What are the Beatitudes?

The word beatitude comes from a Latin word meaning “happiness” or “bliss,” translating the Greek word μακάριος. The following verses (5:3-12) form an introduction to the whole Sermon on the Mount.  “Happy is the one who is….” is the form, this is a very basic instruction on how to have a happy successful life. The earliest macarisms (“blessed are”) in Greek literature is from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (480–83), “Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries” (Collins, ABD 1:629). The idea of each of these statements is as opportunity or chance to be happy. As Scot McKnight says, get this word right, the rest falls into place; get it wrong, the whole thing falls apart” (Sermon on the Mount, 32).Matthew 5:6, Beatitutes, Latin

The noun אַשְׁרֵי (ʾašrê) is normally translated “blessed” (Psalm 1:1). It is the normal introduction to a blessing. Pennington associates the state of being blessed with the biblical concept of shalom (Sermon on the Mount, 44). Shalom is usually translated “peace,” but like many important Hebrew words, it is difficult to translate the word with just one word. It really has to do with functioning exactly as God intended. Prior to the fall, the world was in a state of shalom, peace. But the world implies everything was God intended. Perhaps shalom as the sense of “just right.” Scot McKnight suggests the character of God blesses the one who pursues wisdom. This blessing is always tangible, a “flourishing life rooted in common sense, hard work, and listening to one’s elders” (32).

The combination of “blessed and cursed” is common in Hebrew wisdom literature and may help unpack what this state of blessedness is.  Psalm 1 for example begins with “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…” and contrasts the blessed person with the wicked. The prophets often pronounce a “woe” on their listeners, a kind of anti-beatitude. The cursed is a state of being “not as God designed.” So the wicked described in Psalm 1 are living outside of the way God intended for them and are therefore living is a state of cursed-ness as opposed to blessed-ness.

To illustrate this, the beatitudes in Luke 6:17-26 have four “blessed are” statements matched by four “woe to you” statements. Blessed are the poor, but cursed are the rich. Where are the woes in the Sermon on the Mount? In Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus pronounces a series of woes on the towns which rejected the preaching of the disciples when they were sent out two-by-two. Matthew also has collection of woe-sayings targeting the Pharisees (Matt 23). Since that is a long speech which transitions into the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24-25), Matthew may have intentionally separated the blessing from cursing as he wrote his gospel.

One way to define “blessed” in this context is to think of the sayings as describing how people can flourish and live a successful life. Jonathan Pennington recently defined “blessed” as “human flourishing.”  He says “a macarism is a pronouncement based on observation, that a certain way of being in the world produces human flourishing” (Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount, 42). To illustrate, consider 1 Kings 10:8. The Queen of Sheba praises (blesses) Solomon using the word, “Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!” In this context, Solomon’s servants flourish because they are in Solomon’s presence. They are not rewarded with this flourishing, it is simply the result of the fact they are in Solomon’s presence.

In these sayings, Jesus defines the kingdom of God as living out the life of wisdom and obedience to the Law. The Sermon on the Mount goes well beyond the “letter of the Law” to describe the life of the follower of Jesus. But these are not commandments, Jesus does not say “be poor in spirit if you want to get blessed.” He says those who are poor in spirit are in a state of blessedness.

This is a radical way of looking at these sayings since most modern readers what to read them as commands and preach a sermon on “Twelve Steps to being Poor in Spirit.” These are not promises to the meek that (someday) they will inherit the kingdom if they are meek enough. On the contrary, Jesus is telling his disciples that their meekness, poverty, and even their state of persecution means they are already in a state of shalom, the kind of happiness that comes from being exactly where God intends you to be.

How does this way of looking at the Beatitudes reverse popular teaching and preaching? Do the “blessed are…” sayings describe “human flourishing” in the same way the present day church does? As we enter into to the Sermon on the Mount, how will this way of thinking change our view of Jesus’s teaching?



