First words make first impressions. That’s one of the things they tell you in public speaking classes. You need to capture your audience from the very beginning. At the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus captures his audience by turning culture and religious life upside down. Everything that his audience is seeking after, Jesus says find the opposite. Everything they don’t want, Jesus says they need in abundance. Right from the beginning, Jesus is preaching a subversive, countercultural, counter-empire message about the radically different community of God.
He begins with Beatitudes. These introductory statements of Jesus are all beatitudes because of the Latin word for “blessed”—beatudio. When the New Testament was translated from its original Greek into Latin, this was the word that was used and a form of it is what has remained ever since.
When you think of being blessed, what comes to mind? For many it has to do with wealth, health and happiness—overcoming a challenge, being provided an opportunity, or living an easy life.
And throughout history, we see that this is the common, accepted meaning of blessedness. Around two hundred years before Jesus spoke these words, there was another prominent rabbi who gave his own list of those who are blessed. Yeshua ben Sirach was a traveling rabbi in the second century BC who wrote a volume called Ecclesiasticus.
This is a unique book to Jewish tradition because there were some in the time of Jesus who actually considered these words to be authoritative. Even today, in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, the book of Ecclesiasticus is considered part of the biblical canon. Martin Luther even said that they “are not held equal to the Sacred Scriptures and yet are useful and good for reading.”
In his book, Sirach says this;
I can think of nine whom I would call blessed, and a tenth my tongue proclaims:
a man who can rejoice in his children; a man who lives to see the downfall of his foes.
8 Happy the man who lives with a sensible wife,
and the one who does not plow with ox and donkey together.
Happy is the one who does not sin with the tongue,
and the one who has not served an inferior.
9 Happy is the one who finds a friend,
and the one who speaks to attentive listeners.
Now these are blessings! The blessed life is the life of someone who doesn’t have to serve his inferiors, lives with a sensible wife, has enough money that his ox and donkey aren’t forced to share a yoke, and is popular. So from the ancient world to the secular world to the modern Christian life, our definition of blessed focuses on the outcome in this life—it is about earthly success and position.
The blessed life becomes synonymous with a successful life. A loving marriage, obedient children, a vibrant ministry, a healthy body, a successful career, trusted friends, financial abundance — if these are the characteristics of a blessed life, then having all of them should translate into an extraordinarily blessed life. But is that the sort of life we see being blessed in the Sermon on the Mount?
Is blessedness about adhering to the rules and doing the right thing? Is it a result of tithing and reading Scripture and attending church? Not according to Jesus later in chapter 5:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.
The scribes and Pharisees were the epitome of rule-followers and yet Jesus says they will not receive the kingdom.
Is financial success an example of God’s blessing? Jesus is clear in Matthew 6 that it is not. He advocates against storing up wealth on earth:
Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.
What about displaying the work of God in power or preaching and evangelizing and having success? Surely that’s a sign of God’s blessing. Yet Jesus says in Matthew 7:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
Being popular, keeping the rules, having possessions, doing miracles, are not necessarily marks of God’s approval. According to Jesus, God’s favor is on those who divest themselves of what the world thinks of blessedness and instead accepts the blessedness of God. The blessed life that Jesus promises is much different than the one we’ve envisioned.
God’s favor is on the poor, Jesus says. God’s favor is on those who lack something? Surely then, their blessedness is because God takes them out of this poverty and gives them wealth and riches. But no, he doesn’t. God’s favor is on the poor in spirit for they shall become rich in spirit? Not quite. God’s favor is on they who are persecuted for they shall see justice done to their persecutors? Not exactly. God’s favor is on they who mourn, for their reasons for mourning shall be undone? Not at all.
There is no hint of material prosperity or perfect circumstances or earthly happiness in any New Testament reference to blessedness—and it happens 112 times throughout the New Testament, not just here in Matthew 5. On the contrary, blessing is typically connected with either poverty and trial or the spiritual benefits of being joined by faith to Jesus. Maybe blessed isn’t the best way to define this term after all.
Scot McKnight writes:
A blessed person is someone who, because of a heart for God, is promised and enjoys God’s favor regardless of that person’s status.
So here’s our definition for this series: It’s not about being blessed or being happy, it’s about having God’s favor. What Jesus is saying is that God’s favor rests upon those who are part of his kingdom, and these are the types of people that make up its citizens. A better translation, one that fully grasps the meaning of this biblical blessedness, may be “God’s favor is upon…”
God plays favorites. There are people he favors. God is always on the side of the underdog. Always on the side of the oppressed. Always on the side of those in need.
3 “God’s favor is on the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 God’s favor is on those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 God’s favor is on the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 God’s favor is on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 God’s favor is on the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 God’s favor is on the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 God’s favor is on the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 God’s favor is on those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount—the Constitution of this new community of God—by telling his followers the kind of people God wants them to be.
In these eight Beatitudes, we have our preamble to the Constitution. We, the people of God, in order to form this new kingdom community do hereby give ourselves over to the rule of the Holy Spirit, to be transformed into Christ’s ambassadors, so that God’s favor can be within us and work through us.