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Beatitudes, Part 1

by Tim O'Hearn

Jesus was a preacher. Contrary to popular opinion, that was not his primary mission. His words are not nearly as important as his death and resurrection. Nevertheless, what he had to say has great value. Much of what he taught was specific to the Jewish people to whom he spoke, but many of the principles and statements continue to apply to his gentile followers as well.

Perhaps his best-known sermon is what we call the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). And perhaps the best-known part of that sermon is what is called the Beatitudes. There are some scholars who believe that what Matthew wrote is actually a compilation of several of his sermons, rather than one specific incident. If it is one sermon, some of what he said he repeats in other teaching situations. If it is a compilation, the Beatitudes probably stand as an individual and complete section of teaching; they go together.

The theme of his teaching, especially in what we call chapter 5, appears to be that whatever the people had been told by the scribes (rabbis, lawyers), there was another way of looking at the scriptures that was more basic. A simple reading of the scriptures is simple.

The Beatitudes were nothing new. Some of them were stated one way or another in the scriptures already.Only when we realize how great was the need do we realize how great was the gift of salvation. What seemed new was Jesus’ choice of which virtues to emphasize, as they all seem to relate to putting others first.

Poor in Spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3)

There has been much discussion about what is meant by “poor in spirit.” Some of those who do not follow Christ generally take an attitude that a Christian has no spunk. Christians, to them, are a spiritless group, who believe that nothing is fun and everything that looks enjoyable must be avoided. The context does not bear up such an interpretation, although it may be an accurate description of many Christians.

Perhaps a more fortunate translation (if you will pardon the pun) is “needy in spirit.” When we realize that we are in need of God, it changes our whole attitude. We may have seen stories, fictional or otherwise, about rich people who see the plight of the needy for the first time and become more generous. Occasionally we may even hear of those who are poor in the world’s goods who are more generous because of their poverty. Such were the Christians of Philippi.

Moreover, brethren, we do you to wit of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia; How that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality. For to their power, I bear record, yea, and beyond their power they were willing of themselves; Praying us with much entreaty that we would receive the gift, and take upon us the fellowship of the ministering to the saints. And this they did, not as we hoped, but first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God. (2 Cor 8:1-5)

Our “spirit of neediness” should make us more aware of the needs of others. This is especially true in spiritual matters. We may have much of the riches of this world (as most Americans do), but when we know how much we need the gospel, how much we need God, then we feel the need to teach others about the solution to that need. The truth is that we are sinners in need of a savior; and Jesus alone fills that need. If we have had that need met, we owe it to others to spread the good news of salvation. Only when we realize how great was the need do we realize how great was the gift of salvation. Only when we realize how great was the gift do we realize the need to share it.

To the poor/needy in spirit is the kingdom of heaven. Most of the time, especially in Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of heaven is a reference to the church; rarely is it a reference to heaven. Sometimes it may mean both. While this is one of those cases, perhaps it fits better to understand the benefit of being poor in spirit is an inheritance in Christ’s kingdom on earth. Those who understand their need for salvation will inherit that salvation, as evidenced by having their needs met now, as well as in eternity. “And the Lord added to the church daily such as were being saved.” (Acts 2:47)

Mourners

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4)

There are many reasons to mourn. Some people mourn the death of a loved one. Others mourn their own lack of goods or talent. There are even those that mourn being caught in a sin; they don’t mourn the sin, just that they were caught. King David, on the other hand, mourned the sin itself. “For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned.” (Ps 51:3-4)

Perhaps it is David’s kind of mourning that Jesus is talking about. “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” (2 Cor 7:10) Without lamenting that one is a sinner, one will never come to Christ for salvation. Without such mourning, one will never be comforted (because they feel no need for comfort).

Another option, however, is that Jesus is referring to mourning sin in general, both in oneself and in others. Even among followers of Christ, this mourning seems more rare. Many Christians are sorry for their own sins, but do not mourn when they see sin in others. Others see sin in others, and rather than mourning they gloat; they take pride in being better off than the unrepentant sinner. If this is the mourning to which Jesus referred, though, a Christian will not lord it over the sinner, or rub his sin in his face. Rather, he will show the sinner his error in a spirit of love.

This type of person will be comforted. What is the nature of the comfort? In the latter description of the mourner, the comfort is the realization that in some cases he has been the conduit through which another person has received forgiveness of sins. That kind of comfort can only come to one who mourns. Jonah received no comfort at the forgiveness of Nineveh, because he regretted their salvation. God wanted him to be comforted because there were “more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand” [young children].

If Jesus spoke of mourning over personal sin, then it is appropriate to point out that one of the results of immersion for forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38) is the gift of the Holy Spirit. In John 17, Jesus referred to that Spirit as “the comforter.” The word in that place is a variation of the Greek word Jesus used here. When we mourn that we have sin in our lives, we come to Jesus for forgiveness, and that results in the comforter coming into our lives.

Meek

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5)

“But the meek shall inherit the earth.” (Ps 37:11)

This beatitude is pretty much a direct quotation from the Psalms. In the Greek of Matthew, meekness means gentleness of spirit. In the Hebrew of the Psalm, the word is sometimes translated as poor, but more often it is interpreted to mean humble. Since Jesus was quoting the psalm, we should probably take his meaning to be the same as in that verse. Humility is what is under consideration.

Moses was the most humble man of his generation. (Num 12:3) Perhaps this is what made him a great leader. People are more inclined to follow a humble man than one who is overly proud. We laugh at the man who says, “I am not conceited; conceit is a fault, and I have none.” We respect a man who admits his faults, but continues to lead to the best of his ability.

If the Beatitudes are about doing for others, this is a cornerstone of this section. Humility is the virtue that underlies the attitude of looking to another’s interests.

Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another; Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality. (Rom 12:10-13)

Putting another’s honor above our own is associated with serving the Lord and one’s brothers. The meek man places himself in an attitude of service, rather than thinking that he deserves to be served. Such meekness is the attitude Jesus tried to instill in his disciples when he washed their feet on the night he wasJonah received no comfort at the forgiveness of Nineveh. betrayed. (Jn 13:4-17) He taught the Pharisees (who generally ignored what he said) a parable emphasizing meekness.

When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Lk 14:8-11)

The meek shall inherit the earth. Most likely the better translation is, “the meek shall inherit the land.” That was the intent of the psalmist, and was probably the intent as Jesus spoke to his Jewish disciples. The land promise was core to the descendants of Abraham, which is why there is fighting over the land today. Land inheritance was closely protected in the Law of Moses. The violation of that Law is what ultimately doomed King Ahab, when he had Naboth killed. To those Christians today who are not direct descendants of Abraham, the land promise may not be as important. Nevertheless, the obligation of meekness remains.

Lord willing, we will look at the other verses in this section in coming months.