Blessed Are the Happy in Jesus, not Tortured, Cheated or Diseased Souls

Blessed Are the Happy in Jesus, not Tortured, Cheated or Diseased Souls April 9, 2015

©2007 Creative Commons
©2007 Creative Commons

The crowds, including the disciples, were looking for happiness. However, things hadn’t turned out well for many of them. Many were living a country western song— looking for happiness in all the wrong places. They were downtrodden, bewildered, and oppressed. However, they sensed with Jesus that perhaps their fortunes were about to change. Just maybe he was the long-expected Messiah, who would liberate them from their enemies and free them from their fears. And so, they followed him, hanging on his every word, hoping that they would find happiness in him (See Matthew 4:23-Matthew 5:2; cf. Matthew 9:35-38). What about us?

All of us want to be happy, but we look for happiness in different places and with mixed results. Some of us grieve over not obtaining happiness. Others of us think we have achieved it, but we are deceived. Others of us have the proper object of happiness, but we fail to realize it. It is important that we pursue the ultimate Good, who alone is the basis for true and lasting happiness. Our hearts will forever remain restless until they find their rest in the Good, that is, God, as St. Augustine wrote.[1] Augustine also spoke about happiness along these lines:

How then, according to reason, ought man to live? We all certainly desire to live happily; and there is no human being but assents to this statement almost before it is made. But the title happy cannot, in my opinion, belong either to him who has not what he loves, whatever it may be, or to him who has what he loves if it is hurtful or to him who does not love what he has, although it is good in perfection. For one who seeks what he cannot obtain suffers torture, and one who has got what is not desirable is cheated, and one who does not seek for what is worth seeking for is diseased. Now in all these cases the mind cannot but be unhappy, and happiness and unhappiness cannot reside at the same time in one man; so in none of these cases can the man be happy. I find, then, a fourth case, where the happy life exists,— when that which is man’s chief good is both loved and possessed. For what do we call enjoyment but having at hand the objects of love? And no one can be happy who does not enjoy what is man’s chief good, nor is there any one who enjoys this who is not happy. We must then have at hand our chief good, if we think of living happily (emphasis added).[2]

Ultimately, for Augustine, the happy or blessed life is bound up with following God—the Supreme Good—and holding to his teaching, which culminates in the revelation of Jesus Christ who unites the Old and New Testaments.[3] Or as the old song goes, there is no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey. The conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount says as much (Matthew 7:24-27). After all, who is happy who built his house on sand, and which was swept away by floodwaters? The wise person who builds his or her life on his Word will be happy when that house (i.e., life) remains standing.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it (Matthew 7:24-27; ESV).

The Sermon on the Mount’s closing grounds the life of wisdom and happiness in holding firmly to Jesus’ teaching. Now what about the beginning of it? Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with eight Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10). What are the Beatitudes? They are kingdom blessings (beatitudines, benedictiones), which indelibly mark the lives of Jesus’ followers.

Why is this address titled the “Sermon on the Mount”? It is because Jesus went up on a mount (or mountainous place) to teach his disciples and accompanying masses about the blessed life (Matthew 5:1-2).[4] While debated, it has been argued that the author is doing more than referencing the location of Jesus’ address; the claim is made that the mount has symbolic and theological significance.[5] Some scholars claim that Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses.[6] The connection has also been made between the eight Beatitudes and the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. Just as adherence to the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) was essential to experiencing God’s shalom, so Jesus’ Beatitudes are essential to experiencing his kingdom peace. As with the Ten Commandments in relation to the Torah (five books of Moses), the Beatitudes present the heart of Jesus’ teaching recorded in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew’s Gospel.[7] Jesus instructs us concerning what life in his kingdom entails.

I discuss the particulars of the beatitudes in other posts in this series.[8] The remainder of this post will focus on characteristic features of Jesus’ instruction. Three descriptive traits of Jesus’ teaching are that he speaks authoritatively, paradoxically or counter-intuitively, and eschatologically or futuristically. In what follows, we will take up each of these statements. At the close of this post, we will return to Augustine’s categories pertaining to happiness.

