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Matthew 5:3-5 – “The Beatitudes, Part 1: Blessed are the Humble.”

In addition to the facts that the beatitudes are (1) bracketed by an inclusio (for theirs is the kingdom of heaven) in vv. 3&8, (2) begin with an alliterated list of citizens to be congratulated (πτωχοὶ, πενθοῦντες, πραεῖς, πεινῶντες), [1] and (3) function as a preamble to the SM, much like the ten commandments in the wider Mosaic Law (Ex. 20-23), it appears that the beatitudes form something of a chiasm.

While there is no “hinge” beatitude that would correspond to the “hinge” commandment (honor thy father and thy mother), we do see a close connection between the fourth beatitude which concludes the vertical section (those who hunger and thirst for actual righteousness) and the fifth beatitude which introduces the horizontal section (those who do actual righteousness by showing mercy). The beatitudes now begin to take on a chiastic structure that show the wholistic picture of these kingdom citizens who are to be congratulated. These are not eight kinds of people who are accepted as kingdom citizens but are eight characteristics that all kingdom citizens possess. Rather than zeroing down to a centerpiece, this chiasm has more of a zipper affect that shows off the two sides of blessed kingdom citizens. This “zipper” chiasm is illustrated below.

With these considerations in mind, our study of the beatitudes will consist of three phases: (1) The initial vertical relationship of the blessed citizens and their God (vv. 3-5), (2) the transition from the vertical relationship to the horizontal outpouring to others (vv. 6-7), and (3) the summation of those horizontal implications (vv. 8-10).

Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom from heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, because they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, because they will inherit the land.

An accurate study of the beatitudes must keep several things in mind. First, one cannot lose the forest for the trees. Many commentators and preachers expound upon the various virtues found in each beatitude and yet lose sight of the larger picture. This preamble is a unit and must remain intact. Second, one must bear in mind the Old Testament allusions that accompany each beatitude. Jesus did not preach in a vacuum. Everything that He does and says has an Old Testament backdrop that His audience would have understood and appreciated. Part of our study will include a discovery of that backdrop and its significance. Finally, we must remind ourselves for the thousandth time that (a) this is not the kingdom and (b) the church is not Israel. Jesus is addressing Jews who await the kingdom promised in the Old Testament. A kingdom that occupies the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and is ruled by a Davidic king. No such kingdom has existed in over 2500 years and certainly does not exist today. This is not the kingdom, and the church is not Israel.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to translate these verses with accuracy while also attempting to recreate the alliteration developed by Jesus as He preached. Every attempt to do so sacrifices accuracy for aesthetics. However, an offering that captures the sense of the beatitudes is as follows: Blessed are the contrite, the conscience-stricken, and the controlled.

It’s good to remind ourselves that each of these eight beatitudes are written in a consistent form: (a) a pronouncement of blessing and (b) a reason provided to explain the appropriateness of the blessing. As we examine the text verse-by-verse, we will first explain the statement of blessing, then investigate the significance of the Old Testament allusion that is behind the statement.

The Contrite as Kingdom Citizens

Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom from heaven.

While tempting, it would be an incorrect move to compare this beatitude with what we find in Luke 6:20. As has already been argued, this is a different teaching engagement than what is recorded in Luke chapter 6. In addition, Jesus speaks of the poor (οἱ πτωχοί) in Luke while Matthew records Jesus’ words as the poor in spirit (οἱ πτωχοί τῷ πνεύματι). The term poor (πτωχός) does not indicate those who struggle to make ends meet, but those who have nothing and are thus completely dependent upon the generosity of others for survival. Those who are poor (πτωχός) are not those who live paycheck to paycheck but those who are reduced to begging on the street.[2] While physical, financial, and economic poverty may or may not be in Luke’s presentation, we cannot misunderstand Jesus’ words here as addressing only the temporally and physically destitute. Jesus chose His words carefully and specifies this poverty in connection with the spirit. The dative (τῷ πνεύματι) limits this poverty to the realm or sphere of the spirit and could be translated adverbially: spiritually poor.[3] But what does it mean to be spiritually poor?

It is at this point that we must point to the Old Testament connection. Jesus seems to be pointing to Isaiah 61:1 with reference to those who are poor or afflicted: “The Spirit of the Lord Yhwh is upon me, because Yhwh has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners.” (Is. 61:1). The Hebrew ענו which is normally translated as afflicted in English is represented by the LXX as πτωχός, the same term translated as poor here in Matthew’s gospel. By glancing ahead at Is. 61:2 and comparing it with Matt. 5:4 confirms this connection and is abundantly helpful in understanding the nature of spiritual poverty.

