An Exegesis of Matthew 5:1-12
Matthew 5:1-12, commonly known as the Beatitudes, has been loved by every generation since first pronounced by Christ two thousand years ago. Matthew writes this record of the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus, and he places this message soon after Jesus’ baptism and calling of the disciples. The Beatitudes are the opening section of the Sermon on the Mount, the longest recorded teaching during Christ’s lifetime. We will begin by looking at this section as it lays within the book of Matthew and then go to a more in-depth exegetical study.
The most popular approach to Matthew’s structure is the presentation of five major discourses, each ending with a formula statement that is foreign to other Biblical discourses, placed in a framework of narrative (Talbert 15). In fact, “the five discourses are so clearly marked, from a literary point of view, that it is well-nigh impossible to believe that Matthew did not plan them” (Carson 63). Each of these discourses brings forth a topic of central importance for both the gospel rendition of the historical Jesus and the later experience of the church (Batdorf 26).
The narrative section leading to the first discourse, from Matthew 3:1 to 4:25, chronicles not simply the biography of a man preparing for ministry, but the establishment of Messianic history and authority. We come to an understanding of Matthew’s first and foremost discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, only on the basis of chapters 1-4 (Batdorf 24). This sermon, which immediately follows the choosing of the twelve, marks the beginning of Jesus’ training of His disciples and a change in His method of teaching. It is His first systematic delineation of the kind of people and the conduct expected of them under the standards of God’s kingdom (Russell 8). Batdorf outlines the apex at which the Beatitudes stand:
“If Jesus is the Messiah and his life on earth really does set the pattern that his disciples should match, then his [Matthew’s] words here and in all the following discourses make sense. If this is not so, then the bottom drops out of Matthew’s whole argument. In this light the Beatitudes become the hinge upon which the whole of Matthew’s structure turns” (Batdorf 28).
At the forefront of Matthew’s first discourse are the Beatitudes, a collection of eight imperative statements of blessing. The term ‘beatitude’ derives from the Latin word beatitudo and is designated by many scholars as its own literary genre. As such, it is a literary form found in a wider spectrum of wisdom literature not limited to Jewish or Christian writing. Some scholars have even proposed Egyptian wisdom literature as a conceivable origin (Betz 92).
Poetic parallelism can be found in the Beatitudes as a carryover from the poetry of the Old Testament. The arrangement in quatrains of parallel lines containing parallel or corresponding ideas is very common and Psalms 8 is a prime example (Russell 15). Matthew’s eight beatitudes are composed of two quatrains, each ending with the word ‘righteousness.’ The terminology generally used for this is an “envelope figure” and Matthew uses it again in Matt. 7:16-20. Although scholars often attribute this arrangement to the composer of the Logia, Russell points out that it is “highly probable that so poetic a spirit as Jesus, brought up as he was in the Hebrew tradition and accustomed from childhood to the poetry of the Psalms and other Old Testament literature, would use parallelism for his words of gnomic wisdom as well as for his utterances of exalted imagination and lofty feeling” (Russell 16).
Beatitudes, as a teaching platform, provided a terse literary device summarizing a doctrinal belief in an easily memorized format. When Jesus prepared to teach His disciples His kingdom principles, they were not presented in a format that would add awkwardness to the newness of His message, but rather familiar forms were used to encapsulate fresh concepts. According to Edersheim, the new teaching, to be historically true must have employed the old forms and spoken the old language; but the ideals of Jesus in contrast to the Israelite teachers were so absolutely different as not to bear comparison (Edersheim 526).
Expressions of blessing or beatitudes are found sprinkled throughout Scripture, both Old and New Testament. Principle Old Testament examples include: Ps.1:1, 2:12, 32:1,2, 33:12, 34:8, 40:4, 41:1, 65:4, 84:4-5, 89:15, 94:12, 106:3, 112:1, 118:26, 119:1-2, Prov. 8:32,34; Isa. 30:18, and Jer. 17:7 (Russell 19). Although a blessing may be given to someone as merely an expression of gratitude for service rendered, a Biblical beatitude often carries a connotation of God’s blessing on a characteristic or class of people who are recipients of God’s favor as a result of such patterns of conduct as avoiding wickedness, caring for the poor, or seeking the Lord for forgiveness, protection, and guidance (Russell 17).
