A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:3-12. c). The blessings promised.
Each quality is commended, inasmuch as each person who exhibits it is pronounced ‘blessed’. The Greek word *makarios* can and does mean ‘happy’. So JBP translates the opening words of each beatitude, ‘How happy are…!’ And several commentators have explained them as Jesus’ prescription for human happiness. The most ingenious attempt I know was made by Ernest M. Ligon of the Department of Psychology, Union College, Schenectady, New York, in his book *The psychology of Christian personality*. Acknowledging his debt to Harry Emerson Fosdick, he sets out to interpret the Sermon on the Mount ‘from the point of view of mental health’ (p. vii). ‘The most significant mistake that men have made in interpreting these verses of Jesus (sc. the beatitudes)’, he writes, ‘is the failure to note the first word in each of them, *happy*.’ In his view they ‘constitute Jesus’ theory of happiness’. They are not so much ethical duties as ‘a series of eight fundamental emotional attitudes. If a man reacts to his environment in the spirit of them, his life will be a happy one.’ for he will have discovered the basic ‘formula for mental health’. In particular, according to Dr. Ligon, the Sermon emphasizes the ‘forces’ of faith and love, ‘experimental faith’ and ‘fatherly love’. These two principles are indispensable for the development of ‘strong and healthy personalities’. Not only may the chaos of fear be overcome by faith and destructive anger by love, but also ‘the inferiority complex and its many byproducts’ by the Golden Rule.
There is no need to dismiss this interpretation as entirely fallacious. For nobody knows better than our Creator how we may become truly human beings. He made us. He knows how we work best. It is through obeying his own moral laws that we find and fulfil ourselves. And all Christians can testify from experience that there is a close connection between holiness and happiness.
Nevertheless, it is seriously misleading to render *makarios* ‘happy’. For happiness is a subjective state, whereas Jesus is making an objective judgment about these people. He is declaring not what they may feel (‘happy’), but what God thinks of them and what on that account they are: they are ‘blessed’.
What is this blessing? The second half of each beatitude elucidates it. They possess the kingdom of heaven and they inherit the earth. The mourners are comforted and the hungry are satisfied. They receive mercy, they see God, they are called the sons of God. Their heavenly reward is great. And all these blessings belong together. Just as the eight qualities describe every Christian (at least in the ideal), so the eight blessings are given to every Christian. True, the particular blessing promised in each case is appropriate to the particular quality mentioned. At the same time it is surely not possible to inherit the kingdom of heaven without inheriting the earth, to be comforted without being satisfied or to see God without receiving his mercy and being called his children. The eight qualities together constitute the responsibilities, and the eight blessings the privileges, of being a citizen of God’s kingdom. This is what the enjoyment of God’s rule means.
Are these blessings present or future? Personally, I think the only possible answer is ‘both’. Some commentators, however, have insisted that they are future, and have emphasized the ‘eschatological’ nature of the beatitudes. Certainly the second part of the last beatitude promises the persecuted a great reward in heaven, and this must be future (11). Certainly too it is only in the first and eighth beatitudes that the blessing is expressed in the present tense, ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (3, 10); and even then this verb was probably not there when Jesus spoke in Aramaic. The other six beatitudes contain a verb in the simple future tense (‘they shall’). Nevertheless, it is plain from the rest of Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom of God is a present reality which we can ‘receive’, ‘inherit’ or ‘enter’ now. Similarly, we can obtain mercy and comfort now, can become God’s children now, and in this life can have our hunger satisfied and our thirst quenched. Jesus promised all these blessings to his followers in the here and now. The promise that we ‘shall see God’ may sound like a reference to the final ‘beatific vision’ (Cf. 1 Cor.13:12; Heb.12:14; 1 Jn. 3:2; Rev.22:4), and no doubt includes it. But we already begin to see God in this life both in the person of his Christ (Jn.14:9) and with spiritual vision (1 Jn.3:6; 3 Jn.11). We even begin to ‘inherit the earth’ in this life since if we are Christ’s all things are already ours, ‘whether…the world or life or death or the present or the future’ (1 Cor.3:22, 23).
So then the promises of Jesus in the beatitudes have both a present and a future fulfilment. We enjoy the first fruits now; the full harvest is yet to come. And, as Professor Tasker rightly points out, ‘The future tense…emphasizes their certainty and not merely their futurity. The mourners will *indeed* be comforted, etc.’
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:3-12. c). The blessings promised (continued).
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.