We don’t know what the weather was like the day he stood up in front of the crowd that gathered around him. We don’t know exactly what mountainside it happened on. We don’t know the size of the crowd – certainly hundreds, and possibly many more. (At the height of his celebrity, thousands would flock to hear him speak.)
The crowd that sat around him on that hillside was much like us.
- They lived in a world that was politically flammable. Half of them wanted the bugger out of office, even dead.
- Centuries of racial division couldn’t be healed. Antisemitism was rife.
- A pall of economic uncertainty shrouded everyone. The 1%ers barricaded themselves away from the 99%ers, whom they tried to keep sedated by the streaming entertainment of bread and circuses.
- Bitter division fractured city hall, the synagogue and even families. And no one could talk their way out of it. The moment disagreements surfaced people were reaching for stones, or screaming out unfiltered comments like, “Crucify him!”
These were the ones he locked eyes with as he stood to speak. And what he said next disarmed them all. He said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you…Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matthew 5:3-12).
Today we call them “the Beatitudes”, a word that means ‘high blessedness’, referring to each time Jesus used the word blessed in this prologue to the most memorable, powerful sermon ever preached – a teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount.
HOW THE BEATITUDES TRANSFORMED THE HUMAN RACE
In the annals of history, no discourse ever altered the trajectory of the human race for the better than this sermon. Plenty of writers and philosophers had waxed eloquent on virtue over the years, but this one teaching ignited a moral revolution which hoisted humanity on its shoulders, and carried it mountain ranges away from the ethical backwoods it had been inhabiting in that Bronze and Iron Age world.
The sermon, which fleshed out the virtues of the individual Beatitudes – virtues such as humility, forgiveness, compassion, showing mercy, pursuing purity, and working for peace – became the functional mission statement for Christianity. The apostles in their writings refer back to the Beatitudes over and over again as the embodiment of what authentic Christianity looks like.
Furthermore, Christianity’s system of thought and ethics, built on the teachings of Christ, truly became a high blessing to the earth. Nothing like it had ever been seen before.
It transformed the way people thought about the value of human life. Slaves, women, children, the infirm, refugees, even the unborn – the refuse and garbage of society – found meaning and protection in its shelter. Those who scream for “equal rights” today, and who march for “justice”, and demand that we “end oppression”, are using Christian logic to back up their arguments, even while many of them repudiate Christianity.
It transformed the way people thought about the purpose of human life. Up till then, life was pretty much about scrambling to survive. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die. The Beatitudes raised the bar considerably. Now life was given to love, serve, and increase goodness on the earth. “Leave things better than you found them,” and all the banter today about “finding your purpose”, derives its genetic code from the Beatitudes.
It transformed the way people thought about the destination of human life. The Beatitudes inserted eternal certainty into an otherwise meaningless existence. It promised a kingdom of heaven which would reward those who served it. Now rather than rage at the machine, a person can experience something unheard of in this nasty, short and brutish life – joy.
WHY THE BEATITUDES CONFUSE US
Oddly though, for all their importance, the Beatitudes and Christ’s mountainside sermon are often overlooked today, even in the Church. Most Christians can reel off more of the Ten Commandments than they can the Beatitudes. The Ten Commandments appear solid, black and white, etched in stone. The Beatitudes seem squishy, fuzzy, and vague. You can build a society on the Ten Commandments (in fact, you’d be foolish not to). Build a society on the Beatitudes though and the objections start to mount – Won’t evil people start to take over? Won’t we be taken advantage of?
Yet there I was, as I began writing my devotional Living Under The Cross – in which I asked the question: “What does a person who ‘picks up his or her cross daily’ live like?” – plunging straight into the heart of the Beatitudes for my answer. If you strive to follow the Ten Commandments, you’re a moral person. But to be truly Christlike, you must look to the Beatitudes as your destination.
I think part of the confusion with the Beatitudes is that we are unclear exactly on how they are supposed to function. Did Jesus intend them to be a replacement for the Ten Commandments? Instead of this, do that. But even within the Sermon on the Mount itself Jesus made it clear that he didn’t come to abolish “the Law” but fulfill it (Matt.5:17-18).
Then he doubled down on the thought by saying that “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments…will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.5:19).
Then he tripled down on the thought by saying, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.5:20), which he then proceeded to explain by saying that it’s not enough to obey the letter of laws such as Do not murder and Do not commit adultery. Because every time you give way to anger or lust you are in truth breaking the commandment and are liable for judgment (Matt.5:21-30).
