Have you ever noticed on television documentaries about the past, the sighs of interest, even pleasure, that people express? It might be a program about a long-forgotten people or an ancient city. It might be the revelation of the value of a work of art or a letter found in the attic. Significant ruins and long-forgotten events of the past, family history and uncovered personal treasures, give people pleasure and joy. It gives them a sense of being caught up in the timeless, even the eternal. It gives them a sense of identity and satisfaction. Sometimes it is as though they have found life’s holy grail.
It is into our world with its moments of self-satisfaction and self-sufficiency that Jesus speaks his first recorded words in Matthew’s Gospel: Blessed are the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3).
ECONOMIC OR HEART CONDITION
With his words the poor in spirit he is not referring simply to the financially or materially poor. His disciples weren’t destitute. While they weren’t necessarily millionaires, they certainly weren’t hard up. Peter and his brother conducted a fishing business, and Matthew (Levi) had sufficient funds to host a large dinner party (Luke 5:29).
The poor. In Old Testament times God’s people were often referred to as ‘the poor’, because they were economically distressed. Sometimes this was caused by oppression, as we see in Isaiah 3:15: What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? declares the Lord God of hosts. At other times poor refers to the powerless in society, as we read in Job 20:19: For he has crushed and abandoned the poor; he has seized a house that he did not build. Furthermore, various Hebrew words for poor can mean ‘lowly’ or ‘humble’ as in Proverbs 16:19: It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.
POOR IN SPIRIT
Poor in spirit. However, two words in particular that we find in Isaiah anticipate Jesus’ reference to the poor in spirit. In Isaiah 66:2 we read: Thus says the Lord,… But this is the one to whom I will look: he or she who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.
Putting these ideas together, Jesus’ words Blessed are the poor in spirit are a reference to a poverty of spirit that acknowledges spiritual bankruptcy. It is our honest recognition that we are unworthy of God; our acknowledgement that our world-view and life-style all too often reflect the converse of the first commandment that says, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. We have set up alternate gods of our own devices to worship: money, sex, power.
Poverty of spirit is the deepest form of repentance, exemplified by the guilty publican in the story Jesus told – the publican who prayed from the back of the Temple: God, be merciful to me, a sinner. Poverty of spirit is being honest with God about ourselves. It is the admission of our impotence without him in our lives.
WHAT IS JESUS CALLING FOR?
What Jesus is calling for is a profound change in our relationship with him and in our lifestyle. But we will only want to do this if we believe that Jesus is the transcendent king.
Simon Peter, when he was confronted by Jesus’ power and purity, knew that a deep gulf existed between himself and Jesus: Depart from me, Lord, he said, for I am a sinful man (Luke 5:8). Matthew (Levi), for his part, knew there was more to life than money. Called to follow Jesus he handed over the tax office to others, and obeyed.
To anyone who sees how impoverished they are before the One who transcends all things, Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit…
We don’t remember great leaders simply for who they were or what they did, but also for the things they said. George Washington’s Inaugural speech as president and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, come to mind. So does Winston Churchill’s speech in May 1940: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat; and his stirring and challenging words the following month: ‘We will fight on the beaches… We will never surrender …’
The greatest speech?What we often overlook is that the speech of Jesus of Nazareth known as the Sermon on the Mount, is generally regarded as one of the finest speeches ever.
Significantly, Matthew has not recorded any words of Jesus before his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ thus giving it greater weight. In the previous chapters (1-4) Matthew develops one vital theme: Jesus is God’s long-promised Messiah. Jesus, we find, stands in the line of the great kings of Israel: he is a descendent of the greatest of all Israel’s kings, King David (1:1). Significantly, foreigners called the Magi, come and worship him as king (2:1-6). At his baptism (3:14-17), Jesus is called God’s ‘Son’, a title uniquely reserved for the kings of Israel (Psalm 2). By the time we get to the end of Matthew 4, we learn that people have come to hear Jesus from every corner of the vast empire that David and Solomon had ruled in the golden age of Israel’s history (4:23-25).
Now in chapter 5 Matthew introduces us to the first words of the king – what we might call ‘The King’s Speech’. Blessed are the poor in spirit,…Jesus began. How easy it is to say these words. Yet as we will see over the coming weeks, they are challenging and disturbing.
What does it mean to be ‘blessed’?‘Happy’ is a poor substitute. Those who are blessed will generally be profoundly happy, but blessedness cannot be reduced to happiness. To be ‘blessed’ means to be approved, or to find approval. When God blesses us he is approving us.
