Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
August 11, 2015
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
The Beatitudes (Part 1)
Matthew chapter five tells us:
Seeing the crowds, he [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them.1
We find out at the end of the Sermon that crowds were present as well and heard Jesus teaching His disciples. Jesus sat down, which was the normal position from which Jewish teachers would address their disciples. Matthew’s use of the phrase “He opened his mouth and taught them” is a recurring idiom used in Scripture to introduce a significant pronouncement.2
Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount with what are known as the Beatitudes:
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.3
In teaching the Beatitudes, Jesus was using a format which was familiar to His listeners, as beatitudes were used within the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish literature. Some examples are:
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.4 Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the LORD delivers him.5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.6
Most of these Old Testament beatitudes are single statements, whereas Jesus made eight such statements, structured in a group.
Before looking at the individual Beatitudes, it is helpful to understand the meaning of “blessed.” In both Hebrew and Greek, there are two words which are translated as blessed. The two Greek words parallel the Hebrew words, and it’s important to understand the difference between them. The Greek word eulogeō (Hebrew barak) is used when one gives a personal blessing to someone, as Jesus did when he took them [children] in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.7 It is also used when one blesses God (Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ8). This word was also used in early Christian literature, referring to when one is praying for God to bless someone. This is not the Greek word used for “blessed” in the Beatitudes. The word used in the Beatitudes is makarios, which matches the meaning of the Hebrew word esher. These words and their cognates are not seen as part of a prayer nor invoking a blessing. Rather they recognize an existing state of happiness or good fortune.9
Kenneth Bailey explains:
Makarios affirms a quality of spirituality that is already present … Put in concrete terms, we could say, “Blessed is the happy daughter of Mr. Jones because she will inherit the Jones’s farm.” The woman in question is already the happy daughter of Mr. Jones. She’s not working to inherit the farm. Everyone knows that a key element in her happy and secure life is that she and the community around her know that the farm will one day be hers. The first statement affirms a happy state that already exists. The second statement affirms a future that allows her even now to live a happy life.10
Some Bible translations render makarios as “happy” or “fortunate,” and others as “blessed.” While all of these convey the meaning of makarios, and “blessed” is probably the best way to translate it, the point it conveys might best be stated as “it will be well with,” or “God’s favor is upon.” In this context, Jesus’ Beatitudes mean that it will ultimately be well with those who seek first God’s kingdom because God’s favor is upon them.11
Each of the Beatitudes has the same format with some variation: Blessed are the (those) … for they (theirs) …. The first and last Beatitudes both end with the same clause—for theirs is the kingdom of heaven—which forms a framework or bookends for the Beatitudes in between. This writing device is called an inclusio, which means that everything bracketed between the two is included under the same theme, which in this case is the kingdom of God.
Each of the Beatitudes within the inclusio ends with promises for the future. They shall: be comforted, inherit the earth, be satisfied, receive mercy, see God, be called the sons of God. The promises of the first and last Beatitudes are in the present tense—for theirs is the kingdom of heaven—while the blessings in the middle verses are in the future tense. However, since this is an inclusio bracketed by the two verses mentioning the kingdom, everything in between is to be seen in light of the kingdom’s arrival. Therefore, these blessings should be understood as being both for the present and the future, similar to how the kingdom is both present and future.12
The Beatitude blessings are given in the context of the kingdom having already arrived, and the recipients of these blessings already being under God’s beneficent rule. The advantages of being God’s people can be expected to accrue now in this life, even though the full consummation of their blessedness remains for the future.13 These blessings are for the people who will inherit the kingdom. And while it isn’t specifically stated, it is inferred that the blessings of the Beatitudes come from God.
Let’s take a look at the individual Beatitudes.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.14
What does “poor in spirit” mean? In Jesus’ time and culture, an important strand of Jewish thought had developed a close link between poverty and piety, to where these two concepts were united in the Hebrew word anawim. In Hebrew, anayyin for “poor” and anawim for “meek/humble” were used to describe “the poor men of God, the afflicted saints.”15 It is of these poor/afflicted/meek that Jesus spoke when He quoted from the book of Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.16
“Poor in spirit” doesn’t refer only to material poverty, but neither does it refer only to the spiritual; rather it recalls the poor/meek/humble/afflicted of the Psalms, some of whom did experience material hardship, but who were also and primarily presented as God’s faithful people—humbly dependent on His protection.17 Some of the Hebrew words which are translated as “poor” can also mean “lowly” or “humble.” For example:
It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.18
The word translated in this verse as “poor” can also be translated as “humble,” “afflicted,” or “meek.”
The poor in spirit are those who are humble, meek, dependent on God, and who recognize that He is their hope. This is reflected in verses such as:
This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.19 Thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit.”20
The poor in spirit are those who acknowledge their spiritual inadequacies, their sinfulness, and confess their need for God.
In the context of the Sermon Jesus was preaching, the poor in spirit are those who believe in Him. The kingdom of God, living within the reign of God, is the blessing given to those who, through acknowledging their need for God, have entered into relationship with Him through Jesus.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.21
While the mourning spoken of here is not bereavement—grieving over the death of a loved one—it is an expression of grief. We get a glimpse of the meaning of mourning, as used in this second beatitude, from Joel chapter two:
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.22
Jesus’ brother, James, also gives some indication as to the meaning of mourning:
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.23
The mourning spoken of here has to do with grief over sin—both our own sin and the sins of others. Similar to the first Beatitude, it has to do with one’s need for God in light of our sinfulness. In our desire to love God, we recognize that our sins have put up barriers to our relationship with Him; therefore our sins grieve us, and our brokenness causes us to mourn. The damaged relationship with God, as well as with others; the emotional toll, the consequences of our sins; these things should cause us to mourn, to seek forgiveness and healing.
