The Beatitudes and the Virtues of the Cross

Trey Nation lives with his wife, Hannah, in the Boston metro area. He graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Old Testament and works fulltime with China Outreach Ministries, serving students and visiting scholars in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He hopes to continue pursuing higher education in service of the global church.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his ministry are presented in such a way that they intentionally mirror the creation of Israel as the people of God. Jesus and his family are refugees in Egypt, like the Israelites before them, and they are eventually delivered and returned to the Promised Land. Before Jesus’ ministry begins, he faces a time of testing and temptation in the desert, mirroring Israel’s years of wilderness wandering. Afterwards, Christ calls his first disciples to himself and then retreats up a mountain to teach the people.

Chapters 5-7 of Matthew, commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, present Jesus as the new lawgiver, parallel to God giving the law through Moses at Sinai. All three chapters are a stunning exposition and reinterpretation of the Old Testament law. Jesus begins his teaching, however, with a series of declarations that have come to be called the Beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Blessed are those who mourn.

Blessed are the meek.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Blessed are the merciful.


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Blessed are the pure in heart.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Each of these, individually, is a radical reversal of the values of the world. The world values strength, competence, aggressive ambition, easy-going social malleability, and upbeat optimism. Jesus, on the other hand, lauds weakness, humility, kindness, and sacrificial love.

The Beatitudes specify what a person should be rather than what they should do. Being comes before doing. Furthermore, there is a progression to the Beatitudes, beginning with the proper attitude towards God and transitioning to our attitude towards others. They flow logically, each leading into the next. In other words, Jesus is not describing separate groups of people, but rather is describing what every Christian should be.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. For fallen mankind, the beginning of holiness is the recognition of one’s own spiritual bankruptcy. John Calvin wrote, “He only who is reduced to nothing in himself, and relies on the mercy of God, is poor in spirit.”

Blessed are those who mourn. Once we recognize that we are spiritually bankrupt, poor in spirit, and with nothing in ourselves to offer God, we naturally react with mourning. A frank look at the sin in our hearts, and the evil in our world, must surely lead us to tears. As Christians we above all have reason to rejoice, but if we are never burdened by our sin and the sin of the world, we are clearly not evaluating ourselves rightly.

Blessed are the meek. Proper mourning over our own sin inevitably leads to a meek outlook on others and ourselves. To be meek is not to be retiring, or run roughshod by all we meet. Meekness, rather, is the gentleness that results from an accurate evaluation of ourselves. Paradoxically, Jesus promises that it is the meek, not the aggressive, who will inherit the earth. As John Stott writes, “..the condition on which we enter our spiritual inheritance in Christ is not might but meekness, for, as we have already seen, everything is ours if we are Christ’s.”

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The mark of the Christian is that they do not seek righteousness for reward, but rather out of their love for the God who forgave them. Our mourning over our spiritual poverty and the brokenness of the world, combined with our proper evaluation of ourselves, creates in the Christian a sincere craving for righteousness. This is not only a privatized righteousness, but also a desire for righteousness in the world: for social justice, healthy families and institutions, good governance, and reconciliation between peoples.

Blessed are the merciful. The Christian’s appetite for righteousness is displayed primarily in his interaction with other people. The first four Beatitudes reflect God’s mercy to us, and we are now called to show mercy to others. We cannot seriously claim to have repented of our sins if we refuse to forgive the sins of those who wrong us. Our God is continually merciful, and we are called likewise.

Blessed are the pure in heart. “Pure in heart” language calls to mind themes of the ceremonial cleanliness of the Pharisees as contrasted with the cleanliness of the heart that Jesus talks about. At the same time, in Psalm 24 the individual with “clean hands” and a “pure heart” is above all the one who “…does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” He is single-minded, utterly sincere with God and man. To see God is to be utterly exposed, to have his light burn off all pretense and hypocrisy.

Blessed are the peacemakers. Peacemaking is not the avoidance of conflict, but rather the active pursuit of reconciliation. One of the chief results of the gospel, according to Paul in Ephesians 2, is that Christ has made reconciliation possible between even the most disparate of peoples: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” The call to be peacemakers covers our individual relationships, but also our corporate and institutional ones. Christians never have the luxury of keeping company with only those they like, or with only those similar to them.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. It is no mistake that persecution comes immediately after peacemaking. The logic of the Beatitudes seems to be that of Paul in Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men,” with the key phrase, apparently, being “…so far as it depends on you.” In other words, part of our call to peacemaking is based on the assumption that others will not always want peace with us. It is peacemaking in the face of aggression. Jesus, in fact, commends those who are persecuted, with the caveat that blessed persecution is persecution for righteousness sake. We are not commended if we are persecuted for being obnoxious. Furthermore, Jesus’ expectation is that our reaction to persecution should be to “rejoice and be glad.” My observation is that Americans often speak of the potential of future persecution in tones of despair or even fear, whereas Christians in countries where the church is currently undergoing mockery, arrest, beatings, or even death for righteousness sake are sometimes those who best display the joy of Christ.

All of these Beatitudes, taken together, display the heart of who the Christian should be: an individual whose spiritual bankruptcy forgiven by Christ leads to a spiritual and social life of humility, mercy, endurance, and righteousness.

The Beatitudes also, of course, describe the person of Jesus. In particular, the Beatitudes are the virtues of the cross. The virtues of the cross are the opposite of the virtues of the world. The world praises self-sufficiency; but Christ responds, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The world praises the happy-go-lucky optimist; Christ responds, “Blessed those who mourn.” The world praises the aggressive; Christ responds, “Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers.” We follow a crucified savior, the Man of Sorrows, and we should expect that his lot will be ours.

Jesus pivots from the Beatitudes straight into a discussion of Christian witness. The Christian is to be preserving salt in a world that is typically putrefying. The Christian is to be light, a shining witness in a world of darkness. The Christian life and the Christian witness are indivisible. They flow naturally out of being forgiven by God, as we recognize our spiritual poverty, humbly repent, and thus turn to the world with service and love, transforming the world but not conforming to it.

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Further Reading

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Qingdao: How to Pray
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Qingdao: Locals and Outsiders
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Qingdao: Good Soil for the Gospel
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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