Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5-7, begins with a section commonly referred to as the beatitudes, meaning “perfect joy.” Most of the beatitudes are paradoxical and contrary to this world’s view of joy.
The word “blessed” is used throughout this passage, and it can be accurately replaced with the word “joyful.” Another synonym that could be utilized is the word “happy,” as long as one understands that this bliss is not due to good luck or chance (i.e., “hap,” which is the root word in “happy”).
Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit
Jesus begins His lesson by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
To be poor in spirit is to feel a deep sense of spiritual poverty. It is to empty oneself and to understand one’s insignificance in comparison to Almighty God and even others (cf. Philippians 2:3-4).
To be poor in spirit is to have a state of mind that is lowly and reverent before God. It is to be full of humility, not pride (e.g., the tax collector and Pharisee, respectively, in Luke 18:9-14).
It is impossible to be poor in spirit until one realizes his spiritual need. As long as a person delights in sin, he will not be poor in spirit, and he will not seek the Savior since he does not find it necessary (cf. Matt. 9:12).
To be poor in spirit is a joyful condition because one who is aware of his sinfulness and hopelessness without God will seek the kingdom of heaven and find hope therein.
Blessed Are Those Who Mourn
Secondly, Jesus declared, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
In the Greek language, the strongest word for mourn is used here. This term indicates a type of mourning that cannot be hidden.
The blessing here is not upon all who mourn (e.g., those with worldly sorrow would be excluded, cf. 2 Corinthians 7:10). Those who mourn because of sin and consequently repent are the ones who will be blessed (cf. James 4:8-10).
Such a person mourns over sin from a tender conscience and a broken heart, realizing it is sin that separates him from God (cf. Isaiah 59:1-2). After one realizes his sinfulness, he can be comforted by the discovery and acceptance of God’s pardon, made possible by obedience to the saving gospel (Romans 1:16; 6:17).
Blessed Are the Meek
Thirdly, our Lord spoke these words, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
Those listening to Jesus speak were full of the hope that He, as the Messiah, would lead them to conquest in a physical kingdom that would dominate by force (cf. Proverbs 16:32). However, Jesus taught that true joy is found in meekness.
The primary meaning of this word is “mild” or “gentle.” Meekness is not another word for weakness, as some mistakenly believe, for genuine meekness is strength under control.
The word “meek” has its origin in the taming or domestication of animals. A wild animal is strong, but destructive and of little value when out of control. However, when a horse, for example, is tamed, it loses none of its power, but its strength is brought under the control of its trainer. It is now a useful animal and can be employed for much good.
The same is true of man. A person who is strong (physically or spiritually) is of little use to the Lord until he submits to Him and allows his strength to be controlled by God’s desires. A meek person is totally given to the divine will. Such a one does get angry when circumstances warrant it, but he does so in a controlled manner (i.e., without sinning, cf. Ephesians 4:26). Moses is a good example of meekness (cf. Numbers 12:3; Exodus 32:19ff); so is Jesus (cf. Matthew 11:28-30; John 2:14ff).
The meek shall inherit the earth in the sense that they shall enjoy it more fully while living upon it (cf. Philippians 4:10-13). Selfish, violent people may literally possess the earth and its physical treasures, but the meek truly inherit the real blessings of this world and appreciate them without becoming obsessed with them.
Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst After Righteousness
The fourth beatitude is found in Matthew 5:6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
Jesus declared that those who feel an intense desire for righteousness – that which is right or just – shall obtain it.
Hungering and thirsting after righteousness is an attitude, a frame of mind, which realizes God’s word is “righteousness” (Psalms 119:172) and is to be understood and obeyed. The righteous word of God is spiritual food that is needed to grow stronger (cf. 1 Peter 2:2; Matthew 4:4).
What type of person doesn’t get hungry or thirsty physically? One who is either sick or dead! The same is true spiritually. If a person doesn’t have a strong desire to grow spiritually and feed on God’s word daily, then he is either spiritually sick or dead!
May those who desire righteousness do so as a deer pants for water (cf. Psalms 42:1-2)! If one yearns to be filled and to find true, lasting joy, he must put the kingdom of God first and seek His righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
Blessed Are the Merciful
Fifth, Jesus declared, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
To be merciful is to withhold justified punishment; it is to relieve the misery of one who deserves to suffer.
The merciful show pity to others, and much joy is found therein (cf. Acts 20:35). Humans typically have little difficulty showing mercy toward self, but may find it challenging to be lenient toward others. However, disciples of the Lord must learn to love their neighbors as they love themselves even when it comes to granting mercy (cf. Matthew 22:39).
