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“Introducing the Beatitudes”

As already argued, the Sermon on the Mount (SM) is structured as a symmetrical chiasm that begins (5:1-2) and ends (7:28-29) with a short narrative. More than a simple introduction that sets the stage Matthew uses these two verses connect the reader to a similar event that took place over 1400 years before.

So, seeing the crowds, He went up into the mountain, and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. And opening His mouth, He began to teach them saying:

It is good to regularly remind ourselves that the chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles are, on the one hand not inspired, yet on the other hand have been inserted by knowledgeable men. The distinction between 4:25 and 5:1 is a necessary division because 5:1 ff. the immediate introduction narrative for the SM. Yet, it is a mistake to think that this division is so stark as to present chapter 5 without any unity to what precedes it. Matthew helps us understand this unity/distinction by using δὲ to (a) join 5:1 logically to 4:25 while (b) making sure the reader knows that this addition is different in kind and substance. In 4:23-25, Matthew presents a snapshot of Jesus’ Galilean ministry to present Jesus as a second Joshua who was taking the north by storm. Here, Matthew presents a specific sermon Jesus preached in order to present Him as the new Moses who brings new instruction. This presentation is made clear in these opening verses by what Jesus does and what Jesus says.

What Jesus Does (v. 1)

So, seeing the crowds, He went up into the mountain, and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him.

One should immediately recognize the crowds (τοὺς ὄχλους) as a link back to the previous section. It was the multiple crowds from the four corners of Israel who began to follow Jesus (4:25) and it is these same crowds that Jesus now sees. While it may be assuming too much to think that Jesus is ascending the mountain in order to get away from the crowds, we can safely state that the crowds’ presence triggered Jesus’ movements. To this we can add that while it is clear that the crowds heard Jesus’ teaching on the mountain (7:28), it is also clear that the move to the mountain is to provide a more intimate setting to teach His disciples. In any case, the way in which Matthew records Jesus’ movements and actions clearly marks Him out to be a Moses like person.

Jesus Sets the Scene of a New Sinai

The SM is so familiar to the modern reader that we may not think much about the fact that Jesus went up into the mountain (ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος). But this precise phrase is used in several texts that have historical and eschatological significance. Of the 16 times this phrase appears in the LXX of the Old Testament 8 are used historically of Moses (Ex. 19:3; 24:13, 18; 34:4; Num. 27:12; Deut. 5:5; 10:3; 32:49) while 3 are used eschatologically in reference to Messiah (Ps. 24:3; Mic. 4:2; Is. 2:3).[1]

Looking Back: An Historical Perspective – Moses is recorded as having gone up to the mountain in order to receive the Law from Yhwh (Ex. 19:3; 24:13, 18) and to receive the second set of tablets after breaking the first (Ex. 34:4). The phrase is also used to record Yhwh’s command for Moses to go up the mountain (Nebo) to see the land of promise before his death (Num. 27:12; Deut. 32:49). The phrase in question is not frequently used and is tightly connected with Moses with focus on that ministry’s beginning (Sinai) and conclusion (Nebo). Jesus’ ministry is beginning like Moses’, on a mountain. I wonder how Matthew will present the conclusion of Jesus’ Ministry (Matt. 24:16)?

Looking Forward: An Eschatological Perspective – The same phrase is used by David to ask the rhetorical question of who is able to go up to the mountain (ἀναβησεται εἰς τὸ ὄρος) of Yhwh? (Ps. 24:3). While Ps. 24 is clearly Messianic, there may be some objections that the mountain of Yhwh clearly is a reference to Zion in Jerusalem rather than a grassy hill in the upper Galilee. The point is not to identify a specific elevated place but to present Jesus as fulfilling expectations. By using this phrase, Matthew already implies that Jesus is the One who can ascend Yhwh’s holy mountain. This expectation of Jesus being this one grows in significance when compared to the eschatological expectation presented by the prophets.

