The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:5

Matthew 5:5

The third Beatitude in Matthew (Matt 5:5) has no counterpart in Luke:

Maka/rioi oi( praei=$, o%ti au)toi\ klhronomh/sousin th\n gh=n
“Happy the meek/gentle (ones), (in) that they will receive the earth as (their) lot”

This saying is virtually a quotation from Psalm 37:11 (indicated by the underlined words above): “But the lowly ones [<yw]n`u&] will possess the earth/land and will delight themselves upon an abundance of peace”. In the Septuagint (LXX), the first portion of Psalm 37:11 [36:11] reads:

oi( de\ praei=$ klhronomh/sousin gh=n
“But the meek/gentle (ones) will receive the earth as (their) lot”

There are two basic points of interpretation in this Beatitude:

    • The precise meaning and significance of the adjective prau+/$
    • The expression klhronomh/sousin [th\n] gh=n

oi( praei=$

Prau+/$ has the meaning “gentle, mild, meek”. The adjective itself occurs only three times elsewhere in the New Testament (Matt 11:29; 21:5 [quoting Zech 9:9]; and 1 Pet 3:4); however, the related noun prau+/th$ (“meekness, gentleness”) is found more often (1 Cor 4:21; 2 Cor 10:1; Gal 5:23; 6:1; Eph 4:2; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:25; Tit 3:2; James 1:21; 3:13; 1 Pet 3:15). Jesus’ saying in Matt 11:29 is fundamental for and understanding of the Beatitude here:

“Take up my yoke upon you and learn from me, (in) that [o%ti] I am meek/gentle [prau+/$] and lowly in the heart, and you will find rest/quiet anew for your souls”

Here we find the same adjective (prau+/$) connected with an expression (tapeino\$ th=| kardi/a|, “lowly in the heart”) which is similar to that in the first Beatitude (ptwxo\$ tw=| pneu/mati, “poor in the spirit”).

An examination of the context of Psalm 37:11 shows the following details related to the Beatitudes:

    • Contrast of the righteous and the wicked (cf. the model Beatitude of Psalm 1)
    • Theme of trust in the Lord (vv. 3-6) which is related to righteousness (v. 6, 16, 25, 30, 37, 39)
    • The righteous as poor and needy (vv. 14, 16, 25), but sustained by the Lord (v. 19, 40)
    • The differing fates of the righteous and wicked (v. 2, 9ff, 37-38)
    • The righteous will be happy and “blessed” (v. 4, 11, 22)

For other instances of the word in the Old Testament (LXX) with the sense of humility and meekness, see Psalm 25:9; 34:2; 45:4; 76:9; 146:6; 149:4; Isa 66:2; Sirach 1:27; 3:17-20; 10:28; 36:23, etc.

In Greek philosophy, meekness/gentleness is seen as a positive virtue, often contrasted with anger and brutality (Plato Phaedo 116c; Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 4.5.1-4; Epictetus Enchiridion 42; for other references and bibliography, see Betz, Sermon, pp. 126-127). In Jewish tradition, Moses (like Socrates) was an ideal sage who possessed the virtue of meekness and humility (Num 12:3; Sirach 45:4); and the word could also be related to the mercy of God (i.e., his gentle chastisement, cf. Philo The Worse Attacks the Better §146). It was in early Christianity especially that meekness/gentleness came to be extolled in ethical instruction (1 Clement 13:1-4; Didache 3:7-8; 5:2; 15:1; Ignatius Trallians 3:2; Ephesians 20:2; Polycarp 2:1; 6:2; Hermas Commandment 5.2.6; Diognetus 7:4, etc.), largely as a result of Jesus’ saying in Matt 11:29 and here in the Beatitude.

klhronomh/sousin [th\n] gh=n

The verb klhronome/w (klhronoméœ) means “to have/hold by lot [klh/ro$]”, especially to receive (something) as a possession, i.e., to inherit. The reference in Psalm 37:11 [36:11] is colored by the idea of the allotments of land for the twelve Israelite Tribes (see Num 26:55; 33:54; Josh 14:1-2; 16:4, etc.). Also the Hebrew verb vr^y` (y¹raš, “possess”) in Ps 37:11 can have the sense “take possession of” or “dispossess”, and is used in relation to the Israelite conquest of Canaan; clearly, then the idea of possessing/inheriting the (promised) land is present (Hebr. Jr#a#, like Grk. gh=, can be rendered “land” as well as “earth”). Currently the “wicked” (i.e., the wealthy, powerful, ambitious, unscrupulous and violent) possess the “land”, but in the end (the age to come), it is the righteous (the meek and gentle ones) who will inherit. But how exactly should we understand the “earth/land” here in the Beatitude?

