Blessed are the Poor
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:2)
Jesus begins His sermon by declaring ten sets of blessings. The most important thing to note about this structure is that the meaning carried by “Blessed are” is actually “blessed will be.” The characteristics exhibited by the people in the present will be blessed after the coming of the Kingdom in the future. This is eschatological blessing, and like with most of the rest of the New Testament, the coming of this Kingdom takes place after Jesus is enthroned in heaven and triumphs over the earthly Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Jesus’ intention here is to declare that Israel must live in ways that exhibit the Kingdom in order to enter into that Kingdom.
The first characteristic that Israel must exhibit is poverty of spirit. The word “poor” (ptochoi) here actually refers to those that have “willingly diminished themselves,” and is directly related to the noun ptosis, which means to have a fall or disaster befall you, and the verb ptossein, which means to bow down or to cringe like a beggar. Thus, the sense of “poor” here is greater than mere peasantry, but refers to utter destitution, a destitution that was voluntarily undertaken.
The Temple context of this saying (5:2) would have been apparent to Jesus’ Jewish audience of the period. It directly recalls Israel’s entrance to the Tabernacle with humility and mournful penitence, having willingly discarded their adornments and clothing (Ex. 33:4-6). The backdrop of Exodus 33 is that Israel sinned by worshiping the golden calf, and in response Yahweh departed from the camp and settled in the wilderness. Israel demonstrates her repentance by humbling herself and stripping all glorious apparel when they worshiped at the Tabernacle (Ex. 33:4-6).
Jesus’ deliberate recall of this moment in Israel’s history makes a serious point, one directly connected with His whole ministry on earth: Israel has sinned and made for herself another golden calf (her extra-biblical traditions which Jesus will assault throughout the Sermon). She must put off her adornments and rich apparel and enter the presence of God with humility and mournfulness. As was mentioned above, Jesus is presenting Himself as the New Temple, around which Israel must be reconstituted.
Directly implied by His first saying, Jesus is commissioning a New Israel to be gathered around Him as the New Temple, and this New Israel will be sent out to wage war on the unbelieving Israelites. Just as Moses, when he saw the golden calf, stood by the gate of the Tabernacle and called out, “Who is on Yahweh’s side? Come to me,” and all the Levites responded (Ex. 32:26), so Jesus is crying out to see who among all Israel will respond. This is a commission to holy war, and those who respond are the New Levites, charged with protecting the holy things of God. Just as Moses will send the Levites out with swords to “kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor,” (Ex. 32:27), so Jesus also said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household,” (10:34-36). Just as the Levites were sent from gate to gate throughout the camp of Israel to slay the unfaithful (Ex. 32:27-28), so Jesus will send the Twelve out from city to city throughout the land of Israel to render judgment on the unfaithful (10:1-23). All who follow Jesus are commissioned as Levites, gathered around Himself, the New Temple, a significant upgrade from the Old Covenant when only those of the tribe of Levi could qualify as Levites.
Psalm 69 also serves as the background to the first Beatitude. It focuses on the plight of the Psalmist, who is sinking and weary of waiting on Yahweh to act to deliver him (Psa. 69:1-4). He is aware of his sin and that he has become alienated from his brothers (Psa. 69:5-8). Yet it is in verse nine that we discover why this situation has come to pass: it is because “zeal” for Yahweh’s house has consumed him; for this reason his brothers reproach him and he has become a byword to them (Psa. 69:9-12). Within the context of Jesus’ Sermon, Jesus Himself is the house of Yahweh, and it is zeal for Him that consumes those who follow Him (standing in the Psalmist’s place), even though their brothers forsake and reproach them. As for the Psalmist, though, he knows that Yahweh will deliver him (Psa. 69:13-19) from the persecution and trials of his brothers-turned-enemies (Psa. 69:20-21). When Yahweh finally moves to deliver Him, the power held by his enemies will be turned back on them and what they have done will return upon them (Psa. 69:22-28). The sacrifice of thanksgiving which the Psalmist will offer in public worship will please Yahweh more than the offering of bulls or oxen, and “when the humble (ptochoi, impoverished) see it they will be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive. For Yahweh hears the poor and does not despise his own people who are prisoners” (Psa. 69:32-33). These are the poor in spirit to whom Jesus refers (5:3); they are those Israelites who hear His call and gather to worship in the house of Yahweh, now Tabernacled in the flesh in the Person of Jesus, persecuted by their brothers-turned-enemies. For them Yahweh will save Zion and build up Judah; they will inherit the Kingdom (Psa. 69:35-36).
