The Poor In Spirit Are Blessed

I was too poor to go to college.  I barely graduated from high school, having played and slept my way through most classes until senior year.  Then, due in large part to the dynamic ministry of Young Life, during the first month of 12th grade I crossed that line of faith in Christ.   While my new-found faith spurred me on to get serious about my studies, I still graduated in the much lower half of my class.  I did not qualify for any type of scholarship: academic or athletic.  I came from a family that did not have the resources to even consider college.  So, I worked, I learned how to walk in Christ, I threw myself into youth ministry, I got married and we started a family.  By the time I was 23, I was convinced I needed to finally get myself into college, and carry my wife and 18th month-old daughter.  But I was too poor to go to college, but only due to a poverty of money.  I swallowed my pride and begged God to do what I could not.

 Galilean hillside

Galilean hillside

Jesus had a knack for declaring truth without shying away in fear that someone might be offended by his declaration.  This was certainly true when he launched into his Sermon on the Mount with, “Blessed are the ones who are poor in spirit”[Matthew 5:3].  Many Hebrews of the first century would have taken offense if you told them they were living in spiritual poverty, since Pharisees considered themselves wealthy in their birthright through Abraham, while Sadducees took pride in their relative superior financial & social status.  Some will say that we should take comfort in our kingdom status and be self-confident in our spiritual wealth.  That sounds like the advice that the early church of Laodicea followed when they pronounced that had all they needed, refusing outside help [Rev. 3:17]. 

 

In the face of those who found their security in themselves, Jesus stood on the shoulders of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah- “This is the one that I esteem, the one who is humble and contrite in spirit, the one who trembles at my word [Isaiah 66:2].  A consistent theme in the Older Testament is that some Jews, because of long economic and social distress had learned to place their confidence in Yahweh, and in Yahweh alone – “Since I am in pain and distress, may your salvation, O God, give me protection” [Psalm 69:29].  I take it, that in this context, being poor in spirit does not mean poor in courage, nor in material possessions, nor lacking the Holy Spirit, nor lacking spiritual awareness.  Rather, Jesus seizes this Hebraic concept in its older prophetic framework to mean someone who is willing to admit their spiritual poverty, their total dependence upon the LORD, unable to save themselves.  That is the kind of disciple Jesus is seeking to shape, lead and bless.

 

The blessing for the poor in spirit of Matthew 5:3 is usually expressed in English Bibles as “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” [NIV, KJV, ASV, RSV].  This makes it sound like we take heaven as our possession, as if I can lay claim to the property title deed.  One of the raging debates among the rabbis of the period was ‘what sort of people belong in the heavenly kingdom?’  Could Jesus be providing the answer to the question by indicating one of the premier character traits of those prospective residents?  Could it be the people who acknowledge their need and will yield themselves to the authority of Him who rules in power & wisdom?  What kind of people are citizens of the Kingdom?  People who recognize and admit their spiritual poverty and turn to God to receive spiritual life.  In other words, disciples who follow after God and find their source of life in Him alone.  God's salvation must be received with the dependent humility of a little child.  Therefore, right at the beginning, Jesus contradicted all human judgments & all nationalistic expectations of the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom is given to the poor, not to the rich; to the feeble, not to the mighty (unless the earthly rich ones and earthly mighty ones are willing to humbly find their identity not in riches or power, but in the cross of Christ).

 

When I cried out to God when I could not afford to pay for college, the LORD did not send me a celestial envelope full of cash singed by the fires of heaven’s altar.  I admitted my physical need and also my spiritual need.  Jesus heard my cry, then provided daily manna.  I discovered that the true blessing was not the financial provision: the resources, providential jobs, surprise gifts, grants and eventually academic scholarships simply moved me along in my journey.  The real blessing is that God was fashioning me into the type of citizen that inhabits His Kingdom.

 

“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 Message Version

 

“Blessed are those who admit their own spiritual poverty,

for the Kingdom of heaven is populated with people like this.”

- R.E. Joyner Version

They Call Them Beatitudes

 Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee

For a thousand years the Church has called them ‘beatitudes’.  So, I started asking people what in the world a beatitude was (nothing scientific, just asking around).  Most folks answered, “You know, those things that Jesus talked about in that Sermon.”  One person even told me, “It’s the attitude that we should be, or have, or do!”  My informal survey has prompted me to go ahead and clarify ancient Greek and Latin when leading people through the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5.  Most of the printed Bibles I use include the editorial heading over Chapter 5, “ The Beatitudes”.  Then, as we English speaking folk read through the chapter, we discover that the term ‘beatitude’ never occurs in the text of our translation of Scripture! 

