“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“
Jesus – Matthew 5:3 (NIV)
To be blessed by God is more than just being happy. To be blessed by God does, indeed, make one happy. It only makes sense that the created person would desire to please his or her Creator. Jesus is explicit as He teaches His disciples the pathway to God’s blessing in eight elegant* principles (Matthew 5:3-12).
The first of these eight principles specifies poverty of spirit as the first step towards God’s blessing. This principle was not a new revelation. It has always been an essential quality of those who would receive the blessing of God. Here are just some of the biblical characters who exhibited this quality of brokenness:
Abraham (Genesis 18:27)
Jacob (Genesis 32:10)
Moses (Exodus 3:11; 4:10-12)
King David (Psalms 51:17; 1 Chronicles 29:14)
King Solomon (1 Kings 3:7)
Job (Job 42:5-6)
Isaiah (Isaiah 6:5)
John the Baptist (John 1:27; 3:30; Luke 7:28; Mark 9:35
The Tax Collector (Luke 18:13-14)
The Roman Centurion (Luke 7:6-9)
Simon Peter (Luke 5:8)
The Apostle Paul (Romans 7:18; 2 Corinthians 4:7; 1 Corinthians 3:6-7; 1 Timothy 1:15-16)
It would be hard to imagine a person exhibiting a proud and haughty spirit when suddenly confronted by God’s immediate, visible presence. The challenge for us is to maintain that sense of His abiding presence and our own brokenness.
POOR IN SPIRIT LIFESTYLE
The truth is that before a holy God no one can stand in His presence because, as Paul stated, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). The real contrast this first beatitude forces is between those who acknowledge their brokenness and humble themselves accordingly and those who do not and will not.
For those who seek God’s blessing this first beatitude is fundamental to entrance into the kingdom of God. It is where God-followers strive to live because it is where we all exist.
* I use the word ‘elegant’ to describe these beatitudes in the sense of a beautiful cut diamond set upon a black velvet surface to enhance its beauty.
Bookends are used to keep books together. They also metaphorically describe how we keep other objects together. In the gospel of Matthew there are two important kingdom bookends that help us define the contents of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.
The first bookend is in Matthew 5:1-2 where Jesus sees the crowds and goes up to the mountain. Here his disciples gather around Him to listen to Jesus’ as He begins to teach them.
The second bookend is Matthew 7:28-29 where Jesus’ audience has expanded beyond His disciples to include the crowds. They have been listening in and are amazed at Jesus’ authoritative teaching.
These bookends tell us that what Jesus has to say is very important. We know this because just before the final bookend in Matthew 7:28-29, Jesus contrasts two groups of people.
In Matthew 7:24-25 He addresses those who listen and apply His words to their lives. Jesus describes them as wise builders who anchor their foundation upon a rock. Their building will stand firm in the storms of life.
In contrast, in Matthew 7:26-27 Jesus describes those who also listen but do not put His words into practice. These people are like unwise builders who place their foundation upon sandy soil. When the storms come their house will not survive.
At the very beginning of the first bookend Jesus launches into 8 beatitudes that fall between two other bookends. The first tells His audience that being poor in spirit is the way to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). The concluding beatitude addresses those who are “persecuted because of righteousness” for theirs is, once again, the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10).
These bookends tell us that between them are listed the crucial qualities of people who are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Those qualities include poverty of spirit, mourning over sin, meekness, righteousness, being merciful, having purity of heart, being makers of peace and suffering for the sake of righteousness.
THE VALUE OF BOOKENDS
The Sermon on the Mount is important material for followers of Jesus Christ for at least three reasons. First, Jesus said their application would make the difference between those who survive the storms of life and those who do not. Second, for those who are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, the sermon provides a roadmap to maturity in the kingdom.
The third reason is anchored in the next-to-the-last parable Jesus used to underline their importance. In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus tells us that there will be people who appear at Judgement Day, thinking that they are, indeed, citizens of the kingdom of heaven. They will come before Jesus pointing to the many things they have done to verify their eternal citizenship. Jesus’ shocking response to them should be sobering to us all as He says, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (vs. 23).
Perhaps there could be no greater tragedy than to go through life with a false sense of confidence in one’s salvation only to find, in the end, that one had missed the entire point of kingdom citizenry: knowing Christ and being known by Him. Herein lies the power of the Sermon on the Mount.
The word ‘demands’ is a word of strength. It assumes that the person with demands is in a position of power and control. Conversely, a person who is without power and control has no demands.
POTTER AND CLAY
This contrast exactly describes God’s relationship to His creation. Indeed, both Isaiah (29:16; 64:8) and Jeremiah (18:6) informed Paul’s metaphorical reference to the total power of the Potter and the absence of power of the clay (Romans 9:21).
In every aspect of God’s creation He is indeed on total control; His power is absolute; supreme; sovereign; unchallenged. With a word the universe came to exist (Genesis 1). With a word it will be brought to an end (2 Peter 3:7,10-13). There is only one aspect of His creation that He has chosen to give the temporary right to choose: mankind.
Demands? They are still totally one-sided; God-sided. The demands of God’s creation? The only ones available are those they are given by God and only for the duration of time that He wills. He sets the boundaries and the conditions of compliance and obedience
Bottom line: what God says goes. God has every right to make demands upon His own creation, including mankind. And those demands are clear and understandable.
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
So, when Jesus–Who, as God Himself, obeyed His Father’s commands (John 12:49-50)–tells us to obey His commandments out of love (John 14:15, 23) it is important to 1) search out His commands, 2) identify them and 3) obey them. The option of saying no and the freedom to demand independence is temporary, limited, fully under His control and doomed to fail.
