The Beatitudes – an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1 – 5:12)
Seeing the large crowds, Jesus moved to the side of a mountain and sat down. His disciples followed and gathered around him. Jesus began to teach them while the crowd listened. Popularly known as “The Sermon on the Mount”, he began with “The Beatitudes”, and said:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus told his listeners, “Blessed are you when people insult and persecute you because of me. Be happy, because as with the Old Testament prophets that came before you, your reward will be in heaven.”
What the story means to us today
The lesson from the Sermon on the Mount – an impossible moral target?
Many may cringe at the expected behaviors Jesus taught during the Great Sermon. God recognizes we are imperfect creatures and understands when we make mistakes. This however, does not permit a person to willingly commit sinful acts believing they can simply ask for forgiveness later. God expects us to strive to follow the lessons Jesus taught us (and the example that he set), recognize when we miss the mark, and acknowledge, to him, the mistakes we may make. As Jesus said at the end of Matthew 5, “Seek perfection”.
Additional thoughts and considerations
The scene and setting of the Sermon on the Mount
Even early in Jesus’ ministry, large crowds of people were following him to hear his teaching and witness his many miracles. When Jesus saw the large crowds, he moved up the mountainside to distance himself from the multitudes and allow his disciples to draw near, and delivered the Sermon on the Mount discourse (primarily to his disciples but within earshot of the crowd). In those days, rabbis often sat down while the audience stood near, listening to the discourse. In this scenario, Jesus sat down and the disciples gathered around him while the crowd listened to his world-changing sermon.
The Sermon on the Mount contains lofty ethics and uncompromising demands that God expects us to live by. The rules are strict and many feel they cannot possible live by the strict demands laid out in Jesus’ sermon. The disparity between expectations and natural behavior indeed creates a perplexing problem and thus, many have attempted to interpret the Great Sermon in a variety of ways.
One interpretation proposes that the sermon is an impossibly high ethic designed to show us the hopelessness of achieving righteousness without turning to God. Another, more hopeful view, is that the sermon was directed at the disciples only, and not intended to be a guideline for common man. This view suggests that the disciples were expected to follow the principles outlined in the sermon as an appropriate example for the public.
Another view, probably the most widely accepted interpretation, is that the standards defined in the sermon are to be accepted as ethical principles that we strive and struggle to achieve throughout our daily lives.
How ancient authors recorded Jesus’ words
It is important to recognize that the Sermon on the Mount was likely not a transcript of the words that Jesus spoke that day. It was common for ancient writers to use excerpts and epitomize (summarize) longer materials. As an example, Luke contains his own account of the day and although similar to Matthew’s account, there are some differences in wording and content (e.g. Matthew lists eight blessings while Luke, assuming his “Sermon on the Plain” was the same event, lists four blessings plus four “woes”).
The words that Jesus spoke were written by authors who should be thought of as students of the word of God. They likely were present and heard what Jesus spoke, and then recorded what they heard for prosperity. Think of it as a student in class taking notes and then writing a summary essay from those notes. That the various Gospels differ slightly (as would be expected from different authors) but remain consistently the same on the many topics covered in the New Testament, is a testament to their validity and authenticity.
Putting the Sermon on the Mount in context with the times
The Sermon on the Mount marked a stark change in our understanding of Old Testament teachings, a “new” interpretation of the Old Testament, but at the time the Sermon on the Mount was delivered to the masses, the concept of righteousness differed from our modern day interpretation. During Jesus’ day, Pharisees were proud and harsh, not humble and gentle. They felt they had already attained righteousness and therefore, had no appetite for it. They were concerned more with the legal aspects of God’s law rather than recognizing the love, understanding, and mercy that God expected of them. The Pharisees may have been “pure” in a ceremonial sense, but not in a spiritual sense. Jesus’ message radically changed the Pharisees understanding of the scriptures and of course, in many cases, this angered various Pharisees sects.
The Sermon on the Mount – In Depth
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was a beautiful discourse outlining the behavior that Jesus expected from his disciples and thus, the behavior that God expects of us. It is the longest piece of teaching from Jesus in the New Testament and contains the central tenets of Christianity. For most, the objectives Jesus spoke of are an extremely lofty goal but they “are what they are” and the bar Jesus sets is indeed high.
