And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness , for they shall be satisfied
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven
Blessed are you, when others revile you and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you
(Matthew 5:2-12, English Standard Version)

How do we rightly divide these much-loved verses. Are they blessings on the poor, the meek and various kinds of people de facto, or is there something more here. After study of The Good Living Guide by Philip D Jensen and Tony Payne, I believe so. Read more below; get your copy from The Good Book Company

The Beatitudes: overview

To say the obvious: to see the Beatitudes aright, we must set them in their biblical context and background. The fortunes of Israel were at low ebb. There had been the golden days under the kings David (the man after God's heart) and Solomon (the king who sought godly wisdom) when all had been glorious and prosperous. But this did not last. There followed a series of ungodly kings, the nation first divided then taken into exile. The northern kingdom was captured first; Judah (the southern kingdom had gone into exile in Babylon in 586BC. Although they had returned in 510BC there had never been a return to the former glory. The everlasting kingdom promised to David (see 2 Samuel 7) had not materialized and now Israel had been under foreign rule, first from Greece, then from Rome. But the prophets continued to look forward to the establishment of God's kingdom. (see Isaiah 11:1-10), ruled over by "one like the son of man" (Daniel 7:14).

Then there is that passage in Isaiah 7 (well-known to congregations at Christmas carol services!), that the "people who live in darkness will see a great light", and of the setting-up of a kingdom of righteousness and justice, which would be accomplished by the "zeal of the Lord". Then on to the scene comes Jesus preaching that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand (Matthew 4:15) which the evangelist introduces by a quote from Isaiah 7.

The New Testament message is that the hope of the Old Testament now has its fulfillment. Yet at the time of Jesus' teaching all was not fulfilled, in that the Cross yet lay in the future. The Cross, the Resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit lay in the future, and for us, the final eschatology has yet to come. We live in the 'in between times'.

There was also the historical context. As has been mentioned, the Jewish people lived under Roman dominance, and they longed for the overthrow of that yoke. There were different groups who reacted differently to this situation.

1. To the Pharisees, the need was a strict observance of God's law. Things had gone wrong by disobedience. If Rome was to be overthrown and the glory to return, then the law must be kept- including all they had added on. The gospel tells us this approach is always fruitless, for it does no touch the stony heart of man.

2. The Zealots were the freedom fighters: Rome must be fought off by military might. (Attempts had already happened twice in the 1st century AD.)

In this mixed and seemingly hopeless situation, there were those who sought the best of both worlds by conniving with the Roman authority. Such were the Sadducees, such too were those like Matthew, tax-collectors, and thus the most despised of all.

The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)

This teaching has been highly esteemed, even by non-Christians, e.g. Mahatma Gandhi held it as the most sublime teaching ever given. Yet it is so often misunderstood, for often it is not realized at whom this teaching was directed. Matthew 5:1 tells us that "(Jesus') disciples came to him". These are they whom Jesus taught. He taught them that they (like he) were light of the world. The teaching of the Sermon (and therefore of the Beatitudes) was for the members of God's Kingdom; those who (John 3:8) are given new birth by God's Spirit. They are God's 'highly esteemed- or favored', which is the real meaning of the Greek 'makarios', which our English Bible translates either 'happy' or 'blessed'

The Beatitudes then describe the person blessed, esteemed, by God (cf Luke 1:46-55). In approaching these sayings, we are challenged first to go back to the Old Testament; secondly to see how they challenge us to a radically different lifestyle.

Blessed are the poor in spirit

What exactly does this first Beatitude mean: for long I just thought it meant that you were blessed if you recognized your own spiritual poverty, or bankruptcy. That's not wrong, but there's so much more.

To be certain, poverty is no 'blessing', in the material sense. Money means power: lack of money means powerlessness and exclusion; it means exploitation. And the poor do not have the means to better their lot. So, how is poverty a blessing. Jesus quite clearly says it is the 'poor in spirit'. Who are they? To understand Jesus here as in all the Beatitudes, we need to go back to the Old Testament origins

In the Old Testament, poverty is a major issue. 'Poverty' became a much more broadly-based description of lowliness, humility and godliness. If you were poor in pre-Christian Judaism, you would much more readily trust in God: there was nowhere else to turn. The rich, on the contrary were often also described as 'arrogant': read some of the psalms, eg no. 73.

