Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven- Matthew 5:3

"Blessed are the poor in spirit...

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Matthew 5:3
  What exactly are we supposed to take away from the beatitudes? I've heard most of my life...or at least I've thought all of my life that they were the key to blessing. I've heard taught and preached that "blessed" really means happy, and therefore, the interpretation that has been in my head since I heard them as a boy has been, "you'll be happy if you are poor in spirit." Of course, when we use the word "blessed" it has to be more than just is happiness from God Himself. The problem with that interpretation, though, is that first it sounds as if I am being told to actually be "poor in spirit" in order to be blessed, and second, I'm coming to realize now that it has been a subtle teaching that I must do something in order to be blessed by God.

Let me explain why that has always made me a little leary of the beatitudes.

1. If I will find happiness by being, "poor in Spirit" then, what does it mean to be "poor in spirit?" I've heard it taught that it is someone willing to apologize. I've taught that it is about humility. I'm still not convinced those are completely incorrect, but it makes the next one a little harder to get, "Blessed are those who mourn." Wait...if "blessed" means "happy" and the qualities in the beatitudes are qualities I am supposed to strive for, then in essence I'm supposed to strive to mourn in order to be comforted?? Can you see why I've struggled with these?

2. The whole essence of the gospel story is that humans can never do or become anything to deserve God's blessing. Read Ephesians 2 and be reminded of the key role of grace that God really wants us to get. None of us have ever or will ever get into the kingdom of heaven because we do something well enough to gain entrance. We get into the kingdom of heaven "by grace, through faith." It is simply because God wants us to be in the kingdom. Our sins shouldn't allow it, so He planned the sacrifice of of the Lamb of God before the foundation of the world was laid in order to grant entrance into the kingdom to those who could never get in on their own.

As I said before, I don't have a good handle on the beatitudes. I may even switch gears down the road again. But pursue a possibility with me. What if the beatitudes are really factual statements meant to define the kingdom of heaven, instead of teaching to be more poor in spirit, more mournful, more gentle, more hungry and thirsty, more merciful, more pure, more  peacemakerish (I looked it up, and it's actually a word), and more persecuted?

What if Jesus were actually just beginning to expound on his preaching theme up till then that people should "repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mat. 4:17)? The kingdom of heaven is a huge theme in the teaching of Jesus. And one of the biggest hurdles that Jesus needed to cross in getting people to change their thinking was about who is and is not allowed into the kingdom of heaven. 

What if the term, "poor in spirit" actually means "poor in spirit"? What if Jesus is talking about someone who is the lowest of the low? Someone who is "spiritually bankrupt." A sinner. A tax collector. A prostitute. A beggar. Even a pharisee. Today, we might think of a druggie, a rapist, a murderer, or, for some....a televangelist! But the point is, 


What if Jesus main point is to simply say, that "yes, even these can be blessed in the kingdom of heaven because the kingdom of heaven is all about reversal." After all, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first, and the greatest in the kingdom must become a servant to all.

I'm not sure I'm convinced that this interpretation is correct...but it seems to make the beatitudes more understandable than my previous attempts at interpretation. Either way, the principle is still true and it is one that is purposely planted all throughout the gospels. That principle is that the kingdom of heaven is for all. So how will that change the way you look at the worst person you come into contact with this week? After all, if Jesus said they could be blessed and that the kingdom of heaven belongs to them, will we let them know?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the beatitudes. Am I way off track? Does the principle still hold true? For more in-depth (and better laid out!) thoughts on viewing the beatitudes this way, read the 4th chapter of Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy. In the meantime, start the discussion below.

p.s.- I hope you know that I didn't in fact look up "peacemakerish" and that I'm fairly convinced it is not in fact a real word. But if you looked it up and found out it is, I'd love to hear that! :)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Reminder Not to Starve- Matthew 4:4

