The Beatitudes

Life_in_Tension_web“Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 2:11-12 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Beatitudes appear in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel immediately after Jesus calls his disciples [1]. In Matthew, we are given the impression that this is an early point in Jesus’ public ministry because chapter 4 occurs right after Jesus’ baptism and starts with his temptation in desert. Furthermore, Jesus’ teaching in chapter 4 sounds a bit like John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17 ESV) Only three verses summarize Jesus’ ministry after calling the disciples (Matt 4:23-25) [2]. In Luke, our impression is a later point in Jesus’ ministry because Jesus’ life is threatened after he heals a man with a withered man on the Sabbath (Luke 6:7-11). In either case, the Beatitudes appear as a special sermon in a commissioning service for his disciples. The disciples’ call to follow Jesus is a call to share in his life of ministry. Jesus tells them: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matt 4:19 ESV)

Sharing in Jesus’ life is, however, is also to share in his suffering.

This message is clear both from the content of the Beatitudes, but also in the content of Jesus’ life. From the point of conception and birth, Jesus’ life is threatened. Divine intervention is required twice to keep his family together and to escape from the murderous King Herod (Matt 1:18-25; 2:1-13). In ministry, Jesus is baptized by John who is himself arrested and later beheaded (Matt 4:12; 14:10). Summarizing this point, Bonhoeffer (1995, 89) writes: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” In so many words, the disciples are being commissioned in the Beatitudes to take up a life and ministry characterized by tension. We know that the disciples got this point because 10 of the 11 faithful disciples died a martyr’s death (Fox and Chadwick 2001, 10).

The Beatitudes take their name from the Latin translation, beati, of the Greek word, makarios (μακάριος), which Jesus repeats 9 times. It means “humans privileged recipient of divine favor”. It can also mean: “favored, blessed, fortunate, happy, privileged” (BDAG 4675, 2, 2a) In the Bible, repetition always implies emphasis. Twice is emphasis; 3 times is highly emphatic; 9 times is seriously emphatic and unprecedented—a string of pearls [3].  Reinforcing these repetitions, Matthew pictures Jesus as the new Moses issuing law on a mountain, while Luke cites both blessings and curses (woes) patterned after the law itself in Deuteronomy 28.

Jesus’ repeated use of the Greek word, Makarios, is hardly an accident. In the Greek Old Testament, Makarios appears in the first verse of Psalm 1:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2 ESV)

This is a clear call to holiness as defined in God’s law.  It also appears to 2 significant Messianic texts: Psalm 2 and Isaiah 30. The immediate context of Psalm 2, cited above, calls on the faithful to serve the king while he is in good humor, but begins with an ominous warning: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” (Psalm 2:1 ESV) Clearly, not everyone is excited to see the King! Immediately after the cite in Isaiah 30, God makes an interesting promise for those that wait for him: “And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher.” (Isaiah 30:20 ESV) The Hebrew word for teacher has a second meaning—early rain [4]. In a dry region like Israel, early rain is itself a blessing. Both citations speak of tension—Psalm 2 refers to political tension and Isaiah 30 refers to adversity and affliction.  By contrast, Psalm 1 pictures integration (the opposite of tension) with ourselves, with others, and with God through obedience to God’s law [5].

In commissioning the disciples, Jesus gives them more than your typical pep talk to sales associates; he redefined what honor means (Neyrey 1998, 164). In the extreme case, he re-framed dishonor in the world as honorable in his eyes. Jesus said:

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:11-12 ESV)

In other words, heavenly rewards follow from earthly persecution. And, oh, by the way, you are not the first to be persecuted.


[1] The calling of the disciples occurs in Luke 6:13-16 and Matthew 4:18-22. The Beatitudes follow in Luke 6:20-26 and Matthew 5:3-12.

[2] Guelich (1984,42) describes these three verses as a summary of Jesus’ ministry explained in more detail in the Gospel of Mark.

[3]  The term, a string of pearls, refers to Ben Azzai, a second century Rabbi (Stangler and Tverberg 2009, 43).

[4] ( מוֹרֶיךָ (Isa 30:20 WTT)).

[5] Elliott (2006, 90) observes that “the morality of the emotion is determined by its object.” If the object of our love is God, then we are not only blessed but also morally righteous in the Hebrew mindset.


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

Fox, John and Harold J. Chadwick. 2001. The New Foxes’ Book of Martyrs (Orig Pub 1563). Gainsville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Spangler, Ann and Lois Tverberg. 2009.  Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus:  How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

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