The Beatitudes

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Serve 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. 

(Ps 2:11-12)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Beatitudes poetically introduce Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7), which sets priorities, redefines honor among disciples, and commissions his disciples. The sermon offers the lengthiest statement of Jesus’ teaching and the early church cited it more frequently than any other passage in scripture (Guelich (1982, 14). As an introduction, the Beatitudes interpret the Old Testament in ways that surprised his disciples then and continue to surprise us now, suggesting that the Beatitudes deserve careful study.

Gospel Context

In both Matthew and Luke, the Beatitudes appear immediately after Jesus calls his disciples and addresses the disciples, serving as a preamble for the sermon that follows.

The sermon addresses the disciples personally, much like Jesus’ earlier call to ministry—“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matt 4:19). This is not a passive call to be spectators, but an active call for disciples who will share in his suffering, at a time when the arrest and beheading of John (who baptized Jesus) was still fresh in their minds (Matt 4:12; 14:10).

Suffering—extreme tension—is an obvious theme in the sermon both because of John’s recent death and because of the ongoing threats to Jesus’ life that began even before his birth (Matt 1:18-25; 2:1-13). Suffering, we learn in the Beatitudes, is part of being a faithful disciple and we know that the disciples got the message because ten out of the eleven faithful disciples died a martyr’s death (Fox and Chadwick, 2001, 10).

Literary Context

The Beatitudes take their name from the Latin translation (beati) of the Greek word for honor (μακάριος) which means “humans privileged recipients of divine favor” or “favored, blessed, fortunate, happy,  privileged“ (BDAG 4675, 2, 2a). Jesus repeats μακάριος nine times.

The Bible uses repetition for emphasis—twice is emphasis; three times is highly emphatic; and nine times is unprecedented. This emphatic repetition reinforces the sermon’s content. The sermon in Matthew pictures Jesus as the new Moses issuing a new law of grace on a mountain (like Mount Sinai), while in Luke the sermon presents both blessings and curses (woes), a pattern associated with covenantal law (Deut 28). In other words, the literary style and content of the text are both attention-grabbers for a Jewish audience.

Old Testament Context

Jesus’ repeated use of μακάριος in the sermon alludes to Psalm 1 in the  Greek translation (most familiar to first century readers), where it says:

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. (Ps 1:1-2)

Psalm 1 pictures God’s shalom, a call to holiness, and integration (the opposite of tension) within ourselves, with God (through obedience to the law), and with others with an amazing economy of words. Other references to μακάριος speak, not of integration, but of tension, such as political tension (Psalm 2) and affliction (Isaiah 30). In Isaiah 30, for example, God makes an interesting promise to 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. (Isa 30:20)

The teacher here is the Messiah who blesses those who suffer “the bread of adversity and the water of affliction”—a poetic phrase meaning persecution, while the word for teacher (‎מוֹרֶ֔יךָ) also means early rain, a form of blessing in a desert region like Israel.

Commissioning Purpose

In his sermon, Jesus redefines the meaning of honor, an important, but neglected, translation of μακάριος (Neyrey 1998, 164). If Jesus had wanted to convey the idea of blessed—the usual translation of μακάριος, then the more conventional word in Greek would eulogetos (France 2007, 161). Honored is a more appropriate translation  because the ancient world had an honor-shame culture where even a small insult requires an immediate and sometimes deadly response—Jesus forbids such responses. When Jesus taught forgiveness, enemy love, and turning the other cheek, he radically confronted the honor-shame culture, where masters had honor and slaves had mostly shame.

Dishonor in the ancient world Jesus redefined as honor among his disciples. Jesus said:

Honored 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)

In other words, heavenly rewards follow from earthly persecution. In a culture obsessed with glory and honor—especially family honor, the preferred translation for μακάριος here is honor, not blessing. It is more consistent with the rest of Jesus’ sermon and less consistent with the law of Moses with blessings and curses as in Psalm 1.

