Poor in Spirit #5: No Confidence in the Flesh

Finally, here is the last post in a 5-part series on the first Beatitude from Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  If you want to catch up, here are links to the previous posts in the series: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday.

Today’s thought begins with how the Apostle Paul, who met Jesus on the road to Damascus[1], emphasized how being “poor in spirit” is universal across all demographic characteristics:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is call, and in all.” – Colossians 3:11

Paul wrote these verses differently, meaning they are not comprehensive.  He simply couldn’t include every possible example of the ways Christ eliminates barriers, but provided examples of the main point, which is “all.”  Prior to these verses, he writes that “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:27) and that we “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:10) This “new self” is the new identity, which is the only one that matters, that we are “sons of God”.

What does this have to do with “Blessed are the poor in spirit”?

Paul knows that Jesus provides – in full – the only way for salvation on the cross and through His resurrection.  What we think are accomplishments “in the flesh” do not make us “rich” in spirit, and in fact may make us worse off.  Paul expands on this in Philippians 3:4-7, discarding any confidence he has in the flesh as “loss”:

“Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”

Adding some more modern terminology, Paul is saying that his obedience to the ceremonial law of the Old Testament, his genealogy, his denomination, his nationality, and his recognition as a religious expert provided no value, in fact negative value (“loss”), toward his salvation in Christ.  From the earlier verses we can add gender and economic status to the list. His “identity” in earthly terms is a negative whenever it gets in the way of his “identity” in Christ.  When he counted on these things for salvation, they only clouded his view of what was really needed and were in the way of accepting it.  They were a distraction, wasted time.  This applies to anyone: religious pedigree, ethnicity, nationality, or any other accomplishment is at best a zero contribution, and at worst a negative one if it causes someone to refuse His free offer of His righteousness.

It also affects how we present Christ to others.  If our own definition of “poor in spirit” includes a complete lack of faith in our “flesh”, it becomes easier to offer the gospel to “all” others, to approach them in love, and therefore to reflect the kingdom of heaven.  To love our neighbor includes not limiting who our neighbor is.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the person beaten and abandoned on the side of the road is only identified as “a man.”[2]  If we know that our identity also did not matter in our salvation, that it may have made us even poorer in spirit, the identity of our neighbor will not matter either.  The unity and outreach of the church depend on the idea that all are equally “poor in spirit.”

Pray, or even beg, for Christ to enable you to embrace your new identity, your new Spirit, and provide new motivation to be a more faithful subject in His kingdom.

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” – Matthew 6:14-15
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3

Post Script
I imagine that every Babel – every attempt at building a system of righteousness other than that provided by God – begins with a small clique of people who think: “If I bring together enough people (like-minded people like me, of course), we can do this better.”  However, one of the ways they “do it better” is by shrinking the definition of neighbor – right at the beginning of the process.  In Philippians 3 above, Paul says that he formerly saw persecution of his enemies as part of righteousness.  When you believe your identity brings you closer to righteousness, the necessity of coercing others to become like you may seem like a rational conclusion.  But “rational” is not the objective.

Also, when anyone thinks “earthly characteristics we have in common” are a shortcut to righteousness, they may end up surrounded with others who in reality are poor in spirit but are less likely to realize it because everyone around them is affirming their earthly identity.  Instead, defining “us” as all of humanity in desperate need of a righteousness beyond what they can accomplish results in a very different dynamic, where both compassion and spiritual growth are easier to come by.  Iron only sharpens iron when there is a bit of healthy diversity and disagreement.

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] Acts 9:3-9
[2] Luke 10:30

Poor in Spirit #4: The Scope of Our Need

Today is part 4 of what was supposed to be a Monday-Friday series on the first Beatitude from Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Having taken yesterday off, we pick back up today and hopefully finish tomorrow.  If you want to catch up, the three previous posts are linked: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday

Today begins later in the same chapter as the Beatitudes, where Jesus includes in sin matters of the soul’s inclination, which are “entirely” internal:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” – Matthew 5:21-22
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:27-28

We have all heard people saying what is done in private, either alone or with other “consenting” people, is none of our business.  “Who does it hurt?” they say.  In this later section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells everyone that He cares about what they do, in public and in private.  Even within themselves.  He is not saying this to embarrass anyone, but to break down their spiritual pride and lead them to depend on Him.  To Jesus, intent makes us spiritually poor as much as action does.  Sin is not a matter of consequence; it is a matter of conscience.  It includes not only the action, but the inclination to the action.

But who does it hurt?  When excluding from our definition of sin things that other people don’t see, we may be tempted to turn faith into performance art, like the scribes and Pharisees, who “do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”[1]  Those “ashamed” from Monday’s post who come to church looking for compassion will only feel alienated unless they join in the performance.

If only public “righteousness” matters, the pressure of keeping up appearances can mean that internal sins – though just as important as external sins with “obvious” consequences – remain private and un-dealt with, keeping us from relying on Jesus to restore the joy of our salvation!  Compensating for guilt, and the pressure of managing expectations, become primary drivers of action rather than the guidance of the Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit is nowhere to be found.    When we know we are not really changed and are failing, we may try to hide it to keep up appearances.  We harbor guilt and bitterness and become unable to accept ourselves and love others.