If we look for the Old Testament hope we need to first get our heads round texts such as 1 Sam. 2:7-8

The Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash-heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne. We need also remember that when God brought Israel out of Egypt it was with plunder from the Egyptians. (Exod 12:35-36), and brought them into a land 'flowing with milk and honey'. In the times of David and Solomon, Israel was a great and wealthy kingdom. But from then on it was steadily downhill. The trouble was Israel did not stop to thank God for all the abundance:they forgot their God until eventually taken into Exile. They were poor and homeless. If Isaiah had prophesied God's judgment (see e.g. 9:8-10:4), he turns now to promise a future blessing. Isaiah 61:1-7 prophesies the preaching of good news to the poor; the binding up of broken hearts, the freeing of captives, the opening of prisons and the 'year of the Lord's favor'

In Luke 4:21, Jesus clearly applies this prophesy as being fulfilled in his coming. In Isaiah 61 there is a clear identification of the poor with those who, out of their poverty, longed for God to establish his Kingdom. By Jesus' day there were two classes:

a) those who were poor and who longed for God's Kingdom of righteousness. They were poor in spirit and it was on them that Jesus pronounced blessing,as against

b) those who had done well for themselves and were rich and had compromised with the Roman occupiers. A succession of incidents recorded in Luke 18:9-19:9 bring out the distinction between those accepted by God (the children, the blind beggar, Zacchaeus, repentant and giving his wealth away) and those rejected (the rich ruler, the Pharisee). The very nature of the Christian Gospel brings shame and judgment on the 'rich' and the 'wise' and the 'strong' but salvation on those who are nothing in the world's eyes. In the letters to the churches in Revelation, Jesus blesses is on those whose 'afflictions (he knows) and (their) poverty- yet (they) are rich' (Rev 2:9)

those who mourn

Again, we're perhaps tempted to ask a few questions. The 'blessed' are those who are 'esteemed highly' by God. Does that mean the bereaved? How will God comfort the bereaved?

Luke chapter 2 points to two people who, actually, were among those who 'mourned'. Of Simeon we read "There was a man in Jerusalem, called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel..." And of the prophetess Anna, Luke tells us the following: "She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day..Coming up to [Joseph and Mary] she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem".

If we go back to Old Testament roots, we are confronted with one major event that led to mourning. Psalm 137 says, "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.." The Exile was a national catastrophe, and Jeremiah in his Lamentations describes the emotional reaction. There's a whole gamut of phrases used. To mention but a few: 'wept bitterly'; 'no resting-place'; 'afflicted'; 'no comforter'; 'desolate'; 'broken down'; 'swallowed up'. These phrases are all gleaned from Lam 1:1-2:5. In the same passage Jeremiah gives the reason: sin and transgression.

But Jeremiah could also look forward. He speaks of God "loving with an everlasting love", and that "he who scattered Israel will gather up" (31:1-14) Isaiah too has words of comfort and hope. In chapter 40 he is told to "speak tenderly", and of "iniquity pardoned". In chapter 61 are words of "the Lord's favor", "instead of shame..everlasting joy"

Historically, seventy years after the exile, the majority did return to Jerusalem and the Temple was restored. However, the more glowing expectations were not fulfilled. Israel continued to suffer under foreign domination, right up to the Romans and Jesus' day.

Today we think of the mourner being comforted in terms of warm reassurance. With the O.T. background and what Jesus promised we have something much more significant. Still Gentiles ruled over and dominated Jerusalem and its Temple. Jesus himself mourned for the city. "As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it, and said, 'If you, even you, had known on this day what would bring you peace- but now it is hidden from your eyes'" (Luke 19:41-42)

Jesus wept over the stubborn rebellion of the people. He came to bring comfort. he came to establish God's Kingdom, God's rule, the overthrow of the ungodly. In that day the people would enjoy God's favor

During the Exile, many Jews got on quite well in Babylon; they couldn't turn down the good life that was there to enjoy, for Babylon was a city of wealth, plenty and luxury. When the chance to return to Jerusalem came, they turned it down. under Greek rule (late 4th-3rd centuries BC) many embraced Greek culture and philosophy. And now, under Roman rule, many lined up with the occupying power. But there were those who were dissatisfied, and who longed for a change, that change when God's Kingdom came. They included Simeon and Anna; ones who longed for the 'consolation of Israel'

