Sunday, February 26, 2012

“Blessed are the Merciful”

The fifth beatitude states: "Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy" (Matt. 5:7; NKJV). The word "merciful" means "having pity or mercy on." It involves responding to the needs of others. Here the saying of Jesus echoes the 112th Psalm which contains a beatitude of its own: "Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, Who delights greatly in His commandments" (v.1). The psalm goes on to describe the character of such a person: "He is gracious, and full of compassion, and righteous. A good man deals graciously and lends. . ." (vv. 4,5). "He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor . . ." (v. 9). The promise in our text in Matthew is that the Lord will amply reward the generous man and supply his own needs. "For they shall obtain mercy." This principle of generosity towards others and responding to their needs likewise finds its root in the Torah: ". . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself . . ." (Lev. 19:18).

    Our Creator wants us to have a basic concern and compassion for each other. Our natural tendency is to be self-centered and to think only or ourselves. We are jealous of our "property rights" and assume that we own nothing to others. But that mentality reflects a moral failure on our part – a calloused indifference to the plight of our fellow human beings. And yet our existence hangs by a slender thread, and we are ultimately dependent upon the mercies of God for our sustenance. If we expect sympathy and compassion from Him, we should be willing to extend it to others when it is in our power to do so.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


    The fourth beatitude reads: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled" (Matt. 5:6; NKJV). The words "hunger" and "thirst" denote an intense craving for something. What Jesus is pointing to here is not just a mechanical performance, a half-hearted attempt to conform to an external set of rules, but a genuine, heart-felt desire for righteousness. If our heart is right with God, we will desire what He desires, a world governed by goodness and truth.

    Jesus' words echo those of Isaiah chapter 55: "Ho! Everyone who thirsts, Come to the waters; And you who have no money, Come, buy and eat . . ." (v. 1). The passage goes on to exhort us to desire what is truly good and worthwhile, viz., God Himself (v. 6), and His word (vv. 8-11). Then comes the promise: "For you shall go out with joy, And be let out with peace" (v. 12).

    The essence of righteousness is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength" (Dt. 6:5). The psalmist could say "As the deer pants for the water brooks, So pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?" (Ps. 42:1,2). And to love God is to seek to have His will accomplished here on earth. The entire 119th Psalm is an expression of desire for God's commandments. And if we "hunger and thirst for righteousness," we "shall be filled," because that is what we shall have in the kingdom.

    Our actions are largely governed by our desires. In the long run we pretty much do what we want to do. One the problems with the modern church is its general lack of interest in God and in His righteousness. We are pretty much content to go through life pleasing ourselves and making pragmatic decisions based on our own self-interest. The result is that it is all too easy to compromise ethical principle. We are the lukewarm church of Laodicea described in Rev. 3:14-22, and the warning given there is well worth taking to heart: "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent" (v. 19).

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Blessed Are the Meek

Repentance, as we have seen, begins with a change of heart. But if it is real and genuine it must also entail a change of behavior as well. And so Jesus goes on in the next five beatitudes to tell us what that behavior is.

It is significant that what Jesus describes in these verses is not a mere external conformity to a set of rules, but rather an attitude or state of mind. What He lays out are basic character traits – values to guide our life and conduct.

    The third beatitude reads, "Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5; NKJV). This is a direct reference to Psalm 37:11: "But the meek shall inherit the earth . . ." By "meek" He did not mean what the word often means today: "deficient in spirit and courage," but rather the term carries the older English connotation of "enduring injury with patience and without resentment (Webster's 7th New Collegiate). Moses was said to be "very meek above all the men which were upon the face of the earth" (Num. 12:3; AV), but he was hardly "deficient of spirit and courage." Rather, no doubt because of his close dealings with God, he was a humble and unpretentious man, open to and approachable by all. He lived his life in humble dependence upon God.

    What is required of us is to have a proper attitude about ourselves and our relationship with others. This is not a false humility, but a matter of looking at ourselves honestly and realistically. Meekness is the opposite of arrogance. We are to be kind and gentle with others because we recognize that we are not better or more important than them.