JESUS’ CHALLENGE TO US
Jesus’ first words challenge us to ask, ‘Whose blessing do I want more – other people’s or God’s?’ Do we covet more the blessing of family or friends or of a superior at work? Jesus wants us to see that God’s blessing is worth infinitely more than anything else. If we agree with him, then his beatitudes speak to us very personally and very deeply.
One significant feature is that the first and last beatitudes promise the same reward. The first is: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The last is: Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.To begin and end with the same expression is called an ‘inclusion’. Everything that stands between the two can be included under the one theme – here, the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus’ Beatitudesset out the standards that he, as the king, expects of his people. They serve to introduce the Sermon on the Mount which, taken as a whole, sets out what we might call the constitution of God’s kingdom. Jesus is not interested in people who live a veneer of holy living. He is committed to seeing lives of integrity – integrity in the home, in all our relationships, in the world of commerce and on the field of play, in completing tax returns and in the use of the internet, in the movies we watch and the magazines we devour.
When, by God’s grace we work at living out Jesus’ words, then we discover God’s blessing.
In his recent book, The Road to Character, David Brooks observes,
For many people, religious and nonreligious, love provides a glimpse of some realm beyond the edge of what we know. It also in a more practical sense enlarges the heart. The act of yearning somehow makes the heart more open and more free. Love is like a plow that opens up hard ground and allows things to grow…
Love. When we stop and reflect on life, most of us acknowledge our need for love – be it marital love, familial love or filial love. But even then we are not satisfied for long, for we know that this kind of love will never satisfy the depths of our soul. Nor will it last.
Douglas Coupland in his Life After God confessed:
Now—here is my secret. I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.
Consider Peter’s words in his First Letter:
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiry, inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated when it testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory Life After God.
Notice the words, the grace that was to be yours… It is the promise of God’s love. It is a love that is humbling and disturbing, for God’s love is unmerited on our part and costly on God’s.
God’s love involved the greatest sacrifice of all – the pure for the stained, the powerful for the weak, the glorious for the inglorious. As Peter tells us here, God had long planned to do what he had to, to reveal a love that is far beyond our imagination, a love that would rescue us from his just condemnation of our sin.
Notice how Peter puts it. He tells us that the prophets of old anticipated God’s grace, his act of love, and that the apostles and the gospel-preachers proclaimed it. God’s action in and through his eternal Son was developed over centuries. What the prophets of old searched and inquired about concerning God’s Messiah and his suffering, has now been announced through the gospel.
God’s love and the salvation he holds out to us is found in the sufferings and subsequent glory of the Messiah. Jesus is his name; Messiah or Christ is his title. His sufferings and his subsequent glory have made our rescue possible. As Peter goes on to write in chapter 2:24, Christ’s sufferings were sustained when he bore our sins in his body on a tree. Messiah’s ‘glory’ occurred when God raised him from the dead and gave him a position of honor and power.
Two great themes that bubble throughout the Bible are the ‘sufferings’ and the ‘glories’ of the Messiah. Isaiah, Jeremiah and other prophets had important things to say to their generation, but ultimately they were speaking about the coming of Messiah and the unfathomable blessings he would bring. The Old Testament prophesied the Messiah, the New Testament proclaims him.
No wonder John Newton could pen the words, Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me….
When our own faith is awakened afresh to the reality of God’s love – a love that is deeper and more satisfying than any human love – we will surely want to live in it and live it out. Indeed, when we experience the riches of God’s love we will want to do great things for him.
There are times in our relatively comfortable world when we are surprised by an unexpected turn of events – it may be a sudden fall in the stock market, loss of a job, a divorce, a heart attack, or the death of a loved one. And then there are unexpected moments when people around us make life difficult because of our faith. Our first thought may be, ‘Doesn’t God care?’
In his First Letter, Peter the Apostle was writing to people who were facing hardship because of their faith. His response, as we saw last week, was to remind his readers of the vital hope they have because of the imperishable, undefiled, and unfadinginheritance that Jesus Christ has made possible through his death and resurrection.
In this you rejoice, he continues, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials. He knew the reality of tough times and suffering. He is aware that people who follow Jesus Christ as Lord may suffer physical persecution. But notice what he says in verse 7: so that the genuineness of your faith —being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire— may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Don’t be surprised by the unexpected challenges and tough times in life, Peter is saying. God is using these moments to refine and purify your faith in him, for true faith, he says, is more precious than gold. While gold is one of the most durable of substances, it perishes.
This is profound. If we think about it, God’s evaluation of something is the ultimate standard (the ‘gold standard’) of meaning in the universe. Anyone who has faith in this God has a secure framework for meaning and purpose in their life. This subverts the popular wisdom that says only fools believe in Christianity. Peter is saying that to know that God loves us, and is committed to us, is all we need.
