The Roman Colosseum was a wonder of ancient engineering. In this massive structure, as many as 55,000 spectators attended gladiatorial contests, mock sea battles, animal hunts, and dramatic presentations. How such spectacles were created wouldn’t have been obvious to the average observer, who didn’t know the building’s design but saw only what took place on the immense arena floor. It all would have been impossible without the hypogeum—the “underground.” This vast network of passageways, cells, and ramps beneath the arena housed the wild animals, props, and army of slaves necessary to create the sights and sounds enjoyed by the Roman populace.
Sometimes, the best way to understand an object or concept—whether it’s grand like the Colosseum or as diminutive as a butterfly’s wing—is to step back and explore it as a whole. At the same time, studying at close range to see how the intricate parts work together can also yield much fruit. That is certainly true of the Beatitudes found in Matthew’s Gospel. To understand what’s really being said through this list of blessings introducing the Sermon on the Mount, we must look to the structure.
A Wide-Angle Lens
At the end of chapter four, Matthew tells us that Jesus was “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness” (Matt. 4:23). In 9:35, the same phrase is repeated. But this repetition is no mere case of lazy writing. Rather, Matthew’s summary statements are like bookends that help his readers know how to understand the chapters in between.
The Sermon on the Mount offers an example of the teaching mentioned in Matthew 4 and 9, and the miracles of chapters 8 and 9 give a glimpse into Jesus’ healing ministry. The healing accounts declare loudly that God’s coming kingdom will have no brokenness, oppression, sadness, or loss. And the Beatitudes’ ethics are a proclamation of God’s kingdom—of how things should and will be because it is already breaking into our world.
Each of the beatitudes has two parts—a pronouncement of blessing and a reason for that blessing. But notice that the first and last reasons are the same: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3, 10). By opening and closing the list this way, Jesus is telling His disciples that all of these blessings, from the first to the last, are of the kingdom. Mourning, gentleness, and peacemaking, for example, are blessed ways of life only if God’s kingdom is indeed coming. So, too, Jesus’ promises have weight only in a kingdom where He reigns.
But there’s something else that distinguishes the first and last beatitudes from the rest. While the others are all future tense—“they shall be comforted . . . they shall inherit the earth . . . they shall be satisfied” (vv. 4-6, emphasis added)—the first and last beatitudes are in the present tense. They read, “Theirs isthe kingdom of God” (vv. 3-10, emphasis added). Here, Jesus is saying something that is hinted at throughout the Gospels: God’s kingdom is already here, and it also hasn’t yet arrived. (See Matt. 12:28; Luke 11:2.) That’s why He can proclaim the blessing here and now while also speaking about the blessings of a future kingdom. It’s the reason why those who mourn, those who make peace, and those who face persecution are blessed: The kingdom of heaven has begun to invade earth. Yet there is still a time for mourning, a need for peacemaking, and the threat of persecution because the kingdom has not yet come in its fullness.
A Panoramic Shot
Finally, to truly understand the impact of the Beatitudes, as well as the entire Sermon on the Mount, we must look to the beginning and the end of the scene. Doing so allows us to view two extreme ends simultaneously and gain a new perspective.
The scene opens with Jesus sitting down on a mountainside to instruct His disciples (Matt. 5:1-2). A parallel account makes it clear that the teaching is directed toward the 12 (Luke 6:20); however, it is “the crowds [who are] amazed at [Jesus’] teaching” (7:28). It seems that as the Lord taught His followers, those on the fringes were listening in and marveling at what they heard. As we have already seen, the kingdom of God described by Jesus is both already here and not yet come. Jesus taught His disciples, those “already here.” But it is those “not yet come”—the crowds—who are most impacted by His words.
This is the nature of the kingdom. As we who love Jesus live in its light, we may look strange to observers. But those who live out the Beatitudes and the ethics of Jesus’ sermon—those who are merciful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and those who are pure in heart—speak hope to a world in desperate need of it. It’s the challenge and the promise of these short, powerful statements of Jesus, words that have the power to change the course of history.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Just as those who are materially poor have little to offer monetarily, people who are poor in spirit stand before God with open hands, wholly dependent upon Him.
