The Beatitudes: Guide to a Flourishing Life

A key feature of the Gospel of Matthew is the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5–7), which is a collection of Jesus’ most famous teachings, including the Beatitudes (5:3–12) and the Lord’s Prayer (6:9–13). In these chapters, Jesus is presented as a new Moses, who ascends the mountain and teaches his followers how they ought to live in light of the Kingdom of God. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ discourse on what it means to flourish as a human being made in the image of God. Or, in other words, Jesus is teaching what it means to be his disciple.

Foundational to this discourse are the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are eight proclamations of what the blessed life looks like according to Jesus:

— Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

— Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted

— Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth

— Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied

— Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy

— Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God

— Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God

— Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

The word “Beatitudes” is the Latin word for “blessed,” “happy,” or “flourishing.” This Latin word and the Greek word for blessed (makarios) are essential concepts in a larger philosophical conversation that took place in the ancient world. The philosophical question then (which is still most relevant and pervasive today) was: “What is the good life?” This question can be phrased several different ways, such as “What is happiness?” and “What does it look like to flourish in life?” But an essential part of the answer to this question was to determine how one ought to live (the vital practices, habits, and dispositions) in order to be considered “blessed” or “happy” (makarios).

If one were to ask, “What does it mean to live the good life?” or “What does it mean to be happy?” for the broader western society today, it would be generally defined in hedonistic terms of material prosperity and comfort that preclude significant hindrances for achievement. Happiness has been reduced to a mere platitude, expressed as a simple hashtag to mark a positive event, however trivial it may be.

Yet, look at what it means to be blessed according to Jesus. It is to be one who is poor in spirit, to be one who mourns, to be one who is meek, and even to be one who is persecuted. This moral vision of the good life went against the grain of the good life according to the imperial expectations of ancient Rome, and it directly counters an overly secularized ideal of the good life today. For Jesus, to be blessed, to be happy, to flourish in life as his disciple is to be marked by the particular ways of being that are not of this world, which he himself embodied perfectly and to which he has called all those who claim to be his. As we see in the Gospel of Matthew, the blessed life of Christ is the journey of the cross––a life of denial of self and desperation for God.

The Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes in particular, reveal who we are, who we ought to become, and how we get there. With these beatitudes, Jesus is “offering and inviting his hearers into the way of being in the world that will result in their true and full flourishing now and in the age to come.”[1]And if we truly desire to follow Jesus, to be his disciple and live a blessed life, we must become not only hearers of his Word but also doers of his Word (Matt. 7:24).

Such a calling is nothing less than the call to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). However, to live such a life of blessing we cannot do it on our own strength with our own resources––it is only by the grace of God. To flourish in this calling, we desperately need:

— Jesus Christ, the one who is happiness, goodness, and blessing, who has gone before us in perfect faithfulness as the Son of God.

— The Church, the community of saints, fellow pilgrims who are also on this journey of the cross.

— The Holy Spirit, the one who empowers the blessed life in Christ, through the presence, peace, and power of God.[2]

Graham Michael is an academic tutor for the BibleMesh Institute and chairs the history department at St. David’s School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

[1] J. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 144.

[2] S. McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 13–14.