It seems to me that Christians often under-appreciate, under-rate, and under-use the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:1-12. They are not read as often as the Ten Commandments, for instance. They are rarely mentioned in confessions or catechisms. Yet, the beatitudes paint for us an ideal portrait of a disciple of God’s kingdom. They are meant to give us ethical guidance in the same vein as the Ten Commandments.
Bible scholars have pointed out that Matthew, the gospel writer, was drawing parallels between the Old Testament prophet Moses and Jesus. For example, as Moses gave the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai in Exodus 20, Jesus gave the beatitudes to his disciples in his Sermon on the Mount. To some degree, Matthew saw these beatitudes like a new “Ten Commandments” for God’s kingdom disciples.
We see the emphasis on God’s kingdom from how the eight beatitudes or sayings are bookended with the phrase “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (verses 3 and 10). I count the last two blessings as one as they both dealt with persecution. In fact, the whole Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) summarizes the way of God’s kingdom, and the beatitudes set the tone early. The first half of each beatitude (the “blessed are” part) describes a quality of a kingdom disciple while the second half (the “for theirs” or “for they will” part) reflects a different dimension of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom promises comfort from sorrows, a new heaven and earth, a world where God’s righteousness and justice reign, where mercy abounds, where we will see God (have close communion with God) and be called sons and daughters of God, where our faithfulness will be rewarded. Essentially, the eight beatitudes are all making one point: God’s disciples are blessed because they are part of God’s kingdom.
I will focus on the qualities of a kingdom disciple as listed in the first parts of each saying. To be clear, these are not entrance requirements into God’s kingdom. It is by trusting in Jesus as our Lord and Savior that makes us his disciples. Rather, the beatitudes paint us a portrait of a model kingdom disciple.
First of all, a kingdom disciple is poor in spirit, which means to recognize our own spiritual poverty or spiritual bankruptcy. This does not exclude those of us who are materially rich. We who are rich may likely be tempted to distract ourselves away from our spiritual emptiness by meeting our needs and desires. But the emphasis here is on recognizing our own spiritual poverty, on humbling ourselves before God, depending on God to save us. Jesus’ parable contrasting the self-righteous Pharisee with the repentant tax collector in Luke 18:9-14 illustrates this posture.
Second of all, a disciple mourns over sin. We are spiritually poor because we recognize our sins and the world’s sins and injustices. We grieve over what grieves our Lord.
If we are truly poor in spirit, and mourn over our sins, we will have a meek, gentle and humble spirit in us. Matt. 5:5 harkens back to Psalm 37:7-11, which contrasts the fleeting success of wicked people with “the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace” (v. 11). In Psalm 37, meekness is not being a doormat or being weak. Rather, meekness means refraining from anger, from resentment over evil’s seeming success, and trusting patiently in the Lord. Our essential posture and attitude to everyone should be that of godly humility, gentleness, and patience rather than anger, aggression and arrogance.
Disciples of God’s kingdom also hunger and thirst for righteousness. First, model kingdom citizens are not already righteous or perfect, but they do continually strive for righteousness. Second, righteousness is not simply being morally upright. In Jesus’ ancient Jewish worldview, the term righteousness includes personal morality and public justice. So this is not only a striving after personal rightness but also a striving for public justice.
This striving for public justice, however, should not be pursued without mercy. As with Micah 6:8, we should not only do justice but also love mercy. We show mercy to anyone who needs mercy, not just to some. Jesus makes no qualifications here. He calls us to “be merciful, just as your (heavenly) Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
“Pure in heart” (Matt. 5:8), in its ancient Jewish context, means primarily honesty, transparency, sincerity and true motives. We are not talking here about ceremonial or outward purity. Neither are we talking simply about purity before God but also purity before others. The pure in heart deals truthfully, without guile or mixed motives, with their neighbors.
This, in turn, is an essential quality needed for peacemakers. Lies often aggravate, if not cause, conflicts in our world. Christians are not called to peacekeeping but peacemaking. We cannot hope to make peace without honesty, transparency, and sincerity. Peacekeeping focuses on ensuring, by force if necessary, that violence does not erupt or escalate. Peacemaking, however, requires the parties in conflict to actually change and forgive, to reconcile. God’s peace, or shalom in Hebrew, is not simply a lack of conflict; shalom entails harmonious relationships between God, humanity, and creation. That is a whole lot harder to do. But this is what God’s kingdom citizens are: ambassadors of God’s reconciliation, both spiritual and relational, reconciling people to God and to each other (2 Cor. 4:20; Eph. 2:14-18). And we can only pursue such peacemaking work with a pure heart, not one with hidden agendas or mixed motives, or one that peddles lies.
