Some 400 years before the Messiah’s first coming, Malachi was the last prophet to be sent to the nation of Israel. A great deal of history unfolded during those 400 years, but God did not send a prophetic voice. This means that the people of Israel, beyond being under the domination of the Roman Empire, were left with nothing more than the leadership of the Scribes and Pharisees. The religious hierarchy, however, were no more than blind guides leading the blind. There was then a religious attitude which needed to be corrected.
John the Baptist was sent by God as the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah at his first appearing. He preached a simple but tough message which emphasized the need for repentance, but, repentance from what?
We find from the many confrontations Jesus had with the religious leaders that they were very good at teaching religious rules and rituals but they knew nothing about the heart change that a real life of communing with God should bring. These heart changes are “be” attitudes described in this well known passage of Scripture in Matthew. Let’s search out what Jesus taught about the true godly life and what should be present in the lives of those who seek true happiness.
Much of what Jesus taught was contrary to that of the religious leadership of Israel at that time. Similarly, much of his teaching is contrary to modern culture today as well. The remarkable Sermon on the Mount begins with a call to the “poor in spirit”:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. (verse 3)
Another way of saying this is, “Happy are the poor in spirit.” But, what does it mean to be “poor in spirit?” I believe this is describing a willingness to be emptied of anything this world has to offer and be filled up instead with anything and everything God has to offer. There are many things in our world that do offer a certain amount of gratification, and this does not make them evil. But, as the true child of God communes with the Father, the things of this world–even the best this world has to offer, pale in comparison to the inheritance that God has planned for those who love Him. In 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 we find these words:
But as it is written: Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him. But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit, for the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.
And in Isaiah 64:4-5 we find a passage that shows God’s intimate walk with the one who is committed to His ways–even in our short life on this earth:
For since the beginning of the world men have not heard nor perceived by the ear, nor has the eye seen any God besides You, who acts for the one who waits for him. You meet him who rejoices and does righteousness, who remembers You in Your ways.
The person who is described in this verse of Scripture is “happy” or “blessed” completely independent of what he has or doesn’t have. This person is happy within his spirit because all he needs is his relationship with God, and that is sufficient. Ultimately, it is a blessed happiness regardless of the physical condition of poverty or wealth.
But today, both “poor” and “rich” find things to complain about. Many who would consider themselves poor, blame other people or situations for the circumstances. In fact, it seems more and more acceptable to blame others for any lack. If it isn’t the government we blame, then it is our neighbors, or it’s our parents, or our children, or whatever we can think of
There is an interesting passage in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians that speaks both to the needs we all experience in our life and the assistance we are sometimes given through our Christian community of believers.
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Nevertheless you have done well that you shared in my distress. Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only. Philippians 4:10-15
This passage describes the happiness of those who are truly “poor in spirit” as Jesus describes them. This is how the Apostle Paul responded to the needs he faced, and it is also how his needs were responded to by the family of believers. Paul traveled over much of the Middle East in his missionary journeys. This meant that he was always facing the cost of the ministry God had called him to. Paul had difficulties in getting the support he needed and often had to do without many essentials. Paul did have a trade; he was a tentmaker, but making tents did not bring in enough money for him to do all God asked of him. It seems that early on in Paul’s ministry, it was only the church at Philippi that contributed to his financial needs. Apparently, Paul did not receive other help for a time. In verse 10 it seems Paul received more financial help from the Philippian church.
Paul was teaching that as believers we can live such satisfied lives through our submission to the Master, that whether we are in lack or experiencing abundance, we are truly “happy.” Paul said that he was able to be just as satisfied whether he had enough to eat or not, whether he had enough money or not, or whether he was guest of kings or confined in a dark, dank prison, he learned to be content, he chose to consider himself “blessed.” The key for Paul, and for all of us, is how we choose to respond to our circumstances. During the times when Paul suffered because of lack, he chose not to criticize the rest of the community of believers. If and when God brought special help to him, he was grateful. If no help came, he trusted God completely and was happy regardless. This speaks of a complete trust in God, a trust that knows that God sees all things and is never caught by surprise.