The Beatitude

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


Continue Reading

Preface to a Life in Tension

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101“Be holy because I am holy 

says the Lord God.”

(Lev 11:44)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When God enters our lives, we change. This change occurs as we increasingly reflect Christ’s divine image in our lives and the Holy Spirit works in our hearts and minds as we behold him (2 Cor 3:16-18). The Apostle Paul calls this process sanctification (Rom 6:19), which means that we accept Christ’s invitation to a lifelong journey to become more holy—sacred and set apart—and the Holy Spirit’s guidance along the way. As Christ’s church—the called out ones, our sanctification is a group activity and, like any activity where individuals  travel at their own pace, tension among believers is expected.


Tension? What tension? Sanctification is necessary because we sin. Sin separates us from other people, from God, and from the person that God created us to be. Sanctification presumably reduces our sin, encourages us to abide in union with God and draws us closer to the person that God created us to be, but it also widens the gap between us and those resisting the Holy Spirit (1 Thess 5:19). Consequently, sin and sanctification can both potentially tense up all three relationships.

Tension comes up daily, as a pastor observes:

Would you drink from a dirty cup? No—of course not. If you were given a dirty cup, you would refuse the cup and ask for another.⁠1

Someone accustomed to clean cups immediately recognizes a dirty one. When we model our lives after Christ, we reveal our identity as Christians; we are set apart from those around us in tension with the world. As conscious image bearers, we naturally begin to share in the tension that exists between God and this world, which implies that how we live and how we die matters to God.

This tension that we feel is a subjective mirror image to three gaps that we can objectively describe. The first gap is within each of us and it describes the distance between our natural selves and the person who God created us to be. This gap can lead to humiliation in the eyes of the world and shame within us, as we realize how far we have fallen from God’s image for us. The second is gap is between us and others and it can lead to isolation, ridicule, and persecution, as we can no longer run with the crowd or accept its norms. The third is the gap between us and God created by sin can lead to feelings of fear, abandonment, and a loss of spiritual power, as we realize what it means to live without God’s presence and blessings.

Can you feel the tension created by these gaps—the shame, the isolation, and the fear? Can you imagine being persecuted for your beliefs? Are you okay with it or do you try to run away? How do we respond creatively to this tension?

Alone with these three gaps, we are lost; but in Christ we are never alone. Christ works in our lives to close these gaps through his reconciling example in life, his atoning work on the cross and his enabling gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables us by grace through faith to participate actively in our own sanctification while experiencing God’s peace in the midst of life’s tensions.

The Beatitudes

Early in his ministry, Jesus preached a sermon, a kind of commissioning service for his disciples. He advised his disciples to be humble, mourn, be meek, chase after righteousness, be merciful, be holy, make peace, be persecuted for the right reasons, and wear persecution as a badge of honor (Matt 5:1–11). Incredibly, in the middle of this sermon and in spite of expected opposition, Jesus says:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 5:14-16)

This parable about light offers two important insights for our understanding of tension. First, this passage makes no sense unless tension exists between darkness and light—light normally drives out darkness. Second, this passage alludes to the creation accounts where we read:

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. . . . And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. (Gen 1:2–4)

Creation involved creating light. The implication is that Christians who embrace tension with the world are participating in a second creation (or re-creation) event (2 Cor 5:17).

Recognizing Christ’s re-creative work in our lives, we participate through the power of the Holy Spirit, not only in our own sanctification, but in the sanctification of others. In other words, progress in reducing one gap in our lives affects the other two. (Nouwen 1975, 15).  Attending to the sin in our lives, for example, makes it easier to get along with others and helps us to be more receptive to the Holy Spirit. Likewise, reducing our gap with God helps us appreciate God’s love for those around us and sensitizes us to the corrupting power of sin in our own lives. In God’s economy is nothing is wasted.

