Beatitudes” is one of the most loved portions of the Gospel. It forms the beginning of what has come to be known as the “Sermon on the Mount” which is recorded in Matthew 5-7. The preaching of this sermon may have come a little later in the chronology of the life of Christ; but Matthew placed it here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry because it forms such a grand proclamation of the kingdom. It is the first of the five major discourses that Matthew includes.
We first need to fill in what Matthew has included between this passage and the last one we studied. Matthew followed the account of the temptation of Jesus with a brief note that Jesus began to preach a message of repentance because the kingdom of heaven was near (4:12-17). In order to reach a wider audience, He moved from Nazareth to the city of Capernaum, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, but more importantly, on the main highway through the land. His declaration of beatitudes would come, but not until He called for repentance.
Matthew then reported the calling of the first disciples, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, who were fishing (4:18-20). Jesus promised to make them fishers of men, for He was beginning to build His kingdom. He then called James and John, also fishermen, who were mending nets in their boat (4:21-22). The authority of the king to call people to follow Him is clearly portrayed by these events.
Then Matthew reports the popular success of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (4:23-25). He went throughout the region proclaiming the message of the kingdom, and authenticating His claims by healing people. Throngs of people responded to His ministry from as far away as Jerusalem.
So that brings us to the present lesson, from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus saw the crowds coming to Him, so He went up on a mountainside and sat down, the well-known posture of the teacher. The traditional location of this “mount” is the low hills behind the region of Capernaum and the other fishing villages on the shore. His disciples came to Him, and so Jesus began to teach them. And what follows is the material of Jesus’ teaching.
This is the first and longest message of Jesus that we have in the gospel. Jesus had been announcing that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, and He had been calling for people to repent. Now, in what has been described as the manifesto of His kingdom, Jesus unveils the foundations and character of life in that kingdom. Here He teaches the ethical guidelines for life in His kingdom; and the guidelines point to the quality of righteousness that characterizes life in the kingdom, now in part, but fully in the future.
The discourse was intended for the nation of Israel, the crowds who had been flocking to Jesus. But it was delivered immediately to the disciples. Jesus here considered His disciples the “true Israel” (the spiritual Israel) which is already present and beginning life in the kingdom; and He considered the crowds the “Israel” of the future, the Israel that is hoped for, who should repent and follow the king. Or to put it another way, Jesus spoke to all the people of the true will of God, the righteousness that they must all exhibit if they repent and enter His kingdom, but which the disciples had already begun to perform. So the entire sermon is directed to all. And its theme is the righteousness that is the standard of his kingdom.
So in some ways this sermon will tell people just how righteous they must be to enter the kingdom, and what that righteous life should look like for citizens of the kingdom. But it does not include the details of how this righteousness may be attained.
The sermon begins with the beatitudes. These qualities give a picture of the character of the true people of God, those who are a part of his kingdom and have the full blessings of the kingdom to look forward to. Taken together they give the picture of the perfect disciple of Christ who is the heir of the promises. Jesus does not here tell people how to become like this; that will come in subsequent teachings.
One of the most convincing descriptions of the meaning of the beatitudes at the beginning of this sermon is that they are planned echoes of Isaiah 61:1-3, a passage which is certainly eschatalogical3_ftn3 in its orientation. Matthew constantly shows how Jesus came in the light of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and so this one would fit as well. So as we study the passage we will have to look at Isaiah’s prediction of what the Messiah and the Messianic kingdom will be like.
The Beatitudes are a little different to study than ordinary story-passages. Each saying is proverb-like. Cryptic, precise, and full of meaning. Each one includes a topic that forms a major biblical theme. So you could spend a lot of time on each one--and that would be worth doing if you so desired. But we will make this a brief, introductory Bible study on the passage, and leave more to be done later.