Introduction to the Beatitudes
esus was in Galilee early in his three years of ministry proclaiming the exciting news of the Kingdom of God. He had already called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to be his spiritual apprentices and probably had many other students who wanted to learn from and be like the 30-year-old rabbi.
But there was a less serious group. They were following to see the magic show – the entertainment. Jesus was a profound teacher, but these were more interested in his healing miracles. There was no disease that he could not make right. To see the paralyzed who had never walked suddenly have muscles spread up their bony atrophied limbs must have been amazing. To watch lepers become clothed with smooth perfect skin, and young children with cleft palates suddenly there before them with perfectly formed mouths, all done at his command, would be unforgettable. Viewing the accompanying tears, laughter, joyous dancing, and happy chaos made it the best show in town. It appears this latter group far outnumbered the former. Matthew called them “the crowds.”
Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and the region across the Jordan followed him. 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:
I used to picture Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount and its introductory beatitudes to large numbers of people spread out neatly on the hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee. I now see that as an inaccurate picture. It was his disciples that he taught at the beginning. A rabbi’s students in 1st-century Jewish culture were ready to learn from their teacher. Jewish teachers typically stood to read the scriptures and sat down to expound upon the word of God. Jesus’ response to seeing the crowds was not to go down and heal people but go to a higher place and show that he was ready to teach. Those who were interested in learning from him gathered around him. The numbers likely grew as his teaching continued. Perhaps by the end of the Sermon, a good crowd had assembled. But the first words were for his disciples, not the crowds. His disciples were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. They were the ones to whom he directed the Beatitudes. These were the ones who heard the call of the Kingdom of Heaven and wanted to be a part of it.
There are conflicting interpretations of the Beatitudes. A popular view is that Jesus was calling the losers, those who had suffered loss, the pushovers, the empty, the people who forgive to a fault, the perfectionists, the people who always try to appease everyone, and the abused. This perspective says that Jesus was defining the recipients of the gospel. This view makes pretty good sense until we reach the third beatitude. Jesus was meek and gentle and wants us to be the same (Matthew 11:29). Jesus’ food was to do the will of the Father who sent him John 4:34. We are to be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful (Luke 6:36). Love comes from a pure heart 1 Timothy 1:5. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:18). Last of all, Jesus elaborates on his final beatitude by telling his disciples
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in this same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The beatitudes seem to be pointing us to what Jesus wants us to be, not what we already are.
Others see the 8 Beatitudes as badges of honor, righteousness, and sainthood. The Beatitudes are not belt levels in a spiritual martial arts program. The very idea violates the ideal of the first beatitude: recognizing how spiritually poor we are. Jesus constantly warned his disciples about the attitudes of the Pharisees. In Matthew 6:1, Jesus told his disciples: “Take care not to practice your righteousness in the sight of people, to be noticed by them; otherwise, you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” It is God who brings about the transformation of those who follow his Son. Participating in the Divine nature – leaves no cause for boasting.
So, when Jesus sat down and his students gathered around him, what would he have wanted to convey to them? I think it would be the essence of being a disciple. They were the ones who were seeking learning from him, not entertainment. Their focus was not the miracles but the one who produced the miracles – the one who owned and shared “the words of eternal life.” They desired spiritual benefits: they wanted the kingdom, goodness, new life. But what would that look like?
Jesus often began his parables with, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” He would teach the people the preciousness of being a member of the eternal, spiritual realm, describe to them the nature of the king of that kingdom, the power of his word, and how he would judge those who rejected the kingdom but graciously embrace those who entered into this spiritual realm. He explained these parables to his disciples (Mark 4:33-34). There was information meant only for Jesus’ disciples, not the crowd (unless they decided to become disciples), and it seems the Beatitudes also fell into this category. Here was the prospectus of the nature, benefits, and costs of the kingdom of God: the perfect, incredibly precious, and beautiful pearl from heaven.
The ones who gathered at Jesus’ feet had turned from their former unworkable lives, leaving everything behind. God wasn’t asking them to trade their former lives for a new life – he wanted them to let it go and leave their former ways by the side of the road. With that being done, they needed to know what it was like to live this new life of the kingdom. Jesus’ first words informed them of this new way, unlike any of the paths of men – “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” I picture him as he spoke these words, sweeping his hand, indicating all of those who had left the crowds and climbed up the hill to listen to him. “This is you, the poor in spirit who desire to be rich in spirit – yours is the kingdom of heaven.” From those first words, it was apparent that the citizens of this kingdom would be different from earthly nations. This concept went against human wisdom. If you choose a team to play flag football, you select the accomplished, the confident. What kind of spiritual team do you put together with that kind of criteria for the players?
The Beatitudes show the beginning of the road in following the rabbi, and this doesn’t come from saying the right words or going through the proper ritual. It starts in the heart, and all through the eight beatitudes, it stays in the heart. Jesus is straightforward, and these unexpected sayings are signposts upon the path which Jesus is leading them. They are not our accomplishments. They are the natural outcome of following Christ. These are the road signs letting us know that we are on the right path and increasingly becoming like him.
If I had been there that day by the mountainside, I hope that I would have been one of the ones who excused myself from the crowds, climbed the hill, and gathered around him to learn what he had to say about the kingdom. I guess that you would have been there too – soaking up those truths deep down into your heart. Earthly kingdoms and nations require loyalty and obedience to their laws. This kingdom was different. It wasn’t about acting differently or obeying the rules but becoming someone fresh and new.
The ones on the mountain were seeking another kind of miracle from God. It wasn’t the healing of their skin, muscles, bones, eyes, ears, or tongues. They wanted restoration deep in their hearts. They desired a return to the beginning when God spoke, and good sprang forth; a time when the Father walked with his creation. The Beatitudes summarized what children in the Father’s household would be like and how they would glorify him on the earth through their good lives.