Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Blessed are the poor in spirit (Sermon on the Mount #2)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3

Sometimes in Bible study it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees– to focus so much on a word study or a specific hard-to-grasp phrase that we miss the overall impact of the text. This passage is a perfect example.

Jesus speaks in present tense to teach that the blessedness of the kingdom alreadyexists for those who are poor in spirit. It’s a present reality. Let that sink in for a minute. Those who are poor in spirit – whomever they are – are already blessed, because they already have the kingdom.

We previously saw that blessedness is a state of sufficiency, of satisfaction. Essentially it is a “more than enough”state that recognizes God and what He gives as thoroughly sufficient in every situation. Aristotle used the word as an antonym to “needy”; it’s a state of fullness – fullness from God. When He fills us we are no longer needy, but satisfied – “blessed”.

Glance ahead in the passage and you’ll see that not all the Beatitudes are present tense. Most, in fact, use that wonderful word “shall” – a promise of something to come in the future. The blessedness is present, but the reason for it hinges on a future event – what John Piper calls “Future Grace.”

Not so for those who are poor in spirit (v. 3) or persecuted (v. 10). To these individuals belongs the kingdom of heaven. Not “shall be”, but “is” – they already have the kingdom. With such a rich assurance at the heart of Jesus’ message, let’s look more deeply at what it means to be “poor in spirit.”

The word “poor” is not a Greek word referencing relative poverty; instead, the original word refers to utter destitution. It’s a word used to reference crouching like a beggar and can mean abject poverty, utter helplessness, and complete destitution. Picture blind beggars in a third world country and you begin to understand the level of poverty intended by this word.

“Poor in spirit” thus means literally, “spiritually destitute.” However, to get a full grasp of the meaning of the phrase we have to lay the parallel passages of Jesus’ sermon side by side. Matthew and Luke both record a lengthy teaching by Jesus at this point in His ministry, and they share so many of the same verses that the two passages almost certainly record the same message (commonly called the Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain, referencing a flat place on the mountain where Jesus is thought to have stopped to teach His disciples).

Matthew, written to a Jewish audience, emphasizes spiritual poverty in contrast to the “spiritual elite” that Jesus consistently confronts throughout the Gospels but especially in Matthew’s record. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, in the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel, references those who are not the spiritually elite Pharisees and scribes, but whose hearts represent spiritual helplessness. This type of spiritual poverty is pictured in a beautiful story recorded in Luke:

(Luke 18:9-14 ESV) - He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
The spiritually elite Pharisee emphasizes his worth; the spiritually destitute tax collector emphasizes his need for mercy. To see ourselves as spiritually needy is to be poor in spirit.

But Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount adds an additional dimension to the overall definition of poor in spirit. Luke’s record of the Beatitudes includes not only blessings but contrasting woes. Writing to a Gentile audience in the highly materialistic Roman Empire, Luke records Jesus’ words:
(Luke 6:20, 24 ESV) - And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God....But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
In contrast to the materially elite who might think they are blessed, Jesus lifts up the poor. In the larger context of Scripture, of course we know that being poor alone does not ensure that a person belongs to the kingdom of God. Jesus does, however, indicate that while poverty does not ensure salvation, wealth can be a definite hindrance. Three of the four Gospels record that Jesus taught His disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25).

God’s heart for the poor is evident throughout the Bible. He clearly lines out His heart for them and our responsibility to them. We have an eternal responsibility to share the Gospel –absolutely. But we also clearly have a temporal responsibility as well, to meet their practical needs and relieve their suffering in whatever way we can now. (Seehttp://thejustlife.org/home/resources/scripture-lists/the-bible-on-the-poor/for some of the key references).

From a kingdom perspective, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” reveals to us that the kingdom of God isn’t dependent on the elites of the world. We can never forget Paul’s words to the Corinthians that remind us where our boasting should lie-never in any person, but in God alone:
(1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV) - For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."
From a missiological perspective, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” gives us insight when we are looking to discover those individuals in whom the Lord is moving. Often, it’s not going to be the spiritually elite who are confident in their rule-keeping and status before God. Instead, those whose hearts are broken by their inability to obey; those who feel rejected by their own religious system because of a failing; those who are outcasts of their religious community and who wonder if God can accept them now – these are often the fertile, good soil onto which the seed of grace falls and takes root. Like the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, these never stop showering love because they are aware how fully they are forgiven.

Finally, from a relational perspective, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” tells us how God wants us to come to Him. Whatever our personal or financial condition, our hearts must be fully cognizant of our need. We can’t be spiritual elitists. We need to have hearts like the Sons of Korah.

Korah was part of a rebellion by Levites who sought a position beyond what God had granted them (see Numbers 16). God brought judgment on the men and many of their family members, but spared the sons of Korah (Numbers 26:11). Their descendents would go on to pen some beautiful, God-exalting psalms (see Psalm 42, 44-49, 84-85, and 87-88). One passage in particular reveals the heart of these men who learned through their family history to rejoice in the special place God planted them, rather than aim for a more “spiritually elite” position. As I sought the Lord on what “poor in spirit”can look like in the life of a believer, I believe God drew me to this passage.

(Psalm 84:1-12 ESV) - To the choirmaster: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.
the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! Selah
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.
O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah
Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed!
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.
O LORD of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!

Review the bold verses in light of lesson of Korah. His descendants learned well that what they had in the courts of God, even just serving as a doorkeeper, was great. God wasn’t holding out on them. There was no need to grasp for a spiritually elite position. They were simply happy to serve, and saw God as one bestowing favor and honor.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” After we realize our spiritual poverty and come to know His grace, may we realize that we never stop needing Him – and may that realization overflow into worship as we rejoice that we have everything we need in His presence.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some more great insights. Thanks for you efforts. Helpful to many
no doubt.