The Beatitudes, recorded in Matthew 5:1-12, are one of those beloved passages that Christians have read and studied over the centuries. As part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), it contains some wonderful truths that God’s people, young and old, should understand. But the text can also be challenging. If we’re not careful we’ll read it (and teach it) as a random collection of moral commands rather than a careful presentation of Jesus’ core teaching on the Kingdom of God. Note: a printable PDF version of this article is available here.
The First Audience
The Beatitudes should be read first as a message to the Jews of Jesus’ day. They are, after all, the audience to which Jesus was speaking. But such a reading also makes sense in the context of Matthew as a whole. Jesus is challenging God’s people (the people of Israel) to be the people they were called and created to be from the beginning. (See N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 288.)
This doesn’t mean the passage has nothing to say to people today, particularly the church as the “true Israel” (Wright, p. 289) and “Israel expanded” (Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy, p. 89). Still, it is always best to look first at what the original audience was hearing and what the writer/speaker intended for them to hear.
The Poor in Spirit
Jesus’ audience would have understood the phrase “the poor in spirit” (v. 3) as a reference to the Jewish people living under the oppression of Rome. The poverty of their “spirit” would have been reflected in the words of Nehemiah centuries earlier after the formal end of the Babylonian exile when he prayed…
“Here we are today, slaves in the land You gave our ancestors so that they could enjoy its fruit and goodness. Here we are — slaves in it! Its abundant harvest goes to the kings You have set over us, because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and our livestock as they please. We are in great distress.” Nehemiah 9:36-37
Nothing truly had changed in the centuries since Nehemiah. The people were still “slaves in the land” God had given them. For all practical purposes the exile had not ended. The people of Jesus’ day were still “in great distress.” They were “poor in spirit.”
But Jesus declares these people actually “are blessed,” because “the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” Jesus’ hearers would have heard this as a reference to their unique covenant status with God (Yahweh). They believed the “kingdom of heaven” belonged to them (the Jews). And, they certainly would have considered this a blessing, but they would not have perceived their current situation (“slaves in the land” God had given them) as a blessing. But that explains part of Jesus’ purpose here. He is hitting the reset button on the Jewish understanding of God’s kingdom.
Jesus wanted them to understand and rejoice in the reality that the kingdom belongs to the Jews, but the kingdom He is announcing is not the kingdom they were expecting. In fact, in the true Kingdom of God, everything will be turned upside down and very different from the world’s understanding of kingdom, an understanding that the Jews had adopted. The beatitudes, then, become a clarification of what Yahweh’s true kingdom would be.
Verse 3, then, introduces the discourse (the entire Sermon on the Mount) by saying, in essence, “Yes, you are poor in spirit because you still feel you are in exile and powerless against “the kings” (Neh. 9:6) that rule over you, but you have reason to rejoice because you are, in fact, the owners of God’s kingdom, but the arriving kingdom is not what you are expecting.”
The “poor in spirit” would stand in contrast to those who were content with the status quo and the current power structures of the day, including the religious power structures. The “poor in spirit” would be those who long for God to restore the Davidic kingdom, but feel powerless, individually and corporately, to bring it to pass. They are, in fact, the very ones God would use to usher in His true kingdom! “You feel powerless, but in reality, the Kingdom of God belongs to YOU precisely because you see no hope in the worldly power structures.
This establishes an important principle at the beginning of the sermon… the Kingdom of God belongs to those who place no hope in the world’s power structures. That’s because the Kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of this world (John 18:36, 1 Sam. 8:5). To think and live as “kingdom” people, we must not think like the world. The things that would make us powerless and “poor in spirit” in the eyes of the world are the very things that prepare us to be the true owners of the Kingdom of God.
This new kingdom paradigm continues to reveal itself in verses 4-10. Let’s break it down…
Those Who Mourn
“Israel, you are mourning (v. 4) because you remain in exile. But your exile continues because you need forgiveness from sin (Neh. 9:37). Those who understand that the end of exile will come only with the forgiveness of sin will be truly comforted because they will understand the problem isn’t one of political and military power, but spiritual power.”
Israel had long imagined they would “inherit the earth” (v. 5), but it was assumed this would be through political power at the expense of the other nations. Worldly political power always is exercised at the expense of others, but the true kingdom citizens who will inherit the earth will be “the gentle.” This is the world’s way turned upside down.
Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness
The “righteousness” (v. 6) imagined and hoped for by the Jews of Jesus’ day was not a personal righteousness, but a corporate justice that would see Israel’s national vindication before the pagan nations of the world. Such hope assumed worldly and military conquest of her enemies, but Jesus’ kingdom paradigm, again, turns this upside down. Those who are “filled” (satisfied) will be those who seek satisfaction through true righteousness and the forgiveness of sins. Kingdom righteousness is a spiritual righteousness, not national vengeance.
Mercy (v. 7), not self-preservation, is the hallmark of those who desire mercy. When you’re at “the mercy” of a foreign power, you wish to be “shown mercy.” But, if you are given the chance to turn the tables, will you show mercy? Showing mercy to the Romans would not be the thing Jesus’ hearers would want to do if they suddenly found themselves in power. But mercy, not domination, is the way of God’s kingdom.
The Pure in Heart
The notion of seeing God went back to Moses’ encounter with Yahweh at Sinai (Ex. 33:19-23). Seeing God’s glory would be too much for any human, but the idea of seeing their God in His glory would be a wonderful thing for anyone in Jesus’ audience. But those who longed to “see God” (v. 8) would have to learn that purity of heart is what is needed, not an external piety expressed in behavioral adherence to the law while the heart was self-centered, as with the Pharisees.
The Jews prided themselves on being Yahweh’s children. But the Jews of Jesus’ day would have expected such a relationship to manifest itself in political and military victory over Israel’s enemies. With Rome in control, war would be the only solution, but Jesus, again, turns things over. “Israel, to identify with your God as His ‘sons’ (v. 9), you must seek peace, for that is the true way of the kingdom.” (See note below.)
Those Who Are Persecuted
In the world, the power to rule carried the power to persecute. The persecuted (v. 10) were the weak, but the kingdom belongs to those the world considers weak. Jesus would Himself become the ultimate example of this. Matthew records such treatment (v. 11) of Jesus in 26:57-68. It was, in fact, through His sacrificial death at the hands of persecutors that Jesus would gain the greatest victory for the kingdom.
This has always been the model for God’s kingdom. The Old Testament prophets (v. 12) had demonstrated such a kingdom principle of sacrificial love and had been persecuted as well. Even John the Baptizer would be executed during Jesus’ own ministry a short time later (Matt. 14).
The Beatitudes were a challenge to the people of Israel to hear the announcement of God’s Kingdom through Jesus and to respond by BEING what they had been called and created to be. It is a vocational challenge that now falls on the church, the true Israel. The Kingdom of God takes the world’s way of ruling through power and turns it upside down. Sacrificial love in the name of Jesus is now the principle that defines the Kingdom of God.
Author, Speaker, Bible Teacher
See a list of other articles by Rick Edwards.
Note: This is not to suggest that war is never justified in a fallen world. Rather, it speaks to the nature of God’s kingdom and the methods used to expand it. God’s kingdom is not like the kingdoms of the world.