Jesus brought God's Kingdom to those who would receive it, but today we live in the 'not-yet' in-between age: that which the New Testament epistollers called 'this present evil age'. Evil and iniquity abound: we have good cause mourn, and if God has blessed us, we will.

the meek

What counts today is money. Money spells power. Money spells success: either success achieved, or the ability to achieve. People looks for power in the workplace, in politics, in business; even in personal relationships. Many Christians seek power; it may be reckoned in large, 'successful' churches, or in the working of miracles. So, to be meek is hardly the 'in' thing today, is it? How will the 'meek' "inherit the earth"?. But, again,. what do we mean by 'meek'. We think, don't we of someone who is 'meek and mild': "Gentle Jesu, meek and mild". Actually, the word translated 'meek' in Matthew 5:5 is a little hard of definition. It has to do with gentleness, humility, self-control. Jesus uses the word of himself in Matthew 11:29, where we have his self-description as "gentle and humble in heart"

If we're looking for a clue from the Old Testament, maybe it's in Psalm 37, where Jesus seems to be quoting verse 11: "But the meek with inherit the land and enjoy peace" It's instructive to look at verses 1-11 of this psalm, and see some biblical responses to when evil seems to triumph over good:

The psalm also tells us what God will do for the meek:

If Jesus was quoting the psalm to his listeners, what would they understand? They longed to be rid of Roman rule, to repossess the land God had covenanted. But Jesus was not advocating military force, but rather, inheritance of the Land through God's vindication.

In the Old Testament God chose a people and gave them a physical land to inherit. But what does it all means for us? God's New Testament people are not a physical nation, with a physical plot of land. Rather it was a people whose inheritance would be heaven itself. Let is note what Peter says in 1 Peter 1:4-5

"an inheritance which can never perish,spoil or fade- kept in heaven for you who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

In summary, Jesus promises "a land of pure delight" to those who trust in God for vindication.

those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

In the comfortable West, we know little of true hunger or true thirst. Body habits will tell us it's time for a meal, or we may feel a little dry in the mouth. But when the body runs seriously short of water or nourishment, hunger and thirst become an all-consuming preoccupation.

We read of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, and that after forty days he began to be hungry. If anyone fasts, there body-metabolism soon (within 36-48 hours) changes so that the body starts to live off its reserves. But the point comes, in a healthy adult after some six weeks or so, when the reserves run out and the body starts to live off itself; off its vital organs. It is then that real hunger sets in, and the search for food becomes an all-out fight for very existence.

But not only in the physical sphere do we feel no true want, no true hunger or thirst. We live by and large free of tyranny, oppression or injustice. And for long this has been a Christian country, and we are still living 'off our reserves'. We just have no idea of what it means to 'hunger and thirst for righteousness'. Nor do we understand what the Bible means by 'righteousness' or 'justice' (the two are more or less interchangeable). Because we have so long lived in a society which values good morals, without maybe a personal relationship with God, that righteousness has, for us, to do with personal morality. But in the Bible it means right-relatedness to God.

We have already looked at the relationship between blessedness and membership of God's Kingdom; we have already thought about the Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-7. Here is the promise and forward-look to God's Kingdom. At the end of v7 we are told that the promised King would sit on the 'throne of David' and would 'rule with righteousness and justice from that time on for evermore'.

In 51:1-6, Isaiah tells us what will happen when God brings righteousness to Israel. We are told that God's arm would work judgment, but also salvation. There was also an apocalyptic twist to the prophecy: heaven will vanish; earth will wear out: we can compare this with Revelation 20:11. Jesus' contemporaries would have interpreted this prophecy in ways we have already looked at. God would vanquish the Roman power and this would mean salvation for Israel. If we put all this together, we see the thought of 'hunger and thirst for righteousness' as a longing for the final establishment of God's reign and of God's new heaven and new earth. (cp Isa 66:22-23 with Rev 21:1).

To hunger for righteousness, then, is not just a vague desire for personal sanctity- that is not a mark of being one who is 'blessed'- highly regarded and favored by God. Nor is it just a passion for social justice- the 'social gospel' (which as a stand-alone is no Gospel at all). It is a passionate desire to see all things put right- not just in the social order, but according to God's holy standard. It is to long, with all one's being, for the coming of God's Kingdom.

