This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
1. The Beatitudes define our deepest needs and calling in Christ.
The Beatitudes dig beneath the surface, exposing what we really need. To satisfy our hunger for wealth, Jesus offers poverty. He commends meekness over hostility. Instead of personal pleasure and glory, he proposes patience and a commitment to justice. Instead of lust and greed, he offers purity of heart. For the soul riddled with anxiety and fear, he suggests peace. Rather than vanity and pride, he bestows security and inner strength.
The Beatitudes thus expose the pernicious lies we have internalized while portraying the life God intends for his people. In them Jesus is not, as many suppose, offering a religious ladder to be climbed, at the top of which one finds a smiling Deity who rewards our religious effort. Nor is it an ideal moral system reserved for an elite group of chosen disciples. Nor is he laying out a penitential program whereby one receives divine blessing by assuming the posture of a doormat. Rather, Jesus is describing the man or woman who belongs to his Father’s kingdom and therefore lives according to God’s heart.
2. The Beatitudes illustrate the heart of God.
The word “blessed” (Greek, makarios) punctuates the beatitudes like a drum: Blessed are the meek; blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn. But what does it mean to be “blessed”? Some suggest “fortunate” best conveys the idea, for it describes a valuable gift that cannot be earned. Others have translated makarios as “happy,” because it satisfies the soul with inexpressible joy. But no single English word captures its beauty, depth, and nuance.
However helpful a definition may be, it must yield to the full-orbed, biblical conception of blessedness offered to us in the Beatitudes, and the loving God who so freely blesses. In this fallen world, it’s the wealthy, the charming, and the strong who are exalted. But Jesus shows us that God’s heart—full of steadfast love and faithfulness—extends to the weak, the vulnerable, and the awkward. Therefore, “blessed” is the tangible gift of God’s loving embrace, an identity in Christ that experiences life as it ought to be—“as in heaven.” It’s the way of Christ’s kingdom, an unexpected turn that explodes like fireworks throughout his teaching.
3. The Beatitudes are full of unexpected turns.
When Jesus described his kingdom, he consistently emphasized its humble trajectory. His followers, despite their many weaknesses and flaws, are “salt of the earth” and “light of the world”—servants who enrich others and offer illumination. They express sincere prayers to their heavenly Father so that his will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” When facing conflict, they first seek to remove the log from their own eye, before trying to remove the speck from their brother’s eye.
All of this highlights the surprising, countercultural impulse of the kingdom. It is like a farmer who sows seed, some of which fall among rocks, some choked out by weeds, some eaten by birds. Or it’s like a mustard seed—so modest and small that it goes unnoticed by humans and birds alike. But, in time, it sprouts into a bush so large that birds can nest in its branches. Or it is like a merchant who specializes in expensive jewels. One day he finds a pearl of such value that he liquidates his entire estate to buy it. That’s the nature of God’s kingdom, simultaneously humble and of surpassing value. Inconspicuous, but it grows exponentially beyond our wildest expectations.
4. The Beatitudes reveal our sin, pretense, and how short we fall of divine perfection.
The Beatitudes set the moral and spiritual bar so high that we cannot possibly live up to them—and in our best moments, we know this. Who among us is truly poor in spirit? Who trusts God in life’s lowest moments? Where is the meek man or woman? How often do we really hunger and thirst for righteousness? Who among us is merciful, pure in heart, or a peacemaker? How many of us are persecuted for the sake of righteousness?
At the end of Matthew 5, the Lord makes our inability to keep God’s law inescapably clear: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Remembering our former days of loneliness and shame, when we were alienated from Christ, strangers to the divine promises, having no hope and without God in the world, dilates the eyes of our heart, cultivating a deeper appreciation for God’s mercy. Or, as John Stott puts it: “Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is here, at the foot of the cross that we shrink to our true size.”1
5. The Beatitudes command the world’s attention and show us true shalom.
In contrast to the world’s default settings of bitterness, anger, and greed, the Beatitudes are the clearly demarcated way of righteousness in the world. For example, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer started a seminary for the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde, it was modeled on the Sermon on the Mount. Fiercely opposed to Hitler, Bonhoeffer and his colleagues employed the Beatitudes to fortify the Confessing Church with needed strength to confront the Nazification of German society.