These are the material poor, the destitute, whose only recourse is to come before God like beggars, beseeching Him for aid. Wright has suggested that more than a contrast between rich and poor, this is a contrast between the powerful and the powerless, between those who have power and influence in the world and those who do not, who must cry out to God in their helplessness. The poor are then powerless to change their plight and must turn to God as their only hope. But the contrast between material and spiritual poverty is not, as is commonly assumed, a dichotomy between material poverty on earth and spiritual wealth off in a non-material heaven, but a contrast between material lack prior to the Kingdom and material inheritance once the very this-worldly Kingdom has arrived. The poor in spirit will inherit the earth, not some spiritual evacuation to an ethereal dwelling place for the soul, and this is seen as partly fulfilled in the time of the early Church (Acts 4:32-35), which was notorious for its ability to care not merely for its own poor, but the poor of the pagan empire as well.
It should be noted that Church’s generosity to the poor begins with the movement of the Spirit (Acts. 4:31-32). The poor of Matthew’s first Beatitude are said to be poor “in spirit” (pneuma), which is the same word in the Greek for the Spirit. Given the Temple backdrop of the whole passage, we should understand this, at least partially, as a declaration that the poor are “poor in the Spirit.” It is the Spirit that enables repentance and humility, the Spirit that draws the worshiper near to God, and when the Spirit comes, these poor will inherit the earth (Acts 4:32-35) and be comforted (5:4, paraklesis) by the Comforter (parakletos). The comfort which the Spirit brings is more than non-corporeal comfort in the soul. It includes the inheritance of the earth when the Kingdom arrives. The materiality of this promise can be seen clearly when viewed in the light of the Temple, which served as the economic heart of Israel as much as the spiritual. The ordinary Israelite could deposit valuables in the Temple treasury for safekeeping, and the Temple lent and gave charitably out of its enormous wealth. In the Kingdom, not only will the wealth of the nations come into the heavenly Temple, but the treasury will opened to the downtrodden and the wealth stored up there inherited by the poor and lowly.
Yet the spiritual dimension to these poor cannot be ignored either. The Psalms are full of promises that the poor will be the ones welcomed into God’s house, the ones He will allow to draw near in His Temple (Psa. 10:8; 14:6; 22:24; 25:16; 34:6; 35:10; 37:14-15; 40:17; 69:29; 72:2-4, 12; 86:1; 88:15). The Temple in the New Covenant, to which these passages are applied, is pictured as a no-less-physical archetype to the earthly Temple, which is modeled after it. The central change between the Old and New Covenants is that now the people of God worship in the heavenly Temple as high priests, rather than in the earthly Temple, from which they were excluded from participation (Heb. 12). These “poor in the Spirit” will be given the Spirit in abundance, welcomed to the heavenly Temple, there to see God face to face.
The implications of all this for Israel is that while they were waiting for the Kingdom to arrive, stood ready to fight and kill to overcome their enemies, Jesus announces to them that the means to bringing in the Kingdom is not the way of the Zealot or the revolutionary, but the way of powerlessness. Only by appeals in worship to God by an Israel that surrenders her expectation of power and understands her impotence and powerlessness will inherit the Kingdom.
