The Beatitudes

David E. Koltenbah
Thomasville, Georgia

Introduction and Preliminary Observations

One of the most beautiful passages in all the world's literature is the Sermon on the Mount. Infidel, worldling, pagan and believer alike admire it. Its pure ethic, its penetrating truth, its lofty ideal command the attention of every reader, however few mav actually put its principles into practice. He who reads this best known of all Jesus' sayings without introspection surely is beyond all feeling.

To appreciate, however, this teaching of Jesus to the fullest, one must understand it against the background of the entire book of Matthew. This apostle's book is not merely a biography of Jesus: it is a religious critique, a demonstration of the Messiahship, but a treatise not after the Western tradition. Occidentals, particularly those who are not sufficiently conversant with the Old Testament and with the ancient Jewish mind, may fail to grasp the force of Matthew's book, and of the Sermon on the Mount in particular. All that Matthew relates of the words and works of Jesus is intended to show to the devout Jew (and to all today who have likewise steeped themselves in the Law and the Prophets and have imbibed the excitement of Israels ancient hope of the Messiah) that Jesus of Nazareth is the Anointed of Jehovah, the true King of spiritual Israel. The Kingship of Jesus, then, is the theme of the book, and the Sermon on the Mount may be understood as His Inaugural Address, the discourse which, for all intents and purposes (according to Matthew, at least), launched the earthly career which culminated in His heavenly coronation and the establishment of His kingdom.

The Sermon on the Mount, then, is a political speech-a royal address on affairs of state-but of a heavenly "politics" until then unknown to the world except only darkly through the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messianic kingdom. After a few terse but pregnant introductory remarks (Matt. 5:3-16), Jesus presents the primary principle of His lesson (vv. 17-20), that of the establishment of the New Order. The remaining portion of the Sermon (5 :21-7 :23) is an application of that principle-or rather a logical consequence of it-contrasting the New Messianic Order with the Old Mosaic Order, particularly in its legal basis and the life of its citizens. The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12) comprise a part of the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount and describe the state of the citizen of the kindom of heaven (cf. Phil. 3:20), while the remaining part of the introduction (vv. 13-16) illustrates the influence of the kingdom-citizen.

The most notable form-characteristic of the Beatitudes is, of course, the recurrance of the expression, "Blessed be . . ." But what is the blessedness of which Jesus speaks? So often the synonym "happy" is used to define "blessed," but that is likely to be inadequate. The word "happiness" may conote to many a flippant gaitv or carefree mirth, a transcient sentiment which comes or goes with fair weather or payday-that frothy kind of emotionalism mentioned in popular songs and in sermonettes from silly, effiminate preachers. But the blessedness of which Jesus speaks is a manly joy, a permanent state of the soul, and springs from the deep, still recesses of that human spirit atune with the Spirit of God. It is the ever present joy arising from the continuous harmony of reconciliation with God. It is "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding" (Phil. 4:7), "the joy unspeakable" (I Pet. 1:8), which is unperturbed by the outward troubles of this present evil world. Someone has illustrated this spiritual blessedness by the tranquility which persists in the ocean's depths, where in time of tempest marine animals find refuge from the wind and waves which torment the surface of the sea.

Each of the Beatitudes is in two parts, describing first a blessed, spiritual characteristic of the Christian, and then the sphere in which that blessedness exists. Upon first reading the text one might say that there is first mentioned in each Beatitude a virtue demanded of the child of God, and then a reward bestowed by God upon the virtuous. While it is most unquestionably true that God bestows rewards upon the righteous from without, yet at the same time we may learn from the Beatitudes that the righteousness of the righteous is itself a blessing and a reward for the righteous, for it within itself contains seeds of joy. Just as the natural consequence of sin is within itself one of the most terrible punishments of sin in this life, so the natural fruits of righteousness which are to be enjoyed in this life are in themselves great reward for righteousness. This usually is the case with the rewards promised in the Beatitudes: the righteous enjoy "blessedness" because righteousness itself produces true soul-happiness from within, as well as because God outwardly bestows upon them abundant rewards in this life. We shall have occasion to notice this again as our study progresses. (Lest the reader misunderstand, the abundant rewards which God showers upon the righteous in this life are not necessarily material blessings. Prosperity is not necessarily reward for righteousness, nor is poverty necessarily punishment for wickedness.)

Each of the Beatitudes is a paradox-that which appears contradictory-and undoubtedly they smote with electric shock the amazed ear of the Galilean audience. Jesus presented the paradox that true happiness-"blessedness"-consists in doing, not what one himself desires, but the things which another demands, something that worldly man has never learned. Too, it is a seeming contradiction that true happiness lies in doing those particular things required in the gospel, for they are not the things which the human mind would have evolved. Our frequently unmeditative, impassive and hurried reading of the Beatitudes is likely to have left us unappreciative of their vital force. It is no surprise that Christ's hearers would exclaim with wonderment that "he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes." (Matt. 7 :29)

One of the outstanding lessons of the Beatitudes is that Christianity is essentially paradoxical: it embraces a series of seeming contradictions-that one is exalted only through humility (I Pet. 5 :6), that he obtains life only by losing it ( Matt. 16 :25), that he gains only when he gives (Acts 20:35), etc. Christ Himself was a paradox-the Son of heaven lived as a peasant, the Prince of Peace and Life died a violent and ignominious death, the Creater was a victim of His creatures, and especially this: the Dead arose to life.