Structure of the Book

In exploring the spiritual dimensions of tension in our lives, I reflect on the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel. The Beatitudes introduce Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and prioritize his teaching. Because the sermon serves as an ordination service for the disciples, the importance of the Beatitudes for the early church, Christian spirituality, and discipleship cannot be overstated.⁠2

The chapters in this book divide into three parts: tension with ourselves (part A), tension with God (part B), and tension with others (part C). Each part contains three of the nine Beatitudes found in Matthew’s Gospel (numbered from one to nine with decimal points identifying particular sections within them).

Four sections appear in each Beatitude. The first section focuses on understanding what Jesus said and how he explained it. The second section examines the Old Testament context for each Beatitude. The third section examines the New Testament context—how did the Apostles respond to and expand on Jesus’ teaching? And the final section applies the Beatitude in a contemporary context and how we should respond. Each reflection is accompanied by a prayer and questions for further study. Soli Deo Gloria.


1 Pastor Anthony K. Bones of African Gospel Church of Nairobi, Kenya ( speaking at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia on January 14, 2015. 2 Guelich (1982, 14) citing Kissinger (1975) reports that: “Matthew 5-7 [appears] more frequently than any other three chapters in the entire Bible in the Ante Nicene [early church] writings”.


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

Kissinger, W.S. 1975. The Sermon on the Mount: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography. ATLA 3. Metuchen: Scarecrow.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


Continue Reading

Blessed are the Meek

Blessed are the Meek

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Luncheon for the Soul, Wednesday, July 13, 2016, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia


Good afternoon. Welcome to Luncheon for the Soul. My name is Stephen Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor from Centreville Presbyterian Church and a Christian author. Today we continue our study of the Beatitudes.

In the Beatitudes, we see that the promises of God are anchored in his unchanging character and we know this because God remains forever meek.


Let’s pray.

Heavenly father. Thank you for your presence among us this morning. We are grateful that your word still moves our hearts and stimulates our minds. Make your presence especially obvious in this moment and in this place. In the power of your Holy Spirit, open our eyes and give us ears to listen. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.


Today’s scripture lesson comes from the Gospel of Matthew 5:5. This is the Third Beatitude and a part of the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. Listen for the word of God.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5 ESV)

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.


A famous confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees begins with a difficult question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matt 22:17) If Jesus answers yes, the Hebrews will be mad at him. If he answers no, he will have legal difficulties with the Romans. This question does not have an obvious answer.

Jesus answers:

“Show me the coin for the tax.  And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, Whose likeness and inscription is this? They said, Caesar’s. Then he said to them, Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt 22:19-21)

In other words, Jesus redefined the question and challenged them to deepen their faith in God—in whose image they were created—and not to focus on political things that they cannot change.

The story of the response of Jesus to the difficult question is an example of a concept known by experts as fogging.[1] Fogging is an answer that responds only to the part of the question that you agree with. In this example, Jesus continues the conversation about taxes but he changes the focus to the coin used to pay the tax. The coin offers an opportunity to give a lesson about God without falling to a political trap and without appearing defensive in front of his opponents.

This last point is important for us because every day we talk with difficult people and fogging is a technique to remain civil during a conflict when it is much easier to become emotional or to feel the stress. It is useful because when we have an appropriate answer to a difficult person, we are not victims; we are not defensive; we are Christians that respect and utilize the wisdom of Christ. It is also an example of how to be meek like Jesus in our everyday life—meek is not weak or as Jesus said:

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5)


The Third Beatitude appears only in Matthew and in the Greek, the language of the Old Testament, meek means: “… Not [being] overly impressed with a sense of self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate” (BDAG 6132). Meek is like the character of a person who applies the concept of “poor in spirit”, which we find in the First Beatitude, and which is shown not less than three times in Matthew:

  1. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt 11:29)
  2. “Say to the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” (Matt 21:5) [2]
  3. “And the high priest stood up and said, Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you? But Jesus remained silent.” (Matt 26:62-63)

These three events—the invitation of Jesus to be disciple, his humble entrance into Jerusalem, and his silence during his trial—demonstrate the humility of Christ. The humility of Christ is also observed in the writings of the Apostles—Peter, James, and Paul.

