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.”

Becoming Real: The Sermon on the Mount – a new series at Eastbrook

This coming weekend at Eastbrook Church we begin a ten-week preaching series entitled “Becoming Real,” walking through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, chapters 5-7. This is the third part of our longer journey through the Gospel of Matthew, building upon “Family Tree” and “Power in Preparation.”

This series explores Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount as a basic manual on Christian discipleship, life in the kingdom of God, and re-humanization in Jesus Christ. Jesus begins His ministry – His ministry is becoming real. He invites us to follow Him and learn from Him – discipleship is becoming real. That invitation to Christ calls us toward true humanity – in Him we are becoming real. Join us as we begin the journey with Jesus of becoming real.

You can also join in with the daily devotional for this series online, as a downloadable PDF, via the Eastbrook app, or through a limited-run of paper copies available at our in-person worship services or by reaching out to the Eastbrook Church office.

Join us each weekend of this series in-person or via Eastbrook at Home.

Here are the weekly topics for the series:

February 21 – “Real Life” – Matthew 5:1-11

February 28 – “Real Identity” – Matthew 5:12-16

March 7 – “Real Righteousness” – Matthew 5:17-48

March 14 – “Real Spirituality” – Matthew 6:1-18

March 21 – “Real Treasure” – Matthew 6:19-24

March 28 – “Real Faith” – Matthew 6:25-34

April 4 – “Real Life” – Easter Resurrection Celebration

April 11 – “Real Perspective” – Matthew 7:1-6

April 18 – “Real Prayer” – Matthew 7:7-11

April 25 – “Real Love” – Matthew 7:12

May 2 – “Real Response” – Matthew 7:13-29

Dallas Willard on the Kingdom of God: insights on what it is and how God rules

Dallas Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, is one of my favorite books of all time. In this book, Willard explores what discipleship is all about through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount. Much of Willard’s work in the book builds from the accessibility of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ. This is at least part of what I was trying to speak about in my message this past weekend at Eastbrook, “The Holy Spirit in Us: Living in the Kingdom of God Now.” Here is an extended quotation from Willard on the kingdom of God that I find particularly helpful.


“Now God’s own ‘kingdom,’ or ‘rule,’ is the range of his effective will, where what he wants done is done. The person of God himself and the action of his will are the organizing principles of his kingdom, but everything that obeys those principles, whether by nature of by choice is within his kingdom.

“The Old Testament book of Psalms comes to a joyous, breathtaking celebration of God’s kingdom in Psalms 145-150. The picture there presented must be kept in mind whenever we try to understand his kingdom. Then we will not doubt that that kingdom has exited from the moment of creation and will never end (Ps. 145:13; Dan. 7:14). It cannot be ‘shaken’ (Heb. 12:27f.) and is totally good. It has never been in trouble and never will be. It is not something that human beings produce or, ultimately, can hinder. We do have an invitation to be a part of it, but if we refuse we only hurt ourselves.

“Accordingly, the kingdom of God is not essentially a social or political reality at all. Indeed, the social and political realm, along with the individual heart, is the only place in all of creation where the kingdom of God, or his effective will, is currently permitted to be absent. That realm is the ‘on earth’ of the Lord’s Prayer that is opposed to the ‘in heaven’ where God’s will is, simply, done. It is the realm of what is cut out ‘by hands,’ opposed to the kingdom ‘cut out without hands’ of Daniel, chapter 2.

“Thus, contrary to a popular idea, the kingdom of God is not primarily something that is ‘in the hearts of men.’ That kingdom may by there, and it may govern human beings through their faith and allegiance to Christ. At the present time it governs them only through their hearts, if at all. But his kingdom is not something confined to their hearts or to the ‘inner’ world of human consciousness. It is not some matter of inner attitude or faith that might be totally diconnected from the public, behavioral, visible world. It always pervades and governs the whole of the physical universe—parts of planet earth occupied by humans and other personal beings, the satanic, slight excepted for a while….

“So when Jesus directs us to pray, ‘The kingdom come,’ he does not mean that we should pray for it to come into existence. Rather, we pray for it to take over at all points in the personal, social, and political order where it is now excluded: ‘On earth as it is in heaven.’ With this prayer we are invoking it, as in faith we are acting it, into the real world of our daily existence.”

[From Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1998), 25-26.]

