This week, we conclude our brief examination of the Beatitudes, which describe the sort of people that Jesus considers to be blessed.
Blessed are the merciful (5.7)
Mercy involves offering kindness, good will, and forgiveness to others. This is another reminder of how different the standards of God’s kingdom are from the standards of the world. The world of the first century was a harsh, unforgiving place, and mercy was not always considered to be a virtue, because it involved showing favor to someone who had done nothing to deserve what was being given(1). In some ways, our world is not so different today.
But citizens of God’s kingdom are called to be different. As we look around and see other people who are struggling or suffering in some way, our response as followers of Jesus should be mercy: we are so affected by the sufferings of others that we don’t just feel bad for them; we do what we can to help them (cf. Luke 10.25-37).
Mercy is a characteristic of citizens of God’s kingdom because it is a characteristic of God Himself. God shows kindness to us in the blessings He showers upon us each day, in His desire to have a relationship with us, and His preparation of an eternal home for us. He extends good will to us in that even though we commit sin and separate ourselves from Him, He is always willing to take us back and reestablish the relationship (cf. Luke 15). And God offers us forgiveness for the sins we commit, made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. When we are people of mercy, we imitate God’s own nature.
Blessed are the pure in heart (5.8)
Next, Jesus addresses those who are “pure in heart”. This phrase does not suggest someone who is sinless, but rather, refers to those who act with loyalty, integrity, and from pure motives. Psalm 24 talks about the man with a pure heart being someone who does not devote himself to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. So these are people who are genuine and transparent and do not operate out of deviousness or ulterior motives(2).
Have you ever known people who were supposedly your friend, but your weren’t sure that you could trust them? Or maybe people who did nice things for you, but you weren’t sure you could trust their motives because they might be doing it only to get something in return? This is the opposite of being “pure in heart.”
Jesus calls those who are pure in heart blessed, and said that they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers (5.9)
Jesus says that God’s favor rests upon those who make peace; God cares deeply about peace. “Peace” is something that is talked about a lot, but it is important for us to realize that peace is a word that is used to convey different ideas, and we need to make sure that we have a clear picture of what Jesus is talking about here.
During the time that Jesus lived, the Roman Empire enjoyed the Pax Romana, or, “Roman Peace.” The Pax Romana lasted for several decades, and was a time of stability in the Empire in which there was relative peace and no major wars. This peace was made possible only through brutal military conquest, the forced subjugation of conquered peoples, and the confiscation of their land(3).
This is not the kind of peace that Jesus is talking about; He does not call for His followers to make peace through military might. Furthermore, in the Bible, “peace” is not simply the absence of war; it suggests wholeness and well-being, healthy and just relationships with one another. Related to that, biblical peace—wholeness, justice, healthy relationships—does not come from pretending problems don’t exist. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and He came to make reconciliation with God possible, but He didn’t gloss over the reality of sin; He confronted people with it, and was killed as a result.
Jesus wants His followers to be people who actively work to bring about peace in their relationships and in their communities. We are not to be people who go around trying to stir up strife, but neither are we to pretend that no strife exists. Instead, we should be people who try to get along with others and bring about real reconciliation in situations where people are at disharmony with one another.
Peacemakers are called children of God because they are like God. God’s supreme mission is to bring about reconciliation in the world, and when we act as peacemakers, we engage in that same mission.
Blessed are those who are persecuted (5.10-12)
Sometimes the last two Beatitudes are considered separately, and sometimes they are combined. Because they are so closely related, we will discuss them together. Both say that God’s favor rests upon those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness or who suffer hardship on account of Jesus.
These verses do not indicate that we are to have a persecution complex, always imagining that people are mistreating us. Neither are we to go looking for persecution by behaving in ways that are over the top or offensive. However, if in the course of living as disciples of Jesus (by exhibiting the characteristics we have been talking about), we are persecuted or mistreated, Jesus says that we are blessed in this.
It might seem strange for us to think that simply by living the way Jesus calls us to, that we could face persecution. But it is important to remember that the values of Jesus’ kingdom are completely at odds with the values of the world, and when we seek to live according to kingdom values, it threatens the way the world works. This was true for Jesus, who was ultimately killed by the Jews and Romans who were in power and were threatened by Him, and also for His disciples, many of whom were martyred for their faith.
Honestly, we don’t have a very good understanding of what it means to be persecuted for our faith, because we live in a country that provides us with a great deal of religious freedom. However, in the early days of Christianity, Christians were often cast out of society, beaten, imprisoned, and even killed because of their faith, and this is still the reality for many Christians in the world today.
That is not our experience in the United States, and sometimes, I think we have become too attached to our persecution-free environment. To be clear, I enjoy the religious freedom that I have as a citizen of this country and am not eager for a day when I am persecuted for my faith, but sometimes I feel that Christians can get overly concerned and fearful about the possibility of us losing our religious freedoms and facing persecution. We need to remember that Jesus calls those who suffer for His sake blessed because they will be rewarded in heaven, and that heavenly reward empowers us to endure suffering in the present.
The characteristics that Jesus describes as blessed in the Beatitudes are shocking to us, because these values are so misaligned with the values of our own society. They would have been similarly shocking to Jesus’ original audience. But these values are representative of those who are citizens of God’s kingdom—an alternative community.
- Chris Seidman and Joshua Graves, Heaven on Earth: Realizing the Good Life Now (Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press, 2012), 64.
- Larry Chouinard, Matthew, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO, College Press, 1997), 99.
- Warren Carter, “Power and Identities: The Contexts of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount,“ in Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines, ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), 21.