The Beatitudes – Background

Although the Beatitudes, as presented in the Bible, can certainly stand alone in their power to impart lessons, a bit of background material can be a big help in our understanding. The information I have prepared below, based upon my research in a variety of Bible commentaries, will not be in the daily lessons, so you might want to read it for your own benefit, and then pass along whatever tidbits you think your child might appreciate. If your child is very young, you might want to come back and re-read these pages when they are older, and offer them this historical insight.

Before studying the Beatitudes, I recommend that you teach your children about Jesus. You may do it in your own words, by reading selected verses from the Bible, or by reading to them from a good children’s Bible storybook. The one I recommended in my previous book on the Ten Commandments is “The Children’s Illustrated Bible,” retold by Selina Hastings, and published by Dorling Kindersley.

From the Ten Commandments to the Gospel of Christ:

The “first lessons” for the pupils of Christian Science Sunday Schools start with the Ten Commandments. These rules of God were given to Moses and the Children of Israel. This was about 1,200 years before the birth of Jesus. Between the time of Moses and Jesus, the Jews devoted themselves to following the Ten Commandments, and other laws given by God to Moses, as best they could. When, as a nation, they were disobedient to God, they were forced into captivity. Another problem is that, over time, some Jews became more devoted to following the letter of the law than they did in loving one another, or serving God in a humble way. They became “slaves” to the myriad rules and traditions that evolved from the original guiding principles.
However, during this time, excitement began to grow over the prophetic promise of a “Messiah,” a Saviour who would deliver the Hebrews from their enemies, and bring the Kingdom of God to earth. That prophecy was fulfilled in the life of Christ Jesus, though not in the manner most of the Jews had imagined.

The Book of Matthew:

The story of the life of Christ Jesus is told in four books: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “synoptic” gospels, because they are all very similar. It is believed by scholars that Mark was written first, sometime between 64 AD and 81 AD. The books of Matthew and Luke appear to borrow from Mark. Mark focused mostly on the events of the life of Jesus. However, Matthew and Luke add to those stories many of the things that Jesus taught. The source for these quotes is thought to be a collection called “the sayings of Jesus,” also known as the “Logia.” No one knows for sure who wrote “the sayings of Jesus,” and a copy has never been found, but it is believed that Matthew was probably the disciple of Jesus who collected the sayings.
After all, he was thought to be the only one of the disciples of Jesus who could read and write. Remember, he was the tax collector for the Romans, so it would have been quite natural for him to collect the sayings of Jesus! Although scholars still are not sure if Matthew is the author of the book of Matthew, it appears the final book, which would have been passed down orally for many years, is based on the “sayings of Jesus,” which most likely was from Matthew.  [Note: You might wish to research any current scholarship on this point as new findings and interpretations emerge]

The book of Matthew is structured in such a way as to make it easy for those who had to memorize it. The verses are grouped together in threes, or sevens, or eights. The Sermon on the Mount falls into three main categories, with the Beatitudes as a preface.

Because of this structure, the book of Matthew is considered the “teaching” gospel, not only for its easy-to-remember formulas, but because it imparts the teachings of Jesus. That may be one reason why Matthew is placed first in the New Testament. Another possible reason for being first, is that it serves as a bridge between the Old and New Testament.

The book of Matthew was written to appeal to the Jews, many of whom did become Christian. The way the book appeals to the Jews is by its emphasis on the teaching of Jesus that he was not there to do away with the law of Moses and the prophets, but his purpose was to fulfill the law. Matthew often pointed out how events in the life of Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, with the intent to prove that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

The Sermon on the Mount:

The Sermon on the Mount compares many of the old laws, including some in the Ten Commandments, with the new spirit of love demanded by Christ. And so it, too, helps Matthew’s efforts to prove that Jesus was the Messiah.

But, what exactly was this Sermon? No one knows for sure. Was it a specific event, or just the title given to a collection of the sayings of Jesus which had been spoken over a period of time to both disciples and the public? Most likely there was a special sermon given to his disciples at the beginning of his ministry, but there are indications that these were sayings that he used frequently in his teachings.

When and where did the Sermon on the Mount take place? According to Matthew, Jesus delivered the Sermon after a busy period of teaching and healing in Galilee early in his ministry. He left the multitudes, and went up into a mountain, taking only his newly-chosen disciples with him, and sat down to teach.

On the other hand, Luke records a talk similar to the Sermon in Matthew, but it seems to have happened after Jesus had come down from a mountain, after a night of prayer. He spoke to both his new disciples, as well as a multitude of people. He stood in the plain, not a mountain.

It is opening of the Sermon given on the mountain that we will be studying.

The Beatitudes:

The Beatitudes are the overture to the Sermon on the Mount. They boldly introduce the listener to the requirements of the heart that the followers of Christ need. In the Beatitudes, it can be seen that Jesus is drawing a vivid picture of his very own character.

Think of how the Jews of his day must have felt upon hearing Jesus. They were expecting one of their own kind, perhaps a militant deliverer who would overthrow their enemies, and set up their special kingdom. But, instead, they are suddenly told that they must renounce their pride and become “poor in spirit.” They must separate themselves from all their cherished beliefs, and “mourn” their loss. They must humble their aggressive ways, and become less personally willful, “meekly” putting their trust in God.

The Beatitudes were meant to separate the “men from the boys,” as the saying goes. Those who may have witnessed one of the miracles of Jesus, were often emotionally swept up into the moment, and would vow to follow Jesus. His Sermon was to throw some cold water on those emotions. He was telling them that there is a cost to becoming a Christian, and that cost was spelled out up front in the Beatitudes. No one could say they were not warned what it meant to be a follower of the Christ. There were joys and rewards, to be sure, but they went hand-in-hand with sacrifices of the mortal self.

Structure of the Beatitudes:

Each of the Beatitudes is an exclamation, not just a statement. When properly translated, the Beatitudes, such as “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” would be something like “Oh, the blessedness of the poor in spirit!” Instead of a future condition, the Beatitudes reflect what the Christian has now.

It is also important to understand the nature of the term “blessed,” as used in the Beatitudes. According to William Barclay (“The Gospel of Matthew, Volume One,” page 89), this term is from the Greek word makarios. He tells us that one form of this word was used to describe Cyprus (“The Happy Isle”), because it was “so lovely, so rich, and so fertile an island that a man would never need to go beyond its coastline to find the perfectly happy life.” Barclay continues:

“Makarios then 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. The English word happiness gives its own case away. It contains the root hap which means chance. Human 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. The Christian blessedness is completely untouchable and unassailable. “No one,” said Jesus, “will take your joy from you.” (John 16:22). The beatitudes speak of that joy which seeks us through our pain, that joy which sorrow and loss, and pain and grief, are powerless to touch, that joy which shines through tears, and which nothing in life or death can take away.”

(Excerpted from “First Lessons in Christian Science, Volume Two: The Beatitudes”  Copyright 2002)

 

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