Let’s imagine that you want to know more about the Christian faith. You share your wish with a close Christian friend and ask him for help. He does a fine job of sharing the basics of the Christian faith and gives you a Bible. “Read a chapter in the Gospel of Matthew each day, and then we will talk about it in a few days,” he tells you.
On the fifth day, you read these words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
At your first meeting with the seeker he asks, “What is it all about? The Bible says you are blessed if you are poor in spirit, mourn and are meek. This is not the world that I come from, and I am not so sure that, if this is a picture of the Christian faith, I want to learn any more about it.”
I am convinced that, while the Beatitudes are one of the most read portions of the Bible, few people have a clue regarding their meaning. They are filled with meaning, but they call for much thought and study to learn what Jesus is saying.
During the next few weeks I am going to preach a series of sermons on the Beatitudes. We will not answer all of the questions that these words of our Lord raise, nor will we exhaust their meaning. However, it is my prayer that, at the end of the study we will have a deeper understanding of the Christian life. My help will come from Dallas Willard’s book, “The Divine Conspiracy.” Dr. Willard has some fresh insights into these statements that should bring us a blessing.
Here is the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
To understand these words, we must realize the setting where Jesus is speaking. He has been healing the sick. These people had come from far and near with various diseases: pain, demon possession, seizures, paralysis. They were rich and poor, leaders in society and followers, ordinary folks and celebrities. Difficult times come to all people. None escape.
The audience hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. In today’s world, they go to the local clinics. If they found no help there, and they were financially able, they went to some of the world’s greatest medical centers: Massachusetts General Hospital, the Cleveland Heart Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and others located in their part of the nation. They went with cancer, heart problems, neurological diseases, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, paralysis, and many other afflictions. They had spent a fortune, but there was no cure. The best news some of them could hear was, “We’ll keep you comfortable, but the end is near.”
The father of three children received this message. He looked at his wife and asked, “What will we do?” Only forty years old with so many responsibilities.
These are some of the people who could be described as poor in spirit. Their hearts are heavy. How can Jesus call them blessed? Are not the people who are healthy and on an exciting vacation blessed?
These people have one great blessing that they had not thought much about until there was no other place to go: they were members of the church. Most Sunday mornings they attended worship and heard many sermons on God’s grace. They heard the invitation Jesus gave, “Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” But all of this was for some other day, until now that day had come. They needed help, so they made an appointment to visit with their pastor.
There the pastor reminded them that Jesus was a real person who wanted to live in their lives. When the pastor asked if they had a personal relationship with God, they said, “No. We believe in God, but a personal relationship would mean that we live in an intimate relationship with him. Such a relationship we do not have.”
That day the couple asked Christ to come into their lives. They returned to their home and began reading the Bible and praying individually and as a family. God answered their prayers. He was comforting them. Mature Christian friends surrounded them with their love. They became convinced that, whether there was physical healing or not, everything was alright. God was strengthening them, and they were in his hands.
These are the blessed. Had it not been for their illness, they might have walked through life with a very impersonal relationship with God. He did not send the affliction. This was a result of living in a broken world brought on by the fall, which brought sin into the world and illness and death as a result of sin. However, when the trials of life come, God uses them to get our attention and bring us to him. Isn’t that life’s greatest blessing when we rest in our Father’s arms?
William Barclay said it well: “The world can win its joys, and the world can equally well lose its joy. A change in fortune, a collapse in health, the failure of a plan, the disappointment of an ambition can take away the fickle joy the world can give. But the Christian has the sense and untouchable joy that comes from walking forever in the company and in the presence of Jesus Christ. The greatness of the Beatitudes is they are not wistful glimpses of some future beauty. They are not even golden promises of some distant glory. They are triumphant shouts of bliss for a permanent joy that nothing in the world can ever take away. Jesus is helping us see that there is something good about being poor in spirit. Our condition reveals that Christ is our only answer.