How should we read the Beatitudes?

I am accustomed to reading the Beatitudes of Matt. 5:3-10 (or 5:3-12) individually, separately. I wonder if we ought to pursue understanding them as more tightly connected. Rather than viewing them as distinct aphorisms, perhaps Matthew, as he has surely summarized Jesus’ much longer sermon, intends for us to hear/read them as intimately connected communicating a primary theme.

What has clued me in to this possibility is noticing, for the first time, that the ones blessed in the first Beatitude and the last Beatitude receive their blessing for the same reason. (I take 5:10 as the last Beatitude, rather than 5:11-12, since 5:11-12 shifts to addressing his audience directly. More on this at the end.) Matt. 5:3 says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matt. 5:10 says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” None of the other Beatitudes share this commonality. If this is indeed an “inclusio,” which is a literary feature where the initial phrase/sentence/idea in a series or paragraph is repeated at the end to bracket the series or paragraph in order to emphasize that which is repeated, perhaps Matthew intends for his readers to understand all of the Beatitudes in light of the first and the last.

If this is a legitimate interpretive procedure for us, how shall we proceed? It’s probably best to consider the meaning of the repeated phrase, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Simply, I suppose we could say that the kingdom of heaven belongs to them, that is the ones mentioned in the Beatitude. Now, we face the daunting task of defining “kingdom of heaven.” First, let’s put to rest the artificial distinction many people make between “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God.” This is not supported by the uses of these phrases. While Matthew is certainly the only New Testament author who uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” he also uses the phrase “kingdom of God” on occasion (6:33; 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43), with no apparent difference in meaning. This can be most clearly demonstrated from looking at Matt. 19:23, which uses “kingdom of heaven,” and Matt. 19:24, which uses “kingdom of God,” in exactly the same way. Perhaps there is some legitimacy to the explanation that Matthew preferred not to use the phrase “kingdom of God” out of respect for Jewish sensibilities with regard to the usage of the divine name or saying the word “God.” Second, what shall we make of this kingdom language? Reading through the Gospel of Matthew, I’m not sure it’s best to understand the phrase “kingdom of heaven” as referring to a place (primarily). The summary of Jesus’ (and John the Baptist’s) preaching given in Matt. 4:17 says that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I’m not sure how to make sense of a place being “at hand” (however we are to take that phrase…imminent? on top of you? soon to come? in your midst? already here?). Even with the language of “entering” the kingdom, I’m not sure that this is best understood as speaking of a place. Truly, when I hear the word “kingdom,” my first thought is usually of a place, but, even in English, doesn’t it mean more than this? For the sake of space, let me just define how I think we need to understand kingdom language, generally. (I may defend this at another time.) When we read “kingdom,” “kingdom of heaven,” or “kingdom of God,” I think we need to think “reign of God,” or even “sovereignty of God,” in the literal sense of the word “sovereignty.” I think the term is referring to God’s rightful rulership over his creation. This becomes specifically tied conceptually to Messiahship, since the Messiah is the Davidic King. So, when the Gospels speak of the coming of the kingdom, I think they are specifically referring to the Messianic reign of Jesus, as Jesus comes into the world to take his rightful place as King. This will, ultimately, culminate in a place, so thinking of the kingdom as a place is not entirely out of line. But, I think the language is emphasizing the authority of the Sovereign over his place.

So, in light of this understanding of “kingdom of heaven,” let’s get back to the Beatitudes and this phrase common to the first and last Beatitude, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does it mean for the reign of God, the sovereign rule of God to belong to these blessed ones? I think we can understand this as saying that these are the rightful citizens under God’s rule who are to receive the benefits (blessings?) of the gracious sovereignty of King Jesus. Another important thing to note with regard to these two Beatitudes in contrast with the rest of them: the verb is in the present tense. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is significant because all of the other Beatitudes are framed in the future tense. This might reflect what Jesus meant when he said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Perhaps he was intending the ambiguity of the phrase translated “is at hand.” Perhaps he intended to indicate that the kingdom, in one sense, has already arrived with the coming of the Great King, Jesus, but in another sense the kingdom has not fully come, has not been consummated. Perhaps that is what creates the obvious tensions in some of the Beatitudes: blessed though poor in spirit, blessed though mourning, blessed though meek, blessed though persecuted for righteousness’ sake. The truth of these blessings demands an explanation, which Jesus gives to each. So, the kingdom is here, but not in its fullness. This is clearly taught throughout the New Testament and is part of the reason Jesus must come again.

So, perhaps we should understand the blessing of each Beatitude to be a true and genuine blessing for some right now, but should we then say that Jesus’ reasons for these blessings are set in the future, specifically in the time of the consummation of the kingdom, when Jesus returns to consummate the fullness of the Messianic kingdom, when all of the rebels will be cast out and the New Heavens and the New Earth become the dwelling place of God and his people together? Let’s see what this might look like.