Backing up to Is. 57, Yhwh has already made it clear that He dwells only with the lowly of spirit and those who are contrite (v. 15). The nation Israel will one day understand this and confess their iniquity to Yhwh (59:1-15a), who will respond accordingly (59:15b-21). In chapters 60-62 the prophet records the future restoration that Yhwh will achieve in His city (60:1-22) and among His people (61:1-62:12). In the context of Isaiah, the afflicted or poor (ענו/πτωχός) who have the good news/gospel preached to them (61:1) are those who understand their depravity and hopeless situation (Is. 59:1-15a). This poverty of spirit describes those who recognize their hopeless spiritual state and are reduced to seek God’s grace for survival. They have no other choice. These spiritual beggars are here pronounced blessed.

It is impossible to make too much of the causal ὅτι (because) that introduces the second clause of this verse. Jesus does not offer congratulations to the poor in spirit because of their spiritual poverty. Rather, it is because of their assured possession of the kingdom that Jesus pronounces blessing upon them. It is at this point that many men say silly things by using paradoxical and contradictory statements like “partial fulfillment[4] and “inaugurated not consummated.[5] Commentators look to the present tense verb as confirmation that the kingdom is present at the time of Jesus’ words, but Jesus’ promise states nothing of the kind. The last reference to the kingdom was seen in 4:23 which points back to 4:17 where Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom had not yet arrived but had certainly drawn near. After Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, it is confirmed that the kingdom had not yet arrived (Acts 1:1-11).[6] Therefore, the present tense cannot indicate that the spiritually poor possess the kingdom which is established now. Rather, the promise is a promise of security. They are already possessors of the kingdom.

The reason the poor in spirit are to be congratulated is because this is not the end for them. Their future is secure in the kingdom. They are already citizens of this kingdom, even though it has yet to be established upon the earth. The kingdom which comes from heaven will one day invade earth. When that day arrives, their citizenship will have already been approved. Those who are spiritually contrite, lowly, broken, and destitute are those who look to God exclusively for sustenance and life. These are blessed, not because they are destitute, but because their citizenship is already secured.

The Conscience-stricken will be Comforted

Blessed are those who mourn, because they will be comforted.

To mourn (πενυέω) is to grieve or lament. This is a term that is usually associated with the outward grieving expressed at funerals or in the wake of some great travesty. The present tense participle (οἱ πενθοῦντες) indicates those who mourn habitually or consistently. These are known as mourners because this is a trait that is often demonstrated. In support of our theory that the beatitudes form a zipper-like chiasm, it is worth noting that vv. 4&9 are grammatical mirrors of each other.[7] Here, the connection to Isaiah 61 continues: “To proclaim the year of favor to Yhwh and the day of vengeance to our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Is. 61:2). This connection again proves helpful because it narrows down the context of mourning.

Jesus does not congratulate any and all who weep, mourn, and grieve, but those who mourn over sin and its disastrous effects. The context of Isaiah points to those who have already confessed and repented and who are now receiving the comfort of Yhwh. Jesus is using the same idea here. Those who mourn are those who are broken by their sin and weep over it. Not only their sin, but the wickedness of the world around them. They are those who grieve the constant opposition and rebellion of the world against the God of creation. They are not comfortable with sin in themselves or others; it grieves them deeply. These are congratulated because it is they who will be comforted.

Again, Jesus uses the causal ὅτι to explain His pronouncement of blessing. The mourning are congratulated not because they mourn, but because they will receive comfort. Here Jesus switches to the future tense (παρακληθήσονται) to express the eschatological nature of this comfort. If the reason they mourn is due to sin in themselves and the world around them, then there will be no comfort so long as sin reigns. It is also significant that the verb is passive in voice. They are not congratulated for the ability to comfort themselves, but for the promise that one day a third party (God) will provide comfort for them. This comfort will only come when the King brings His kingdom from heaven to earth and reigns in perfect righteousness. There is hope for those who mourn. The comforter will bring comfort.

Those who are Controlled will Inherit the Country

Blessed are the meek, because they will inherit the land.

