What's a Beatitude?

Sometimes words travel with the Bible that aren’t found in commonly used translations of the Biblical text itself. When these words are archaic or not used very often in everyday life, their connection with the text can sometimes form another hurdle to overcome in understanding the text. One such word is beatitude.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve heard people connect “beatitude” with the text of Matthew 5:3-12. The 8 statements Jesus makes here (the last one being more or less restated twice) are often described as beatitudes, but although many translations have “The Beatitudes” at the heading of this section, no translation that I’m aware of features this word in the text itself or in any other text. Beatitude is hardly an everyday term; I’ve actually never heard it in connection with anything but this text. Judging from what I’ve seen and heard, I think many people use the term without knowing its true meaning.  

People are good at supplying meaning to terms they use but never look up in a dictionary. I’ve frequently heard people explain that the beatitudes are “beautiful attitudes.” In examining the text though, we see that some of Jesus’ statements aren’t about attitudes; peacemaking is something that you do and being persecuted is something that happens to you (Matthew 5:9-12). Further, seeing these statements as “beautiful attitudes” frequently leads to reflecting on each of them in isolation rather than viewing the wholistically (i.e., reading them like Proverbs instead of reading them as an introduction to a sermon).

If a beatitude isn’t just a “beautiful attitude,” what is it? Dictionaries will describe the word with definitions like “supreme blessedness,” “a state of utmost bliss,” “exalted happiness,” or “a state of great joy.” While I have no idea who first connected this word with Matthew 5, I have an idea that he or she was reflecting on the word that begins each statement: “blessed.” The word is almost always translated in this text as “blessed,” but it also contains the idea of happiness (e.g., most versions translate a form of this word as “happier” in 1 Corinthians 7:40). Jesus almost certainly wanted His audience to think about “happiness” as He made these statements; in fact, He added the synonyms “rejoice” and “be exceedingly glad” to the most startling thing he said would bring happiness, namely, persecution (Matthew 5:10-12).  

Understanding “beatitude” as well as the Greek word that likely influenced those who first associated it with this text sheds a whole new light on this reading. Jesus wasn’t merely promising blessings to the spiritually impoverished, mourners, and so on. Instead, He was saying to his audience, “You’ll be supremely happy and forever blessed if you 1) realize your spiritual destitution, 2) mourn over it, 3) embody humility, 4) seek righteousness as though it were a need, 5) determine to show mercy, 6) live with a pure heart, and 7) seek to bring peace to others, even 8) to the point of being persecuted by them.” Matthew says Jesus came “preaching the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23), and these eight things encapsulate the life of those to whom the kingdom belongs. Note how the eight things begin and end with, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3, 10).

My hope in writing this is that you will be inspired not just to reexamine Matthew 5 but to make a habit of digging deeper whenever there is a word either in the Bible or connected with the Bible that you don’t commonly use. Obtaining God’s wisdom is tied to getting understanding (Proverbs 4:5, 7; 16:16). May God bless you as you seek to grow in both!
-Patrick Swayne  






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