Perhaps John Stott rightly commented that the Sermon on the Mount is the “best known part of the teachings of Jesus, the least understood and the least obeyed”. No one reading through the Gospel of Matthew, however carelessly, can miss marvelling at the wisdom contained within. It is after all three chapters long (in a work of twenty-eight chapters) and spans about four pages long in any regular sized Bible. The wisdom of God contained therein is so succinctly and economically delivered by the Master that it is possible for readers not to think twice about them; as they read/hear they simply assume what they think Jesus is meaning is simply what Jesus had meant.
The Beatitudes, occupying the most significant place at the head of the Sermon, and expressed in a most simple way, is an easy to read passage, but also easily misunderstood. Readers are most complacent when such passages are encountered. Endeavours to properly interpret the Beatitudes begin with understanding its context within the larger context of the Gospel of Matthew, and within the narrower context of the Sermon as delivered by the Master.
The Beatitudes were written in an inclusio form, where a theme is stated at the beginning and the end of the passage. The contents bookended by the initial and concluding theme would have to be understood in light of the theme stated. In the Beatitudes the first and eighth Beatitude enclose the second to the seventh. The repeated motif in the first and eighth beatitudes is the term “Kingdom of Heaven”, and everything in between would be understood with that in mind.
The Kingdom of Heaven is the Kingdom of God. As a Jewish Christian writing to the Jews, Matthew used “heaven” as a euphemism for the word “God” because the latter was deemed too exalted and holy for common use. In first century Palestine, Jewish Messianic expectations were running high, as most devout Jews were anticipating the arrival of the Messiah as promised in the Hebrew Scriptures. They expected the coming Messiah to be a great Jewish king who would defeat the Roman Empire and usher in a spatial/physical Kingdom of God.
However, the Kingdom of God as proclaimed, taught and inaugurated by the Messiah Jesus in the Gospel was not a spatial/physical one, but a dynamic/spiritual one: the Kingdom of God is not demarcated by geographic boundaries, but by those who submit to the lordship of Christ. Those who enter into this kingdom enter into eternal life, the promised salvation of God. In the end times, Jesus Christ will establish the eternal spatial/physical kingdom in the new heavens and earth. Therefore, the Kingdom of God can be rightly understood as being here but not yet here. The people of God on earth have a taste of the eschatological kingdom in the current age, but they will only enjoy the full benefits of it when it is consummated at the second coming of Jesus.
Taking the inclusio into account, the Beatitudes should be understood as the norms of those belonging to the Kingdom of God. While each norm is mentioned in a separate sentence, they are not separate and independent of each other. Everyone in the Kingdom of God has to possess all of them; no person submitting to the lordship of Jesus has the luxury of cherry-picking. People of God should be poor in spirit, meek, seeking after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peaceable, and persecuted by the world for their righteousness.
Thus the people of God shall be blessed for their godly character. However, this gives no credence to the idea of meritorious works, where a person exhibiting a Beatitude will be blessed by God accordingly. Jesus delivered the Sermon to the disciples and the crowd following him. The entire Sermon was premised upon following Jesus and wanting to be part of the Kingdom of God. When one places one’s faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour and experiences conversion, new birth, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, one starts to possess the characteristics mentioned in the Beatitudes. As the Holy Spirit works out such characteristics in one’s life, one is blessed as a natural consequence.
If understood under the rubric of the Kingdom of God, the blessings of the Beatitudes are neither limited to this current age nor the eschaton. In the present age within the Kingdom of God, the blessings will be partially experienced, but in the end times, they will be completely realised when the Messiah comes again, this time to put all things right. None of the blessings make sense apart from end time fulfilment of God, but because the kingdom is already here but not yet, the blessings are also already present in the people of God, but only as a foretaste of things to come.
While the Sermon was astonishing to the original listeners because of the authoritative manner Jesus taught, it may well be also due to its strange and radical nature. Jesus dispelled many socially cherished notions of piety and reinvigorated God’s law with fresh understandings alien to the first century Jew. The Beatitudes that opened the Sermon would have been absurd to those listening. Many of those in the audience were of low social standing, impoverished and disenfranchised, and Jesus was exalting seemingly lowly attributes and declaring them the standards of God’s kingdom, blessed and well regarded by God. The listeners knew the rich and the mighty were blessed by God, and not the poor and meek, but sitting on the mount was a distinguished rabbi teaching otherwise.
Two millennia later, the Beatitudes remain an antithesis to the ideals of the Kingdom of Man. Robert Solomon rightly considers them a challenge to the “Darwinian assumptions” held by the world: it is widely assumed that the faster, stronger, louder, and fiercer ones will win in life. One might wonder if the Beatitudes have much to show for in the real world. However, embodying them Himself, Jesus Christ who is humble, meek, righteous, merciful, pure, peaceable, and persecuted, through these poorly regarded attributes, has overcome the Darwinian world. He bids us to do the same that we too might overcome with Him.
Mr Png Eng Keat
April 24, 2016