If one fails to develop this attribute, God will not bestow mercy upon him (cf. Matthew 6:14-15). The parable of the unforgiving servant also clearly communicates this thought (Matthew 18:21-35).
Being merciful is a natural outward expression of an inner hungering after righteousness (cf. Matthew 7:12), and such will generally ensure that one’s personal quest for righteousness will not turn into self-righteousness (e.g., Luke 18:9-14).
Blessed Are the Pure in Heart
Sixth, Jesus stated, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
The “heart” is the center of one’s thinking processes; it is the mind, biblically speaking (Proverbs 23:7).
The “pure in heart” are those who are free from evil desires and purposes; their thoughts and speech are pure (cf. Matthew 12:34). This is because they meditate on those things in which there is virtue (cf. Philippians 4:8).
Such persons experience great joy in seeing God. Of course, they do not see Him physically since He is a Spirit being (cf. John 4:24), but they do see Him through faith in Christ.
But many of the Jews, having their hearts defiled with carnal hopes or self-righteous pride, failed to see God as He revealed Himself in the person of His Son (cf. John 14:6-9; Matthew 13:14-17). Not only do the pure in heart see God in this way, but they shall also see Him “as He is” in the hereafter (1 John 3:2). It should be noted that one might appear to be pure by his actions, though his heart is far from such (Matthew 23:25-28).
Blessed Are the Peacemakers
The seventh beatitude is seen in Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Peace is generally thought of as the absence of conflict or war, but to the follower of Christ it is much more. It includes an internal component of contentment, even in the midst of trials, conflict, and persecution. This is the peace from God that surpasses human understanding (cf. Philippians 4:7).
One is rightly considered a peacemaker when he seeks reconciliation and strives to live peaceably with all (both men and God). A true peacemaker is one who shares the gospel of peace in hopes of fostering spiritual reconciliation.
Christians should always seek external peace to the best of their ability (cf. Romans 12:18), but it should not be acquired at any cost. If peace can be achieved without compromising one’s convictions, purity of heart, and earnest desire for righteousness, then it must be pursued. The humble and wise peacemakers will be joyful; however, the selfish and foolish “piece-makers” (i.e., lovers of conflict and division) within the body of Christ will be miserable.
Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake
Finally, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).
To be persecuted for righteousness’ sake is to suffer at the hands of others for doing right. This is much different than being punished for wrongdoing (cf. 1 Peter 4:12-16).
It should be realized that in order to maintain peace, one must sometimes suffer persecution. If one is faithful to the Lord, he should expect persecution (cf. 2 Timothy 3:12; John 15:18-20). One should react to persecution as Christ did. He did not retaliate but denied Himself. He did not develop grudges but had a spirit of forgiveness.
Those who suffer because of their loyalty to the kingdom of heaven are blessed by being bound more closely to the kingdom for which they suffer. The joy in being persecuted is found when one realizes he is suffering for the name of Christ (e.g., Acts 5:41; 16:22-25). All who suffer as faithful servants of the Lord should “leap for joy” (cf. Luke 6:23)!
Matthew 5:12 reads, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Though Christians should live joyfully here on Earth, their ultimate reward will be in heaven. Let it always be remembered that the suffering experienced here is nothing in comparison to the bliss God has in store for His faithful ones (Romans 8:18).
Also, Christians should find comfort and strength in the example of the prophets (and the Christ, cf. 1 Peter 2:21-24), understanding that persecution for righteousness’ sake is not a sign of God’s disfavor. Persecution should be embraced, not resisted, as a way to develop one’s character through suffering (cf. James 1:2-4; Romans 5:3-5).
It is also worthwhile to note that there seems to be a logical progression to the beatitudes. After one comes to realize his sinfulness, he must empty himself of pride and self-sufficiency (i.e., become poor in spirit), and he must mourn. This will make it easier to submit to God completely and be strong under His control (i.e., meekness).
Such a person will naturally hunger and thirst after righteousness for he realizes that without God and His spiritual nourishment, he is destitute. A strong desire to do what is right should lead one to be merciful as God was to him, and it will also help in the effort to be pure in heart.
One who is full of mercy and devoted to purity is highly qualified to be a peacemaker. However, a person who possesses these attributes of true joy will be hated by the world and will suffer as one persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
We would do well to put the beatitudes to memory and frequently reflect upon them as a guide for examining the inner man (cf. 2 Corinthians 13:5). The daily prayers of all disciples will be greatly enriched by reflecting upon these wonderful attributes and requesting divine help in developing a character in which perfect joy is manifested.