These are the ones with nothing to recommend them but their own spiritual rags, and yet God has given them His abundant kingdom. In truth, we are all spiritually naked, without even those rags to call our own. But for everyone who recognizes his great need, Jesus declares God’s overwhelming provision both here and in eternity.
Kate was given a little orange Bible while walking through the midway of the Kentucky State Fair. And it was with her the next day, buried among packs of cigarettes, keys, and wads of small bills, when she went to work at a dingy strip club. She transferred it from purse to purse, even as she continued the daily disgrace of being objectified, pimped, and humiliated. She didn’t know any other life. But she read that Bible and wondered if Jesus could ever forgive the things she had done.
This is what it means to be poor in spirit. Those who can be described in this way recognize their need and long for redemption.
Almost 20 years passed. And then Jesus walked into her strip club.
Not Jesus in shining glory, but Jesus in an ordinary, friendly face. To be precise, in the person of a handful of missionary ladies who began visiting backstage on a regular basis. Not long after that, Kate put her trust in Jesus and left the club. Now she works to help get other ladies out, too.
You see, it isn’t about our circumstances; it’s about our hearts. It’s about having been softened enough by the hardships of life and the grace of God to know how desperate we are. It’s about knowing that there’s no difference between “us” and “them,” that someone on the streets or behind bars or working as an exotic dancer is no more and no less in need of God’s mercy than we are. It means knowing that in our “wealth,” we are still poor and sharing the grace we’ve received.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
At one time or another, we all grieve the loss of loved ones and missed opportunities. The mourning that Jesus calls “blessed” includes these pains but is not limited to them. After all, the brokenness of this world extends deep into our souls. The people Jesus calls “blessed” deeply mourn both their personal sins and those of the world. It is what prompted Jeremiah to cry out over the apostasy of Israel, and the tax collector to say, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” (Luke 18:13). Such mourning is necessary for repentance and eternal life in the presence of the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3).
“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.”
The Greek word praüs has been translated as “meek” and “humble” as well as “gentle,” but none of these words fully embodies what Jesus is describing. Biblical scholar W. E. Vine says that meekness is what allows us to wait on the Lord and “accept His dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting,” just as Jesus did on the cross. Remember, He could have called down legions of angels to prevent His death, but the Savior “did not open His mouth” (Isa. 53:7). In this beatitude, Jesus might seem to be calling His followers to a life that appears both foolish and misguided, but those who live this way are blessed because God fights for them (Ex. 14:14; Deut. 20:4).
“So, have you been speaking with your father?” Funmi asks as we get to the register, frozen pizza and ice cream in hand. I knot up inside at the shift in conversation. My father left the country years ago, and communication between us is scarce. “Honestly,” I say, as I lay our purchases on the conveyor belt, “I have a hard time doing that.”
We are no strangers to probing conversations. Funmi has shared her own experiences. And—careful to keep everyone’s details confidential—she’s invited me into her joys and heartaches as a “house mom” in a transient home for women coming out of prostitution. I’ve heard the exhaustion in her voice as she told me about a lady who returned to the streets. And I’ve watched her dimples deepening her smile as she shared the story of bringing her new puppy to the house.
She’s also been open about her own troubled relationship with her father, yet always speaks with grace and acceptance. So these kinds of discussions aren’t new—but they’re not necessarily welcome, either.
“I just . . . He’s different. I don’t know him. And I can’t have a relationship with this stranger.” My words sound sharp in my ears.
We smile at the cashier, pay, and Funmi holds her silence. Once we leave the store, she speaks. “Yeah. You’re right. You can’t have a relationship with a stranger,” she says softly, the warm air shuffling our plastic bags. “But until you accept that this is who your father is now—you gotta let go of who he was before, and of who you think he should be—until you do that, you won’t have a relationship with him.”
Her words are heavy with understanding. She doesn’t resort to user-friendly phrases people blurt out—the everything-will-work-outs that are like a distant call while you drown alone. Funmi is too sincere for those. And in this moment, when she could have said empty generic words, she goes deeper.
But sincerity isn’t the trait in Funmi that shakes me. It’s her humble kindness—which extends even to my father, and ultimately to me, addressing what I might never get to on my own. Hers is a tenderness that comes close, sees through the bitterness, wades into the hurt, and sits there with you.
