The Hidden Gospel in the Heart of the Beatitudes

Photo by The hills are alive

Several years ago I was supposed to speak at a women’s conference here in Ontario on the Beatitudes and the kingdom of God. The idea was “seeing yourself through a kingdom lens.” I’d suggested that topic in part because it was specific but still broad enough for me to develop my talk over time, as I prayed and thought about it. There was one problem: I prayed, I thought about it, I spent time with my Bible, and the evening before the conference arrived I still had nothing to say.

I messaged a more experienced speaker friend in a mild panic. She laughed and said, “You’ll be fine. Just say what the Spirit gives you to say.”

Another friend reminded me that it wasn’t like I didn’t “know my stuff.” I have studied and prayed through the Bible dozens of times over a lot of years, and all of that has laid a pretty solid foundation when I speak.

But even so. Going to speak in front of a hundred or so women with no talk outline was intimidating, and I felt irresponsible.

So that night, I lay down on my air mattress on the floor and continued to think about it. I realized part of the issue: While I found the Beatitudes enormously meaningful, I also found them scattered. The first half felt disconnected from the second half. I just didn’t know how to teach them in a way that would be cohesive.

I knew there had to be a unifying principle in the Beatitudes somewhere. I just couldn’t see it.

So I lay there staring up into the dark and asked God about it. What was I missing?

My roommates can attest to what happened next: in the dark at about one in the morning, I suddenly blurted out, “Good gracious, it’s a chiasm!”

I flipped on my lamp and flipped through the pages of my Bible (my poor roommates) with my heart racing. Was it true? Had I seen something that was really there, or was I making this up?

But as I read the lines of the Beatitudes again, armed with a bit of Greek knowledge, I saw it. Indeed the Beatitudes ARE a chiasm, and right at the heart of them lies their unifying principle: the gospel itself.

Chiastic Structure and the Heart of the Matter

The next morning I enthusiastically got up in front of that women’s conference and excitedly proclaimed the chiastic structure of the Beatitudes to … well, a lot of blank faces. Which wasn’t unexpected, so I hastened to explain. In Greek literature, a chiasm is a particular structure in which points parallel one another at the top and bottom and so on up and down the piece.

The structure gets its name from the Greek letter chi which looks like an X. The main point–the “thesis statement,” to use the lingo of contemporary essay structure–is right in the middle. This is very different from the structure we tend to use in our culture, where an argument builds to its high point at the end.

Chiasms are common in the New Testament, and understanding where the crux–the central point, the thesis statement–lies can help us get at the real force of a teaching. The parallels are illuminating as well, giving, as they often do, two different sides of a particular coin.

In earlier posts I nicknamed the first four blessings in Matthew 5 “the negative Beatitudes.” They all bless a particular state of lack. The last four are very different: each one blesses a virtue. This was why I found the Beatitudes so disjointed: how did the negatives and the positives relate? What was the central point of it all?

The answer is found in the heart of the chiasm, at the very center of the Beatitudes, where two parallel lines meet–and in their meeting, they transform. They transform not only the blessings of the kingdom, but our very lives.

Righteousness and Peace Have Kissed Each Other

Long before Jesus came, a psalmist prophesied, “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10, KJV). The fourth Beatitude is a double-edged sword. We are promised that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. And we do need righteousness. We are famished for it, within ourselves and within the world.

But anyone who hungers and calls out for righteousness to be established in the world has to come face-to-face with the necessity of judgment and the realization that our desire for things to be put right demands that we too come into the light.

In another place, David–who was given to crying out for justice and righteousness–wrote,

Do not bring Your servant into judgment,
for no one alive is righteous in Your sight.
(Psalm 143:2)

Paul sums the problem up neatly:

Therefore, any one of you who judges is without excuse. For when you judge another, you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the same things. (Romans 2:1)

This isn’t complicated theology: it’s common human experience. Just as one example, you know the saying “Hurt people hurt people”? You get hurt and are justifiably angry at the one who hurt you, but in your bitterness and anger you carry out the same actions toward someone else.

Or take prejudice. Few things upset me more than prejudice, especially racial prejudice. But can I honestly claim that I have no prejudice–no “prejudgment”–of my own? That I don’t even harbor prejudice against prejudiced people?

