A Kingdom of Blessing

ISAAC MCPHEE
MATTHEW 5:1-11

What does it mean to be blessed?

That is one of several important questions we should be asking when we read the opening section of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”. These nine blessings (“beatitudes”) are among the most famous of Jesus’ sayings, and there is something satisfyingly simple about them. But have we really understood them?

Let’s look a little closer, and ask some questions that will help us understand them more clearly. In particular, we need to ask two important questions: What was Jesus actually teaching about? And who was He teaching it to?

First, we cannot forget that the subject that underlies this entire sermon – and particularly these first verses – is the “arrival of the Kingdom.” Jesus’ message is summarized in the previous chapter: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (4:17). Jesus is calling people to something radical and new.

This is important. Jesus isn’t merely giving us wise words or trying to get us to change our lives “just because.” He isn’t trying to convince us to be “better.” He’s inviting us to become citizens in a new Kingdom altogether; to live under the rule and reign of a new King. The Sermon on the Mount is given in service of Jesus’ Kingdom announcement: This is the new law of life in Jesus’ “New Covenant” Kingdom.

What happens to these first eleven verses when we understand them in this context?
For one, Jesus is telling the people to live in a way that is specifically contrary to the worldly kingdom around them. Jesus’ original audience is important here. Remember, he isn’t speaking to the elite of Judean society; He isn’t speaking to the rulers or authorities in the palace or the temple. Who is coming to hear Jesus? It is fishermen; the sick and the oppressed; the forgotten from the regions around Galilee and the Decapolis (4:23-25). It is the outcasts of society.

The reality that these people were poor, they were mourning, they were persecuted make Jesus’ statements much more meaningful. He is saying to these people – “It is you who are poor – not those who are worldly rich – who will inherit my Kingdom. And while there are some who live in comfort now, those of you who are mourning now will receive true comfort.”

So, to repeat the question that began this post: What does it mean to be blessed?

In the Bible, to be blessed is to be favored by God. One who is blessed is looked on kindly by God; he is helped by God; he is given gifts by God and, in the end, is rewarded (Deut. 28:6; Ps. 1:1; Prov. 3:1).

When Jesus announces the blessing of God from a hilltop in Galilee, He’s actually saying something somewhat strange. He is saying that, despite what you see in your own life – despite your poverty, your mourning, your persecution, your meekness - you are being favored by God. Though you have no place in and no share of the kingdoms of this world, you do have an inheritance in a true and lasting kingdom. The kingdoms of this world will pass away, and those who have been rich and comfortable and “blessed” in this age will lose it all.

You may have little (or much) in common with Jesus’ original audience. You may be quite wealthy, you may be comfortable, and you may have every advantage in life – but the Beatitudes should continue to speak to you. Do you cling to the blessings of this life, or are you longing to receive the true blessings that come from above? Are you holding on to your wealth or your comfort now? Do you value your citizenship on earth over the greater and lasting citizenship that has been promised to you?

This is the primary task of the Beatitudes. Jesus isn’t telling those who are comfortable that it would be best if they start mourning. Nor is he saying those who are free from persecution should seek it out. He’s saying that the blessings of his kingdom far outweigh any blessings of this world, and as his followers we ought to seek God’s blessings over and above what the world offers. Because only His blessings are handed down from a truly good and righteous king.

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