Messiah Yeshua Teaches Tenakh and Jewish Halacha, 1: The Beatitudes a Proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven

There must have been great excitement in the air as the word spread that Yeshua of Nazareth was on his way back to Capernaum. He had been staying in Capernaum (Matt. 4:13) at the house of Simon Peter, a typical stone house built with the black basalt native to the region, situated in a residential neighborhood between the synagogue and the Sea of Galilee. From that base:

RSV Matthew 4:23 … he (Yeshua) went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.

Such was the beginning of the public ministry of Yeshua. We might not know what they read from the Torah in those synagogues, or how he expounded on it, but we do have his longest and most famous recorded sermon, known as “The Sermon on the Mount”. The opening verses, known as “The Beatitudes”, are actually a great example of how he proclaimed the kingdom of heaven.

In order to understand the Gospels properly, you must read as a non‑believer—a first century Jew who had no idea who Yeshua was. When Christians read the Gospels assuming that Yeshua is the Messiah and Son of G‑d, his miraculous deeds and wise sayings become routine. It is so easy to think, “Well, of course he heals and says amazing things. He is the Son of G‑d!” And we lose the wonder.

On the other hand, if we don’t know who he is, and we see him doing these things, we are amazed, even shocked. “Who is this who says and does such things?!” And that is exactly how the Galilean Jews reacted when they originally saw him. Try to place yourself in that crowd on that day.

What is this “good news of the kingdom of heaven”? What would a first-century Jewish person understand? To answer, we turn to the Tenakh, the “Old Testament”. In the Jewish world of Second Temple times, words or phrases quoted from the Tenakh were understood in terms of their Biblical context. The classic passage that describes the “good news” that “our G‑d reigns” is Isaiah 52:7:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your G‑d reigns.”

When a Jew heard the words “good news” and “kingdom of heaven” (or, the reign of G‑d), his mind would be drawn to this passage. Isaiah spoke of the good news of the return of the Jewish captives from Babylon, the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the rule of an Israelite, Davidic king. In other words, G‑d sovereignly intervened in history to keep his promise to Abraham’s descendants. G‑d rules! The Jews of Yeshua’s time were hoping and praying for the same thing, including freedom from the rule of Rome. So when Yeshua came along and proclaimed “the good news of the kingdom of heaven”, this is what they understood. You can see why he caused such excitement, while drawing opposition from the Romans and their puppet Jewish authorities.

Imagine now that you are one of the Jewish men or women who followed Yeshua up the hill. He sits down, his followers gather around, and the crowds gather around them. Yeshua begins to teach. Does he say anything that makes you uncomfortable?

Matthew 5:3 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 obtain mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see G‑d.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of G‑d.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Does it seem strange that he should begin with a series of blessings that sound like platitudes? Would you think, “I am poor in money, pal! I don’t need the kingdom of heaven; I could use a job”? Or might you respond, “My son died last month. When will I be comforted?” Or, “Inherit the earth? How about paying the mortgage on my house?” His audience would find out soon enough that Yeshua’s blessings went far beyond the mere meeting of personal needs.

What of the last two blessings? “Persecuted for righteousness’ sake? That’s the story of our people for 2000 years already. And why should I be persecuted because of him? I’m not a prophet! I just came to listen. Anyway, why should anyone want to persecute someone who blesses the poor?”

An odd way to begin. He doesn’t introduce himself or his subject. He begins abruptly with nice-sounding words that do not say much. What is Yeshua talking about? Suppose we take a closer look.

It was common and expected in Jewish preaching to make allusions to the Tenakh. Rabbis of that time liked to begin a sermon with a prologue, which was often a playful way of drawing listeners into a message by beginning at an unexpected place and using a series of Biblical allusions to arrive at the body of the message. (There are some nice examples of this practice in the Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 1, where we see different Rabbis’ introductions to the subject of the Creation.)

Looking carefully at the blessings in Yeshua’s prologue, we can observe how each blessing alludes to a passage from the Tenakh. Most are fairly clear; some are a bit more obscure. Jewish audiences knew the Tenakh well enough that, instead of citing chapter and verse, a Rabbi could use phrases from the Bible, and his listeners would understand that he was referring to the passage where they are found. Look how this works:

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We already know that Yeshua has been preaching about the kingdom of heaven. It is not surprising to find this in his opening sentence. But who are the “poor in spirit”? In Isaiah 57:15, we read:

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

G-d who dwells in eternity also dwells with the lowly in spirit. This is their connection with the kingdom of heaven. But when will this connection become a historical reality? The context tells us that it will be in the day when the L‑rd restores the people of Israel to our land, with all the peace and blessings that come with that. Yeshua is hinting that this is exactly what is about to happen, and it seems to have something to do with him.

4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

In the same passage, Isaiah 57:18, G‑d promises comfort to those who mourn. In a nearby passage, 61:1-2, someone anointed by the Spirit of G‑d is sent to bring these good tidings to the very people upon whom Yeshua pronounces these blessings:

1 The Spirit of the L‑rd G‑D is upon me, because the L‑RD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 2 to proclaim the year of the L‑RD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our G‑d; to comfort all who mourn;

When will this happen? In the “year of the L‑RD’s favor”. Yeshua is hinting that this time is approaching, and that he himself is the anointed messenger. Could the kingdom of heaven really be at hand?

5 Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit (possess) the earth (land).

This is a clear allusion to Psalm 37:11:

11 But the meek shall possess the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity. 12 The wicked plots against the righteous, and gnashes his teeth at him; 13 but the L‑RD laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming.

