- Main Text: Matthew 5:1-20
- Accompanying text: Psalm 1:1-3
What this passage means to us
“In the Beatitudes the reader is presented with brief statements presented in simple words that carry profound meanings” . One of the powerful aspects of these beautiful and elegant sayings of our Lord is that Jesus lived by them as well as teaching them to his followers. He did not expect us to do something he himself did not put into practice. His word was his deed. Jesus was humble, meek, pure in heart, persecuted for righteousness’ sake, etc. Those who listened to his discourse were impressed by Christ’s authority (Matthew 7:28-29) not just because of his tone of delivery and his relational preaching style, but also because Jesus was the living incarnation of his own teachings. This is instructive for all Christians, that, with the help of the Spirit, they should “walk the talk”. Christ’s words of instruction from Matthew 5:2 through 7:27 are not just pleasant words or the platitudes of a gentle and wise teacher, but they have the force of commandments greater than those of Moses. “Moses’ authority was supreme in Israel. But in Jesus there is not only a new Moses, but the Messiah himself, the Son of Man endowed with authority on earth to forgive sins and utter final commandments. Jesus fulfilled his office with an authority greater than that of Moses or than any to which the scribes and Pharisees appealed” .
The sayings of Jesus are the rock-hard foundation on which Christians build their spiritual life. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (7:24). When we who believe read the Beatitudes and the words that follow them, let’s interpret them as commandments for us, as directions on how to lead the Spirit-led life, let our behaviour flow from them, and let all that we are, say, do, think and believe be founded on the Rock, who is Jesus within us (1 Corinthians 10:4). It is Jesus who has the words that are “full of the Spirit and of life”, “the words of eternal life” (John 6:63,68). As we live these words of Christ, we become the salt of the earth, Jesus who is the Light of the world shines out through us, and we fulfil his righteousness within us.
Context and story-line
Jesus had begun to preach, telling people to turn to God and away from their godless habits because the kingdom of heaven was near. The idea of the kingdom of heaven had excited the crowds, and as Jesus preached the good news in the synagogues and elsewhere, people came to be healed and to hear him. He also called the twelve disciples at this point, and some think Matthew 5 to 7 was directed more specifically to the disciples than to the crowds. It becomes clear in Matthew 7:28, however, that what he had to say was not just for the disciples, but also for the crowds that flocked to him.
Matthew 5:1-20 itself provides a lead-up to and a context for the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Some of the sayings are also mentioned in Luke 6. Was this the same event, or is it possible that this was a message that Jesus repeated from time to time and from place to place? Although his approach from the outset seems rabbinical in form, Jesus does not begin, as was traditional, by quoting from the Old Testament. The first word used is “blessed”. The word doesn’t mean just being happy or content. Blessedness is greater and higher than happiness. Happiness may be dependent on outward physical circumstances, but blessedness, which is based on God’s being with us and for us and in us through the abiding presence of the Spirit of Jesus, concerns the inner joy and comfort we find through union and communion with God.
The believer begins his or her spiritual journey in a state of blessedness. Various of the psalms point to this. For example, “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Psalm 32:1). We are blessed because we have been forgiven, and we have been forgiven because in his grace God first loved us (1 John 4:19), not because of the things we have done or resisted doing. Other psalms suggest that blessing is conditional upon our behaviour, as is in Psalm 1:1-2: this well-known passage implies that as long as someone does not walk astray, follow sin or engage in bad company, and, as long as he or she adheres to the dictates of the Law, then blessing will follow and be maintained.
When Christ opens with the word “blessed”, his listeners may have expected him to quote from Psalm 1, with warnings about what not to do and with an exhortation to keep the Law. Christ, however, does not do this. Instead he discusses attitudes and motivations, and how our being blessed by God can lead to others being blessed. We are blessed and therefore let God bless others through us. The Jews thought that the kingdom of heaven was obtainable in the future by what they did in this life. Jesus amazed his audience by saying something else. For the poor in spirit, who don’t find fulfilment in their own ideas and who see their need for God in their inner being, the kingdom of heaven is theirs now; those who mourn for others, or for the state of the world, can be strengthened and consoled because the God of all comfort has blessed them; for the meek, not those who find pride in their heritage or in their intellect or in any vanity of the mind, but rather are teachable and ready to be led by the Spirit, the land of promise is theirs; for those who don’t make a pretence of righteousness through their religious lifestyles but rather seek the Righteous One (Jesus), a life of satisfaction is theirs; if we, who have received mercy, pass on that blessing to others, we can have the confidence in knowing that we have been forgiven; those who are clean inside, not just through a show of ceremonial cleanliness, but are truly pure in heart, “shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3). Also, those who have received the peace of God and share the blessing of peace with others and seek to mediate peace, such people are the children of God; those who are persecuted because of God’s purpose, as Jesus was to be for our sake, for them the kingdom of heaven is here now; and, even when people intentionally attack and insult us and our response is to bless, as Paul picks up on in Romans 12:14 (Romans 12 is a good companion passage to read when studying the Beatitudes), we can rejoice and be glad in expectation of the fulness of salvation to come.
Matthew 5:20 suggests that, unless we practice what we preach and claim to believe, we’d be just like the scribes and Pharisees, full of the form and legalism of religion, but lacking the true religion that concentrates on blessing others more than seeking blessings for ourselves (see James 1:27).
What Jesus had not done yet in this sermon was to address in detail aspects of the Law of Moses. From verse 21 he proceeds to do so, and the people were shocked by what this Jesus, the Rock, the Son of God, the Messiah of promise, was about to say.
- Luke 6:20-49
- Romans 12:1-21
Footnotes and references
- Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, (London, UK: SPCK, 2008). 65.
- Thomas F Torrance, Atonement: the Person and Work of Christ, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009). 351.