In our last post we began looking at the Sermon on the Mount and the “good life” that starts with listening to Jesus. We noted that this sermon communicates wisdom, not qualifications for getting into heaven. It doesn’t describe criteria that must be met to receive favor/blessing from God; it describes the condition of those who maintain a singular focus of believing loyalty to God and His Messiah. Their character and conduct display God’s favor; it does not invoke or “attract” it. Translators often use the English word “blessed” to introduce the 9 beatitudes. In light of biblical and non-biblical literature and the use of the original Greek word in the cultural context of first-century Israel, a more fitting English word might be “flourishing” instead of blessed.
An Introduction to the Beatitudes
After Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, John the Baptist was arrested and Jesus left Nazareth to live in Capernaum. Jesus carries on John the Baptist’s preaching: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”” (Matt 4:17; cf. Matt 3:1-2). Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount is a depiction of God’s already-not-yet kingdom and its unique culture and economy. It is a correction to the misunderstandings and misapplications of Old Testament Law; exposing false teaching and its teachers. The key idea that makes the Sermon hang together is that of “wholeness,” “completeness,” or “singular-devotion.”1Pennington, J. T., The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary ( Baker Academic, 2018), 80. It is an invitation to human flourishing and wholeness.
The people who respond to Jesus’s invitation are “blessed;” they are honorable and “in a state of human flourishing,” as God intended from the very beginning. They possess the kingdom of heaven and they inherit the earth. The mourners are comforted and the hungry are satisfied. They receive mercy, they see God, they are called the sons of God. Though persecuted, their joy is complete and their heavenly reward is great. And all these blessings belong together. This is what the enjoyment of God’s rule means.
Flourishing Are the Poor in Spirit (v.3)
Last week, a client at the rehab center I work at asked whether his upbringing in a culture of poverty, crime, and substance abuse placed him at a disadvantage; essentially “setting him up” to become an addict. He assumed that neighborhoods that were safer and had more access to community resources and money were less prone to addiction. But the reality is that addiction is not prejudiced; humans are all wired for addiction. Not because of brain chemistry or genetic defect, but because our sinful nature is insatiable and enslaving… and we are powerless to subdue, let alone overcome it. Many think that money and privilege provide an advantage to people, but in God’s economy, money and privilege actually place you at greater risk of corruption and ruin. Instead, humble dependence upon God results in human flourishing.
What Jesus is commending here is completely counter cultural. Watch the Olympics and you’ll hear commentators talking about the “power of the human spirit” to overcome hardship and injustices, and that such and such athlete has a dogged and dominating spirit – or Matthew might write that they are “rich in spirit.” A.W. Pink said that it is in our nature to be well-pleased with ourselves. We think that we are “good” people, and if we’re really honest, we think we’re better than many other people. The world system admires and praises people who are “rich in spirit.”
You have to be self-sufficient and advocate for yourself in this world because no one else will. You have to promote yourself; prove your worth by flaunting your skill. The world system throws all kinds of time, money, advertising, accolades, and endorsements at people who are full of passion, boldness, skill, and charisma. That isn’t just an American problem; it’s been that way forever. “In an ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman setting of honor and shame, the poor in spirit are in low places in society.”2Pennington, 156. Listen to the rebuke that Jesus gives the church in Laodicea: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Self-satisfied and superficial, the church was full of blind and naked beggars. But the tragedy was they would not admit it. They were rich, not poor, in spirit.3Stott, John, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture (InterVarsity Presss, 1985), 40.
Being humble and “poor in spirit” is a distinctly Christian virtue. It is self-emptying and self-abasing; thinking of others as more important than yourself (Phil 2:4). If you’re paying attention to the words I’m using, you might be catching on that Jesus did not just preach this stuff, He lived it out! Philippians 2 says that Jesus emptied Himself and took the position of a slave. He was born in human poverty and raised in obscurity. He humbled Himself in obedience to God, though it cost Him His very life.
This sounds awful, but Jesus says and shows us that this is what flourishing is all about… the life that He models is “life abundantly.” This isn’t some twisted “feeding on suffering” like a masochist, or sitting in humiliation as a public spectacle or object of pity. Jesus shows us that “human flourishing is now found amid suffering in the time of waiting for God to bring His just reign from heaven to earth.”4Pennington, 158.
The theme of God’s reign and human flourishing are organically intertwined; embodied in Jesus Christ and available to all who are united to Christ by faith.5Pennington, 102.
Flourishing Are Those Who Mourn (v.4)
Understandably so, being poor in spirit in the midst of suffering, rejection, powerlessness, mockery, and actual poverty is going to result in mourning. Again, the desirable thing here is not the poverty and the mourning, but the assurance of citizenship in God’s kingdom that is accompanied by comfort from God Himself. The things that make us a reproach and a burden to others, the things we are so quick to avoid ourselves, are the very things that position us for a deep and lasting fulfillment – a wholeness and satisfaction; a way of living in this world that results in human flourishing.
