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Reading the Beatitudes 2: Helpful Tips

Reading the Beatitudes 2: Helpful Tips

“The Beatitudes of Jesus…are among the literary and religious treasures of the human race…We can savor them, affirm them, meditate upon them, and engrave them on plaques to hang on our walls. But a major question remains: How are we to live in response to them?”—Dallas Willard[1]

12 Helpful Tips For Reading The Beatitudes

1. The Beatitudes seek to fulfill God’s promise. The Beatitudes stand as the head of the Sermon on the Mount. They must be important. Augustine believed they were the main point of the Sermon, and served as the organizing structure and lens through which to read the entirety of the Sermon. H. Benedict Green makes another comparison: the Beatitudes are like the 10 commandments which serve as the first installment of the (in this case, New) law.[2] I don’t wish to make such grand claims, but I do believe the Beatitudes are at the beginning for a reason.

One of those reasons is that Jesus’ sermon offers a long-awaited blessing and teaching. Glen Stassen provides a nice chart showing how the Beatitudes are rooted firmly in the promise of Isaiah 61:[3]

  • Isa 61:1 – Mt 5:3
  • Isa 61:2 – Mt 5:4
  • Isa 61:1, 7 – Mt 5:5
  • Isa 61: 3, 8, 11 – Mt 5:6
  • Isa 61:1 – Mt 5:8
  • Isa 61:3, 8, 11 – Mt 5:10
  • Isa 61:10-11 – Mt 5:11-12

What we find is that the Beatitudes are not simply aphorisms drawing out of thin air, or a collection of wise sayings strung together. They are purposefully placed as fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise.

2. The Beatitudes are (generally) ordered in a meaningful way. As soon as you realize that the order of some of the beatitudes (such as #2 and #3) are switched in some ancient writers, and that scholars disagree whether there are 4, 7, 8, or 9 Beatitudes in total, it might seem laughable to suggest that the order matters.[4] But that is precisely what many authors of the great Christian tradition suggest. “Come Lord Jesus,” writes Ambrose, “teach us the order of your beatitudes, for it is not without order that you have taught [them].”[5] “And it ought to be observed,” adds Aquinas, “that these rewards are so-ordered that the subsequent one always adds something to the preceding one.”[6] Ulrich Luz offers a history of seminal Patristic to early modern commentaries that describe the Beatitudes as a progressive, ever-upward staircase for the soul to climb in the ascent to the moral likeness of God.[7] “I think the arrangement of the Beatitudes is like a series of [ladder] rungs,” writes Gregory of Nyssa, “and it makes it possible for the mind to ascend by climbing from one to another.”[8]

Even if the precise order is not set, there does seem to be a general progression, even if one groups the Beatitudes into sets. William Mattison, for example, notes that the first 3 beatitudes describe a kind of lack (poverty, mourning, and meekness) that will be removed and reversed in God’s great future of abundance, where there will be no more crying, and all of God’s people shall inherit the earth in the fullness of God’s kingdom. The second set of beatitudes (hungering for full justice and finding occasions to exercise mercy) are lacks that are not bad in themselves, just incomplete. These ‘lacks’ come as a result of the “not yet” nature of the Kingdom, and will not be reversed, just fulfilled. The final set of beatitudes according to Mattison’s scheme (pure hearts and peacemaking) describe the kind of attitude and behaviors which will characterize us in the eschaton, not to be removed, or replaced, but constantly replenished.[9]

A simpler ordering is offered by Doriani, who believes the 4th beatitude holds the key. The first three are answered in the 4th, while the last 4 flow out of the 4th.

Any way you slice it, you must face the fact that the Lord chose to arrange these beatitudes (at least generally) in this order. It is worth meditating on what this might mean.

3. The Beatitudes are God-focused.  Although the word “God” only appears 1-x in the Beatitudes, there are 4 “divine passives” where God is the active agent bringing about the fulfillment of these promises. Talbert reminds us that God’s blessings involve God’s presence and power, as he grants divine enablement.[10] It is God who promised to comfort his people (Isaiah 35:3-4), and it is God who brings it about.

