What are they? Are they simply a list, or something more? John Blanchard (p. 11) writes that
…although the Beatitudes can be read out loud in less than a minute, their truths are eternal and “powerfully relevant to every age …”
This morning we will do a little exploring around the first of the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Chuck Yeager was the first person to go faster than the speed of sound, and live. It seems the aircraft controls did not behave as expected once 735 miles per hour. Now I don’t know enough about things to say how Yeager eventually worked out what to do—he says it didn’t quite happen as it was portrayed in the movie—reversing the use of the controls. Poetic licence may have been taken with the movie, but their idea gives some indication about the impact Jesus was about to have.
We know that breaking the sound barrier causes a tremendous bang. Wright (2004) suggests that any number of Jesus’ contemporaries would say this was a good example of the effect Jesus had. Jesus was taking the norm and reversing it. The sermon on the mount was preached right up front at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The Beatitudes begin this sermon.
So, are the Beatitudes simply:
- A list? I don’t think so.
- An explanation of the balanced, variegated character of Christian people (Stott p. 10)?
- Could they be the specifications Jesus uses to show what every Christian ought to be (Stott p. 10)?
The overall theme of the Sermon on the mount is usually accepted as being about the Kingdom of Heaven. But there is another theme running with it—that people of this kingdom should be different from those who are not (Blanchard, p. 27). So, it is plausible to understand the Beatitudes, and the sermon, as
- What discipleship, “life in the kingdom of heaven” is about (France, p. 911).
Which do you think it might be? There always seems to be something that causes much discussion!
We know from verse 1 that there were crowds present as well as the disciples. So the discussion here is about who the actual hearers were!
- The crowds;
- The disciples;
- Or both.
May be a plausible explanation is that as Jesus went up the mountain the crowds and disciples followed him. Eventually Jesus sat down and you can imagine the disciples elbowing each other to get the best position at Jesus’ feet. Then there might have been those who had heard Jesus before and were curious to hear him again. They probably did some elbowing as well to try and get as close as possible! After that were probably people who had heard about Jesus and were a little bit curious so I imagine they probably trickled down the mountain. Now those sitting closest would have heard everything, would have seen facial expressions and hand gestures (Blanchard, p. 25, 26).
We can assume that more folk than the disciples heard Jesus, because Matthew 7:28 says:
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching…
But really, in the whole scheme of thing, does it matter who heard? What I would like us to remember is that these teachings are just as much for us too as they were for those who heard it originally. It has been suggested that the Beatitudes are a description of, rather than directions for, how Jesus followers are to live (Blanchard, p. 29). Each of the qualities are to be found, in varying degrees, in our lives as followers of Jesus (Tasker, p. 61). We cannot pick and choose which ones we like. Each quality is to be present in our lives. The Beatitudes are not so much about gifts as they are about graces, and our God expects his people to manifest all of them (Blanchard, p. 29).
It’s my belief the Beatitudes surely are addressed to everyone. They do have a strong message for those still seeking as they reveal genuine Christianity. The words also speak to us who follow Jesus, clearly telling us what true kingdom living is, challenging us to match our conduct with our claim (Blanchard, p. 33, 34).
The first Beatitude says:
Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In one sentence, Jesus turns upside down, inside out and back to front, the world’s view of happiness. Seems one can have all the wealth, health, good looks, expensive material things, be popular, ambitious but not have true happiness. Rather, it is those who are poor in spirit who have true happiness. These are the people who have deep, inner joy, they are blessed, they know God’s favour (Blanchard, p. 75).
Jesus has used the word, blessed. This word is sometimes translated, and correctly so, as happy. Mind you, it is not really the best word to use here. Being blessed is more than feeling happy. One scholar has said that blessed:
…“is a state of well-being in relationship to God that belongs to those who respond to Jesus’ ministry” (Wilkins, p. 1827).
Blessed would have been a powerful word to those who heard Jesus use it. Wiersbe (p. 46) suggests it “implied an inner satisfaction and sufficiency that did not depend on outward circumstances for happiness.”
So what might poor in spirit mean? Have you ever thought about it? A couple of suggestions could be:
- To be humble (Wiersbe, p 46);
- Recognising the need for God’s help (France, p. 1827).
When you think of poor, I’m guessing it’s to do with money and/or possessions, and may be health. Well that’s partly right but there is also a spiritual dimension. Poor in spirit does not mean having a poor self-image or false humility and it certainly doesn’t mean someone who is poor spirited or lacks resilience. It doesn’t mean a person who lacks courage. Perhaps this is one way we could explain “poor in spirit”:
To be “poor in spirit” is to acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy before God (Stott, p. 12, 13).
When we recognise that we are in need of God’s help, we are poor in spirit. This is so opposite of the world view—I can do it myself! The poor person of this world is not excluded because they are poor. The rich person is not accepted because they are rich. No matter their life circumstances, both—the rich person and the poor person—must humble themselves before God to be part of the kingdom (bible.org). Only then is the blessing available—the kingdom of heaven. Only those who have humbled themselves before God, who have come with a broken heart and contrite spirit, looking for Jesus and accepting him, are blessed with the kingdom of heaven.
As we submit to the obligations of the kingdom, we become heirs of its privileges (Hill, p. 111). Let’s remind ourselves we are “children of heaven” making our way home to all that our Father has prepared for us. This is why Jesus says we are blessed (Blanchard, p. 89, 90).
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blanchard, John, 1996. The Beatitudes for Today-Day, One Publications, Leominster, UK.
France, RT, 1994, Matthew: New Bible Dictionary 21st edn., IVP, England.
Holy Bible, ESC version.
Stott, John, 1998. The Beatitudes: Developing Spiritual Character, IVP, Nottingham, UK.
Tasker, RVG, 1961. Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, IVP, Leicester, England.
Wiersbe, Warren, 1980. Be Loyal: Following the King of Kings, David C Cook, USA.
Wilkins, Michael J 2008. Matthew: ESV Study Bible, pp. 1885-1888.
Wright, T 2004. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, pp.34-38.