How does Jesus fulfill this promise to those who thus hunger. He did it by dying on a Roman Cross. His death satisfies the hunger for righteousness, in terms of right-relatedness to God. Jesus' death established a Kingdom where 'the just shall live by faith' (Rom 1:17). Only through faith in Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross, can we be put right with God, and his perfect righteousness established in us. In that famous verses, 2 Cor 5:21, 'He who knew no sin became sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God'. And if you want to know how this will be finally worked out, read 2 Pet 3:10-13.

the merciful

In 1983, the following question was put to people in an opinion poll:

"would you mind your next-door neighbor being a) someone with a criminal record b) someone of different race c) immigrant/foreign worker d) never-married mother e) heavy drinker f) unemployed g) large family h) right-wing extremist i) homosexual. Answers were used as a measure of intolerance. Among the most intolerant of religious groups were Right-Wind Protestants, Anglicans, Presbyterians.

Hard-line fundamentalists were the most tolerant group; least tolerant were those with no religion. "Blessed are the merciful is all about tolerance. When Jesus said he had come to call sinners, not the righteous, he points out we need to learn the words of Hosea 6: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice".

Hoses prophesied doom. He prophesied disaster, because God's people were unfaithful. This mercy went on to affect his family life, which in many ways formed an acted parable. His adulterous wife, Gomer, was a symbol for the this unfaithfulness. The names of his children, which meant 'not loved' and 'not my people' were prophetic warnings

Hosea 6:4-10 showed that Israel's love was "like the morning mist". God desired steadfast love and a knowledge of God. Instead of this all he saw was transgression and unfaithfulness. If we hop back to the preceding passage (5:14-6:3) we see that God will judge Israel (5:14b). Nevertheless, his mercy would be to them like spring showers (v11). If we set this alongside the call of Matthew as recorded in Matt 9:9-13, then we see Jesus' condemnation of the Pharisees as hardened in religiosity, and Matthew 23:23-24 showed what Jesus found differed not at all from that which Hosea found.

The Pharisees may have known the Scriptures, but they lacked singularly in mercy. They refused to stand on their legalistic righteousness than plead for mercy. For 'sinners' however, their only hope was in mercy. We may contrast the Pharisee and the Publican in the parable related in Luke 18. In essence:

the pure

Purity is not an idea which fills us with enthusiasm. It has either acquired too negative an connotation, or else it's thought to mean sexual purity: "Beware any unclean thought!". But it is of purity of heart that Jesus spoke, and we would admit that it's our sin (ie lack of heart-purity) that so often keeps us from approaching God. We recall Isaiah's vision of God in the Temple and his devastation: "Woe to me for I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty" (Isa 6:5). Or Peter, who after the haul of fish, cried out to Jesus, "Depart from me for I am a sinful man".

The Greek word translated 'pure' (kathros) is the same as denoting 'clean' and 'unclean' food. Again, we need to backtrack to the Old Testament, and look at two passages. In doing so, we must remember that the Levitical laws classed many people and passages as 'clean' or 'unclean': the latter needed to be ritually cleansed before they could, eg, participate in Temple worship.

Psalm 24:1-4:

Those who would approach God in his 'holy place' must do so with 'clean hands' and a 'pure heart'. The underlying thought of these verses is the need for transparency, and no falsehood or deceit. Psalm 24:3 says that the clean and pure will see God (resonating with the Beatitude)

Ezekiel 36:22-32:

Basically, the people had profaned God's Name; they were impure. But here we have promises of better things to come. God would

In Matthew 15, we read of Jesus taken the religious leaders task for their attitude to purity, and that they saw it purely in terms of ritual, and that they "set aside God's command for the tradition of men". Matthew 23 is full of denunciation of the Pharisees for hypocrisy.

The Gospel message is that our unclean heats can be washed and that God's Spirit will dwell within us.

the peacemakers

"Peace in our time" was the claim of the politicians after World War II. The human hope is always that man can live at peace with man; nation with nation. The fall of East European Communism, the end of the US-USSR cold war, the end of apartheid in South Africa all seemed as if that age of peace was achievable. We have learned otherwise, especially with the events of '9/11' and the cynical decision of the United States and our government to go to war against Iraq. So when Jesus says that the blessed ones are peacemakers, is he talking about getting on with our neighbor or maybe a 1st Century Nobel Peace Prize. We live in the same false optimism as the false prophets of Jeremiah's day who called out "Peace, peace" when there was no peace (Jer 6:14;8:11)

The Hebrew word "shalom" has a very different connotation that our word "peace". Modern peace connotes nothing more