The Meaning and Message of the Beatitudes

The Meaning and Message of the Beatitudes

The sum of Jesus’ Beatitudes is much more than a mere list of worthwhile Christian behaviors.

Ranko Stefanovic

The Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5–7 is probably one of the best known of Jesus’ teachings recorded in the Gospels. This is the first of the five discourses in Matthew that Jesus delivered on an unnamed mount that has traditionally been located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum, which is today marked by the Church of the Beatitudes.

New Testament scholarship has treated the Sermon on the Mount as a collection of short sayings spoken by the historical Jesus on different occasions, which Matthew, in this view, editorially put into one sermon. A similar version of the sermon is found in Luke 6:20–49, known as the Sermon on the Plain, which has been commonly regarded as a variant of the same discourse. Though the two discourses show some striking resemblances, they also show some obvious differences. Common to them is that each begins with a list of statements known as the Beatitudes and concludes with a short metaphoric parable of the two builders. The main difference between the two versions lies in what is found in between the Beatitudes and the parable of the two builders.

It seems more certain that Matthew and Luke’s versions represent two different sermons with similar content delivered by Jesus on two different occasions.1 Further, it is almost certain that the two discourses are summaries of much longer ones, each with a different emphasis.

Whatever position one takes, it appears that the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is not merely a collection of randomly selected pieces; the discourse displays one coherent literary theme. The sermon is introduced with the Beatitudes, which are concluded with a couplet of short metaphoric parables on salt and light. This is further followed by a collection of practical messages in which Jesus contrasts true disciples with the Scribes and the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20–7:23). The sermon concludes with a couplet parable of the two builders. This suggests the following structure of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount:
A. Beatitudes (5:3–12)
B. Couplet Parables of Salt and Light (5:13–16)
    1. Righteousness That Exceeds (5:17–6:18)
         a. Antitheses (5:21–48)
         b. Fasting (6:1–4)
         c. Praying (6:5–15)
         d. Charity (6:16–18)
    2. Worrying About Tomorrow (6:19–34)
    3. Judging Others (7:1–6)
    4. Praying (7:7–11)
    5. The Narrow and Wide Gates (7:12–14)
    6. Known by Their Fruits (7:15–23)
C. Couplet Parable of the Two Builders (7:24–27)

In this structure, the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3–12) function as the springboard passage upon which the couplet of metaphoric parables on salt and light are built. The verb translated as “to be foolish” (5:13) and its adjective, foolish (7:26), link the couplet of parables on salt and light with the couplet parable of the two builders. This suggests that the parables on the salt and light and the two builders function as a literary device defining the theological meaning of the rest of the Sermon. Matthew 5:1 and 2 shows that Jesus spoke the Sermon on the Mount primarily with His disciples in mind as they were about to be sent to proclaim the message of the kingdom (Matthew 10).

The Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3–12)

The Sermon on the Mount begins with an introductory section consisting of eight (or nine) pronouncements that are commonly known as the Beatitudes. The word beatitude comes from Latin, which, in turn, has resulted in the Anglicized word happiness. The term denotes a literary form that was commonly used in the ancient world commending or praising a person for favor received in life.

In the classical Greek, the adjective a longer form of an older word translated “blessed, happy.” The word was first used by poets to describe the transcendent happiness enjoyed by gods who were referred to as “the blessed ones.” The word was also used for deceased persons who shared in the supra-earthly existence of gods in the isle of the blessed.

The word gradually came to be applied to living persons; at first, it was used for the freedom of the wealthy from the worries and cares of life because of their affluence. From Aristotle on, it was a common word used to describe persons who were secure from the hardships of life. It usually appeared in a formal construction: “happy is he who . . .” or “happy are those who . . .”). People were regarded fortunate and happy because they possessed things that were supposed to produce happiness including wealth, fame, power, a life of pleasure, freedom from suffering, family, wisdom and knowledge, etc. The word could also have a religious meaning of being “blessed.”