Blessed are the Mournful
Blessed will be those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (5:4)
The second Beatitude deals with mourning and comfort. Although mourning (pentheo) can mean to be sorrowful in a general sense, it is most commonly associated with lamenting over sin or the breach of the covenant. Ezra famously “mourned because of the covenant-breaking of the exile,” (Ezra 10:6) by following a three day fast, and assembled the men of Judah at the Temple, where they confessed and recommitted themselves to Yahweh, and Ezra stayed the wrath of God (Ezra 10:6-14). Likewise, the Day of Atonement was the most memorable and important day in the Jewish year, the only day of the year in which the High Priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies and make atonement for the nation, and God’s requirement was that the people approach with sorrow and remorse, afflicting themselves in their souls and confessing their sins with sincerity (Lev. 16:7-10, 29-31; 23:27-32; Num. 15:27-31). Thus, Jesus’ words would have carried to His first-century Jewish hearers the resonance of the Day of Atonement at the center of its meaning. This is ritual or cultic mourning over sins, and over a desire for forgiveness at the Temple. Jesus stands atop the mountain of covenant-making and summons Israel to repent her covenant-breaking, to draw near to Him as the New Temple, with a contrite and broken heart (Psa. 51:1), and they will find comfort. Bultmann notes that the comfort promised to those who mourn should be taken eschatologically. Specifically, then, we can see Jesus saying that when the mournful enter Him, are “in Him,” they will receive the Paraklete, Comfortor (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; 1 John 2:1).
The comfort (paraklesis) brought carries the meaning of encouragement, exhortation, or assurance brought by the comforter (parakletos), who is an intercessor or mediator. In the Old Covenant, such a mediator was the high priest, who on the Day of Atonement declared forgiveness to the people. This idea was carried into the Psalms sung in Temple worship (Psa. 94:19; 126:5-6). For Jesus, as both New Temple and the new High Priest, those who mourn over Israel’s sin and covenant-breaking will be comforted when the Kingdom arrives and the new mediation has come, in which Jesus as High Priest speaks to His people a comfort that is also a Comforter.
Isaiah 61:2-3 stand as Jesus’ intertextual echo here. The heart of the passage deals with God’s intention to “comfort all those who mourn,” (Isa. 61:2). This comfort, for Isaiah, is that one has been anointed by Yahweh and the Spirit has come upon him; this passage was used by Jesus to refer to Himself and His own ministry, descriptive of the Kingdom He was bringing near (Luke 4). Thus, comfort comes to those who mourn because Jesus has been anointed with the Spirit, the Comforter. The messianic comfort promised by Isaiah begin with good news to the poor, to bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to open the prisons of those locked up; all of this is summed up in the two aspects of Israel’s hope, to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor and the bringing of vengeance upon His enemies (Isa. 61:1-2). This is an explicit reference to the Jubilee and Sabbath year releases (Lev. 25; Deut. 15). The comfort brought to those who mourn is the comfort and relief of eschatological Jubilee, which contains both spiritual and economic implications.
The Anointed’s desire is to grant to those who mourn the headdress of the bridegroom instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit, that they might be known as the oak of righteousness, the plant of Yahweh (Isa. 61:3). The mournful poor will rebuild the Kingdom (Isa. 61:4), elevated above strangers and foreigners who have become their servants (Isa. 61:5), and most importantly of all, they will be called priests of Yahweh (Isa. 61:6). Yahweh will restore a double-restitution to them, for Yahweh loves justice (Isa. 61:7-8). The nations will acknowledge them as the true offspring of Yahweh’s blessing (Isa. 61:9). He will put on them the garments of salvation, the robe of righteousness, adorning them in the bridegroom’s headdress like a priest, in the jewels of a bride (Isa. 61:10-11). This passage from Isaiah was central to Israel’s belief that when the Anointed came, he would bring about a revolt against Rome and the Gentile powers, slaying the enemies of Israel and setting up the Kingdom in the earthly Jerusalem. Jesus’ use of Isaiah 61 here in the Sermon on the Mount emphasizes Israel’s problematic misreading of the text. It is those who mourn in repentance that will be comforted with the defeat of their enemies, not the violent, prideful nationalism of Israel’s expectation. She cried out for comfort, but the comfort she sought was a nationalistic comfort brought about by violence, bloodshed and vengeance upon their enemies, a comfort that brings mourning to others. In contrast to this prideful hope, Jesus calls Israel to see that her hope and her comfort will only come to pass by the self-infliction of remorse and repentance before the True Temple.
