What are the beatitudes?
“Beatitude” comes from the Latin beatus, meaning “blessed.” “Blessed” in Greek is makarios (μακάριος), which literally means “happy, enviable, blissful.” However, these blessings go deeper than just happiness. The blessings are given as divine gifts directly from the Lord Himself. Someone who is blessed experiences God’s favor shining upon him. While the world says that happiness comes from fulfilling one’s desires, true happiness comes from having God’s favor. The beatitudes provide a description of true faith gifted with blessings.
The beatitudes appear in Matt. 5:3-10. The beatitudes are commonly grouped into two sets of four. The first four correspond to the believer’s reliance on God, while the second four correspond to the believer’s relationship with other people. It can be seen that each of the first four have some correspondence with each of the second four. This reveals that the one’s relationship with God impacts one’s relationship with others.
There are two categories of relationships which every person has: vertical and horizontal. Our vertical relationship is with God, while our horizontal relationships are with other people. The first four beatitudes focus on our vertical relationship, while the second four focus on our horizontal ones. The fact that each of the second four correspond with the first four show that our horizontal relationships are directly dependent on our vertical relationship. First and foremost, our priority is to focus on our relationship with God. Our relationships with others will reflect ours with God.
Reliance on God
We see that the first four beatitudes show people in need. The listed people must rely on God to satisfy their needs; the poor, the mourning, the meek, and the hungry and thirsty. The poor lack in Spirit, and God will give them salvation; the mourning lack comfort, and God will comfort them; the meek lack power, and God will provide them dominion over the new earth; the hungry and thirsty for righteousness will be given it in full. Not only do we see our needs, but we also see God graciously fulfilling them. He does not do this solely for His glory, but also out of love and for the good of His elect (Rom. 8:28).
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:3)
Those who are poor in spirit are those who are conscious of their spiritual lacking. We are empty without God and are in complete spiritual need. Those who continue in their pride will not inherit the kingdom of God, i.e., salvation. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Matt. 23:12).
It is with a clear understanding of our insufficiency and nothingness in comparison to God that brings us to accepting that we need salvation. Those who are presently unsaved are so poor in spirit that they have nothing. But upon salvation, they come from having nothing to having everything – they receive the kingdom of God Himself.
Matthew was primarily writing to a Jewish audience, so he used “kingdom of heaven” in place of “kingdom of God.” The Jews would use periphrasis, or indirect reference, by using “heaven” as a substitute for God’s name. They would not utter the name of God as a show of reverence.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4)
Mourning will arise from realizing one’s spiritual destitution. The context does not permit interpreting “mourning” to mean lamenting over someone who has passed away. While God will certainly provide comfort upon mourning for the dead, that is not what Jesus refers to here. The Greek pentheó (πενθέω) means “to mourn,” but can also mean “to feel guilt.” Since the first beatitude refers to recognizing one’s spiritual depravity, i.e., sinfulness, pentheó refers to the feeling of guilt produced from conviction of sin.
Thankfully, mourning isn’t the end of the story. From a truly contrite heart comes repentance. From repentance, comes comfort. This is the comfort of forgiveness for sin. The word for comfort is parakaleó (παρακαλέω), which contains the same root as parakletos (παράκλητος). Parakletos, or Paraclete, means “advocate” or “helper,” and is usually translated as “comforter” in the KJV. Parakletos is used to refer to the Holy Spirit, and is found in John 14:16, John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:7, and 1 John 2:1. We see that the Holy Spirit is the One who provides this comfort. This is consistent with the fact that the Spirit dwells in someone at the moment of salvation (refer to Eph. 1:13-14, Rom. 8:9).
The first two beatitudes display the gifts of God upon repentance, namely forgiveness and comfort. Firstly, we are convicted of our sin and recognize our need for a savior. Secondly, we feel guilty and repent. At that very instant, we receive salvation (kingdom of God) and the Holy Spirit dwells in us. The indwelling Spirit gives us comfort from our guilt.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt. 5:5)
This beatitude is derived from Ps. 37:10-11 where the psalter says “the meek shall inherit the land.” Meekness goes against what the world commends as a strong character trait. The world sees an ideal person who is aggressive and can handle his own, but here we see that the ideal person is meant to leave things in God’s hands. The ideal person controls oneself, holds back, and leaves God to handle it.
