As a kid, maybe 10 or 12, I was leafing through my red-letter edition of the Bible and I noticed that there was one section of unbroken red text that was longer than any other. It was Matthew 5–7. I thought that was kind of cool, and if my memory serves me (sometimes it refuses), that’s why I read this sermon as a young pre-teen. I actually got to know it somewhat well, and I credit Jesus’ words with giving me a firm foundation in difficult times. That’s a vague way of saying it, but I have very definite instances in mind. Truly, the Sermon on the Mount became a rock for me to build my life on before the rains descended and the floods came.
Like all residents of my town, built around the Skagit River, I know it’s best to build your house before the rainy flood season. But even if you are in the middle of the floodwaters, you can reach out for the rock of Jesus’ words, clamber onto it, and find solidity in a world of difficulties. It’s never too late to heed the wisdom of this sermon.
Let’s work through a little of the beginning of this sermon. We’ll focus on one word in one verse, in fact. Jesus preached this sermon right after he began his ministry, having just called his disciples in the previous chapter. And take simple note of what Matthew tells us about this particular day in Jesus’ ministry: there were great crowds around Jesus, but they weren’t the people he was talking to in the Sermon on the Mount.
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
Though surrounded by crowds, Jesus was speaking to his disciples. This is significant, because it shows that the counsel, instructions, commands, and teaching Jesus gives in this sermon are primarily aimed at people who have already repented of their sins and committed to following Jesus. This sermon is what one writer called “the manifesto by which the new community Jesus is forming should live” (Blomberg, NAC).
And the first words of this manifesto are striking and unforgettable:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The very first word, “Blessed” (makarios) is something that ought to get your attention. I dutifully looked it up in the excellent Greek dictionaries available to me in my Logos Bible Software library, and this is what the word means: “pertaining to being happy, with the implication of enjoying favorable circumstances” (Louw-Nida.) The biggest reason I find this striking is that I like being happy, and I like enjoying favorable circumstances. Did Jesus just start a sermon with the word “happy”?
I decided not to take the lexicon’s word for it, using Logos’ Bible Word Study tool to dig a little deeper. I looked at the kinds of people who are makarios and the kinds of situations in which people are makarios. Paul is makarios to show up before Agrippa and testify about Jesus (Acts 26:2). Even God Himself is makarios (1 Tim 1:11). The kinds of circumstances in which people are makarios are the kinds of circumstances in which we in contemporary English would use the word “happy.”
Like so much of what Jesus said, he was following in the footsteps of biblical writers before him—such as the writer of the first Psalm (possibly Jesus’ own ancestor David), who began with the very same word, “Happy 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.”
Years ago in an outreach ministry, in a place where literacy rates were very low, the job fell to me to put Psalm 1 to melody and to adjust the lyrics a little to fit the meter of the melody. I changed “blessed” to “happy” precisely because I wanted the adults and teens who sang that song to know that the Bible does hold out a promise of happiness to them.
But there’s an angle on that word “blessed” that I realized in my study. There’s a reason we use an English adjective that is almost like a passive verb: “blessed.” That’s because there’s a flavor in this word—the flavor of a hidden actor, or rather, Actor. And it shows up after you use the Bible Word Study (and specifically the LXX section). You get the sense as you look at use after use of “Happy are the so-and-so’s” that Somebody is making these people happy. Somebody is blessing them. How could Jesus say that people who are poor in spirit and who mourn and who are persecuted are makarios? Because God is gracing them at that moment. People who are poor in spirit get in that state because of God’s gracious action in their hearts.
Jesus begins his sermon with an offer of happiness. It doesn’t make someone a preacher of the “prosperity gospel” to repeat it—particularly because of what Jesus says next. It’s paradoxical: Jesus says that it’s those who are “poor in spirit” who are happy. It’s the humble and the lowly who are truly blessed.