Before we embark on the exegetical portion of study of this section, we must consider a word of caution regarding a danger we have in working with such a well known passage. Our familiarity with the Beatitudes may lull us into complacency and we’ll miss their original depth and meaning. Pre-understanding requires us to resist imposing our pre-supposed conclusions when approaching such a familiar passage (Duvall 88). We must avoid confusing our ideas with those of Matthew or Jesus based on our instinctive inclination to apply meanings arising from our own experiences (Batdorf 29). We would proceed prudently under Martin’s challenge:
“Even the beatitudes must be understood in the light of the historical situation and the association of words and ideas for the immediate hearers. They have undying value for us and for all generations, but only if we take pains first to understand what they meant to those who heard them. We shall be wise not to be content with surface meanings. The words have a history and a background; and they must be read in light of the rest of our Lord’s teaching” (Martin 15).
For purposes of this portion of the paper, Matthew 5:1-12 is divided into a prologue and two subsections of beatitudes. Efforts to count and classify the Beatitudes seemed to go on ad nauseam. No effort will be made here to justify or deny the basis of such as it will add nothing to our understanding of the content. Our naming of the first four virtues as those involved in “seeking righteousness” and the remaining virtues as those required to “stay righteous” is merely designated for simplicity’s sake. Furthermore, where lengthy books have been written on each of the virtues in the Beatitudes we must limit our notations to highlights of characteristics identified as deserving additional comment.
1. The setting – Matthew 5:1,2
The prologue gives us several things to consider about the setting and characters involved in our passage. Although Matthew’s overall structure leaves us without a timeframe we can use the chronological events of Luke to place this event at about six months after Jesus had come into Galilee and just after He had chosen the twelve disciples (Thompson 25).
The Greek version of Matthew 5 opens with the verb seeing in participle form. When we look for other uses of this verb in the same gospel we find that Matthew often uses it to introduce something unexpected that leads to further action (9:2,4,22,23,36; 21:19; 27:24) (Newman 102).
The object of the verb ‘seeing’ is the crowds. This noun often carries an important meaning in Matthew where he uses the plural form about 30 times and usually indicates that the audience is receptive (Newman 103). Most scholars agree that Matthew sees the direct target recipients of Jesus’ teaching on this occasion as the disciples, but Matthew ends the Sermon on the Mount with note that a broader audience had heard the message (7:28,29). This fits the setting that Luke pictures with three concentric rings, the twelve, the disciples, the multitude (Martin 13).
The location is described as the mountain. The Greek noun translated here can be either ‘mountain’ or ‘hill’. The deliberate article causes scholars to believe that it was a well-known location but evidence is inconclusive on its identification (Newman 103). Pink, on the other hand interprets the location to be purposely identified simply as a common mountain “by which Christ would intimate that there is no distinguishing holiness of place now, under the Gospel, as there was under the Law” (Pink 11). Identified or not, mountains were generally thought of as typical settings for revelations to occur and not just the specific Mt. Sinai (McGraff, 5).
Matthew’s notation that Jesus sat down is commonly understood as the formal posture of a teaching rabbi (France 107) and Matthew makes three other references to the same type of setting in 13:2; 23:2; and 24:3 (Newman 103). Scholars acknowledge that although the seated teaching position is traditionally rabbinical in style, on this occasion it may transcend the traditional associations and indicate an authority more in keeping with kings or judges (Pink 9).
After Jesus sat down his disciples came to him. By tradition the action of a rabbi sitting indicated his readiness to teach and his disciples would respond by sitting near him to indicate readiness to learn. The use of the possessive ‘his’ intimates a closeness of relationship between the Lord and those who had recently been called to follow him and some scholars see a parallel with the men gathering around Ezra to hear the Law read in Nehemiah 8:4 (Newman 104).
