As we’ve discussed in an earlier post, it’s important to get past your fear of not understanding the Bible (which always seems to mean not reading the Bible). God never meant His Word to be incomprehensible: Jesus spoke in plain Aramaic for the common folk of His time on earth, not the erudite who didn’t think they needed a Savior.
But the translation most available to most of us adults when we were young was the venerable KJV, or King James Version – basically accurate, of course, because the Holy Spirit continues to guide the translation of Believers (which is why there are “cult sect” versions out there like the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ tome that aren’t so much “translations” as “variations”, in their case to eliminate the notion of the Trinity in the Bible).
Anyway, the KJV was first translated back in 1605, and first published in 1611. I’ll do the math for you: that’s over four hundred years ago. Shakespeare was alive and writing at the time! If you casually read the original text of his plays without issue, you can probably casually read the KJV without comprehension problems – but you’re a better man than I am. (If you’re female, you’re automatically a better woman than I am.)
Fortunately, in the last several decades, many new and occasionally more accurate translations have become available. Part of the accuracy improvement comes from the mere improvement in scholarship and archaeological evidence, but partly it comes from an improved interpretation of the original Greek language of the period (for the NT especially), which I’ve come to understand is far richer in meaning than English.
For example, we see the word “love” a lot, and in John 21, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love Me?”, to which he answers (with increasing frustration) “Yes, Lord, I love You.” But that makes more sense in Greek, when you see two of the five or six different words for love being used. The first two times Jesus asks, He uses “agape” love – Godly, unreserved love. But Peter only answers with “phileo” love – brotherly love (Philadephia = “the city of brotherly love”, get it?). The third time, Jesus sort of “gives in” and meets Peter where he is; the third time, He also uses the term “phileo”, instead of “agape”. But in English, we lose that subtlety completely.
So all of this is prologue to a better explanation of the Sermon on the Mount, which is best described as Jesus Christ’s “manifesto” for humanity. The modern “standard” translations are already a huge improvement – I operate from and utilize here the English Standard Version (ESV) most often, along with the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB); there are other good versions like the ASV, the NASB, and even the NKJV – the NEW King James Version, which retains the wording of the KJV but moves it into 20th century English for readability.
But there are also many “simplified” versions of the Bible, streamlined into explanatory phrases as much as literal translations. The most drastic of these, and the one I find using most often when looking for explanatory examples, is called The Message. Written and published in the last decade of the 20th century, it’s considered “unconventional” by most scholars, and I’ve spent much of the last few months reading and comparing its version of the Lord’s Word to the more “accepted” translations. My original premise of doubt and disdain has disappeared completely; there have been too many times when I’ve read a verse in The Message and thought, “THAT can’t be right!?”, returned to the ESV and other translations, only to discover that not only WAS it right, but it was a detail I’d been overlooking when reading through the more “accurate” translations. Because Eugene Peterson and his team weren’t worried about being “word-for-word” accurate, they could even add sentences as necessary to get the full meaning out in “plain English”. There are some casual interpretive errors, in my view – the first one that comes to mind is the perpetuation in Matthew 2 of the myth that the angels sang to the shepherds; in fact, there isn’t a single place in Scripture where you’ll find the angels singing at all. (I know – I couldn’t believe it either. But it’s true.) But for a new Believer, or at least a new Bible Reader, this is a great Bible to start with to understand what God is saying to you. (THEN you can go back and read the ESV or NASB once you’ve got the basics.)
So today, we’re going to look at the Beatitudes (Matthew 5, verses 1:12) in the standard ESV form, and then interpreted by The Message. The REASON for this is that The Message goes out of its way to give you the MEANING that Jesus had in mind when He shared His “message” with His people. Some of the original phrases don’t sound right to our ears; only in explanation can we live up to what Christ has in mind for our lives. Ready? Here we go!
So, here’s the Message’s version: “When Jesus saw His ministry drawing huge crowds, He climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to Him, the committed, climbed with Him. Arriving at a quiet place, He sat down and taught His climbing companions. This is what He said:”
(A couple thoughts – it’s lengthier, to convey some additional details that weren’t obvious in the ESV. The “mountain” was more of a hillside; we think we know which hillside at least one of these presentations took place on. This version also emphasizes that it wasn’t a huge lecture to the masses, but rather a more intimate presentation to those who were most likely to follow His Teachings. Okay, moving on… We’ll start with the standard ESV version each time, and follow up with the Message’s interpretation.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and His Rule.”
The one interpretation that might have escaped you in the “original” was that YOU might be the ‘poor in spirit’ one day, and it could be someone else the next. Being ‘poor in spirit’ is not necessarily a permanent condition!
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”
Again, the Message is clearer here – what are you mourning for? Whether it’s a person or a thing or a lifestyle, the earthly thing that has gone missing from your life has made room for more God in your life.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.”
Again, why are you ‘meek’? ‘Meek’ does not equal ‘weak’ – it equals a lack of needless aggression, a moment of acceptance, a realization that “things” can’t satisfy you. Ironically, that’s the moment when you realize that the whole world is yours!
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s the food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.”
This is probably farther from the mark than the ESV, honestly. The concept of ‘thirsting for righteousness is gone in the latter version, although it’s point is also important. Moving on…
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
“You’re blessed when you CARE. At the moment of being ‘care-full’, you’ll find yourself ‘cared FOR.”
Or in other words, what goes around, comes around! This one was pretty easy to understand in the original.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.”
This is one case where The Message really helps. What does it mean to be “pure in heart”? It’s where you get your mind and your heart put right, where you’re at peace with yourself. Once you come to terms with God’s laws and how the Holy Spirit reorganizes your life towards the way it should be, you will see God in everything in the world.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”
Again, an explanation of the shorter ESV version: what does it mean to be a “peacemaker”? It means to love your neighbor as you love yourself. We love with the Holy Spirit’s love, and it teaches us who we need to become – a child of God, a fellow heir with Jesus.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.”
That’s the key – persecuted because of your commitment to God. Last one…
11 “Blessed are you when others 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 they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
“Not only that – count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit Me. What it means is that the Truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad and cheerful when that happens, for when they don’t like it, I do! And all Heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”
The one additional sentence that’s been highlighted is a great explanation that has meaning far beyond this blessing. “The Truth is too close for comfort, and they are uncomfortable.” My oldest son has been in this position for years – a classic prodigal, he hasn’t gone to the true opposite of love (which is not hatred but apathy), but rather is still passionate in his devotion to stay away from his father’s Christianity. I pray for his salvation constantly, and pray that he’ll turn away from the devil before my time on the earth expires. It’s the same thing that my late wife Melissa’s oldest son deals with – unfortunately for him, with his mother’s death, he no longer has the ability to ever reconcile with her on this side of Heaven, and some significant changes will have to happen in his mind and heart for him to be able to visit with her in the afterlife. Same with my son, of course, but for the moment he still has the opportunity to turn. I often share the gospel with him, but I’ve stopped hammering him on the head with it, because it seems to be ineffective. Prayer is our most powerful weapon.