We’re discussing Scot McKnight’s latest book Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church.
(Mat 5:1-10 ESV) Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
So how does the church become the church? How does the kingdom partly realized become the kingdom in its fullness? Well, here’s a pretty good place to start. But it’s not that easy, because of a translation problem. The word translated “blessed” has no English equivalent.
We discussed it when we studied Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien.
The authors give the Greek word makarios as an example of Greek words with no English equivalent. BDAG (the premier New Testament lexicon) defines the word with “the general Gr-Rom. perspective: one on whom fortune smiles.”
The VGNT lexicon translates “Oh, the happiness of …!”
We usually translate “blessed” in the Beatitudes.
But to English speakers, “blessed” sounds like “God will bless” or “God has blessed.” But Barclay explains,
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.
Stoffregen gives this helpful explanation –
In ancient Greek times, makarios referred to the gods. The blessed ones were the gods. They had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all cares, labors, and even death. The blessed ones were beings who lived in some other world away from the cares and problems and worries of ordinary people. To be blessed, you had to be a god.
Makarios took on a second meaning. It referred to the “dead”. The blessed ones were humans, who, through death, had reached the other world of the gods. They were now beyond the cares and problems and worries of earthly life. To be blessed, you had to be dead. That is the origin of the different saints days — they are remembered on the dates of their deaths. All Saints Day was for all the people who had died in the faith whose names we didn’t know.
Finally, in Greek usage, makarios came to refer to the elite, the upper crust of society, the wealthy people. It referred to people whose riches and power put them above the normal cares and problems and worries of the lesser folk — the peons, who constantly struggle and worry and labor in life. To be blessed, you had to be very rich and powerful.
I can’t find it, but when I was in college, I read an essay by an ancient Greek writer which concluded that one cannot be makarios in this life, because as soon you claim to be makarios, the gods would become jealous and take your makarios away. Therefore, makarios is for those at the end of life — or even dead — beyond the reach of jealous gods. Besides, the author argued, how can you be makarios until you know how your children and grandchildren all turn out?
Hence, for Jesus to declare his followers makarios was not only to speak of contentment, it was to promise a happiness that could not be taken away by anyone — not persecutors and not even the Greek gods. Hence, it’s a contentment coming from God — who is more powerful than anyone or anything that might seek to take your makarios away. It’s not just blessed (a state of being), it’s also contentment (a feeling) that cannot be taken away.
Why consider yourself makarios? Is it better to be poor? Better to be persecuted? Is it good to mourn? Some take it that way, but these are inevitably the rich and un-persecuted and those who’ve not lost a loved one. Jesus isn’t urging poverty and suffering and the loss of people we love. Rather, he recognizes the reality of these things and promises a solution.
The kingdom of God was finally dawning, and therefore the way we measure our lives, the things that make us happy, should all change. The kingdom promises blessings beyond our imaginings, and for time without end. The sufferings of today are nothing compared to the blessings we’ll one day receive.
Therefore, we should feel blessed — fortunately favored by God — regardless of today’s circumstances.
N. T. Wright says it more plainly:
The life of heaven—the life of the realm where God is already king—is to become the life of the world, transforming the present ‘earth’ into the place of beauty and delight that God always intended. And those who follow Jesus are to begin to live by this rule here and now. That’s the point of the Sermon on the Mount, and these ‘beatitudes’ in particular. They are a summons to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future; because that future has arrived in the present in Jesus of Nazareth. It may seem upside down, but we are called to believe, with great daring, that it is in fact the right way up. Try it and see.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 38.
Eschatology — the study of the afterlife — tells us how to live today. We live today as though Jesus has already come, as though the kingdom were already here in its fullness. And this way, we enjoy the blessings of the afterlife, of the new heavens and new earth, right now.
Where can we do this? Where can we live in this upside-down way? Well, especially within the church, where everyone shares the same ethic and understanding of life and this world. And so church becomes a preview of heaven.