“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
What comes into your mind when you hear the word, “blessed?” What kind of person is truly well off? When we think of what it means to be blessed or well off, it is natural to visualize things like a lot of money, a successful career, a big house (or houses), exciting trips and vacations, status in the community, or romantic dreams being fulfilled.
In addition to that, a lot of people in our culture do not see following Jesus as part of the answer, often due to hearing messages from churches more focused on morality and behavior than the good news of the gospel. Talented country artist Josh Ritter’s 2015 album called “Sermon on the Rocks” explores religious themes based on his experience with a legalistic church environment before he departed from Christianity. One of the main songs, “Getting Ready to Get Down,” is a portrayal of a fictional girl who finds freedom and joy apart from her legalistic upbringing as she embraces self-expression, the value of our day. Further, many professing Christians in the Bible belt hold to what Dallas Willard calls “gospels of sin management,” the notion that Christianity is only relevant to what happens when one dies, but not to real-life today.
Jesus flips every one of those assumptions upside-down in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. He redefines what true flourishing looks like and what it really means to be well off. He shows that Christianity is not about joylessly following a list of rules to earn God’s approval or the approval of a church, but about receiving His free gift of grace. He demonstrates that Christianity is of course relevant for when we die, but the way of Jesus is also the most relevant way of life today.
Jesus lived on earth in both a Jewish and Greco-Roman context, and both Jewish and Greco-Roman thought were concerned with the question, what is the good life? In other words, what does it mean to flourish as a human? With that philosophical backdrop in mind, Jesus entered that conversation with His Sermon on the Mount and provided his own answer.
He starts out with the word “blessed,” which in Greek is makarios and can be translated to mean blessed, happy, or well off. Christian philosopher, professor, and Bible scholar Jonathan Pennington states that “flourishing” is the most helpful word to capture what makarios conveyed in Jesus’ context. In his insightful book, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, Pennington writes, “The Sermon is Christianity’s answer to the greatest metaphysical question that humanity has always faced—how can we experience true human flourishing? What is happiness, blessedness, shalom, and how does one obtain and sustain it?” Far from being joyless or irrelevant then, Christianity is the path to joy (Psalm 16:11) and the most relevant belief system for life today (not just life when we die, as relevant as it is to that as well).
But who is the flourishing person? In the first characteristic listed in the Beatitudes, Jesus answers that it is the one who is poor in spirit. This is what launches the rest of the sermon. In The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott explains that this phrase refers to people who know they’re in need of God’s help and understand their spiritual bankruptcy apart from Him. The reward for that is getting a relationship with God and belonging in His Kingdom solely by His grace. How different than how we often define what it means to be a flourishing person!
However, it is easy to interpret the Beatitudes as a to-do list for God to accept us and the conditions for us to earn His blessing. Is this describing a works-based salvation? No, because that would contradict the main message of the Bible that we are saved entirely by God’s free grace in Christ. Far from being a works-based salvation, the Beatitudes are not a prescription of things we need to do, but a description of what someone who is affected by God’s free grace begins to look like and an invitation to true human flourishing in a relationship with God. This is the impact that God’s grace has on people; we begin to change not because of us, but because of the effect of God’s love. This is where true flourishing begins, and this is what Christianity is all about.