As a skillful narrator, Matthew opens the curtain and sets the stage for the astounding teaching that is about to be conveyed. We have the setting and the characters and are ready to hear the groundbreaking description of righteous living in the Kingdom of heaven.
2. Life for those who are seeking righteousness – Matthew 5:3-6 Blessed:
In paragraph analysis we observe vv. 3-10 in list format. The list consists of blessings that can be fulfilled by God alone. They are given in imperative form. Blessed is the first word of each, translated from the Greek makarios. This word occurs only in Matthew, Luke and John. Matthew always applies ‘blessed’ to those who obey Jesus and clearly uses this word to refer to blessings on a disciple both before and after the resurrection (11:6; 13:16; 24:46) (Batdorf 30).
But how are we to understand the meaning of such a word in this specific context without the trappings of our own cultural experience? Although the granting of blessings is still common in some cultures, sad as it is, we are fairly devoid of the art in our own culture. It is our position that this is a difficult word for modern western culture to comprehend in accurate historical setting. Martin, in fact, states that it may not be possible to find any satisfactory substitute for the translation of ‘blessed’ but we should search for that which is closest to the meaning Jesus would have assigned (Martin 10).
The Greek word here is used quite often in the Septuagint to translate a Hebrew word that means “Oh the happiness of” as found in the Psalms and wisdom literature. Betz identifies the Sitz im Leben of this term as ritual (Betz 93). This may be supportive of a historically religious context where a pronouncement was given by the worship leader at the temple as the pilgrims ascended the sacred hill in Jerusalem (Newman 106).
Makarios is not the word usually translated happy, as some have done, but rather a word used more by poets and philosophers for attaining the ideal, the summum bonum (Martin 10). Happy and blessed are only two of several attempts to formulate the conceptual meaning in English. Others include “Oh the bliss” (BRC) and “How fortunate are” (AB). France finds a better translation in “to be congratulated” (France 108).
The difficulty with several of these translations of ‘blessed’ is the focus remains on the state of the receiver of the blessing rather than the one doing the good – God (Newman 107). The word should not indicate a superficial state of being, but rather a right and harmonious relationship in which one party, usually the superior, is the one providing for the inferior (Newman 107). All of the beatitudes declare that the one blessed deserves this state of being because of divine justice or righteousness, not individual conduct (Betz 94).
Furthermore, France indicates that the word applies to those who are and/or will be happy, fortunate, congratulated (emphasis added) (France 108). The beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount have both eschatological as well as current world implications (Betz 96).
Finally, we must distinguish a blessing from a promise. A promise commonly refers to something expected or known by the person, while the beatitude reveals something unknown or unexpected. For the person receiving the message it involves a new revelation, shows a way of implementing the principle and demands the receiver take action (Betz 96). Truly this was the format of the beatitudes under study. Poor in Spirit:
The word translated here as ‘poor’ is found in the Septuagint to translate Hebrew words which mean “poor,” “needy,” “broken in spirit,” and “humble” (Newman 108).
As words transmute over time in English, the Hebrew word for ‘poor’ saw a transition in meaning over the span of Old Testament times. In Isaiah’s day the ‘poor’ referred to all exiled Israelites without a home. Later it was used to distinguish the lower from the upper social strata. By Jesus’ day it became a ‘title of honor’ as indicating the faithful of God’s people, who bore honorably the burdens He had called them to bear (Newman 108). By the time of the Sermon on the Mount it had come to designate either material poverty or spiritual receptivity (Batdorf 65).
Jewish culture deemed the poor as the special concern of Jehovah. Since they saw the land as God’s and their national existence as dependant upon Him, it was His will that none should perish for want. This Hebrew perspective dates back to Exodus. (Batdorf 65).
