Monday, March 7, 2011

The Beatitudes - Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Today I want to embark on a new series.  I am starting a book on studies of the Sermon on the Mount and it is always helpful to study what you are about to read a study on.  That may sound strange, but it is true.  You learn so much better when you have some understanding of what you are about to learn.  In that, I am going to post piece by piece my own humble study of the Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon is a great expounding on the life we are called to live as Christians.  God thought it important to include, in detail, the moral teachings of Jesus so it is important for us to know them as well.  I will begin in the Beatitudes and probably keep it to one beatitude a day, which should keep these posts at a manageable size and help to focus on just one subject per day.  So, with this brief introduction behind us, let us begin our study.
And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 5:1-3 NKJV
Before we begin to discuss what this means, I need to address what it does not mean.  This has nothing to do with poverty.  While you all know that I believe the prosperity gospel is a false gospel, I also believe the same of the so-called poverty gospel.  They read this verse to mean that "poor" is referring to financial poverty.  The truth is that there are many poor people who can hardly be classified as happy.  You can also say the same about many rich people.  One is not especially blessed if that person is poor.  If you see a family struggling to get by and in danger of losing their home, please do not minister to them using this verse.  It will only serve to embitter them.  Furthermore, the lack of money does not open one up to God's blessings.  There is a world of people stuck in generation after generation of abject poverty.  Furthermore, poverty is not the way of salvation.  Making yourself live in poverty will not gain you the kingdom of God, only Jesus can.

Another thing I need to address is the kind of poverty Jesus is speaking of here.  There are several words for poor in the original language.  The word here means abject poverty.  It means utter, complete, bottom-of-the-barrel poverty.  It refers to those who absolutely can not get by on their own.  "Blessed" here, as in all the beatitudes, essentially means happy.  The application of poverty in this verse is about us and our spirits.  That said, this verse is basically saying that happy are the ones who are in abject poverty of self and spirit, particularly when measured against God.  In other words, happy are those who see God and subsequently see ourselves in the light of who God is.  This is because it is only when we are truly empty of ourselves and our pride, will God truly fill us. To better understand what this means, let us look at a few great examples in the Bible. 

First let us look at David, King of Israel. Nathan had just shared with David that God would establish His eternal kingdom through David and that the Messiah would come through his seed.  David came to God with a desire to build a house for Him, God said that he was not to build a house for Him, but that God was going to establish His kingdom through David.
Then King David went in and sat before the LORD; and he said: "Who am I, O Lord GOD? And what is my house, that You have brought me this far? And yet this was a small thing in Your sight, O Lord GOD; and You have also spoken of Your servant's house for a great while to come. Is this the manner of man, O Lord GOD? Now what more can David say to You? For You, Lord GOD, know Your servant. For Your word's sake, and according to Your own heart, You have done all these great things, to make Your servant know them. Therefore You are great, O Lord GOD. For there is none like You, nor is there any God besides You, according to all that we have heard with our ears. And who is like Your people, like Israel, the one nation on the earth whom God went to redeem for Himself as a people, to make for Himself a name—and to do for Yourself great and awesome deeds for Your land—before Your people whom You redeemed for Yourself from Egypt, the nations, and their gods? "For You have made Your people Israel Your very own people forever; and You, LORD, have become their God. Now, O LORD God, the word which You have spoken concerning Your servant and concerning his house, establish it forever and do as You have said. So let Your name be magnified forever, saying, 'The LORD of hosts is the God over Israel.' And let the house of Your servant David be established before You. For You, O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, have revealed this to Your servant, saying, 'I will build you a house.' Therefore Your servant has found it in his heart to pray this prayer to You. "And now, O Lord GOD, You are God, and Your words are true, and You have promised this goodness to Your servant. Now therefore, let it please You to bless the house of Your servant, that it may continue before You forever; for You, O Lord GOD, have spoken it, and with Your blessing let the house of Your servant be blessed forever."  2 Samuel 7:18-29 NKJV 
I know that text was rather lengthy.  I did not want to cut out any part of David's prayer because it is a beautiful example of inspired worship.  David just heard amazing news about how God has chosen him to be the dynasty through which the Messiah would come.  David just learned that Jesus Christ would be his descendant.  There are so many ways one can react to such news.  Some may react in pride thinking just how great they are that God has chosen him.  Some may act in false humility (which is also pride) refusing God because of their lack of worth.  David, on the other hand, acts as one with a poverty of self.  You see, the reason that false humility is not humility at all is because humility denotes a complete lack of self concern.  A humble person would never talk about how humble he or she was because a humble person would not think of themselves enough to realize or even be concerned with how humble they are.  Humility is a state of being and something that is so beyond our nature that it can only come by the work of God.  For David, his humility was expressed not in his realization of how small or worthless he is in and of himself, but how small he was in comparison to God.  It was not his smallness that compelled his humble realization of just what God has done, but it was the greatness of God.  He first saw how awesome God is and only then did he realize just how small he was.  David saw the great thing God had done for him and planned to do through him and did not react to say how good he was nor did he react with how unworthy he is.  No, David reacted with how great God is.  His response was not self promotion or self deprecation but to glorify God.  Such is the way of a man who is poor in spirit.  He sees the greatness of God and in that he sees just how small he is.  In that, he sees just how amazing it is that God would look upon him and in that his heart is filled with worship to God. 