In both Micah 4:2 and Is. 2:3 the prophets anticipate a day when the nations (not just Israel) will go up to the mountain of Yhwh so that He might teach them. The prophets anticipate a day when (1) Gentiles go up like Moses went up and like Israel was not allowed to go up and are thus presumed to be of clean hands and heart (Ps. 24:4) to be (2) taught by Yhwh Himself just as Moses taught Israel. Matthew identifies Jesus with Moses as He goes up into the mountain but leaves open the connection of Jesus to Yhwh in an eschatological teaching scenario as well. To say it another way, Matthew’s choice of words presents the current scenario as a reenactment of the giving of the law while also anticipating the divine teaching to be given the nations. This mountain points back to Sinai and ahead to Zion.

Jesus Presents Himself as a New Moses

By recording Jesus’ movements into the mountain Matthew connects this scene with Sinai and the giving of Torah to Israel by which the people of Abraham were brought into covenant with Yhwh. The connection between Jesus and Moses is made even more explicit by the fact that (a) Jesus sits down and (b) His disciples come to Him.

The normal station from which a teacher would instruct his disciples in a Jewish, first century context is from a sitting position. In the context of the synagogue, one would stand to read from the scriptures and then sit to begin his exposition. For Jesus to take up a sitting position indicates that He is intent on giving instruction. This strengthens the connection to Moses who is always associated with the law/instruction (תּוֹרָה) and is thus a great teacher of Israel. The prophet who is to come after Moses (Deut. 18:15-19) will speak the very words of Yhwh for He will place those words in the prophet’s mouth. The fact that Jesus is about to begin teaching is also revealed by how His disciples interpret His actions. They gather around Him.

This is the first time Matthew expressly uses the term “disciples” (μαθητής), though it will certainly not be the last (72x). While the chief role of a disciple is to learn, a disciple is more than a mere student or pupil. A disciple is one who (a) has already learned enough of his master’s teaching so as to implement that teaching[2] and (b) one who has a certain amount of loyalty to his master as one who shares life experiences with him.[3] That the disciples mentioned here include the four fishermen from 4:18-22 is without a doubt, though it is best not to limit the number of disciples to only these four. No matter the specific number of disciples who came to Jesus for instruction, it is important to understand that they, not the crowds, are the primary audience for Jesus’ sermon. Jesus did not cut off the crowds from hearing this sermon. However, the focus and demands of this sermon is directed to those who have already committed to follow Jesus.[4] By His actions, Jesus is presenting Himself as the prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15)[5] and His followers seem to understand the significance of His actions.

What Jesus Says (v. 2)

And opening His mouth, He began to teach them saying:

It may seem odd, even redundant, to state that Jesus opened His mouth right before we read the words that He spoke (5:3-7:27). It is possible that Matthew is making a few more Old Testament allusions (Job 3:1; Ps. 78:2) or perhaps this is nothing more than a Semitic idiom to add a layer of solemnity to what is coming.[6] If nothing else, we can rest assured that Matthew intends his readers to take everything between 5:2 and 7:28 as a single discourse spoken by Jesus in a specific context. With that in mind, there are at least two thoughts that come to mind regarding this statement.

Consider the Source

Matthew clearly identifies Jesus as the source of all the teaching that follows. If Matthew has intentionally identified Jesus as the prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15) then we must understand these words as being divine words, the very words of Yhwh (Deut. 18:18). What follows is not a collection of sayings from or about Jesus. Matthew explicitly states that he is recording the very words (ipsissima verba) of Jesus and therefore the very words of God.

Consider the Content

The ending of 5:2 assumes the beginning of 5:3 and following. 5:3-7:27 are the words that came from Jesus’ mouth. The verses that follow are nearly universally known as the beatitudes and consist of some of the better-known material of the SM. Before diving into the text, at least three observations need to be made.

