We have no good way of extrapolating backward from Matthew’s Greek Gospel to the Aramaic words Jesus spoke. Thus, we have to rely on Matthew’s choice of terminology and his knowledge of Greek. He was a cousin of Jesus who served in Herod’s tax bureau. It’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have learned some Greek simply because it was the most commonly used language of commerce throughout the Roman Empire. It was everyone’s second language, when it wasn’t their first. Matthew’s position out near the northern border of Herod’s kingdom would necessitate a working knowledge of Greek. So we have to trust his Greek rendering of his cousin’s teachings, even if we dare to assume Jesus never bothered to use Greek Himself.
It’s also important to note that Matthew may have been forced by circumstances to summarize. But we also have to recognize that the Messiah trusted him to handle this job properly. As we read through Matthew’s Gospel, it exudes the air of Ancient Hebrew culture, not in the high sense of something like Isaiah’s courtly prophecy, but of a Hebrew man rediscovering the truth hidden by centuries of Hellenizing influence. It addresses the dire need of Jewish readers to reclaim that lost heritage, at least insofar as Jesus Himself conveyed the same demand in His teachings.
So Jesus was speaking to common folks who were likely quite confused by rabbinical teaching. Instead of citing dozens of preceding scholars and confusing things even more, Jesus worked at presenting the truth as a challenge to listeners to leave behind the nit-picking legalism of Judaism and simply open their minds to the leadership of their hearts. We know that He used common parabolic images that would have been recognized, particularly from Old Testament Scripture. But He used them in a way that renewed their mystical call to rise above oneself and receive truth from the heart. It was like plowing up hard-packed roads, and then watering the soil to see what would grow.
This was God’s Covenant people, who bore in their souls a very ancient calling to know and walk in the moral character of their Lord. Some would not get it right away, and some might never do so. However, Jesus knew that using parables would beckon from the heights of the soul. Some would take awhile, but the power of God’s truth was enough to break through a bunch of bad rabbinical teaching. Meanwhile, a major element in all of Jesus’ ministry was the background noise of expecting the Messiah “any day now.” His disciples were pretty sure Jesus was the Messiah, but didn’t have a clear idea what God had actually said about Him.
Beatitudes Matthew 5:3-12
The starting refrain is “blessed” — Matthew uses the Greek word indicating “how fortunate!” To a Hebrew mind that would register as God’s favor.
v3. The first is “poor in spirit.” This conjures the image of someone who cowers somewhere out of the way, hoping he’s not noticed so as to avoid punishment. In more common usage, it indicates someone who frankly owns nothing except what’s in his hands. This is a beggar whose condition is so pitiful that he couldn’t work for a living. These people know they are dependent on the kindness of strangers. By casting it as a spiritual condition, Jesus indicates someone who creeps into the back of the Temple courtyard and cowers before the Lord.
This is an ancient feudal protocol: the most insignificant servant in a ruler’s court who huddles in the far corner. He has to be there, but he better not make his presence known until he’s called. Jesus said such people are the first ones welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven — a code phrase for the Messianic Kingdom. People who want to claim citizenship under the Messiah, which implies a certain degree of kinship, would have shed all their pretense and claims under any previous regime. Whatever you hold in this world has no bearing on your place in the Spirit Realm.
v4. To mourn or grieve is in the same context as the preceding. You should be deeply aggrieved at how necessary it is for the Messiah to start from scratch as the first beatitude implies. What a rotten condition the Covenant Nation must be in! They have drifted far, far away from the nation that would welcome and embrace the Messiah when He appeared.
And it should be obvious that this grieving would start with one’s own sins. Notice there’s no indignation and judgment lauded here, but the simple fact of being deeply sorrowful for sin. Jesus has Isaiah’s declaration in mind here:
Then I said, “Woe is me! For I am undone; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, Jehovah.” (Isaiah 6:5 MKJV)
It is the kind of heart that weeps this way over sin that qualifies to receive the comfort the Messiah will bring with Him.
v5. The word translated “meek” refers to a person who bears gracefully the unjust abuse of others. The implication is someone who is oppressed by government, particularly someone living under military occupation by hostile foreigners. It is also used to refer to someone who is a social outcast, implying that they refuse to get involved in petty partisan disputes. Jesus says that God and His Creation are on your side if you are that kind of meek. You are too busy with the Master’s moral agenda to pay much attention to persecution. You stick to your mission and your domain. Someday you’ll look around and realize all your enemies are gone, and the Messiah has put you in charge.
v6. The fourth one is painfully obvious in most English translations. The Jewish society of their day was filled with obnoxious characters lusting after all kinds of wealth and power, any competitive advantage at all. They held feasts inviting only each other and jockeyed for places of honor in public. And here Jesus reminds them that Messiah won’t be too impressed by such folk when He comes. In the Kingdom of Heaven, people who have an appetite for equity and divine justice are the folks who will feast at His table.
v7. It seems funny how everyone in Jesus’ day knew what mercy and compassion looked like, but there was so little of it being offered. There’s nothing wrong with upholding the law and moral standards. This is not about being lax and lazy about enforcing what your heart demands as essential for shalom. But it was a sour and evil person who acted as if they never needed mercy themselves. It’s not hard to adjust the punishment to fit the crime and offer something that emphasizes reform and recovery over torment.
v8. Here is a flat statement of the heart-led thinking of Ancient Hebrew culture. A pure heart in Hebrew minds meant a clear and unambiguous commitment to Jehovah as divine Father and Lord. It indicates someone who is intent on absorbing the character and personality of God. Everyone listening to Jesus teach would have recognized the full meaning behind this image. It stood in stark contrast to what they saw every day.
v9. Regarding peacemakers, we must first remind ourselves that “peace” is equivalent to the Hebrew term shalom — the blessed state that grows up around the people who are faithful to the Covenant. It implies reasonable prosperity, security from threats, health against plagues and social stability. So a “founder of peace” is someone who promotes Covenant moral purity. Granted, there is an emphasis on seeking to defuse tensions, but that is frankly taken for granted, seeing we live in a fallen world. It’s all about reducing tension between God and His people. It does not include making a false peace that compromises righteousness, but seeks to find room for everyone to seek the heart of God. A “peacemaker” is also someone who carries the sword; that’s part of the Hebrew image here.
v10-12. These final three verses are all one point, and a very emphatic one. Having already hinted at this in verse 5, Jesus expends quite a few words flatly pointing out the proper expectation of someone who intends to make ready for the Messiah’s arrival. If the Messiah will need to break down the current system — not just Roman government, not just that poser Herod, but the current Judean leadership — then obviously things will get ugly before it’s done. And as people begin to reclaim their covenant heritage of mystical moral purity, they should expect to get into lots of trouble from the folks currently ruling.
This would be nothing new for some Judeans. The Sanhedrin routinely called the peasants “ignorant” and “accursed” and treated them accordingly. The mutual resentment was well established. There was already an undercurrent of resistance against the still-morphing oral Talmud of their day (“Traditions of the Elders”), and common folk were well aware this oral legal code was not quite what Moses taught. So Jesus is partly taking the common man’s side against the corrupt leadership.
But at the same time, He was calling for the people not to get hung up on whining and vengeance. Instead, He raises a much higher standard that was always within reach of the heart, but impossible for the legalist mind of the Jewish government. So He goes on at length about bearing up under the coming persecution as things are sure to get worse before they get better. Jesus includes the line about how this same persecution was the common lot of prophets before Him, indicating an emphasis on the ancient mystical ways, not the new and shiny legalistic nonsense. The heart-led mysticism was not forgotten, but that lamp of truth was growing dim. Jesus was stoking a bonfire with it.