In the LXX, the word is used 45 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, occurring mainly in Psalms and the wisdom literature and acclaiming persons for their piety and faithfulness to God. It is significant that the word is attributed to humans, never to Yahweh as was the fashion for the Greek gods.

Since the translation into “blessed” is derived mainly from the Latin, modern translators favor the word happy. However, the two words blessedand happy seem to express two facets of meaning found in the Hebrew Scriptures and the LXX. It is Yahweh who bestows earthly blessings upon persons. The recipients of those divine blessings are characterized as “blessed/happy.”

In the Bible, the word obviously pointed to more than mundane happiness; it denoted an inner state of being, which resulted from a divine act. Such happiness was an inner feeling for God’s blessings bestowed upon a person. Thus, the traditional translation of the word as “blessed” should not be easily discarded because the happiness that the wordbeatitude renders in the Bible is a response to a divine act, a state of well-being as a divine reward for faithfulness to God. Boring thus rightly concludes that the opposite of the word beatitude in the Bible is not unhappiness but being cursed.2

During the Second Temple period, pronouncements of blessedness among the Jews generally replicated the conventional concept. A classic example is Sirach 25:7–11, in which the author lists nine or ten kinds of people who are described as happy:

“There be nine things which I have judged in mine heart to be happy, . . . and the tenth I will utter with my tongue: A man that hath joy of his children; and he that liveth to see the fall of his enemy. Well . . . is he that dwelleth with a wife of understanding, and that hath not slipped with his tongue, and that hath not served a man more unworthy than himself. Well . . . is he that hath found prudence, and he that speaketh in the ears of them that will hear: O how great is he that findeth wisdom! Yet there is none above him that feareth the Lord. But the love of the Lord passeth all things for illumination: he that holdeth it, whereto shall he be likened?”3

It can be easily seen how, among the Jews in the first century, the word translated as “blessed” denoted the well-being of a person experiencing earthly happiness in life.

In the New Testament, the Greek word translated as “blessed” occurs 50 times, of which 28 can be found in Matthew and Luke. Though the meaning of the word in the New Testament has been addressed extensively by modern scholarship, the focus here is on how it is used in the Sermon on the Mount.

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3–12 consist of two clauses each. The first clause gives a pronouncement consisting of the predicate followed by the identity of the persons who are blessed (“‘happy are those . . .’”). The second clause states the reason for the blessedness consisting of a clause (“‘for’” or “‘because’”) stated in the future tense. This clause was not common outside the time in which the New Testament was written; as such, it is particularly significant in the Book of Matthew.

Two things may be observed in the Beatitudes. First, Jesus radically changed the conventional concept of happiness. Those who experience this happiness are not blessed according to the conventional meaning that may include good fortune or a life free of hardships. These are ephemeral and fickle. They are blessed not because of hardships in life, but rather in spite of hardships in lifeTrue happiness is “not attached to wealth, to having enough, to a good reputation, power, possession of the goods of this world.”4 The blessed might possess nothing, be hungry, humble, afflicted, humiliated, endure hardships, and be persecuted; the circumstances of life may turn against them; yet life cannot take that happiness from them because life has not given it to them. In such a way, the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount depict a “reversal of all human values.”5

This true happiness is not to be understood as a mental or emotional state or in relation to one’s feelings, but rather as the result of a divine act in human lives. God is the true source of happiness. Disciples are in a state of happiness when they areaware of God’s special blessings regardless of whether they are experiencing good fortune or hardships in life. In such a way, “what constitutes life as it was intended to be lived stands in stark contrast to conventional wisdom”6 in which “happiness is something which is dependent on the chances and the changes of life, something which life may give and which life may also destroy.”7 In Jesus’ teaching, happiness “describes that joy which has its secret within itself, that joy which is serene and untouchable, and self-contained, that joy which is completely independent of all the chances and the changes of life.”8

The second thing that may be observed is that, in contrast to the Old Testament and the conventional concept in which happiness refers to one’s present well-being, the Beatitudes go beyond the present situation to the future, in the fashion of Jewish apocalyptic literature. While someone may be blessed and, as a result, happy now, the visible conferral of such blessings will not be experienced ultimately until the future realization of God’s kingdom on the earth. Thus, in the Beatitudes, the present and the future are related.

