How do we make sense of the Beatitudes?

The Beatitudes—the collection of sayings that introduce the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in Matt 5, with their parallel in Luke 6—are amongst some of the most memorable of the teachings of Jesus. They are often cited as favourite texts, and are referred to as a key element of Jesus’ (challenging and puzzling) radical social ethics. But most people have an easy grasp of them, as David Wenham explored in a paper that he gave to July’s Tyndale NT Study Group in Cambridge:

The Beatitudes that open the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel are some of the best known and most loved sayings in the Bible. But, although they are full of great phrases and attractive resonances, aren’t they a bit of a mess, a rather jumbled-up collection of blessed thoughts? There are nine of them: there is repetition with two of them having the identical promise ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ – did the author run out of promises? The promise with those two is in the present tense, but in all the others is future, e.g. ‘they will be comforted’. There is duplication, with two of the beatitudes speaking of the same group – the persecuted. Most of the beatitudes are in the third person, e.g. ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’, ‘they will be comforted’, but the last is in the second ‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you’. Some of them seem to be encouragements to people under pressure, (e.g. the persecuted), others to be commendations of the righteous (e.g. the pure in spirit).

David explored the common explanations for such inconsistencies, which often involve theories of composition based on the hypothetical common source for Matthew and Luke (the so-called and non-existent ‘Q’) but then went on to make his own observations about the structure of the text as we have it in Matthew.

(The structure is slightly clearer in the Greek text, because of the simpler structure of the verb forms.) This leads to a number of observations:

  • The eight beatitudes can be viewed as two stanzas: the first four beatitudes are 36 words in the Greek (and all begin with the letter pi), the second four are also 36 words.
  • The first beatitude has a promise in the third person ‘For theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ and so does the last beatitude. It is wholly unlikely that this repetition is the result of editorial fatigue with the writer having run out of promises, and very likely that it is deliberate, creating an inclusio. This suggests the not very surprising conclusion that the beatitudes and indeed the Sermon on the Mount, to which they are a prelude, are about the kingdom of heaven.
  • The other six beatitudes have a variety of promises with a future tense, so that we have in the first half, one present tense + three future tenses, and in the second half the mirror image with three future tenses + one present tense. This makes sense given what we have already suggested about the first and the last forming an inclusio. It also suggests that in fact all the beatitudes are promising the kingdom of heaven to people, with beatitudes 1 and 8 making the promise in general terms, beatitudes 2-7 unpacking that general promise in concrete ways appropriate to the people concerned (hence most clearly ‘those who mourn…will be comforted’, ‘the merciful…will receive mercy’. The kingdom of heaven belongs now to the people whom Jesus describes, but fully entering into the inheritance and experiencing the practical blessings of the kingdom, i.e. the comforting, the seeing God, etc., still lie in the future. So the Beatitudes reflect what we see elsewhere of NT ‘partially realised’ eschatology.
  • The emphatic focus of the Beatitudes is that of ‘righteousness’, which in Matthew means holy and ethical action, and is a non-negotiable sign of the kingdom of God—see, for example, two key texts: 5:20 ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven’ and 6:33 ‘Seek first the kingdom and his (i.e. God’s) righteousness’. This is a distinctive theme of Matthew, who repeats the term seven times in all.

David then goes on to explore in depth the significance of the two halves of the structure, and justifying his view:

The conditions described in beatitudes 1-4 – poor in spirit, mourn, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness – all suggest need of some sort, with the possible exception of no 3, ‘the meek’, which could be seen as more ethical; the conditions described in beatitudes 5-8 all suggest people living positive kingdom lives – being merciful, pure in heart, peace-makers, and righteous.

And out of all this analysis David notes that ‘the beatitudes are carefully constructed and are a prologue and introduction to the Sermon that is to follow.’ And he also observes how these sayings accord with the NT’s theology of grace:

The argument for the two stanza structure has been made, and is strong. But still how do the two stanzas relate to each other? They are both about people to whom the kingdom of heaven is given and belongs. The first stanza portrays them as people who are under pressure and hungry for God’s righteousness and justice to come, i.e. for his kingdom to come and his will to be done; the second portrays them as people whose lives are already demonstrating the kingdom and the will of God being done – by being merciful, pure and peace-making. The relationship of the two stanzas has often been explained in terms of dependence on God and his grace on the one hand, the starting-point of kingdom of heaven membership, and of transformation and kingdom living in love on the other. The Sermon on the Mount will develop and explain the second theme at length – living kingdom righteousness – but before that it is important to recognize the starting point of grace.