First, Jesus speaks authoritatively; his authority is not derivative, but original. Such authority manifests itself in the following: comparative statements like “You have heard that it was said…, but I say to you…” (See for example Matthew 5:21-22 and 5:27-28); Jesus’ call to his hearers to build their lives on his teaching (Matthew 7:24-27); and the authorial note at the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, “… when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29; ESV). Perhaps most staggering in terms of his authority not being derivative, but rather original and ultimate, is Jesus’ claim that his followers are like the prophets of old, as they suffer for him: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

The thrust of Jesus’ teaching being authoritative is that those who would be Jesus’ disciples cannot engage in cut and paste antics of picking and choosing which portions of Jesus’ teachings to obey. They are not convenient truths, but inconvenient and all-encompassing—Jesus demands our ultimate allegiance 24/7. The beatitudes reflect the entire Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ entire corpus of teaching in their comprehensive call on our lives.

Moving on from Jesus’ teaching being authoritative, it is also paradoxical or counter-intuitive. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit, not those who are rich in their pride and autonomy (Matthew 5:3). Those who mourn now will receive God’s comfort; they will have the last laugh (Matthew 5:4). The meek will inherit the earth, not those who run over others on their way to the top (Matthew 5:5). We find in Jesus’ teaching that he calls us to participate in an upside down kingdom. While the kingdom is upside down from the world’s vantage point, it is simply because the world perceives and interprets life wrongly. Actually, Jesus’ kingdom is right-side up, and the world is upside down in its rebellion against God. In the end, all things will become clear. With this point in mind, it is worth drawing attention to a statement attributed to A. W. Tozer: “Man cannot say I am clever and Jesus is Lord at the same time.” The wisdom of the world is foolishness to God and the way of the cross (See 1 Corinthians 1 and 2). Jesus’ kingdom is counter-cultural at every turn; no wonder that is why John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus with a baptism of repentance (Matthew 3:1-3) and Jesus calls on people to repent in view of God’s kingdom being at hand in his person, teaching, and miraculous activity (Matthew 4:17, 23-25).

The thrust of Jesus’ teaching being paradoxical or counter-intuitive is that we should not attempt to make sense of it according to other systems. Jesus’ authoritative, paradoxical teaching is unique and stands alone. We cannot mix and match it with other systems; it binds us inseparably to him. Moreover, Jesus’ teaching always calls us to repentance. Those who listen well to Jesus’ teaching begin with a sense of their spiritual poverty (Matthew 5:3), and never fail to sense their desperate need for God’s wisdom and mercy; they realize their cleverness is nothing but a sham, and that they must become holy fools who become wise by adhering to Jesus’ counter-cultural teaching.

Now we come to the eschatological nature of Jesus’ teaching. We do not bring Jesus’ future kingdom about by adhering to his teaching. Rather, Jesus ushers in his eschatological or future kingdom in our midst in his person; as we cling to him and despair of our religious merits and ingenuity in the here and now, we come to experience his kingdom blessings. In fact, it is his presence that causes us to despair of our merits and ingenuity (Matthew 5:1-3). Moreover, we shall receive his comfort, participate in his kingdom reign, be satisfied, and the like, as we follow him (Matthew 5:4-6).

More will be said about this theme at the close of our treatment of the beatitudes. For now, it is enough to say that the thrust of Jesus’ teaching being eschatological is that we must not look at the kingdom with short-term thinking or in a near-sighted manner. We must be marathon runners who see the big picture. In this world, Jesus’ disciples will face many difficulties and persecution because of their union with him, as the Beatitudes make clear. We shall mourn, longing for comfort (Matthew 5:4). We shall hunger and thirst for righteousness, longing to be filled (Matthew 5:5). We shall be persecuted for righteousness, longing for God to make things right (See Matthew 5:10). The kingdom belongs to Jesus’ followers, even though we await his kingdom’s dramatic culmination. Jesus’ true disciples pursue him with an undying love and hold firmly to his teaching, comforted by the fact that Jesus holds them firmly in his grip. They are truly happy, as they await the fullness of his kingdom with eager expectation; they know even now that Jesus will have the last joyful laugh.

