‘The Beatitudes’ is the name given collectively to the first part of ‘the Sermon on the Mount’, which comprises Matthew chapters 5 to 7. The Beatitudes are set out in verses 3 to 12 of chapter 5.
These verses describe the ‘blessed’ ones, that is to say, the people who enjoy the favour of the Lord. Here is a composite picture drawn by the Lord of the truly blessed soul. Just as the hallmark on jewellery indicates the nature, quality and genuineness of the precious metal, so the Beatitudes show the nature, quality and genuineness of the truly saved soul. By the same token, they serve as a challenge to believers to reflect godly characteristics in their lives.
Sorrow for sin
Jesus began his ministry, as did John the Baptist earlier (Matthew 3:2), with the resounding call: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matthew 4:17). Sorrow for sin is a priority for sinners.
Interestingly, despite such an ‘unpopular’ theme, multitudes followed him (4:25). It is in the face of this multitude that Jesus launched into his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (5:1) although, at least in the earlier part, he seems to be speaking directly to his followers.
The sermon is wide-ranging. It has attracted a lot of attention. Some people will say, ‘Live by the Sermon on the Mount and you cannot go far wrong’. Yet it is very searching throughout, defying the natural ability of fallen men to conform to it, and ending up with a solemn message of divine judgement (7:21ff.).
However, as Thomas Watson, the Puritan, reminds us, Christ does not begin the sermon with commands or threats, but with promises and blessings.
As we approach the Beatitudes, the first question to ask is, what is the meaning of ‘blessed’ as used by the Lord here? Some people equate it with happiness. They say that you are blessed when you have a happy unruffled human life.
No doubt, some people may enjoy a life like that. It would, however, be sadly misleading to limit this to a sort of human happiness. After all, think of the Beatitude we have in verse 10: ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake’. ‘Blessedness’ clearly needs to encompass far more than the experience of human or earthly happiness.
The question of what it really means to be blessed is important for Christian disciples, not least in view of the difficulties they face in life, in themselves, and in the world. Watson put it this way: ‘The people of God meet with many knotty difficulties and sinking discouragements in the way of religion. Their march is not only tedious [hard] but dangerous, and their hearts are ready to despond [be despondent or downcast]. It will not be amiss therefore to set the crown of blessedness before them to animate their courage and to inflame their zeal’.
What is this ‘blessedness’ not to be equated with? It does not lie, firstly,in the acquisition of worldly things. Material things may be a blessing, but can become idols. People dare not rest their hopes on ‘externals’.
As Watson puts it, ‘God cursed the ground at creation, but people are digging there to get blessing out of the curse’. We do not despise God’s temporal gifts, of course. But blessedness does not lie in the mere possession of such things, for they never can themselves advance man’s relationship to God.
‘Riches’, says Watson, ‘are but sugared lies, pleasant impostures, like a gilded cover which has not one leaf of true comfort bound up in it’. So, to rest on such things for happiness is folly, because there will never be enough to satisfy even the richest souls.
Besides this, material things can never bring real peace to a soul. Riches are uncertain, and they fade. What could his riches do for Belshazzar’s troubled soul, or for Dives in the parable in Luke 16? They are ‘like a castle made of snow, lying under the torrid beams of the sun’ (Watson).
Secondly, blessedness does not lie in the lack of these things either. That is the monastic error. As if merely being deprived of worldly goods and comforts must equate to a blessed life! It is noticeable that the description of the blessed life here focuses on character and not on possessions, worldly status, asceticism or the like.
Thirdly, blessedness as used by the Lord, is clearly not a natural quality in a person’s life. Nor does it arise from merely outward actions. There is a clear implication here of the working of divine grace in a person’s life to produce discernible fruits or qualities, as a result of which true blessedness will be enjoyed.
The nature of blessedness
So what does ‘blessed’ mean, as used by the Lord Jesus in the Beatitudes? It clearly means something that lasts and will not fade away, in the sense that it does not depend on man’s state of health or wealth. The experience of it may vary markedly from time to time, but it will be the experience of the godly person, as he or she is exercised under God’s holy word. The blessed person enjoys the favour of the Lord. There are several important ingredients:
(1) It is an experience of God’s loving presence. As someone has put it: ‘The love of God is a honeycomb which drops such infinite sweetness and satisfaction into the soul as is “unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8)’. This is part of the delight the believer has in the private and public exercises of the worship of God.
(2) It is an experience of abundant spiritual provision. The meaning and direction of life becomes one of glorifying God and enjoying him. You find the Lord to be your strength and comfort even in affliction, so that you are not overwhelmed by adversity. You hear the voice of God speaking peace to your soul, and saying, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Do you wonder what the psalmist means when he writes: ‘Thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures’ (Psalm 36:8)? Surely he speaks of abundant spiritual provision; not ‘drops’ but a river! Blessed is the people whose God is the Lord (Psalm 33:12, cf. Psalm 144:15). This is the happiness of those who know the Lord, a happiness which has ‘eternity’ stamped upon it.
(3) It is an experience of living hope. The believer has a living hope because of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3). It is also true that when godliness is being pursued there will be an experience of real hope. ‘The serious meditation of this’, says Thomas Watson, ‘will be a forceful argument to make the sinner break off his sins by repentance and sweat hard till he find the golden mine of blessedness’. There is, of course, a blessedness promised to those who live godly in this world. This obviously embraces a hope of future and eternal blessedness beyond this earthly scene.
Blessedness, then, is not to be found in earthly accomplishments or possessions. These may indeed be a blessing in a temporal sense. But here Jesus is clearly speaking of something far more serious and important.
Believers should show the world just what it is to live the blessed life, in union with Christ, in submission to his will, and in living in the light of eternity. In these Beatitudes, Jesus teaches what constitutes the blessed life and delineates for us the way of blessing.
This will be found, not in conformity to this world, but in conformity to Christ, and in dying to sin and living unto the Lord. ‘Oh, let us pant after things heavenly, let us get our eyes fixed, and our hearts united to God, the supreme good. This is to pursue blessedness in the chase’ (Watson).