Thoughts on Matthew 5-7
Before I go any further into the book of Matthew, I want to stress the importance of examining a passage in light of its historical context and immediate application to the original audience before we see how it applies to us today. Not only did the narrative take place in a certain context and with particular audiences, the authors of the books of the Bible wrote with specific audiences in mind. In Matthew’s case, it was the Jews. Thus, there’s a way in which we can and should approach this, or any book of the Bible, armed with at least a basic understanding of the historical context and original audience(s).
The beautiful thing about the Bible is that it’s more than a historical document, rather it is the “living” word of God and is profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. As such, it transcends time and is applicable through direct and inferred interpretation of commands or principles based on context. This means that I can read the Sermon on the Mount and find reasonable ways to apply what Jesus said to His disciples and the crowds to my own life today. Furthermore, because the Bible was written by men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit as they wrote, we rely on the Holy Spirit today to teach and guide us as we read God’s word. As we read it, we must remember it is the very voice of God speaking. If we don’t hear it, it’s not that God is silent, it’s that we are not listening.
The upcoming passage of Scripture, Matthew 5-7, contains the “Beatitudes” – the first recorded portion of the what has been named “The Sermon on the Mount.” These are likely some of the most quoted verses of the New Testament, somewhere close behind John 3:16 and The Lord’s Prayer, which is in chapter 6 and a part of The Sermon on the Mount. The context of this passage was established in the preceding verses that talked about people from all over the region, to include many Gentile areas, coming to seek healing and to hear Jesus preaching. The Scriptures paint a picture of a giant crowd of people following Jesus around for a variety of reasons. These crowds are what motivate Jesus to climb up on the hillside and begin preaching the most famous sermon in history.
Reading only Matthew’s Gospel account leaves the reader with a fairly compressed timeline that breaks Jesus’ life and ministry thus far into neat sections – genealogy, birth, baptism, temptation, ministry inauguration, calling of disciples and, now, ministering and preaching to the crowds. There’s not much by way of expanding on what miracles Jesus performed or who he encountered within the narrative. Thus, when we begin reading the Beatitudes, the sense is that everyone is supportive of Jesus and his message, and the Lord begins by pronouncing blessings on a receptive people. However, Luke sheds more light on the context leading up this event as well as the mood and tone of the sermon.
Luke records the genealogy and birth narrative like Matthew, but with even more detail. He also introduces John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism, but Luke conveys a much sharper tone in John’s words (i.e. Luke 3:7-9). Luke then moves on to Jesus’ temptation, as Matthew does, but then Luke includes a number of interactions that Matthew does not – interactions that change the tone and context a bit as he leads up to The Sermon on the Mount.
First, in Luke 4 we read about Jesus being rejected and almost thrown off a cliff in Nazareth. Chapter four also includes stories about Jesus healing people and casting out demons. Chapter five has Jesus calling his disciples and healing more people, but also describes friction building between Jesus and the Pharisees. In verse 21, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of blasphemy, and in verse 30 the religious leaders grumble about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. Then, chapter six relates even more conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees when Jesus allowed his disciples to pick heads of grain on the Sabbath (and then states he is the Lord of the Sabbath, essentially stating he is God). Then, on another Sabbath, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, filling the religious leaders “with fury” prompting their discussions about how to get rid of Jesus. It’s with this tense history between Jesus and the religious leaders that The Sermon on the Mount is delivered. Not everyone present liked this Nazarene preacher.
What’s interesting about Luke is that he not only highlights the animosity between Jesus and the religious leaders in the preceding chapters, he also includes the pronouncement of “woes” after his shortened recording of the Beatitudes. The reason for stating all of this is because our understanding of Jesus’ words is affected by our understanding of the context and audience – an audience that contained people who loved Jesus, hated Jesus, sought Jesus for pure motives, sought Jesus for selfish motives, Jews, Gentiles and Jesus’ own small cadre of disciples.
One of the first things that needs to be done when approaching the Beatitudes is to determine what is meant by the word “blessed” since Jesus uses it in each of the next nine verses. There are many ways this word can be interpreted throughout the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament. The first time we see this word used is when God is creating the animals in Genesis 1:22. He blesses them and tells them to be fruitful and multiply. This usage of “blessed, translated from the Hebrew word “barak,” and many others in the OT within the context of conveying a desire for someone or something’s success, relates to the prosperity of that which is being blessed. God blessed His creation, He blessed certain people, people blessed people, and people, such as the Psalmist, blessed the Lord. While prosperity can certainly imply or include happiness, that’s not the overt sense of the word “barak.” However, the Hebrew word “’esher,” which is also translated as “blessed,” does mean happiness, and that is word used in many of the Psalms and other verses where it describes the disposition of a person (i.e. “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord…”).
Similar to the way multiple Hebrew words with different meanings are translated as “blessed” in the OT, so it is with the Greek in the NT. The Greek word “eulogētos” is translated “blessed” and means “praised” or “to praise” and is used in numerous verses related to blessing the Lord. This word comes from the root “eulogeō,” which can mean to praise, to consecrate, to pronounce blessings upon (i.e. “bless those who curse you”). The Greek word translated “blessed” in Matthew 5 is the word “makarios,” which can mean “happy,” but also “blessed” or “supremely blessed.” Thus, what Jesus is saying in the Beatitudes can mean simply “happy,” or it can mean that God’s providential favor rests upon the person. One is an active human feeling/disposition, while the other is passive receiving of divine favor. Which is it?
Based on what I have studied and heard in sermons, the best translation of “blessed” is the one that carries the deeper meaning, not just “happy.” Although, it has been suggested and is quite possible our current understanding of the word “happy” might be much more shallow than what it once was. Thus, the way to approach this passage is simply to know that Jesus states people who are like those named in the Beatitudes have God’s divine blessing upon them.
It is here that I must admit my utter ignorance and even discomfort with what Jesus says in the upcoming section of the Bible. The Sermon on the Mount remains the most difficult passage of Scripture for me to interpret and/or accept. What follows for the remaining chapters and verses of this sermon are my feeble attempts at exegeting these passages. Unless the Lord helps me, what I am about to undertake might well be a complete waste of time for me to write and for you to read. May God help me.