Some portions of Holy Scripture stand out from among the rest. While every word and sentence is holy, some resonate more than others. If anyone knows any Psalm, they probably know Psalm 23. The language and images of the psalm give us comfort in the worst times of our lives.
There’s a reason that every Christian wedding couple chooses to read 1 Corinthians 13. St. Paul’s lyrical, poetic description of Christ’s love at work in the church is more beautiful than others. Every Sunday School kid knows John 3:16, the gospel in a nutshell. It’s simple, easy, and it sums up the whole message of salvation in just one sentence.
Another such passage comes from Matthew 5:2-11, the beginning of the sermon on the mount. Jesus begins this sermon with some of his most famous poetry, the beatitudes. In this series, we’re going to explore each on of these sentences and see what Jesus’ words mean for us.
WHAT’S A BEATITUDE?Before we get to the first one, there’s an important question. What are the beatitudes? Let’s start with the title itself. Most of western Christianity used the Latin Bible, called the Vulgate, for centuries. In Latin, each of the beatitudes begins with the word beati, or blessed, which gives us the name.
But what are they? They’re a series of sayings, something like a proverb, which introduce and summarize the sermon on the mount. There’s a pattern to them. Here’s the first one, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Each one goes like that, “Blessed are the ____________ for _____________.” The first blank is a type of person, and the second blank a blessing.
The blessing corresponds with the condition. So, the poor in spirit receive the riches of the kingdom of God. The people who mourn will receive comfort. The merciful will receive mercy.
THE MESSAGE OF THE BEATITUDESThe beatitudes contain a consistent theme that echos much of the Old and New Testaments. God raises up the humble, but he casts down the proud. Consider the prayer that Hannah prayed after she became pregnant with Samuel. She says:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble bind on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
And a little later, she says:
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
Or Psalm 147:6, “The Lord lifts up the humble; he casts the wicked to the ground.”
Mary’s song, called the Magnificat , from the Gospel of Luke mirror’s Hannah’s prayer:
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty
Each of the beatitudes has a similar message. God will raise up someone lowly, someone humbled. Each of these short, beautiful phrases shows us the gospel of Jesus Christ. He gives grace to the lowly. He gives comfort to the broken hearted. He gives hope to the hopeless.
A WINDOW INTO THE SERMON ON THE MOUNTWhen you read the sermon on the mount, it seems like Jesus is giving us a lot to say and do. He tells us that our anger is just like murder. He says that our lust is the same as adultery. He reminds us that it would be better to pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands than to go to Hell.
There’s more like it. Jesus keeps telling us God’s law. Over and over again, he shows us what good Christians are supposed to do. Love our enemies. Give without letting anyone know. Give up wealth so you can have treasure in heaven.
How do the beatitudes help us understand? It gives a gospel tint, a glimpse of grace, to each of the laws that Jesus explains to us. Each passage helps us understand how to live, but each passage also calls us to do something we can’t possibly do. Jesus’ law is extreme. It’s perfection. Cut off your hand. Pluck out your eye. Give up everything.
When we look at this standard, all we can realize is that we will never live up to it. We could never give everything we have for Jesus. Our sin keeps us back. No one can trust God so much that they’re never anxious, like Jesus tells us to in Matthew 6:25-34.
That means that each of us, when we look at ourselves honestly, each of us is lowly. We are poor in spirit. We mourn. We are meek. We hunger and thirst for righteousness, even though we can’t possibly live up to it. Each time Jesus tells us what we need to do, we only hear about our terrible, sinful heart.
GOD LIFTS UP THE LOWLYGod lifts up the lowly, like those people who mourn over their sin. That’s what Hannah prayed about in the Old Testament. She rejoiced that God gave a barren woman the grace of a baby. Mary, too, rejoiced that God lifts up the lowly. He gave a virgin the most important baby in all of history, Jesus himself. Mary sang that God fills the hungry and lifts up the lowly.