From all of this evidence, it is obvious that humility is very important to Jesus in the New Testament. But, no one normally wants to be humble—we have to learn to be humble.

Is it possible that God also learned to be humble? (2X)


This curious question over the God changes during the period of the Bible is very important in today’s theological conversations because if God changed during the history of the Bible, then he can change in our time as well.

I will be very brief. Here I will use an argument from the law and the prophets, like Paul and many other rabbis.

Point One: God acts as someone very meek in spite of the sin of Adam and Eve.

In the Books of the Law we see that God looks meek and gentle. For example, in Genesis before “God sent him [Adam and Eve} out from the garden of Eden” (Gen 3:23), “God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen 3:21) like a mother prepares her kids for the first day of school. God had every right to zap them both and create new people, but he did not do that. He did not do that because he had compassion on them and made provision for them, in spite their sins and against his own rights and power. In this context, God appears meek.

Point Two: God is humble like his good friend, Moses.

Here in the Books of the Law, only Moses is described as humble, as we see in the Book of Numbers, where it is written:

“Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (Num 12:3)

But, many times friends share very similar personal characteristics. Consequently, the implication is that probably God is also meek like his very good friend, Moses.

Point Three: The Books of the Prophets describe the Messiah as meek.

The Books of the Prophets are all the books of the Old Testament that are not among the Books of the Law. Here we find that humility is a characteristic expected of the Messiah. The most famous example was cited above in Matthew and comes from the Prophet Zachariah:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9:9)

It is obvious also in the prophets that humility is a characteristic of God reflected in his people, as an important part of his image. For example, we see in the Psalms:

“He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” (Ps 25:9)

And we find in the Psalms our Third Beatitude, in so many words:

“But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” (Ps 37:11)

Therefore, we see in the law as in the prophets that God was meek and he did not need to learn to be meek because he was already meek in creation. This is very good news because the character of God does not change over time and is immutable yesterday, today, and always.

The implication is that, just like the character of God is immutable and does not change, the Bible is also reliable and the promises of God are good forever. Thanks be to God!

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Almighty Good, Beloved Son, Ever-present Spirit, we give praise because you do not change and offer your gracious love and consolation in painful times and times of loss. Cleanse our hearts of evil passions that lead us to sin and lead us to violence against other people. Give us a character that is deep in your wisdom. In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.


[1]  See: Savage (1996, 57-62).

[2] Also: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zec 9:9)


Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v .9.>.

Savage, John. 1996. Listening and Caring Skills: A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Continue Reading

Guelich Carefully Exegetes the Sermon on the Mount, Part 1


Robert Guelich The Sermon on the MountGuelich Carefully Exegetes the Sermon on the Mount, Part 1

Robert A. Guelich. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount:  A Foundation for Understanding.  Dallas:  Word Publishing. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Sermon on the Mount is a surprisingly oblique, but self-contained, section in Matthew’s Gospel spanning from chapter 5 through verse 8:1. In the sermon, Jesus presents a kind of ordination service for the Apostles with crowds in the background looking on. What does he tell them?  What are his priorities? How are we to interpret what is said?


In his commentary, The Sermon on the Mount, Robert  Guelich starts by recognizing the enormity of the task, but lays out his reason for writing with these words:

Yet the absence of an extensive, critical, exegetical commentary in nearly four decades of biblical studies despite the vast literature on the Sermon provides both an opportunity and a need in New Testament (NT) studies (11).