This reading connects the Beatitudes in Matthew with Is 61, which is more explicitly connected with the Beatitudes in Luke—though of course Matthew does cite Is 61 later in Jesus answer to John the Baptist (in Matt 11). ‘The parallels are not total, but there is what we could call an Isaianic logic to the shift of focus in beatitudes 5-8, which also prepares us for the Sermon on the Mount, which is going to describe much more fully what kingdom righteousness and following Jesus look like.’ David concludes his paper (to be published in a collection in honour of John Nolland in LNTS):

We are now in a position to answer our question about the purpose of the beatitudes: what are these blessed sayings doing? What does Matthew think Jesus is doing? The answer is threefold: first, he is proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, identifying and congratulating those who are coming to him and coming into the kingdom and who will receive its amazing blessings . Jesus is thus fulfilling Isaiah 61 with its description of the Spirit-filled one proclaiming good news to the poor and to those of God’s people who mourn. Secondly, he is describing those to whom the kingdom of heaven is given, and their characteristics. The beatitudes highlight first their need, their sadness and their longings for justice, but then sum up what their lives as disciples and kingdom people will (and should) look like – merciful, pure in heart, peace-makers. Thirdly, the beatitudes form a brilliant preface to the Sermon, putting it in the context of the good news, introducing us to the key themes of kingdom of heaven and of righteousness, which the sermon will then expound.

I think David’s exploration of the Beatitudes is both fascinating and persuasive. But I am also fascinated by some of the implications of his study for our own wider approach to reading the NT and following the example of Jesus’ teaching.

First, despite many centuries of comment by others, it is actually possible still to make genuinely new observations about the text of the NT and of Jesus’ teaching. How can this be possible? In short, because all commentators bring to the text (ourselves included) their own presuppositions and assumptions, and so a close, disciplined reading of the text itself—allowing it to shape us, rather than the other way around—always has the potential to yield fresh insights. I have found this repeatedly in my reading of Revelation; too many commentators try to fit the text into pre-determined schemes, knowing what the text ‘must’ mean, rather than letting it speak for itself.

Secondly, David is here demonstrating what it means to enter into the world of the text. This was a world where numbers mattered, and where people paid very close attention to individual words and phrases. We should therefore not be surprised to find—either in Jesus’ own teaching (which he might have given in Greek…?) or in Matthew’s summary of it—careful numerical structure and balanced composition, making it easier to memorise.

Thirdly, this in turn says something about our own reading and attention to the text for our own understanding and devotion and (if we are in a position to do so) our own preaching. There is a right move to consider texts in their wider context, and a wariness of a focus on too much detail which misses the wider picture. But Jesus’ teaching is full of pithy apothegms and memorable sayings, which often summarise or anticipate his other teaching. So we do need to attend to the detail—though without losing the bigger picture.

Fourthly, if carefully crafted, memorable sayings were important for Jesus and his teaching, shouldn’t ours be? Why shouldn’t I work on developing a memorable, structured, rhythmic saying for each of my sermons, which sums up the main points of application in a way that people can remember—or perhaps Tweet about later?

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11 thoughts on “How do we make sense of the Beatitudes?”

  1. I’ve always taken the first four to be ethical too, referring to the proper attitude that kingdom people take to world and self. Thus poor in spirit refers to a humble and contrite spirit which recognises its need. Mourn refers to those who mourn for the sin and state of the world which has turned its back on God. Meek references psalm 37 and refers to those who trust and wait on God. Hunger and thirst for righteousness refers to the longing for justice and God’s kingdom rule.

    I’ve also always felt that the blessings crescendo: receive comfort, inherit the earth, be satisfied, receive mercy, see God, become children of God.

  2. Ian, more than once you’ve drawn attention to the importance of numbers, gematria, etc. Is there scope for you to write or commission a Grove Book on this topic. I’d find it enormously helpful and I presume others would as well.

  3. I have been persuaded that there is a greater earthiness to the Beatitudes and that they should not be too quickly spiritualised. Luke has much more “real” blessings and woes in the somewhat parallel verses (Luke 6:20ff).
    The phrase “poor in spirit” is a difficult one. What does the “in spirit” add to the beggars / poor? It does not seem to mean those who are dependent on God, and Jesus encourages us to store up treasures in heaven, which would encourage being spiritually wealthy. “In spirit” in the OT tends to be about misfortune and broken-ness – eg the Hebrews in Ex 6:9 or Hannah in 1 Sam 1:15. Is this not those who are really poor such that they are broken in their spirit as well?
    Those who mourn seems straightforward; these are people whose loved ones have died. In many cases this will create greater poverty and anxiety, as well as personal anguish.
    The “meek” is probably from Psalm 37 where I think the Hebrew word is also one that indicates poverty, and here the reward is that those who are deprived will receive land/ inherit the earth.
    The fourth blessing, for those who are hungry and thirsty for justice / righteousness – again the phrase is not easy but the reward is that they will be “feasted”. These last two have a very visual reward, land and food for the land-deprived and those who have suffered injustice.
    Taken together the first four seem to be about blessing for the poor, grieving, land-less and those who lack justice, with the first being in some way the over-riding one which will be expanded in three ways in the next three blessings.
    The second four then are about blessing for those who – having more power or resources or influence use what they have to alleviate the injustices and the suffering and the exclusion, so they are merciful, showing hesed, they are clean in their hearts, not just white-washed on the outside, they are peace makers, makers of shalom, and they side with the persecuted.
    I think the same dual concern can be found consistently through the gospels and through Scripture, God’s concern for the poor who are oppressed, excluded and unblessed in the world /by the world, and the challenge for us who are not in that category to be alongside and on their behalf.
    The inclusio of these blessings then ties in those who are the poorest and those whose faith leads them to work for shalom and live out God’s love.
    I don’t think this denies the message of salvation but it does challenge an overly spiritual view of salvation, but then doesn’t Jesus / Matthew do so consistently? It is by the fruit that we are known, the one who will enter the Kingdom is the one who does the will of God (7:21) and the wise person is the one who hears Jesus’ words and does them (Matt 7:24)

