Sunday, September 18, 2016

Introduction to the Beatitudes


What comes to mind when you hear the word "bless"? Maybe a pious "have a blessed day," or "How are you?" "I'm blessed!" We have a sense in those cases that it means something like "good." When someone sneezes, we might say "God bless you!," hoping, through various traditions, that the sneeze does not fortell greater harm. So great is the power of "bless," that it can turn an insult into a kindness. "She couldn't cook a casserole if Betty Crocker were holding both of her hands - bless her heart." Well, maybe not.

In the ancient Greek world, the word began with the "blessed gods," who did not have to work, but could rest on Mount Olympus. The wealthy and the dead were called blessed, because they too were considered free of pain and work. The Intervarsity Press Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels summarizes it well: "The Greek blessings reveal what was valued and what was thought to make for earthly happiness: a lovely bride, excellent children, moral rectitude, wisdom, wealth, honor and fame." So we see that to be blessed was to stand in favor and privilege; happy, while an imperfect translation, does catch a glimpse of it.

Jesus Turns Things Around

It is surprising then, to find the same Greek word on the lips of Jesus in Matthew 5:2 and following.

 "Blessed are the poor in spirit.... Blessed are they that mourn... Blessed are the meek (or the gentle)... Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness... Blessed are the merciful... Blessed are the pure in heart... Blessed are the peacemakers...Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake.... Blessed are ye, when all men shall revile (or mock) you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for My sake."

That does not sound like the blessed state of the gods, the obscenely wealthy or the peaceful dead! It does not sound like the state of favor and privilege which produces happiness, and it is certainly a long way from a lovely bride, wealth and fame. Poverty, gentleness, mourning and persecution are not the traits that we associate with  celebrity tycoons.

What Jesus is proposing here is nothing short of revolutionary. Throughout history, power has changed hands many times without changing form. Every few years, we elect new politicians who are very much like the old ones. At work, your boss may change, but the basic way of doing things never does. In the so-called American Revolution, power moved from the King to the President and the Parliament to the Congress. In the so-called French Revolution, power moved from the clergy and the nobility to the merchants and the military. In our daily lives, there is no real revolution, only renovation.

But at the very beginning of His preaching ministry, Jesus offers us something different.  There is an invasion going on. The King of Heaven has come down, and His Kingdom will not be a redecorated version of the same old world. Human kings might put a fresh coat of paint on the termite ridden palace and call it good, but Jesus the Christ would settle for nothing less than a complete overthrow and a clean slate. Put differently, this revolution would not change the winners, but the meaning of winning.

So dramatic is the change that in Matthew 19:18, Jesus talked about sitting on His throne of glory in the regeneration. The world itself will, translating literally, be born again. It was not for nothing that the pagans in Thessalonica said: "These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also." (Acts 17:6).

Some Basic Principles

In the coming days, we will look at each of the beatitudes in more detail. Today, we can see the shape of them. The most dramatic all include a future reveral. Those that mourn are blessed: for they shall be comforted. Those who are gentle are blessed, for they shall inherit the earth. The persecuted are blessed because the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. The reviled and persecuted are blessed, because their reward is great in Heaven.

Our present circumstances must be compared to our future blessings.

When we understand the goal of something, we can tolerate it. someone exercises today to be healthier tomorrow. If the pain and heartache of this life never ended, it might be unbearable. But when Jesus promises that the mourners will be comforted and the inheritance of the poor will be the earth itself, He fixes a light of hope at the end of the tunnel.  Our present circumstances are put into perspective by the glorious unfolding of history.

Our future blessings make us blessed now.

This is probably the really shocking thing. The average Pharisee would agree that many wrongs would eventually be righted by God. But Jesus is saying something much deeper. He doesn't say "Blessed will be the poor" - but "Blessed are the poor." Because the King is here, the Kingdom has arrived. The blessings are not full grown yet, but like a tree root smashing a sidewalk from below or, even better, yeast working its way through a lump of dough, it is subverting the very world it exists in.

 Although Jesus will not wipe every tear from our eyes now, we can be comforted by the promise of comfort. Because Jesus rose from the dead, His promises are so sure and unshakable that they might as well be already fulfilled.

Sometimes people will say that they want to become a Christian in case they die. But the Beatitudes show us that we can enjoy those eternal blessings right now. We may not be freed from the presence of sin now, but we are blessed to know that we will be. We may not see God now, but the certainty that we will makes us blessed. We may not sit on clouds like the Greek myths, but we, recognizing our own poverty of spirit, are blessed because we can rest in the finished work of Jesus.


Of course, this reversal of values is seen even in the method of the Kingdom's conquest. Jesus does not establish His foothold by killing, but by being killed. Not by dying in a military strategy for His friends, but for His enemies. On the cross, Jesus proved that He took His own teaching seriously. By losing His life, He found it again, for Himself and all those who would turn from their sin and trust in Him.

Howard Hendricks said that most people never think, they just rearrange their prejudices. As we prepare in the coming days to work our way through the Beatitudes and see the situations that God calls good, it is my prayer that you will brace your heart for more than a rearranging of old ideas, but that you will let the radical invasion of the Dominion of Heaven turn your priorities upside down.

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