The Beatitudes (the 'Blesseds', Matthew 5:1-10) have seeped into our cultural consciousness. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” is a staple of journalists, while, “Blessed are the peacemakers” finds itself on the lips of politicians hoping that theirs will be the Nobel Peace Prize.
At first glance the Beatitudes seem like nothing more than well-meaning clichés, but the more you look at them, the more complicated and perplexing they become.
Jesus starts his Sermon on the Mount by speaking of the blessed, those whom others look at and say, “I wish I were them!”, because of the reward they receive. The same reward— “the kingdom of heaven”—opens and closes the beatitudes, indicating that the others—comfort, inheriting the earth, receiving righteousness and mercy, seeing God and being called his children—are simply different facets of that same reward.
But who receives the kingdom of heaven? The first four beatitudes describe someone who recognises that they lack something, for they are poor in spirit, mourn and are meek. What they lack becomes clear in the fourth beatitude—“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”. Those who lack righteousness and wish they had it are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
But the second four beatitudes throw us onto the horns of a dilemma, because they say exactly the opposite! Only those who actually live righteous lives—the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted because of their righteousness—will receive the kingdom of heaven.
So unless we realise our unrighteousness we will be condemned, but unless we live righteously we will be condemned too. It seems a particularly cruel paradox. We’re literally damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Is Jesus just messing with our heads? No. Just the opposite. He’s revealing the key to the entire Christian life.
How can those who recognise their unrighteousness receive the kingdom of heaven? Clearly not through their own righteousness—they don’t have any! Their only hope is for God to graciously grant them a status in line with the righteousness they long for.
But God’s gift of a righteous status has an extraordinary effect—it actually leads to righteous living. The justified become just.
How does that work? Quite naturally. Those who think they are righteous in and of themselves tend to look down on others. But those who know their own unrighteousness, and that the kingdom of heaven is theirs purely because of God’s mercy, will naturally show mercy to others.
Those who hated their own impurity, who have been cleansed by God, and who long to see him in all his holiness, will naturally live in purity of heart now. Anything else would be bizarre.
Those who know that God has made peace with them, will naturally make peace with others.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are now guaranteed of being filled, live righteously out of the gratitude and hope that also strengthen them to stand firm in the face of persecution.
God’s gift of a righteous status is brilliant. It leads to a life of righteousness, while avoiding the ugliness and minimising that characterise self-righteousness. The self-righteous person tries to lower the bar of righteousness in order to clear it, but those declared righteous through God’s grace can aim for maximum righteousness, free from the fear that failure will lead to condemnation.
In fact, the ‘declared righteous’ to ’righteous life’ connection is so certain that Jesus can state that only those who live righteously will inherit the kingdom of heaven. Not because they have earned it, but because all those—and only those—who recognise their unrighteousness and rely on God to provide will live lives of genuine righteousness.
Justification by grace through faith not only saves, it transforms too.