We human beings can get very black and white in our judgment of each other and our assessment of what would solve the problems around us. We know what “righteousness” would mean in our situation. He scratched my car? Make him pay. She lied about me? Make sure everyone finds out the truth about her. They bombed us? Wipe them out.

They hurt us? Damn them.

But then there’s Paul, and Jesus too, with their warnings about judgment. When you judge another, you condemn yourself. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you,” Jesus says in Matthew 7:2. You can’t have selective justice. We hunger and thirst for righteousness–but maybe all we’ll get is a belly full of fire.

Into this dilemma the psalmist’s words speak with haunting beauty. Is it really possible for righteousness and peace to embrace? Can mercy and truth sit down together as friends?

Indeed it is. They do, here in the heart of the Beatitudes–in the middle of a chiasm, where two lines cross. And in the middle of THE cross, where righteousness and mercy embrace in the person of Jesus Christ and flow out to the whole world.

Because of course, the very next blessing Jesus gives–the parallel tightly bound together with “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”–is “Blessed are the merciful, for they will obtain mercy.”

Gospel Transformation

In the heart of the Beatitudes, righteousness and mercy meet. In the cross of Jesus, justice is done and mercy is offered. Sin is destroyed and life is bestowed. Righteousness is restored not through punishment but through forgiveness. It’s a startling, breathtaking, indescribably counterintuitive way. It’s Jesus’s way.

And it transforms. Reading the Beatitudes from top to bottom, a transformation occurs: four states of lack pass through mercy and are transformed.

Suddenly the poor in spirit is one who possesses the kingdom. The one who mourns has become one who brings peace and comfort to others. The afflicted has become the pure in heart, who shall not only inherit the earth but actually see God.

And the one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness has found everything put right at last–but in the obtaining and the giving of mercy, not in the strong hand of judgment.

The inaugural blessings of the kingdom promise new life to the people of this planet as we acknowledge our rightful king. He brings us hope, life, a better way.

He brings us the gospel–the good news–of the kingdom. With every layer we peel back, the better this news proves to be.

(This is Part 26 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)



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7 responses to “The Hidden Gospel in the Heart of the Beatitudes”

  1. Brad Eason Avatar
    Brad Eason

    Thanks for this! It was fun getting to dig into the Greek after reading your excellent article. The chiastic indicators are pretty fascinating:
    Verses 3 & 10: ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν
    Verses 4 & 9: παρακληθήσονται (v. 4) κληθήσονται (v. 9)
    Verses 5 & 8: only verses with the blessed taking a future action with a direct object.

    So cool!

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Thanks, Brad! Glad you enjoyed it and that you dug further (and shared)!

  2. Greg Knapp Avatar
    Greg Knapp

    I’ve always struggles with the Beatitudes. They’ve not been easy for me to follow. That may sound odd, but that’s what I’ve experienced. I’ve been able to follow most other parts of the Bible.
    Reading this has started to open up a new understanding that actually makes sense. It’s a little after midnight as I read and write so I’m going to have to look at it again tomorrow.
    This looks like a great expansion of understanding for me.
    You’re really good at that Rachel!! God has used your gifts to help me a great deal. Thanks for him and to you too!!

  3. Sara Joseph Avatar

    A brilliant post, Rachel. I am continually awed by the richness of the Word. You have explained it beautifully. May God continue to bless all the work of your heart and hands!

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Thank you, Sara! I share that awe.

  4. Rachel Avatar

    Thanks so much for your beautiful comment, Deb! I was awestruck when I saw this in the Beatitudes. Oneness and reconciliation are such incredible truths.

  5. Deb Collier-Winchester Avatar
    Deb Collier-Winchester

    I’m 65; been a Christian since age 3. I’ve read the beatitudes soo many times, but never saw them in this light. Your article raises in me the sense of conflict, almost despair I have felt at times unable to apprehend such a reconciled state with God. But through the Cross of Christ, I find oneness with Him who is reconciliation.

    I think there’s some extra dimensional way that God pushes a reset button that restores us to where we need to be. He helps us activate metanoia. The realization lends depth to the concept of redemption and I weep again at his grace.

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