The Beatitudes and What it Means to be “Blessed”

Sadao Watanabe, The Sermon on the Mount, 1963.

As the Sermon on the Mount begins, Jesus offers a series of sayings that begin with a simple phrased “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…” This pattern continues over the course of nine sayings as Jesus offers insights into what it truly means to be blessed.

Jesus did not invent this sort of pattern of teaching. It was common to have sayings like this, both in the Bible and in other wisdom or philosophical traditions. In fact, Jesus draws upon a rich tradition of such sayings about what the blessed life looks like. We hear this in other parts of Scripture, especially in Psalms and Proverbs. One example is Psalm 1, which begins:

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked… (Psalm 1:1)

Such sayings aim to describe what a blessed, or good, life looks like. They hold up an ideal toward which we should aspire but also a reality that is accessible now in our lives through God’s grace.

Each of Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5:3-12 begin with the Greek word μακάριος. The Latin translation of that word is beatus, which is where the name “Beatitudes” for this section comes from. Because this word, μακάριος, is so central to this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, it is incredibly important to understand its meaning. It literally means: “blessed, happy, it will go well with, fortunate, or flourishing.”

The μακάριος life is what we would describe as “the good life.” But it is not just a generally good life in the abstract. The μακάριος life is a good life that is rooted in God. From the inclusio – the bookends – in verses 3 and 10, which say, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” we see that Jesus is using these μακάριος statements as a summary description of what life in God’s kingdom is all about.

Jesus’ μακάριος statements place before us a description of what the kingdom life with God looks like; a life that is fortunate, flourishing, happy…blessed. Simultaneously, the μακάριος statements are a gracious invitation to enter into that sort of life – to move toward that sort of life – with God now.

Think with me about the people who have begun to throng around Jesus that we heard about at the end of Matthew 4. They were everyday people, like the fishermen, but there were others – the sick, the poor, the demon-possessed, those suffering severe pain, those with seizures, the paralyzed. These are just everyday people with everyday problems.

Now, the prevailing mindset in Jesus’ day was that when you had problems like this, then there was something wrong with you. People like this, it was thought, were most definitely not blessed and were perhaps either being judged or cursed by God. Definitely, it was thought, God didn’t want anything to do with people like that. But Jesus says, “Well, that’s not the way it is. Turn around, pay attention. God’s kingdom is right here. Come on in and find your place. God is bringing a future blessing in the fullness of time. But even now you are blessed. So live into that blessed life day after day.”

Living Now in the Freedom and Victory of Christ

The Apostle John tells us that at His first appearing, Christ won a tremendous victory for God. This present victory has so many different aspects, but the two most important are these:

  • “You know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins” (1 John 3:5)
  • “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (3:8b)

Jesus is both the atoning sacrifice for our sins and the victorious conqueror over the powers of evil. Because of this great work in Christ, and our identity as God’s children, as disciples of Christ we can live now in freedom from sin and victory over the devil and his works.

John specifically calls the believers to not be led astray in this. If God is our Father, if we are born of God and children of God, then our lives—our everyday actions and words—should reflect this new identity. If we have been set free from sin, then we should not return to enslave ourselves to it.

If Jesus has the victory over the devil, then we should not put ourselves into his service again. Our way of life—our lifestyle – should reflect who we are. And so, we should not look like the devil:

  • “No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” (3:6)
  • Such a person “does what is sinful” (3:8), “does not do what is right” (3:10), and “does not love their brother or sister” (3:10)

John says that’s not the way that children of God speak, act, or carry themselves. Instead, children of God look like God is their Father. Such a person:

  • “Does what is righteous, just as [God] is righteous” (3:7)
  • “Cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God” (3:9)

As the old saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Our spiritual lives are anchored in the love of God and our identity as children of God. This identity is at the core of our being. It is not intended to be an informational reality but a transformational reality. And our lives, based in that new reality, should reflect the character of God.

How do we do that? Well, there are several examples found in the Scripture, but one of the easiest to grasp is found in Ephesians 4, where Paul is instructing the believers on how to live their lives for and with God. Paul writes:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24)

We must choose to take off the old self—the self controlled by sin and deceitful desires—the self that looks more like the devil. We must daily, even moment by moment, choose to take that way of living off.

We must have the attitude of our minds renewed. Actually the Greek conveys the sense of a renewing of the mind by the Spirit. We must let the truth of God become an inwardly transforming truth by the Holy Spirit’s power. We must know who we are in a deep way and be controlled by the Holy Spirit,  not by whatever changing winds tries to influence our spirit.

We must then put on the new self—the self that arises from knowing who we are and is sustained by the indwelling presence of God—and live by God’s power in God’s righteousness and holiness.

All in all, this journey of spiritual formation is a daily way of living that is centered in God’s truth and empowered by God’s presence as we moment-by-moment decide against sin and decide for God. The transformational knowledge that we are children of God practically changes how we live each day—we grow to look more like God our Father.