The sermon began with the Beatitudes, a list of “blessings”, pronouncements that confer an end-time blessing upon persons that are characterized by what they are (e.g. the poor in spirit). The Beatitudes begin with the words “Blessed are” and in most instances, are classifications of various emotional qualities and moral standards followed by a poetically-phrased “reward” or future blessing (often a reversal of the beatitude) which, in each instance, indicates the particular standard is a desirable trait for mankind. Each beatitude consists of a condition and a result that focus on the spirit of love and humility. They were fashioned after similar Old Testament concepts hinting that the new kingdom is but the old in a new form, more spiritual, the essence of religion that had all but disappeared under the corrupt teachers of Jesus’ day.
Among those who were “blessed” include:
The poor in spirit (those who recognize their spiritual shortcomings) – The quality is more of a frame of mind, i.e. the oppressed, the needy. The poor in spirit recognize their destitution and readily seek God for guidance. These are people that despite their own inborn characteristics and talents, recognize the need to follow God’s plan and do so humbly, without question. With such an attitude, they are open to accepting the plan God created for mankind.
Those who mourn (feel sadness out of compassion for others) – This is the first of the reversals (mourn/compassion). Those who mourn are sensitive to their spiritual needs and the needs of others. Behaviors that break the heart of God should break the heart of Christians too. In return, those who inherently experience the sadness of others will be comforted by God.
Those who are meek (humble and gentle) – “Meek” does not infer cowardly, weak, or withdrawn as we interpret the word today but rather a kind and gentle restraint, the willingness to waive personal interests for the interests of others. Those that are humble and gentle will be given the world.
Those who hunger for righteousness (a desire to be good) – This quality refers to those who have a strong desire to do good, to follow God’s guidance. They don’t just work to attain righteousness but have a strong, overwhelming desire to achieve it.
The merciful (extend mercy to others) – Includes those who show compassion toward their fellow man. A person who is merciful feels compassions for others, readily forgives others, and seeks to comfort those who are suffering.
The pure in heart (those who instinctively avoid sin) – As opposed to those who outwardly appear to be moral. The pure in heart not only exhibit moral virtues – they are imbued with them. The pure in heart will meet God face to face.
The peacemakers (who seek to avoid conflict and promote peace) – Not just those who seek peace but those who actively diffusion conflictual situations.
Also blessed are those who are shunned because of their Christian beliefs and those who are persecuted for the good that they do – both of which attempt to deter a person from from following Christian tenets. A good Christian moves forward regardless of earthly opposition, knowing the ultimate reward will be great.
Jesus also points out that persecution for religious beliefs is in some ways, a compliment, for the persecuted are being treated like the old prophets.
The Science behind the story
The location of the Sermon on the Mount
The location of the mountainside that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount is unknown. It was undoubtedly in Galilee and likely near Capernaum on a place which was “level” (as Luke notes in his gospel). The traditional location is the Mount of Beatitudes, located on the north western shore of the Sea of Galilee between Capernaum and Gennesaret (Ginosar). The Mount of Beatitudes (also known as Mount Eremos) has been commemorated as the site for more than 1600 years. A Byzantine church was erected near the current site in 400 AD and remains of a cistern and a monastery are still visible.
The discrepancy between Matthew’s version being on a hill and Luke’s being on a level place is easily reconciled given the topography of the area – there are many level “plains” on Mount Eremos, spacious level areas on the hillside which would have been perfect for the gathering of large crowds. In fact, the historian Josephus called the four-mile long plain at the bottom of the Mount of Beatitudes the location of “nature’s crowning achievement”.
Other suggested locations have included the nearby Mount Arbel, or even the Horns of Hattin.
Notes on Biblical translation
“Blessed” are they
Of the two words in the Bible rendered as “blessed”, this one indicates an inward feeling of happiness in a very lofty sense, akin to the spiritual well-being a god would enjoy.
5 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
5:1 When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain. After he sat down his disciples came to him. 5:2 Then he began to teach them by saying:
5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
5:11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. 5:12 Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
5 And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto 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 they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.