As a pastor who spends most his waking hours considering how to equip the church to stand against the gravitational pull of the world—the contention, partisan strife, and idolatry of self—I regard the Beatitudes as crucial to pry our fingers loose from the wheel of power in favor of poverty of spirit and shalom. They celebrate meekness instead of arrogance. They champion mercy and peace over nonstop bickering and one-upmanship. In short, they lead us to take up our cross and follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
6. The Beatitudes deliver us from despair by providing the language of lament.
The Beatitudes acknowledge the reality of suffering in the world, as the great text in Romans 8:23–24 affirms: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” The Beatitudes speak of poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst, and persecution. Unlike today’s health-and-wealth counterfeit gospel, they do not deny or ignore the pain and hardship that we may experience in life.
But in the midst of our suffering and loss, they remind us that God’s kingdom is both present and coming, and that we can find comfort and strength in his promise of a better future. As Peter Marshall said, “God will not permit any troubles to come upon us, unless he has a specific plan by which great blessing can come out of the difficulty.” Such blessing may not be apparent in the present, but its realization will surely come in due course. Until then, we grieve as those who possesses a living and sure hope.
7. The Beatitudes challenge our idols—our functional saviors, pleasures, ambitions, and false securities in which we rest.
The Beatitudes call us to embrace poverty of spirit, which means recognizing our need for God’s grace, rather than relying on our wealth and possessions. They call us to embrace meekness, which means submitting to God’s will and serving others, rather than seeking to dominate and control them. They call us to embrace purity of heart, which means seeking after God’s will and righteousness, rather than gratifying our own desires.
Through weakness we embody divine strength. Through poverty we find true wealth. Through apparent defeat we taste consummate victory.
In this way, they challenge our false securities and false gods, undercutting our tendency to lean on money, success, and popularity, which will ultimately disappoint us. By releasing our idols and false securities and embracing poverty of spirit, meekness, and purity of heart, we walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called. As Calvin said, “The real proof of spiritual poverty is to patiently endure the loss of worldly goods and without any regret when it pleases our heavenly Father.”
8. The Beatitudes are the reality which popular, consumerist Christianity parodies.
Our culture’s commitment to live in the moment—where there’s no talk about death, eternity, or judgment—is accelerating the decline of contemporary Christianity—a consumerist faith fueled by spiritual sugar rushes. Or, as H. Richard Niebuhr memorably put it, it is like “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”2
Not so for disciples of Christ, for those blessed of God and seeking the kingdom of heaven. Like Abraham, they look forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God (Heb. 11:10). Full of hope, they can almost taste the final victory, like the prophets and saints of old, who “all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar” (Heb. 11:13). David Wells describes the transforming power of this promise: “It is pointing beyond itself to that great day. It lives in this world, but it lives because it has seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. This is the knowledge that changes everything.”3
9. The Beatitudes provide logic for the ups and downs of life.
Sometimes our Christian life is like the rolling motion of a ship in a storm. Circumstances lift us heavenward, creating a sense of joy, before we find ourselves unexpectedly plummeting into a trough of despair. With each descent, the slanderous aspersions of the evil one fill our ears. “You are going to die.” “God has forgotten you.” “It’s your fault.” It is here that we know we should most vigorously pray for God’s kingdom to come to us “on earth as it is in heaven.”
This undulating movement—from strength to weakness, from life to death—belongs to the larger pattern of God’s counterintuitive kingdom. The Beatitudes, like few portions of Scripture, shine a spotlight on this pattern. Through weakness we embody divine strength. Through poverty we find true wealth. Through apparent defeat we taste consummate victory. The Beatitudes invite poor sinners like you and me to experience the new creation: to rest in his comfort, to embody his holiness, to savor his righteousness, to celebrate his mercy, to be called beloved children.
10. The Beatitudes point forward to the resurrection of Christ’s followers.
Christ said that the meek will inherit the earth, but the question is when? Now or in the future? The answer, in keeping with the already-and-not-yet reality of the kingdom of God, is yes. Our inheritance comes now and in the future! You might say that in the Beatitudes we get a glimpse of what lies ahead, even of our resurrected self, a glorious vision that compels us to go forth embodying and proclaiming the good news of Christ in all the earth.
As the Apostle Paul suggests when he describes men and women in Christ already seated in the heavenly realm (Eph. 2; Col 3), the beginning of God’s new world has dawned, a light that we have the privilege of shining into today’s encircling shadows. Such life includes a renewed heart (Rom. 5:5), intimate communion with God (Eph. 3:17–19), a clear conscience (1 Tim. 1:5), peace (Rom. 5:1), and spiritual fruit (Gal. 5:22–23). These are the blessings of the meek, and they hint at the glorious future Christ’s followers can expect when all is made new. The meek will inherit the earth.
- John Stott, The Message of Galatians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1968), 179.
- H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), xv.
- David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 248.
Chris Castaldo is the author of The Upside Down Kingdom: Wisdom for Life from the Beatitudes.
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