Bibliography: Raymond F. Collins, “Beatitudes,” in ABD 1:629-631; Hans Deiter Betz, “The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3–12)” in Essays on the Sermon on the Mount (Tr. L. L. Welborn; Philadelphia: 1985), 17-36;  Betz, The Sermon on the Mount, (Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995); Robert Guelch, The Sermon on the Mount, 62-118; C. M. Tuckett, “The Beatitudes: A Source-Critical Study. With a Reply by M. D. Goulder” in The Synoptic Problem and Q: Selected Studies from Novum Testamentum (Ed. David E. Orton; Brill Readers in Biblical Studies 4; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 180-203; Jason Kuo, “Beatitudes,” Lexham Bible Dictionary.

26 thoughts on “What are the Beatitudes?

  1. Happiness is the key to a successful and uplifting life. Without happiness you will not the truth and beauty the world brings. Happiness opens your eyes to the reality of life and the beauty that comes along with it, evil tries to hide the beauty of God’s truth and creation from you. Shalom is translated to the word, peace. Peace is a quality from God that shows His divine love and mercy that he bestows on us. Prior before the fall, the world was in perfect peace. A world that contained no evil and complete harmony. God blesses the ones who seek Him and desires to pursue his wisdom and seek who His true character is. A Bible verse that shows blessedness, “Blessed is the man who walks out in the counsel of the wicked.” Walking in wickedness means walking in way that God did not intended his Children to walk and because of that are living a life of cursed-ness. Being blessed is not all based on what you receive, but sometimes it is based on being in someone’s presence. Someone’s presence can be a blessing to you, uplifting you towards a positive environment or attitude. Blessing you with uplifting and spiritual talk rather than gossip. Jesus wants us to live a life that is full of wisdom and obedience. Our peace is not defined by what we have on earth but rather expecting where God put us in life right now and what we are doing in the exact moment He calls us to spread His light and love. Our peace and happiness is find in the One True King and nothing can take the peace that he puts inside us away. As we seek Him daily we are revealed more and more of who He is.

    • miranda this is very uplifting, in that it is a reminder in who God is and who we are.

  2. Is it popular to teach that we should be “poor in spirit”? I haven’t heard it preached that way before, but I could see how someone would see it that way.

    I’m looking forward to this series! My wife and I are reading it through together and this first installment was excellent!

    • On the next post I have a link to the Billy Graham organization, they explain “poor in spirit” as humility, etc. Can’t get much more “popular preaching” than Billy Graham!

  3. Our happiness in life is very important. If we are living an unhappy life, we will be thinking what is the point of life. God brings happiness into our lives, giving us a reason to live. There is so much in this world that God has created that is beautiful and if we are not happy, we will not see the beauty in life. One thing that stands in the way of Gods beauty is evil. Before the fall, God created a beautiful and sin free place. Since the fall, we have to have God in our lives in order to see Gods true creation. If we choose to follow God, He will bless us and bring joy and true happiness. When it talks about the “blessed and the cursed” and how blessed is the “man who walks with the cursed.” I feel like that is our duty, to walk with those who are cursed. We are to be shining the light of Christ in the dark places of this earth. It also mentions how the poor are blessed and the rich are cursed. What does it mean to be poor in spirit? I believe that as long as we are living our life for God and tithing to the church God will bless us. In Mark 12,the story of the poor woman who tithes everything she has and God continues to bless her. She gave more than any other rich man who put a large amount of money in the pot. God will bless us and give us a happy live when we follow Him and have Him in our lives.

    • Good post Maddie I also believe that happiness in life is very important and I also believe God brings happiness to our lives and is giving us a reason to live all the things I do in life I am very thankful to have the opportunity and chance to be able to accomplish because of God I also like where you mention if as long as we are living our life fo God and attending church God will bless us

      • God does bring happiness to our lives, and his existence is all around us. I believe that most of us don’t think about how our natural surroundings were actually created by God but instead we just go about our daily lives. As Christians and people who do follow God it is our duty to walk with those who don’t believe in hopes of them also following pursuit. To be poor in spirit for me would just have to correlate with not fully following Gods will, so technically we are all poor in spirit for the fact that we all sin daily. But with that being said being poor in spirit shouldn’t discourage us because our sins wash away and the pursuit to follow God should always be their.

