New Life in Christ: the Beatitudes for Today Part 1
Today we begin a short series looking at the Beatitudes. In an age when there are a multitude of voices claiming our attention and offering us ‘wisdom’, we badly need clear direction in the way we should go. How shall we live in our world in a manner that is both pleasing to God and good for ourselves and others? That is not always an easy question to answer. Thank God then that Jesus provides us with clear guidance in the Beatitudes. These famous words were first delivered to the church by our Lord as the opening words of the great Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1-7:27). Matthew’s editorial introduction to the Sermon is instructive as we begin our meditation on the beatitudes. Jesus is confronted with great crowds, Matthew tells us in verse 1, and so he “went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them…”
Notice two things in this introductory formula: first, Matthew is careful to point out that Jesus went up on the mountain to teach. Almost certainly this detail is recorded in order to depict Jesus as the antitype of which Moses was the type. The Sermon on the Mount is an exposition and application of the Law of God, first given by Moses at Mount Sinai. By going up on the mountain, like Moses before him, Jesus is declaring himself the one to whom Moses points us, the one who gives us an authoritative interpretation of the Law, showing it in its full spiritual character, penetrating well beyond our actions to the depths of our heart-attitudes. And secondly, Matthew tells us that, though Jesus’ words here were spoken in order to be overheard by the crowds that they might know the ethics at the heart of his Kingdom, they were nevertheless intended primarily for the disciples, not for the masses at large. In other words, while the ethics Jesus explains here are in a sense universal, the blessedness promised belongs only to those who are already his disciples, since none but they can hope even to begin to live out the called for blessed life. The Beatitudes are a road map to the blessed life for the Christian disciple.
Each Beatitude begins “Blessed are…” The word “blessed” is the Greek wordmakarios, which, at its simplest, means ‘happy’. Much more is intended, however, than that disciples should be generally chipper and upbeat people! Certainly, there is a kind of happiness in view, a true joy that is genuinely on offer, but it is a happiness and a joy that flows from living in a happy condition, a blessed state before God. God favors and blesses those who realize these attitudes, live according to these tenets, and conform their lives to this pattern, Jesus is saying.
Now, there are those today who argue that any suggestion of conditional blessing is a form of legalism. They fear that we are importing back into the gospel a false doctrine of justification by works. But nothing could be further from the truth. A careful reading of the Beatitudes will find the whole Christian life described, from its inception to its climax. And at each point the blessing offered is contingent upon the realization of certain conditions in the life of the disciple. It is the poor in spirit who are blessed. It is those who mourn who enjoy the beatitude of God’s grace. The meek enter into the happiness promised.
Jesus is certainly not teaching us that the affections and dispositions of the heart he describes here in any way earn or merit blessedness, but he is undoubtedly teaching that the blessings of the gospel are contingent upon the presence of these Holy-Spirit-created conditions within us. St. Augustine’s famous prayer is apropos: “Command what you will, and give what you command.” God commands us to be what we cannot be, and do what we cannot do, unless he first works within us. Even saving faith itself- the condition upon which our justification depends- is an impossibility in the heart of fallen men and women apart from the gracious regenerating work of God the Holy Spirit. Yet he commands faith in us. He requires it. It is a condition of gospel beatitude. And it is a condition he meets within us by his grace. We begin to fathom the full depths of the blessing promised in the beatitudes when we grasp the truth that even those graces God requires of us are themselves the products of his own prior work within us! Everything, from first to last, from initial faith to a life of growing obedience in us, to the blessedness from God that faith receives, everything is the work of God’s free grace, redounding to his glory forever.
So the beatitudes should make us marvel at the extravagance of God that he should bless us as we meet the conditions of the gospel when it is he who enables us to meet them! As Paul puts it so wonderfully, “By grace you are saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:8-10) The Beatitudes should make us long for the blessed life they promise, and inspire us to pray with Augustine, “Lord, command what you will, and give what you command.”