I just received a call from a missionary in Europe asking about the Beatitudes—especially Matt 5:3 and 5:10. He’d been reading a commentator who argued that the Beatitudes were descriptions of the type of people who will get into the kingdom. In this understanding the Lord was calling His disciples to live exemplary lives so as to prove to be genuine believers and not false professors. Genuine believers would heed the call and get into the kingdom. False professors would not and would end up in hell.
Interpret Each Beatitude in Light of the Whole
The Beatitudes are a unit. Each one starts with the words blessed are and then is followed by some sort of blessing the person will have in the life to come.
While eight different conditions are stated, they all deal with the attitudes and actions that should characterize a disciple of Jesus.
While eight different rewards are given, they too are related. All concern kingdom-related experiences in the life to come.
There are really only two ways to interpret these blessings.
The first is to understand the promised rewards as various things which all true believers will have in the life to come. So the issue here is kingdom entrance and the privileges that all who enter will have. Under this understanding, the conditions for those rewards can be seen either as requirements to be born again and stay born again (the Arminian understanding), or as character qualities which all truly born-again people will necessarily possess (the Reformed understanding). Note, however, that even in the latter view they are conditions for kingdom entrance, for one will not get into the kingdom unless he develops and characteristically employs these qualities in life. Hence in the entrance interpretation these verses are implicit warnings about the possibility of going to hell if you don’t get to work.
The second interpretation views the promised rewards as things which only some believers will receive. Thus one can get into the kingdom and yet not have these blessings. Hence in the rewards interpretation the Beatitudes are implicit warnings about the possibility of missing out on special honor and fullness of life in the life to come. But one’s eternal destiny is not in question.
Support for the Rewards Understanding
It is telling that there is not one mention of faith or belief in the entire passage. Surely if the Lord were trying to lead unsaved disciples to faith in Him, He would at least mention faith. Don’t you think?
Why don’t some of the Beatitudes mention faith? If these are dealing with conditions of entering the kingdom, we would expect to read something like, “Blessed are those who believe in Me, for they will enter the kingdom of heaven,” or “Blessed are the believers, for they shall inherit the earth,” or “Blessed are the ones who have faith in Me, for they shall see God.”
Some might counter that Jesus didn’t mention believing in Him when He evangelized the Rich Young Ruler (RYR). Yet the contexts are quite different. Jesus was not only evangelizing the RYR, He was calling Him to discipleship and to earning treasure in heaven: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me” (Luke 18:22). In addition, most commentators recognize that what Jesus was doing was not precisely evangelism, but pre-evangelism. He was using the Law lawfully to show the RYR that he was a sinner who could not be justified by his works (compare the preceding parable of the Pharisee and the publican, Luke 18:9-14).
Unlike the RYR encounter, here we have no quoting of the Ten Commandments. We have no effort to show the listeners that they are sinners unable to save themselves. Instead, we have regenerate disciples, not unbelievers, being addressed, and the stated issue is rewards, as vv. 10-12 make explicitly clear.
Only the rewards interpretation makes sense of the fact that belief is not mentioned.
The Salt and Light References
Note that this passage is followed by a reference to the listeners being salt and light. When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” He has not changed referents. He is still speaking to His disciples, those whom He challenged to be blessed ones. The kingdom-entrance understanding requires that suddenly in v. 13 Jesus stops addressing a mixed group of true and false believers and now is only addressing true believers. Yet Jesus used the second person plural in vv. 11-12 and that is a clear link to the use of the second person plural in vv. 13-14ff.
The Apostles’ Handling of the Beatitudes
Verses 11-12 concern the obtaining of rewards for being persecuted for the sake of righteousness because of Jesus. Compare what Peter has to say on that subject in 1 Pet 4:13. He says that the degree we suffer with Christ is the degree to which we will be glorified with Him. That is a rewards, not entrance, understanding.
Paul said that while all children of God are heirs of God, only those who suffer with Christ will be joint heirs with Him (Rom 8:17). Clearly he has a rewards understanding related to suffering.
James spoke of the need to be merciful in this life so as to have mercy at the bema (Jas 2:13). That is directly linked to Matt 5:7. James related being merciful to our outcome at the bema, not to getting into the kingdom.
Poor in spirit probably is related to Jas 2:5, which reads, “Has not God chosen the poor [ptōchos, same word as in Matt 5:3] to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man.” James’s point is that most of the believers who will be heirs of the kingdom will have been poor in this life. The physically poor James is speaking about were surely also poor “in spirit.” That is why they are rich in faith and set to inherit the kingdom. The issue in Jas 2:5 is ruling with Christ, not entering the kingdom, as the believers’ mistreatment of poor believers confirms.
James also talks about those who mourn: “Lament and mourn [same word as Matt 5:4] and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning [noun form of same word] and your joy to gloom” (Jas 4:9). He then continues, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord [parallel to mourning], and He will lift you up” (Jas 4:10). Lifting up refers to exaltation and reward and ultimately rulership. Compare 1 Pet 5:6, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time.”
The Issue is Possession, Not Entrance
So what about the repeated expression theirs is the kingdom of heaven that bookends the Beatitudes? Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall enter the kingdom.” The issue here is possession of the kingdom (“theirs is”), not entrance (“they shall enter”).
This is supported by the fact that the word theirs is a possessive pronoun, reflecting the Greek autōn, which is a pronoun in the genitive case expressing possession. Thus the expression theirs is means something like, “These people are the possessors of the kingdom.” All believers enter (Rev 22:17). Only overcoming believers will rule and have special privileges (Rev 22:14).
Note that the Beatitudes begin and end with this expression (5:3, 10). Verses 11-12 are an explanation of the last Beatitude, which concerns persecution and possession. Those verses are set in a different style from the rest (note the shift to you) and explicitly show that possessing the kingdom is a reward.
Why follow Christ and suffer persecution if you know your name is written in heaven and you are eternally secure (Luke 10:20; John 11:25-27)? One reason is because fullness of life now and in the life to come is only found in following Jesus. Thus it only makes sense to wholeheartedly follow Him. The path of discipleship is the blessed way. So follow Him and you’ll enjoy the fruits of that decision now and forever.