The only way to understand what Jesus was saying (or anything really) is to put it in its full context. In the beatitudes, we see Jesus teach 8 simple phrases that have similar formulas: "God blesses the (something seemingly negative or weak), for they'll receive (something good) in heaven." It seems like if we suffer a little now, we'll receive a reward later in heaven. But this isn't at all how the disciples would have understood the teaching, and it's not how Jesus was teaching it according to the context. Jesus begins his ministry in the previous chapter by saying, "Repent and turn to God, for the kingdom of heaven is here." He then chooses some disciples by simply saying, "Follow Me." He heals some folks and crowds begin to gather and follow him around, and that's where we find him in chapter 5. This is the very first teaching we have recorded from Jesus with his disciples and followers, and it comes directly after his proclamation that, "the kingdom of heaven is here." Our linear interpretation of the beatitudes referring to an afterlife version of heaven is not what Jesus is trying to get across. It's not here and now versus then and there; it's physical and spiritual both here and now that he's teaching in the beginning of Matthew 5. In other words, "God blesses the (something seemingly negative or weak) physically, for they'll receive (something good) spiritually."
Understanding Matthew 5:3-12 in that context leads us to 8 practical takeaways that correlate with the 8 beatitudes Jesus is teaching. I'll present a general overview of them for you, and I hope they help you follow Jesus in a very practical way.
1. When I live a God-dependent life, I gain the confidence of Christ in me.
Matthew 5:3 - God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
Physically, it's difficult to be a confident person when you're poor and dependent upon somebody else for survival. When I am spiritually dependent upon God for survival, I am fully confident, because the power of God is the currency in the kingdom of God. Nothing happens outside of his power in his kingdom. So when I am depending on him, I can walk spiritually in the confidence of Christ in me.
2. When I practice empathy, I open my soul up to receive empathy.
Matthew 5:4 - God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Jesus introduces a principle here that he weaves throughout his teaching in the New Testament: what I give away I make room to receive. The idea in this verse isn't so much that you're grieving in general; rather that you're mourning with those who mourn. Jesus later depicts this so clearly in John 11, when his friend Lazarus dies. When Mary is mourning deeply for the loss of her brother, Jesus doesn't tell her to stop crying because he's going to raise Lazarus from the dead (which he does). He doesn't try to comfort her with a Bible verse or tell her it was God's will or that God needed another angel, or even that God healed him ultimately. He simply stoops down with her and mourns with her: "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). Jesus was the full manifestation of God's empathy toward humanity. When we give empathy away, we make room to receive empathy.
3. When I defer attention and praise, I gain relationship and trust.
Matthew 5:5 - God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.
Humility is attractive. Jesus teaches us here that the way up is down. We can climb and claw our way to the top of the ladder, and we'll be standing on the foundation of our own achievements. Or we can humble ourselves and allow God to exalt us (1 Peter 5:6), and we'll be standing on the foundation of God's power, strength, and grace. When we make a mistake on top of the sandy foundation of our own achievements, there's nothing safe to catch us and keep us from our own destruction. But when we make a mistake on top of the solid foundation of God's power, his grace is always there to catch us and keep us from our own destruction.
Practically speaking, I can practice humility by deferring attention and praise to my team and those around me. When I do, I gain the trust and relationship of those who surround me. Could it be the reason your employees, employer, co-workers, or teammates don't trust you or support you is because you never defer attention and praise their way? Living like Jesus requires my humility in the direction of others.
4. When I desire justice, I am aligning my desire with God's desire.
Matthew 5:6 - God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.
The word justice here can also be translated righteousness, or to be
made right. When truth or justice is our desire, we will always be satisfied when we win, because it's right and the score is settled. When justice and truth aren't our goal, even our wins haunt us, because the score is never physically settled. But you can be sure that God rights every wrong spiritually, even if we don't see it happening physically. In other words, injustice doesn't exist in the kingdom of heaven, because God, who is king, is just; and his will is always done in his kingdom. So I can know that I'm walking in line with his desire when justice is my aim.