There has been much discussion regarding these meek or gentle. There is no doubt that the Greek πραϋς indicates one who is lowly, at least in his own eyes, but is that all there is to it? This term has a lexical connection with πτωχός (poor) and is often used to translate the same Hebrew ענו (afflicted) as in Is. 61:1. Because of this, some suggest a sense of powerlessness, and thus an inability to respond negatively to oppression and persecution (Ps. 147:6, 149:4; Job 24:4; 36:15; Zeph. 3:12; Is. 26:6).[8] Yet this sense of powerlessness falls short in various passages where humility and lowliness are seen from the perspective of strength rather than weakness (Num.12:3; Zech. 9:9). It is therefore incorrect to say that πραϋς describes the powerless or helpless. Meekness and gentleness cannot be equated to weakness. There is nothing effeminate or limp-wristed about this term. This adjective is only used 4x in the New Testament and two of them are used to describe Jesus (Matt. 11:29; 21:5). The noun πραϋτης is slightly more frequent in the New Testament (11x). It is mentioned as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23), the chief characteristic of restoration (Gal. 6:1), the set attitude toward other believers (Eph. 4:2), of believers, (Col. 3:12), and is exhorted as a guide to correction (2 Tim. 2:25; Tit. 3:2). While stressing humility, this does not spell weakness. Rather than a spineless person ready to bow before any breeze, this quality reveals a submissiveness under provocation, the willingness to suffer rather than inflict injury.[9] While all three of these initial beatitudes stress humility in the sight of God, this character trait differs slightly as it can be exhibited from a position of strength: those who could assert themselves but choose not to.[10]

Rather than taking up their cause, they do not respond. They do not insist upon their own rights and privileges but wait for the Lord to bring justice. This is clearly the idea in Ps. 37:11, the Old Testament reference for this beatitude: “But the humble [עמו/πραϋς] will inherit the land and will delight themselves in abundant prosperity”. This psalm constantly compares the wicked to the humble, righteous, and blameless. The exhortation of the psalm is for the righteous to wait upon Yhwh (vv. 7, 34), trust upon Yhwh (vv. 3, 5) so that they will inherit the land (vv. 9, 11, 22, 29, 34). The psalm exhorts patience and faithfulness while the humble trust Yhwh to remove the wicked and establish them in the land. They are blessed, not because they patiently endure, but because of what they will one day receive: the land.

While most English New Testaments translated γῆν as “the earth”, the LXX of Psalm 37 uses the same terms to translate what is obviously meant to indicate the Promised Land. As such, it is difficult to understand why Jesus would quote verbatim Ps. 37:11 with a different meaning. If He intended to widen the meaning beyond the land of Israel, it would have been helpful to change the terms used. The future indicative κληρονομήσουσιν (will inherit) again points to an eschatological reality of the future kingdom when the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is finally occupied and ruled by a Davidic king; namely, Jesus Christ. The meek are not congratulated because of their meekness, but because their self-control is not in vain. They have no need to fight for their place in this world because their citizenship is in heaven’s kingdom. Their inheritance will be enjoyed when the kingdom from heaven invades earth.

The tie that binds these first three beatitudes is humility. Each pronouncement of blessing looks at those who understand their place before God. The poor in spirit are contrite, those who are destitute and thus depend wholly upon God. Those who mourn are conscience-stricken, broken over sin. And the meek are those who control themselves as they await the Lord’s justice and their inheritance. These are not separate groups of people. All three of these (and the five to follow) describe genuine disciples, those who follow Jesus alone. These are to be offered the heartiest of congratulations indeed. These, the humble, are certainly blessed.

[1] Perhaps an English rendering could be: the Contrite, the Conscience-stricken, the Controlled, and those who Crave righteousness.

[2] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 269.

[3] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), p. 155.

[4] It is impossible to partially fulfill anything. Either there is fulfillment or there is something lacking. If there is something lacking (partial) then there is not a fulfillment. This term is an oxymoron and should be struck from all theological discussions.

[5] Likewise, this term is an oxymoron. Usually used in reference to the kingdom, it is used to describe a kingdom state that has already been inaugurated but has not yet been consummated. In what realm is it possible to have a kingdom that is inaugurated (begun) but not consummated (established)? The phrase implies that something is lacking. If there is something lacking, then something less than a kingdom is present. A kingdom that is not established is a kingdom that exists in theory only and lacks any connection to reality.

[6] After forty days of instruction concerning the kingdom (v. 3) the apostles understood that the kingdom had not arrived and thus asked if Jesus would now restore the kingdom to Israel (v. 6). If the kingdom never came during Jesus’ first advent, then it is impossible to make this statement suggest that the kingdom had already arrived.

[7] David Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 150-1.

[8] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 201-2.

[9] Hendriksen, p. 271-2.

[10] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 98.

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