“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9 (NRSV)
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Matthew 5:9 (ESV)
Some Bible verses are packed with meaning. They can be observed from many angles. Thus, after listening to two recent sermons on this verse, I want to offer one additional perspective by looking at two key terms in this verse: (1) peacemakers, and (2) sons (children) of God.
Peacemaker. This is the only place where the word “peacemakers” is used in the Bible. However, in the original language it is made up of two common words, “peace” and “maker” like it is in English. Jewish rabbis talked about peacemaking as a work of love, promoting peace between human beings. The secular world of that day talked about a strong powerful ruler, such as the emperor, as peacemaker. The “Pax Romana” or peace of Rome was seen as a strong power because it created such a fearsome authority that kept the nations it dominated from fighting each other. This so-called “peace” came through military power, including the power to kill those who got in its way by nailing them to a cross.
Sons (children) of God. “Son of God” also had many of the same powerful military associations in the ancient world. It was assumed that if a man was powerful enough to rule over a vast territory with thousands of people, he must be special, super-human, the son of a god.
Son of God. It is interesting to note that in Matthew (as in Mark and Luke), Jesus never directly refers to himself as the “Son of God” even though it is clear that he accepted the title. Instead, he often referred to himself as the “Son of Man” (or, in some contemporary translations, “The Human One”). We can see this clearly at Jesus’ trial. The Jewish rulers were looking for some evidence of blasphemy which, according to the Law, would have made Jesus worthy of death. Matthew 26:63-64 (NRSV) says,
63 But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you,
From now on you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of Power
and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
What is interesting is that both “Son of God” and “Son of Man” are terms from the Old Testament used to describe the Messiah, the King from the line of David who was supposed to restore Israel to its rightful place as the ruler of the nations. Yet “Son of God” carried with it the military connotations of David’s kingdom. David himself said this at the end of his life:
3 But God said to me, ‘You shall not build a house for my name, for you are a warrior and have shed blood.’ 1 Chronicles 28:3 (NRSV)
Jesus did not want to use the terms “Messiah” and “Son of God” because they would simply play into the common misunderstanding that the Messiah was to be a conquering warrior king like David. So he says to the high priest, in effect, “You have said that I am the Messiah, the Son of God. You have defined me in those terms. But I tell you, that what you will really see is the Son of Man, the truly human one who will rule with God’s style of power, a heavenly power.” In maintaining that stance and going to the cross, Jesus effectively demonstrated that power, the power of God’s love.
Therefore, coming back to the beatitude in Matthew 5:9, we observe that even though Jesus wouldn’t directly call himself “Son of God,” he readily called his followers, “sons of God.” (In the Greek, like many languages, the masculine plural which is literally “sons” is also used for a combined plural, “sons and daughters,” and this is the reason it is translated as “children” in some versions.)
So, in effect, Jesus turns both terms, “peacemaker” and “son of God” upside down. Jesus demonstrated by his very life and death, as well as his use of language, that the common perception of the Messiah as a warlike military ruler with an army out to kill the enemy was totally false. As Jesus says later in the chapter,
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children (the same word, “sons”) of your Father in heaven…”
Jesus came not to promote himself as the new ruler, a “son of God” in the same old style as a human king or emperor, but to demonstrate how all of us as human beings can return to being true peacemakers and thereby be truly God’s children.
Sadly, even today, we have such a hard time understanding this and living it out. We keep putting our faith in human rulers. We keep promoting nationalistic notions of God’s rule that involve more guns and bombs than “the enemy” has. In our personal lives we scheme and maneuver to gain the advantage over the other person we think is wrong. In the process, we miss the true nature of God’s redemptive work, a work that operates through the power of love, not force and might. Most sadly, we deny the way of the Messiah as defined by Jesus himself who only becomes the “Son of God” by identifying first with us as weak and needy children and becoming himself the fully Human One, the “Son of Man.”