Because NT scholarship is written both in German and English, Guelich’s studies in the U.S., Scotland, and Germany—his doctorate is from the University of Hamburg—suggests he has good preparation to write such a commentary[1].  At the time he wrote, Guelich was a professor of NT at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Literature Review

Guelich’s literature review (14-22) is relatively brief but includes some interesting points.  Citing Kissenger, Guelich notes that in early church (Ante-Nicene) writings chapters 5-7 of Matthew are cited more frequently than any other 3 chapters in the Bible (14).  Augustine was likely the first to use the term, Sermon on the Mount (15).  In his book, Summa, Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between “counsels” and “commandments” (advice versus obligation) placing Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon under “counsels” (15).  Luther preached a series of sermons on the Sermon focused on “polemics against the papists” (16) while Calvin’s primary interest was on Jesus’ interpretation of law (17).  Guelich describes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship as one of the better known treatments of the Sermon which, of course, focused on what disciples should do rather than on theological interpretation [2].


Guelich’s commentary is written in 10 chapters, including:

  1. Introduction (pages 13-40);
  2. The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 4:23-5:2; 41-60);
  3. The Gospel of the Kingdom (Matt 5:3-12; 62-112);
  4. The Role of Discipleships (Matt 5:13-16; 119-131);
  5. Jesus and the Law (Matt 5:17-20; 134-170);
  6. The Greater Righteousness (Matt 5:21-48; 175-265);
  7. On Doing Righteousness (Matt 6:1-18; 272-316);
  8. The Life of Prayer (Matt 6:19-7:12; 321-379);
  9. The Narrow Gate (Matt 7:13-27; 382-411); and
  10. Epilogue (Matt 7:28-29; 414-419).

These chapters are preceded by a brief preface and followed by a bibliography and indices of authors and scriptural passages.  The Beatitudes, which appear in Matthew 5:3-11, are treated primarily in chapter 3.

Let me turn briefly to the questions mentioned above.

What does Jesus tell them?

Guelich (36-39) breaks the sermon into 3 parts:  the Beatitudes, admonitions, and warnings. He sees the Beatitudes serving as a theological introduction expanded on in the admonitions and warnings of Matthew 5:17-7:27. Guelich sees the admonitions ending with the Golden rule in Matthew 7:12.  The warnings then follow in 7:13-27.  Ironically, the Lord’s Prayer appears among the admonitions in Matthew 6 and he sees the prayer providing structure to the remainder of the chapter and the first 12 verses of Matthew 7.

What are Jesus’ priorities?

Jesus is addressing the Apostles to inaugurate his vision for discipleship in the new age of the Kingdom of Heaven, summarized especially in Isaiah 61 (37):

“…the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion…” (Isa 61:1-3 ESV)

These priorities are captured in the Beatitudes.  They are credible, in part, because they appear almost verbatim in Luke 4:17-20 where Jesus gives his “call” sermon.

How are we to interpret what Jesus said?

Guelich describes his interpretation method as “critical, historical” commentary. He writes:

“…this commentary offers a critical exegesis in that it makes use of the literary and historical critical tools include text, source, form, tradition, redaction, and structural criticism”. (23)

Guelich’s skill as an interpreter is reflected in the wide range of critical methods that he employs.  For example, he carefully distinguishes 3 sources in Matthew’s Gospel: Q materials appearing in Matthew and Luke; Matthew’s redaction (things attributable only to Matthew); and other NT sources, such as Mark.  This careful inventory of sources provides Guelich the ability to infer author intent and other things when discussing particular Gospel writers.  He sees the end of the Sermon (Matt 7:28) being borrowed from Mark 1:22 and the prelude to the Sermon (Matt 4:23-5:2) appearing at Mark 1:39 (414-415).  This insight places the Sermon early in Jesus’ ministry.


Robert Guelich’s commentary, The Sermon on the Mount, is one of the most carefully written and interesting commentaries that I have ever read.  In part 2, I will focus in more depth on particular issues that he raises.


[1] Guelich’s BS is from Wheaton College, his MS from the University of Illinois, and S.T.B. is from Fuller Theological Seminary.  He has done post-graduate studies at University of Aberdeen (UK) and the University of Tübingen.

[2] See my review of the Cost of Discipleship at:   Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge:  Following After Christ (

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Ortberg Sharpens and Freshens Jesus

Continue Reading