5. When I practice mercy, I open up my soul to receive mercy.
Matthew 5:7 - God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
This again refers back to the concept, what I give away I make room to receive. Perhaps the greatest testament to what happens when we aren't merciful can be found 13 chapters later in Matthew 18, when Jesus tells the parable of the king who forgave his servant of a large debt, who then wouldn't forgive his own sub-servant of a small debt. In the end, the servant was put in jail for not being willing to pass along the mercy that was show to him. When Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray a few moments later he said, "and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us" (Matthew 6:12). The idea here is that our horizontal forgiveness should mimic the forgiveness we have received vertically. Perhaps the reason we may not see much mercy in our own lives is because of our unwillingness to be generous with mercy to others.
6. When I live with no strings attached, I am able to see God in humanity.
Matthew 5:8 - God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.
When I was a teenager I would often say some really nice things to my mom. "Mom, have I ever told you that you are the greatest mom in the world and that I'm so thankful for you?" Her obvious reply was, "What do you want?" Ha! She knew I was about to ask for money to go to the movies or to go to a party that Friday night. I know it's a silly example, but don't we do the same things with our friends or even on social media? We even say things like, "Yes, I'll help you out, but you owe me one." In other words, we're not helping you out of the goodness of our heart, we are helping you so that you'll help us later. Rare is the time when we act or say without expecting anything in return. We live with strings attached.
Another way we live with strings attached is, "Yeah, I can listen to your argument if you will agree that you're wrong and I'm right, if you see things from my perspective in the end." We have so many strings attached to us ideally, politically, and theologically that we can't even see the person in front of us as human. Every single human was created in the image of God, and there's nothing any human can do to remove the image of God in them. So many times our impure hearts toward other humans keep us from seeing God in them. So maybe if you have a hard time seeing God in other humans, especially the ones you don't see eye-to-eye with, maybe it's because you're not living with a pure heart.
So many times we ask God to reveal himself to us, and we can't figure out why we don't see him in our lives. But the truth of the matter is that God has revealed himself to this world over 8 billion difference ways; we just need to choose to see him in humanity.
7. When I understand my value in God, I don't have to win against you.
Matthew 5:9 - God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.
I love how the New Living Translation breaks apart the traditional translated word peacemakers into the phrase those who work for peace. It brings to light the truth that peace is intentional, and it takes work. We often think that peace comes naturally in our lives, but the truth is that peace only comes when we work for it. It takes effort to overlook the offenses of others and not retaliate; but it creates peace. Peace is never an accident.
The other part of this verse that is tied to peacemaking is that they'll be called children of God. In the culture that Jesus was teaching this in, to be called a child of someone was to share the value, authority, and promise of that individual. So you'll see the Jewish phrase, "son/child of Abraham" used in the Bible referring to the idea that the individual's value, authority, place, and promise was tied to the fact that he/she was a descendant of Abraham, giving them Jewish rights. Jesus is referred to as "Son of David" multiple times in his life, which insinuated that his value and authority was tied to the promise of his right to the throne, being a descendant of King David.
When you and I understand our value as children of God, we are no longer driven by the need to earn value by being better than or winning against others in any arena. Our value is transcendent to our achievements, because it resides in the family name: children of God. This, by default, allows us to have peace in our lives.
8. When I do the right thing, I am living in the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:10 - God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
Doing the right thing will always cost you something; but doing the wrong thing will always cost you more. In the kingdom of heaven, only right and justice is done; so when I choose to do the right thing, I am manifesting the spiritual kingdom of heaven physically here on earth. It's not mystical; it's actually as practical as doing the right thing.
Jesus then says this:
Matthew 5:11-12 - God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.
Jesus brings it all into perspective, going back to the context that prior to this he's only told his disciples, "The kingdom of heaven is here. Follow Me." Following Jesus, being his apprentice, will cost you socially and physically, but it will reward you all the more spiritually. He's saying that when you literally follow in his footsteps, you'll live a life that's God-dependent, empathetic, humble, pursuing justice, merciful, with no strings attached, working for peace, and always choosing to do right. It's how you spiritually operate in the kingdom of heaven while physically here on earth, and it's going to cost you. But the reward far outweighs the cost. This world is no match for a life lived in the footprints of Jesus.