The series of conditional blessings promised in Matthew 5:3-12 have long been called the Beatitudes, a name derived from Latin and referring to a state of happiness or bliss. Jesus presents the possibility of people being genuinely happy, and that available happiness is the opening theme of the Sermon on the Mount. Many people, including some Christians, find that hard to believe. How could a message as demanding and impossible as the Sermon on the Mount be intended to make people happy? Yet the first and greatest sermon preached by Jesus Christ begins with the resounding and repeated theme of happiness, a fitting start for the New Testament’s “good news.”
Far from being the cosmic killjoy that many accuse Him of being, God desires to save men from their tragic lostness, to give them power to obey His will, and to make them happy. In this great sermon, His Son carefully and clearly sets forth the way of blessedness for those who come to Him.
Makarios (blessed) means happy, fortunate, blissful. Homer used the word to describe a wealthy man, and Plato used it of one who is successful in business. Both Homer and Hesiod spoke of the Greek gods as being happy (makarios) within themselves, because they were unaffected by the world of men—who were subject to poverty, disease, weakness, misfortune, and death. The fullest meaning of the term, therefore, had to do with an inward contentedness that is not affected by circumstances. That is the kind of happiness God desires for His children, a state of joy and well-being that does not depend on physical, temporary circumstances (Phil. 4:11-13).
The word blessed is often used of God Himself, as when David ended one of his psalms with the declaration “Blessed be God!” (Ps. 68:35). His son Solomon sang, “Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, who alone works wonders” (Ps. 72:18). Paul spoke of “the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11) and of Jesus Christ “who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (6:15). Blessedness is a characteristic of God, and it can be a characteristic of men only as they share in the nature of God. There is no blessedness, no perfect contentedness and joy of the sort of which Jesus speaks here, except that which comes from a personal relationship to Him, through whose “magnificent promises” we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).
Because blessedness is fundamentally an element of the character of God, when men partake of His nature through Jesus Christ they partake of His blessedness. So it becomes clear at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus is speaking of a reality that is only for believers. Others can see the kingdom standards and get a glimpse of kingdom blessings, but only those who belong to the kingdom have the promise of personally receiving and experiencing the blessings. To be blessed is not a superficial feeling of well-being based on circumstance, but a deep supernatural experience of contentedness based on the fact that one’s life is right with God. Blessedness is based on objective reality, realized in the miracle of transformation to a new and divine nature.
The Beatitudes seem paradoxical. The conditions and their corresponding blessings do not seem to match. By normal human standards such things as humility, mourning, desire for righteousness, mercy, and persecution are not the stuff of which happiness is made. To the natural man, and to the immature or carnal Christian, such happiness sounds like misery with another name. As one commentator has observed, it is much as if Jesus went into the great display window of life and changed all the price tags.
In a way, happiness is misery with another name; Jesus has changed the price tags. He teaches that misery endured for the right purpose and in the right way is the key to happiness. That basic principle summarizes the Beatitudes. The world says, “Happy are the rich, the noble, the successful, the macho, the glamorous, the popular, the famous, the aggressive.” But the message from the King does not fit the world’s standards, because His kingdom is not of this world but of heaven. His way to happiness, which is the only way to true happiness, is by a much different route.
Seneca, the first-century Roman philosopher who tutored Nero, wisely wrote, “What is more shameful than to equate the rational soul’s good with that which is irrational?” His point was that you cannot satisfy a rational, personal need with an irrational, impersonal object. External things cannot satisfy internal needs.
Yet that is exactly the philosophy of the world: things satisfy. Acquiring things brings happiness, achieving things brings meaning, doing things brings satisfaction.
Solomon, the wisest and most magnificent of ancient kings, tried the world’s way to happiness for many years. He had the royal blood of his father, David, coursing through his veins. He had vast amounts of gold and jewels and “made silver as common as stones in Jerusalem” (1 Kings 10:27). He had fleets of ships and stables filled with thousands of the finest horses. He had hundreds of wives, gathered from the most beautiful women of many lands. He ate the most sumptuous of foods on the finest of tableware in the most elegant of palaces with the most distinguished people. He was acclaimed throughout the world for his wisdom, power, and wealth. Solomon should have been immeasurably happy. Yet that king, so great and blessed by earthly standards, concluded that his life was purposeless and empty. The theme of Ecclesiastes, Solomon’s personal testimony on the human situation, is “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?” (1:2-3).
