And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“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.” – Matthew 5:1-12 ESV
Before we dig into what Jesus is saying in these verses, take a close look at the list of those whom He refers to as approved by God:
…the poor in spirit
…those who mourn
…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
…the pure in heart
…those persecuted for their righteousness
…those reviled, persecuted and slandered because of their association with Him
Now think about how His audience would have reacted to that list. Most, if not all, of these descriptions would have been off-putting to his listeners. What would have been remotely attractive to these oppressed and, oftentimes impoverished people, about spiritual poverty? How in the world were they supposed to see mourning as a form of blessing from God? And within the culture and times during which they existed, meekness wasn’t exactly a handy asset. It got you nowhere and achieved nothing. Then there’s his mention of hunger and thirst. For what was most likely a crowd made up mostly of farmers, shepherds and other common laborers, the mention of hunger and thirst stirred up fairly negative connotations. They knew what it was like to suffer both and would not have viewed either as a blessing from God. Then there’s mercy. These were people living under the cruel and sometimes crushing rule of Rome. The Romans weren’t exactly known for being merciful, so what possible good could come out of showing mercy? And peacemaking wasn’t exactly an attractive option for Jesus’ listeners either. Peacemaking meant giving in and compromising with your enemy. Once again, the average Jew didn’t want peace with Rome, they wanted their destruction. For hundreds of years, ever since returning to the land of promise from captivity, the Jews had been without a king and at the mercy of virtually every nation that wanted to enslave them. They had become easy prey to anyone who wanted what they had. And the last thing they wanted was peace. What about purity of heart? For a people raised on the belief that a strict adherence to the Mosaic Law was their only hope, the idea of purity of heart would have been foreign. Theirs was a behavior-based society. You had to live up to certain rules, laws, and regulations. You had to keep the prescribed holy days, feasts and festivals. You had to do what the law required. It was your outward actions that mattered most. The heart had nothing to do with it.
And then Jesus ends His list by bringing up persecution, reviling and slander. In other words, He tells them that those who suffer for His sake will be approved by God. Now, that would have been great news to his listeners! No, persecution, reviling and slander would have been the last things these people wanted to go through – for anybody’s sake.
Can you imagine the murmurs going through the crowd as Jesus spoke? Can’t you just see people in the crowd turning to one another with looks of confusion and even disgust. Who was this guy? What was He talking about? If He truly was a rabbi trying to attract followers, He wasn’t off to a great start. Maybe He should give up public speaking and stick to doing miracles. I believe there were many in the crowd that day who, after hearing Jesus’ opening remarks, began to have serious questions about not only His subject matter, but His sanity. But He had their attention. And He was just getting started.
One of the things we must remember is that John the Baptist and Jesus both came preaching a message of repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). The Greek word for “repent” is metanoeō and it means “to change one’s mind for the better”. It entailed changing how you believed about things. We tend to think of repentance as turning from our sins and heading in another direction. But before you can turn from your sins, you have to have a change of mind regarding your sins. For the Jews in Jesus’ audience, they were going to have to experience a change of mind about everything from the Law and works to the kingdom of God and who was qualified to be a citizen of it. They were going to have to change their minds about what it meant to be approved by God. And they had been indoctrinated by hundreds of years of teaching that taught them that they were the chosen people of God. They were the descendants of Abraham. And to receive the blessings of God, they simply had to obey the commands of God. But Jesus called them to repent. And now He was giving them an explanation of just exactly what their repentance or change of mind should look like.
First, they should be marked by poverty of spirit, a personal knowledge of their own spiritual bankruptcy. For a people who prided themselves on their status as God’s chosen people, this would have been difficult to hear and comprehend. But Jesus was telling them that, in order to be approved by God, they would first have to become conscious of their own unworthiness before God. Jesus would later tell the Pharisees, who took great pride in their spirituality, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do” (Matthew 9:12 NLT). It is not until we recognize our spiritual unworthiness that we will see our need for a Savior.
Next, Jesus mentions an attitude or mournfulness, a personal grief over personal sin. Paul will later refer to this as “godly grief”.
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. – 2 Corinthians 7:10 ESV
Our mournfulness stems from an awareness of our spiritual poverty. It is the emotional reaction to our impoverished standing before God. We react with sorrow, which leads us to salvation.
Jesus then mentions meekness, the controlled desire to see someone else’s interests advanced ahead of our own. Meekness is not weakness, it is life of willing selflessness and sacrifice. It is the opposite of self-assertiveness and self-interest. In a world where everyone is out for themselves, Jesus was teaching that selflessness was what God was looking for in His people. And Jesus would go on to model this very characteristic throughout His life, all the way up to His selfless, sacrificial death on the cross.
When Jesus mentions a hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is speaking of having an insatiable desire for conformity to the will of God. Righteousness becomes the objective and our primary obsession. But righteousness on His terms, not ours. To hunger and thirst after righteousness is to desire a life lived in conformity to God’s will, not our own. It is to long for life as He has planned it.
What about mercy? What is Jesus saying? Mercy is the gracious and generous response to the mercy we have received from God. We are to extend mercy to others because we have received mercy from God. And just as the mercy we received from Him was undeserved and unmerited, so we are to show mercy to those around us who have no right to it.
The Christian forgives because he has been forgiven; he forgives because he needs forgiveness. In precisely the same way, and for the same kind of reasons, the disciple of Jesus Christ is merciful. – D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
What does Jesus mean by purity of heart? Is He calling for perfection? The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT). So how can we be pure of heart? But Jesus has something else in mind here. When Jesus was later asked what the greatest commandment was, He responded:
“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” – Matthew 22:37 NLT
Purity of heart is not outward conformity to rules. The Greek word for “purity” is sometimes translated as “blameless”. In the Old Testament, purity was associated with the idea of wholeness, completeness or integrity. God called Abraham to walk before Him and be blameless. We are to live our lives with integrity, before God and man. It is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of our life. No compartmentalization. No holding back. Again, the Jeremiah speaks of the heart.
“If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 29:13-14 NLT
Jesus is calling for a wholehearted desire for God, not just a half-hearted attempt to keep His laws. Obedience is possible without love. That is not what God requires or desires. IN fact, later on in His ministry, Jesus will say to the Pharisees and religious leaders, quoting from the prophet, Isaiah:
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-9 NLT
Peacemaking is ultimately the desire for reconciliation between God and man. It has less to do with being at peace with those around me, than desiring that they have peace with God. And this desire will come from having been made right with God ourselves. The apostle Paul will later write, “Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us” (Romans 5:1 NLT). And he will go on to say, “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19 NLT). We prove our status as sons of God by seeking what God desires: reconciliation between God and man. Once again, Paul provides us with insight into what Jesus is saying:
Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. – Romans 12:17-19 NLT
Finally, Jesus speaks of persecution, reviling and slander. But His primary point is that those who are approved by God had a future focus that sees them through present suffering. Jesus would later tell His disciples:
“If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.” – John 15:18-19 NLT
“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33 NLT
We can endure suffering in this life because we are confident of Jesus promises regarding the next life. As Paul reminds us, “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later” (Romans 8:18 NLT).
All of this was difficult to hear and even harder to comprehend. Remember, these people are on the opposite side of the cross from us. Jesus had not yet died. He had not yet been resurrected. He is speaking of life made possible by His death, burial and resurrection. He is describing a life available only through faith in His sacrificial death and empowered by His indwelling Holy Spirit. But He is preparing them for what is to come. It was not what they were expecting, but it was exactly what they needed.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.