Blessed are the Meek
Blessed will be the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (5:5)
Jesus next announces that it is the meek that will inherit the earth. The word meek (praus) is used in the Old Testament to refer to one who takes the position of a servant, particularly of a servant-leader of which Moses becomes the quintessential example (Num. 12:4 LXX). At its core, it refers to patiently waiting on God to act (Isa. 26:6), waiting on Him to bring about the eschatological hope (Psa. 76:9; 147:6; 149:4). The primary intertextual background to the third beatitude is Psalm 37, where the Abrahamic promise will be given to the meek, those who wait on Yahweh’s decisive action (Psa. 37:9-11). “Trust Yahweh and do good . . . trust in him and he will act . . . be still before Yahweh and wait patiently for him . . . refrain from anger, and forsake wrath,” (Psa. 37:3, 5, 7, 8). It is to the meek, the one who waits, that the Abrahamic promises will be given: “those who wait for Yahweh shall inherit the land . . . the meek shall inherit the land . . the wicked plots against the righteous . . . but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for He sees that his day is coming . . wait for Yahweh and keep His way, and He will exalt you to inherit the land” (Psa. 37:9, 11, 12, 13). The exaltation of the meek in heavenly worship is a common theme in the Psalms (Psa. 25:9; 34:2; 45:4; 76:2, 4, 9; 90:10; 132:1; 147:7; 149:4).
It is clear from the context that both the righteous and the wicked in this Psalm are from within ethnic Israel (Psa. 37:9, 22); the Psalm is entirely concerned with who will inherit the promises of Abraham, the land. This fits perfectly with Jesus’ central concern in the Sermon, to present Himself as a New Temple around whom He is organizing a New Israel, those who respond to His message constituting the new priestly people, those who reject it proving themselves unfaithful at the last, the generation who shrank back from entering the land (Num. 13-14). The epistle to the Hebrews tells us that the promise of the land was only a typological prefiguring of the promise to Abraham that his offspring would inherit the whole earth (Heb. 4:4-11; see also Gen. 12:3; 28:14; Rom. 4:16-18). Jesus is presented as the Greater Moses, inaugurating a New Covenant with a New Israel, and a Greater Joshua who will lead the New Israel into a New Conquest of the eschatological land, the whole earth.
While Israel would have understood the wicked as being the Gentiles whom the Messiah would violently topple, Jesus’ meaning is a winnowing of the people of God one final time, separating them into the faithful and faithless. Only the faithful, only those who respond to Jesus’ message, will enter the eschatological age and the long-awaited Kingdom. Israel sought to inherit the earth, but the way prescribed by Jesus is not the way of triumphalistic and violent battle, but the path of meekness, the strength of patience to wait on God’s saving action.
Blessed are Those who Seek Righteousness
Blessed will be those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (5:6)
Jesus’ fourth beatitude, like the others, depends upon a strong Temple background. Only the righteous are permitted to enter into the Temple into God’s presence for worship: “I shall appear in righteousness before your face: I shall be filled in beholding your glory,” (Psa. 17:15). This Psalm was probably used in the Temple services, and is associated with a cluster of other Psalms, all of which are oriented toward Temple worship. “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise Yahweh!” (Psa. 22:26); “he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things,” (Psa. 107:9; see also 107:36; 132:15; 146:7). “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (Psa. 42:2). David claims that his soul thirsts for God, so he has “looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory,” (Psa. 63:2).
Another strong allusion is to Isaiah 55:1-3. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!,” (Isa. 55:1). This feast is part of the everlasting covenant God will make with His people, a covenant that will be open to the Gentiles as well as Israel (Isa. 55:3-5). When Yahweh acts to bring about this promised covenant, Israel is called upon to “seek Yahweh while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to Yahweh, (Isa. 55:6-7). Jesus’ use of the passage fits perfectly into His intentions in the Sermon, presenting Himself as a New Moses making a New Covenant upon a New Sinai, a New Temple where those seeking righteousness will be fed and given drink and be filled. In the New Temple there is Bread of Life and good wine. The promise given by the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says, is now being fulfilled; gather around the New Temple while He can be found, call upon Him while He is near, forsake the way and thoughts of the unrighteous.
