Fulfilled and Flourishing
Scripture: Matthew 5:1–12
1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The Sermon on the Mount opens with the Beatitudes, a word that comes to us from the Latin translation of the Greek word that opens each verse from verses 3-11. It’s this word that demonstrates the unity of this section. What we have here are these nine “blessed are” statements, which signal to us what Jesus is up to. And what we will learn here is that the redemption that Jesus has come to complete guarantees the restoration of our humanity and our rightful enjoyment of God's world.
In order for us to see this, we need to know what the word blessed means which will help us see how we should read the Beatitudes as a whole. And then we’ll be prepared to see the treasure that is revealed in them.
The Meaning of “Blessed” in the Beatitudes
Before we can look at the Beatitudes individually, we need to be clear about the meaning of this repeated word, “blessed.” Because what we think that word means will carry us in all kinds of different directions as we seek to understand what Jesus is communicating to us right from the start. As Scot McKnight puts it, “The word ‘blessed’ is a blessed problem.” He goes on to say that our understanding of this word is a crux for the interpretation of the whole passage. “Get this word right,” he says, and “the rest falls into place; get it wrong, and the whole thing falls apart.”
Thankful and Blessed
It is quite easy to get the meaning of this word wrong because of how we English speakers understand and use this word “blessed.”
I saw it a few times last week. If you’re in a crowd of people, you may well see someone wearing a t-shirt that says, “Thankful and Blessed.” Or, you may find a coffee mug in someone’s cupboard with the same moniker. When we say we are “blessed,” we are usually claiming to be the recipient of divine or supernatural favor. We mean that God (or the gods—we seem to be quickly reverting back to blatant paganism) has been good to us in some way, that we have been lucky or fortunate. We are thankful because of everything we’ve been given.
Because we read the word blessed as divine favor, and because of the explanation that comes after each one of them, we read the Beatitudes as ways in which we can assure ourselves of divine favor. If only we can be poor in spirit, if we will mourn, or learn to be meek and show mercy, then we will soon find ourselves wearing the t-shirt or sipping out of the “thankful and blessed” coffee mug.
We are inclined to turn the Beatitudes into a set of conditions that we must satisfy in order to put ourselves in a place where we can receive God’s blessing.
The Observation of Blessedness
But this is clearly not the way we should read the Beatitudes. The problem is mostly a problem of translation. This word translated “blessed” simply does not mean “to receive divine favor.” There is a word for that, but that is not the one that is used here. The NLT completely mistranslates this word by starting each of the Beatitudes with the phrase, “God blesses those who . . .” These verses have nothing to do with divine favor and who does or does not meet the conditions for receiving it.
The reason why so many English translations use the word “blessed” is because we don’t have a better one to use. The old English pronunciation blesséd tried to make the distinction that is important here, but the confusion still remains for most of us. This word is not the pronouncement of a blessing upon someone but rather the observation of the state of “blessedness” that another is already in. Jonathan Pennington points out the distinction when he says that these pronouncements “are not ‘words of power’ or statements about God actively favoring someone.” They are instead “an exclamatory description of the state of happiness, privilege, or fortune” observed by a bystander. You can tell me that I am blessed or I can say that of you, but no one ever say this about themselves. So much for the t-shirts and coffee mugs.
At the same time, and to add to the confusion, these statements of observation are crafted in such a way as to form an “implicit invitation to consider what the best way of being in the world is and to pursue it.” Standing at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes are to the Sermon what Psalm 1 is to the Psalter, an “imaginative call to be a certain way in the world not just because God demands it” but simply “for one’s own sake,” for the sake of human flourishing.
The Two Paths
We could translate the Beatitudes, “happy are those who,” so long as we recognize that the quest for flourishing often requires happiness to be set aside in the moment for long-term satisfaction. If you want to flourish, everyone knows that you can’t just do what feels good or makes you happy in the moment. Denying yourself is so often the key to flourishing whether we are talking about food or feelings of justifiable frustration. Just because I would feel happy right now if I ate that Snickers bar or told off my co-worker (or boss) doesn’t mean I ought to do so if I’m really seeking happiness.
The Beatitudes are a form of wisdom literature, and Jesus opens the Sermon on the Mount by alerting us to the presence of two possible paths we can follow. This is how the Sermon on the Mount opens, and—just look at the end of it—this is also how it concludes.
So, as Jesus ascends a mountain, echoing Moses’s ascent to the top of Sinai, and then as he begins to teach his disciples, he is signaling to all who will hear that he has come to show us the true path of human flourishing. This is how we must learn to read the Beatitudes and the entire Sermon on the Mount.
The Way to Read the Beatitudes
It is also how we need to learn to read Jesus and the entire scope of his mission in the world. If we think of him as coming to solve the problem of how we sinners can be granted access to heaven when we die, then we will really struggle to know what to do with the Beatitudes and the entire Sermon on the Mount.
