The Beatitudes: The Christian Manifesto

This is a poignant week for me. The 31st January is the 70th anniversary of the 1953 floods that devastated the coastal communities of East Anglia. A confluence of two weather systems – one in the English Channel and the other in the North Sea, caused a a storm surge. The abnormal rise in sea levels brought death and destruction all along the East coast, the worst floods in living memory. During that raging storm out to sea, the Lowestoft trawler Guava sunk without trace. My uncle Edward Sizer was one of the eleven crew who never returned home. 

Where do you find your security in the storms of life? Where do you find peace of mind in an uncertain world? How can you experience joy in a scary world?  

Where did the first Christians find theirs? Hiding in the catacombs of Rome, as family and friends were thrown to the lions, crucified, or set ablaze as torches for one of Emperor Nero’s garden parties, how did they encourage one another? Secretly? They used a sign scratched on the walls of their hideouts underground. What was it? Surprisingly, it was not the cross. It was an anchor.

It comes from Hebrews 6:19: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” 

How we respond to trauma reveals whether we have an anchor. An anchor in the storms of life is our only hope, our peace and indeed can be our joy. Yes joy. Because nothing distinguishes Christians from others more clearly than how we respond to adversity. And joy is the most visible sign. No one in the entire world has ever had more reason to be discouraged than Jesus, and yet no one was more joyful. Jesus embodied a joy that refused to give in to bitterness. A joy that overcame pain – even in the face of the cross. 

Have you ever considered the expression ‘the joy of the cross’? Jesus was joyful even as he faced the cross. And we are told to fix our eyes on him to find courage to face our own. 

“fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)

What kind of joy is this? This sacred joy is mentioned in so many of Jesus parables. It is the joy of the father scrubbing the smell of pigs off his son’s back… the joy of the widow throwing a party for her son with food baked for his funeral. The joy of discovering the pearl of great price, the lost coin, the treasure hidden in a field, the multiplied talent, and the criminal on the cross scraping into heaven in his dying breath. This Sacred delight is discovering that the Lord God Almighty, the king of the universe is also your loving Father, your counsellor, comforter, protector, by your side, in your heart, out in front, and covering your back, 24 hours a day. It is a sacred joy because it is divine in origin. There is no other way of describing it.

Jesus summed it up in one word, “Blessed.” So rich, so important a word, Jesus repeats it over and over and over again in his first, his longest and most important sermon. 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is 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 be shown 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 because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:1-12)

We have here, Jesus manifesto for all who follow him. The word “Blessed” in the original Greek is “Makarios”. “Blessed” is not the same a “Happy”. Happiness is a subjective state entirely dependent on our circumstances. Blessed describes an inward contentedness that is not affected by circumstances. This is clear from how Jesus describes those who are blessed by God. It is a state of joy and well-being that does not depend on circumstances. This blessedness is God’s desire, his will for his children. Let me make three observations about these blessings.

1. This Blessedness seems Paradoxical 

The conditions and their corresponding blessings do not seem to match, do they? By human standards humility, mourning and persecution are not normally equated with joy. But here Jesus contradicts all human expectations. The world says, “Happy are the young, the affluent, the successful, the glamorous, the popular, the famous, the aggressive. Tragically, some Christians believe that God guarantees his children health, success and prosperity. Jesus taught no such thing. Indeed He taught the opposite. Jesus warned that worldly advantages limit true joy. No, this sacred joy, this blessedness Jesus promises is not to be confused with happiness. This blessedness is a deep, supernatural joy derived from trusting Jesus. It is indeed like having an anchor in a storm. This blessedness seems paradoxical.

2. This Blessedness is Promised 

It is important to remember that the Beatitudes are not aspirational or ideals. The Beatitudes are divine promises of blessing. In Luke’s account of this sermon Jesus matches each blessing with a “woe” connotating pain or calamity. The opposite of the blessed life is the cursed life. 