I have no idea how many times I have read this verse where Jesus stands up against Satan's temptation to turn a stone into bread by quoting the scriptures. I couldn't begin to count the number of times that I have heard it quoted. But until studying for this article, I don't think I ever knew where Jesus was quoting from and what the original passage was all about. If you are where you can get to a Bible, pull it out right now and read Deuteronomy 8:1-3. If you are not,  I want to encourage you to look it up later tonight. I'm going to give you the Cliff's Notes version, but you'll appreciate it so much more by looking it up.
          Basically, Moses is commanding the people to remember everything God has done for them and to remember and to keep God's commandments. In verse three he says, "He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord."
          Did you catch the significance of that? I don't know about you, but I have never just forgotten to eat. Every once in a while, I get too busy to eat on schedule, but I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have missed a meal altogether. I need to eat. I enjoy eating. And when I miss even one of my daily appointments with physical sustenance, every part of me feels it and complains about it.
          The whole reason God let the Israelites feel hunger in the wilderness was to help them feel the hunger for God's word! The obvious question for me is, is the spiritual sustenance of God's word such a part of my life and my schedule and my habits, that to miss a "meal" means that the rest of my day if out of whack? Or have I gone so long starving myself of any real food that I am immune to the hunger pangs that should be registering?
          For those of us who are parents, teachers, or in any other sort of leadership role, the application goes even deeper. We are not just responsible for feeding our children cereal, sandwiches, and lasagna. If that's all they get, they will have plenty of energy physically, but in a much truer sense, they will be starving to death! There are so many opportunities to feed on God's word every day. From the Sunday morning and Wednesday night Bible classes, to the VOW's each week, to the Takin' It Home Sheet for the families of teens, to the weekly memory verse that the whole congregation is memorizing, there is really no excuse for letting anyone starve. So what about it? Is anybody hungry? For it is written that man shall not live by bread alone.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Foolish Man- Matthew 7:26-27

Last week, I announced that we would be looking at verses from the sermon on the mount for the VOW in 2013. The verse we looked at last week was the beginning of Jesus' summary of the sermon. The person who hears the words of Jesus and puts them into practice is like a wise man.... But we know from the VBS song, that there is a second part to the sermon- the part about the foolish man.

Many people point out that both the wise man and the foolish man will experience storms. In fact, it is likely that they will experience similar storms throughout their lives. They will both experience the death of a loved one. They will both experience heartbreak. They will both experience betrayal.  There is even a chance that they will both experience something like a divorce or the rebellion of a child. Why? Because when sin entered the world, devastating pain, death, and a host of other things came with it...including more sin and temptation to sin. Paul says in Romans 8 that the creation itself was subjected to slavery to corruption because of man's choice to sin. Where there is sin, there is death. Where there is death, there is suffering.

Until the creation is once again set free from corruption at the coming of Jesus, there will always be storms...some caused by nature and others caused by people.

The only difference between the experiences of the wise and the foolish, is the condition of the house after the storm.

It's interesting to me that Jesus adds the detail that when the house fell, "it fell with a great crash." We could have gotten the same basic point- that obedience leads to a solid foundation and security while disobedience leads to insecurity and the future destruction and fall of a house- without His adding this detail of how great the crash is.

Why does He add this detail?

Maybe it is because those of us who have heard and listened to the words of Christ are already built up a little taller than the houses around us who have not claimed to build their lives on Christ. When we proclaim that our teacher is Jesus, we automatically put ourselves on a pedestal in the eyes of the public. We are claiming the position of a city set on a hill and a light on a lampstand. We become visible to others in a way that before our claimed allegiance to Christ we were not.

Perhaps it is at that point that a house crashing because of a poorly built foundation becomes more than just a house crashing. It becomes a house crashing that is a "great crash."

Just think about how much longer the public will disdain a well known preacher who has a serious lapse in judgment. Think about how much harder and longer a child's rebellion is when the parents profess one thing but live another as opposed to the child who rebels but who has parents who walk the walk and talk the talk. How much harder is it for someone who has turned from their faith when they are disappointed with God over the death of a loved one, than for someone who has never listened to Christ's words when the tragedy happens? How much more painful is a problem in the church than a problem in the workplace?

Before we begin listening each week to the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, I think it is simply worth reminding ourselves that once we have heard these words, we take on ourselves the possibility for a real blessing or a real curse. It all depends on what we do with our hands, feet, thoughts, and mouths after the words have come into our ears.

May we each VOW to pursue the blessing of a house built on the rock.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Wise Man- Matthew 7:24-25

"Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock."

Matthew 7:24-25

I suppose it usually makes more sense to begin at the beginning of a sermon than at the end. But the sermon that I want us to look at is a sermon that many of has have almost completely memorized. You probably don't even realize you have so much of it memorized. But just start reading and I'll bet you will be surprised about how many sentences you could finish with your eyes closed. The sermon that we are talking about, of course, is the sermon on the mount found in Matthew 5-7.

