Jesus begins His sermon with the promise of blessing that will come to people who have certain character traits or virtues that He identifies. What does it actually mean to be blessed? Christians and non-Christians alike often say, “God bless you!” or “Bless you!” when someone sneezes. Politicians often close important political speeches with this benediction, or one like it: “God bless you and God bless the United States of America.”
But what does it actually mean to be blessed by God? When we pronounce a blessing on someone’s sneeze, does it mean we’re wishing for good health for them? Are we saying something like: “I hope that sneeze doesn’t turn into something worse, so, God bless you.”? Is God’s blessing a reference to financial prosperity, so we’re saying something like, “I hope God prospers you and this country economically, which will bring you security and comfort.”?
Health and wealth can be great blessings from God. The Wisdom Literature of the Bible speaks of God’s blessing in terms of health and wealth. When we look at Jesus’ ministry, God’s blessing certainly comes in the form of health as He heals people of their diseases. This is what Jesus was doing before He preached the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew writes,
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and affliction. (Mat 4:23)
Jesus was announcing that God’s kingdom—His rule—had arrived there and then when he began His ministry. He was healing people as proof, to validate that His message was true—that the Kingdom of God had actually arrived, that God really was in control.
Imagine that you had been there to hear his message and to witness his healings: You saw the lame walking, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, and the mute talking. Or, even more powerfully, imagine that you had been one of the people whom Jesus had healed? After you had witnessed the spectacular healings or been healed yourself, what would you have done next? You would probably have done what the crowds of people who did witnessed these things did: They surrounded Jesus wondering, “What’s He going to do and say next?”
What Jesus says after He had performed powerful, supernatural healings, seems a bit out of place. He pronounces eight blessings that will come to those who enter the Kingdom of God by following Him. These blessings are called The Beatitudes.
So, who are the blessed ones according to Jesus? Are they the courageous, the wise, the temperate, or the just? No. Well then, are they agreeable, the funny, the intelligent, the sensitive, or the attractive and fit? Not according to Jesus. According to Jesus, those who are poor, sad, lowly, hungry, and even mistreated are the blessed ones. Welcome to Jesus’ narrow-gate theology! Welcome to the teaching that separates the “crowds,” who want health and wealth, from the “disciples,” who are willing to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus. (Mat 5:1; 16:24) Jesus does not extend God’s welcome to people like “the few, the proud, the Marines.” Instead, He extends His welcome to the few, the humble—those who follow Him.
So, let’s dig in, beginning at Matthew 5:1).
Seeing the crowds, he went up on a mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:1-3)
So, Jesus opens the gateway to God’s blessing by teaching that we will be blessed by God if we are “poor in spirit.” In other words, if you are poor in Spirit, you KNOW that there is nothing in you—not family ties, not a good reputation in the community, not your occupation, not even so-called “good works” or personal “holiness”—nothing that has the power to gain you entrance into the Kingdom of God. We bring nothing to the game that can reconcile us to God so that we can enter His kingdom. We could put it this way: You are blessed when you see yourself as a BEGGAR coming to the door of the kingdom without anything to give to get you in, and so you appeal to the King to give you the GRACE and MERCY necessary to get you in.
The second blessing that Jesus describes is related to the first one.
Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)
When Jesus pronounced God’s blessing upon those who mourn, He was not referring to the mourning we experience because of the difficulties and losses of life. He is referring primarily to the mourning that comes to citizens of the kingdom because of the effects of sin upon this world and upon our own lives. When we realize how poor we are spiritually, we have a profound sorrow because of it. We could say it like this: You are blessed when you MOURN over your own sins, the sins of others, and the sins that pervade our world. You are blessed because you know that Jesus PROMISES to comfort those who mourn in this way.
The good news about God is that He too mourns over the sin and injustices in our world. A Day of Judgment is coming when He will bring justice for every single wrong that has been done. But before that day, God’s response was to send Jesus, who said,
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)
The comfort for those who mourn about their spiritual poverty comes from God’s promise of eternal life to those who believe. The promise is that everyone who believes will have eternal life. Not only that, but Jesus promised abundant life in this life. “The Thief does not come except to steal, kill and destroy; I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) We are blessed when we mourn over sin because God promises to comfort those who mourn. We are comforted by the promise of abundant life and eternal life. We are comforted because we know that sin does not win the day. Jesus has come to save the world.
Hughes, R. Kent, and Douglas Sean ODonnell. Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth. Crossway Books, 2013.