When Moses went up into a mountain, he delivered the Law, summed up in the Ten Commandments.
In biblical symbolism, ten is a number of completion: it presents a finished form, in the case of the Law a rounded righteousness.
Jesus also climbed a mountain and delivered a torah–a “teaching” or “law”–but he began his differently. He began with eight blessings.
Those blessings are known as the Beatitudes (from the Latin meaning “supreme blessedness”) and we’re going to camp out in them for the next eight weeks or more. But before we do, I want us to step back and see them with a wide lens.
The Beatitudes are as significant to Jesus’s teaching on the kingdom as the Ten Commandments were to Moses’s teaching of the Sinai Law. But their form immediately shows us that what Jesus is bringing surpasses what Moses brought.
The end of the Law, as Paul tells us, was a curse and death. Jesus, from the outset, brings life.
THE MEANING OF BLESSING
I wrote about blessing (Hebrew barak) in an early post in this series, where we looked at Jesus as the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham to bless the nations:
A study through the Bible passages that use the word “barak” shows it to be the source of life, righteousness, prosperity, and salvation.
Fundamentally, to bless is to fill with the capacity and potential for life. To curse is the opposite — it is to wither, dry up, make barren.
Blessing is a kind of empowerment given through the spoken word of God. It is as significant to human origins as creation itself: immediately after creating mankind, God BLESSED them.
For this reason, we are empowered to be more in the world than animals or plants; for good or for ill, we create, we rule, we influence through our wills and actions. We are creatures of real significance because we are blessed …
Through Jesus, the blessing of Abraham — life, salvation, prosperity, healing, creative power, influence, righteousness — comes on all the children of faith.
That Jesus opens his sermon by giving not commandments but blessings marks a fundamental difference between the Sinai Covenant and the covenant Jesus brought: where one depended on human ability for its good fulfillment, the other begins with the direct empowerment of the Word and Spirit of God.
And while blessing in the Sinai Covenant had to be earned through obedience (see Deuteronomy 28-30),* blessing in Jesus is given at the outset, as a gift.
Obedience is still the goal, of course (why would you NOT live in a relationship of hearing-and-doing with a lord, savior, and teacher whose will is perfect goodness and whose teachings are the deepest possible wisdom?), but we arrive there from a new direction.
Blessing, empowerment, being filled with the capacity for life: that’s where it starts.
THE POWER OF EIGHT
The number, too, is significant. Bible numbers are often symbolic, with some more familiar than others: one and three for God, seven for divine perfection, forty for testing/purification, etc. Eight is the number of resurrection, new life, and eternity. It indicates a new creation after the finish of the old one. Eight is both an end and a beginning: it comes after seven, the last day of the week, but since the week starts over, the eight is also a one — a new start.
The Ten Commandments presented a finished Law, a completed, closed system. Jesus acknowledges this when he says that everything written in the Law must “be accomplished”: the Law is finite and can be finished.
The Eight Blessings of Jesus’s teaching, on the other hand, give life without end. They are blessings of resurrection to eternal life.
NOT A TO-DO LIST
There’s a traditional approach to the Beatitudes that totally misses what these blessings ARE, that they are not tasks or a checklist for who’s in and who’s out but blessings on people that impart life to them.
That’s why the Beatitudes begin with “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” not because being spiritually impoverished is a virtue but because God’s gift has come on those with absolutely nothing to offer.
That’s our starting point: We have nothing. Our hands are empty. Our souls are a graveyard of dreams.
To us, Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is yours.”
WE ARE BLESSED
John the Baptist could announce the kingdom of God by preaching “Repent, you brood of vipers” because when you are at open enmity with an existing monarch, the arrival of that monarch on your home turf is very bad news.
But for everyone willing to receive it with open hands and open heart, the coming of this kingdom is the best possible news — truly a gospel (Old English for “good news”) of the highest order. This king has ascended his mountain to give a law, and he opens his mouth with blessing.
The Greek word makarios, blessing, denotes us as happy, blessed, to be envied. Jesus comes preaching “Happy are you”–or at least, “Happy you can be, if you will receive.” Our gospel is a gospel of happiness, the charter of a happy people who are to be envied, for their king has come, their king brings life, and their king loves them.
The only thing we need to qualify is empty hands.
(This is Part 21 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)
*This is not to suggest that there was no preceding blessing in the case of the children of Israel: the Law was given in the context of the Abrahamic blessing. Nevertheless, Paul tells us that the Law was weak through the flesh: it could not bring righteousness because human beings could not carry it out. Thus, what was intended to bless brought a curse. But even here God had a bigger plan: deliverance from the curse by the Son, who comes with blessing that is not attached to human ability but to his own accomplishment.