How fortunate the women she works with are—to be able to call her “mom,” and be themselves around her as she beams gentleness and compassion. And if Funmi, and people like her, will one day inherit the earth—well, I’m okay with that.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied”
A feeling of emptiness hovers over the first three beatitudes. As we look within, we empty ourselves of spiritual pride, mourn our neediness, and offer our battles up to God. But all that emptying leads us to hunger and thirst for righteousness.
We all know what it feels like to be taken advantage of, but to hunger and thirst for righteousness goes beyond grumbling against the darkness. Jesus is talking about craving justice above all else—the kind of desire that doesn’t merely look to the sins of others but gazes inward, at the heart. Though our world is cracked and bent toward injustice, Jesus promises to satisfy those who hunger and thirst, because God, through His kingdom, is bringing perfect righteousness to our world.
The English language contains at least 250,000 distinct words. Each exists within a certain context, its meaning conditioned by where it is said and by whom. That is particularly true of the beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6 NIV). When Jesus spoke these words, they conveyed something quite different than they do today.
The hunger Jesus spoke of could not be satisfied with a mid-morning snack; the thirst was more than an iced drink could quench. Hence, this beatitude issues a challenge. In effect it asks, “How much do you yearn for God’s agenda? Do you want it as much as a starving man craves food or one dying of thirst wants water?”
Several years ago, I was traveling to Thailand. Seated beside me was a man named Sukhen from Bangladesh. His joy was infectious and his story, compelling. Unlike the vast majority of young people in his city, Sukhen had received an excellent education. Gainfully employed and happily married, he and his wife became volunteer leaders of the children’s ministry at their church.
But living comfortably in a country where many millions of children live in abject poverty became unbearable. “Survival is all anyone thinks about,” Sukhen told me. “No one thinks about the next generation.” Yet Sukhen and his wife began to dream about just that—raising up thousands of Christ followers among Bangladesh’s children.
As I listened to Sukhen’s story, Jesus’ words took on flesh, and I began to see what it meant to have an unsatisfied craving for what is right and good. I was shaken to my core as Sukhen explained how, in 1997, he and his wife quit their jobs, sold everything, and lived for two years underneath a stairwell, tirelessly devoting all of their resources to this dream. Today, their organization needs 60 full-time employees to handle the work. All of this came about because of two people’s insatiable craving for God’s agenda. And true to Jesus’ promise, they have indeed been filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
Because there’s no limit to God’s mercy—no sin too great to forgive, no debt too large to pardon—there should be no limit to ours. Yet such largesse never begins with us. As John Piper says, “Mercy comes from mercy. Our mercy to each other comes from God’s mercy to us.” Those who have experienced such great leniency stand ready and willing to pardon others and are blessed for it. A life marked by this kind of radical forgiveness reveals a heart that loves God and seeks to please Him.
Not long ago, several news outlets carried the story of a man named Balal, an Iranian convict sentenced to death for the murder of 18-year-old Abdollah Hosseinzadeh. According to the local laws, Balal’s execution was to be carried out with the help of Abdollah’s family.
But things didn’t go as planned. Marched before the angry crowd, Balal was made to stand on a chair, and a noose was wrapped around his neck. But then, Abdollah’s mother walked forward. She slapped Balal, with tears streaming down her face, and then she removed the noose. Effectively, in a legal sense, she pardoned him of his crime. She showed radical mercy.
But mercy has a mundane, everyday quality, too. And in fact, this everyday mercy may be just as urgently needed in our world as the kind that seems superhuman.
Proverbs 19:11 says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense. ”
Now, instead of applying that verse in the grand scale, let’s imagine it in ordinary circumstances: the drink spilled at the dinner table, the insensitive comment from a co-worker, the presumptive demands of our children or our spouse. It’s “glory to overlook an offense,” and it’s a kind of everyday, mundane mercy, too.
How might it change the climate of our homes and workplaces if, more often than not, we just let go of our offenses? How might it change our relationships if we’re known to be a constant source of mercy instead of anger, and kindness instead of retribution?
It’s not simply something we need to do begrudgingly; it’s truly a better way. We’re “blessed” to be merciful. By trusting Jesus’ words, we’re invited to discover how mercy is a truly better way to live.