So how did such an anachronism occur?  The ancient Latin translations often included the editorial heading ‘beatitudines at the beginning of Matthew 5.  That was the term that meant the collected statements about happiness, because the verb ‘beati’ occurs nine times in the passage.  That was the expression that the Latin translators selected to convey the older Greek term makarioi, which I would convey in English as ‘how blissfully happy are the ones who . . .”  Please don’t be misled by that definition.  We usually consider happiness as something we feel, something quite subjective based upon our emotions.  As a grandfather, I honestly cannot express the happiness I feel when one of those little people scream out “Papa” while running into my arms.  As great as that feeling of happiness is, the word of Jesus recorded by Matthew in the Greek text moves into another dimension.  In this passage, Jesus is making an objective statement about what God thinks of his followers. Modern psychologists seek paths for mental health, while the Lord Jesus spelled out how to have strong & healthy personalities.  Nobody knows better than our Creator how we may become truly happy human beings.  He made us.  He knows how we work best.  It is through obeying his own moral laws that we find ourselves in Him & fulfill ourselves.  All Christians should be able to testify from experience that there is a close connection between holiness & happiness – between deep devotion and a deep sense of well-being. 

Blessed are the poor in spirit:                             for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn:                           for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek:                                                 for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness:          for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful:                                            for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart:                                    for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers:                                   for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake:         

                                                                                   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you . . .             for great is your reward in heaven . . .

 

What Jesus gives us are nine statements of condition (or character), followed by the resultant divine blessing which rests upon those who exhibit these marks.  If a person reacts to his environment in the spirit of these characteristics, his life will be a happy one. Therefore, in this context, I suggest these mean "blissfully happy due to a deep rooted condition".  The condition receives blessing from God, and each blessing is described in the quality of the impact on the life of the disciple, and each blessing is appropriate to the condition of the believer.  Maybe, instead of ‘Beatitudes’, we could call this passage the ‘Blessednesses’.  Then again, rather than struggling with what to call them, just pursue these character traits in the spirit in which Jesus blesses you, and be amazed!

Suggested reading: The Message of the Sermon On The Mount, John Stott, IVP, 1985

Jesus Was Amazing

 Sea of Galilee from the hillside

Sea of Galilee from the hillside

I always heard that we were supposed to seize opportunities by grabbing the tiger by the tail, or leaping the Grand Canyon on a turbo-charged Harley, or ripping the unwanted pages from the boring textbook while climbing onto the desktops in grand ‘carpe diem’ style.  Jesus saw an opportunity, He seized the opportunity, and sat down. He sat down?!?  This is how Matthew chapter 5 leads us into the ‘Sermon on the Mount’.  Jesus saw an opportunity to teach his disciples, to gain a few more disciples and to leave the crowd amazed. 

When Jesus sat down on the hillside, his disciples gathered around him [Matt.5:1], for that is what true disciples tend to do.  In classical Greek and Roman society, a man was called a disciple when he bound himself to someone else in order to acquire practical, technical or theoretical knowledge.  The term mathatas – was used to identify a follower who learns, & a learner who follows.  In the culture at large mathatas was applied to an apprentice in a trade, a student of medicine or a member of one of the philosophical schools. One could only be a true disciple in the company of a master-teacher.  This is the backdrop in John 3:2, when Nicodemus came at night and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God."

While Jesus' disciples were identified as mathatas  in Matthew’s Gospel, they were in many ways different from other disciples of rabbinic circles & philosophical schools.

A) In rabbinic circles and philosophical schools, those disciples made a voluntary decision to join the "school" of their favorite master-teacher, but Jesus took the initiative and drafted his men into discipleship (Mk. 1:17 - Simon & Andrew "Come, follow me, & I will make you fishers of men."  v.19-20 James, John; 2:14 Levi "Follow me," ; Lk 9:59-62 "Follow me . . .lord, first let me bury my father. . ."; Jn.1:43 Philip).

B) In rabbinic circles, disciples looked for objective teaching with the aim of themselves becoming rabbis or master-teachers, however, studying with Jesus did not and still does not mean fulfilling 'X' number of academic requirements & then graduating.  Following Jesus as a disciple meant the unconditional sacrifice of your whole life; Mt 10:37-39 "take up cross // Lk 9:23; Lk 14:26 "hate family, mom, dad, wife, kids, own life" (preference); Lk 9:62 "No one who puts hand to the plow & looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God."

C) It is important for understanding discipleship to realize that the call of Jesus always includes the call to service.  The disciples of Jesus are to catch people (as fishers of humans) for the coming Kingdom by proclaiming the gospel & working in the name and character of Jesus (Mk 1:17; Lk 5:10-11).  He sent out the 12 & 70 in pairs to heal, bring salvation & peace, proclaiming the Kingdom of God (Mk 6; Lk 10)

D) Jesus' disciples also faced the same dangers & suffering; as his followers they can expect no better. Mt 16:24-26 "deny self, take cross . . . what good is it to gain the world & lose soul."

E) Disciples of Jesus follow & learn, learn & follow.  The original disciples never found Jesus lecturing in a classroom.  Instead, they would find him heading down the road to Capernaum, Nazareth, Nain or hiking up the hill to Jerusalem.  The Epistle to the Hebrews declares that following Jesus is more like running a race:  "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us [12:1 NIV].

 

Yes, Jesus saw a crowd of people and seized that opportunity to sit down in order to teach some of the most amazing truth ever proclaimed.  Let me encourage you this week to read again Matthew chapters 5-7, and be amazed.