Written by Dr. Tim Brophy
Let me start by saying how grateful I am for the opportunity to contribute to The Beatitudes Project at The Double Edge! It is truly an honor to be able to share my thoughts on the opening verses of Matthew 5, and I am genuinely humbled to be included among such an authentic group of Christ’s disciples! Since I am kicking off this series, I thought it would be appropriate to briefly elaborate on the overall scope and purpose of the Beatitudes (see also Victor Stanley Jr.’s two introductory posts in this series) and only then to focus on the blessings of the poor in spirit.
As Vic points out, Jesus’ Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) stand at the head of what many consider to be the greatest set of moral teachings of all times! But as Vic also reminds us, they should not be seen as something to be attained or somehow earned, but rather as attributes that naturally characterize the people of God because they are being transformed by the grace of God into the image of His Son Jesus (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Vic’s reference to Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy is key in this regard and I think it bears repeating. Willard says that the typical view of the Beatitudes as a list of good things to be achieved in order to be blessed by God,
“precisely misses the point that the very formulation of the Beatitudes should bring to our attention. Jesus did not say, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit because they are poor in spirit.’ He did not think, ‘What a fine thing it is to be destitute of every spiritual attainment or quality…it makes people worthy of the kingdom.’”
As Willard also implies, there is “[nothing] good, [nothing] God supposedly desires or even requires, that can serve as a ‘reasonable’ basis for the blessedness he bestows.” No, instead, the Beatitudes demonstrate the immense power of God’s grace to transform poor, broken sinners and the radical/unexpected nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. As Vic puts it:
“[Jesus] turns conventional thinking on its head and disrupts the status quo…[the blessed] are not the mighty or the popular, they are not the powerful or elite, they are not [even] the pious and holy…[instead they] are the people society looks down on, or simply overlooks…The Beatitudes highlight those who are least likely, in our minds, to gain entrance into the Kingdom, and says that they are the very ones to whom it will be given.”
It’s probably not surprising to most of you, given his legendary emphasis on grace and faith, that Martin Luther also agrees with this perspective. In his Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Luther says that the attributes described in The Beatitudes “are simply fruits of [true Christian] faith which the Holy Spirit himself must work in the heart. Where faith now is not, there the kingdom of heaven also will be wanting, nor will spiritual poverty, meekness, etc., follow…”
As to the temporal scope of the Beatitudes, I also agree with Vic (and Willard!) that the Kingdom of Heaven and, therefore, the Beatitudes are present and available in the here and now! But like many theologians, I also think there’s a “not yet” dimension to the Kingdom, one that applies to the Beatitudes as well. In fact, both the “already and not yet” features of the Beatitudes can be seen in the structure of the text itself. The present-tense promise attached to both the first and last beatitude is “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, 10). The inclusion of this same promise at both the beginning and end of the Beatitudes implies not only that they form a single unit, but that the present promise of the kingdom applies to the entire set. In fact, Matthew just established, some ten verses earlier (4:17), that the “kingdom of heaven” has already arrived (i.e. “is at hand”); so it makes sense that the blessings of that kingdom have arrived as well!
That being said, we mustn’t make the opposite mistake of completely dismissing the future implications of the Beatitudes. After all, the promises attached to the bracketed beatitudes, in the middle of the passage (vv. 4-9), are all given as future tense (i.e. “for they shall”). Certainly the promise that the “pure in heart…shall see God” is, at least in part, connected to the final “beatific vision” found elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g. 1 Cor. 13:12; Heb. 12:14; 1 John 3:2; Rev. 22:4). Similarly, the ninth “beatitude” (vv. 11-12), albeit in a slightly different form and outside the present-tense brackets, also promises a future reward in heaven. And Jesus, when referring to rewards in the “kingdom of heaven” elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel (19:28-29), uses language that can be reasonably interpreted as having only future implications. R.T. France, in his NICNT commentary on The Gospel of Matthew, summarizes the tension between the “now and not yet” in the Beatitudes extremely well: “The advantages of being God’s people can…be expected to accrue already in this life, even though the full consummation of their blessedness remains for the future.”
With that general background in mind, it’s time to move into the specific passage at hand. In Matthew 5:1, Jesus, after seeing the large crowds that have been following him since the end of chapter 4, seeks a quieter location in the mountains (probably the hill country to the west and north of the Sea of Galilee) to teach his disciples about the radical nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. So right up front, it’s clear that Christ’s followers (those who have already committed their lives to him) are the intended audience of the Beatitudes.
Incidentally, this lends credence to the notion that the Beatitudes are not merely a list of attributes that we must work towards in order to gain God’s favor or blessings. They are teachings that, as Luther says, “no one understands…unless he is already a true Christian.” Now, the crowds are certainly “eavesdropping” on the periphery, but Jesus needs to make his disciples understand (those who will carry this good news forward) that the Kingdom of Heaven is not at all what they expect! So he sits down, in the posture of an authoritative rabbi, and opens his mouth to teach them (5:2). And what he says next is the primary subject of this article: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
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The Rev’d Dr. Timothy R. Brophy is the Senior Pastor/Vicar at Church of the Good Shepherd. He is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and holds a Ph.D. from George Mason University. Pastor Tim also holds a Master’s degree from the Rawlins Divinity School at Liberty University and has taken additional courses at the Anglican School of Ministry as well as Gordon-Conwell & Reformed Theological Seminaries. He has spiritual gifts of pastoring and teaching, and is committed to the authority of Scripture and its applicability to everyday life. Tim has been married to Michele for nearly 25 years and has been blessed with six children: Timmy, Emily, James, John, Peter, and Chloe! Pastor Tim is also a professor at Liberty University, teaching courses in environmental biology. When he’s not teaching or pastoring, Tim enjoys hanging out with Michele & the kids: skateboarding & rolling on the floor with the boys, shopping and going on dates with the girls, watching movies, and looking for salamanders in the woods!
France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT). Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing
Luther, Martin. Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. Translated by Charles A. Hay.
Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1892.
Stanley, Victor, Jr. “Blessed are the…” The Double Edge, June 2, 2018. https://www.hebrews4.
org /blogs/beatitudes.html (accessed July 2, 2018).
Stott, John R.W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-
Culture (Bible Speaks Today). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: