Trey Nation lives with his wife, Hannah, in the Boston metro area. He graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Old Testament and works fulltime with China Outreach Ministries, serving students and visiting scholars in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He hopes to continue pursuing higher education in service of the global church.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his ministry are presented in such a way that they intentionally mirror the creation of Israel as the people of God. Jesus and his family are refugees in Egypt, like the Israelites before them, and they are eventually delivered and returned to the Promised Land. Before Jesus’ ministry begins, he faces a time of testing and temptation in the desert, mirroring Israel’s years of wilderness wandering. Afterwards, Christ calls his first disciples to himself and then retreats up a mountain to teach the people.
Chapters 5-7 of Matthew, commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, present Jesus as the new lawgiver, parallel to God giving the law through Moses at Sinai. All three chapters are a stunning exposition and reinterpretation of the Old Testament law. Jesus begins his teaching, however, with a series of declarations that have come to be called the Beatitudes.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are those who mourn.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the pure in heart.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Each of these, individually, is a radical reversal of the values of the world. The world values strength, competence, aggressive ambition, easy-going social malleability, and upbeat optimism. Jesus, on the other hand, lauds weakness, humility, kindness, and sacrificial love.
The Beatitudes specify what a person should be rather than what they should do. Being comes before doing. Furthermore, there is a progression to the Beatitudes, beginning with the proper attitude towards God and transitioning to our attitude towards others. They flow logically, each leading into the next. In other words, Jesus is not describing separate groups of people, but rather is describing what every Christian should be.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. For fallen mankind, the beginning of holiness is the recognition of one’s own spiritual bankruptcy. John Calvin wrote, “He only who is reduced to nothing in himself, and relies on the mercy of God, is poor in spirit.”
Blessed are those who mourn. Once we recognize that we are spiritually bankrupt, poor in spirit, and with nothing in ourselves to offer God, we naturally react with mourning. A frank look at the sin in our hearts, and the evil in our world, must surely lead us to tears. As Christians we above all have reason to rejoice, but if we are never burdened by our sin and the sin of the world, we are clearly not evaluating ourselves rightly.
Blessed are the meek. Proper mourning over our own sin inevitably leads to a meek outlook on others and ourselves. To be meek is not to be retiring, or run roughshod by all we meet. Meekness, rather, is the gentleness that results from an accurate evaluation of ourselves. Paradoxically, Jesus promises that it is the meek, not the aggressive, who will inherit the earth. As John Stott writes, “..the condition on which we enter our spiritual inheritance in Christ is not might but meekness, for, as we have already seen, everything is ours if we are Christ’s.”
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The mark of the Christian is that they do not seek righteousness for reward, but rather out of their love for the God who forgave them. Our mourning over our spiritual poverty and the brokenness of the world, combined with our proper evaluation of ourselves, creates in the Christian a sincere craving for righteousness. This is not only a privatized righteousness, but also a desire for righteousness in the world: for social justice, healthy families and institutions, good governance, and reconciliation between peoples.
Blessed are the merciful. The Christian’s appetite for righteousness is displayed primarily in his interaction with other people. The first four Beatitudes reflect God’s mercy to us, and we are now called to show mercy to others. We cannot seriously claim to have repented of our sins if we refuse to forgive the sins of those who wrong us. Our God is continually merciful, and we are called likewise.
Blessed are the pure in heart. “Pure in heart” language calls to mind themes of the ceremonial cleanliness of the Pharisees as contrasted with the cleanliness of the heart that Jesus talks about. At the same time, in Psalm 24 the individual with “clean hands” and a “pure heart” is above all the one who “…does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” He is single-minded, utterly sincere with God and man. To see God is to be utterly exposed, to have his light burn off all pretense and hypocrisy.
Blessed are the peacemakers. Peacemaking is not the avoidance of conflict, but rather the active pursuit of reconciliation. One of the chief results of the gospel, according to Paul in Ephesians 2, is that Christ has made reconciliation possible between even the most disparate of peoples: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” The call to be peacemakers covers our individual relationships, but also our corporate and institutional ones. Christians never have the luxury of keeping company with only those they like, or with only those similar to them.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. It is no mistake that persecution comes immediately after peacemaking. The logic of the Beatitudes seems to be that of Paul in Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men,” with the key phrase, apparently, being “…so far as it depends on you.” In other words, part of our call to peacemaking is based on the assumption that others will not always want peace with us. It is peacemaking in the face of aggression. Jesus, in fact, commends those who are persecuted, with the caveat that blessed persecution is persecution for righteousness sake. We are not commended if we are persecuted for being obnoxious. Furthermore, Jesus’ expectation is that our reaction to persecution should be to “rejoice and be glad.” My observation is that Americans often speak of the potential of future persecution in tones of despair or even fear, whereas Christians in countries where the church is currently undergoing mockery, arrest, beatings, or even death for righteousness sake are sometimes those who best display the joy of Christ.
All of these Beatitudes, taken together, display the heart of who the Christian should be: an individual whose spiritual bankruptcy forgiven by Christ leads to a spiritual and social life of humility, mercy, endurance, and righteousness.
The Beatitudes also, of course, describe the person of Jesus. In particular, the Beatitudes are the virtues of the cross. The virtues of the cross are the opposite of the virtues of the world. The world praises self-sufficiency; but Christ responds, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The world praises the happy-go-lucky optimist; Christ responds, “Blessed those who mourn.” The world praises the aggressive; Christ responds, “Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers.” We follow a crucified savior, the Man of Sorrows, and we should expect that his lot will be ours.
Jesus pivots from the Beatitudes straight into a discussion of Christian witness. The Christian is to be preserving salt in a world that is typically putrefying. The Christian is to be light, a shining witness in a world of darkness. The Christian life and the Christian witness are indivisible. They flow naturally out of being forgiven by God, as we recognize our spiritual poverty, humbly repent, and thus turn to the world with service and love, transforming the world but not conforming to it.