    • Thank you for this post Maddie! It was very uplifting and eye-opening when you said, “There is so much in this world tat God has created that is beautiful and if we are not happy, we will not see the beauty in life.” It is not unusual or uncommon that we let evil get in the way of God’s beauty. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven…”. We encounter evil quite a bit in today’s world, but it is important that we still follow God and not fall into the ways of the world.

  4. Brian S Chesebro Jr

    If I could pick a particular set of verses/chapter in the bible to do a specific set of teachings to a church or youth group Mathew would be my go to book in the Bible. With the Beatitudes, being the core part in Mathew, they set the stage for understanding certain teachings of Jesus. When Jesus opens up every verse in this particular section, by saying “Blessed are” Jesus is revealing how when Christians follow these verses, He is giving us an outlet into how we should live our lives following after Him. Mathew 5:6,”Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” If we truly thirst for Gods word, then we will be satisfied. I think this verse is super important in the Beatitudes, for it serves a purpose of being “commands from God.” Just like in this article, It states, that “This is a radical way of looking at these sayings, since most modern readers what to read them as commands…” They essential are. They act as stepping stones to become satisfied in the Spirit. Basically if we could add another verse to these series of verses and say “Blessed are those who live out these verses, for you will be the best servant ever.” Obviously that was made up however, it seems like that is what these beatitudes boil down too. They are essentially something that we should keep in mind when experiencing difficult times. To remind ourselves that we are truly “blessed.” The popular teachings today sometimes skip over the fact that we truly are blessed, and these just are a stepping stone to get to becoming blessed. The only way that I can think of this changing the way we think of Jesus’s teachings is that when we focus on the beatitudes as stepping’s stones to live righteously, it’ll add more authority to these teachings as in, Jesus’s teachings are real, and this is how to experience them fully.

    • If the beatitudes are read in this way, it would lead the reader to think that the way the modern-day church describes “human flourishing” is completely wrong. Even people that grow up in the church and were force fed Bible verses alongside their ABCs don’t think there is anything wrong with saying “Yeah, I’m struggling financially right now.”. But if Luke 6:20 is to be believed then, the poor are blessed. Now as McKnight addresses there is some speculation as to if this is “spiritualized” or in an actual economic sense but still both points work. They both work because either way this “is a reversal of cultural values” (McKnight 39). What would seem like human success on earth is not always success in the Lord’s eyes and I believe that this is one of the main points that Jesus is attempting to illustrate to the listeners. A lot of what Jesus did was to come and tell the people that they were misunderstanding a few main points and would turn the culture on its head with the realities that He taught. Even today we tend to miss the points or skip over these passages that conflict with our culture.

  5. blessed are those who are the nobodies. the Beattitudes are a list of just that the least of these. Jesus through out all of his work chooses those who are the most unlikely. he grabs are attention and make us ask the question are we the least of these? are we going to make it? how should we live in response? the Beattitudes are just that, a new way to view the people of God. the ones he chose. blessed are, isn’t to point out the lesser people but rather Jesus is saying look at these who have had nothing but struggle every which way they have turned and yet they still believe. the poor in spirit, the meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, the persecuted. the least of these aren’t weak, they are the people of God and in the end they will be. these people have been rejected and left behind by society, yet God, has accepted and chosen them. the world sees them as hopeless, but God, sees them as blessed. in return we are to love God, love ourselves, and love others, in that order.

  6. We as humans are constantly in the pursuit of happiness, and this view on the Beatitudes and happiness as a whole may be contrary to popular views. A typical view on happiness can include points such as wealth, status, and our material things, but God gives us the happiness, or inner contentment that we seek. From our reading in McKnight, what stood out to me regarding the “blessed are” statements is that the Beatitudes are not about feeling Good, but about feeling good, and we reach this state through our relationship with God and has everything to do with how we love God, ourselves, and others (Mcknight, pg. 51). I had never seen the Beatitudes or our description of “human flourishing” described in this way, and as we see later in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:33 reminds us to seek God first, and everything that we need in life will be provided to us as we seek him. Growing in our relationship with Christ, others and ourselves will help us to achieve this human flourishing through God, and McKnight goes deeper to say that there are three kinds of people who are blessed: those who are humble and poor, pursue righteousness and justice, and who create peace (McKnight, 51). So, although the present day church regards those as blessed that consistently read their Bible, preach well, evangelize, exercise spiritual gifts, and many other points, but Jesus blesses those who love the Lord, are faithful, humble, and exercise peace. Lastly, as we enter further into the Sermon on the Mount, we should look at Jesus’ teaching as guidelines on how to build our relationship with God and grow as Christians rather than how to exactly become blessed.