4. The Beatitudes are Christ-centered. Pope Benedict XVI rightly claims that “[a]nyone who reads Matthew’s text attentively will realize that the Beatitudes present a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure.”[11] Throughout the gospels (including and especially Matthew), Jesus fulfills each beatitude.[12] For example, Jesus is humble and poor in spirit (11:28-29; 21:5); he mourns and grieves (23:37); he hungers and thirsts with longing for God’s kingdom to be manifested (9:38); he is pure in heart (28:10); he shows mercy (12:1-21; 14:13-21; 15:32-39; 20:30-34); and he brings peace (28:10). Matthew’s whole approach is “Christological,” writes Guelich, “an attempt by aligning the Beatitudes expressis verbis with the Old Testament promise, especially with Isaiah 61, to demonstrate that God was at work in Jesus Messiah accomplishing his redemptive purposes for humankind.”[13]

Since the Beatitudes are rooted in Christ, they necessarily apply to us who are Christ followers. Matthew tells us the disciple will be like his teacher (Matthew 10) “These virtues and dispositions correspond to the teaching of Jesus in all the gospels and also reflect the behaviour of Jesus himself. For this reason following Jesus faithfully leads to a life animated by these virtues.”[14] Dale Allison makes a similar point:

The disciples not only confront his [Jesus’s] words but study the Messiah himself. ‘Learn of me’ (Matt. 11:29) means, in effect, ‘Follow me’ (Matt. 9:9). One learns not just with the ears but also with the feet. Education is much more than heeding an infallible wordsmith. It additionally involves the mimetic following of Jesus, who is virtue embodied.[15]

5. The Beatitudes are Spirit-driven. Augustine makes the strong connection between the Beatitudes and the gifts of the Spirit portrayed in Isaiah 11. “As the dry earth cannot bring forth fruit without moisture,” writes Augustine, “so we, who were once a dry tree, cannot bring forth fruits in our lives unless we have been watered by the dew of the Holy Spirit, the gracious rain from above.”[16]

6. The Beatitudes are Church-minded. Makarioi is a plural term. “These beatitudes are directed to groups, to communities,” writes Carter, “not to individuals. They concern communal practices much more than they do individual qualities.”[17] “The Beatitudes display the mystery of Christ himself,” writes Pope Benedict XVI, “and they call us into communion with him … They are directions for discipleship.”[18] Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasizes just this point:

The heritage which God had promised to Israel as a whole is here attributed to the little flock of disciples who Jesus had chosen…But disciples and people are one, for they are all members of the Church which is called of God. Hence the aim of this beatitude is to bring all who hear it to decision and salvation. All are called to be what in the reality of God they are already … Having reached the end of the beatitudes, we naturally ask if there is any place on this earth for the community which they describe. Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found—on the cross at Golgotha. The fellowship of the beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it has found all. From the cross there comes the call ‘blessed, blessed.’[19]

One reason why they are ecclesiological is because they describe the actual condition of Jesus’ disciples. According to Talbert, “the Beatitudes give a portrait of and promises to the disciples.”[20] “The individual Beatitudes are the fruit of this looking upon the disciples,” writes Benedict; “they describe what might be called the actual condition of Jesus’ disciples: They are poor, hungry, weeping men; they are hated and persecuted (cf. Lk 6:20ff). These statements are meant to list practical, but also theological, attributes of the disciples of Jesus—of those who have set out to follow Jesus and have become his family … What the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel present as a consolation and a promise, Paul presents as the lived experience of the apostle.”[21] “Jesus sees his disciples,” writes Bonhoeffer. “They have publicly left the crowd to join him. He has called them, every one, and they have renounced everything at his call. Now they are living in want and privation, the poorest of the poor, the sorest afflicted, and the hungriest of the hungry. They have only him, and with him they have nothing, literally nothing in the world, but everything with and through God.”[22] According to Hauerwas, to be blessed means “happy are they who find that they are so constituted within the community.”[23]

7. The Beatitudes are future-oriented. We cannot miss the future tenses in most of these verses. In the intertestamental period, one can find beatitudes that speak of future reward laying in store (Compare Tob 13:14 and 1 Enoch 58:2-3).  It is helpful to see how the Christological and Ecclesiological aspects of the beatitudes help reinforce the eschatological nature of them. As Guelich notes, “The Beatitudes stand as foundational for the sermon because they depict Jesus Messiah as the fulfillment of the OT promise of the one bringing about the age of salvation, God’s sovereign rule in history, through his ministry.”[24]

8. The Beatitudes are also meant to be lived…starting now! The beatitudes are not simply about the future. We could make this argument in one sense by speaking of how eschatology is already anticipated in the present. But a second argument can be found in the two present tense words in the Beatitudes. These could be “proleptic presents” speaking of certainty (see Mt 26:2), but they may also suggest a kind of continuity between our present lives—characterized by virtue—and the life we anticipate. In one sense, we are called to “live” them (see the last post); in another sense—in keeping with the eschatological side of things—we are called to “live out of” them. “As I think about it now,” writes Allen, “the Beatitudes themselves are not the puzzle. The puzzle is why we do not live out of them all the time.”[25]

9. The Beatitudes are both physical and spiritual, outward and inward, social and personal, about economics and interior goods. So which is it? Does God describe the blessed, flourishing life as constituted by those who are poor, or those who are poor in spirit? By the hungry, or by those who hunger for righteousness? The truth is simple: it is both. God cares deeply about real, economic disparity; he has always shown special consideration for the economically disadvantaged, while speaking disparagingly of piles of wealth and those who love them. But he recognizes that the path to flourishing, the life that seeks the right things and loves the right way, will not bring loads of riches to one’s self, and may, in fact, bring great economic hardship. The internal hunger for righteousness, and attitude of humility, is worth acquiring even if it costs all of one’s external goods—and it often does.

10. Some aspects are inviting and enticing to the world, but not all! When we see inhumane treatment of our fellow humans around the world, we long for the kind of hearts we see displayed in the beatitudes. When we hear about the latest Ponzi scheme, we see the dangerous allure of wealth, and find value in seeking a life that does not pursue it. There are a number of ways the beatitudes describe an attitude toward life that the world might, at times, find attractive and pleasing. You would expect such if Christ is describing a life that leads to flourishing, in accordance with wisdom and virtue. But this is not the whole story. There is a counter-message against the world’s values that makes even Christians cringe (at times), since it challenges our inner sense of self-protection, and our disordered loves. Nietzsche thought that “grown men” should want “the kingdom of earth,” not the “weak” words of Jesus that speak a “capital crime against life.”[26]

11. The eschatological aspect, with its reversal of values, provides a lense for seeing and living the beatitudes in the present. Here this powerful word from the Pontifical Biblical Commission of 2008:

[R]ecall the close connection between human dispositions and God’s action in the first and last beatitudes. This association is, however, to be found in all the beatitudes, for each one speaks in its promise, sometimes rather indirectly, of God’s ‘future action’: God will console, he will give the land as inheritance, he will satiate, he will have mercy, he will admit into his vision, he will acknowledge them as his sons and daughters. In the beatitudes Jesus does not establish a code of abstract norms and duties about right human conduct, but by presenting norms for human conduct he reveals at the same time God’s future action. Therefore the beatitudes constitute one of the most compact and explicit revelations about God that is to be found in the gospels. They present God’s future action not only as a recompense for the conduct prescribed, but also as a basis and motive that render it both possible and reasonable. Poverty in spirit or fidelity under persecution do not stand as obligations on their own. Those who accept with faith Jesus’ revelation on God’s way of acting, summarized in the proclamation of the kingdom of God, are not left to themselves but will be enabled to recognize their complete dependence on God, to suffer persecution rather than strive to save their lives at all costs.