This futuristic character of the Beatitudes, however, is not to be understood, as U. Becker rightly observes, “in the sense of consolation and subsequent recompense. The promised future always involves a radical alteration of the present.”9 The disciples are not happy because they are free of hardship in life, but rather because they are citizens of the kingdom by following Jesus as they go through hardship in life. Their lives have meaning in light of the future realization of the kingdom. It is the future that provides strength for the disciples in the present.

The inner happiness spoken of in the Beatitudes is God’s gift of blessing granted to those who choose to be disciples. This blessing is a result of the realization of a person’s spiritual poverty (Matt. 5:3) and an acknowledgment of one’s total dependence on God (vs. 5). The disciple is blessed because of the special relationship with God today as well as in the light of the future reward. Such blessedness and happiness cannot be taken away by adverse circumstances in life.

The Couplet Parables of Salt and Light

The Beatitudes are followed by a couplet of short metaphoric parables of salt and light that Jesus used to expand upon the role of the blessed in the world (Matt. 5:13–16). As in the case of other parables, Jesus used here an illustration understandable to the first-century audience. Salt and light were common elements in antiquity. Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79), a contemporary of Jesus, stated: “For the whole body nothing is more beneficial than salt and sun.”10

It appears that these couplet parables of salt and light in the Sermon on the Mount function as a dual-directional passage concluding the Beatitudes and, at the same time, introducing the rest of the discourse.

• “‘You are the salt of the earth’” (Matt. 5:13).11 In the first metaphoric parable, Jesus likens the disciples to salt; “‘You are the salt of the earth.’” The emphatic pronoun meaning literally “you yourselves [are salt]” refers to “‘you [are blessed/happy]’” in verse 11. This suggests that those who are the salt of the earth as well as the light of the world are the blessed of the Beatitudes.

In comparing His disciples to salt, Jesus referred to the mineral known today as sodium chloride. Salt was a necessity of life in Palestine, as in the rest of the ancient world. The book of Sirach lists it as one of the basic necessities of life (39:26). The Dead Sea was a major source of salt in Palestine. However, Dead Sea salt was impure, mixed with gypsum and other minerals producing an alkaline or bitter taste, for which reason the people of Palestine often purchased salt of a superior quality from the traders in the north.

The word translated as “salt” occurs in six passages of the New Testament of which five appear in the Synoptics in the sayings of Jesus (Matt. 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34). The verb form simply means “to salt” or “to season with salt.” Salt is used exclusively in a figurative sense, taken, however from a domestic use. Because of the wide use of salt in the ancient world, commentators have made many suggestions of its metaphoric meaning in Matthew 5:13. Most of them interpret it as a preservative; but the context suggests that Jesus used the metaphor of salt exclusively in the meaning of flavoring: “‘If the salt has become tasteless . . .’” (Matt. 5:13; Luke 14:34) or, “‘If the salt becomes unsalty . . .’” (Mark 9:50). An interpretation of the salt metaphor in Matthew 5:13 that suggests a sense of preservation does not do justice to the text.

A debatable issue among commentators regards the rhetorical question made by Jesus: “‘If the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty?’” (Matt. 5:13). Did Jesus mean that salt could lose its tasty effect? Some commentators believe that this loss of saltiness refers most likely to the poor quality of the Dead Sea salt. Because of its impurity, it has been argued that the salt in Palestine could lose its distinctive flavor.In actuality, however, salt is a stable compound and, as such, it does not lose its saltiness. That such was the understanding among first-century Jews may be seen from a story attributed to Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah (first century A.D.) When asked if salt loses its flavor, the rabbi responded: “Can a mule bear offspring?” The point the rabbi tried to make was that salt could not lose its flavor as much as that a sterile mule could not produce an offspring.

