Let's Study the Beatitudes! Part 1, Introduction
Some passages of Scripture are better known than others. How can they not be? The Lord’s Prayer is recited across the landscape of Christendom along with the Twenty-third Psalm and the Ten Commandments. But there are others. In fact, it’s interesting how the popular conception of a passage can leave a scar on the psyche for years! Who can forget the book called The Be Happy Attitudes? I’ve never read it but the title is emblazoned on my mind! It’s like when someone hums a song out of tune and then you can’t get the corruption out of your head. But I digress.
The Beatitudes are another well-known and well-worn passage among Christians. It should be. It has that gravitas. It has that ability to summarize a good deal of Christian teaching in a very small nucleus of words. It was spoken to be remembered. And on Theology for Everyone we are going to take a look at those Beatitudes. We are going to unpack them and their meaning for the Christian life. However, before we do, I want us to get the lay of the land. I want to give you a guided tour through some obvious and some not so obvious points that give the scope of the beatitudes.
First, the Beatitudes are part of a sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, they are the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is prefaced by Matthew 5:1, which tells us that Jesus went up on the mountain, sat down and opened his mouth to teach his disciples. The Sermon ends with chapter 7:28. There Jesus finished his sermon, got up from his seat and went down the mountain. What is more, the sermon is a beautifully structured message. Too often we think of it as a stream of consciousness or the wise statements of a sage sprinkled about like seed on the ground. However, that is a serious misunderstanding. But the structure of the Sermon is for a later time.
Second, these Beatitudes form a bridge between what has been said and what will be said. What has been said? Well, a lot has been said in the first four chapters of Matthew but the thing to notice is the baptism. There John objects to baptizing Jesus. But Jesus tells him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” We then find Jesus entering into temptation wherein He, as the Second Adam, did what the first Adam failed to do. He obeyed. He fulfilled the righteous requirement of the law. So, why did Jesus undergo a baptism for repentance? He did so as a representative substitute for the people He would save. Notice, the fourth beatitude, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. By whose righteousness will they be filled? Obviously, by Christ who came to satisfy the righteous requirements of the law for his people that once forgiven they may an alien righteousness imputed to them.
Third, the Beatitudes, as a whole, share with us the Christian life. They communicate what is already true but what is not yet consummated. For example, notice how the first and the last Beatitude (vv. 3, 10) are in the present tense. And then notice how the middle six Beatitudes (vv. 4-9) are in the future tense. We are in possession of salvation but the consummation is yet to be. This is the already but not yet of the Christian life. And the Beatitudes speak about that life and we are eager to listen.
Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.