Thursday, 24 September 2009

Hope in the Beatitudes - poor in spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. (Matthew 5:3)

The beatitudes are the name given to a series of 8 statements which Jesus makes to his disciples at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. 8 times Jesus declares God’s blessing on people. 8 times he outlines the characteristics of those who will indeed be blessed.

What does it mean to be blessed by God? I believe it is summed up in the blessing which the Lord instructed Aaron to say to the Israelites: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace” (Num 6:24-26). If we are blessed by God, He keeps us, His face is shining upon us and turned towards us, He is gracious towards us, He gives us peace. This is some blessing! This is surely what all people on earth need to have, God’s blessing.

So which people does Jesus say are blessed? He starts off by saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. This isn’t referring to material poverty, but rather spiritual poverty, the poor in spirit. Spiritual poverty is that recognition that before a Holy God we are guilty, sinful, that our good works are but filthy rags before Him, and that we can come to Him on no other terms than pleading for His mercy. The Bible is clear that we are all guilty – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). We may think we are not that bad really, after all we haven’t committed too many sins – yet we read elsewhere that “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). So even if we have kept 9 out of the 10 commandments, and just slip up on coveting our neighbour’s possessions, we are guilty. The teaching of Jesus makes it clear that even if we haven’t committed sins with our actions, it is our hearts which condemn us – “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19). As the Apostle Paul says, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Romans 7:18).

I believe that being poor in spirit is summed up in a parable which Jesus told.
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get. But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’. I tell you that this man, rather than the other one, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted’.” (Luke 18:9-14).

The tax collector, recognising his sin and need of mercy, prays a simple prayer to God: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. He wouldn’t even look up to heaven, because he recognised the weight of his sin, and how that sin was offensive to a Holy God.

But praise God, this is where the blessing comes: Jesus tells us that this man went home justified before God. God declared him not guilty, declared that the ungodly tax collector was in fact a godly man, simply because he recognised his need for mercy, and cried out to God for that mercy. This is the very heart of the gospel message, the good news that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). Whilst we were dead in our sins, powerless to help ourselves, God the Father sent His Son to be a sacrifice for sin on our behalf, to suffer the punishment that rightfully should have been ours, so that we could be reconciled to God. In order to receive this great blessing of peace and reconciliation with God, we simply need to come to Him and say “I am a sinner, have mercy on me” – repenting of our sin, turning away from it, and trusting in Christ and what He has done for us.

Praise God, this is the blessing promised by Jesus – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. The very kingdom of heaven itself is given to those who will acknowledge their need of Him. A certain hope is now given to that person who is reconciled to God through the blood of Christ – a hope of eternal life, a hope stored up for us in heaven, a hope of resurrection, a hope for the return of Christ. And all this starts from the very moment someone places their trust in Christ – Jesus says “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).

Let me conclude with the words of Paul: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20-21).

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