That Israel is being called to enter into Jesus’s Body in order to eat and drink reinforces what we have already seen, that in this New Covenant, all of the New Israel will be commissioned as priests to serve in the heavenly Temple. Only priests could eat portions of the sacrifices under the Old Covenant (Ex. 29:27-28; Lev. 2:3, 10; 6:16; 7:6, 10, 14-16), and the Priest could not drink wine there; the wine of the libation offering was to be poured out on the ground as part of the sacrificial process (Gen. 35:14; Num. 15:4-6, 10). The cultic significance of being given food and drink from the Temple cannot be overestimated; Jesus presents those who follow Him, even the ordinary Israelite, as not merely Old Covenant priests now able to eat the sacrifices and grain offerings, but as actually going beyond the Old rites to be finally permitted to drink the wine formerly poured out on the ground. Such a priestly people are able to go well beyond even the High Priest, for no priest was permitted to drink the wine of the libation offering.
The Sacramental dimension becomes readily apparent in the view of the Temple imagery present in the passage. Jesus, as the New Temple, offers Himself as food and drink for His followers, and in the Last Supper actually presents His Body and Blood as the fulfillment of the grain and wine offerings of the Old Covenant (Matt. 26:27-29; Luke 22:20). That is, the hunger and thirst of righteousness is, in part, the desire to finally draw near into God’s presence. The Old Covenant regulations were stipulations of exclusion; Israel was excluded from God’s full presence and glory in the Holy of Holies, forbidden to eat the bread or drink the wine of the Table of the Presence in the Holy Place. The Temple is presented as God’s House, but the one item of furniture it lacked was a chair. Israel was only able to participate at a distance; to sit is an act of enthronement, and man was not yet enthroned in the Old Covenant. But now, Jesus says, the True Temple has come to Israel, and she will finally be able to sit in God’s presence as a son of the House and share a meal with Him when the eschatological blessing of the Kingdom arrives.
Blessed Will Be the Merciful
Blessed will be the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. (5:7)
Jesus’ fifth beatitude focuses on the eschatological hope for mercy, recalling Yahweh’s promise at Sinai after Israel sinned: “Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands [of generations], forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” (Ex. 34:6-7). Such mercy is to be found principally in Temple worship (Psa. 86:15-16; 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 116:5; 145:8). “But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you,” (Psa. 5:7). “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of Yahweh forever,” (Psa. 23:6).
The allusion back to Sinai is a covenant-establishing event. Behind the Greek word mercy (eleous) lies the Hebraic concept of “steadfast love” or “loving-kindness” (hesed). The notion of mercy in Matthew 5:7, notes Mounce, “means to maintain the fidelity of the covenant relationship,” and does not refer to swells of pity or emotion, but an intentional decision to maintain kindness on someone.
This marks the Sermon as a covenant-making event, a recapitulation of the Sinai event. Jesus is as New Moses, establishing a New Covenant with Israel. “Behold, I am making a covenant,” Yahweh declares. “Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of Yahweh, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites,” (Ex. 34:10-11). Jesus’ usage of this text casts a subtle interplay of meaning for Israel; He declares that He is making a New Covenant, the long-promised New Covenant, and this would certainly stir up the excitement and fervor of Israel’s nationalistic expectation to ride out after the Messiah, driving before them all the enemies of God and setting up the Kingdom. But it also raises a question about Israel’s covenant faithfulness. Yahweh warned them not to make covenants with the Gentiles of the land, lest it become a snare for them (Ex. 34:12-17). Had Israel remained faithful? Were they free of idolatry? Most Israelites would answer yes, that they had indeed been kept pure from contamination by contact from Gentiles. Jesus’ answer will be no, that Israel has been so desperate to remain unsullied by the Gentiles that they have set up their own purity traditions in the place of the Law, and have actually made themselves into idols.
Jesus’ radical call to Israel is that only those who show covenant faithfulness will receive covenant faithfulness. Only those who refuse to make idols out of their own traditions will escape being destroyed along with those idols. This will necessitate Israel rejecting the traditions they have elevated above the law of God; in the first-century context of Israel into which Jesus spoke these words, covenant faithfulness meant loosening up the commitment to purity, for Israel has sought to become holier than God required, yet still claiming it to be God’s standards. Such behavior has made idols out of the words of men, made God to seem a strict task-master, distorted the life-giving faithfulness to God into a way of death and enslavement, and encouraged the violent, nationalistic imaginations of Israel’s messianic expectation. For when the Kingdom finally comes, only those who showed covenant love to God shall receive the covenant love of this New Covenant.