Jesus came to announce that the tree of happiness cannot grow in a cursed earth. Earthly things cannot bring even lasting earthly happiness, much less eternal happiness. “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed,” Jesus warned; “for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Physical things simply cannot touch the soul, the inner person.
It should be pointed out that the opposite is also true: spiritual things cannot satisfy physical needs. When someone is hungry he needs food, not a lecture on grace. When he is hurt he needs medical attention, not moral advice. True spiritual concern for such people will express itself first of all in providing for their physical needs. “Whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17).
But the more common danger is trying to meet almost every need with physical things. That philosophy is as futile as it is unscriptural. When King Saul was distressed, his jewels and his army could give him no help. When King Belshazzar was having a great feast with his nobles, wives, and concubines, he suddenly saw a hand writing on the wall, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.” He was so terrified that his “face grew pale, and his thoughts alarmed him; and his hip joints went slack, and his knees began knocking together.” His military power, his influential allies, and his great possessions could give him no solace (Dan. 5:3-6, 25).
The great Puritan saint Thomas Watson wrote, “The things of the world will no more keep out trouble of spirit, than a paper sconce will keep out a bullet…. Worldly delights are winged. They may be compared to a flock of birds in the garden, that stay a little while, but when you come near to them they take their flight and are gone. So ‘riches make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven'” (The Beatitudes [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1971], p. 27). The writer of Proverbs said, “Do not weary yourself to gain wealth, cease from your consideration of it. When you set your eyes on it, it is gone” (Prov. 23:4-5).
Tragically, many preachers, teachers, and writers today “who must be silenced” (Titus 1:11) are passing off worldly philosophy in the name of Christianity-claiming that faithfulness to Christ guarantees health, wealth, success, prestige, and prosperity. But Jesus taught no such thing. What He taught was nearer the opposite. He warned that physical, worldly advantages most often limit true happiness. The things of the world become fuel for pride, lust, and self-satisfaction—the enemies not only of righteousness but of happiness. “The worry of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful,” Jesus said (Matt. 13:22).
To expect happiness from the things of this world is like seeking the living among the dead, just as the women sought Christ at the garden tomb on that first Easter morning. The angels told the women, “He is not here, but He has risen” (Luke 24:6). Paul said, “If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-2). John said, “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world…. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15, 17).
True blessedness is on a higher level than anything in the world, and it is to that level that the Sermon on the Mount takes us. Here is a completely new way of life, based on a completely new way of thinking. It is in fact based on a new way of being. The standard of righteousness, and therefore the standard of happiness, is the standard of selflessness—a standard that is completely opposite to man’s fallen impulses and unregenerate nature.
It is impossible to follow Jesus’ new way of living without having His new life within. As someone has suggested, one might as well try in our own day to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that in the Millennium the wolf, lamb, leopard, kid, lion, and cow will live together peaceably (Isa. 11:6-7). If we were to go to a zoo and lecture a lion on the new peaceable way he was expected to live, and then placed a lamb in the cage with him, we know exactly what would happen as soon as the lion became hungry. The lion will not lie down peaceably with the lamb until the day when the lion’s nature is changed.
It is important to remember that the Beatitudes are pronouncements, not probabilities. Jesus does not say that if men have the qualities of humility, meekness, and so on that they are more likely to be happy. Nor is happiness simply Jesus’ wish for His disciples. The Beatitudes are divine judgmental pronouncements, just as surely as are the “woes” of chapter 23. Makarios is, in fact, the opposite of ouai (woe), an interjection that connotes pain or calamity. The opposite of the blessed life is the cursed life. The blessed life is represented by the true inner righteousness of those who are humble, poor in spirit, whereas the cursed life is represented by the outward, hypocritical self-righteousness of the proud religionists (5:20).
Source: The – MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Matthew 1-7.