5:4–Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Those who are mourning now are truly blessed. Why? They shall be fully comforted with a comfort that they are unable to experience right now, when Jesus comes again and establishes his kingdom in all its glory.
5:5–Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Those who are currently meek, not demanding their rights, not wielding power in order to exploit others or achieve selfish gain, are truly blessed. Why? They shall inherit the whole earth, which sounds very much like the transformed Abrahamic promise reflected in Rom. 4:13. But this inheritance will not be received until Jesus comes again and establishes his kingdom in all its glory.
5:6–Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Perhaps it would be better to translate “righteousness” as “justice” here (the Greek term can have either meaning depending on context). Thus, those who have a genuine longing for justice in this world are truly blessed in this Christlike desire. Why? They will see justice, finally, when Jesus comes again and establishes his kingdom in all its glory.
5:7–Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
Those who treat others with mercy are truly blessed now. Why? They will receive mercy beyond imagining when Jesus comes again and establishes his kingdom in all its glory, which includes infinite undeserved kindness.
5:8–Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Those who are internally pure, having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, cleansed from all unrighteousness are truly blessed now in their purity. Why? They look forward to actually seeing God when Jesus comes again and establishes his kingdom in all its glory.
5:9–Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Those who work hard for peace between people are truly blessed now. Why? They may have confidence that they will be recognized as those who act like their perfect Father who is a God of reconciliation. And this will take place in the grandest way, as Paul says, at “the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19) when Jesus comes again and establishes his kingdom in all its glory.

Now, as I’ve tried to sketch out what the individual Beatitudes are trying to communicate in light of the first and the last Beatitudes, we should take a look at those two Beatitudes also.

5:3–Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:10–Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Now, we should ask, “Since the reason for these Beatitudes are identical, should we understand the entire statements as parallel?  Should we interpret these two in light of one another? More particularly, should we equate the two Beatitudes themselves?” I think we can and perhaps should. I wonder if Matthew intends to help us see the more ambiguous characterization (in my estimation) “poor in spirit” in light of the more clear characterization “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” So, could we say that those who are poor in spirit are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake? What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? Perhaps Matthew would answer, “To be persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”

Or perhaps this leads to a broader conclusion. Perhaps we should understand the entire set of Beatitudes as describing what any one citizen under God’s sovereignty should be like. Thus, Jesus is highlighting the true blessedness of the citizen of his kingdom is found in knowing that one who can be characterized by these qualities is indeed a true citizen of his kingdom and has the great consummation of the kingdom to look ahead to, when every citizen of the kingdom will be able to receive the full benefits of citizenship.

Now, what shall we do with 5:11-12, which I separated from the rest of the passage? Jesus seems to turn to address directly his audience: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Now, let’s get his audience clearly in view. Looking back at 5:1-2, we read, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them.” It seems best to understand that Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, though crowds were present as well, eavesdropping as it were. So, Jesus has just described what citizens of the kingdom of heaven ought to look like with eight Beatitudes, and then he turns to address his disciples directly, and he draws them in at the last Beatitude. In 5:10, he had spoken of persecution “for righteousness’ sake,” but in 5:11 he speaks of persecution “on my account.” To show the genuine parallel, let’s translate more literally: 5:10 speaks of persecution “on account of righteousness,” and 5:11 speaks of persecution “on account of me.” Thus, Jesus here more concretely identifies the concept of righteousness with himself. Instead of telling them immediately why they are truly blessed when this is their experience, he commands them to rejoice and celebrate! (As a side note, we actually see this happening in Acts 5:41.) Now, he tells them why they should rejoice and celebrate: “your reward in heaven is great.” It’s interesting that here he does not use the language of kingdom. Also, it’s important to point out that there is no verb in the Greek, so nothing at all is being intended about the time. He is simply characterizing a reward that belongs to them as great. Should we read “heaven” here as meaning the same thing as “kingdom of heaven” earlier? Perhaps Matthew is abbreviating the phrase. I’m really not sure at all. However, I think it’s safe to say that this reward would have been expected by his original hearers to be received in the future.

So, perhaps he has concisely summarized and applied to the disciples the Beatitudes he had just spoken recorded in Matt. 5:3-5:10, and maybe they would have heard it something like this: “Hey guys! You disciples, my followers! Everything I just said…I was talking about you! As you follow me, you will be characterized by those qualities, particularly by being the recipients of persecution. So, recognize how blessed you are as you experience those qualities in yourselves! Look forward to what I have for you when I consummate the kingdom! You are the true citizens of my kingdom! Celebrate your citizenship and look forward to the day when you will be able to enjoy all of the privileges of your citizenship!!” Believers from that day until Jesus returns should acknowledge are true blessed citizenship. Rejoice! Celebrate!

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Published in: on October 14, 2009 at 4:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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