Like most people my age, I grew up reading the Beatitudes–those “Blessed Sayings” of Matthew 5:1-12–as a set of rules. I was taught that this is how you knew someone was “good” and would make it to heaven. You see, I was a product of a works righteousness upbringing. But I’ve since learned that there is a better way to read the Beatitudes.
First, we need to consider the Beatitudes in their original setting, how the first hearers would have heard them. According to Matthew’s arrangement of the ministry of Jesus, Jesus is seen going through a series of events prior to delivering the Sermon on the Mount, where the Beatitudes lead the way. (1) He is baptized by John. (2) He is tempted by the Devil. (3) He begins his ministry in Capernaum, announcing, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (4) He calls his first disciples. (5) He goes on an itinerant ministry teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people (4:23-25). And this brings us to Matthew 5:1.
Second, we must now consider the nature of Jesus teaching and preaching and healing ministry. Jesus was all about the kingdom of God. According to Luke’s account, when the people try to detain him in their town, Jesus says to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (4:43).
Everything that Jesus did was kingdom-oriented. His parables are stories about kingdom life. His healings are signposts of what life would like again when the kingdom is fully here. When Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world–to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). Following his resurrection, Luke tells us that Jesus spent another forty days with his disciples, speaking to them about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).
Now back to the Beatitudes.
The Beatitudes describe what life under the rule of Christ, in a loving and submissive relationship, looks like. It is what life looks like in a subversive kingdom, a kingdom not of this world.
So next time you read the Beatitudes, read them not as a set of rules that only “the most righteous” among us model and are sure to enter heaven. But read them as what life looks like under the rule of Christ, in a loving and submissive relationship. And about that question of how a person is able to live this good life of the Beatitudes, here we go: by coming under the rule of Christ through repentance and faith in him, a person is regenerated, thus receiving new passions and affections, to do God’s will, in the power of the Holy Spirit.