A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:3-12. A Christian’s character: the beatitudes.
Everybody who has ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth, and knows anything at all of his teaching, must surely be familiar with the beatitudes with which the Sermon on the Mount begins. Their simplicity of word and profundity of thought have attracted each fresh generation of Christians, and many others besides. The more we explore their implications, the more seems to remain unexplored. Their wealth is inexhaustible. We cannot plumb their depths. Truly, ‘We are near heaven here.’
Before we are ready to consider each beatitude separately, there are three general questions about them which need to be asked. These concern the people described, the qualities commended and the blessings promised.
a). The people described.
The beatitudes set forth the balanced and variegated character of Christian people. These are not eight separate and distinct groups of disciples, some of whom are meek, while others are merciful and yet others are called upon to endure persecution. They are rather eight qualities of the same group who at one and the same time are meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart, mourning and hungry, peacemakers and persecuted.
Further, the group exhibiting these marks is not an elitist set, a small spiritual aristocracy remote from the common run of Christians. On the contrary, the beatitudes are Christ’s own specification of what every Christian ought to be. All these qualities are to characterise all his followers. Just as the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit which Paul lists is to ripen in every Christian character, so the eight beatitudes which Christ speaks describe his ideal for every citizen of God’s kingdom. Unlike the gifts of the Spirit which he distributes to different members of Christ’s body in order to equip them for different kinds of service, the same Spirit is concerned to work all these Christian graces in us all. There is no escape from our responsibility to covet them all.
b) The qualities commended.
It is well known that there is at least a verbal discrepancy between the beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel and those in Luke’s. Thus, Luke writes ‘Blessed are you poor’, which Matthew has ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. Again, Luke’s ‘Blessed are you who hunger now’ is recorded by Matthew as ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’.
In consequence of this, some have argued that Luke’s version is the true one; that Jesus was making a social or sociological judgment about the poor and the hungry; that he was promising the undernourished food and the proletariat riches in the kingdom of God; and that Matthew spiritualized what were originally material pledges.
But this is an impossible interpretation, unless we are prepared to believe either that Jesus contradicted himself or that the evangelists were clumsy enough to make him appear to do so. For in the Judean desert, in the temptations which Matthew narrates in the previous chapter, Jesus had refused to turn stones into bread, and had repudiated the idea of establishing a material kingdom. Consistently throughout his ministry he rejected the same temptation. When the feeding of the five thousand prompted the crowd ‘to come and take him by force to make him king’, Jesus immediately withdrew into the hills by himself (Jn.6:15). And when Pilate asked him if there was any substance in the Jewish leaders’ charges against him and whether in fact he had any political ambitions, his reply was unambiguous: ‘My kingship is not of this world.’ (Jn.18:36). That is, it has a different origin and therefore a different character.
To say this is not to suggest that Jesus was indifferent to physical poverty and hunger. On the contrary, he had compassion on the needy and fed the hungry, and he told his followers to do the same. Yet the blessing of his kingdom was not primarily one of economic advantage.
Further, if he was not offering physical relief immediately, neither was he promising it in a future heaven and meanwhile pronouncing the poor and the hungry ‘blessed’. To be sure, in some circumstances God can use poverty as a means to spiritual blessing, just as wealth can be a hindrance to it. But this does not make poverty in itself a desirable condition which Jesus blesses. The church has always been wrong whenever it has used the first beatitude either to condone the poverty of the masses, or to commend the voluntary poverty of monks and others who have taken a vow to renounce possessions. Christ may indeed still call some to a life of poverty, but his call cannot justly be heard through this beatitude.
No. The poverty and hunger to which Jesus refers in the beatitudes are spiritual states. It is ‘the poor *in spirit*’ and those who ‘hunger and thirst *for righteousness*’ whom he declares blessed. And it is safe to deduce from this that the other qualities he mentions are spiritual also. It is true that the Aramaic word Jesus used may have been simply ‘poor’, as in Luke’s version. But then ‘the poor’, God’s poor, were already a clearly defined group in the Old Testament, and Matthew will have been correct to translate ‘poor in spirit’. For ‘the poor’ were not so much the poverty stricken as the pious who – partly because they were needy, downtrodden, oppressed or in other ways afflicted – had put their faith and hope in God.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:3-12. c). The blessings promised.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.