First it is necessary to look at the verb klhronome/w as it is used in the Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament.

So the verb—along with the related nouns klhronomi/a (“inheritance”) and klhrono/mo$ (“heir”)—is almost exclusively used in reference to inheriting the kingdom of God (and eternal life). One might assume it carries the same meaning here in the beatitude; however, the distinction between heaven and earth here (cf. also the Lord’s Prayer, Matt 6:10), suggests that “inherit the earth” is not entirely synonymous with “kingdom of God/Heaven”. The difficulty stems, in large part, from differences in eschatological imagery and conception related to the “Age to Come”. The Old Testament Prophets often used concrete images of earthly blessing—long life, health, wealth, prosperity, etc.—to describe the future Age (cf. Isaiah 65:17-25 as a prime example among many). This symbolism came to be wrapped up with the idea of the restoration of Israel and the Messianic Age in later Jewish (and early Christian) thought. At the same time, the kingdom of God in terms of the eternal presence and dwelling-place of YHWH (in heaven) continued as a fundamental eschatological theme. That early Christians could conceive of both an earthly (Messianic) and eternal (Heavenly) Kingdom is apparent especially in the book of Revelation (chapters 20-22); earnest and devout believers have struggled to harmonize and relate the two concepts ever since.
(For a similar difficulty within the New Testament itself, see the parallel saying of Jesus in Mark 10:29-30 / Matt 19:28-29 / Lk 18:29-30)

The ancient context of the Beatitude form (on this, see the earlier article) suggests an eschatological afterlife setting throughout. It would, I think, be a mistake to interpret Matt 5:5 as referring to a concrete earthly (this-worldly) blessing. For the righteous (believer), to “inherit the earth/land” is a distinct aspect of the eternal heavenly reward, drawn from traditional (Scriptural) language. The idea that believers even now realize something of this inheritance is not specified by Jesus in the Beatitude, but it will become an important dimension of Christian teaching—cf. especially the Pauline teaching clarified in Eph 1:11-14: the promise of inheritance is preserved by the presence of the Spirit in us.

Birth of the Son of God: The Kingdom of God

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

As a follow-up to the recent notes on believers as “sons/children of God”, today I would like to examine the connection between sonship and the kingdom of God. It is not possible in this relatively brief discussion to provide a comprehensive treatment of the “kingdom of God” as a concept or topic; however, a number of key points and observations will be offered here.

The Kingdom

To begin with, contrary to some commentators, I find little distinction between the use or meaning of the expressions “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of Heaven (lit. ‘of the Heavens’)”. The latter is found exclusively in the Gospel of Matthew, and a comparison of parallel passages and sayings of Jesus in the Synoptics, demonstrates more or less decisively that the expressions are synonymous (and interchangeable). Which is not to say that the Gospel of Matthew does not have specific reasons for using “Heaven” instead of “God”. Exactly how, or to what extent, the different idioms (in Greek) relate to the actual words of Jesus (the ipsissima verba, probably spoken in Aramaic) continues to be debated.

The Kingdom-concept appears to have a fairly wide range of meaning, but it is possible, I believe, to isolate three primary aspects or elements:

  1. Rule and authority—that is to say, of God as king. While, from the human perspective, God rules and exercises sovereignty, primarily from heaven, he has also made his will known to people on earth—principally through the commands and communication revealed and preserved in the Scriptures. Eventually, God will enforce his rule more fully and directly upon the world (at the end time).
  2. Dominion—by this is meant the area (domain) that is subject to God and the means by which he rules; one may divide this into two additional aspects: (a) the people who are under his rule and obedient to it (i.e. the “righteous”), and (b) the rule of God in terms of the Law (or “laws”, i.e. commands, precepts, etc) under which the ‘Kingdom’ is governed. According to Pauline thought and terminology, especially, the “Law of God” is synonymous with the “Will of God”.
  3. Eschatology—at the time of the New Testament, and in Jesus’ own day, the “Kingdom of God” was understood primarily in terms of the rule of God which will be realized over humankind (and all things) and the end of the (present) Age. Several related ideas and expectations were brought together, variously, in this context: (a) God’s end-time Judgment of human beings, (b) the specific judgment against the wicked/idolatrous “Nations”, (c) the restoration of Israel, and (d) the reward of the righteous (who have been suffering during the current wicked Age). The expectation of an Anointed ruler (i.e. Messiah/Christ), from the line of David, whose appearance would attend (or govern) these eschatological events, appears to have been relatively common in the 1st centuries B.C/A.D.