    • The idea that the world is divided into the poor who are passive and need to be beneficiaries of ethical action and the rich who are active and need to be agents of ethical action is not a sound scriptural one cf. the widow’s mite. It is more socialist than scriptural.

      The call to repentance and righteousness is for all, rich and poor.

      Luke’s blessings are more material, certainly, but Matthew’s are heavily spiritual, with the addition of ‘in spirit’ and ‘for righteousness’. Those who are hungering and thirsting for justice/righteousness will presumably be satisfied with justice, which they were hungering for, rather than food. The meek is a clear reference to Psalm 37:11, where to be meek is identified with waiting on the Lord, refraining from anger and being righteous:

      8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
      Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
      9 For the wicked shall be cut off,
      but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
      10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
      though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
      11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
      and delight themselves in abundant prosperity…
      27 Depart from evil, and do good;
      so you shall abide forever.
      28 For the Lord loves justice;
      he will not forsake his faithful ones.
      The righteous shall be kept safe forever,
      but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
      29 The righteous shall inherit the land,
      and live in it forever.

      The comfort of the kingdom for those who mourn is presumably the salvation of God for the righteous. This can include mourning the death of a loved one and the comfort of knowing they’re with God (that is part of the kingdom hope and comfort), but the context suggests that the primary object of mourning is the state of the world in the absence of the kingdom of God, with sin, injustice and death. The comfort is the coming kingdom and the end of sin, injustice and death and the salvation of the righteous.

      Understood thus, all the beatitudes include an ethical imperative, which is as you’d expect in Matthew with his emphasis on the connection between righteousness and the kingdom of heaven. Importantly, the poor are moral agents too.

    • Please read Charles Spurgeon’s beautiful breakdown of what all the beatitudes mean -but specifically the poor in spirit one. It will change how you (all of us) look at all these for the better.

  4. I welcome this kind of insightful scholarship as it delves into an important Jesus tradition of poetry as a didactic method.

    That said, I must admit some discomfort with the statement that ‘the emphatic focus of the Beatitudes is that of ‘righteousness’, which in Matthew means holy and ethical action’.

    While this is indeed its result, but Matthaen righteousness is focused on fulfilling and being reconciled to God’s will, as it is revealed and should be understood by our consciences.

    So, when we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, where He replied to John: ‘ “Let it be so now; it is appropriate for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”, we should relate this to His later question to the Pharisees: ‘”Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?”

    Jesus had no need of a baptism of repentance, but, in submission the Father, baptism was part of fulfilling God’s revealed will.

    Also, the beatitudes are more about reassurance than celebration. They are not so much conditions for divine blessing as they are signs of blessing.

    So, Jesus reassures that God will satisfy those who hunger and thirst for the fulfilment of His will in their own and others’ lives. (Matt. 5:6)
    He also reassures that God’s invincible kingdom belongs to those who are persecuted because they proclaim God’s will (the prophet) and seek its fulfillment (the righteous) (Matt. 5:10)

    Later in Matthew’s gospel, there is more reassurance and warning:
    In foretelling intense persecution (Matt. 10:34-39), Jesus reassures that God will equally reward those who assist others in their mission to fulfil God’s will (Matt. 10:41)

    However, as we seek the fulfillment of God’s will, we are warned to avoid ostentation or pursuit of worldly recognition (Matt. 6:1) As we all know, such ostentation, or public religiosity, results from aspiring towards public (instead of divine) affirmation.

    We are reminded to concentrate on fulfilling God’s will, as He reveals it to us, safe in the knowledge of His invincible providence (Matt. 6:33)

    So, the central concept behind the kingdom of heaven is the fulfillment of God’s eternal will, which is His supreme gift to us. God grants us repentance in order to fulfill His will for us to believe in Christ.

    As the fulfillment of God’s eternal will for u, this kingdom is ever-enduring life. This gift outweighs every cost which it might incur, including ostracism and hostility or even death. It is the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45-46)

    • Second sentence of paragraph 6 should read: ‘They are not so much conditions for divine blessing as they are the unmistakeable hallmarks of divine blessing’.


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