Instead, testimony of our brokenness is an essential part of Christian witness.  In his letters to churches, the Apostle Paul repeatedly mentions his own past because it highlights the grace of God and power of Christ in redeeming him.  Likewise, those connected to Christ must confess their brokenness openly and ask His help.  Hiding our brokenness – keeping it private (sometimes even trying to keep it from Him) – obscures the power and necessity of the gospel from those who need to hear and understand it, and also keeps us from experiencing its power in our souls.  If we do not count as brokenness things where we do not see the consequence, we keep Jesus at a distance and the kingdom of heaven will not rule us.  Who does it hurt?  Well, us to begin, then also those around us who we love less as a result.

Humanity’s need is spiritual.  Our brokenness comes from the inside, not the outside.  From conscience, not consequence.  When humanity denies that brokenness is an internal, sometimes hidden, problem, it faces only the symptoms of the problem, and with the wrong prescriptions.  External forces cannot fix our internal inclinations and will tend toward the original sin of Adam and Eve, seeking the tree of wisdom in the garden that seems to offer an alternate way of governing ourselves.  Any laws, including some forms of religion, or systems of coercion will not fundamentally change us, but may provide an appearance of doing so, or worse, an incentive for a harsher system of coercion.  When coercion isn’t working, and spiritual solutions are denied, greater coercion often follows.  Unless we know we are broken, and how we are broken, we refuse the solution offered by the kingdom of heaven and remain lost looking for an alternative that does not exist[2].

We must not accept anything less than Christ’s righteousness.  But we must accept Christ’s righteousness at our very core.  Only the power of the gospel – the good news of the kingdom of God – can make straight what is crooked at its very root[3].

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” – Acts 4:12
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] Matthew 23:5-7
[2] I’m not advocating for anarchy or libertarianism or any particular form of government but pointing out that what a society thinks its government can, and should, do reflects that society’s view on what it expects government to solve.
[3] Ecclesiastes 1:15 and 7:13

Poor in Spirit #3: Give Up Your Lists

Today is part 3 of a Monday-Friday series on the first Beatitude from Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Monday covered how the statement could make both the “proud” and the “ashamed” humble and be blessed by God.  Tuesday was about the rich young man who was fully set on earning his own salvation to see that it was impossible, all while Christ was right before him, loving him.

Today begins with Luke 18:10-14 –
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up 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, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Similar to Monday’s post, this passage is a rebuke to the proud, while comforting the ashamed, which is made clear at the end of the verses.  This passage also plays on stereotypes of the Pharisee as one who would have been perceived as religiously superior, versus the tax collector, who was under the ban, or that time period’s rabbinic version of excommunication[1].  At the end of the first sentence, the audience would have been expecting the Pharisee to pray well – after all, they were the “experts.”  But as an “expert” in the law, the Pharisee prays (and thinks) in terms of lists of good things and lists of bad things.  As a result, he is able to credit himself with all good things and the tax collector with all bad things.

The only way to manage this level of pride in spiritual accomplishment is to narrow down your list of “sins” to “things that other people do.”  He also excluded more subtle or internal manifestations of sin from his lists.  For example, at other times, Jesus said Pharisees “devour widow’s houses,”[2] which may have been a form of extortion.  Also, in his heart he may have been unjust and an adulterer just by making this prayer.  God’s justice on the tax collector was poured out on Jesus – who was this Pharisee to say who that justice applied to?  Also, in over-emphasizing the law, the Pharisee was “cheating” on God by idolizing the law as a way to salvation.

By narrowing the list of sins to “what others do,” and reducing those sins to the external evidence of them, rather than the heart level, this Pharisee blinded himself to his own need, and therefore missed the blessing.  The only way to feel rich in spirit before God is to lower the standard, or to humbly accept Christ’s righteousness in place of your own.

King David in Psalm 51, writing of his repentance after committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed, declares in verses 16-17:

“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
            you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
            a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

This broken spirit and contrite heart recall the first Beatitude’s promise of blessing and the ability to follow God’s will, which David prayed for back in verse 12 of Psalm 51:

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
            and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

We can’t have a record of our sins and the sins of others if we want to receive God’s blessing.  Doing so is only likely to destroy our ability to love those who God loves and to whom He offers His grace, including ourselves.  We are poor in spirit, but we only realize it when focusing on Him, and we only are blessed when we decide His standard and opinion are the ones that matter.  If we are Christians, the standard is Christ and through our adoption as children of God, He sees Christ’s righteousness when He gives His opinion of us.

Humbly knowing this, we can go to our house justified, and in eternity be exalted by Him, the only one we should compare ourselves to and the only one whose judgement matters.  For now, it will enable us to love God and love others as we love ourselves.

To find love and joy, give up your lists and replace them with Christ.

