… Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth …
… Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God …
The traditions for celebrating All Saints Day vary, depending on a congregation’s theological and liturgical background. One of the ideas that ties all of the traditions together is acknowledging that not only do Christians die, but that many of us die because we have been persecuted for being followers of Jesus. It’s important for us to understand though that we are not saints because we are persecuted, but we experience opposition because we are saints; indeed, Paul told all of his converts that they should expect such experiences (1 Thessalonians 3:3–4; 2 Timothy 3:12). However, knowing that we will face opposition shouldn’t discourage us. Rather, we should count ourselves fortunate. In the introductory portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes the righteousness that characterizes saints (attitudes and actions that irritate people outside the kingdom of heaven) and the benefits of being in the kingdom that will encourage us to live in a way that befits citizens of the kingdom.
Traditionally, this section of Matthew is called the Beatitudes. Labeling it this way is an attempt to capture the force of the word that begins each of the ten pronouncements. The Greek word (μακάριος) that most English translations render “blessed” is meant to convey the idea that one’s situation is like that of a god, most fortunate, perfectly happy. Thus, it makes perfect sense for Jesus to command us to rejoice and exult. For why would we not want to express our joy exuberantly as we think about how delightful it will be to be citizens of God’s kingdom?
The Beatitudes themselves are like a poem, but it’s a poem with a footnote. Verses 3 and 10 form the boundaries and make general statements, while the verses in between contain specifics that clarify these declarations. Verse 3 addresses the primary attitude that characterizes the subjects of the kingdom of heaven. Subjects of the kingdom are poor in spirit. Verses 4–6 illuminate what it means to be poor in spirit. In closing verse 10 summarizes the character of the actions kingdom subjects take. Subjects of the kingdom live righteously. Verses 7–9 illustrate what it looks like to live righteously. However, since the lives of the subjects of the kingdom of heaven contrast sharply with the lives of those who live in the kingdom of darkness (cf. Colossians 1:13; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 Peter 2:9), we will face reproach and persecution, being falsely accused of doing evil because of our allegiance to Jesus. So, in the footnote to the poem (verses 11–12), Jesus repeats his declaration of how fortunate we are to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven and insists that we exult in this reality, despite what’s going on around us.
Let’s go back and look more closely at each of the two sections. The first section, verses 3–6, pictures what constitutes being poor in spirit. Understanding this is important because we can’t be citizens of the kingdom of heaven unless we are poor in spirit. He could mean that we lack spirit, that we are dull and listless; but this can’t be the case since Jesus expects us to rejoice exultantly. So, Jesus qualifies this idea in the next three statements: Kingdom citizens feel sad that the world is not the way we know it should be.; we grieve over this. Indeed, we strongly desire that righteousness rather than wickedness characterize the world around us. However, we’re not willing to take matters into our own hands so we can boast about how we made the earth a better place—being meek does not mean being passive; it means being humble in our approach to problem solving as we follow Jesus in the obedience of faith. With this attitude in our hearts, the world will eventually be ours. Therefore, we are most fortunate. It might take a while, but God’s kingdom will come to earth and we fill flourish in it; our hunger to live in a righteous world will be satisfied and our mourning over the loss of goodness will turn to joy (cf. Jeremiah 31:12–13).
The first section of the poem presents the promise that the poor in spirit will inherit the earth. The second section of the poem presents the promise that those whose actions come from a pure heart will perceive God. They will also receive mercy and be recognized as children of God. But most importantly, they will become acutely aware of God himself. Nevertheless, until the kingdom is fully realized, we’ll live in a conflicted world. Even within the community of faith conflict can occur, but true citizens of the kingdom extend mercy to one another and do what is necessary to reconcile relationships, for both of these kinds of actions result in the restoration of the way things ought to be. The kinds of activities that prevent ruptures from occurring—those that we do from a pure hear— are the best, most righteous ways to live. Because they exhibit honesty and contentment, they align us with God’s intentions for his people. No wonder the pure in heart will be able to perceive him more acutely. All of these promises will come true for the righteous, which is what makes us most fortunate people. Inheriting the earth and intimacy with God as he exercises his righteous rule through Christ are indeed great rewards. But we will only be able to rejoice and exult if we remind ourselves of this truth regularly, because as citizens of the kingdom of heaven we will encounter resistance along the way. We won’t be the first, though. The prophets who preceded us did not receive a positive response either. Nor did the apostles who first heard Jesus proclaim these truths. Nevertheless, they rejoiced because they had been deemed worthy to suffer because of their association with Jesus (Acts 5:41; cf. Acts 16:25). This is why Paul wrote to the church in Rome, and to us: “Let us exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3–5).