What Must Happen If We Want to Love Others: Encountering the Heart of the Golden Rule

Living the Golden Rule.001

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus summarizes all the Law and the prophets—the entire Old Testament guidance from God—with a simple sentence known as the golden rule: “do to others as you would have them do to you.” In some ways, this is even more concise and straightforward than another of Jesus’ well-known teachings about what God is looking for. In that other setting (Matthew 22:36-40), after beings asked what the greatest commandment is in God’s law, Jesus sums up everything by calling human beings to love God with all of who we are and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Here, however, the golden rule calls us immediately into action, forcing us to avoid abstraction with the emphatic: “do to others as you would have them do to you.” The place of reflection begins with the question, “Am I loving so-and-so as myself?” And so we may begin to think about others and what holds us back from loving them. But here, reflection is immediately plunged into the much more measurable question, “Am I doing toward so-and-so what I wish so-and-so was doing to me?”

This is why the golden rule is not only memorable but powerful. Quickly, in Jesus’ statement we are confronted by many issues we otherwise might avoid. Not only are we forced to consider, “Should I call that person facing difficulty today because that is the sort of care I would like to receive from someone?”, but the more emphatic call to action, “If that’s what I wish someone would do for me, then that is what I should do by  God’s grace and power.” It is not contemplation of the act of love that counts, but moving to action in love. Jesus tells us “this is the law and the prophets.” In other words, all the previous guidance of God was to force us into the encounter with the love of God that leads us into the activity of love toward others.

Living the Golden Rule.002Here is one of the places where the golden rule is more than just activity, however. Jesus’ words push us into the territory of our hearts, where we encounter both the beauty and the deficiency within. As Jesus says in another place, “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart” (Matthew 12:28, NLT).  What we do flows from who we are.

If we struggle to live out the golden rule the cause is not because we do not know something or are missing the right techniques or skills. It is fundamentally a heart problem pointing to what we love and desire.  Human barriers within me stand in the way of love’s action. Because I do not see others as human made in the image of God as I see myself as human, I fail to love. Because I fear that my love given to others will not be reciprocated to me, I fail to love. Because I do not really want really good things to come to others in ways that outpace good things coming to me, I fail to love. The possibilities are as various as the human heart is unique, but all of them lead us into a deep encounter with ourselves and our hearts. Each of these examples are not failures of technique or action, but heart failure. The fundamental problem in our failure to love is a that love has not transformed our desires at the most basic level.

And so, Jesus’ teaching brings us ultimately into an encounter with the God who is love. When we find—or perhaps, better, are found by—God’s love, that love begins to transform every sphere of our lives and dark corner of our hearts. As that happens, our desires in life, and specifically the way we see and loves others, also is transformed. The more we know the love of God, the more our lives are changed.  Jesus’ words in the golden rule takes us on a journey of transformation that begins by looking outward toward others, leads us inward to our own need for God, and then takes us back outward to engage with others. Changed from the inside out, we steadily become people who love others, not just in contemplation or abstraction, but in the tangible doing that the golden rule invites us into.

Lord, help me to love others like You do and to love in action even as I desire for myself to be loved in action. Transform my heart, bring order to my desires, and shape me to reflect You in this world.

Family Camp at Fort: The Art of Prayer

IMG_3117.JPGIn the last week of June I had the opportunity to speak at Family Camp 2 for Fort Wilderness in McNaughton, Wisconsin. If you’re not familiar with Fort, you should definitely consider their amazing range of ministry opportunities throughout the year. Every Winter our Student Ministries takes a group for Winter Retreat up in this beautiful place.

Since I have been spending so much time thinking and speaking on prayer, I kept that theme for the Family Camp, speaking on “The Art of Prayer.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-16 at 5.28.47 PM.pngFort has posted those messages online here. The five messages I gave were:

  • “Making Space for Prayer” – a look at the way that Jesus’ ordered His life around His relationship with the Father through prayer
  • “Jesus on How We Should Pray” – beginning to look at Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6
  • “Praying Like the Master” – specifically walking through Jesus’ teaching on what is known as the Lord’s Prayer
  • “Praying in Difficulty” – learning from Jesus’ approach to pray in John 17 in the midst of stressful circumstances
  • “Praying with Paul” – looking at one of Paul’s notable prayers in his letters from Philippians 1

 

I am so thankful for the staff team at Fort that I had the chance to work with during the week, as well as all the families that gathered for a week in the Word and in the woods together.