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WAKE UP CALL: Wrestling with Scripture #13

Many of us probably have at least one Bible in which all the words of Jesus are printed in red letters, a device intended to highlight the importance of His teachings. Unfortunately, we can sometimes read His straightforward words on a somewhat superficial level without thinking carefully about all He would have us learn. As an example, let’s consider the Beatitudes.

 Aside from John 3:16, there are probably no passages as familiar as Matthew 5:3-10, the opening lines of  what is commonly called the Sermon on the Mount. Who hasn’t heard countless messages on “Blessed are the poor in spirit … blessed are those who mourn … blessed are the meek … blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness … blessed are the merciful … blessed are the pure in heart … blessed are the peacemakers … blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness …”?

Surprisingly, there are differing interpretations of these simple sounding verses. Some take them literally and suggest that even if we’re impoverished, grieving loss, or physically hungry now, great joy and satisfaction await in heaven. Others see them as a bold, counter-cultural roadmap for how Christians should live in contrast to the world. Still others see these traits as natural by-products of being born again.

Since this sermon opened Jesus’ earthly ministry and is His longest recorded discourse, it seems worthwhile to take a deeper look. Let’s back up to verses 5:1-2 and notice that Jesus saw the crowds and went up on a mountain, reminiscent of Moses who did likewise to deliver the Law that would set God’s people apart from the pagans surrounding them.

Jesus’ disciples (i.e. believers) then came to Him and “opening His mouth, He began to teach them …”  Consider that this voice is the same voice which spoke the universe into creation. Clearly, Jesus does not expect our education to stop when we come to faith. If we continue to seek Him, Jesus will sit down with us and speak words of truth. And if Jesus is teaching, I don’t just want to listen. I want to take notes, study, and learn all I can.

Matthew 5:3 says, “… Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Over the years, I’ve heard numerous pastors say that the word translated ‘blessed” means “happy.” From that, I surmised that we’re the happiest (most content/joy-filled) or incur the most of God’s favor when we follow His instructions for right living. As with the Ten Commandments, I’m guessing most of us have skimmed the Beatitudes and picked out a few that seemed the “easiest” to fulfill.  After all, who wants to go hungry or be persecuted? Who wants to mourn or be meek? Who can honestly say that they hunger and thirst for righteousness, or that they are pure of heart? Ah, but being merciful or a peacemaker, that we might be able to handle. And if two of the eight merit blessings and then heaven, isn’t that more than good enough?

I didn’t realize I’d probably missed the main point of Jesus’ teaching until I learned that, in the Greek, the pronouns in these verses are near the beginning of the sentence rather than the end. As when we looked at the unusual sentence structure of John 3:16 (“Wrestling with Scripture #11) the emphatic word placement causes some NT scholars to suggest a better translation might be “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs and theirs only is the kingdom of heaven.” 

Wow. That puts quite a different spin on these verses, doesn’t it?  Although it doesn’t mean we can earn our way to heaven by being poor or even by acknowledging our spiritual poverty, it does suggest that if we’ve actually been redeemed, our encounter with Jesus will have left us starkly aware of our status as beggars. We clearly have no funds to buy forgiveness, no means to save ourselves. It’s only when we acknowledge how desperately poor in spirit we are, that we can humble ourselves before God, repent of our sins, and accept Jesus and His priceless gift of grace.

Those who offer the “these and these only” interpretation consider the Beatitudes to be the most heard but also the least understood and least obeyed passages in Scripture. They see them as a progression of characteristics that all believers share (i.e., once we see our neediness, we mourn over our sin, then meekly seek the Savior, etc.)

After all, if we are in Christ, we are new creations (2 Cor 5:17). We have been born again of the Spirit (John 3:3-7). Our hearts of stone have been replaced with hearts of flesh (Ezek 36:26). We have died to sin and are alive in Christ Jesus (Rom 6:11-12). We’ve been called out of darkness into His marvelous Light (1 Peter 2:9). In contrast to the acts of the flesh, we have the fruit (not fruits) of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. As Christians, we should already have the gifts necessary to meet each of the conditions set out in the Beatitudes.

I saw several sources which went so far as to suggest that if we are lacking in any of them, Jesus might well be warning us to examine the sincerity of our conversions. Although I’m still wrestling with that idea, if we read through the Beatitudes with this “these and these only” concept in mind, it will certainly spark renewed interest in continuing to grow and mature in our faith.

Next week, we’ll continue our in-depth look at the Beatitudes, peeling back the surface layers and hopefully awakening to all Jesus wants to teach us.  



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