• The Explore the Bible lesson for Jan. 3 focuses on Matthew 5:1-16.
The Beatitudes are amazing. I can’t do them justice in a few pages, so below are a few supplemental thoughts to add to our excellent lesson.
Doing or being?
For the past few years, I’ve been contemplating how Christianity is less about doing and more about being. Let me explain. In example, if you read 1 Timothy 3, you won’t find a “job description” for pastors and deacons. Especially as it relates to deacons, there isn’t a “to-do” list; rather, there is a “character” list. It describes, in great detail, what the Christian character of a deacon should be like. It’s about being a Christian example.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were more interested in looking holy than actually being holy. Jesus, knowing of the significant influence of not only the Pharisees but also the Sadducees and teachers of the law, wanted to create a baseline understanding of his movement, and more importantly, his kingdom (Matthew 4:17).
A sitting moment
Jesus knew he had an authoritative voice. So, after he called the 12 disciples and crowds started to follow him, he started what appears to be an unusual practice. “Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down” (Matthew 5:1). In Jesus’ day, it was the opposite of my church and yours. The person with the teaching authority sat while the people stood and listened. Suggest that at your church and see what happens. It’s quite astonishing when you remember Jesus sat down in the temple at age 12 when he taught the religious leaders.
So, Jesus pulled his main leaders, the 12 disciples close by, but had the intention of teaching not only them, but also a huge crowd. The teaching that follows is considered as significant to the New Testament as the Ten Commandments are to the Old Testament.
What you may not know
In Hebraic numerology, there is a “stress” on the first and the last of any number sequence, most especially in teaching. In example, there is a stress on the first and 10th commandments of the Ten Commandments. The first commandment to Israel, you shall have no other gods before me, is a summary statement of the Shema, the boiled-down or crystallized, if you will, encapsulation of the totality of the Law. The 10th commandment, you shall not covet, is an encapsulation of all of the laws of the 10 that are “man-to-man” laws. In other words, if you don’t covet, you won’t take your neighbor’s life or your neighbor’s wife. You won’t steal his stuff. You will speak true words about your neighbor.
So, there is a similar stress in the Beatitudes. Notice, the first statement: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 3). Compare it to the last statement: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 10). Being poor in spirit or persecuted yields the same blessing, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Therefore, everything in between these two has a common theme—the attributes of citizens of the kingdom of God.
The truth on blessed
A book has been particularly helpful to me recently—Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Richards and O’Brien. We all approach Scripture with a certain cultural blindness. What “Blessed are the …” might mean to us as modern-day Westerners, compared to what it meant to Jesus’ hearers and also Matthew’s audience, ancient Near Eastern people, could be as different as apples and oranges. So, what was the meaning of the blessed life?
In biblical Greek, the term for “blessed” is markarios. As Westerners, we tend to think of “blessed” as the accumulation of more material goods. This notion is light years away from the meaning of the Greek word. The basic idea of markarios is an inward joy or blessedness, untouched by the troubles of this world. Far beyond fleeting happiness, this blessedness truly has nothing to do with how many possessions one may or may not have.
Dan Crawford, in his book Discipleshape, says the following: “The full meaning … may be best understood from the perspective of the Greeks themselves. They called the island of Cyprus, hemarkia (the feminine form of markarios), which literally meant The Happy Isle. So beautiful, lovely, rich and fertile was Cyprus that the Greeks believed a person would never need to leave its shores to find genuine happiness … .Thus, markarios describes a distinctive joy whose secret is within itself, untouchable, self-contained, independent of all the happenings of life.”
That is such an excellent definition of blessedness: a secret joy, untouched by any happenings of life. I just ate a homemade coconut macaroon. It made me happy, momentarily. After I finish off the box, I won’t be happy anymore. Instead, like you, I will mourn the calories and the lack of self-control. Happiness is fleeting. Blessedness is an inner joy no one can touch.
My “blessed” place
For the past three years, our church has been engaged in a partnership with a new church in El Salvador. According to the lead pastor we work with, the small village is some of the poorest of the poor in the region. Going in with a Western mindset, it’s easy to want to “fix the problem” of their poverty. What our mission team has learned is “we have the problem.” Here are people with few material goods, most of whom make minimum wage, yet they are content with their lives. El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar as currency. Minimum wage is $1 per hour. Yet, many things in El Salvador are more expensive than in the United States. I saw a box of Fruit Loops in El Salvador that cost nearly $8. That’s a whole day’s work for one large box of cereal. Yet, our good friends there are more than happy, they are joyful about life, even in terribly difficult living conditions.
My worldview has changed because of our ministry in El Salvador. I’m quickly reminded now the shirt I just had to have won’t bring me any markarios. The new car? New house? There is nothing wrong with those things for sure, but they are just things. None of it will bring true blessedness.
What will bring lasting, self-contained, untouched by the troubles of the world type joy?
Poverty of spirit
Sorrow over sinfulness
Meek and mildness
Hunger for righteousness
Pureness of heart
This is the gospel of Jesus. This is the message of his kingdom.
Application for your lesson:
1. Why do American Christians have “blessed” so backwards?
2. What is the difference between being Christian or doing Christian things? How do we spot the difference in ourselves? In others?
3. What is your “blessed place?”