Among Jews, mourning was not always associated with death. It expressed brokenness of spirit for sin, individual and national. They had mourning rites (ceremonial practices) that were expressive of great grief… This was far removed from mourning as an inner feeling or a mood of the mind. It was not just an involuntary outburst of feeling but rather a deliberate, established ritual. Mourning practices in NT times differed little from those described in the OT.6Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J., “Mourning” in Baker encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2 (Baker Publishing 1988),1500–1501. James speaks of this mourning in a spiritual manner (James 4:6-10) and many scholars attest that Jesus was most likely thinking of Isaiah 61:1-3.
It is not merely the sorrow of loss to which Christ refers, but the sorrow of repentance. In the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), the translators used the Greek word “mourn” for the Hebrew word “lament.” A lament is a communal song for expressing grief to God and crying out for help. Laments also express hope in God’s great love and compassion. In the book of Lamentations, it is God’s character that the poet finds comfort in. It isn’t that God is going to fix the suffering or the situation necessarily, but laments teach us to wait within the suffering– not to ignore or escape it, but to endure it with hope in God’s character.7Reflections Podcast: Learning How to Grieve from Lamentations. (n.d.). BibleProject. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://bibleproject.com/podcast/learning-how-to-grieve-from-lamentations/
Jesus says in Matthew 5:4 that citizens of heaven can live in this world of pain and suffering as those who flourish. They are surrounded by others who languish in despair, and those who flit about from one empty pleasure to another, and they share in the same experience of a fallen world, but it is their Godward mourning and lamentation that results in wholeness and holiness. Self-pitying misery and desperate pleas for something to change is not repentance; it is a self-indulgent quest and indignant entitlement to be comfortable, not to be comforted. It may sound cold or insensitive, but such grief reveals an allegiance to self, not to God. They might even be poor, but they’re not poor in spirit; and like the church in Laodicea, they won’t admit it.
Being the “Father of Mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3), the Lord who is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18), God meets us in our brokenness and in our pain. Whether our mourning is physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, or relational… we can know and savor God’s comfort when we acknowledge our dependence upon him, and declare that Jesus is Lord instead of ourselves.
The Good Life and a Godward Orientation
I want to draw your attention to the present tense that Jesus uses in Matthew 5:3 about possessing the kingdom of Heaven, and the future tense of God’s comfort. John Stott writes,
The present tense can function as a future, and the future tense can emphasize certainty, not mere futurity… though the full blessedness (flourishing) of those described in these beatitudes awaits the consummated kingdom (when Jesus Christ returns), they already share in the flourishing as citizens of His inaugurated kingdom.8Stott, 30-37.
Those of us who are united to Jesus Christ by faith can – and should – confidently expect God’s comfort and assurance that we are His children and co-heirs of Christ. Through His abiding presence we enjoy and advance His kingdom, and we will one day soon fully inherit the kingdom of Heaven (Heb 4:16; Rom 8:16-17; Heb 9:15; 1 Pet 1:4). Until then, we mourn because we know things are not as they should be. We rejoice in our weakness and boast in God’s love and justice, His power and grace.
There are such things as Christian tears, and too few of us ever weep them. Jesus wept over the sins of others… We too should weep more over the evil in the world (Psalm 119:136; Phil. 3:18) But it is not only the sins of others, however, which should cause us tears; for we have our own sins to weep over as well. David Brainerd (eighteenth-century missionary to the American Indians), wrote in his journal on 18 October 1740: ‘In my morning devotions my soul was exceedingly melted, and bitterly mourned over my exceeding sinfulness and vileness.’ Tears like this are the holy water which God is said to store in his bottle (Psalm 56:8; Rev. 7:17)
Nothing can touch you that does not touch him [Jesus]. To get to you, every pain, every assault, every disappointment has to go through him. You are shielded by invincible love. Everything that washes into your life, no matter how hard, comes from and through the tender care of the friend of sinners. He himself feels your anguish even more deeply than you do, because you’re one with him; and he mediates everything hard in your life through his love for you, because you’re one with him.9Ortlund, Dane, Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners
Joel serves as a pastor at Emmanuel Community Church, overseeing family ministries. He has degrees in Child Development (Mental Health) and Counseling Psychology and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Joel works part-time at the church and part-time as an addictions counselor and Family Care Coordinator at Bradford Recovery Center (a residential drug and alcohol treatment center). Joel and Gina have been married 11 years and they have five children: Ava (10), Jude (8), Josiah (6), Malachi (5), and Kira (2). He loves being outdoors, playing volleyball and soccer, learning about philosophy and theology, and is a shameless chocoholic.
- 1Pennington, J. T., The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary ( Baker Academic, 2018), 80.
- 2Pennington, 156.
- 3Stott, John, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture (InterVarsity Presss, 1985), 40.
- 4Pennington, 158.
- 5Pennington, 102.
- 6Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J., “Mourning” in Baker encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2 (Baker Publishing 1988),1500–1501.
- 7Reflections Podcast: Learning How to Grieve from Lamentations. (n.d.). BibleProject. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://bibleproject.com/podcast/learning-how-to-grieve-from-lamentations/
- 8Stott, 30-37.
- 9Ortlund, Dane, Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners