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SM #11: The Beatific Way

Updated: Feb 24

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted and defended.

Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely because of me. Be glad for grace and jump for joy, because great is your reward in the heavens, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. ~ JESUS (Matthew 5:3-12)

CORE (The heart of the message):

Before moving beyond the Beatitudes, in this study we are pausing to reflect back over the amazing insights in these simple sayings of Jesus. The Beatitudes are not a prescription on how we must behave to go to heaven, but a description of the free life of citizens of heaven on earth. The Beatitudes show us the Beatific Way: the path of maximum human flourishing, wholeness, and blessing that we can walk hand in hand with Jesus. They simultaneously reveal the Character of Christ AND what the Spirit of Jesus is producing within his Church. In the Beatitudes we see who Jesus is and we see who we are becoming.

CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage):

Jesus is on the Mountain (the place of covenantal revelation) to teach his disciples as citizens of his new nation: the kingdom of the heavens here and now. This is the place of truth-telling and covenant-making, and if we’ve already read to the end of the story, we know that is precisely what Jesus wants to accomplish – the New Covenant (Matthew 26:28; also see Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; etc).

Later in the sermon, when Jesus talks about walking along the straight and narrow way and you, like others, begin to wonder what that straight and narrow path might look like, remember the Beatific Way of the Beatitudes.

To help us zoom out and put this teaching in an even wider context, look at this list of blessings that was popular in first-century Jewish culture. The respected Jewish writing of Sirach, written a couple centuries before Jesus, contains this list:

I will tell you about nine people who are blessed, and a tenth who is especially fortunate:

a man whose children make him proud,

someone who lives to see his enemies fall,

a man fortunate enough to have an cooperative wife,

and who is not mis-matched in his marriage,

a person who never speaks sinfully,

a person who doesn't have to work for someone less competent than himself,

someone who is sensible,

someone who others are happy to listen to,

someone who is wise.

And most of all: someone who fears the Lord.

(Sirach 25:7-10)

In other words:

Blessed are those who have a healthy and happy and successful family.

Blessed are those who can gloat over the failure of their enemies.

Blessed are married people who get along without grief.

Blessed are the morally upright, especially in how they talk.

Blessed are those who have a good job and a good boss, or who are the boss.

Blessed are you when you are popular and people want to pay attention to you.

Blessed are the smart, thoughtful, educated, intelligent, and insightful.

There is nothing wrong with this list. It is a good list. It just isn't the list of Jesus. This helps us see the upside-down nature of Jesus' Beatitudes.

What do you think are some of our culture's popular beatitudes today?

What are some ways you might use the word "blessed" in your own life? I feel blessed because...

CONFESSION (Personal reflection):

I confess that in the past when I have taught on the Sermon on the Mount, I didn’t pay close enough attention to the Beatitudes. I am sorry to say, I struggled to find these eight blessings interesting. I was too excited to move forward into what I perceived to be the more theologically and ethically challenging stuff in the latter half of Matthew chapter 5. The Beatitudes were obviously less theological and more pastoral, and by that I mean they are more focused on encouragement and care than on theological or philosophical revelation. And at that time, encouragement and care was not what my busy little brain was hungry for.

Then everything changed.

After my life blew apart because of my own sin, the Beatitudes became my devotional and emotional home. Out of sheer necessity, I have been reading and understanding with my heart, not just my head. For me it is do or die.

After my sin was initially exposed, my emotional world was so dark, I spent many of my days in bed or sitting in a chair staring at the wall (I still have these days but they are much less frequent). I was in some sort of state of shock, a sin-induced PTSD. I had let myself and others down profoundly and wasn’t sure how to process the pain of that reality. (Which is probably one reason why, up until this point, I had lived in absolute denial for so long.) The pain of even thinking about facing reality was so great that I instead numbed out and blanked over.

Added to this pain was the wave of confusion I began to experience when I couldn’t make sense of how some people reacted to, and attempted to explain, my moral failure. A tornado of truth and lies started swirling around me. I wondered: How and why should I bother to correct the lies when at the centre of it all was the undeniable truth of my own sin? And how does one properly repent of what they are guilty of while simultaneously defending themselves against accusations of what they are not guilty of? And why even bother?

(For those of you who have read it, this emotionally tumultuous situation reminds me of the dilemma of Dmitri in The Brothers Karamazov. Rereading this novel was also helpful to my soul.)

The tornado of confusion was paralyzing. Back I went to sitting and staring.

Nothing made sense. Nothing was secure. Nothing was constant. Nothing was dependable. Nothing was stable. Not me, that’s for sure, and not the world around me. Everything inside me and surrounding me felt like shifting sand.

Then I remembered Jesus’ words about building our house on the solid rock of his teaching.

Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash. ~ JESUS (Matthew 7:24-27)

I had experienced that “mighty crash”, along with all of the public shame and humiliation that comes with being an architect of my own ruined life. And as the months passed, I slowly became ready to begin the work of building up my own psyche again by really listening to and applying the teaching of Jesus from the inside out. Jesus was already the Saviour of my soul, and now his teaching would become the salvation of my sanity.

I surely didn’t get to this point of beginning to heal on my own. God came to me in a vision and spoke to me through a voice. Actually, multiple visions and many voices. These visions and voices had names and faces and were the sisters and brothers and friends and family who gathered close to me to help me see Jesus in the middle of my own despair. And these same saints continue to be the face and voice of Jesus to me in many beautiful ways. (Alongside this astonishingly beautiful “coal fire fellowship”, it was psychotherapy, spiritual direction, some wonderfully helpful books, regular journaling, and accountable friendships that also played, and continue to play, an important role in helping me grow out of denial and into reality.)

In fact, one of the best things in my life has been the close koinonia fellowship that I and my family have experienced in our post-apocalyptic world. I feel terrible that it took an atom bomb of my own design to open me up to this, but I cannot allow my shame to hold me back from giving God glory for the amazingly close connections he has raised out of the ashes.

I still have days that feel like I am moving onward and upward followed suddenly by days that seem to knock the wind out of me all over again. Days I feel like, with God's help, I am climbing out of the pit of despair followed by days when I slide right back down again. I feel like I am living out a game of emotional Snakes & Ladders. But through it all, I cannot deny the work of God bringing good out of bad.

I am witnessing first-hand the implications of Romans 8:28…

And we know that in all things God works together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. ~ The apostle Paul (Romans 8:28)

In this verse, the word “works” (NIV) is the Greek sunergeó, meaning to work together (as I have translated it), to partner together, to cooperate. God is always at work with and through people as his partners to bring good out of all things.

So, in the context of community, I turned to the teachings of Jesus and began to read; more than read, to soak up and saturate my soul with the Sermon on the Mount. And whadaya know – the Beatitudes came alive to me in a way they never had before. I had studied them years earlier with my head; now I was ready to hear them with my heart. And for over a year now, Jesus has been meeting me here in these eight blessings. So much so, I’m already sad to leave them behind in these 1820 studies while we move forward into the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.

My healing journey is just beginning and I'm looking forward to walking hand-in-hand with Jesus for many years to come. What about you? Where are you at in your spiritual life these days? And how has that helped you appreciate the person and voice of Jesus through the Beatitudes?

CONSIDER (Observations about the passage):

Some theologians see a progression of the growing Christian life in the Beatitudes. We begin simply by admitting our spiritual need, we grieve our failure, move forward with gentleness, develop a growing hunger and thirst for our own righteousness, learn to show mercy to others because of the mercy we continue to receive, become increasingly single-minded in our pure pursuit of Jesus, then become peacemakers toward others as we help them learn the gospel and live the gospel, and by that point we become targets for persecution. At the same time, because we have been impacting the lives of others around us with the gospel, our relational rewards also increase – one of the promises of that final Beatitude.

There does seem to be a thematic progression within the Beatitudes, whether or not individual spiritual lives will always follow this pattern. Either way, remember that the reward from “graduating” to the end of the list is the same for starting: citizenship in the kingdom of the heavens. This reward is the bookend of the Beatitudes. The most important thing is not that we finish our spiritual development, but that we start. Those of us who are mature saints of the Church and those of us who are brand spanking new believers just beginning our spiritual growth are all, in one sense, at the same place – in the kingdom.

We are all in this together and we all have lots to learn from and with one another.

COMMENTARY (Thoughts about meaning and application):

When reading the Beatitudes, it is good to avoid two interpretive extremes:

  1. To see them as pronouncements of God’s blessings that we simply and passively accept.

  2. To see them as a kind of spiritual to-do list that we must accomplish in order to achieve God’s blessing.

A more nuanced understanding of the Beatitudes is this: they are pronouncements of God’s blessing already being bestowed (closer to #1 above). And in those pronouncements, they reveal some ways we can partner with and work with, rather than against, God’s Spirit in our lives (seasoned with a dash of #2 above).

For instance, “Blessed are the merciful” or “Blessed are the peacemakers” obviously remind us that we should be merciful peacemakers. Amen.

Yet “Blessed are the persecuted” reminds us that God blesses things about us that may be beyond our control. This last Beatitude doesn’t mean we should make it our goal to become persecuted. It simply comforts us when we do become persecuted. Otherwise, if all the Beatitudes made up a discipleship to-do list, Jesus would be implying here that his disciples must try to get persecuted to make it into heaven, and that’s just silly. Reading the Beatitudes that way would create a movement of religious bullies who badger people in the name of righteousness in order to provoke persecution. When other believers question us or nonbelievers challenge us, we could then claim persecution so we could then feel good about our salvation. (“Yay! It took a lot of bothering, badgering, blaming, and shaming others, but all that pestering finally paid off and now I’ve achieved persecution status!”) Although that does happen far too often (I’ve met those Christians), it is far from how Jesus teaches his kingdom citizens to behave in the Sermon on the Mount.