We may not always understand all the events in our lives – even over the course of a lifetime. We may only discover the purpose of our experiences when the Lord reveals the secrets of all and gives special honor to those who trusted him, even though they couldn’t see the reason for what was happening at the time.
Believe… Rejoice. Consider what Peter says in v.8. It’s quite amazing: Without having seen him, you love him. The normal experience of those first readers was a genuine, ongoing love for Jesus Christ, even though they hadn’t seen him. This suggests that they had a daily relationship with the Lord Jesus through prayer and Bible reading, through church and the singing of songs and hymns. Two words stand out: believeand rejoice. They are the keys.
Peter is telling us that there are two ways to live – either without belief in Jesus Christ and therefore without hope and without joy, or with faith in the risen Lord Jesus Christ and therefore with hope and with joy. And the joy of which he speaks is an ongoing, continual activity and experience. It is an ‘unutterable’ joy.
The word unutterableoccurs only here in the whole of the New Testament and speaks of a profound joy that can’t be expressed in words. Luther and (eventually) John Calvin, had it right. Singing is vitally important for God’s people because it enables us to express the fullness of our joy in a way that is more effective and helpful than merely speaking. This is why Christianity has inspired the great variety of hymn writing that is lyrically and musically rich as we find, for example, in that of JS Bach, Watts, the Wesleys, Newton and, more recently in the Getty music.
Joy. Peter is speaking about the joy that springs from being in the presence of God himself. This joy is more than happiness. It is a joy that is tested and deepened through suffering. It is the joy that springs from knowing and trusting our Living Hope – the risen Christ Jesus.
In an interview in October 2011 (Guardian) the musician, Jarvis Crocker said, “I think basically becoming famous has taken the place of going to heaven in modern society, hasn’t it? That’s the place where your dreams will come true. It’s an act of faith now; they think that’s going to sort things out.”
It is very easy for us to despair about our world with its indifference to the faith that has had such a great impact on western culture. In many ways our world has come full circle back to the Graeco-Roman world of the New Testament. Apart from dramatic technological changes, there is little that has not already been.
The 1st century Roman world was marked by narcissism and political correctness. Sexually decadent, it was preoccupied with entertainment and plagued by alcoholism and gambling. What we often forget is that the gospel of Jesus Christ triumphed in that world.
Over these next weeks I plan to identify themes in 1 Peter that touch on Peter’s response to the challenges God’s people faced in the 1st century. He begins by focusing on the theme of ‘hope’.
The good news of Christianity had brought a dramatic change in the lives of Peter’s readers. They and he (he says ‘us’) had been ‘born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…’ They had a confident expectation that life here was not the totality of their existence. This hope is living in that it grows in strength as the years go by. Psalm 92 says that in old age the righteous will still yield fruit: They shall be full of sap and very green.
Godly, chronologically-enriched people often reveal this hope in their eyes, their demeanor and in their attitude to life. They are not on the way out: they are en route to a far better place.
You may have friends who say, ‘that’s all very nice, but how can you be sure that there really is an after-life? How do you know that it won’t just be one big party?’
Indeed, a recent article in The Telegraph noted that AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ was regularly heard at funerals: Hey momma, look at me, I’m on my way to the promised land, I’m on the highway to hell (don’t stop me); And I’m going down, all the way down, I’m on the highway to hell. Within months of the release of this song in 1979 the lead singer was dead after a drinking binge.
The Apostle Peter anticipated the kinds of questions people ask about Christianity when he anchored his words in Jesus’ resurrection. ‘The living hope,’ he says, ‘has been brought about by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ The fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty on that first Easter Sunday assures us that Peter’s words are not make-believe. Believing that Jesus was raised from the dead is a center-piece of the gospel the Apostles preached. Every sermon in The Acts of the Apostles references Jesus’ resurrection. We have every reason to have a fearless hope.
This is so encouraging. Peter tells us this living hope is an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.It will not decay. It will be the opposite of our experience now where, despite the best efforts of the cosmetic and fitness industries, our bodies age and decay. It will not be stained by sin. There will be no evil, no suffering nor pain. Furthermore, it is an inheritance that will not lose its value, its beauty or its glory. Nor will it disappear.
What is more, for the present we are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:5). ‘Protected’ means ‘guarded’ or ‘shielded’. God’s power continually sustains and energizes our faith at every twist of life.
Peter wants us to know that God’s people are born anew to an inheritance that is far superior to anything we can ever possess here on earth. Because our hope is not something vague or uncertain we can face life now without fear. God’s promise is rock-solid.
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