400) uses the word beati for each “blessed.” The Greek word is makarios.1 In ancient Greek literature, this word described the state of the gods and of people who enjoy extraordinary good fortune (2). It came to be associated with the rich because their wealth provided freedom from the ordinary pressures of most people.
The Septuagint (the third-century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses makarios consistently to translate the Hebrew word ashre, which means fortunate, happy, or blessed. The Hebrew Bible uses ashre to describe when one person blesses another; when God is involved, it uses a different word (barak or ashar). So for both the Hebrew ashre and the Greek makarios, the purpose is to speak congratulations because things will go well with the recipient of the blessing (3).
Some beatitudes identify the recipient(s) with a second-person pronoun, “you” (almost always a plural “you”). Others use a third-person noun, “blessed are the …” or “blessed are they who …” (4). Fascinatingly, Matthew has eight third-person beatitudes (5:3–10), followed by one second-person plural beatitude (5:11). Each beatitude pronounces a blessing of good fortune on the recipient(s) and usually concludes with the reason for the blessing. For example, in the first beatitude of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, “blessed” pronounces the good fortune of the recipients, “the poor in spirit,” and the beatitude concludes with the reason for the blessing, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” All the beatitudes follow this pattern. The Greek word most commonly translated “for” (hoti) indicates the cause of something, and perhaps should be translated “because” or “since.”
Words of Power
A long Christian tradition of interpretation has understood the Beatitudes as requirements for Christians to live up to. This often leads to people trying to figure out how they can become “poor in spirit” or “meek” in order to receive the promised blessing.
It is more consistent to understand the Beatitudes as effective words of blessing. It is clear from the Old Testament that words are powerful and able to accomplish or bring to reality that which is spoken. We can see the effectiveness of a blessing in the account of Isaac blessing Jacob while thinking he was blessing Esau (Gen 27). Even after Jacob’s deception is discovered, the blessing Isaac promised him cannot be recalled nor reversed. The very act of speaking the blessing begins to put into effect the promises made in the blessing.
In this same way, Jesus’ Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount are best understood as effective words bringing into reality the promises of each specific beatitude for each named recipient. The first beatitude (Matt 5:3) states that the poor in spirit will possess the kingdom of heaven; the final third-person beatitude (5:10) also promises possession of the kingdom of heaven. Accordingly, it is best to understand the promised blessings as the blessings of the kingdom that Jesus was announcing—and bringing to reality—in his ministry. The poor in spirit are fortunate because the kingdom of heaven will become the defining reality of their lives.
People do not need to try to figure out how to be poor in spirit or to mourn when those are not present realities in their lives. Rather, when poverty of spirit does become a reality, there is profound hope because the kingdom belongs to those who experience that poverty of spirit. Naturally, when the fifth beatitude pronounces good fortune for the merciful, we should desire to be merciful. But this beatitude announces good news to merciful people, rather than functioning as a taskmaster demanding that we be merciful.
Words of Hope
The Beatitudes serve as announcements of God’s grace upon the lives of those in desperate need of such grace. This function fits their location at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ teaching begins not with God’s demands, but with God’s grace spoken into reality through the Beatitudes.
Ethical commands will come in due time in the unfolding of the sermon (see page 37), but the first word is a gospel word of grace and blessing. The Beatitudes don’t simply introduce the Sermon on the Mount. Because the kingdom is such a prominent theme throughout Matthew, these effective words of kingdom blessings provide an important introduction to this entire Gospel.
These blessings are spoken to people in significant need. Matthew’s first four beatitudes address the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Such recipients were (and are) on the bottom end of the honor-shame scale; they experienced life as grim and hopeless. Jesus spoke into reality blessing and good fortune to these recipients, providing hope in ways that modern, middle-class Christians can hardly imagine.
Matthew’s beatitudes for the merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers speak a word of hope for followers of Christ who face overwhelming cruelty, impurity, and conflict. The Beatitudes conclude with blessings for those who are persecuted and hated for their Christian faith. We would never desire to be persecuted and hated, but if that happens, Christ has spoken blessing into reality for us. That is good news, indeed.