  7. Happiness is a key part of life it is an importance to be happy while we are living. God has blessed with this life and it is a blessing to have this life and be able to accomplish what I have done so far. In the sermon of the mount, it explains 5 major themes that work with the word blessed the first one is who is blessed is blessed by the God of Israel then there is the eschatological focus in the word blessed and it focuses on the beatitudes because Jesus focusing on the future blessings. The third theme is conditionally which based on specific attributes. These are not supposed to be directed at certain ethical attributes. The fourth theme is a person’s relational disposition and the fifth and final theme is the contrast. A blessed person is a person who is blessed because of the heart they have for God. Again the key part of life is to be happy and that has to be done with having faith with us and with that spreading the word of God with others is also key important part because were are the blessed ones and have the opportunity to do so and help others that are poor in spirit or help others who are in need or seeking help.

  8. Being genuinely happy and happiness itself is a necessity, as it can be viewed as the purpose of our life. As humans we are naturally emotional beings.It is fair to say that we all want to happy, but sometimes trying to find that happiness can be difficult. Finding happiness may sometimes be a process that never ends. “Once the center is pleasure or feeling good that center becomes a source of unending demand for more and more” (McKnight, 2013, pg. 50). Being happy might not have anything to do with the emotions or state that we are in life, but instead be have everything to do with whether we love God, love our self, or whether we love others.

  9. Reading through the Beatitudes again I was struck by many things. However, what I was struck by the most was that the things that the Beatitudes list are not things we would at first consider blessings. Being mournful and poor in spirit don’t exactly sound like spiritual blessings or what a good and loving God would’ve intended His beloved creation to experience. However, McKnight states that the Beatitudes “counter patterns imbibed from the culture of the imperial world” which is why the blessings of the Beatitudes sound so strange to us (31). Our world’s idea of a good life is often paired with happiness, laughter, and success on all sides. However, God is telling us that those who are reliant on God are the ones who will be blessed instead of the ones who are reliant on themselves. Though we don’t immediately think that weeping and mourning are blessings, we have the blessing of knowing that in the end we will be comforted and that we will laugh instead of feel sorrow. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should seek to receive the blessing of God by making ourselves mournful, but that “those who are [mournful] are in a state of blessedness” (Phillip Long). That in itself is an incredible blessing, knowing that we are being blessed when we feel like God is the furthest away from us.

  10. It is not surprising that in an age where the prosperity gospel is quickly accepted that there are many sermons on the beatitudes that are looking at them from a skewed point of view. As was mentioned in the blog post, the lesson on the Beatitudes is Jesus showing the disciples that when they are in the midst of their struggles that they are also blessed- even in those moments that are seen from a human point of view as painful or undesirable. I think that a lot of times the church today treats the Beatitudes like a checklist to happiness where Christians try to make themselves lower or poorer (in an easy way of course) to attain this happiness and blessing the Beatitudes speak of…or to simply avoid the curse of not following God. Where did the modern church get so far from the mark of this passage’s true translation? McKnight would probably say that it was the lack of an English word that captures the idea of the original Greek word “Makarios” that changes the way we read the passage of the Beatitudes (McKnight, pg. 32, 2013). While the word “blessed” is the English word that has been used to translate “Makarios” it is insufficient. Makarios tells the Greek reader so much more about what Jesus is saying. It can refer to “happiness”, it “begins now”, it is based on “conditionality”, and it is “blessed by the God of Israel” (McKnight, pg. 32-33, 2013). Our simple English word “blessed” leaves out so much of the context and true meaning of what Jesus is trying to show the disciples. McKnight would argue that our lack of understanding of this word changes the entire meaning of the passage as we read it from an English translation. Knowing the context of the language from which the beatitudes were written helps me to understand the Beatitudes in a much more truthful way. I was one of those people who wanted to become more “poor in spirit” or follow through with the other Beatitudes to gain a blessing while also following God (Matthew 5:3). But this is not what it seems Jesus intended after all. I am not sure if it is only because of the lack of translation in this passage that modern church is so far off the trail of what the Beatitudes are really saying, I think that it also goes deeper into our culture than simply the language. This was a good reminder that our initial perspectives and perceptions are not always the correct ones, and that we should dig deeper into what we learn from others, especially when it comes to God’s word.