Blessed Will Be the Pure of Heart
Blessed will be the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt. 5:8)
The sixth beatitude deals with purity of heart, and the blessing that the pure of heart will see God. This is one of the most clear sayings of the Sermon on the Mount that connects to the Old Covenant rites. This saying has to do with external purity and Temple rites. The intertexual allusion here is to Psalm 24:3-4: “Who shall ascend the hill of Yahweh? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” As Welch says, the pure in heart are “more than upstanding and morally correct; they are cleansed from all uncleanness in the sense of ritual purification.” Richardson expands on this point, noting that such ritual cleansing “is indispensable for being sanctified: no one may enter the sanctuary or touch sacred objects when they are unclean.”
Thus, the one who has not been cleansed cannot enter the Temple and see God, the connection to the Temple is undeniable. Jesus is specifically discussing the priesthood of Israel here, the ones who could actually enter the Temple, if but once a year, and see God in the Holy of Holies. His claim that in the Kingdom only the pure of heart will see God would have been understood by Israel, especially His interest in commissioning a New Priesthood around Himself as the New Temple, one which includes the ordinary Israelite, as the announcement of a change in priesthood. The eschatological blessing of the pure in heart is that they will “see God,” they will become the consecrated New Priests of the Kingdom, finally allowed into the Holy of Holies themselves, permanently. The Christian rite of baptism would serve as the fulfillment of such cleansing and consecrating rites under the Old Covenant. The one who is baptized is consecrated to serve as a high priest in the heavenly Holy of Holies. Baptism is ordination to priestly service in the House of God.
More than anything else, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ announcement of what He will do throughout the rest of His ministry on earth. Stick with Him, follow Him, become a disciple of His teaching, and these are the things you will see Him establishing. A New Temple with a New Israel around it, a New Priesthood to serve in it, a New Covenant with new rites of cleansing and commission and ordination. Jesus’ whole work is remarkably Temple-centric, His interest in setting up a new ritual cultus around Himself as the fulfillment of the old ritual cultus. The blessing of the pure in heart is that they will become the New Priesthood, and they will see God in His heavenly Temple, in all His glory. In this way, He calls Israel out from their earthly Temple, for those who maintain the Old Covenant worship will never see God; they are excluded from being enthroned in heaven with God in His True Temple.
Blessed Will Be the Peacemakers
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matt. 5:9)
The seventh beatitude concerns peacemaking and the blessing on those who make peace. Behind the Greek word for peace (eirene) stands the Hebraic concept of shalom. While shalom and eirene can be used for general peace, especially the making of peace between conflicted factions (Josh. 10:1, 4), it is also regularly used in connection with Temple worship. Among the religious uses of the word, Welch notes several, including the right ordering of the world, wholeness, restitution, the gift of God, the promised eschatological peace, the portion of the righteous, peace with God, and peace between men. It constitutes “in the most comprehensive sense the epitome of the successful, undisturbed, and salvific effectiveness.” A key allusion is to Psalm 34:14: “Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” This psalm is of David, after his change of behavior before Abimelech (Psa. 34:1), and is a summons to Israel to worship God with him (Psa. 34:3). It references Moses’ descent from the mountain with his shining face (Ex. 34:29-35), now expanded to include the faces of the whole assembly shining after meeting Yahweh in worship (Psa. 34:5). It is a psalm of deliverance, “When the righteous cry for help, Yahweh hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. Yahweh is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit,” (Psa. 34:17-18).