The same Hebrew word means “possess” and “inherit”. Likewise the word for “earth” and “land”. The meek will inherit, but when? In v. 13, it says that “his day is coming”. Apparently this also is on the way.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

While there is not a clear match to this blessing, Psalm 63:1-5 that shares a similar thought:

1 O God, thou art my G‑d, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is. 2 So I have looked upon thee in the sanctuary, beholding thy power and glory. 3 Because thy steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise thee. 4 So I will bless thee as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on thy name. 5 My soul is feasted as with marrow and fat, and my mouth praises thee with joyful lips,

The soul that hungers and thirsts for G‑d will find him in his sanctuary, as the Psalmist did, and will be filled. In Yeshua’s time, the Temple and priesthood were corrupt. Is Yeshua saying that the time is coming when G‑d will cleanse the Temple and restore his presence there, to be found by those who search for him?

7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

The Greek word for “merciful” can mean “to have pity,” or “to do acts of kindness or loyalty”. The first meaning corresponds to the Hebrew לרחם l’rahem; the second to the Hebrew, to do חסד chesed. The second meaning has a direct parallel in Psalm 18:25-26, where we see that G‑d repays the good that we do in kind:

24 Therefore the L‑RD has recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. 25 With the loyal חסיד thou dost show thyself loyal; with the blameless man thou dost show thyself blameless; 26 with the pure thou dost show thyself pure; and with the crooked thou dost show thyself perverse.

If Yeshua is saying, “Blessed are they who do acts of kindness, for they shall obtain (from the L‑RD) kindness,” then we can see the allusion to Psalm 18:25, and that should remind us of the whole psalm. David is praising G‑d for delivering him from his enemies. The rest of the psalm speaks of how G‑d gives extraordinary abilities in battle to his King, and it concludes with the promise of חסד to G‑d’s anointed:

Psalm 18:50 Great triumphs he gives to his king, and shows steadfast love חסד to his anointed, to David and his descendants for ever.

This meaning fits the message of Yeshua’s sermon perfectly. Could he be suggesting that he and his followers, will receive the same kind of chesed from G‑d in the approaching days of the kingdom? His audience should have been asking themselves this question by now.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

This blessing alludes to Psalm 24.

3 Who shall ascend the hill of the L‑RD? And who shall stand in his holy place?

4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully.

How will the pure in heart see G‑d? They will ascend the mountain of the L‑RD—the Temple Mount—and stand in his sanctuary. The psalmist calls on the gates of the Temple to open and let the King of Glory come in. The King of Glory is the L‑rd himself. So those who are standing in the holy place will “see G‑d”. This is also part of the package of fulfillments that will come along with the day of the L‑RD and his kingdom.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of G‑d.

Yeshua alludes to Isaiah 45:7-11, where G-d says:

7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the L‑RD do all these things.

And shortly afterwards, he says:

11 Thus saith the L‑RD, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me.

This passage from Isaiah speaks of the salvation and coming glory of Israel. G‑d makes peace, and his sons make peace.

If you were in the audience on that mountain on that day, would you be getting excited by now?

Ah, but with the good news comes some bad news:

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This blessing of the persecuted, who will receive the kingdom of heaven, recalls the well-known prophecy from Daniel 7 that speaks of 4 empires—Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Daniel 7:17 These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.

These four empires were to rule the world from the time of Daniel until the coming of the kingdom of heaven. And guess what. Yeshua came to the people of Israel in the days of the Roman Empire, the fourth kingdom. Anyone who knew this prophecy would have been waiting eagerly for the news that the kingdom of heaven was coming, to get rid of the Romans and restore the kingdom to Israel. But there was a catch:

Daniel 7:21 I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them; 22 Until the Ancient of days came, and judgment was given to the saints of the most High; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom.

The picture Yeshua is painting is nearly complete. First he pronounces blessing on the downtrodden, depressed, mourners, the meek, powerless. His encouragement is much more than a compassionate hand on the shoulder; he is giving them hope that their deliverance is at hand.

Then he calls on his hearers to prepare themselves. Do acts of mercy and kindness. Purify your hearts. Strive to make peace. And prepare for battle. The battle will be difficult, but the faithful will prevail.

There remains one more point for Yeshua to make in order to open up his audience to the full gravity of his message:

11 Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.

“Revile me? Persecute me? What did I do?! I only came to hear him preach. I am not a prophet! Why should anybody persecute me because of him?” Biblical allusions begin to flood the mind:

Psalm 119:86 All thy commandments are sure; they persecute me with falsehood; help me!

Jeremiah 17:18 Let those be put to shame who persecute me, but let me not be put to shame; let them be dismayed, but let me not be dismayed; bring upon them the day of evil; destroy them with double destruction!

The listeners on the hill that day began to understand what it means to “preach the good news of the kingdom of heaven”. Yeshua was not calling people to be spectators in some grand eschatological drama. He was calling them to be participants. This was the introduction to his message

Yeshua continues by telling the people, “You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world.” And then most of the rest of his sermon is an exposition of the 10 Commandments and other major Torah subjects, as if to say that his laws will be the basis for governing the kingdom, and his followers can become his representatives.

We know that there were crowds who heard him that day because Matthew tells us:

7:28 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching …

What Yeshua said on that hill was indeed astonishing. The crowds seemed to understand him. And yet he was very clever and careful not to say anything that could “incriminate” him. He made no declaration that he was the Messiah. He said nothing about overthrowing the Roman rule in Judea. He had no army. There was nothing that anyone could accuse him of but healing a lot of sick people, and preaching about the love of G‑d. And yet, for those who had ears to hear, he said everything that he wanted to say through his skillful allusions to Biblical texts, carefully framed within a message of comfort and hope. And that was only the beginning.

Leib Reuben,
Jerusalem