It seems that the question of whether salt can lose its saltiness is beside the point Jesus tried to make to the disciples. As R. T. France observes, Jesus was not teaching His disciples about chemistry or chemical processes; instead, He coined a proverbial illustration to make a theological point.12 Real salt does not lose its saltiness. Salt without saltiness is not salt, and as such, it has no value and use; “so does a professed disciple who lacks genuine commitment.”13

The verb for “tasteless” used in Matthew 5:13 means literally “become foolish” (so also in Luke 14:34). Thus, a point Jesus makes is that, as it is impossible for salt to lose its saltiness, so the blessed referred to in the Beatitudes cannot lose their spiritual flavor as long as they are the followers of Christ. However, salt that (hypothetically) loses its saltiness would be good for nothing. This notion sets the disciples in contrast to the popular religious culture and practice of the time (e.g., of the scribes and the Pharisees; Matt. 5:20).

The first-century listeners would have quickly grasped the point Jesus tried to make to the disciples. As salt gives flavor to food, so the disciples are to give flavor to the earth. Salt is supposed to flavor the earth, not earth the salt. Earth is here a synonym for the world (Matt. 5:14). The salt mixed in food cannot be seen, only tasted. The most obvious characteristic of salt is that it is different from its locality. The disciples who lose saltiness are of no value any longer.

• “‘You are the light of the world’” (Matt. 5:14–16). Those who are blessed are further likened to light: “You are the light to the world” (vs. 14). Light is a well-known metaphor both in the Bible and Judaism. In the Old Testament, Israel is described in terms of a light to the nations (Isa. 60:1–3). The mission of the Servant in Isaiah is portrayed in terms of light (Isa. 42:6; 49:6), which was in the New Testament fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus (Matt. 4:16; Luke 2:32; John 8:12; 12:35, 36). Paul also often uses the light metaphor for the gospel (2 Cor. 4:6; Eph. 5:8; Phil. 2:15). Here, in Matthew 5:14–16, Jesus exhorts the disciples to be a shining light to the world, just as he Himself is the light to the world.

It appears that the structure of the light metaphor (Matt. 5:14–16) is comparably similar to the salt metaphor (vs. 13):

'You are the salt of the earth

You are the light of the world

The salt must not lose its flavor

The light cannot be hidden'

This comparison shows that the two metaphors are complementary. In Matthew 5:14–16, Jesus reiterates the point made in the metaphor of “‘the salt of the earth’” (vs. 13). Just as salt provides taste and transforms food, so the lamp provides “‘light to all who are in the house’” (vs. 15). Also, as it is impossible for salt to lose its saltiness, so it is impossible to hide or conceal the light—like a city on a hill: “‘A city set on a hill cannot be hidden’” (vs. 14). In using this proverbial saying, Jesus could have in mind a number of cities in Galilee such as Nazareth and Gamala. However, as some commentators observe, Jesus most likely referred to the New Jerusalem of the messianic kingdom, radiating the light of divine glory throughout the world (Isa. 2:2–4; 4:5, 6; 60:1–22).

Jesus further enhances the metaphor of light with another proverbial saying: “‘No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket’” (Matt. 5:15, NLT). Here, Jesus referred to a typical one-room Palestinian house. A lamp was a small clay vessel with a spout on one end in which a wick was set. It was filled with oil and placed on a lampstand or a special hole in the room-wall to provide illumination in the house. To illuminate the house, the light is never covered with a basket. The point Jesus made was that when a person lights a lamp, it is placed on a lampstand where it produces the most effective light for the greatest effect. As such light cannot be concealed, as also should the light of the disciples. Their lives and deeds are visible to the world. “‘Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven’” (vs. 16). Yet, the disciples do not generate light; their light is a reflection of their Father who is heaven.

