Thoughts on the First Beatitude

Following Jesus, and by his grace living the kind of life he calls us to live, goes completely against the grain of what pop-culture tells us is “the good life.”  For many, many people, the goals of their lives include fame, money, and prestige.  And yet, according to Jesus, we are called to something so much more.  Jesus calls us to a life that is centered upon following him and pursuing him with reckless abandon.  And in the process, if God gives us notoriety, we should use that platform to honor him and proclaim the perfections of his Son far and wide.  If God grants us financial success, we should be good stewards of his resources, remembering that he uses his people as agents of blessing to disburse his gracious provision to those in need.[1]  We are not to hold on to our money in a greedy way; in fact, the selfish accumulation of wealth and possessions is contrary to a life of discipleship (Lk. 12:13-21).[2]

Sadly, this is what many Americans are pursuing.  If it were not so, there would be no market for a business like Celeb 4 A Day.  This business allows people to see what it’s like to be famous.  For a mere $3,000 you can purchase the mega star package, which includes six paparazzi, a publicist, a limo, a bodyguard, and a mocked up “celebrity” tabloid with your picture on the cover.  The fake publicist escorts you around pretending to field questions from the fake paparazzi following you and makes space for you while six pretend photographers attempt to take pictures of you.  The package also includes people who follow you around “asking questions, vying for coverage, and shouting your name.”[3]

What that story tells me is that there is something within all of us that causes us to want to live a life of significance.  We all desperately want our lives to count for something; we don’t want to waste our lives.  And once again, I don’t think any of those aspirations is inherently sinful; in fact, I think God places certain desires within specific people.  But the question is how we go about achieving those goals.  How are we defining “significance”?  As he begins his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:3 are quite different from what the world (and dare I say even some Christians?) would consider the blessed life.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.”  He says the first thing you have to do to be a recipient of this blessed life (the truly “good life”) is admit that you are “poor in spirit.”  To understand what this means, we must be familiar with the Old Testament background of what it meant to be poor.

In Old Testament times being “poor” meant literally to be without financial resources; it referred to one’s economic status.  Gradually, however, the meaning changed over time.  Since poor people were said to be more dependent on the Lord than others, “poverty” came to have a spiritual meaning.  Thus, the word “poverty” came to be identified with humble dependence upon God.  This is what David means, for example, in Psalm 34:6 when he says, “This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.”  Because the “poor man” in the Old Testament couldn’t save himself, he looked to God for salvation, knowing that he had no claim upon him.

Likewise, we must come to realize that we are spiritually bankrupt.  We must agree with Jesus that no amount of righteousness would cause us to merit God’s favor.  But Jesus says that the kingdom belongs to those who freely confess their spiritual poverty.

This contradicted everything that people believed at that time.  Bringing in the kingdom of God and entering it would not be brought about by military force.  It would not be about exalting the nation of Israel over other nations.  It wasn’t given to the strong, rich, self-righteous people.  No, Jesus said it would be given to the poor, the feeble, and the hungry; it would be given to the prostitutes and the social rejects that no one wanted to be around.  That is to say, it would be given to those who knew they had nothing to offer God except empty hands because they knew they could contribute nothing to their salvation.[4]

The first step we must take if we want to live a life blessed by God is acknowledge that we don’t deserve his blessings.  We must consciously confess that we are unworthy.  We are in desperate need of help.  We don’t have what it takes.  Contrary to what our culture tells us, we are not by nature good people.  Try as we might, each day we fall far short of God’s standards.  The good news, however, is that Jesus lived the perfect life that we could never live.  He died in our place (1 Peter 3:18).  But it doesn’t end there.  God is daily conforming us more and more into the image of his beloved Son!  And this God who is at work in us will “sustain [us] to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:9).

Because Jesus has met our every need in the gospel, we don’t have to pretend we’re something that we’re not.  We don’t have to try and be strong when we know we’re not.  We can fall into his gracious arms and rest assured that he will catch us.  Take a moment and confess your weakness to God.  Admit that you have no spiritual resources to save yourself and that you need Jesus to meet your every need.  Then stand up and thank God for his gracious provision in the gospel.

[1] David Murchie, “The New Testament View of Wealth Accumulation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 21:4 (December 1978):335-344. See esp. 340.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove: IVP, 1990), 267.

[3] J. M. Twenge and W. K. Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (Free Press: NY, 2009), 94.

[4] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove: IVP, 1978), 40.


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