The Beatitudes are named and structured after the Greek word makarios, meaning someone who is the privileged recipient of divine favor. It is also a literary form found in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, the book of Psalms opens with a beatitude: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The greatest concentration of beatitudes in the Old Testament is within the Psalms and the Wisdom literature. Robert Guelich indicated there were 44 examples of beatitudes in the New Testament, primarily in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Jesus begins his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount by underlining the various ways his disciples have and will receive divine favor. Both the poor in spirit (5:3) and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (5:10) receive the kingdom of heaven now, in this present time. The others—in between—have a future promise of fulfillment. Beginning and ending with the same expression is a stylistic device called an inclusion, according to D.A. Carson. So then the present and future blessings are all part of the same theme—the kingdom of heaven. Craig Blomberg said: “Complete fulfillment of Jesus’ promises often requires waiting for the age to come.”
Implied in the Greek word for blessing, is having a right relationship with God and enjoying fellowship with Him. Instead of focusing on what we are to do, the Beatitudes describe the blessings. The obligations or expectations in this relationship come later on in the Sermon on the Mount. Sinclair Ferguson commented that the blessings also weren’t new teaching or revelation. Jesus took some of the themes from the Psalms and Isaiah and applying them to the disciples. “He was pointing out what God’s word tells us is the blessed life.”
Several commentators have noted where Matthew has eight beatitudes, Luke’s Sermon on the Plain only has four (Luke 6:20-22). Another difference is how Matthew’s blessings are all in the third person (5:3-10), where Luke’s are in the second person. Biblical scholars have given a variety of explanations, but it seems to me the best is to see the two sermons not as edited versions of the same one, but as two occasions where Jesus used the “beatitude” approach. So those who receive divine favor are poor in spirit, mourners, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.
The poor in spirit are those who recognize their spiritual bondage. They are conscious of their sin debt, which separates them from God. All they can do is “cry for mercy, and depend upon the Lord.” D.A. Carson said poverty of spirit was: “The personal acknowledgement of spiritual bankruptcy. . . . The conscious confession of unworth before God.” Note how Carson’s thoughts reflect the process of coming to believe in the first two Steps.
Poverty of spirit becomes a general confession of a man’s need for God, a humble admission of impotence without him. Poverty of spirit may end in a Gideon vanquishing the enemy hosts; but it begins with a Gideon who first affirms he is incapable of the task [powerless], and who insists that if the Lord does not go with him he would very much prefer to stay home and thresh grain.
The mourners grieve the evil and sin they see in themselves and the world around them. The meek are “humble, gentle and not aggressive.” These are not typical qualities of the movers and shakers of this age. But in the age to come, they will lead the meek to come into the possession of what the movers and shakers sought to possess in this age—the earth.
Meekness as humility is throughout the A.A. Big Book. Bill W. said that when making a Third Step with an understanding person, if it was “honestly and humbly made,” it could sometimes have a very great effect at once. Working the Steps meant relying upon God rather than ourselves. “To the extent that we do as we think He would have us, and humbly relay on Him, does He enable us to match calamity with serenity.” The process of the first three Steps is one of admitting spiritual bondage to alcohol and turning it over to God. The Third Step prayer in the Big Book reads:
God, I offer myself to Thee—to build with me and do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!
By combining hunger and thirst in 5:6, Jesus intensifies the sense of longing after righteousness—the quality of judicial correctness or justice, with a focus on redemptive action. This righteousness is then seen in granting mercy to others; being pure in heart; being a peacemaker.
Mercy is being concerned about other people in their need; being compassionate. Those who show others mercy will be granted mercy. The final judgment comes to mind here: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
In January of 1953, a man in the Huntsville Texas prison reflected in the Grapevine (“From Within These Walls”) on how A.A. helped him and others gain a new conception towards those who were distressed. He said the alcoholic prisoner tended to look upon the world through “a mist of resentments.” The desire for revenge poisoned the life of the person who cherished it. Revenge begets revenge, he said. “While forgiveness melts the stony heart and brings reconciliations.” If anyone were to ask him what was the most inherent and conclusive proof from the Gospels that Jesus understood humanity, he would point to the Beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Being pure was to be free from moral guilt. Leon Morris noted this is the only time in the New Testament where purity is predicated of the heart. “To be pure in heart is to be pure throughout.” And in the age to come they will see God, reversing the separation to goes back to the Garden of Eden. The Greek word for peacemaker occurs only here in the New Testament and refers to someone who works to restore peace between people; who seeks reconciliation or amends with others. They will be called sons of God. Craig Blomberg said: “Others will identify them as God’s true ambassadors, as those being conformed to his likeness.”
Becoming a peacemaker is embedded within the Eleventh Step. In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. suggested the St. Francis Peace Prayer as a beginning for meditation and prayer in Step Eleven (See “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace” for more on the Peace Prayer and A.A.)
There are many other ways that the Beatitudes and 12 Step recovery are associated. If you start your own study, you will discover them. This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applied to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”