The Metaphoric Parable of the Two Builders (Matt. 5:20–7:27)

The rest of the Sermon on the Mount provides a practical application of what was stated in the Beatitudes and illustrated with the couplet parables of salt and light. The salt and light of the disciples stand in contrast to the popular religious culture and practice of the time: “‘For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven’” (vs. 20). In the rest of the Sermon, Jesus contrasts the righteousness of the true disciples with that of the Scribes and Pharisees.

What follows is the section known as the antitheses: “‘You have heard that . . . but I say to you . . .’” (Matt. 5:21–48). Here, the lives of the disciples are best portrayed, to put it in John Stott’s words, as “Christian counter-culture,” which is “the life of the kingdom of God, a fully human life indeed but lived out under the divine rule.”14 The disciples are the followers of Christ, and as such are called to follow in the footsteps of the master “who perfectly exemplified the character traits of the Beatitudes.”15 Their righteousness is characterized not by external display of piety but by the attitude of the heart. It is visible in the way they give to the poor (6:1–4), pray (vss. 5–15), and fast (vss. 16–18). It affects and impacts every aspect of the disciple’s life, both present and future (6:19–7:23).

The sermon concludes with another couplet parable of the two builders (Matt. 7:24–27) in which Jesus again reiterates what was stated in the Beatitudes and the couplet parables of salt and light. In the parable of the two builders, Jesus delineates the test of righteousness for true disciples, those who are blessed (7:24, 25), in contrast to those who do not obey His words (vss. 26, 27). Just as the salt that has (hypothetically) lost its saltiness becomes foolish, so is the person who builds his or her house on the sand. Just as in the Beatitudes, in which the ultimate result of the choice made is shown in the future, so in the case of the two builders. Only the blessings and happiness that are built on the rock, a symbol for God in the Bible, are permanent and stable. The future test will affirm the present spiritual stability of the true disciple.

The Sermon on the Mount was originally addressed to the disciples (Matt. 5:1, 2) as they joined Jesus and were about to be sent out to their task of preaching the good news of the kingdom (chapter 10). The description of the Twelve in the Synoptics is given in terms of a group of Galileans whose association with Jesus was much motivated by popular political motive and an aspiration for “greatness” in the kingdom (Matt. 18:1–3; 21:20–28; Mark 10:35–45; Luke 9:46–48; 22:24–30).

As Jesus pointed out, however, true disciples are the ones who have accepted the conditions of the kingdom. As such, they must be different from the world. “They were not to take their cue from the people around them, but from him, and so prove to be genuine children of their heavenly Father.”16 The secret of discipleship is not found in the empty ambition and greatness of the conventional culture of the here and now, but in the future reward. True disciples experience the fullness of blessedness and true happiness because they are the followers of Jesus, and, thus, are citizens of the kingdom. Not that the disciples are called only to be different from the world, but they are also to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Salt must be mixed with food. And the light must be set on a lampstand. Light normally penetrates and removes darkness. But it does much more; the denser the darkness, the more visible the light. So theirs are supposed to be the lives of the blessed in a sin-darkened world as they follow in the footsteps of the Master.


Ranko Stefanovic, Ph.D., is Professor of New Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.



1. See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992), page 93; and Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004), pages 193 and 194.
2. M. Eugene Boring, Matthew (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, Press, 1995), 177.
3. Translated by Lancelot C. L. Brenton, The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English(Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1986).
4. Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993), 2:438.
5. Friedrich Hauck, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, in Gerhard Kittel and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, eds. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1967), 368.
6. Robert H. Mounce, Matthew, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), 38.
7. William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia, Penna.: Westminster, 1975), 1:89.
8. Ibid.
9. U. Becker, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, in Colin Brown, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1986), 1:217.
10. “Quae totis corporibus nihil esse utilius sale at sole dixit,” Natural History 31:102, W. H. S. Jones, trans. (Loeb Classical Library, 8:440, 441).
11. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New American Standard Bible.
12. R. T. France, The International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007), 112.
13. Craig. S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009), 173.
14. John R. W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount(Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 19, 20.
15. David L. Turner, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2008), 154.
16. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture, 18.