In other words, we don’t need to make a choice between God’s moral laws or Jesus’ Beatitudes. One does not exclude the other. Rather, they belong together.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE BEATITUDES WITH GOD’S MORAL LAW
God’s moral laws are like the skeleton and muscle systems of a body. They provide the structure and support the body needs to be able to function and move around. The values of the Beatitudes are everything else that gives life, animation, and beauty to the body. They’re the circulatory system of the heart, the neural system of the mind, and the emotional system of the soul.
Reading John 1:17 gives me another way to envision the relationship between the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. John writes, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Grace and truth do not replace the law; instead they now govern it.
Picture the Beatitudes as something overlaid atop the Law, something which harnesses its wildness and power, and keeps it from running crazy, where it can trample and destroy. When Jesus deals with the woman caught in adultery who had been brought before him, we see in his words to her the Beatitude of mercy laid over the Law of judgment (John 8:11). “Neither do I condemn you” (Beatitude). “Go, and from now on sin no more” (Law).
Jesus’ brother James would later say, “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” (2:13). It’s not that judgment (the Law) is cast aside. It’s that mercy now holds the reins over it. There will be times when judgment must be exercised. Lawlessness destroys also. But under the Beatitudes, the instinct to live in mercy, the reflex to restore more than punish, is what calls the shots.
How do we know how to operate in a given situation? Here is where the New Testament call to be “led by the Spirit” and “live by the Spirit” and “filled with the Spirit” becomes essential. The Beatitudes cannot be lived out in our own power or wisdom. We need Christ in us to help guide us and empower us.
This is the very essence of what it means to live under the Cross: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
WHY WE NEED THE BEATITUDES NOW MORE THAN EVER
As I wrote Living Under The Cross, the thought keep recurring to me: My goodness! We need the Beatitudes now more than ever!
The World Needs The Beatitudes.
In case you haven’t noticed, our world is becoming an increasingly frightful, hateful place. Jesus warned that in the last days, the love of many would grow cold, and it’s not difficult to wonder if these words are being fulfilled in our time.
We’re fractious, we’re angry, we’ve greedy, we’re divided, we’re profane, we’re depressed. (All this, and yet the case can be made that the last fifty years, at least in the United States, represents the greatest half-century of human civilization ever in terms of prosperity and ease of life.)
There is something seriously broken about the American national character today. Which may not be as concerning an issue right this moment. But should things start to break around us – like the economy, or our national security – then things are going to break bad in a big hurry in a big way all around us.
The loudest cries these days for fixing things point to Washington, D.C. The government will save us from ourselves. Get the right leaders in place, the right party running things, the right justices calling the shots, then we’ll be happy and peaceful. But the government is made up of the same fractious, angry and greedy people as us. How can this possibly end well? (Look at the 20th-century. It won’t.)
The Beatitudes offer a potent antidote to the toxicity that’s all around us, because the life to which they point drains the poison of hate away from our hearts. Even the attempt to live out these values will bring healing and hope. A little bit of humility or mercy can derail a whole lot of selfishness.
The Church Needs The Beatitudes
It’s not only the unchurched who are clamoring for Washington to fix things. It’s the Church. This isn’t without reason. Because humans are communal creatures, we are by nature political creatures. Politics is the process of defining the priorities and values around which we gather. Obviously, the Church should be very much a part of this process.
Where things get slippery for a follower of Christ is when a subtle shift takes place in our thinking where we start believing that power is what ultimately will change the world. To that idea, the Beatitudes rebuke us.
The first generation of Christians had absolutely no power. Not a shred. Yet following the path paved by the Beatitudes, in just one generation, they caught the attention of the greatest power the world had ever known by then. In two generations, they faced down the savage might of that world power and could not be destroyed by it. In three generations, they caused the value system of that world power to begin to crumble from within. And a generation or two later, followers of Christ were found in every corner of the Roman world. And the word on the street regarding these Christians was, “See how they love one another.”
To change the culture, then the values of the culture must be changed.
For that to happen it must see those values lived out, and hear reasons why those values are preferable to the ones they hold.
For that to happen, then the Church must start acting like the Church.
And for that, we have our marching orders.
They’re called the Beatitudes.
If you’re looking for a devotional for Lent, Bear’s latest book Living Under The Cross, is now available through Amazon. It’s a collection of 42 devotions, gathered under the headings of the Lord’s Beatitudes, which answer the question: What does the cross-centered life look like?
Bear Clifton is a pastor, writer and screenwriter. He’s just released his latest book, “Living Under The Cross: A 40-Day Devotional Journey”. His blogs and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, and “A Sparrow Could Fall”, all available through Amazon.