The addition of ‘in spirit’ to the word ‘poor’, whether added by Matthew or spoken by Jesus, is a critical comment intended to avoid misunderstanding the adjective ‘poor’ (Betz 113). This addition reflects intentionality in avoiding assumption that God regards physical poverty as a universally blessed state. The phrase as a whole, “poor in spirit”, is not found repeated in Scripture or contemporaneous writing -Greek or Jewish. New Testament writers literally had to coin new vocabulary to express the wonders of Christ-ordained morality. “Such graces as poverty of spirit and meekness would have found no answering echo in the hearts and minds of ancient philosophers and teachers” (Fitch 15).
Theirs is the Kingdom of heaven:
First of all we note that ‘theirs’ is emphatic in the Greek showing definite possession (Martin 33). The Greek verb tense for ‘is’ indicates a present state of being with a future force so that many scholars find the possession of citizenship marking life on earth as well as future hope (Newman 108). “Poverty of spirit is a foundational grace which alone prepares for the Kingdom of Heaven. But at the same time it is a hallmark of those who are within the kingdom and who are expressing the spirit of the kingdom on the earth (Fitch 28).
A strong consensus and a vast array of scripture support a two-pronged focus in which the kingdom is both present and future (Blomberg 74). Batdorf finds that by the time of Jesus two views formed the basis of interpreting the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” In the first, the Kingdom could be realized when an individual submitted his entire life to God’s rule, i.e. fulfilled all of the requirements of the Law. In the second view, the Kingdom could only come in the future when God would forcefully establish His rule over all of creation, with or without man’s assent (Batdorf 85). Into this climate Jesus introduces a new element – the initiation of God’s kingdom rule by His own ministry. Repetition of this phrase at the end of the eighth beatitude points to the urgency with which Christ views this proclamation.
Mourn / Shall be comforted:
When Jewish ears heard reference to ‘those who mourn’ they would be reminded of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy of the one who will “comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion” (Isa. 61:2,3). Long before this setting, ‘mourning’ had become a common metaphor for the response of the faithful Jew to the sad state of affairs that the nation of Israel had fallen into (Betz 121).
The literary style for this beatitude is known as consolation literature which “focuses on this aspect of human misery: the comforting of those stricken with grief in all its forms” (Betz 120). Jewish religious stipulations approved of mourning but regulated it. However, Greek and Roman consolation literature addressed mourning as the practice of the uneducated masses. This put Christ’s unconditional blessing on those who mourn in stark contrast to Hellenistic thought.
Clarification on the forms of mourning being referred to in this context leaves scholars with a range of responses. This is a common verb in biblical Greek and cannot be confined to the idea of mourning for sin (Newman 109). Blomberg notes that mourn is unqualified and “includes grief caused by both personal sin and loss and social evil and oppression” (Blomberg 99). The Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament interprets the verb, pentheo, as “to grieve with a grief which so takes possession of the whole being that it cannot be hid.” Meek:
The Greek word used in the third beatitude is praos for which we find the translations meek and gentle. In the Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament it is fully described as “the humble and gentle attitude which expresses itself in a patient submissiveness to offense, free from malice and desire for revenge.” According to Pink “there is no single term which is capable of fully expressing all that is included in this virtue” (Pink 22). Indeed in Scripture we often find the word in linkage with another adjective which supplements our understanding of its meaning. First, it is found in connection with lowliness in Matthew 11:29. “Learn of Me: for I am meek and lowly in heart.” Paul also links meekness with lowliness in Ephesians 4:1,2, “Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called; with all lowliness and meekness.” Second, meekness is connected with gentleness: “I beseech you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (II Cor. 10:1). This association with gentleness is also found in Titus 3:2. Finally, meekness is linked with a teachable heart. Psalms 25:9 says, “The meek will He guide in judgment, and the meek will He teach His way.”
Unlike the concept of being “poor in spirit” the characteristic of meekness or humility was culturally acknowledged as worthy of emulation. From the Hellenistic perspective “the concept of meekness was eminent in Greek ethical thought” (Betz125). From the vantagepoint of Jesus’ audience we would find “literary parallels show that Jewish piety highly valued meekness, where it is a synonym for ‘humility’” (Betz 125).