The grand gestures matter: The gospel itself is the grandest gesture of mercy in history. But the smaller efforts at mercy matter, too—because they, in their own small way reflect the mercy we’ve found in Jesus.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see good.”
Jesus once compared the Pharisees to whitewashed tombs, which are beautiful on the outside but full of death inside (Matt. 23:27). The Pharisees focused their attention on signs of outward purity—hand washing, ritual baths, and strict rules for the Sabbath—but God wants us to have pure hearts that overflow into pure lives. And He promises us there will come a day when we who love Jesus stand before the Lord with pure hearts and see Him face to face (Rev. 22:4).
I have run, many times, from the love and law of God. Worse, I told myself it was He who had gone missing. “Where are You?” I would pray, though I was the one hiding. The state of our heart governs whether we hear His voice in our lives or see His face in creation. Purity of heart. That’s an almost inconceivable concept in this world we’ve made. Who sees, anymore, through pure-hearted eyes?
I cannot help but think of my three-year-old daughter on her deathbed, no longer able to speak because of the tumor mashing into her brain stem. But in a rare moment of lucidity and painlessness, she pointed toward the ceiling, followed something with her hand, and looked to her mother and me as if urging us to appreciate what she saw there.
I remember being struck by the peacefulness in her face, after she’d endured weeks of pain and confusion. It was as if she had come through her suffering to a place beyond fear, beyond hurt. I don’t know what she saw; I know only that she wanted her parents to understand it. I suppose she still does.
Will we see it? Will we let ourselves be weak enough, simple enough, faith-filled enough, to gain a glimpse of what children like her see so clearly? Do we have the courage to embrace a child’s faith, to believe in a God who controls all, provides all? I pray we get there. I pray we all get there.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Jesus has in view here those who concern themselves not only with the peace of this world, but also with the serenity that comes from knowing Him. He isn’t giving instructions on salvation but instead says peacemakers will be called what they already are—sons and daughters of the King. “Because [we] are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts” (Gal. 4:6). That means His peace is ours. We must then lay down grievances and pettiness and extend this great gift to others. That’s what allows us to pray for those who persecute us and to “be at peace with all men” whenever possible (Rom. 12:18).
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Cultivating qualities described in the first three beatitudes leads to the hunger and thirst described in the fourth (Matt. 3-6). And in a similar way, application of beatitudes 5, 6, and 7 leads to the persecution found in the eighth (vv. 7-10). As we look outside of ourselves to offer mercy, live in purity, and make peace, the world will often reject us, just as it rejected Christ.
The promise for those who are persecuted is the same as that given to those who are poor in spirit: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Though these words are spoken early in Jesus’ ministry, He can look ahead to the day when He will be tortured, spat upon, and crowned with thorns, the day when the world He came to redeem will crucify Him. He will endure it all “for the joy set before Him” (Heb. 12:2), and with this promise, He sets joy before His followers, too.
In the dank cell, the once powerful Chinese evangelist Wang Ming-Dao renounced his faith in Jesus. He could no longer bear the persecution and pain Mao Zedong’s revolutionaries had inflicted on him and those he loved. After he was released, the Peter-like guilt of denying the Lord racked Ming-Dao’s conscience. He publicly reaffirmed his faith in Christ, causing his re-arrest. In the ensuing 16 years he spent in that prison, Ming-Dao did not languish. He flourished. As he sang hymns and psalms, his devotion blossomed; its scent attracted even prison guards, prompting them to learn more about the God of hope. God’s power was demonstrated in Wang Ming-Dao, not despite persecution but through it.
We mustn’t think of persecution as something that happens only to others; we’re to endure it—and two glorious blessings will follow. First, persecution forges our Christian witness. Paul wrote that his chains encouraged others to be bolder evangelists (Phil. 1:12-14). Is that not surprising, and even strange? Paul’s chains were intended to discourage evangelism, yet sharing the good news is precisely what God used them to accomplish. How surprisingly glorious it is that suffering spreads the gospel.
Though we aren’t all called to be martyrs, we are called to experience some measure of pain because of our faith. And that suffering brings the second blessing that I believe Wang Ming-Dao and so many others before and since have enjoyed—that we are never closer to Jesus than when in pain for His name’s sake.