Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Beatitudes

The Sermon on the Mount begins with some famous verses called the Beatitudes or the “blesseds” (Matt. 5:3-12). For example, the first one is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). I was in a Bible study once that was going through the Beatitudes. One of the first questions we asked was, what does it mean to be blessed?

The first suggestion was that it meant to be happy. In fact, that’s how Today’s English Version translated it once upon a time: “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor.” Somehow, though, happy seems like a pretty anemic translation of the word “blessed.”

In that Bible study, a woman from Africa suggested that the word might mean something like “honored.” I thought it was interesting that the idea didn’t really resonate with the group. Inside I was thinking that she probably came the closest of anyone in the room.

Unlike North America today, the ancient world was an honor/shame world. Those of us in America prize things like thinking for yourself and making up your own mind. We prize rugged individualism and the “self-made man. Self-reliance, individual achievement—those are our values.

Not so in the ancient world. In the ancient world, the goal was to be honored by your group and not to bring it shame. So the person who was prized was the one who most fully displayed the values of the group. Meanwhile, the thing most to be avoided was bringing shame to your group by showing outsiders that you were not measuring up.

To be blessed by God is thus to be honored by God. All the Beatitudes embody the contrast between now and what is not yet. Now, those who weep and are grieved do not seem blessed. They do not seem to be honored now. But that is only now, for the moment. When God’s kingdom comes, they will be comforted (Matt. 5:4). In that day, they will have reason to rejoice.

Those who are poor in spirit, who realize that they are completely dependent on God, may not seem blessed now. They may not seem as prominent to others now because they do not stand in the marketplace and boast of their own righteousness, like the hypocrites mentioned later in the sermon (e.g., Matt. 6:2). But they will be rich in the coming kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:3). [1] It will belong to them.

The rest of the beatitudes continue with similar contrasts. The meek do not usually gain high honor in this world, except perhaps at their retirements and funerals. More often, they go through life unnoticed because they do not push themselves to the front. In this world, it is the assertive and ambitious to tend to advance. By contrast, the meek will inherit the earth in the coming kingdom (Matt. 5:5).

God will fill those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, even in this life (Matt. 5:6). Those who are merciful now, will be honored with God’s mercy on the Day of Judgment (5:7). Those who make peace now, they are especially honorable to God (5:9). Those whose hearts are pure in motive, they will have the privilege of being with God for all eternity (5:8).

Right now, those who are persecuted for serving God do not seem honored. Those who are mocked and insulted seem more to be objects of shame than reward. But when God’s kingdom comes, it will all be reversed. They will inherit a great reward from heaven then. They will receive the same honor that the prophets of God have, even though they were persecuted at the time (5:10-12).

These are great reminders to us. We should not go seeking persecution. There are and have always been some twisted souls that actually seek out persecution to get praise. They ironically are still functioning with earthly values, only trying to get honor through putting on a godly show. They are the hypocrites of Matthew 6 we will talk about below.

The kingdom blessed are those who live out the Christian life because they are serving God. They do not do it to get acclaim. They keep doing it when they are mocked or persecuted. Their goal is simply to give honor to God, and God will reward them in the coming kingdom.

[1] The phrase, “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew probably does not refer to heaven as the place where we will spend eternity. Matthew 8:11 seems to indicate that the kingdom of heaven will be on earth. “Kingdom of heaven” simply seems to be Matthew’s way of saying “kingdom of God” in Mark. He may say “heaven” because it is the place where God is, as a matter of respect}

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