This is a particular problem for Protestant Christians. We are so afraid of the legalism of “earning salvation” that we often find ourselves holding exhortations to wise living like a hot potato that we need to get out of our hands as soon as possible. We talked about this some last week. This is one of the ways many Christians find an excuse for evading the Sermon on the Mount. We read the Beatitudes as ways of obtaining divine favor, then we cover them with our theological precision of salvation by grace alone, and next thing you know we’ve just found our way to dismissing the entire Sermon on the Mount.
Let’s back up a minute here and remind ourselves about the purpose of redemption. What is it that Jesus came to do? If we don’t get this straight, we will continue to miss the importance of the Beatitudes. But if we keep this before us, we will see the way to read them rightly.
God’s Choice or Ours?
I sat on the plane two weeks ago next to a guy who sat down and immediately opened his Bible. Easy enough to get in a conversation. He was coming back to his faith, and he wanted to ask me a question. Who goes to heaven? Is it up to our choice or does God make the choice?
Ah, yes, the old Calvinism question. It is not irrelevant: why is it that some find Jesus compelling while others do not, all while looking at the same evidence? Is it just that I choose to believe and others do not? If it’s all my choice, then we who choose rightly can feel pretty good about ourselves can’t we? We can become self-righteous and condescending. But if it’s God’s choice, then this raises questions about God’s goodness.
Look, no Calvinist wants God’s goodness to be questioned or to make human choice irrelevant or robotic. And no Arminian wants Christians to be self-righteous and stuck up. No matter how you answer the question, there will be mystery that remains. At some point, we should consider if there is a better place to start the conversation about what it is Jesus came to do, and what redemption is, in fact, all about.
And the Beatitudes themselves point the way.
You see, if indeed we read the Beatitudes not as the kinds of people we must be so that God will bless us and take us to heaven, and read them instead as Jesus’s observation of the kinds of people who are actually and already flourishing, then we find Jesus’s own teaching takes us to look at him differently. Jesus apparently did not come to make sure that we do not descend into hell by teaching us how to ascend into heaven. Rather, he came to stop our descent into hellish dehumanization by showing us the path toward the full humanization of flourishing that we were meant to experience from the beginning.
Consider the way the Bible begins. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Right there, at the start, we see that God is the creator of all there is. And God’s approval and delight in all that he has made is clear from the repeated phrase, “And God saw that it was good.” What a tragedy it would be, then, for Christians to have a reputation of being those who say of God’s creation universe, “It is not a good to be enjoyed but an evil we need to escape.” And if the world and the universe that God made are good, then we ought to see it as such and to treat it as such, and to do all we can to see that it flourishes the way God intends for it to flourish. The God who makes the apple tree delights to see lots of apples on those trees. And so should we.
The Problem of Sin
Of course, we know that the reason things do not always flourish is because of the problem of sin and evil that have brought corruption and frustration and death into God’s world of delights. And here’s the thing: the Bible tells us of the clear connection between sin and the lack of flourishing in his creation. The reason why there is frustration is because there is sin. It’s not always a one-to-one connection, and neither does it mean that if your flowers die it is because you have sinned—unless you are prepared to say that your failure to water those flowers over the past week is sin.
And perhaps that’s what you should call it. “Sin” is not just doing morally wrong things that God does not approve of. It also includes the moral culpability of not doing the good things that God created us to do. And if you planted those flowers, God, I think, expects you to water them, too.
The Restoration of Glory
When the Bible says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” it does not mean that we have not lived up to the impossibly high demands of God. The verb “to fall short” means that we lack something, that there is some deficiency within us. What we lack is “the glory of God,” which is another way or referring to the special status with which we human begins were made. Because of sin, we all have become less human, subhuman. We “fail to exhibit that ‘being-like-God’ for which [we] were created.”
If that is the problem, then we see what problem Jesus came to solve. There are several ways of saying it, but here’s one that we don’t say often enough. Jesus came to restore our humanity. The redemption that Jesus has come to complete guarantees the restoration of our humanity and our rightful enjoyment of God's world.
So, when Jesus begins to observe “blessedness,” here in the Beatitudes, he is saying, “Now just look at that! There we see humanity. That’s the way it is supposed to be. There is real human flourishing.
But what we see when we look is not what we would expect to see. What we see is what looks to our eyes as those who are “profoundly nonflourishing.” How can Jesus say that it is the poor and those who mourn, the hungry and thirsty as well as the persecuted are the flourishing ones? Is Jesus a sadist?
No. He is a Savior.
Commentators will tell you that there is an Old Testament background to the Beatitudes, and the key Old Testament text is Isaiah 61, a passage which Jesus once read in a synagogue.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Lk 4:18-19).