     It may seem unlikely that "the meek shall inherit the earth" – we are accustomed to seeing nice guys finishing last. Yet Jesus' saying, and the entire 37th Psalm, contain a certain warning. The final outcome is determined not by man, but by God. And those who lived their lives in accordance with God's will and commands are those who will finally prevail. It is what God wants that counts in the final analysis.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

“Blessed are Those who Mourn”

In order to enter the kingdom of heaven we must repent, and the first part of repentance is contrition for sin. We cannot enter the kingdom unless our sins are forgiven, and we cannot expect forgiveness if we feel no sorrow for our sins.

    The second beatitude reads "Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted" (Matt. 5:4; NKJV). The language parallels that of Isa. 61:1-3 where the speaker (manifestly the Messiah) says that He has been anointed "To preach good tidings to the poor," and "To comfort all who mourn, To console those who mourn in Zion. To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness . . ."

    The problem, in a word, is sin. God is absolutely holy, righteous and just. We, however, are fallen sinners. We may think that we are basically good people, but we are comparing ourselves with each other. The problem, in God's sight, is that the entire human race is sinful. "The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, To see if there are any who understand, who seek God. The have all turned aside, They have together become corrupt: There is none who does good, No, not one" (Ps. 14:2,3).

    God could have, had He wanted to, simply sent us all to hell. Strictly speaking that is what we deserve. There is, however, another side to God's character: He is "the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgressions and sin . . ." (Ex. 34:6,7). It is important to note here, however, that God forgives sin; He does not merely overlook it or excuse it. Justice is not abrogated for the sake of compassion. And in order for sin to be forgiven there has to be a frank acknowledgement of the sin itself, that it is a violation of God's law, and that it has no legitimate place in the universe. This acknowledgement was be genuine and sincere. "'Now therefore,' says the Lord, 'Turn to Me with all your heart, With fasting and weeping, and with mourning. So rend your heart, and not your garments . . . '" (Joel 2:12,13). An insincere confession of sin make a mockery of divine mercy.

    God is not a sadist. He does not delight in causing us misery and woe. Rather, the promise is that those who mourn "shall be comforted." "'Comfort, yes, comfort My people! Says your God. 'Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the Lord's hand Double for all her sins'" (Isa. 40:1,2). The comfort came because Israel's "warfare is ended," and this happened because "her iniquity is pardoned."

    Once the problem of sin has been dealt with, once reconciliation with God has been achieved, peace and comfort are the result. We can now enjoy God's favor and blessing. In the kingdom of heaven there will be no more sorrow or mourning. Be we must mourn in order to enter the kingdom. Repentance is the gateway to peach and joy.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

“Blessed are the Poor in Spirit”

In our last blog post we noted that Mark summarized Jesus' message as "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mk. 1:15; NKJV). But what does it mean to "repent"?

    Jesus expands on the theme in the famous "Sermon on the Mount," recorded in Matthew chapters 5 through 7. The sermon opens with the "beatitudes," so called because each verse in the Latin version begins with the word "beati," which means "blessed." Certain types of individuals are said to be well-off or fortunate if certain things are true of them. In this case the beatitudes expand on the theme that if we repent we will enter into a future state of bliss and happiness.

    The first beatitude reads, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). At first sight this seems like a paradox. If someone is "poor in spirit" he is hardly in a state of happiness or bliss. But Jesus is stating an important truth here. We must repent in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, and repentance begins with a change of attitude.

    In order to have any kind of meaningful relationship with God we must first humble ourselves. "Though the Lord is on high, Yet He regards the lowly; But the proud He knows from afar" (Ps. 138:6). "But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, And who trembles at My word" (Isa. 66:2). In order to have a relationship with God we must first recognize Who He is: God Almighty, the eternal, self-existent Creator of heaven and earth. And as for ourselves, we are mere creatures of the dust, here today and gone tomorrow. Thus what is in view here is a relationship between two parties that are vastly unequal to each other – a relationship between the infinite and the finite, between the Creator and the created thing. We must bow before Him in awestruck wonder.

