Happiness is something we long for. Yet happiness is elusive and, at best, momentary. Where then can we find the riches of a lasting experience that satisfies the depths of our soul?
Today we turn to the first of Jesus’ Beatitudes found in Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.
Blessed. Some translations use ‘happy’ instead of blessed, but happy is subjective, a poor substitute for the word blessed that Jesus uses. The blessed will generally be profoundly happy, but blessedness is not simply happiness. To be blessed means to be approved, or to find approval. When Jesus says, blessed, he is speaking of the people who have God’s approval.
This is profound. If God is at the heart of the universe, there can be no higher blessing than to be approved by him. Jesus’ words here challenge us to ask, ‘Whose blessing do I want more: the blessing or approval of people around me, or God’s?’
Now the blessing, or approval of family and friends, Facebook or Instagram followers isn’t wrong in itself. It is just that Jesus wants us to see that God’s blessing is infinite in value. If this is our desire, then his beatitudes speak to us very personally and very deeply.
In the opening segment of his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5 through 7), Jesus identifies eight blessings. They are not eight top suggestions, nor are they characteristics of eight different types of people. So searching of our character are these beatitudes, that they reveal that none of us is capable of living up to them in order to get into heaven. They are Jesus’ expectations of all who turn to him.
Poverty of spirit is not financial destitution or material poverty – none of the disciples were materially destitute. We can forget that while men like Peter or Matthew weren’t necessarily millionaires, they certainly weren’t materially impoverished. Simon Peter ran a fishing business with his brother and other partners. Matthew had sufficient funds to host a large dinner party.
But what they both realized was that they had a need only Jesus could satisfy. When confronted with Jesus’ power and purity, Simon Peter knew that a deep gulf existed between himself and Jesus. ‘Depart from me Lord’, he said, ‘for I am a sinner.’ For his part Matthew saw that there was more to life than making money. Called to follow Jesus he handed over the tax office to others, and turned to Jesus.
It is to people like this that Jesus says, Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
The English word ‘poor’ is used to translate a number of Old Testament words. One word we find in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, refers to the materially hard up (Proverbs 19:1, 7, 22). Another word refers people who are powerless (Job 20:19, Psalm 82:3f). Other words speak of the poor as the needy (Psalm 140:12), and the socially under-privileged or oppressed (Isaiah 3:14f).
Most importantly, in the pages of the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms and Isaiah the poor turn to God for help. Knowing the reality of their spiritual need, they turn to God, whose nature is always to have mercy.
Poor is often found as a metaphor for the ‘outsider’. To be poor in spirit is to know that we are outsiders as far as God is concerned.
The eight Beatitudes or Blessings form an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. Any doubts we might have about the poverty of our relationship with God are exposed as Jesus moves on to explain the deeper meaning of God’s commandments – to hate someone is to commit murder; to lust after someone to whom you are not married is to commit adultery.
Like a laser light, Jesus’ Sermon reveals everything about us – not just our actions, but our very thoughts and words. His Sermon removes our self-delusions and awaken within us a genuine poverty of spirit.
To be poor in spirit is to acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy. It is exemplified by the guilty publican in the story Jesus told. The publican prayed from a corner in the Temple, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ Poverty of spirit is being honest with God about ourselves. It’s the admission of our impotence without God’s work of salvation in our lives.
The kingdom of heaven. Matthew uses the phrase kingdom of heaven in the same way that Mark and Luke speak of the kingdom of God. Jewish man that he was, Matthew was reluctant to use the word, God. It was too holy, too majestic.
Kingdom of God speaks of God’s great power and glory and his rightful and good rule over his creation. It is a majestic theme – one that inspires the very best within us, for it opens up an eternity of grand and beautiful possibilities for us.
Where is a rich and lasting blessing to be found – one that reaches the depths of our soul? It is to be found in a heartfelt experience of turning to God and knowing him. We need to come to him and acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy, emptying ourselves of self-righteousness, moral self-esteem, and personal pride. It is only when we are empty of these things, that Jesus will fill us with new life and assure us of God’s approval.
Truly God’s blessing and his kingdom belong to the poor in spirit.
© John G. Mason
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