  11. As you said Dr. Long, the word beatitude comes from a Latin word meaning “happiness” or “bliss.” So, taking a look at what happiness means in the church today or amongst Christians today, it looks differently than how God views happiness or bliss. For example, in verse 3 of Matthew 5, it says: “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (ESV). In today’s culture the term “poor” refers to someone’s economic status in society, while in this verse God is talking about a “spiritual state” (BL 302, 2018). In the church today, it is preached that being “happy” means you’re well off, that you’re not struggling. When Christians look at another Christian that is economically stable or seems to have their mental health in order, we immediately view that person in a positive light as though they are doing right by God because they’re doing so well. We think, “that person has it good! They must be following the Law,” but as we see in the beatitudes, it is not that simple and just because someone is not struggling, does not mean they’re perfect Christians. In the case of Matthew 5:3, God is saying that it will not be the rich that will inherit the kingdom of God, but the poor. Another example to look at would be Matthew 5:4 it says: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (ESV). God is saying not to be ashamed of our grief and sadness because we are blessed and He will turn that into comfort and joy. God defines happiness or bliss as not having it all figured out, but struggling and still finding the joy in life and still having faith in Him. It is easy to have faith when you’re not struggling, but those who struggle and still have faith in the Lord, those are the blessed and the truly happy, according to God.

  12. “Beatitudes in Luke pronounce not only blessings on the poor and oppressed but woes against the rich and self-sufficient” (Strauss 811). This is a great introduction and beginning to the question previously asking. This way of thinking I feel is both backed up as well as reversed by popular teaching. It all depends on what you count as “popular teaching.” This could be like the Instagram famous pastors that are all talking and trying to make people feel good not tell them how it is. Blessings do not come to those who are self-sufficient and live for themselves. This way of thinking leads into the Beatitudes because clearly part of Jesus’ teachings were the Beatitudes. This way of thinking and human flourishing will change the way we view His teaching because it will in some ways skew us from what he is really meaning and intending for us to know. The points about happiness really draw to my attention because they’re so true. If we live a life full of joy and happiness it draws away the beauty and serenity of creation itself. If we are not filled with joy we constantly will be looking down on everything which will only bring down others in our lives.

  13. It explained it as “Beatitudes in Luke pronounce not only blessings on the poor and oppressed but woes against the rich and self-sufficient” (Strauss 811). This way of thinking I feel is both backed up as well as reversed by popular teaching. It all depends on what you consider as “popular view or teaching.” for example, it could be like the false pastors who always ask for money in return for blessing or a “special blessing” or always put some sort of need over the actual feelings and actually caring for the people of the church. In a sense they are all talking and trying to make people feel good or tell them what they want to hear. Grace, love, and blessings as well do not come to those who are for self and only consider how this will benefit themselves. This way of thinking leads to the Beatitudes because part of Jesus’ teachings were the Beatitudes. This way of thinking and human flourishing will change the way we view His teaching because it will in some ways skew us from what he is really meaning and intending for us to know. The aspect of happiness came to my attention because it is factual. If we live a life full of love, grace, and happiness it creates a better place around us. If we are not filled with it then we will feel or even portray many negative aspects like more sinning, crime, adultery, and other sinful acts, and then that cycle repeats because if it goes on for so long then that will be the norm at some point.

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