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Introduction to the Beatitudes


As we begin our study of the Beatitudes, we would do well to hear D. A. Carson’s warning:

“Diligent readers often cherish writers and speakers who can capture a complex position in a single, polished gem of a statement. Such aphorisms (as they are called) are especially telling when they first become public. Unfortunately, once an aphorism has been widely disseminated, it is in danger of being domesticated – a trained poodle that is dragged out when the circumstances require it. For many Christians, that is what has become of the Beatitudes. . . . We are so familiar with them that the words can glide piously off our tongues without disturbing us. Yet each of these beatitudes is a revolutionary aphorism and together they can, when properly understood, utterly overthrow secularism and radically transform insipid Christianity” (35).

A.        Eight Characteristics of the Beatitudes

(1)       The beatitudes are what Thomas Watson called “the sacred paradoxes in our Saviour’s sermon” (39). Whereas philosophers contend that one contrary expels another, that is to say, something cannot coexist with its opposite, “here one contrary begets another” (39). Poverty is thought to be the negation of riches: here poverty begets riches. Mourning is thought to expel joy: here mourning is the precondition of joy. Persecution normally yields misery: here it gives birth to happiness.

(2)       The beatitudes reveal how contrary the values and perspective of the church and the world really are. Conspicuous by their absence from this list are many of those things which the world prizes. Power, popularity, sexual prowess, influence, physical beauty, things which we are led to believe are essential for genuine human fulfillment, are nowhere to be seen in this list. That isn’t to say that there is something inherently sinful in these things. It is to say, however, that they are no measure of spiritual maturity; they have no bearing on one’s place or position in the kingdom of God.

Let’s take wealth as one example. Although nothing in the beatitudes condemns wealth per se, it is noteworthy that it is not mentioned as a condition for blessedness. Blessedness does not lie in possessions. Watson:

“Outward things can no more cure the agony of conscience than a silken stocking can cure a gouty leg. When Saul was sore distressed (1 Sam. 28:15), could all the jewels of his crown comfort him? If God be angry, whose ‘fury is poured out like a fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him’ (Nahum 1:6), can a wedge of gold be a screen to keep off this fire? ‘They shall cast their silver in the streets; their silver and their gold shall not be able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the Lord,’ (Ezek. 7:19). . . . The things of the world will no more keep out trouble of spirit, than a paper screen will keep out a bullet” (27).

There is a story reported by Plutarch about Tarpeia, a vestal nun, who bargained with the enemy to betray the city of Rome if they would give her their golden bracelets. Once in the city they gave her not only the bracelets but cast upon her all their wealth, under the weight of which she was crushed to death. Says Watson, “God often lets men have the golden bracelets, the weight whereof sinks them into hell. Oh, let us pant after things heavenly, let us get our eyes fixed, and our hearts united to God, the supreme good” (32).

(3)       The beatitudes teach us about the nature of true religion (using that last word in its good sense). Upon whom, upon what kind of person, upon what sort of behavior does God look with approval? On whom does God smile? What brings joy and delight to His heart? The answer of the beatitudes is strikingly at odds with what most in society think: “Poverty leads the van, and persecution brings up the rear” (Watson, 39). Many would wear Christ’s jewels, but flee his cross.

(4)       The beatitudes describe what every Christian is to be like, not just an exceptional elite or the twelve apostles or the clergy or perhaps a few additional super-saints.

(5)       The virtues, qualities, and characteristics described here are supernatural. That is to say, they are not inherent to human nature. They are produced and cultivated by the Spirit of God. Natural endowments that resemble them are still only natural and will never find acceptance with God. The really good news is that the beatitudes not only describe what you and I should be, they describe what we can be. The gospel of grace can take the proudest man and make him deeply aware of his spiritual poverty. It can transform the meanest into the most humble and the self-sufficient into one who hungers and thirst for righteousness.

(6)       We must note the relationship between the beatitudes and the grace of God. Are these qualities that we must strive to achieve in order to be saved? Hans Windisch said that “from the standpoint of Paul, Luther and Calvin the soteriology of the Sermon on the Mount is irredeemably heretical” (6). He argues that Paul’s emphasis on justification by grace through faith led Matthew to deliberately compose the Sermon as a kind of anti-Pauline tract. As noted earlier, some dispensationalists, feeling the force of what they see as a legal element in the Sermon, relegate it to a future time when they believe the Mosaic Law will once again be in force. But note the first beatitude: the kingdom of heaven is for those who are so utterly bankrupt spiritually that they have nothing to merit God’s approval.

(7)       Living out the beatitudes (and the entire Sermon) can never be divorced from a right relationship to Jesus himself. Unlike other preachers and their sermons, the latter of which you may like and the former of which you don’t (or vice versa), here you cannot embrace one without embracing the other.