Being “poor in spirit” also does not mean that we take the blessings given to us by God and throw them away so that we can be “poor”—thereby trying to prove that we are more spiritual. There is no Scripture that teaches us to do such a thing. If God, however, were to call one of us into ministry in a different nation, requiring us to sell all we have in order to follow His direction, that may be the needed price. Often the example is used of the rich man who came to Jesus, asking Him what he should do beyond the commandments he had kept since childhood. Jesus’ response was to go sell all he had and give the proceeds to the poor. This example is not a teaching that we should all sell all we have in order to be more spiritual so we can inherit eternal life. Jesus said this to the rich man because his wealth is the very thing that was coming between him and God. The problem was not his wealth, but rather the priority he put in holding onto his wealth. The man’s wealth meant more to him than true submission to God. Jesus had relationships with others who were faithful friends of his, and yet were wealthy. One example is the man Lazarus whom he raised from the dead. Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha were quite wealthy, but their wealth did not get in the way of their relationship with God.
Life is full of surprises, many of them very unpleasant. We must always be prepared for the unexpected losses in this life. In many parts of the world, just being a Christian will bring loss of possessions, and often life itself. The Apostle Paul referred to this very thing in Hebrews 10.
But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings; partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated, for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven. Hebrews 10:32-34
In the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation, the risen Jesus gives a description of seven churches that existed in the first century church. Each one of these also represented specific stages of the Church throughout the two thousand years of church history. The last church Jesus described is the Laodicean Church. This church represents much of today’s Church which is falling into apostasy. Listen to what Jesus had to say:
These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. 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—”
What Jesus had to say to the Laodiceans is pretty harsh. He is speaking to a church that thinks they are well off, they are rich, they have everything going well for them and they do not seem to be facing any lack. The opinion presented by Jesus, the Head of the Church, is that they were wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. All of their wealth, their sufficiency in themselves was worth nothing in God’s eyes. They were spiritually “naked”–completely lacking in all things that really have eternal value. The true state of our spirituality is not in how large our church is, nor does it have anything to do with the standing our church has within our community. It has nothing to do with how well we keep our rules and regulations, nor how well we can articulate spiritual principles or doctrines. It has to do with being truly “poor in spirit,” by the definition of the Master, not ours. Then, and only then, are we “rich” spiritually. This, sadly, in all reality is only represented by a remnant of those who claim to be Christians today.
Being “poor in spirit” is shown for what it really is in the parable Jesus told of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. This is found in Luke 18:9-14:
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men–extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
There is something about our carnal human nature that causes us to become prideful of our religious piety. It is amazing how quickly we forget that it is only by God’s grace that we have a standing of righteousness before Him. It is not our religious zeal, our accomplishments, our good name in the community, the amount of money we donate to charity, or our participation in civic groups that makes us valuable in God’s sight. Our value comes only through our humility, submission to, and recognition of Who God is and what the price is that was paid for our freedom from sin and eternal death. The price paid for the sins of the world was horrific, and it is only through the power of the Blood of Jesus that a true relationship with God is even possible. All of the prestige we may think we have, even religious prominence, or accolaids we may have earned among our peers, is worthless if it just fuels our own feeling of self-importance. Some of the most “religious” people in the world also happen to be the most narcissistic.
In this parable, the tax-collector–or publican, as they were called at that time, knew he had nothing of value to offer God and so humbled himself before God in the only way he knew how. The Pharisee, who thought that he had “earned” God’s special favor through keeping religious laws was seen by God as totally devoid of what it really takes to have a genuine relationship with God. He had no idea what it meant to be “humble in spirit.”
Jesus said that the truly humble in spirit were not only genuinely happy, but the Kingdom of God belonged to them as well. Here is how Jesus put it in Matthew 23:12:
And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
In the Book of Isaiah, we find these words:
For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. Isaiah 57:15
But on this one will I look; on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word. Isaiah 66:2
After choosing the need to be poor in spirit as the first of the “Be” Attitudes that a true child of God should have, Jesus went on to add His blessing on those that “mourn.”
To Be Continued in Part Two