And then, with everyone looking at him intently, he said this: “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21).
If we believe Jesus, then we have to believe that what he accomplished for us was the fulfillment of God’s long-awaited promise to deliver us from the dehumanization of our sinfulness. He came to set free the poor and the oppressed.
So, if that is who you are, if you are counted among that number, then, because of Jesus, you are the ones who now are the true flourishing ones.
If you are those who flourish without him, if you don’t really need a savior, then take warning: you have found a path to flourishing that has come at the expense of others. You are indicted on crimes against humanity. You have met your end. You have your reward, and it isn’t going to last.
The Treasures Found in the Beatitudes
But there is still good news for everyone who will hear. Notice the treasures of the Beatitudes. Each one of them ends with a reversal of fortunes for the ones that Jesus came to save.
Once more, we know better than to read the Beatitudes as essentially divine commands, of conditions we must meet in order for God to bless us. We do not find here a secret knowledge on how to position ourselves to get a blessing from God. If we do that, I can guarantee that you will end up exasperated by your inability to get there. You’ll look at your circumstances and conclude, “Guess I’m not poor enough, I don’t mourn enough, I’m not meet or merciful or pure enough—that’s why God is not blessing me. That’s why I’m not happy.”
Nor do we read these Beatitudes as simple words of encouragement to those who are actually unhappy. “Just hold on; things will eventually work out.” I hope you can read these Beatitudes and take them seriously without feeling condemned by your failure to be good enough or being left with the feeling that there is no hope for you in your sadness, as if Jesus just pats you on the back and says (unhelpfully), “Everything’s going to turn out all right.”
The Beatitudes are not empty words. There is rich treasure here. But one commentator calls it “black gold.” It is “divine gold of priceless worth, but it appears to be only darkness.”
The Way of the Kingdom
One way to see the treasure is to see the presence of the kingdom of God. It is the “gold” found explicitly at the end of verse 3 and verse 10, but all of them are invitations in to the celebration of God’s reign.
To see the gold here, you have to see the kingdom of God that has already broken in on this present evil age through Jesus. So many Christians remain ignorant of this reality, thinking that Christianity is all about private religion, the answer to the questions we ask about things we cannot see. The Jewish hope that Jesus insists he came to fulfill is the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth which has everything to do with the world we see and our place as his image bearers within it. What the first Christians said was different about the kingdom was not that it had nothing to do with Rome and “real history,” but that the kingdom Israel had been looking for was “based upon Jesus rather than upon a restoration of Jewish national and ethnic primacy.”
So, if you want to see the treasure of the kingdom, you have to see it through Jesus, and you have to steadfastly resist seeing it any other way.
And when we read the Beatitudes, we have to read them through Jesus and the present reality of the kingdom of God that he has already inaugurated. This will point the way toward the true flourishing the Beatitudes invite us into.
So, when Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” we will not take this to mean that poverty is a good in itself. If you’re poor because you are lazy or just don’t know how to handle money, don’t claim Matthew 5:3 as your life verse. Jesus came to deliver the poor who are in that state because they are oppressed. And those who hope in God to set them free find in Jesus the assurance that God is doing just that. He will deal with oppressors; God is on the side of the poor who are poor because of oppression.
You can see, then, how the Beatitudes work if you don’t find yourself poor by oppression. They call on you to also be on the side of the poor, to care about their plight, and, like God, to do something about it.
All of the Beatitudes work this way and are this practical, as well as hopeful. Those who mourn are those who are deeply concerned about the brokenness they see around them. They are moved to action because of it, even if that action looks different according to our various gifts and capacities, and the wisdom God grants us. And the hope that sustains them is not that they always see victory in every attempt to work for kingdom healing, but that they know that in Jesus all brokenness will be resolved. If not now, then certainly when he comes in the resurrection.
I have a neighbor that is quite well-known for his work with the homeless. He is a believer, but he is also a retired Marine, and he brings both to an ever-present problem. That problem is not just the ugliness we see as we drive by the homeless camps; it’s also the ugliness of two homeless people who have recently and tragically died. My neighbor cares about these people. He helps some find homes, but he also, quite literally, throws others out of homes which they have no right to be in and often become drug houses.
My neighbor told me this week, “Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m doing any good.” But I encouraged him that what he is doing is, in theological terms, the work of the kingdom, because he is caring for the flourishing of these image bearers that so many of us try to ignore.
Oh that we might be a church that does likewise, that lives and worships, that hopes and dreams, that rests and works in the reality of the kingdom of God.
 Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, The Story of God Bible Commentary, ed. Tremper Longman III and Scot McKnight (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 32.
 Glen H. Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance, Enduring Questions in Christian Life, ed. David P. Gushee (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2006), 39.
 Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount, 45.
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