Blessed Are the Merciful (Matthew 5:7)

We Americans live in a meritocratic society, and in many ways this is a good thing.
Fifty years ago, the laws of several states segregated children into allegedly “separate, but equal” schools. (Definitely separate, hardly equal!) America’s Ivy League universities accepted “legacy” students, whose parents had attended before them, but put strict quotas on the number of incoming Jewish students. And Southern lunch counters were off limits to paying customers, at least if they were black.
Today, of course, those legal barriers to equality have been removed. The law judges people on the basis of “the content of their character,” not “the color of their skin,” in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. It judges them on the basis of merit, in other words—what they deserve, rather than the accidental qualities of race or religion.
As I said, this meritocracy is a good thing.
And yet, as just and beneficial as meritocracy is socially and politically, it can be very unhealthy spiritually. What, after all, do you and I deserve from God? We like to think that we deserve the best from God, but the truth is exactly the opposite. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6.23). A spiritual meritocracy would land us all in hell. Happily for us, God does not judge us on the basis of merit. Instead, he gives us mercy. Then, he expects us to pass it along. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt. 5.7)
Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 18.21–35 that drives home both points, that God is merciful and that we should be too. It begins with a question from Peter: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” In response, Jesus said, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (or perhaps, seventy times seven). The rabbis held that a man need only forgive a brother three times. Peter offer of a sevenfold forgiveness was quite generous. Jesus’ demand, however, takes your breath away. To help Peter (and us) understand his answer, Jesus tells the aforementioned parable.
It seems that a servant of a king ran up a debt of 10,000 talents. A talent is approximately a years’ wages. The man’s debt was simply unpayable. The king ordered that the man and his family be sold into slavery as partial payment of the debt. “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”
We’ll consider the second half of the parable tomorrow, but for now, simply consider what has happened. Mercy has triumphed over meritocracy. The man deserved to be sold off. He wasn’t. He asked for more time to pay off the debt. He was refused. Instead, the entire debt was canceled. This is a parable of God and us, of how he deals with our sins, not by judging us, nor by requiring us to work them off in Purgatory, but by forgiving them outright.
As I said at the outside, meritocracy is in many ways a good thing. But when it comes to our sins, thank God heaven is not a meritocracy.

For They Shall Be Filled (Matthew 5:6)

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? And where did you eat it?
I’ve eaten some great meals at some good restaurants. The Canneloni Paolo at Rothschild’s in Corona del Mar is superb, as is the swordfish at McCormick and Kuleto’s in San Francisco. If you have a rich friend with a membership to Disneyland’s Club 33, ask him to get you in. But for my money, the best meal I’ve ever eaten was in Xining, the capital city of the Qinghai Province, in China. At Kentucky Fried Chicken, of all places.
Now, before you think I’ve gone off my gastronomic rocker, consider the background story. I’d been “in country” a few days eating food native to China’s northwestern region. It’s nothing like what they serve at PF Chang’s, by the way. And while our Chinese buddies were gulping down each dish with relish, I lost my appetite somewhere around the camel-foot soup or the yak tongue. What I needed was American food, stuff my palate recognized as edible. That’s when I saw the life-size statue of Colonel Sanders standing on Xining’s main drag, beckoning me inside for original-recipe chicken, fries, and a vanilla shake. Whatever the downsides of economic globalization may be, at least you can always find American fast food at the globe’s farthest corners!
Different people have different tastes in food, obviously. I can easily imagine a resident of Xining gagging on KFC in Cypress and longing for camel and yak delicacies back home. But hunger is universal. And every human being needs certain kinds of foods: fruits, vegetables, grains—not to mention proteins, carbs, and fats.
Something similar is true of the spiritual life. Our spirit hungers and thirsts for something more than life’s daily fare. And while each of us develops a spiritual “taste”—for the meat and potatoes of expository preaching, the jumbalaya of gospel music, the salsa of uninhibited prayer—there are some “foods” not one of us can live without. We cannot live without God’s righteousness. It is the bread and water of life.
As I wrote in an earlier devotional, “In the Sermon on the Mount, ‘righteousness’ describes three things: (1) what God’s character is. ‘But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (Matt. 6.33a). (2) What our character should be. ‘For unless you righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven’ (5.20). And (3) what the future is like. God’s ‘righteousness’ will be ‘given,’ along with ‘all these things, to those who ‘seek’ it (6.33b).” In other words, we long for the future in which all things are put right. We long to be put right ourselves, from the heart to the head to the hands. And—most importantly of all—we long to be put right with God.
The blessedness of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the simple fact that God fills the plate of the hungry with the meal their soul desires.

Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness (Matthew 5:6)

Are you hungry but uncertain whether you will have food to eat? Then the fourth beatitude is for you. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5.6).
“Wait a minute, George! This beatitude mentions a ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness,’ not food. It talks about spiritual, not physical, hunger.”
Yes and no. It focuses on the hunger and thirst for righteousness. But such a focus does not exclude concern for the physically hungry.
Start with Luke’s parallel beatitude, “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied” (6.21), and its corresponding statement of woe, “Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry” (6.25). A straightforward reading of these statements suggests that Jesus is talking about physical hunger—but not merely physical hunger. After all, is Jesus promising easy bread to lazy people? Is he threatening the honest and hardworking rich with starvation? No and no.
Take a look at Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16.19–31). “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.” When the men died, they experienced reversals of fortune. Lazarus entered “Abraham’s bosom” (i.e., heaven), but the Rich Man went to hell. The hungry man was “satisfied,” but the well-fed man went “hungry.”
Why did they experience these reversals? Jesus does not say so explicitly, but it’s not hard to draw the obvious conclusion. The Rich Man had everything except concern for his poor neighbor. Consequently, he felt no need to turn to God. Lazarus, on the other hand, had nothing except his faith in God.
Return to Matthew 5.6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” The difference between the Rich Man and Lazarus was not merely the state of their stomachs but the state of their souls. Lazarus’s physical hunger for food led him to a spiritual hunger for God. The Rich Man felt the pangs of neither hunger. Lazarus, in other words, hungered and thirsted for righteousness, but the Rich Man did not.
In the Sermon on the Mount, “righteousness” describes three things: (1) what God’s character is. “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6.33a). (2) What our character should be. “For unless you righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5.20). And (3) what the future is like. God’s “righteousness” will be “given,” along with “all these things,” to those who “seek” it (6.33b).
In conclusion, we should feed the physically hungry (like Lazarus) without losing our spiritual hunger (like the Rich Man). “Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4.4).

For They Shall Inherit the Earth (Matthew 5:5)

What “earth” will the meek inherit (Matt. 5.5)?
The answer seems obvious; there is only one Planet Earth. But it is not so obvious, for two reasons: (1) Psalm 37.11 underlies the third beatitude, and it clearly refers to the “land.” In the Old Testament, the “land” denotes Israel, which God promised to Abraham (Gen. 12.1, 7).
(2) The Greek word for “earth” (ge) can refer both to the entire planet and to particular regions within it. So, for example, we read about “the ge of Bethlehem” (Matt. 2.6), “the gen of Israel” (2.20, 21), “the ge of Zebulun and ge of Naphtali” (4.15), and—quoting God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12.1—“the ges I will show you” (Acts 7.3). In all these cases, the proper translation is “land,” not “earth,” and they all refer to Israel.
So, did Jesus promise Israel as the inheritance of the meek?
In my opinion, the answer is both yes and no. The third beatitude quotes the language of Psalm 37.11 and alludes to the imagery of Isaiah 61.7, both of which speak about the Promised Land. Consequently, it is hard to deny that Jesus promised his observant Jewish followers possession of Israel, in keeping with the covenant God made with them through Moses (Deut. 4.1, 16.20).
And yet, the trajectory of blessing in the New Testament extends beyond Israel and the Jews. Or rather, it extends through them to the world and the Gentiles. Not only did God promise Abraham the land, after all; he promised that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12.3). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared that he had not come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets…but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5.17). And in 2 Corinthians 1.20, Paul wrote, “no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.” God’s promise to Abraham of land and blessing has been fulfilled in Jesus. That is why, it seems to me, Jesus commissioned his disciples to be “witnesses in Jersualem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8).
In other words, the “earth” Jesus promised is not less than Israel but certainly much more.
And that consideration leads me to draw this conclusion: A shallow reading of the first two beatitudes might lead you to think that the Christian life is solely concerned with spirituality, heaven, and the future. After all, what else could the words “poor in spirit,’ “kingdom of heaven,” and “will be comforted” point to? Obviously, I do not want to deny that the Christian life is concerned with such things. But I strongly deny that the Christian life is concerned solely with such things. The Christian life is also concerned with materiality, the “earth,” and the present. An authentic Christian, then, can never be so heavenly minded that he is of no earthly good, for a heavenly perspective always keeps an eye firmly fixed on our little planetary ball.