In translating the verb for ‘inherit’ we must be careful to avoid the English connotations of inheritance based on someone’s death. In this case it would require the death of God for the inheritance to be exercised. Newman and Stine’s Handbook on Matthew finds the verb to be better translated in the “more general meaning of to receive as one’s possession or to share in.”
3. Life for those who are staying righteous – Matthew 5:7-12 Merciful / will be shown mercy
The idea of the ‘merciful’ receiving God’s blessing is a common Old Testament concept as well as subsequent Jewish literature. The blessing of being shown mercy is a divine passive and indicates not that man will show mercy in return for mercy but that God will show mercy.
Eleemon is the Greek word used here, meaning compassionate or actively merciful
(Strongs 29). The most commonly used form of this word in Jewish literature is for the name of the act of ‘almsgiving’. “Thus for all branches of Judaism the exercise of mercy was one of the preeminent religious and social duties. This duty was based on the belief that God is a God of mercy” (Betz 132). The disciples already understood the obligation God required in regard to mercy from Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Showing mercy can be found as a theme in Rabbinic writings, but on an earned righteousness basis. “All such merit attaches only to Israel, while the good works and mercy of the Gentiles are actually reckoned to them as sin” (Edersheim p.534). Even within the Sermon on the Mount we find a wide range of merciful acts esteemed – simple almsgiving (6:2-4), charitable behavior (5:42), the ethical responses to violence (5:38,39) and animosity (5:40-48).
The reward of finding mercy is given in the future passive form indicating that the promise is offered in eschatological form. In the last judgement it was theologically expected that God would show mercy to those who had shown mercy. “This principle is based on the principle of justice, but also on the insight that no matter how many deeds of mercy they may have done, those who appear before God’s throne will need mercy” (Betz 134). Pure in Heart:
In Hebrew ideals, the ‘heart’ symbolizes one’s mind or thoughts, and in this verse the mind or these thoughts are dedicated solely to pleasing God (Newman 112). The environment to which Jesus brought this message highly regarded ‘purity’. This concept of purity of heart signifies presupposition not requiring additional explanation; never is it mentioned again in the Sermon on the Mount, or elsewhere in the entire New Testament (Betz 134). The people hearing this message understood that they must be pure to see God (Psalms 24:3,4), but their understanding of how to achieve a state of purity was based on Jewish customs and regulations.
In this case, however, Jesus requires only purity of heart as an inward righteousness and not ritual cleanliness (Blomberg 100).
The seventh beatitude raises some significant controversies and issues. Most direct is the question of whether Jesus is referring to a religious peace or a social peace. Any Jews or Gentiles present at this teaching, whether Roman or not, understood the concept of pax romana – making and preserving peace by Roman rule (Betz 139). Nonetheless the disciples would not have heard Jesus saying that honor should be granted to the Roman soldiers standing nearby.
Rabbinic theology honored not only peace but also peace-making as an important virtue. The concept of shalom (wholeness and harmony in all aspects of life) was fundamental to the Israelite religion (Betz 139). The presence of zealots and the occurrence of Jewish uprisings, however, indicate that the goal of peace did not rule out violence in the Jewish mind (Betz 140).
Jesus does not offer clarification of his meaning and Christianity, from the early church until today, has not found an agreeable level of consensus. The audience seems to be left with the responsibility of interpreting and responding to situations in demonstrations of peacemaking that are based on the conviction that God’s kingdom will prevail (Betz 140). Persecution:
Persecution for righteousness did not begin with Christianity. In Hellenistic Judaism as well as Greek thought, the ideology of martyrdom had a well-established history (Betz 144). Several passages in Matthew describe persecution for righteousness before Christ’s death, resurrection and the establishment of the church (Matt. 10:16-33; 22:6; 23:29-39; 24:9-14). ‘Are persecuted’ is a perfect participle in Greek suggesting that by the time Matthew writes this discourse the church is already suffering persecution (Newman 114).
As an important component of the living word of God, this section of Scripture brings deeper life and health to us when we come as close as we can to the meaning that Christ intended as He opened His mouth and blessed them.
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