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

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] See an earlier post, Found! A Man in Need of an Ally, for an explanation of the ban as applied to tax collectors, and for Jesus’ striking decision to forgive Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector.
[2] Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47

Poor in Spirit #2: It’s Not a Matter of Degree

Today is part 2 of a Monday-Friday series on the first Beatitude from Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Today’s post highlights that seeing our spiritual condition as a matter of degree or magnitude, rather than as absolute poverty, keeps us from seeing, accepting, and experiencing Jesus as He is.

“And as He was setting out on His journey, a man ran up and knelt before Him and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.  You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’”  And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”  And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”  – Mark 10:17-22

Did Jesus tell this man that he only needed to do more, to work harder, to earn eternal life?  Was this man rich in spirit, nearly blessed, and just shy of the kingdom of God?  The first Beatitude and yesterday’s post would suggest not, but how then does this story make sense?

A key to this is Jesus’ first response to the man, which questioned the man’s own premises, and revealed he was not “negotiating in good faith.”  After Jesus’ response, instead of saying “if only God is good, why am I chasing eternal life in my own work?” this man persisted in seeking to earn his way.  Jesus knew the man’s heart was set, and in a way was saying “you know the law, what do you need Me for?”  The man did not see Jesus for who He is – the One who offers Himself.

The man was looking for help on the way he had predetermined for himself; he was not looking for the Way that Jesus offered.  He wanted a God who helps those who help themselves, but that’s not who God is.  In the same way that Jesus does not want us to literally cut off a hand or foot, or gouge out an eye, to avoid sin (Mark 9:43-47), neither does He mean that selling all his goods will save this man.  He “went away sorrowful.”

To quote Warren Wiersbe: “Of all the people who ever came to the feet of Jesus, this man is the only one who went away worse than he came. And yet he had so much in his favor!”  Because he did not know he was poor in spirit, he left without either the kingdom of God or the blessing of Christ.

Entering eternal life requires infinite righteousness, but this is exactly what Christ achieved and offers.  Only one person ever earned the title of Christian; everyone else gets it by His merit, given to us by His grace, through faith.  99.9% righteous does not count if infinity is the target and insisting on working for it only keeps us from accepting the gift.  Also, it follows that if we think our 67% righteousness is better than someone else’s 66% righteousness, we misunderstand what righteous is. Conversely, if our 67% righteousness makes us miserable compared with someone else’s 75%, we misunderstand grace.   It’s not a matter of degree so much as a matter of type, “so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:9)

Any time we ask, “what must I do to inherit eternal life”, we are thinking that what we have, plus some more, is the answer.  Sometimes we are not immediately rebuked but allowed to pursue our own way and eventually realize we’ve become lost.  Sometimes, like this man, we are gently rebuked but refuse to listen.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 6:23
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3

All this man needed to do was accept the work of Christ on his behalf, but he could not admit his poverty.  And it’s all you need to do.

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit #1

Today I’m beginning a new approach with a series on the Beatitudes, the series of statements at the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that each begin with “Blessed are…”  One Beatitude per week, Mon-Fri, a different way each day.

The first Beatitude is from Matthew 5:3 –

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Today’s angle on it is how the statement addresses different people’s needs in such a simple way with only a few words.  This was the opening of a speech to great crowds that had followed him, crowds with all sorts of people.

The Greek word for “poor” here is a word suggesting one who has been reduced to begging.  They have nothing of their own and are entirely dependent on others.  Some (“the proud”) would have been rebuked, thinking their own works made them blessed, and might have been shocked to be compared with a beggar.  Those “ashamed” of their own works would have been comforted that they are blessed since they didn’t feel they measured up to the achievements of the proud.  They knew they were poor, but not blessed.  The proud think they’re ok because of what they’ve accomplished; the ashamed think they aren’t ok because their accomplishments seem smaller. The “proud” and “ashamed” were both in need of good news.

Note that I did not contrast “proud” with “humble”, because I don’t think these are opposites.  Instead, humility is contentedness in our proper place before God and others.  The “proud” become humble when Christ rebukes them so that they can experience His blessing.  The “ashamed” become humble when Christ reassures them of His love and acceptance so that they can experience His blessing.

The first beatitude reminds everyone in that crowd that acknowledging their spiritual poverty is the first step, but also that being poor is not incurable.  Knowing we are poor in spirit may actually be desirable, but only when paired with knowledge of His provision[1].  The more we realize our need and beg Him for the solution, the more He can, and will, bless us.  The crowds coming to hear Him needed to hear this Beatitude first of all because if anyone refuses to be humble before Christ, the rest of His speech won’t matter.  The kingdom is not for them (yet).

In Christ, we are blessed because He is infinitely rich in spirit.  However, sometimes our pride or our shame prevent us from knowing that we are blessed!  Then when we lack hope in that blessing, we miss our King’s will for us in His kingdom.  We can’t be good enough, and don’t have to be good enough, and we don’t have be better or worse than anyone else.

Today the Great Physician waits to cure you if you will come and be humbled by Him.  Seek His blessing and His will. Tues – Fri I’m planning to cover ways people Jesus met failed to realize their spiritual poverty across 4 dimensions: Degree, person, activity, and scope.

This post begins a series on the Beatitudes. For the next post click here

[1] I recently posted a song about this idea, “Once I Prayed” by Phil Keaggy, here

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