For Jesus’ purposes, it is those who will become His followers who will be permitted to ascend the mountain and see Yahweh face to face, their faces shining like Moses’ in the light of His glory, when the Kingdom finally arrives. The call to be peacemakers is the call to become those who reconcile, both between man and man as well as between God and man. It will not be long before He calls for anyone drawing near the altar to make sacrifice, who remembers their brother might have something against them, to halt their sacrifice where it is and go to reconcile with them before returning. Those who reconcile between persons are judges, and the judges weighing between parties in the Old Testament are probably in view (Ex. 18). That is, the New Priesthood Jesus is establishing will also be judges, reconciling between men (1 Cor. 5-6) as well as between men and God (2 Cor. 5:18-20).
Those who seek peace will be, Jesus says, called sons of God in the coming Kingdom. While the term “sons of God” is occasionally used for the Angelic host (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7, possibly Deut. 32:8), it is more frequently used as a term for the covenantally faithful. Adam was a son of God (Luke 3:38), the Sethites are described as “sons of God,” (Gen. 6:1-2), the King was a royal adopted son of Yahweh (Psa. 2:6-7), all of Israel was Yahweh’s son (Deut. 14:1; 32:19; Isa. 43:6; 45:11), and Jesus would claim to be both Israel and Yahweh’s Son, which amounted to pretty much the same thing. This sonship of Israel was dependent upon what was called the “covenant of peace,” the gracious establishment of the ritual and sacrificial system which permitted peace to exist between God and His people, whom He adopted as His son. The death of Jesus would eventually establish the long-promised eternal New Covenant, which established this peace forever (Col. 1:19-22), and by way of baptism and ingrafting into Him, Christians become sons of God as well (Gal. 3:26; Rom. 8:14-15, 19).
Jesus’ words sketch out a radically different agenda for the Kingdom than Israel expected. She expected the Messiah to wreak vengeance and bloody war on her oppressors, initiating a reign of peace enforced by bloodshed and the sword. But Jesus says to them, only those who seek peace will inherit the coming Kingdom.
Blessed Will Be the Persecuted
Blessed will be those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed will be you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:1-12)
These three final beatitudes are too closely interrelated to distinguish one at a time. The last two are almost no different, while verse 12 is properly connected to them as the conclusion to verses 10-11.
Jesus finishes His beatitudes by drawing attention to the fact that His challenge to the prevailing expectations of Israel will not be well received, but the blessing for those who persevere to the dawn of the eschatological age will be the Kingdom itself, for the trials they suffer will be like the trials of prophets who likewise suffered for the very same Kingdom (Heb. 11:36-40). Such suffering under trial is a pervasive theme in the Psalms and Prophetic books of the Old Testament. Considering just the Old Testament passages already alluded to by Jesus in the Sermon, the theme of persecution is explicitly in the background (Psa. 37:12, 14, 32; 69:1-4). The prayers of the righteous for deliverance from the persecutions of their enemies is also common (Psa. 7:1; 31:15; 35:3; 69:4). The Psalms also frequently express confidence that God would act decisively to deliver His faithful and sweep away the unrighteous (Psa. 37:1-2, 9-22, 28, 34-39; 69:13-18, 35-36). It is this great vindication which Jesus has announced is coming, which will sweep away the opponents of God’s Kingdom and deliver His oppressed faithful, and like with the prophets of old, the chief opponents to the Kingdom will be from within God’s own people (Psa. 37:9, 22, 28, 34).
As was mentioned above in connection with the blessing on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the righteousness Jesus refers to is to be understood as cultic righteousness, not merely a moral purity; the righteous have been cleansed and consecrated for service in the Temple. Jesus is performing a recommissioning of Israel, the re-forming of Israel as a New Priesthood around Himself as the New Temple. Only those who suffer for the sake of this new cultic righteousness, this new priesthood, would inherit the Kingdom when it arrives. The conflict will be a clash between priesthoods and who has permission to access holy things; it is no wonder that Jesus was opposed chiefly by the priests and scribes and Pharisees—those who believed themselves to hold authority to access the holy things of God. There is a deliberate critique of the priesthood of Israel implicit in Jesus’ denunciation of those who persecuted the prophets (5:12). Shortly before the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, we are told this:
All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of Yahweh that he had made holy in Jerusalem. Yahweh, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of Yahweh rose against his people, until there was no remedy. Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged. He gave them all into his hand. And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of Yahweh, and the treasures of the king and of his princes, all these he brought to Babylon. And they burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem and burned all its palaces with fire and destroyed all its precious vessels. (2 Chron. 36:14-19)
In the same way, the scribes and chief priests and Pharisees will ignore the warning of God’s anointed one, the Messiah. Like the prophets of old, He will reach the climax of His ministry by denouncing the polluted and corrupt priesthood and declaring the Temple desolate, prophesying its destruction in one generation (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 16). Like the corrupt priesthood of old, the chief scribes and priests will ignore Jesus’ warning, and just like of old, one generation later Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.