The word meek comes from the Greek praus (πραΰς). This word can mean “mild” or “gentle,” but carries with it a connotation of self-control. Meekness is not weakness, but is instead gentleness expressed as a result of self-control. Strength is not made manifest in brash or aggressive behavior, but is shown through collected self-control. Self-control is contrary to human nature and is thus empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus showed meekness in that He demonstrated His power gently and with great self-control. At any moment, He could have exercised His divine nature out of humanly desire rather than godly intent. When Judas betrayed Jesus and one of the high priest’s servants reached out to seize Him, Peter draws his sword and swings at him. Jesus responds in Matt. 26:53, showing that He has more than enough power to fend for Himself. Jesus certainly wasn’t excited about being taken to horrifically suffer (Luke 22:42), but He controlled His desire and humbly submitted to the will of God.
To inherit the earth here gives reference to inheritance of the new earth (Dan. 7:27, Rev. 5:10).
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matt. 5:6)
Hunger and thirst are continual desires of the human body which reflect its needs. They are insatiable. After a meal, we get hungry again. After a drink, we get thirsty again. The hunger and thirst mentioned here describe an incessant desire arising from our need for righteousness. Ps. 42:1-2 and Ps. 63:1 poetically expresses this desire.
In Deut. 8:3, we read that we do not only need food, but the Word of God. As we need food and water to physically survive, we need righteousness to spiritually survive. Taking Jesus as our example, we ought to share His attitude in doing the will of God (John 4:34). Our very existence is to glorify the One who brought us into it. Our spiritual survival is dependent upon the righteousness which God provides for us through the sacrifice of Christ (Is. 61:10, Gal. 2:15-16).
Relationship with others
The second four beatitudes expound upon the blessings given to believers with reference to how they treat others. Each beatitude in this group compliments a beatitude from the first group; the first in the each group compliment each other, as do the second in each group, and so on. The way each of these beatitudes link together reveals to us that our vertical relationship (with God) intertwines with our horizontal relationships (with others).
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matt. 5:7)
As we have been forgiven by God for our sins against Him, we are to forgive the sins others commit against us. The mercy we show others through forgiveness will be shown to us. This does not mean that forgiving others makes us forgiven. This would imply a works-based salvation. Salvation is a free gift that is given by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-10). Our showing mercy is a reflection of the mercy God has shown us upon forgiveness.
The Greek eleemon (ἐλεήμων) means “mercy, compassion.” It was most likely that Jesus spoke in His native Aramaic, however. The word for “mercy” in Aramaic (and Hebrew) is chesed. Chesed doesn’t just refer to forgiveness, but also to putting oneself in the the place of the offender. This includes understanding the offender’s feelings and perspective. Mercy, here, is a deliberate action which requires one to identify with the offender as well as forgive him. Mercy goes beyond forgiveness. It includes actively putting oneself in the offender’s position and mimd.
As John Ritenbaugh beautifully puts it: “The truly merciful are too aware of their own sins to deal with others in sharp condemnation, so they constrain themselves to deal humbly and kindly with those in need. Nothing moves us to forgive others like the amazing realization that God has forgiven our sins. Mercy in God’s children begins by experiencing His forgiveness of them, and perhaps nothing proves more convincingly that we have been forgiven than our readiness to forgive.”
There is a parallel between the first beatitude and this one. The poor in spirit, i.e., everyone, need mercy. As God gives them mercy, they ought to give others mercy. As they extend mercy on others, God shows them mercy. If we understand how sinful we are (poor in spirit) and put this in the perspective of God forgiving us, there should be no argument that we also ought to forgive. If an infinitely holy God can forgive us for our infinitely unholy sins, how much more should we forgive sins done against us by fellow unholy people?
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8)
Those who have been made pure by the sacrifice of Christ will have the privilege of seeing God. We read that no one has ever seen God and even if they did, they wouldn’t have lived to tell of it! (Ex. 33:20, 1 Tim. 6:16). Those who have been made pure in heart are those who are saved. While all will see God one day (Rom. 14:12), the pure in heart will see Him in all His glory.
“Heart” in Scripture refers to one’s will and desires. Pure desires cannot come from an impure heart, but pure desires come from a heart that has been cleansed of sin. Our hearts are naturally impure (Mark 7:21-23), but it is upon salvation that we are cleansed. Thoughts come from the heart, and while our thoughts can still be speckled with sin, they are continually being cleansed through the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2). Salvation is not marked by a perfectly sinless life, but is marked by a life of continually diminishing sin.
