The Beatitudes are a condition or statement of blessedness. Sometimes, the best way to understand an object or concept—whether it’s grand like the Colosseum or as diminutive as a butterfly’s wing—is to step back and explore it as a whole. At the same time, studying at close range to see how the intricate parts work together can also yield much fruit. That is certainly true of the Beatitudes found in Matthew’s Gospel. To understand what’s really being said through this list of blessings introducing the Sermon on the Mount, we must look to the structure.

A Wide-Angle Lens

At the end of chapter four, Matthew tells us that Jesus was “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness” (Matt. 4:23). In 9:35, the same phrase is repeated. Matthew’s summary statements are like bookends that help his readers know how to understand the chapters in between.

The Sermon on the Mount offers an example of the teaching mentioned in Matthew 4 and 9, and the miracles of chapters 8 and 9 give a glimpse into Jesus’ healing ministry. The healing accounts declare loudly that God’s coming kingdom will have no brokenness, oppression, sadness, or loss. And the Beatitudes’ ethics are a proclamation of God’s kingdom—of how things should and will be because it is already breaking into our world.

A Microscope

Each of the beatitudes has two parts—a pronouncement of blessing and a reason for that blessing. But notice that the first and last reasons are the same: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3, 10). By opening and closing the list this way, Jesus is telling His disciples that all of these blessings, from the first to the last, are of the kingdom. Mourning, gentleness, and peacemaking, for example, are blessed ways of life only if God’s kingdom is indeed coming. So, too, Jesus’ promises have weight only in a kingdom where He reigns.

But there’s something else that distinguishes the first and last beatitudes from the rest. While the others are all future tense—“they shall be comforted . . . they shall inherit the earth . . . they shall be satisfied” (vv. 4-6, emphasis added)—the first and last beatitudes are in the present tense. They read, “Theirs is the kingdom of God” (vv. 3-10, emphasis added). Here, Jesus is saying something that is hinted at throughout the Gospels: God’s kingdom is already here, and it also hasn’t yet arrived (See Matt. 12:28; Luke 11:2). That’s why He can proclaim the blessing here and now while also speaking about the blessings of a future kingdom. It’s the reason why those who mourn, those who make peace, and those who face persecution are blessed: The kingdom of heaven has begun to invade earth. Yet there is still a time for mourning, a need for peacemaking, and the threat of persecution because the kingdom has not yet come in its fullness.

A Panoramic Shot

Finally, to truly understand the impact of the Beatitudes, as well as the entire Sermon on the Mount, we must look to the beginning and the end of the scene. Doing so allows us to view two extreme ends simultaneously and gain a new perspective.

The scene opens with Jesus sitting down on a mountainside to instruct His disciples (Matt. 5:1-2). A parallel account makes it clear that the teaching is directed toward the 12 (Luke 6:20); however, it is “the crowds [who are] amazed at [Jesus’] teaching” (7:28). It seems that as the Lord taught His followers, those on the fringes were listening in and marveling at what they heard. As we have already seen, the kingdom of God described by Jesus is both already here and not yet come. Jesus taught His disciples, those “already here.” But it is those “not yet come”—the crowds—who are most impacted by His words.

This is the nature of the kingdom. As we who love Jesus live in its light, we may look strange to observers. But those who live out the Beatitudes and the ethics of Jesus’ sermon—those who are merciful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and those who are pure in heart—speak hope to a world in desperate need of it. It’s the challenge and the promise of these short, powerful statements of Jesus, words that have the power to change the course of history.