    What Jesus is pointing to in the first beatitude is a basic fact of human psychology. We keeps up modern westerners from a meaningful relationship with God is our own pride and self-sufficiency. We are unwilling to acknowledge our weakness and dependence on Him. And so we go our way and He goes His. This is why our churches are spiritually dead. This is why our "religion" is a sham. This is why we have not experienced a general revival is well over a century and a half. We play at Christianity the way a cat plays with a mouse. We don't take our faith very seriously.

    Does this mean that religion, in the true sense of the word, is only for weak-minded people, the "opiate of the people" as Karl Marx so famously put it – people who are too stupid and na├»ve to realize that they don't need God? Hardly. Rather, it is the arrogant scoffers who are being stupid, for they forget one thing: eventually we must all die. And then what?

    "Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven."




Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Message of Jesus

Christendom is divided into a multitude of warring sects and denominations. It seems that Christians have a hard time agreeing on much of anything. It is also true, sad to say, that down through the ages these denominational differences have sometimes spilled over into outright violence. Critics have pointed to these undeniable facts as evidence that God is unknowable and religion is a farce.

    There is a sense, however, in which all of this is beside the point. The real question is, what did Jesus Himself teach and say? And what relevance does His teaching have for us today in the Twenty First century.

    One of the earliest summaries we have of Jesus' teaching, based at least in part in the apostle Peter's personal recollection, is found in the Gospel According to Mark. In Mark 1:14,15 we are told that Jesus came to Galilee, a district in northern Palestine, "preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.'" (NKJV).

    Jesus' listeners would have understood what He was saying. For centuries Israelite prophets had been predicting a time when a supernatural figure, the "Messiah," or anointed One, would reign over the earth in an era of universal justice and peace. As early as 735 B.C. the prophet Isaiah foretold a time in which nations "shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isa. 2:4).

    Human life, as we experience it now, is filled with pain and sorrow. We know sickness, injury and death. We also know the cruelty and injustice that human beings inflict on each other. This raises a nagging question: is this all there is? Are we doomed to an endless cycle of evil and death?

    The problem becomes ever more acute if we view it from the standpoint of monotheism. If the world was created by a single, all-powerful intelligent Being, then why is there evil in the world? How could God allow such a thing to happen? The Bible partly answers this question by tying our physical suffering to our moral condition – we die ultimately because we sin. Death is God's just judgment on a fallen and sinful human race. And sin is a decision that we make; we can blame no one but ourselves for our predicament.

    But does that mean that creation is in a permanent state of ruin? Did evil achieve the final victory over good?

    The biblical answer is the kingdom of God – the Messianic age in the future. History is headed toward a final showdown in which good finally triumphs over evil and the earth is restored to its original state of peace and righteousness. God is sovereign and His will will ultimately prevail.

    But how will this perfect state be brought about? The answer is shattering. The prophets described an apocalyptic event called "the Day of the Lord" – a moment in history in which God Himself will come to judge the world. "The Lord gives voice before His army, For His camp is very great; For strong is the One who executes His word. For the day of the Lord is great and terrible; Who can endure it?" (Joel 2:11).

    All of which brings us to our present situation. What does all of this mean for us today? The answer is, we need to repent. Joel goes on to say, "'Now therefore,' says the Lord, 'Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning.' So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, and of great kindness; And He relents from doing harm" (vv. 12,13). We cannot "enter" or "inherit" the kingdom of God in our present state of sin and degradation. We must repent of our sin and experience an inward moral renovation before we can enter the kingdom.

    Jesus announced that "the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand" (lit. "has come near" – Mk. 1:15). The time to repent is now.

It is noteworthy that Jesus did not come preaching toleration and multiculturalism. He did not preach "the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man." What He preached, quite bluntly, was repentance. We must change, or we are doomed.