(8)       Finally, observe the three-fold structure of the beatitudes. Each beatitude has a congratulation, a cause, and a consequence.

a.            the congratulation (or, the ascription of blessedness) – How are we to understand the word “blessed”? Some suggest this is “Jesus’ prescription for human happiness.” Whereas I do believe that our desire for happiness and joy are good and God-given and that we should neither be ashamed or repent of it, Jesus has in mind here something more objective in nature. Blessedness is primarily a declaration of what God thinks about us. To be blessed thus means to be congratulated in a deeply religious sense. The emphasis is more on divine approval than on human feeling. Then again, nothing should make us happier than to realize what God approves! See the appended study on the nature of human happiness.

b.            the cause (or, the basis of blessedness) – The virtues on account of which blessedness is pronounced are not separate items. Jesus is not saying that some Christians are poor in spirit, others are meek, others are pure in heart, etc. These are to be qualities of the same person. All of us are by God’s grace to experience all of these characteristics. They are not spiritual gifts. Every virtue should be found in every believer.

c.            the consequence (or, the reward of blessedness) – Three things to note: First, each promise is uniquely fitted to its beatitude (the hungry get filled, the merciful are shown mercy, the poor inherit a kingdom, etc.). Second, the first and last beatitudes promise the same thing (“the kingdom of heaven”). This is a common literary device called inclusion. The point simply is that the kingdom of heaven is the central theme of the message. And third, are these blessings present or future or in some sense both? Probably the latter. “We enjoy the firstfruits now; the full harvest is yet to come” (Stott, 35). As Tasker has noted, “the future tense . . . emphasizes their certainty and not merely their futurity.”

B.        Dallas Willard on the Beatitudes

We should take note of a perspective on the beatitudes recently expounded by Willard in his book, The Divine Conspiracy (Harper). Says Willard:

“The Beatitudes, in particular, are not teachings on how to be blessed. They are not instructions to do anything. They do not indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God or good for human beings. No one is actually being told that they are better off for being poor, for mourning, for being persecuted, and so on, or that the conditions listed are recommended ways to well-being before God or man. Nor are the Beatitudes indications of who will be on top ‘after the revolution.’ They are explanations and illustrations, drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus. They single out cases that provide proof that, in him, the rule of God from the heavens truly is available in life circumstances that are beyond all human hope” (106).

In other words, it is in spite of these conditions that God blesses, not because of them. Although (not because) you are poor in spirit, you will inherit the kingdom. Although (not because) you mourn, you will be comforted, etc. Willard insists that Jesus is using a form of teaching in which he corrects a general assumption or practice thought to govern the situation at hand. He does this “by pointing out that the case before him provides an exception and shows the general assumption or practice to be an unreliable guide to life under God” (107). Here, he says, is the key to understanding the beatitudes:

“They serve to clarify Jesus’ fundamental message: the free availability of God’s rule and righteousness to all of humanity through reliance upon Jesus himself, the person now loose in the world among us. They do this simply by taking those who, from the human point of view, are regarded as most hopeless, most beyond all possibility of God’s blessing or even interest, and exhibiting them as enjoying God’s touch and abundant provision from the heavens. This fact of God’s care and provision proves to all that no human condition excludes blessedness, that God may come to any person with his care and deliverance” (116).

Willard proceeds to try to interpret each of these conditions as negative and undesirable, in spite of which God is determined to bless. This is where I believe Willard’s exegesis falls far short of what Jesus intended. Whereas his theory may work with “the poor in spirit” and the “persecuted”, it is a stretch, to say the least, to argue that meekness, hunger for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking, are negative conditions that God does not want us to experience but in spite of which he will bless us. Although Willard attempts to re-interpret these characteristics in keeping with his view, I think he has failed to make good sense of them. Therefore, I find his overall view of the beatitudes to be inadequate.

C.        Special Noteon Happiness

The simple fact is that everyone does everything in order to be happy. You should never be ashamed of your desire to be happy. It is as natural as hunger. Many, if not most, believe that to the degree that they seek their own happiness they diminish the virtue or value of an act. They have this distorted idea that the only way an act is virtuous is if we compel ourselves to do it, contrary to our desire not to do it. We tend to measure the worth of an act by the depth of pain and sacrifice we endure to perform it. Doing something because we enjoy doing it seems to empty the deed of its moral worth. In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. Blaise Pascal expressed it as follows:

"All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves” (Pensees, p. 113, thought #425).

I know what you're thinking: "But doesn't someone commit suicide because they are unhappy?" Yes, but they choose suicide precisely because they are convinced (wrongly, of course, but no less convinced) that death will bring them more happiness than life ever could. Or perhaps it would be better to say that they believe death will deliver them from the miseries of life. In either case, they hang themselves because they no longer want to be miserable and depressed. Believing that living can no longer bring them the happiness they so desperately desire, they take their own life.