My original plan for 2013 was to have a memory verse each week simply from the mouth of Jesus. So last week I started at the beginning of Jesus' teaching with the intention of picking out all of the statements Jesus made that I thought were worth memorizing. What I quickly realized is what has already gone through your head- every statement of Jesus is worth memorizing! As I was making my survey, simply picking passages that touched on different topics led me to a list of almost 50 before I even left the sermon on the mount! Since several of the passages I put down really could have been split in two or three ways, I decided that instead of trying to survey all of Jesus' ministry in a year of memory verses, I'll just try to cover almost all of the first sermon of His ministry.

Here are my prayers for this year:
  1. That we will commit to memory almost all of the sermon on the mount. What a difference it would make if these words we written on each of our hearts and ready to be pulled to the front of our minds and applied in appropriate situations!
  2. That each week, the verse that we look at will become a challenge to really live in radical obedience to that passage. On the surface, that sounds almost easy. After all, many of us have been Christians for years. We've been trying to follow Jesus' teaching for most or all of our lives. But I know me. And I don't feel like I'm alone. Jesus' teachings call us to a radical kind of life that is much easier to memorize and quote than to apply consistently. Some of the statements he made go completely against what we think is common sense. They leave us feeling vulnerable and irresponsible. And yet Jesus said it.
Jesus closed His first sermon comparing those that obey His teachings to someone that builds their house on a solid foundation. The test, of course, is the storm. When the storm comes, if the house is built on a rock, it may suffer damage, but it will stand. I want my house to stand. I want my wife and my daughters to have a faith that will only get stronger when they face death, failure, guilt, embarrassment, humiliation, defeat, and discouragement...and success, popularity, achievement, and pride.

I have to believe that if Jesus really was, and is, God (and He is), then whatever my human reasoning and past experiences lead me to believe about the best course of action in a particular instance, He actually does know the best way that I should respond.

What are you building your house on? If you want it to last it had better be the words of God. The first step is simply knowing the words. Without a commitment to reading, hearing, and meditating on His words, we simply can't put them into practice. And obviously, if we want our houses to stand, the next step is actually living to the best of our ability- and even more so because we have the Spirit of the Christ living in us- the words that we are hearing from Christ.

Will you join the experiment this year?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Little Perspective on Wisdom- Ecclesiastes 11:5

"Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman,

so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things."

Ecclesiastes 11:5

As we head into the New Year, I thought it would be appropriate to wrap up our look at some pieces of the wisdom literature with the under-riding assessment of knowledge that guides all of the statements we have looked at throughout the year.

I recently finished an Anatomy and Physiology course. We learned about the development of the baby inside the womb. We read about growth plates, and cartilaginous models, and osteoblasts, and a lot of other stuff that I have just a basic understanding of now. All of these things and so many more go into the formation and development of bones in a fetus and the growth of those bones throughout childhood. But as much as scientists have learned throughout all of the years, they still haven't figured out how to do any of it from scratch. They may be able to take stem cells and program them to do different things, but to my knowledge, God is still the only one actually in the business of stem cell production! Listen to another of Solomon's statements earlier in Ecclesiastes 8:16-17:
When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the earth (even though one should never sleep day or night), and I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, "I know," he cannot discover.
 Wow. I wonder how modern scientists would respond to this statement. My assumption is that those whose hearts are open to God would say, "amen" and praise God and then keep searching for answers to how God did things with the knowledge that they will always have a job because they will never find all the answers! On the other hand, I would assume that those who refuse to accept a Creator would say, "bah! Just give us more time and we'll find it!" But the truth of the matter is that there will always be mysteries to solve and we will only solve them as God allows us to.

I say, "praise God!" Look at the details of life and praise God when you have an awesome sense of wonder about how in the world our brain can coordinate all of the intricacies of life without any effort, how all of the galaxies line up and are held together, how each animal depends on other animals and creations for a delicate balance.

Scientists have spent centuries studying the creation in only bits and pieces and they have gained much knowledge and understanding. And every question they answer asks another. We are slowly gaining understanding by looking at things that already exist


When we are finally humbled by that realization, then we heed the advice that Solomon closes Ecclesiastes with...and we heed it with joy and thankfulness instead of grudging obedience because we recognize that the God who created the universe in infinite wisdom also loves us with infinite love.
The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Starting next week, we will be looking at sayings of Jesus. Remember that the goal of the VOW is to give a thought for mediation and to encourage folks to hide God's word in their hearts. So scan through the gospels and send in your favorite verses that came from the mouth of Christ. You can click the comment button below to submit passages. I'll put a list together and start writing from those next week. I hope you've had a blessed holiday season but even more than that, that you and your family have grown in the grace and knowledge of our Lord. May we all recognize his greatness and glory in it as we begin this new year.