No preacher today is likely to open a sermon with a list of aphorisms, but in the Sermon on the Mount this is precisely what Jesus did (Matt. 5:2–12). Maybe it’s because these rich statements—these “Beatitudes”—sound more like Confucius than the Jesus we’re used to—and particularly unlike the theological elaborations of Paul or John—that we simply find it easier to avoid elaborating on them in depth.
Or maybe it’s their remarkable clarity that makes them seem so obvious as to not be worth discussing. After all, the one-for-one simplicity of “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” doesn’t exactly beg for a lengthy theological treatise.
Conversely, what exactly does it look like to be meek or poor in spirit? It’s complicated. To truly understand the meaning, context, and intent of each unique beatitude takes some work, making the whole process of learning from these memorable statements more complicated than it might seem.
Then there’s the timing. The blessings happens in the present, even though most of the reasons occur in the future. For example: “Blessed are the pure in heart” (right now!), “for they shall see God” (one day, in the future). How is it that these pure ones are blessed because of something that will happen to or for them in the future?
In the complicated already-but-not-yet reality of the kingdom of heaven, we are blessed now for things we haven’t yet experienced in full. But lest we think the purview of the Beatitudes is limited to an afterlife in heaven, Jesus begins each by announcing the blessedness experienced in the present. Peacemakers experience today God’s blessedness in the faithful hope that one day they’ll certainly and completely become his children. Though we have a myriad of reasons for mourning, mourners are blessed now since they have a God who will one day comfort them completely, wiping every tear from their eyes, and who even now is intervening on their behalf. The blessedness of the future bleeds into the present with the same redemption God has always been working—a redemption decisively accomplished through his blessed Son.
In fact, only the “poor in spirit” (v. 3) and those “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (v. 10) receive any sort of present reward or immediate comfort. And in both cases, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (vv. 3, 10). It’s in the very destitution of spiritual poverty—and in the persecution that results from faithfulness to him—that Jesus comes bringing heaven’s kingdom. And it’s this shock factor of what God’s kingdom actually looks like—and what its citizens experience—that drives the Beatitudes.
From the perspective of the world, there’s absolutely nothing blessed about mourning, meekness, or mercy. The world asserts the opposite: “Blessed are the powerful, for they shall inherit everything.” It operates according to values and principles we’ve come to expect and accept. So in highlighting the strange and unexpected values of his kingdom Jesus challenges us, repeatedly, to realize his way is full of surprises. His kingdom doesn’t look like all the kingdoms of the earth to which we’re so accustomed.
Those who get ahead in Jesus’s kingdom are not those with unlimited power or the strongest determination, nor those with impressive resources or intolerance for mistakes. Instead, they are those who experience hardship and those who forgive.
I wonder if this is another reason we’ve come to neglect the Beatitudes. Perhaps they’re simply so countercultural that we’re unwilling to give up our own expectations of kingdom-building to turn to the values and virtues of Jesus’s kingdom. It’s just easier to import the values of contemporary culture into the church and into our own lives. We don’t want pastors who are meek; we want strong, charismatic leaders. We don’t want to be peacemakers; we want to continue our congregational and denominational squabbles. We don’t want to hunger and thirst after righteousness; we want to continue lusting after things that satisfy both imperfectly and momentarily.
Nevertheless, the Beatitudes are not prescriptions or postulations; they are proclamations. Jesus isn’t primarily instructing us in the pursuit of certain virtues. (Though there’s certainly an aspect of this: we should grow in meekness, be merciful, and pursue pure hearts, for instance.) Rather, Jesus is announcing where his kingdom is found and who will inherit its fullness—so that we can recognize it when we see it and join in.
The Beatitudes, then, demonstrate what it looks like to counter the empty pursuits our cultures value so dearly. They’re not trivial promises of ease or security. Instead, these statements assure us of the full realization of all our human desires: to know God, to be his children, to know his comfort and satisfaction, and to dwell with him forever. In the Beatitudes Jesus shows us the beauty of a renewed world we fail to recognize or imagine so that we may continue to explore their depth, have our expectations disrupted, and live in light of his eternal kingdom.