Blessed Are the Meek (Matthew 5:5)

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5.5). Who are “the meek,” and what “earth” will they inherit? Let’s look at the first question today, and the second tomorrow.
The American Heritage Dictionary offers two definitions of the word meek[1]:
1.      Showing patience and humility; gentle.
2.      Easily imposed on; submissive.
The first definition is active. The meek person voluntarily shows patience, humility, and gentleness. The second is passive. The meek person is easily imposed upon and submissive, whether voluntarily or not. The first kind of meekness is a virtue, the second a weakness. Which kind does Jesus bless?
In Greek, the words for “meek” and “meekness” are praus and prautes, respectively. Usually, they are translated as “gentle” and “gentleness.” In Matthew 11.29, Jesus says, “I am gentle and humble in heart.” Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 10.1, Paul writes of “the meekness and gentleness of Christ.” Gentleness is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5.23), and a characteristic of “God’s chosen people” (Col. 3.12). In his long argument with the Corinthians, who badly needed apostolic discipline, Paul asked, rhetorically, “Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit” (1 Cor. 4.21). Peter counseled believers to “give the reason for the hope that you have…with gentleness and respect…so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
In each of these cases, it seems to me that the person has a choice whether to be meek and gentle. Meekness, in other words, is active and voluntary, not passive and imposed. Of all the things I could say about Jesus, the very last thing I would say is that he was easily imposed upon or submissive. (Remember the cleansing of the Temple!)
But he was absolutely patient, humble, and gentle. Moreover, he exercised that meekness in the teeth of opposition, just as we should. Take a quick look at Psalm 37.7–11: “Be patient before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land. A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace” (verses 7–11).
Notice two crucial elements of these verses: (1) In this life, evil men succeed in their wicked schemes. And (2) we must choose how to respond: with fretting and anger, or with patience, hope, and meekness. If God is God, we can be meek, for he will make things turn out right. Through him, we will “inherit the land and enjoy great peace.”
The meek, it turns out, are truly blessed because God is on their side.

For They Shall Be Comforted (Matthew 5:4)