Although what I’m describing may sound unfamiliar, even unspiritual, to some of you, it has a rich heritage in the church. Perhaps no one understood it as clearly or expressed it as vividly as did Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), puritan pastor and theologian of the First Great Awakening. The soul of every man, said Edwards, “necessarily craves happiness. This is a universal appetite of human nature, that is alike in the good and the bad” (“Safety, Fulness, and Sweet Refreshment To Be Found In Christ,” in Jonathan Edwards on Knowing Christ, 166). Two words in that statement jump out at me: “necessarily” and “universal.” In other words, when it comes to happiness, everybody must seek it. In fact, says Edwards,

“it is not only natural to all mankind, but to the angels; it is universal among all reasonable, intelligent beings, in heaven, earth, or hell, because it flows necessarily from an intelligent nature. There is no rational being . . . without a love and desire for happiness. It is impossible that there should be any creature made that should love misery, or not love happiness, since it implies a manifest contradiction; for the very notion of misery is to be in a state that nature abhors, and the notion of happiness is to be in such a state as is most agreeable to nature” (166-67).

This desire for happiness is “insuperable . . . never can be changed, . . . never can be overcome, or in any way abated. Young and old love happiness alike, and good and bad, wise and unwise” (167). Certainly people have different notions of what constitutes happiness, and will pursue it according to their particular appetites, but this in no way alters the fact that its presence is universal among mankind.

Edwards was only eighteen years old when he preached a sermon entitled “Christian Happiness,” in which he for the first, but by no means last, time affirmed the inescapable yearning for happiness among both the righteous and wicked:

“They certainly are the wisest men that do those things that make most for their happiness, and this in effect is acknowledged by all men in the world, for there is no man upon the earth who isn’t earnestly seeking after happiness, and it appears abundantly by the variety of ways they so vigorously seek it; they will twist and turn every way, ply all instruments, to make themselves happy men. Some will wander all over the face of the earth to find it: they will seek it in the waters and dry land, under the waters and in the bowels of the earth, and although the true way to happiness lies right before them and they might easily step into it and walk in it and be brought into as great a happiness as they desire, and greater than they can conceive of, yet they will not enter into it. They try all the false paths; they will spend and be spent, labor all their lives’ time, endanger their lives, will pass over mountains and valleys, go through fire and water, seeking for happiness amongst vanities, and are always disappointed, never find what they seek for; but yet like fools and madmen they violently rush forward, still in the same ways. But the righteous are not so; these only, have the wisdom to find the right paths to happiness” (Yale ed. of Works, 10:303).

It is this ruthless determination among the wicked to find happiness in whatever sinful or perverse experience imaginable that hardens the believing heart against its own impulse for pleasure. Not wanting to be classed among those who reject Jesus, many Christians have wrongly assumed the problem is in their passion and have taken whatever steps they believe will effectively suppress and stifle its expression. But the righteous, says Edwards, ought to differ from the lost in choosing “the right paths to happiness,” not in seeking to rid themselves of the desire itself. The problem isn’t in the passion; it’s in the paths.

People struggle with what I’ve just said because it strikes them as experientially misguided. “How can you say I want happiness and joy and satisfaction when I’m always making decisions that I know are painful and sacrificial?” The answer is that we always choose what we think will ultimately maximize personal happiness and minimize personal misery. If you make a decision that is immediately painful and uncomfortable and unsettling, I assure you it is because you believe that such a choice in the long term will generate more pleasure than not. In other words, you gladly forego present pleasures if you believe the long-term benefits outweigh whatever short-term discomfort you might experience or sacrifice you might make. Likewise, you will ignore long-term consequences if you believe the immediate pleasures of a decision are worth the risk.

You may deny yourself the pleasures of a banana split now because you believe the joy of weight loss later is worth it. Your desire for a long-term satisfaction (the joy of a slimmer waist-line) is stronger than the appeal of ice cream now. You weigh (pardon the pun) competing pleasures. Your will is energized based on your belief that one pleasure (whether immediate or long-term) is better than others. But in every case you choose and act with a view to increasing joy and avoiding pain.

Satan isn’t responsible for this. God is. God made you this way so that you would choose Him and His soul-satisfying pleasures in lieu of those which pass with the using and ultimately leave you empty and miserable. The alternative to resisting the passing pleasures of sin isn’t religious misery but relishing the permanent pleasures of God.

In sum,

human beings desire optimum joy and unending pleasure . . . and it is good that they do! We must come to grips with the fact that the Bible unashamedly appeals to our desire for pleasure and happiness. And it does so because God built into us an undeniable, unrelenting, inescapable hunger for joy and satisfaction and delight. God built us to be fascinated, to be intrigued, to be exhilarated, to be stunned.

It will never let up. There are no breaks, no rest, no sabbatical. This is no surface, fleeting diversion, but a basic, foundational, instinctive orientation of the human soul. You can no more escape from your desire for eternal pleasure than you can cease to be human, nor should you try. Let me be even bolder and say that your responsibility as a Christian is to be as happy as you possibly can. In fact, it is impossible for you to be too zealous for happiness or inordinately committed to the pursuit of pleasure. Your pursuit may be misdirected, as is the case when you prefer the passing pleasures of sin to the excellencies of God. But it can’t be too strong. God’s creative design was that your ravenous appetite for pleasure find fulfillment in him, for nothing more wonderfully reveals his glory than the joy the creature has in its Creator. As Piper says, “the bottom line of happiness is that we are granted to see the infinite beauty of God and make much of him forever” (God’s Passion for His Glory, 35).