The initial proclamation of Jesus was to announce that this coming Kingdom was now arriving: “The time has been (ful)filled, the Kingdom of God has come near…!” (Mark 1:15 par). The vast majority of references to “the kingdom of God/Heaven” in the New Testament, in fact, come from Jesus’ own teaching (and virtually all from the Synoptic Gospels, except for John 3:3-5). These can generally be divided into several categories:

“Inheriting” and “Entering” the Kingdom

A principal metaphor, encompassing both ethical and eschatological aspects of the Kingdom concept, is that of inheriting or entering the Kingdom. The two idioms are, it would seem, generally synonymous, and are rooted clearly in the idea of believers (or the righteous) passing the (end-time) judgment before the heavenly/divine tribunal. This is especially so in terms of “entering” the Kingdom; whereas inheritance may also carry the connotation that believers (or the righteous) have already (previously) been appointed a share (i.e. lot) and place in the Kingdom. It is certainly true that one sees a kind of “realized” eschatology throughout much of the New Testament, drawn largely, I would say, from the basic idea of the covenant God established with his people (Israel)—if believers remain faithful, they will inherit that which God has prepared for them.

“Enter” the Kingdom (including parallels)—Mark 9:47; 10:15, 23-25; Luke 18:17, 24-25; Matthew 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23-24; 23:13; John 3:5; Acts 14:22; see also Mark 9:43, 45; Matt 7:13; 8:11; 18:8-9; 19:17; 25:21, 23; Lk 11:52; 13:24, 29; Heb 3:11, 18-19; 4:1-6, 10-11; 10:19; Rev 21:27; 22:14 and John 10:1-2, 9.

“Inherit” the Kingdom (including parallels)—Matthew 25:34; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 15:50; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5. For the parallel idea of inheriting eternal life, cf. Mark 10:17 par; and for similar language involving inheritance, cf. Mark 12:7 par; Lk 12:32; Acts 20:32; Gal 3:18ff; 4:30; Col 1:12; 3:24; Eph 1:11, 14, 18; Heb 1:14; 6:12; 9:15; 11:8; 1 Pet 1:4.

With regard to each of these expressions, there are two particular ideas or images which especially relate to believers as “sons/children of God”:

It is necessary to examine this last image in a bit more detail.

Believers as Heirs (to the Kingdom)

As indicated above, this motif is connected with the idea of believers (or the righteous) inheriting the Kingdom of God. It is the sons who inherit the father’s estate, and, especially the eldest/firstborn son. This is expressed in early Christian thought by the theological (and Christological) premise that Jesus is the true “Son” and heir of God (cf. Mark 12:7 par; Hebrews 1:2; Romans 8:17), which is further reinforced by reference to the Kingdom as belonging to Christ (“my Kingdom”, etc)—Luke 1:33; 22:29-30; 23:42; John 18:36; 1 Cor 15:24; Col 1:13; Eph 5:5; 2 Tim 4:1, 18; 2 Pet 1:11; Rev 11:15; 12:10; also Matthew 16:28; 26:29; Luke 19:12ff; Heb 1:8. Believers are heirs through Christ, and heirs together with him (Romans 8:17). The concept of believers as heirs of God is important within Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans, contrasting the freedom of believers in Christ with slavery under the Law (the old covenant) and sin—cf. throughout Galatians 3-4 and Romans 4:13ff; 8:12-30. For other New Testament references, see James 2:5; 1 Pet 3:7; Eph 3:6; Tit 3:7; Heb 6:17; 11:7ff. At least once in the New Testament, in Jesus’ teaching, believers are specifically referred to as “sons of the Kingdom [ui(oi\ th=$ basilei/a$]” (Matt 13:38, but note the somewhat different use in Matt 8:12).

The specific motif of the firstborn son will be discussed in the next article in this series.