Finally, if we faithfully strive for public justice and peacemaking, then we will likely face opposition and even persecution. Because if we seek to make peace in a conflict-ridden world, if we seek to be sincere and honest in a world full of lies and treachery, if we seek to be merciful and gentle in an aggressive and unforgiving world, if we seek for righteousness and justice in an immoral and unjust world, we are going to be in conflict with sinful people and sinful systems that want to keep the status quo. This was what God’s prophets of old faced when they were faithful to their calling. This was what Jesus faced from the religious leaders of his time. But God will not forget our faithfulness in suffering opposition for Christ’s sake (not for our own sakes or for being sinful and unjust).
When we start applying this portrait of Christian discipleship to our present day, we find that, firstly, it is rather counter-cultural, and secondly, many of us fall short on various points. For starters, the emphasis on recognizing our spiritual bankruptcy flies in the face of our culture’s emphasis on self-affirmation and self-confidence. Biblically speaking, our affirmation comes not from our achievements or abilities but from our belonging to Christ our Lord.
Meekness as a distinctive quality is sadly lacking these days, even among many Christians. Too many Christians on either side of a debate display more outrage than grief over injustice and sins. This outrage, in turn, is routinely expressed through aggressive, antagonistic, and arrogant words hurled past each other. Gentleness, patience, and humility have become rare. We seem more intent on imitating the put-downs and mocking styles of late-night comedians or the aggressive public shaming on Twitter.
We need to recapture the New Testament understanding of righteousness as encompassing moral and justice dimensions. There is no biblical justification for the current divide in America between Christians who advocate for social justice issues like racism and those who focus on personal morality issues like abortion. I fear that division is more politically driven than biblical. For the Bible, neither social justice nor personal morality is optional.
Similarly, neither justice nor mercy is optional. Outrage, with very little else besides, fuels and shapes too many of our current calls for justice. On the other hand, some Christians offer forgiveness and mercy too quickly and/or cheaply, and only to some and rarely to others. Disciples of God’s kingdom should be modeling to the world a third way that embodies striving for justice and morality tempered with mercy and grace.
We also need to recapture the sense of purity as honesty, sincerity, and transparency. So often, Christians have reduced purity to sexual purity and impure thoughts to sexually immoral thoughts. That is only the tip of the purity iceberg.
Christians, including Christian media, are often as guilty as anyone these days in spreading misinformation and half-truths. Do we verify truthfulness and/or accuracy before clicking “share” on that viral post or meme? Or are we more intent on scoring “brownie points” and increasing our social status with our Christian circles? Are our hearts pure in the handling of truth, especially God’s truth? Or are we more intent on winning arguments for our positions? Have we been fair and just in understanding our opponents’ viewpoints and positions? Or are we more intent on misrepresenting them in order to help our “tribe” win the argument? Have we examined our hearts that our motives are pure and not driven by pride?
This leads to examining whether we are truly driven to seek God’s peace—shalom—within the Christian body and in the world. Biblical peacemakers seek to reconcile, not to defeat and silence, our adversaries. Do we even value peace, especially God’s peace, over “winning”? Do we seek first to build on common ground with non-Christians and other Christians alike, or do we focus first on what divides us?
North American Christians today need to find that balance between compromising our faith in order to avoid opposition and inconsiderately imposing our ways on others. Not every case of opposition is persecution. If we are in the wrong, we should be opposed. We also need to discern the difference between discrimination, marginalization, and persecution. Yes, Christianity is losing its privileged status in our present society. Yes, there are cases of discrimination against Christians. But that is far from persecution. Persecution is more like what Christians in China face where some churches are closed down and Christians arrested, or when Christians in India often face violence toward them.
We should respond proportionately but still gently (meekness) to discrimination and marginalization. To this Malaysian-born and -raised Christian, making a huge fuss about not hearing or reading “Merry Christmas” seems disproportionate. I guess growing up in a Muslim country where Christianity has very few privileges, I have a higher threshold of what counts as a real offense to my faith.
When Christians are wrongfully discriminated against, as when Christians are not hired because of their faith, then we should pursue justice tempered with mercy, without unnecessary sensationalism. When we lose only a traditional privilege, but not a religious right, we can graciously and creatively adapt. It might even be better for Western Christianity, in the long run, to be slightly marginalized in society. We might learn to take less for granted and grow to be more humble. We might learn to evangelize better as we can’t assume we have credibility. We might also learn to get back to what’s essential to our faith rather than focus on cultural trappings. Ultimately, we must be sure we are persecuted for being faithful to Christ, not for defending lost privileges.
What if Christians today look more like the model kingdom disciple portrayed in the Beatitudes? Would we be opposed more for striving after righteousness and justice than for defending our traditional privileges? Would we be admired for our gentleness and patience rather than disdained for our judgmentalism and arrogance? Would we be respected for our relentless pursuit of peace with pure hearts and pure hands? Would we live in such a way that the world will ask us why we are so refreshingly different?
This portrait of a model kingdom disciple is a hard one to measure up to. But thankfully, recognizing our spiritual failures, our spiritual poverty, and relying on Christ, is already the beginning of the journey.