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.24
Jesus mourned over Jerusalem and its fate:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!25
So are we called to mourn the fallen state of our world with its wars, death, cruelty, man’s inhumanity to man, and lack of concern for the poor and needy, selfishness, arrogance, pride, and unbelief. Seeing this should motivate us both to pray for those in turmoil and need, and to put feet to our prayers by helping to alleviate whatever need we can—especially through bringing others into relationship with God through Jesus, for this is the key to the promised comfort.
We are comforted in this world through God’s forgiveness of our sins. It is through God becoming our Father and us His children; having a loving relationship with Him; entering His basilea (kingdom); living our lives in His mercy and grace; that we have comfort, both in this life and forever. No matter what our circumstances—the grief we encounter, the loss of a loved one or a relationship, financial loss, job loss, loss of health, or anything else we might mourn over—there is comfort in Him. There is a promise to those who believe: that in our mourning, whether it be for our sins, our personal losses, or the sins of the world, there is comfort ahead. It’s not a promise that every believer will find total comfort in this world, but that there will be comfort for eternity.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.26
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.27
The original Greek word translated as meek is praus, which is defined as “mildness of disposition, gentleness of spirit, meekness.” Gentleness or meekness is the opposite of self-assertiveness and self-interest. It stems from trust in God’s goodness and control over the situation. In this third Beatitude, we once again see reference to the anawim of the Old Testament—the poor and meek. These are they who are spoken of in Psalm 37, which is the basis of this Beatitude:
The meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.28
In relation to discipleship, the meek or gentle in spirit are those who don’t insist on having their own way, because they put their trust in God. They acknowledge their dependence on Him. Meekness isn’t weakness; it isn’t being a doormat. Meekness is a controlled desire to see another’s interest advance ahead of one’s own.29 We see examples of such meekness in the Old Testament: in Abraham, who allowed Lot to decide which land he would dwell in;30 in Moses, who was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth;31 in David, who, though anointed to be king, patiently endured Saul’s actions against him while refusing to lift his hand against Saul, waiting until it was God’s time for him to become king. Then of course there is the example of Jesus, who said, Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.32His whole life was lived in obedience to and trust in His Father.
While meekness, or gentleness of spirit, is reflected in our interactions with others, its basis is in dependence on God and our trust in Him. When we truly seek His will, we can fully trust and depend on Him for the outcome, as opposed to demanding or pushing for the outcome we desire. When we have such trust, we can face situations in our lives in faith, rather than trying to manipulate matters to our advantage or demanding that another yield to our demands.
We who have God as our Father, who are adopted into His family through Jesus’ sacrifice, are joint heirs with Christ.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.33
As believers, by the love and grace of God, we will inherit the earth.
(More on the Beatitudes in the next article.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.
Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.
Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.
Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Carson, D. A. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the Word. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.
Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.
Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans, eds. Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Boston: Koninklijke Brill, 1999.
Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
Elwell, Walter A., ed. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.
Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.
Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.
Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.
Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
Gnilka, Joachim. Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.
Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.
Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.
Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.
Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.
McKnight, Scot. Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.
Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.
Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.
Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.
Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Stein, Robert H. The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.
Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978.
Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology: Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Witherington III, Ben. The Christology of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.
Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.
Wood, D. R. W., I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman, eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Wright, N. T. After You Believe. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.
Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.
Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.
1 Matthew 5:1–2.
2 Job 33:1–2: Daniel 10:16: Acts 8:35; 10:34.
3 Matthew 5:3–10.
4 Psalm 1:1.
5 Psalm 41:1.
6 Psalm 84:5. Further OT verses: Psalm 32:2; 40:4; 89:15; 94:12; 106:3; 119:1–2; 146:5; Proverbs 3:13; 8:34; 28:14; Jeremiah 17:7.
7 Mark 10:15–16.
8 1 Peter 1:3.
9 Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970).
10 Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 68.
11 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 166.
13 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 164.
14 Matthew 5:3.
15 Thomas M. Tehan, David Abernathy, An Exegetical Summary of the Sermon on the Mount, 2nd ed. (Dallas: SIL International, 2008), 14–15.
16 Luke 4:18–19; Isaiah 61:1.
17 Poor: Psalm 12:5; 34:6; 72:12; Meek/Humble: Psalm 37:7; 18:27; 25:9; 69:32; 147:6; 149:4; Afflicted: Psalm 10:17; 22:24; 82:3; 140:12.
18 Proverbs 16:19.
19 Isaiah 66:2.
20 Isaiah 57:15.
21 Matthew 5:4.
22 Joel 2:12–13.
23 James 4:8–10.
24 2 Corinthians 7:10.
25 Matthew 23:37.
26 Revelation 21:4.
27 Matthew 5:5.
28 Psalm 37:11.
29 Carson, Sermon on the Mount, 20.
30 Genesis 13.
31 Numbers 12:3.
32 Matthew 11:29.
33 Roman 8:14–17.