According to Jesus, God blesses those who mourn by comforting them (Matt. 5.4). Two questions arise: How does God comfort those who mourn? And when? According to the Bible, God comforts the mourners personally and through the community of faith, and he comforts them now and in the future.
First, God comforts those who mourn both personally and through the community of faith. We see this most clearly in 2 Corinthians 1.3–5, which reads: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.”
Notice several things about this passage: (1) Comforting those who mourn is a characteristic act of God. He is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.” (2) He constantly provides comfort to believers (“in all our troubles”). (3) He expects us to comfort others in turn (“so that we can comfort those in any trouble”). And (4) our ability to receive divine comfort and pass it along to others is directly tied to our imitation of Christ: As we suffer like Christ, so we are comforted like Christ. This last point suggests, of course, a close tie between divine comfort and Christian discipleship. A believer receives not only the blessing of divine comfort, but also the responsibility to comfort those who mourn. Just like Jesus. Just like Paul.
But when does God comfort those who mourn? Both now and in the future. Paul’s words, quoted above, speak of our present distress and our present comfort. At the very moment that distress overflows the lives of believers, God provides an overflowing amount of comfort. But in the second beatitude, Jesus highlights the future comfort we will receive from God. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted [note the future tense of this verb] ” (Matt. 5.4).
In our day and age, we do not speak much of the consolation of heaven, the blessedness of the future state when God redeems his creation and resurrects believers to an everlasting life. We do not ponder the promise of Revelation 21.4 that “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes.” We are too much under the influence of Karl Marx, who taught that religion is an opiate of the people, a way to distract them from the need to change earthly conditions by focusing their attention on heavenly rewards.
Obviously, there is some truth to Marx’s observation, but not the whole truth. Some Christians are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good. But why, we should ask, can’t we be both? Why can’t our heavenly mindedness inspire us to do earthly good? It seems to me both that we can and that we should.

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Matthew 5:4)

The world is a heart-breaking place.
Friday, not too long ago, a homeless man walked into the church and asked to speak to a pastor. My assistant asked if I had a few minutes for him. I was busy but told her I’d give him ten minutes. Usually, such people are satisfied with prayer and a bag of food, but this man was different. Fifty-years-old, heavily tattooed, and rough looking, he was a crack addict but had resolved that day to get clean. He was poor, unemployed, and living in his car. He had family, but they were no longer willing to help him. And he was ashamed. I called drug rehab centers for half an hour, but for a variety of reasons, no one could take him. He left my office visibly defeated.
After a recent Sunday school class, an older gentleman approached me with tears in his eyes. He had been on vacation earlier this year, pulling a twenty-one foot trailer behind his vehicle. Gusty winds torqued the trailer on its side, flipping his vehicle over in the process. The accident killed his wife of fifty years. Alone and grieving, he asked me what God now wanted him to do with his life.
At a staff meeting a few weeks back, a colleague was asked what ministry he was most passionate about. Tears welling up, voice catching, he responded “missions.” Why? Because the world has great needs and American Christians have great resources, but they don’t deploy the resources to meet the needs.
A lifetime of bad choices. A tragic accident. A needy world. This planet is a heart-breaking place.
What is God doing about it?
The second beatitude answers the question: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” It is the most starkly ironic beatitude from Jesus’ lips. Happy are the unhappy? Yes, for God blesses those who in their utter despondency turn to him as their only hope. Just as the first beatitude—“Blessed are the poor in spirit”—draws its inspiration from Isaiah 61, so does this one. Prophesying the nature of Jesus’ ministry, Isaiah 61.1–3 says, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me…to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”
The world is a heart-breaking place. Our Heavenly Father is a heart-mending God. Are we willing to show the world the way to him?
I began this devotional with three men in tears because they have taught me a valuable lesson. In the words of C. S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.”[i] Do we cry enough over God’s broken world? Do we love it as he does? Do we even care? If we do not mourn alongside the mourning, how can we expect to be blessed among the comforted?

[i] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1991), 121.

For Theirs Is the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3)