Endnotes: (see also: bibliography)
1. John Welch, The Sermon on the Mount in the Light of the Temple, 47.
2. Welch, Sermon on the Mount, 49.
3. Welch, Sermon on the Mount, 49.
4. Welch, Sermon on the Mount, 49-50.
5. Welch, Sermon on the Mount, 50.
6. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 288.
7. The Roman Emperor known as Julian the Apostate would famously declare that the early Church “not only feed their own, but ours also,” (Epistle to Pagan High Priests). See also Stark, The Triumph of Christianity, ch. 6.
8. Stevens, Temples, Tithes, and Taxes.
9. Stevens, Temples, Tithes, and Taxes, 137, 150.
10. The Epistles to the Hebrews presents this argument strongly. See my comments in The Messianic-Priest King, ch. 7.
11. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 288.
12. Welch, Sermon, 50.
13. Bultmann, “Penthos, pentheo,” TDNT, 6:43.
14. Welch, Sermon, 51.
15. Welch, Sermon, 51.
16. Blomberg, “Matthew,” in: Beale and Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 20.
17. See Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 199-210; Trocme, Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution, 27-52, 67-76; Kraybill, Upside-Down Kingdom, 95-136; Kinsler and Kinsler, Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life; Lowrey, Sabbath and Jubilee; Jones, Dismissing Jesus, ch. 5.
18. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 288.
19. Welch, Sermon, 52.
20. Welch, Sermon, 52; Blomberg, “Matthew,” 20.
21. On this typology of Jesus and the Land, see my Messianic Priest-King on Heb. 3-4.
22. See my Messianic Priest-King, ch. 8.
23. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 288.
24. Welch, Sermon, 53.
25. Blomberg, “Matthew,” 20.
26. Though he misses the Temple imagery that make the sacramental dimension explicit, Sadler (Gospel According to St. Matthew, 53-54) sees the Eucharist in Jesus’ words here.
27. Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, ch. 5-6.
28. “Indeed, the heart of priestly fellowship with God is to eat a meal with Him, yet it was on the sabbath day that no Manna fell at all,” Jordan, Sociology of the Church, 101.
29. On the exclusion of Israel from Old Covenant worship, see the discussion in Jordan, Sabbath Breaking and the Death Penalty, ch. 2-3.
30. Mounce, Matthew, 40.
31. Welch, Sermon, 54.
32. Against the myriads upon myriads of individualized, internalized readings of this passage exhibited in the scholarship, of which Sadler (Gospel According to St. Matthew, 55) is representative when he says it speaks of the cleansing of the “interior of the soul.”
33. Blomberg, “Matthew,” 20; Welch, Sermon, 54.
34. Welch, Sermon, 54.
35. Richardson, Theological Word Book of the Bible, 272.
36. Welch, Sermon, 54.
37. Barker, Temple Themes in Christian Worship, 56.
38. Spencer, Holy Baptism, 11-64.
39. Leithart, Priesthood of the Plebs, ch. 3-5.
40. This means we must disagree with much of the scholarship current today, which sees Jesus and the Church as wholly disconnected and unrelated, as though Jesus had no intention of establishing an institutional Church. So be it.
41. This is also the message of the epistle to the Hebrews. See my Messianic Priest-King.
42. Welch, Sermon, 57.
43. Welch, Sermon, 57.
44. Stendebach, “shalom,” TDOT, 15:40-41.
45. Blomberg, “Matthew,” 20.
46. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, 104-107, 118-135.
47. Wright, Knowing Jesus, 103-118.
48. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 288.
49. See my comments in Messianic Priest-King.
50. Welch, Sermon, 61-62.