To emphasize, “pure” comes from the Greek katharos (καθαρός). It is used to refer to cleanliness and purity literally, spiritually, and ceremonially. We cannot cleanse ourselves, but are cleansed by the sacrificial blood of the perfect Lamb of God (Heb. 13:11-12, Rom. 3:25, John 1:29). Other definitions for katharos include “innocent, upright.” We are guilty before God if we do not repent, but when we do, we are made innocent (1 Pet. 1:18-19, Is. 61:10).
Notice the parallel between the second beatitude and this one. Those who mourn, or feel guilt, for their spiritual destitution will not only receive comfort but also renewal of their minds and hearts. Their wills will continually shift to align with God’s. The sacrifice of Christ spiritually purifies them and thus purifies their wills. With a will that is bereft of sin, the elect will see God face-to-face in heaven.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matt. 5:9)
Peacemaking can be thought of in two ways: spreading the Gospel of peace and keeping peace with fellow people. The Gospel is the message of salvation through Christ which yields reconciliation and thus peace with God. Upon repentance, we have been given peace in that we avoid God’s wrath (John 3:36). By spreading the message, we are effectively peacemakers. It is important to realize that we cannot save anyone. We can only spread the message which God uses to save people. We are not able to make peace between people and God, but we are to imitate Christ and spread the message of peace.
Secondly, we are meant to keep peace with others to the best of our ability. There will inevitably be people who hate us because we preach a message contrary to their beliefs, but as it says in Rom. 12:18, we must do our best to keep peace with everyone. Peacemaking also extends to keeping peace with fellow believers (Col. 3:13-14, Eph. 4:3, Rom. 12:16). If a believer has a quarrel with another, all effort and haste must be made to reconcile the issue as soon as possible (Matt. 5:23-24). A body fighting against itself is sick and needs healing. Likewise, the body of Christ ought not to be fighting itself.
To be called a son of God is to be called into the family of God. Since God is a god of peace (Rom. 15:33, 2 Cor. 13:11), and Christ is the Prince the Peace (Is. 9:6), we are to emulate them and thus bring about peace. Our lives should be marked by bringing peace and quelling strife (Rom. 14:19).
There is a parallel between this beatitude and the third one. Meekness is a quality that would help ensure peace. Being obstinate and unwilling to compromise are traits that only contribute to hostility. The principle of self-control extends this idea to holding back one’s tongue in anger (Prov. 17:27-28). Letting oneself go off without restraint is only asking to inflame strife (Prov. 15:1).
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:10)
While the same word for righteousness is used as in verse 6, we see another aspect of it emphasized here. The word translated “righteousness” comes from the Greek dikaiosune (δικαιοσύνη), which also means “justice.” Striving for the justice and righteousness of God will inevitably lead to persecution, since we live in a world which seeks to deconstruct every institution which He has established. We see that persecution is not just a consequence of being Christian but is also a promise (2 Tim. 3:12, Luke 6:22).
Despite what the world thinks, being persecuted for Christ’s sake is among the highest honors a person could ever receive (1 Pet. 4:12-14, 2 Cor. 12:10). We also find comfort in that Jesus understands and sympathizes with our persecution, for the world hated Him before it hated us (John 15:18). As we have discussed in the first beatitude, the kingdom of heaven refers to salvation.
This clearly parallels the fourth beatitude. A thirst and hunger for righteousness will lead a believer to pursue it. Pursuing it will consequently lead to persecution and rejection from the world. We ought not to fret over this. It is a blessing to be persecuted for Christ’s sake. While this world is temporal, we strive for what is eternal. We are given the promise of eternal life and fellowship with our Creator; let the world persecute us.
The beatitudes are a beautifully organized exposition of the blessings given to those who are God’s. Many beatitudes are paradoxical in nature and contradict what the world believes. Meekness is seen as weakness; the poor in spirit seem unfit to inherit a divine kingdom; those who are persecuted seem to be anything but blessed. However, God sees the far-reaching consequences. He reveals to us that the world’s system is built on false, man-made ideals which fall hopelessly short of God’s. We must remember that regardless of what happens in this earthly life, we have a reward in heaven (Matt. 5:11-12). We are not the first to be persecuted and we are certainly not the last. We find comfort knowing that at the end of days, each will reap what he sows (Gal. 6:7-8).