“If _______________, I would be happy.”
What did you write in the blank?
·         “I was healthy again”
·         “I was successful…”
·         “I was happily married…”
·         “I could know that my kids will turn out alright…”
·         “I had more (or better) friends…”
There’s nothing wrong with having these desires, of course, and satisfying them provides a measure of happiness. A healthy, successful, happily married, proud parent with lots of good friends is the American dream. In fact, to desire such a life is a fundamental human longing. It’s the human ideal. Even more, the Bible teaches us that God created us for this kind of life and desires us to have it.
Perhaps that’s why the first beatitude is so shocking: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5.3). Poverty of spirit is both socioeconomic and religious. It means you are so deprived that you are driven to God for provision and protection. It means you are utterly reliant on God for every good thing. But poverty of spirit, in and of itself, does not lead to blessedness. Rather, according to Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is what makes you happy.
Although some commentators distinguish between the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God,” their distinction is untenable. Matthew uses the terms interchangeably (19.23, 24), and the parallel in Luke uses “of God” rather than “of heaven” (6.20). The kingdom of heaven is identical to the kingdom of God.
But what is it? We Americans typically think of a kingdom as a place, such as the United Kingdom or the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan or—if you’re in Southern California—the Magic Kingdom. In the New Testament, however, a kingdom primarily describes prerogative and power, the authority and ability to rule. Secondarily, it describes the place where that authority and ability are exercised.
The kingdom of heaven/God, then, refers to God’s prerogative and power to rule over the place he has created—the creation and all its inhabitants. Unfortunately, God’s creatures are in open rebellion against the king. God’s authority over creation and his ability to rule it are undeniable, but we human beings stupidly deny it anyway, inviting divine judgment—“the wrath of God”—upon us and our actions (Rom. 1.18–20).
But judgment does not exhaust God’s kingdom. God offers us a second chance to confess that his kingdom applies to us. Jesus’ basic message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 4.17). Indeed, through his words and actions, Jesus proclaimed, “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12.28). The kingdom of God is not just a future reality; it is present. Jesus says, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” not, “theirs will be….” Those who repent even now experience the “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” that are characteristic of God’s kingdom (Rom. 14.17).
So, to fill in the blank: “If I embraced God’s kingdom, I would be happy.”

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

“When you hit rock bottom, you’ve got two ways to go,” according to country music star Wynonna Judd: “straight up and sideways.”[1]I don’t normally draw theological inspiration from country music, but Wynonna’s lyrics struck a chord within me (so to speak). Life can be very hard, but we always have choices.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with this beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5.3). A similar beatitude appears in Luke: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (6.20). Commentators argue over the differences between the two. Are the “poor in spirit” identical to the “poor”? Is the “kingdom of heaven” the same as the “kingdom of God”? I am inclined to answer “yes” to both questions. Today, I’ll focus on what it means to be “poor in spirit”/”poor.” Tomorrow, I’ll look at the meaning of the “kingdom of heaven/God.”
So, what does it mean to be “poor in spirit”/”poor”? The Greek for “poor” is ptoxos. According to Robert Guelich, this word has “an exclusively socioeconomic meaning” in extrabiblical Greek literature. But the Jews expanded its range of meaning when they translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. “[T]he poor in Judaism referred to those in desperate need (socioeconomic element) whose helplessness drove them to a dependent relationship with God (religious element) for the supplying of their needs and vindication.”[2] In other words, the poor are people who have hit rock bottom and are looking up. The difference between Matthew and Luke is a matter of emphasis: Matthew emphasizes the religious element without losing sight of the socioeconomic element; Luke does the reverse.
God sent Jesus into the world to minister to the “poor in spirit.” According to Luke 4.16–21, when Jesus preached at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, he quoted Isaiah 61.1–2a as a prophecy about himself: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The good news for rock-bottom people is that when they look up, they’re looking at Jesus.
Can this beatitude be good news for us? By any standard of measurement, we Americans are not socioeconomically poor. Can we be blessed? That depends on whether we are poor in the religious sense of the term. In the words of the Puritan Thomas Watson, “‘Poor in spirit’ then signifies those who are brought to the sense of their sins, and seeing no goodness in themselves, despair in themselves and sue wholly to the mercy of God in Christ.”[3] We are sinners. Are we looking up to Jesus for salvation?
As for me, I’m with Wynonna. “I have seen my share of hard times and I’m letting you know: Straight up is my way.”

[1] For the complete lyrics of “Rock Bottom,” go here:
[2] Robert A. Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding (Waco, TX: Word, 1982), 68, 69.
[3] Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1971 [reprint of 1660 edition]), 42.

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