The Beatitudes are Jesus’ Preamble – Just as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:3-17) are the preamble for the Mosaic Law (Ex. 21:1-23:33), so the beatitudes are the preamble for the SM. These verses set the tone for the whole discourse. This observation is helpful for two reasons: (1) Recognizing that the Ten Commandments have structure would lead one to assume that there is structure (perhaps even similar structure) within the beatitudes, and (2) Understanding the relationship between the Ten Commandments and the Law will rightly prepare us to read the SM once these beatitudes are understood.

Regarding Structure: It is usually recognized that the Ten Commandments are structured to cover Israel’s vertical relationship with Yhwh and their horizontal relationship with mankind. The first four commandments all point to the nation’s and the individual’s relationship with Yhwh while the last five refer to individual conduct with other individuals. The fifth commandment is therefore seen as the lynchpin. How one treats their father and mother indicates their relationship with Yhwh.

Regarding The Commandments’ Relationship with the Law: Eight of the Ten Commandments are given in the negative (thou shalt not…) describing what Israel is prohibited from doing. The general sense and focus is to force the idea of Yhwh’s holiness. Yhwh’s people must reflect Yhwh’s holiness to the world. It is also noteworthy that the Ten Commandments are all commandments. Because Yhwh has chosen Israel to be His people, these commandments are indicative of their lives. What is interesting is that the beatitudes, while fulfilling the same role as the Ten Commandments, are neither commands nor stated negatively. These are all pronouncements of blessing. But then, what does it mean to be blessed?

What does “Blessed” Mean? – Much as in Hebrew (אָשְׁרֵי and בּרך) there are two different Greek terms that are normally translated as blessed (μακάριος and εὐλογέω). The term that we have introducing each of the eight beatitudes is μακάριος. In developing a biblical theology of blessed, it is important to note that there is a strong connection between the Greek μακάριος and the Hebrew אָשְׁרֵי. Forty-one of the forty-four occurrences of אָשְׁרֵי in the Old Testament, the LXX translates with μακάριος. Therefore, it is safe to assume that Jesus is speaking in the same frame of mind as the blessed man whose delight is in Yhwh’s torah (Ps. 1:1), whose sins are forgiven (Ps. 32:1-2), who seeks Yhwh with all his heart (Ps. 119:1-2), and who perseveres till the end (Dan. 12:12).[7] But what does it mean to be blessed?

Many mistakenly assume that the concept found at the root of μακάριος is happiness. Some go so far as to translate each of these beatitudes as “happy is the one who…” Yet this understanding is at best too simplistic and at worst dangerously misleading. The English concept of happiness is first totally subjective and secondly based heavily on fate, luck, or happenstance.[8] Neither the Greek μακάριος and the Hebrew אָשְׁרֵי address subjective feelings or well-fated experiences but should be read and understood as verdicts. Jesus is making a pronouncement or an observation. He is relaying objective facts. There is a connection between this concept of blessedness and happiness, though it not a direct one for one correlation. The blessed man (μακάριος/אָשְׁרֵי) is a man who has everything necessary for happiness (a beautiful and loving wife, obedient children, wealth, comfort, etc.). This is a statement of congratulations.[9] The beatitudes of the Old Testament are certainly understood in this light, for the blessed man is one whose God is Yhwh (Ps. 144:14), whose trust is in God (Ps. 84:12), and who prudently obeys God (Ps. 119:1-2). The one who fits these descriptions is to be congratulated indeed, for he has every reason for happiness.

With this in mind, our curiosity should be piqued when we read what sort of people Jesus congratulates. While the nation of Israel (Deut. 33:29), king Solomon (1 Kings 10:8), and those who wait on Yhwh (Is. 30:18) have many reasons to be congratulated, it is difficult to see why the poor in spirit (5:3), those who mourn (5:4), the gentle (5:5), etc. are to be congratulated. And yet, Jesus explicitly pronounces and observes these individuals as blessed indeed. While these statements of congratulations may seem confusing with only a casual reading, if we take the time to study the way Jesus formed and structured these statements, we may have a better idea as to His intention.