Jesus used positives and negatives to teach the same truths. – “this is the way to live – this is not the way to live.” What Jesus is saying is this, “If you set your heart on power, or prosperity or popularity, things which the world values so highly, you may get them…. but that’s all you’ll ever get. But if you set your heart, your mind and will on being loyal to God, you will indeed be blessed – Blessed with all kinds of trouble, because people will mistake you for me, they will slander you, misrepresent you, even persecute you. But when that day comes, as it most surely will, smile, because great is your reward in heaven.” 

This blessedness may seem paradoxical. But this Blessedness is promised.

3. This Blessedness is Progressive 

These blessings are not in a random or haphazard order. Each leads progressively to the next in logical succession. Jesus is describing the radical process of reconstruction, of renovation, indeed of sanctification, of becoming what God has destined us to be as his children – to become like the Lord Jesus Christ. Observe the sequence. 

First, we must recognise we are in need (poor in spirit). Next, we repent of our self-sufficiency (mourning). Then we quit running our lives our way and surrender control to God (meekness). So grateful are we for his presence that we yearn for more of him (we hunger and thirst). As we grow closer to him, we become more like him. No longer insecure we learn to forgive others (we show mercy). We increasingly see things from God’s perspective (the pure in heart). We leave our comfort zone to resolve conflict (the peacemakers), and at times we endure injustice (the persecuted). Jesus promised his followers three things. They will be completely fearless, absurdly joyful and in constant trouble. The jewel of joy is given to the impoverished, not the affluent. God’s delight is received upon surrender, not awarded upon conquest. 

The first step to experiencing this joy is a plea for help. Those who would know God’s presence know their spiritual bankruptcy. Their cupboards are bare. Their pockets are empty. Their options are gone. They have long since stopped demanding justice, and instead plead for mercy. They don’t brag, they beg. They ask God to do for them what they can’t do without Him. This is the irony of God’s blessedness – born in the parched soil of destitution rather than the fertile ground of achievement. Acknowledging our spiritual poverty is the indispensable first step for experiencing God’s blessing.

What we have in these verses is a step-by-step description of how God progressively makes us more and more like Jesus as we learn submission to His majesty. What will the coming week be like? God knows. God does indeed know. And that is why we need an anchor don’t we?  “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”(Hebrew 6:19). The Beatitudes are like the chain that secures us to our anchor, the promises of God’s Word, in the person of God’s Son, through the presence of God’s Spirit. 

The blessing of knowing God, revealed in these Beatitudes is pure, sacred, joy and delight. This blessedness may seem paradoxical. But this blessedness is promised. And this blessedness is progressive. So, make them your manifesto, your mandate for how you will follow Jesus this week. 

A holy joy, a sacred delight. A blessedness that nothing can destroy and no one can ever take away. May God’s richest blessing be your experience today. God bless you and those you love.

Recommended Commentaries and Study Resources:

John Stott’s The Sermon on the Mount (IVP)
Helmut Thielicke’s Life Can Begin Again (James Clarke)
John Stott, The Beatitudes: Developing Spiritual Character (IVP)
Max Lucado, The Applause of Heaven (Thomas Nelson)

Questions for personal reflection or group Bible study

  1. What do these verses tell us about Jesus?
  2. What do these verses tell us about ourselves?
  3. How does Jesus contradict typical ideas of happiness?
  4. How does Jesus challenge superficial descriptions of the Christian life?
  5. Can you think of instances when you have experienced these blessings?
  6. How might these blessings help you fix your eyes on Jesus?
  7. Which of these blessings do you most need to reflect on this week?

This is the first in a series of weekly Bible expositions based on the Revised Common Lectionary.

It is hoped these weekly resources will be useful to fellow pastors, bible study groups as well as for personal devotions.

Each week the Bible exposition will be available as a video to watch and text to read or download. Recommended resources and questions for group or personal study will also be provided.