So it is good to see the Beatitudes as divine blessings, not as behavioural burdens. At the same time, they also reveal what Jesus wants to develop in his disciples – things like humility, gentleness, repentance, mercy, and an active commitment to reconciliation.

This way of reading the Beatitudes is similar to, say, how we read the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). The fruit of the Spirit is not a to-do list, but a description of what we can anticipate the Holy Spirit birthing within us. At the same time, now that we know what the Spirit is up to, we can work with rather than against the wind of the Spirit within us. Now I can make decisions and cultivate attitudes that are in sync with rather than out of sync with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Likewise, the Beatitudes say "this is what God's Spirit wants to do in you" rather than "this is what you have to do if you want God's Spirit."

CONCLUSION (Wrapping up this section of the sermon):

One last thought: When meditating on the Beatitudes we can allow them to show us a portrait of Jesus as well as a portrait of who we are becoming, since it is God’s goal to make us like Jesus (Romans 8:29).

Think of the self-portrait Jesus paints in the Beatitudes…

Jesus emptied himself of all his power and privilege to become poor in spirit (Matthew 20:28; Philippians 2:5-8). Jesus mourned, not over his own sin, but the sin of the world around him (e.g., Luke 19:41). Jesus says his gentleness and humility are compelling reasons we should consider following him (Matthew 11:29). No one hungered and thirsted for right-relationships more than Jesus (e.g., Matthew 23:37). His life was defined by mercy shown to sinners, even to the point of risking reputation and causing religious offense (e.g., Matthew 9:13, 27; 11:4-6, 19; Luke 7:36-50). And Jesus was the ultimate peacemaker, going to the cross to bring peace between God and us (Colossians 1:19-23) and bringing together in friendship disciples who were sworn enemies: tax collectors (working for the Romans) and zealots (eager to fight the Romans) and everyone else in between. Jesus founded a church where Jews (the persecuted) and Romans (the persecutors) learned to live as repentant and reconciled family together (Mark 3:35; Galatians 3:28). And for all of this, Jesus was misunderstood, misjudged, and mistreated. Yet he responded with limitless love and mountains of mercy.

Our world today needs more Jesus.

And that’s where we come in. Conformity to Christ is God’s goal for our lives (Romans 8:29), so people should look at us and see some family resemblance: grace upon grace (John 1:16). Every generation can read the Beatitudes as their guide to restoring and representing a clear vision of Jesus to the world around them. Then hopefully we will avoid the common religious mistakes of promoting justice in place of righteousness (which includes mercy, compassion, and grace), accusing instead of forgiving, dividing instead of peacemaking, and a rich pomposity rather than poverty of spirit.

When we wander off the Beatific Way and promote a grace-deficient faith, we botch the image restoration job we have been given even worse than the 2012 restoration of "Ecce Homo", a fresco of Jesus in Spain that turned into "Monkey Jesus". Let's not do this.

This 2012 restoration of an aging fresco of Jesus in Spain did not go well. What became known as "Monkey Jesus" and "Mr. Jesus Potato Head" still makes me giggle.

The process of discipleship – that is, apprenticeship to Jesus – is the road we walk to become more like Jesus (Matthew 10:24-25; 28:18-20; John 13:12-17). This apprenticeship includes learning the teachings of Jesus, applying his teachings in community, and mutually submitting to fellow sisters and brothers who are on the same journey. [For more on this, see the introduction to this series called “The Sermon on the Mount: An Invitation”.] When we follow Jesus and become more like Jesus, we can be salt and light to the world around us, where Jesus takes the conversation next.

Are you ready to walk that narrow path? The rest of the Sermon on the Mount awaits us.

CONTEMPLATE (Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic):

Matthew 7:13-14; 24-27; Luke 6:17-26; Romans 8:28; Galatians 5:22-23

CONVERSATION (Talk together, learn together, grow together):

  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this passage?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this passage?

  3. Share encouraging examples of times you've experienced or observed one of these Beatitudes in your life or another's.

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?

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Stuart MacMillan
Stuart MacMillan
Apr 30, 2023

Thank you. Needed this reminder this morning. It strikes me that the “blessed life” described by Jesus in the sermon on the mount are all part of this “abundant life” that He promised. I feel like in the words of my Grandpa Preacher… some people are so heavenly bound that theyre no earthly good. In other words… while eternal life is a part of the package… the abundant blessed life in communion with God and community with others during our time on earth should also be a part of our striving and mission


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