Follow the Structure of the Preamble – As we have already pointed out, the SM is a highly structured discourse. Yet the more we examine and study this sermon the more we find structure on the micro scale as well as the macro. At least one example of this microstructure has already been mentioned in the fact that the beatitudes are introduced and concluded with an inclusio: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν). This helps to identify the beatitudes as those eight pronouncements of blessing/congratulations contained in 5:3-10. Even though we see another use of μακάριος in v. 11, it is best to understand 5:11-12 as either (a) explanation on the whole list of beatitudes or (b) an explanation of the last beatitude specifically.[10] In other words, Jesus lets us know where the beatitudes begin and end.

Within these contained verses we find additional structure in the fact that the first four (vv. 3-6) beatitudes are alliterated (πτωχοὶ, πενθοῦντες, πραεῖς, πεινῶντες). One commentator attempts to recapture the effect by rendering these fore blessed people as the poor in spirit, the plaintive, the powerless, and those who pine for righteousness.[11] The point seems to be that Jesus deliberately grouped these four together, thus making a division of two halves within the beatitudes. But what is the purpose of this division?

By examining the second half (vv. 7-10) it becomes clear that Jesus addresses those who interact with others. One cannot be considered merciful (v. 7) unless one has another individual upon whom he shows mercy. The same is true of those who are considered peacemakers (v. 9) and those who have been persecuted (v. 10). This second half appears to focus on the horizontal relationships between people. If this is true, then it appears that the first half focuses on the vertical relationship between man and God. This observation echoes the preamble of the Mosaic Law, the Ten Commandments, which follows this precise structure: vertical relationship between man and God (commandments 1-4), horizontal relationships between people (commandments 6-10). Just as the Ten Commandments summarized and focused Israel’s attention on the law and their relationship with Yhwh, so the beatitudes perform the same duty in a similar fashion for those who would follow Jesus. Here the new Moses introduces a new Law. Yet, there is something very different about this law.

While both the SM and the Mosaic Law are filled with commands and prohibitions, their perspective preambles are very different. The law Moses received on Sinai (Ex. 20-23) contains 4 explicit imperatives and over 180 explicit prohibitions. The SM, while containing much fewer, still produces 50 imperatives which remains to be a high number of commands in only three chapters. The difference is in the preambles. The Ten Commandments contains one imperative and 13 prohibitions. The Beatitudes contain none. While the sermon in its entirety contains over 50 explicit commands, not one of them is found in the sermon’s introduction. Instead, Jesus congratulates those who follow Him. This is very insightful. Much like the blessed man in Psalm 119 is congratulated because he seeks Yhwh and not the blessing (Ps. 119:2), so Jesus congratulates those who follow Him, His disciples (5:1). Blessing is not obtained by obeying the commands that follow. Blessing is obtained by following Jesus alone. But if one follows Jesus alone, then there is an expectation of a changed life that obeys Him. The fact that Jesus begins His sermon with these beatitudes ensures that we do not mistake these blessings as a proverbial carrot on a stick that motivates us to behave well. These are statements of a believer’s security as a kingdom citizen under the authority of the King. Therefore, follow the King alone.

[1] The remaining 5 occurrences refer to either the prohibition of the people coming up to Sinai (Ex. 19:3), or the 12 spies/all of Israel going up to the hill country on various occasions (Num. 13:17; Deut. 1:24, 41, 43). [2] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 183. [3] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 191-2. [4] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 94. [5] Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology 11 (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), p. 36-8. [6] Nolland, p. 193. [7] Lenski, p. 183. [8] Archibald Robertson, Matthew and Mark, vol. I, VI vols., Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p. 39-40. [9] David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), p. 52-4. [10] The reader should notice that Jesus changes from the third person to the second person between vv. 10&11. Also, the structure of these short, terse statements changes to longer detailed explanations. For these reasons, it is best to understand 5:11-12 as an explanation of, rather than a part of the beatitudes. [11] Garland, p. 54.


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