"Although He was virtuous, He suffered all possible indignities; majestic, He died in ignominy; powerful, He expired in weakness . . . He claimed to possess the water of life, and He died thirsting. He claimed to be the light of the world, and He died in darkness. He claimed to be the good shepherd, and He died in the fangs of wolves. He claimed to be the truth, and He was crucified as an impostor. He claimed to be the resurrection and the life, and He expired sooner than most victims of crucifixion usually did, that so that Pilate was amazed . . ." (Merrill C. Tenney: John: The Gospel of Belief, p. 52.)

Surely is the gospel that "which none of the rulers of this world hath known" and which "eye saw not, and ear heard not, and which entered not into the heart of man . . ." (I Cor. 2:8-9.)

What preliminary observation can be more apropos here than that one of the most grievous errors of puny and carnal-minded man is that he perpetually seeks to alter the Divine plan by "correcting" that which to him appears disharmonious? It seems that even to members of Christ's body it is inconceivable that His kingdom should be so vastly different from the kingdoms of this world and operate without satrapies and overloads, bureaus and bureaucrats! We have not failed to glean one of the least lessons that come out of our study, if we can observe nothing else from the Beatitudes than that we should expect from the Master Teacher that which should clash with our own petty notions of what things ought to be.

To the Jews to whom Jesus preached, or at least to their leaders, it was preposterous that true happiness and religious satisfaction should consist in something other than the spectacular in religious ritual-in "signs"-and in precision in its execution, just as later to the Greeks it was equally inconceivable that the highest good could he attained by something other than worldly "wisdom." (See I Cor. 1:22.)

Likewise, to moderns it appears incredible that happiness should come from something other than the pursuit of pleasure or prosperity or popularity, that is, from things measured qualitatively rather than quantitatively. Yet Jesus summoned first the Jew and then the Greek to that which appeared irreligious to the one and irrational to the other. Blinded by the magnificence of their Temple- or Acropolis-religion, the ancients stumbled at the gospel. While the majority today profess to see the absurdities of Judaistic theology and Greek philosophy, many are still dazzled by their own theological and philosophical concoctions -so much so, that they cannot see the golden truths of the gospel. Alas! not a few of our own brethren are thus blinded. They profess profound amazement that the Pharisees could not appreciate Jesus' teaching, yet they themselves have not learned to love it, but would alter it to suit their own concepts of what a Divine revelation ought to say.

So the religion of our Lord is contradictory to the desires of the world, and the truth ever presents the unexpected and the "unreasonable." It is thus interesting that the public discourses of Christ began with a summary statement of the paradoxical nature of the Christian life.

We began by saying that infidel, worldling, pagan and believer alike admire the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, but so often that admiration does not extend beyond a liking of mere literary attractiveness. The core of Jesus' teaching is winked at, with the result that the spiritual ethic which He demanded is still extremely rare in the world and the blessedness of which He spake is experienced by infinitismally few. The Beatitudes are still at odds with the world's ideals, and the world, torn as it is with hatred and fear-not to mention the church, tormented with her strifes and threatened with schism-yet has dire need to know Christ's blessings and the true Christian's blessedness.

The Beatitudes would call us from the proud survey of the inventions we have sought out, to make search of our own heart as it is divided asunder by the Word of God and brought under the scrutiny of "him with whom we have to do." (Heb. 4:12-13.) The Beatitudes are by no means the sum total of the scheme of salvation, but in their abbreviated form they strikingly suggest all that God elsewhere in Scripture explicitly requires of man: faith and obedience, submission and sacrifice, love and service. By demanding self-examination in these concise parallelisms, Jesus appeals to the selfless individual who would he completely in subjection to his King. These are verses as much needed in Mt. Zion today as on the slopes of that Galilean hill so long ago, for many there are among us, who love the chief seats in the synagogue and who do their almsgiving with the blasting of the trumpet of pride, who still have not arrived at the essence of true piety.

We propose in a series of articles to study the Beatitudes.

(Note: The reader interested in a study of the Beatitudes will find particularly helpful the works the writer has conferred with in preparing the original sermon outlines from which this series of articles has been drawn. Trench's Synonyms, Thayer's Lexicon, Vincent's Word Studies, and particularly Vine's Expository Dictionary, are useful for the study of single words. The Pulpit Commentary is usually rich in sermon suggestions, and several of the points in these articles have been adapted from the homiletical outlines in this commentary. After the first several articles of this series were already prepared for publication, the Gospel Guardian (IX:50, April 24, 1958) presented an issue devoted entirely to a study of the Beatitudes. But the most important helps in any biblical study will ever be a good concordance and a familiar well worn Bible in the hands of a prayerful, humble Christian not averse to hard work. These last named materials are available to every man and woman, and it is indeed encouraging that the ingredient of hard work is not entirely lacking among God's people today. If the present series of articles results in serious study-Bible study-by only a few, it will have accomplished a worth-while task.)

Truth Magazine III:1, pp. 12-13, 24
October 1958