To return to Augustine’s categories noted at the outset of this piece, Jesus’ followers may be persecuted for righteousness, but they are not tortured in spirit. They really will experience his eschatological kingdom’s fullness for which they long; Jesus’ kingdom belongs to them. God has not cheated Jesus’ disciples, for nothing else compares. His authoritative and paradoxical teaching sets it apart as original and ultimate. Jesus’ subjects’ passion is contagious, but it is no disease. They have sold everything to obtain Jesus and his kingdom, and will not discard him, but will share Jesus with everyone who catches their passion. What sets them all apart is that they know Jesus and his Father alone are good. Such subjects of the kingdom are truly happy and eternally blessed.

How does this discussion bear upon us? Like the people in Jesus’ day, are we looking for happiness in all the wrong places? Have we observed happiness, but cannot attain it? Do we have it before us, but are unaware of the pearl of great price in our possession? Or do we have it in our possession, know it, and will not let it (him) go? If so, we are eternally blessed.*

*This post was updated on 6/1/15.


[1]St. Augustine, The Confession of St. Augustine, translated by Rex Warner, with an introduction by Vernon J. Bourke (New York: A Mentor Book), I/1, page 17.

[2]St. Augustine, Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, taken from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 4, edited by Philip Schaff; translated by Richard Stothert (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887), III/4. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight;

[3]St. Augustine, Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, VI-XI.

[4]Luke’s Gospel includes a parallel account often titled the Sermon on the Plain (See Luke 6). An abbreviated version of the Beatitudes is found in Luke 6:20-23, and is accompanied by four curses in Luke 6:24-26.

[5]See footnote 7 below in this post.

[6]See for example Robert Gundry’s exposition of Matthew 5:1-10 in his Commentary on Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). Along this line of thinking, one might wonder if Matthew alludes to Moses going up on the mount to get God’s Law (Exodus 24:12-18), whereas Jesus goes up the mount to give his Law, which is the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law. As great as Moses was, Jesus is far greater. In the history of the church, exegetes and theologians have sometimes made the connection between the second person of the Trinity (Jesus) and the Angel of the Lord to whom God alludes in Exodus 23:20-22 (which Moses and the people are to obey) as well Jesus and the prophet like Moses, to whom Moses refers in Deuteronomy 18:15. Regarding the former, see for example Charles Ellicott’s exposition of Exodus 23:20 found here.

[7]Matthew’s Gospel makes various connections between the Torah and Old Testament as a whole and Jesus’ life and teaching. The genealogy of Jesus shows that he is the descendent of Abraham. It has also been argued that the genealogy presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the Messianic promises bound up with the royal line of King David and agent of God’s blessings to the nations (Matthew 1:1-17; see D. A. Carson, Matthew, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8 {Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 1984}, pages 63-69). Jesus is God with us, Immanuel, the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14, according to Matthew 1:23. Moreover, just as God called his Son Israel out of Egypt, so he calls Jesus his Son out of Egypt (Matthew 2:15). The people of Israel were in the wilderness for forty years while Jesus was in the desert forty days and nights (Matthew 4:2; the former disobeyed God during this period of testing, whereas Jesus obeyed). Regarding the reference in Matthew 5 to the mountain on which Jesus spoke, Carson does not see symbolic significance (page 129), though Robert Gundry does (See the reference to Gundry’s work noted earlier). See for example his treatment of Matthew 5:1-10 in his Commentary on Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). Donald Hagner claims that the opening of the sermon is “carefully constructed”: “(1) Jesus goes up to the mountain (a special place for a special event); (2) he sits down and is disciples come to him (as to a rabbinic master); and (3) in v 2, Matthew introduces the elaborate ‘he opened his mouth and taught them, saying,’ a construction that points to the weighty significance of what he is about to say.” Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, in Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33A (Nashville: Thomas nelson, 2000), page 85. Regardless of the significance of the reference to the mount, the Sermon on the Mount shows that Jesus speaks with authority that is not imitative (he goes so far as to counter the traditions of men); his teaching originates with him (Matthew 7:21-29). Moreover, Jesus recapitulates or transforms and perfects all of Israel’s history, as its ultimate end or telos (Matthew 5:17).

[8]See the other pieces in this series, beginning with “‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’—not those with spiritual bravado.”

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