Let’s start with the New Revised Standard Version:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
First, the word “heaven.”
Matthew makes famous the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” In the other gospels, the kingdom that Jesus proclaims is typically called “kingdom of God.” We all bring assumptions with us to scripture. When a person of the Western world reads “heaven” we assume it means “a place far away in the sky.” To be certain this idea is foreign to the New Testament and the Jewish mind. “Heaven” in Jewish thought is that place where God is. It is not until the development of Greek philosophy that we come to understand “the place where God is” as a distant and removed place, far from earth and humanity. (This is called deism).
So… what does that matter? It matters! The reward of God’s kingdom is not something that we only hope to receive after death. It is something promised to begin now, and come in fullness at the final restoration and redemption of “all things.” The temptation is to read the beatitudes and think, “If I am poor in spirit (or just “poor” in Luke’s gospel), then after I die I get to go to heaven.” This is not what Jesus (and Matthew) mean. Jesus himself has just announced in Matthew 4:17 that the kingdom of heaven is “at hand” or “near.” It is now! And the reward comes with it… now!
Now the phrase “kingdom of heaven.”
If heaven is not some distant and removed reality, but something that is “breaking into” our world now in the person of Jesus, then “kingdom of heaven” is God “moving into the neighborhood.” The Jews have waited centuries for the promised Messiah (king). The Messiah is to be the one to usher in the reign of God in this world. This is why Jesus taught us to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Brian McLaren has suggested, tongue-in-cheek, “perhaps we should amend the Lord’s Prayer to fit our theology. So we might say “Your will be done in heaven as it is in heaven.”
This simple word study, clears up our understanding of what is meant by Matthew (and Jesus) when they say “kingdom of heaven.” It is not something distant, future, or removed. It begins now in and through Jesus the Christ – the king of this announced kingdom. Clarence Jordan thought of it as a “movement” or an “order.” The kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is the “free movement” or “free order” of God’s reign over all things. So where the “movement of God” is, there the poor and poor in spirit will be blessed. Where the “order of God” exists, there the mournful are blessed with joy. Jordan’s rendering of the beatitudes help capture the “here-and-now” sense in which the original hearers of the Sermon on the Mount would have had.
This is how Jordan translated the passage:
“The spiritually humble are God’s people,
for they are citizens of his new order.
“They who are deeply concerned are God’s people,
for they will see their ideas become reality.
“They who are gentle are his people,
for they will he his partners across the land.
“They who have an unsatisfied appetite for the right are God’s people,
for they will be given plenty to chew on.
“The generous are God’s people,
for they will be treated generously.
“Those whose motives are pure are God’s people,
for they will have spiritual insight.
“Men of peace and good will are God’s people,
for they will be known throughout the land as his children.
“Those who have endured much for what’s right are God’s people;
they are citizens of his new order.
“You all are God’s people when others call you names, and harass you and tell all kinds of false tales on you just because you follow me. Be cheerful and good-humored, because your spiritual advantage is great. For that’s the way they treated men of conscience in the past.
Now, the word “blessed.” Notice that Jordan neglects something important – the word “blessed” (though it is implied). I am not ready to let it go, however. I love that word. Still, there is a problem with it. The problem is that it is a “religious” word. Should we be left to think that the beatitudes are only about religion? Certainly not! The beatitudes encompass all of life. The comprehensiveness, breadth, and depth of these 9 short verses is part of what makes them incredible and beautiful.
“Blessed” is not a religious word. The God of the bible is not relegated to that realm of human experience we name “religion.” The God of the bible cares deeply about every dimension of our existence. So, “blessed” is a word that simply names God’s pouring out of grace. One could easily say “Graced are those who are poor and poor in spirit.”
N.T. Wright deals with this very subtly in his rendering in the new translation “The Kingdom New Testament”
“Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours.
Blessings on the mourners! You’re going to be comforted.
Blessings on the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth.
Blessings on people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice! You’re going to be satisfied.
Blessings on the merciful! You’ll receive mercy yourselves.
Blessings on the pure in heart! You will see God.
Blessings on the peacemakers! You’ll be called God’s children.
Blessings on people who are persecuted because of God’s way! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you.
Blessings on you, when people slander you and persecute you, and say all kinds of wicked things about you falsely because of me! Celebrate and rejoice: there’s a great reward for you in heaven. That’s how they persecuted the prophets who went before you.”
Glen Stassen says that one of the primary indicators of God’s “gracing” people or “blessing” people is joy. So he translates the beatitudes like this:
“Joyful are those who are poor and humble before God, for theirs is the reign of God.
Joyful are those who are deeply saddened to the point of action, for they will be comforted.
Joyful are those whose wills are surrendered to God, for they will inherit the earth.
Joyful are those who hunger and thirst for restorative justice, for they will be filled.
Joyful are those who practice compassion in action, for they will receive God’s compassion.
Joyful are those who seek God’s will in all that they are and do, for they will see God.
Joyful are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Joyful are those who suffer because of restorative justice, for theirs is the reign of God.
Joyful are you when they criticize, persecute, and slander you, because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in God. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.”
Notice how Stassen neglects the word “heaven” in his rendering. This is intentional, as he worries that his readers will assume (as so many have with Matthew’s gospel) that the “heaven” spoken of in the beatitudes is a distant, future, hoped for reality, something removed from the here-and-now. So he changes the word to “God” (as in, kingdom of God) to match Luke’s rendering.
Stassen also goes to great lengths to flesh out the “who” of who is being spoken of. In other words, “who are the pure in heart?” Stassen says, they are the ones who “seek God’s will in all that they are and do…” Stassen does not guess at this. It comes after extensive exegetical work to determine how the original audience of Jesus’ sermon and Matthew’s gospel would have understood what was being said. That is why exercises in translation, indeed in preaching, are so important. New ways of saying the same thing, aid us in hearing it afresh.
Finally, I would point out how the various translators I have quoted, all translate the word “righteousness” as “justice.” Interesting, right? They do this because the beatitudes are derived from Isaiah 61, where righteousness is a theme. Hebraic righteousness and Hebraic justice are interchangeable themes. There are two types of justice in Jewish theology. Retributive justice (retribution for wrong doing), which belongs to God; “‘It is mine to avenge, I will repay.’, says the Lord.” And then there is Restorative justice (justice that rights the wrongs of injustice. This is the sort of justice that God’s people are called to exercise. It is plastered on nearly every line of the prophets, and more than alive in the mind of Jesus – perhaps most clearly seen in his eschatological discourses (Matthew 25:31-46, for example). Those who “hunger and thirst” for restorative justice will be satisfied. Beautiful.
The beatitudes are beautiful and relevant, especially when we recover the real meaning, as some of these translators help us do.
For a biblical understanding of “kingdom of God” read these:
“The Divine Conspiracy” by Dallas Willard
“Simply Christian” by N.T. Wright
“The Challenge of Jesus” by N.T. Wright
For a biblical understanding of “heaven” in Matthew read these:
“Surprised by Hope” by N.T. Wright
“Brazos Theological Commentary: Matthew” by Stanley Hauerwas
For a better understanding of the beatitudes & the Sermon on the Mount:
“Living the Sermon on the Mount” by Glenn Stassen
“The Message of the Sermon on the Mount” by John Stott
“The Sermon on the Mount” by Dale Allison Jr.