Dale Allison provides a fitting follow up to this:

Insofar as the promises connected with the kingdom bring consolation and comfort, they function as a practical theodicy. The beatitudes hardly explain evil or human suffering. They do, however, lessen pain and anguish by putting into perspective the difficulties of the present. This happens through an exercise of the imagination. Eschatological promises for those on the bottom reveal that all is not what it seems to be. That is, the truth, like the kingdom, is hidden. Only the future, with its rewards, and punishments, will bring to light the true condition of the world and those in it (cf. 25:31-46). Those who use the eye of the mind in order to foresee and live for the future promised by the beatitudes will, with their faith, possess a secret vision and hope that makes powerlessness and suffering bearable.[27]

12. Finally, the Beatitudes are about peace through faith, promises through hope, and character through love. “In a word, the true morality of Christianity is love,” writes Pope Benedict. “And love does admittedly run counter to self-seeking—it is an exodus out of oneself, and yet this is precisely the way in which man comes to himself.”[28] Love is also the way humanity comes to God, and how God inhabits his people.

May we read, and live, the beatitudes through the prism of peace, hope, and love.


[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), p. 98.

[2] H. Benedict Green, Matthew, Poet of the Beatitudes, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement (Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), p. 284.

[3] Glen H. Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2006), p. 42.

[4] For 7 (in three groups: 3, 2, & 2), see William Mattison;  8 (in two groups of 4), see John Stott; For 9 (in three groups of 3), see Scot McKnight. For 9 (one group of 4, one group of 5), see Charles Talbert. The majority of modern commentators I have read suggest there are 9, with the final one serving as a longer expounding or climactic beatitude (such as in Proverbs 6:16).

[5] Ambrose, Treatise on the Gospel of St. Luke, 52.1-2 [202].

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Matthew, p. 150

[7] See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 5-7: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Fortress, 2007).

[8] Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Beatitudes II.1 (32). See also Augustine, Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount 1.4.11; Less so, but still emphasis on order and one making way for the next, see Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew 15.9, 52.

[9] William Mattison, “The Beatitudes and Moral Theology: A Virtue Ethics Approach,” Nova et Vetera 11.3 (2013): 845-47.

[10] Charles H. Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Ethical Decision Making in Matthew 5-7 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), p. 58.

[11] Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth, Vol 1: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Trans. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. 74.

[12] See Daniel M. Doriani, The Sermon on the Mount: The Character of a Disciple (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), p. 15-16.

[13] Robert A. Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982), p. 109.

[14] Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Bible and Morality: Biblical Roots of Christian Conduct (Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2008), p. 71.

[15] Dale C Allison Jr, Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), p. 153.

[16] Robert Louis Wilken, “Augustine,” in The Sermon on the Mount Through the Centuries: From the Early Church to John Paul II, ed. Jeffrey P. Greenman, Timothy Larsen, and Stephen R. Spencer (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), p. 46.

[17] Warren Carter, “Power and Identities,” in Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines, ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland (Chalice Press, 2007), p. 17.

[18] Ratzinger, p. 74

[19] Diedrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, rev. and unabridged ed., Trans. R. H. Fuller and Imgard Booth (New York: Macmillan, 1959), p. 97, 103.

[20] Talbert, p. 48.

[21] Ratzinger, p. 71

[22] Bonhoeffer, p. 95.

[23] Stanely Hauerwas, “Living the Proclaimed Reign of God: A Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount,” Interpretation 47 (April 1993): 157.

[24] Guelich, p. 37-38.

[25] Ronald J. Allen, “The Surprising Blessing of the Beatitudes,” in Preaching the Sermon on the Mount, p. 91.

[26] See quotes in Ratzinger, p. 97.

[27] Dale C. Allison, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination, Companions to the New Testament (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company/ Herder & Herder, 1999), p. 57.

[28] Ratzinger, p. 99.

The Complete Art of Happiness: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 1

Pinnacle of Hope: Ascending the Mountain (Matt 5:1-2)
Reading the Beatitudes 1: Hope AND Summons


Photo credit: Károly Ferenczy, Sermon on the Mount (1896), Hungarian National Gallery

Categorized: Biblical Studies , Sermon On The Mount

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