Knowing We are Dearly Loved Children of God

If you did a web search for the phrase “a new you,” you would find all sorts of interesting results. You would find anti-aging treatments. You would find opportunities for cosmetic surgery, body slimming, or laser hair removal. You would find self-help gurus and inspirational speakers offering solutions to your problems. You would even find car dealers and clothing shops offering you a much-needed new look.

How many of us have not at some point wanted a new look, a new identity, or a new persona? Now, listen to these words of the Apostle John from 1 John 3:

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1-2)

Who are we, according to John, here? We are children of God.

That new identity begins with the outpouring of God’s love upon us through Jesus Christ.

What is God’s love like? John tells us, first of all, that God’s love is “great,” a Greek word which conveys astonishment and wonder. God’s love is shocking—amazing—it has a greatness that surpasses our understanding.

Second, John tells us God’s love is “lavished on us.” We may not use the word “lavish” very often, but it conveys an extravagant generosity. It’s the word we use to describe an over-the-top gift someone gives us. God’s love is a great, gift-love. That shocking gift-love is at the very center of our lives through Jesus Christ. It establishes who we are. It determines our identity.

So much of our lives is spent trying to feel significant; to feel like we’re “someone.” We seek that through the love or attention of others, through our accomplishments, through standing out from the crowd in some way. But here, we are told that the limitless love of God is generously and shockingly poured into our lives. It’s not something we have to search for all our lives, it’s something that is readily available and given to us through Jesus Christ.

Settle into that for a moment. The God of the universe, who created us, loves us lavishly, shockingly, and personally.

How powerful it is to know that we are God’s children. I can’t help but think of the way Paul describes this reality in Romans 8:

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:15-16)

Today, take some time to rest in the truth that through faith in Jesus Christ we are God’s children, dearly loved and held in the divine embrace by our Abba Father no matter what comes.

What If God Is Leading Us Into the Wilderness?

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

What if God is leading us into the wilderness? As I’ve written before, the wilderness is that place of judgment, purification, and renewal with God. What purpose does God have for such a work in our lives? In Deuteronomy, Moses offers insight about it:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Moses reminds the people that the wilderness was God’s way of humbling and testing them on their way to the Promised Land, and it serves a similar purpose in God’s work with us.

The wilderness humbles us as we are brought face to face with our weakness and inadequacies. God wants us to realize our own powerlessness, so that we might turn to Him. The Apostle Paul experienced a wilderness of his own weakness revealed with a persistent thorn in his flesh. While we do not know exactly what that thorn was, the wilderness experience led Paul into an encounter with the all-sufficient grace of God. In light of God’s grace, he declared: “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The humbling of the wilderness brings us into that true encounter with our need and God’s provision.

The wilderness also tests and reveals what is truly in our hearts. When we are brought to the end of ourselves—humbled more than ever before—what we love and who we are is brought out into the light. We cannot hide it any longer, even from ourselves. Of course, God does not need to test us to see what is in our hearts. He already knows it. But He tests us so that we, too, might honestly see who we are and what we love, and be moved toward change through that testing.

There is humbling upon humbling in the wilderness. It is not easy and we often resist it. But through the wilderness, God intends to bring us to a crossroads. At that crossroads, we grapple with many penetrating questions. Will we serve God or serve ourselves? Will we build our lives around love for God or around love for ourselves? Will we walk in obedience to God or obey other masters? Will we bow down to God or bow before other false gods? The wilderness forces us to wrestle with these questions beyond superficiality and into the deep places of our souls.

In the wilderness, we are humbled and tested. The wilderness is a great revealer in the spiritual life. When we find ourselves in the wilderness, we can be assured that God has a purpose. He takes us into the wilderness both for our good and His glory in us. May we respond to Him—and not flee from Him—when He leads us into the wilderness.

Finding the Secret to Contentment and Joy

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

The Apostle Paul writes from prison these words that show at least that contentment is not dependent upon circumstances. Instead, contentment comes by learning a secret for living in God and also deriving strength from God. Both the secret and the strength come through Christ.

The reference to contentment here supports the driving theme of this letter, which is joy in the Lord, as Paul writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). All through the letter we actually see how adverse circumstances may teach us how to learn contentment and joy. How can this be? How do we discover and learn this?

Paul’s revelation here is that there is another source of contentment and joy that can pervade one’s life. It does not come from within us but through God. By reaching out to God, resting within him, with living faith as our source for living, we can experience a rich strength to rejoice regardless of what may come.

This does not disconnect us from the suffering of life, which is still real, but roots us in the unchanging character and being of God through Christ, enabling us to face real suffering with an entirely different outlook and character. This is not a “pie-in-the-sky” attitude but something more robust that comes from the life of God who Himself has walked through the fullness of human experience in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

God Himself strengthens us amidst real trials and hardships. It is through Him that we can find the secret and strength for living. Only something more durable and meaningful can bring real contentment and joy in adverse situations, and this comes from God.

Lord, teach me that secret and take me into Your strength that I might truly live filled with contentment and joy in You.