We call Matthew 5:3-12 “the Beatitudes” because the word beatitude, which is Latin, simply means “blessing.” The meaning of the word “blessing” comes from two sources: the Latin word benedicere, which means “to speak well of,” and the Greek word makarios, which means “blessed.” Makarios was a word used to describe the gods, and it points to a godlike joy, a kind of joy that has its secret within itself. Makarios is a self-contained kind of joy, a joy that does not depend on circumstance. It is independent of chance or change. These concepts combine to form our understanding of blessing.
Unfortunately in English the idea of joy is often understood as being the same thing as “happiness.” The word “blessing”—and consequently the Beatitudes themselves—has also come to be connected with a concept of happiness. The surprise comes because Jesus associates some strange things with happiness— meekness, persecution, mourning. Our surprise comes because we fall short in understanding.
Our English word “happiness” contains the root hap, which means “chance.” That root word points to the reality of human happiness—something that is more often than not dramatically affected by chance and the unfolding events of life, something that life may generate or extinguish at the blink of an eye. (The “Gospel of Matthew,” Vol. 1; pages 88-89) When we think of Jesus’ words in relation to happiness, we miss the depth of what he’s talking about because the blessing he promises, the joy he promises, is completely untouchable. It is totally unassailable by the world.
In giving us the Beatitudes, Jesus is telling us that blessedness looks different from God’s perspective. The world may tell us what it takes to bring happiness, but Jesus is telling us that the world’s view may not be as accurate as we think. The joy God gives isn’t tied to happenstance, chance, or change. It is deeper, more lasting, and may even have some surprising components.
God’s joy and blessing are what God’s kingdom is all about. Christ followers are Kingdom people. Christ followers are folks who are in relationship with God through Christ, who live in hope of eternal life and live out that hope in their daily lives, thus experiencing God’s blessing and joy. The Beatitudes tell us what it means to be Kingdom people, to live in God’s kingdom. They are concrete expressions of the nature of Kingdom life.