The next example is Isaiah. Isaiah had a vision of being in the very throne room of God seeing God seated upon his throne.
So I said: "Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts." Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; Your iniquity is taken away, And your sin purged." Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: "Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me."  Isaiah 6:5-8 NKJV
Isaiah comes face to face with God and upon seeing the Holiness of God, he sees just how unholy he is.  A great illustration of this is when you take something that you have that you think is truly white and hold it up against something that really is purely white, suddenly that white is not so white anymore.  In fact, many times, it is far and away from white.  This was Isaiah's experience.  I do not think that Isaiah thought he was holy before this, but it was upon seeing the holiness of God that he say just how unclean he was.  So we see here an order of events.  First he sees how pure and holy God is.  In light of the holiness of God, he realized the abject poverty of his righteousness.  It was then that God cleansed his sin making him pure.  He sin was not forgiven by anything he did, but through his realization after looking upon the Lord of how empty he was of righteousness, that God was able to make him righteous.  He was filled with the grace of God and that grace changed him to where he wanted nothing more than to serve God.  God calls for a servant and Isaiah is excited and enthusiastic to answer that call.  It is also notable that Isaiah did not know what he was volunteering for, he just wanted to serve God.  Such is the man with a poverty of spirit.  He sees his righteousness in light of the pure righteousness of God and realizes just how void of anything good he is.  It is at this point where God fills him with His grace and that man now wants nothing more than to please and serve his Lord.

The next example is Paul.  First let us take a look at Paul's pedigree.
For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. Philippians 3:3-6 NKJV
If the world were his judge, Paul had the credentials to be accepted as a religious scholar.  He had the training, knowledge, and contacts to move in the religious community.  He had yet another credential being a Roman citizen giving him many more rights and privileges that others did not have.  In his own strength, Paul would seem to be a natural at being a religious leader.  Paul does not see things the way the world does, though.  Paul does not rely on any of those things for his success as a minister of the Gospel.  In fact, it was the same Paul who said this.
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.  2 Corinthians 3:5-6 NKJV
Paul realize that any ability he had was from God.  His knowledge of the word, his status as a Roman citizen, his ability to hear from God and expound on His word, and his ability to reach the gentiles for Christ were all created in him by God.  Paul had the right heart in that someone who is poor in spirit does not think of his own abilities, but on what the calling of God is.  This ties right into Isaiah.  Isaiah did not ask God what He had in mind and evaluate his skill set to determine if he could be of benefit of what God was seeking, he just said "Send me!"  Someone who is poor in spirit does not serve in his own strength because he knows he has none apart from God.  Jesus told us that apart from Him we can do nothing.  Someone poor in spirit knows the truth of that statement.  This requires giving up ourselves and our pride about what we have to offer under the realization of what God has done in us.  Another great example of this are when musicians come to know Jesus.  Most change their musical career from secular music to music that glorifies God.  Not all of them do, but that is another subject entirely.  There are two ways to approach using your abilities for God.  The wrong approach is to feel as through you were drafted into God's service for your abilities and what you can provide.  It is saying that I will now use my musical (or any other) talents for the Lord.  The correct heart is the realization that whatever abilities you have were provided to you by God and should have been used for His glory all along.  It is saying that you are serving God in His strength with abilities He has given you.  It is a matter of repenting for misusing what the Lord has given you.  Do you see the difference in focus?  The first example focuses on self and our own talents.  It was looking upon our own abilities first and seeing our service to God in light of those abilities.  The second example focuses on God and what He has done in us.  The second example is looking upon God and all that He is and realizing that whatever ability you may have is because He created you to have those abilities.  We see God for all His goodness and realize that we really have nothing to offer Him of our own abilities and in that we stop serving in our own (lack of) strength and begin to serve in His.  It is the realization that we can do all things through Christ but no things apart from Him.  When we empty ourselves of our pride in our own ability that God can fill us with His. 

And such is the man who is poor in spirit.  The idea is not that we are happy in our position of poverty.  The verse does not end with "Blessed are the poor of spirit."  How hopeless it would be if such were the impossible case in only finding joy if we are in a state where we can have no joy.  Blessed are the poor in spirit not because they are poor, but because in that state "their's is the Kingdom of God."   You see, before Christ, we go through life finding ways to feel good about ourselves.  We think of good deeds we may have done or that we are a nice person. We think we are "good."  We are filled with ourselves.  It is only when we come face to face with God and see His holiness that we realize just how hopeless we are on our own.  It is that realization that when it comes to righteousness, we are in abject poverty, drawing us to Jesus Christ.  It is only when we realize that we need a savior that we can truly find one.  You can never be happy in your own merits because it is a matter of striving in your own strength to meet impossible (and for those outside of Christ) unknowable demands.  That is life without Christ.  When we encounter God and see Him for all the goodness He is we come to the realization that all our efforts have been an abysmal failure.  We crash down from our spiritual pride and realize just how poor we truly are in spirit.  Then, and only then, are we empty enough so that God can fill us.  We give up any idea of self worth and God fills us with His righteousness. We give up any idea of goodness we have of ourselves and cling to the goodness of God in sending His son to the cross to die for our sins.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, indeed, for their's truly is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked— I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. "To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.  Revelation 3:17-21 NKJV

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