This is a great paradox. God tells us through His Son, Jesus Christ, that those who claim to have no demands are the ones who will be blessed and will inherit the kingdom of God. To recognize Who is God and who is not God is very important to every person. It is God who makes the demands. To those who accept His demands, Jesus tells us they will be blessed.
During our adult class on Christmas Eve this year (December 24, 2017) we will read the first four chapters of the Gospel of Luke. Anchors in Jewish Scripture are what we would expect for the coming Messiah and Luke’s account delivers.
Although Luke was writing his gospel account of Jesus for a primarily Gentile audience, I have been overwhelmed by the degree to which Luke anchors His story in the Old Testament. His direct references to “The Law” and important people in Israel’s history combine with allusions and inferences to make a powerful connections with Jesus’ entry into the world and His solid relationship with the Jewish people.
For example, in just the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, look at the references to the Law of Moses:
1:5 – Zechariah is a descendent of Aaron, of the priestly division of Abijah
1:5 – Elizabeth is a descent of Aaron
1:6 – Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth – Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.
1:15 John is to live according to the Nazarite Law
1:15 – John is to be great in the sight of the Lord
1:15 – John will be filled with the Holy Spirit
1:16 – John will go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah
2:22 – purification rites required in the Law of Moses
2:23 – as it is written in the Law of the Lord
2:24 – in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord
2:25 – Simeon “was righteous and devout”
2:27 – Jesus’ parents bring Jesus to the temple to do for him what the custom of the Law required. (Ex. 13:1-16)
2:37 – Anna was a widow at 84 years of age who worshipped, fasted and prayed at the temple night and day since her husband died after 7 years of marriage.
2:39 – Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord.
2:41 – Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover every year, according to the custom
In addition, Luke highlights the centrality of the temple:
1:9, 21, 22 – Zechariah’s time in the temple where Gabriel meets him
2:22 – Jesus is presented in the temple
2:27 – Simeon comes out of the temple to meet Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the temple courtyard of the women
2:37 – Anna is in the temple, worshipping night and day, fasting and praying
2:41 – Jesus parents go to Jerusalem every year for Passover
2:46 – Jesus is found in the temple courts with the teachers asking questions and listening
Indeed, Luke sets the stage for the gospel of Jesus Christ by anchoring us in:
The Old Testament
The Law of Moses
Parents of John and Jesus are devout in obeying the Law
The Holy Spirit
CIRCUMCISED ON THE 8TH DAY
In Genesis 17 God changes Abram’s name (exalted father) to Abraham (father of many) and Sarai’s name (my princess) to Sarah (a princess) and God institutes, with Abraham, circumcision as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Eight days after his birth every male is to be circumcised according to the law of Moses.
Luke 2:21 – circumcised on the 8th day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.
PURIFICATION AFTER THE BIRTH OF THE FIRSTBORN SON
In Leviticus 12 God tells Moses that for the first seven days after childbirth a woman is ceremonially unclean until the 8th day when she is to have her son circumcised. Then, after another 33 days she must take part in a purification ceremony in the temple, offering a sacrifice.
6 “‘When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering.[a] 7 He shall offer them before the Lord to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.
“‘These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. 8 But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’”
Luke 2:22 – when the time came for the purification rites required by the law of Moses
DEDICATING AND REDEEMING THE FIRST BORN SON
Water to blood, Frogs, Gnats, Flies, Livestock, Boils, Hail, Locusts and Darkness. In Exodus chapters 7-11 we are told of the 9 plagues that came upon the Egyptians to convince them to let their slaves for 430 years, the children of Israel, go free. Every plague touched every Egyptian while the Israelites were completely exempted. Each time, Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go…that is until the 10th plague. One night in April, the Lord came through all of Egypt and took the life of the first born sons and animals of the land. The Israelites were exempted because they each had placed above the door to their home, the blood of a lamb.
In Exodus 13, to remember this night, God instituted the Passover meal that would remind everyone of the night that the Lord passed over their homes because of the blood of the lamb on their doorposts. It was also on that night that God instructed all Israelites to come to dedicate their first born sons to Him and redeem them back from Him.
In Numbers 18:15-16 we are told that the parents must dedicate their first-born to the Lord and then they may redeem him back from the lord for a ceremonial price of five shekels of silver. As Joseph and Mary are following through with their ceremonial requirements….
I imagine Joseph holding out the five shekels of silver to give to the priests in the temple as he was supposed to do (Luke 2:27). As he is just about to do this an older priest named Simeon suddenly comes out of the temple into the court, and he holds the baby Jesus in his arms proclaiming:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:28-32)
While Mary and Joseph are shocked and marveling, Simeon turns directly to Mary and announces:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Meanwhile, Anna walks into the temple court area where Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus and Simeon are and she begins to announce “He’s here!” to everyone else in the courtyard. “The Messiah has arrived!
What about the 5 shekels of silver? To be so particular about the ceremonial particulars that Jesus’ parents observed, the five shekels are never specifically mentioned. If Simeon or another priest ever received the money it is not recorded.
Perhaps it is because the full procedure did not occur as it would have for a normal child. Like Samuel, Jesus is being given to God by Joseph but he was not redeemed back to Joseph and Mary.
Jesus remained dedicated to the Lord.*
The following notes from the Jewish Encyclopedia underline the importance of this practice:
Every Israelite is obliged to redeem his first-born son thirty days after the latter’s birth. The mother is exempt from this obligation. The son, if the father fails to redeem him, has to redeem himself when he grows up (Ḳid. 29b). The sum of redemption as given in the Bible (Num. xviii. 16) is five shekels, which should be given to the priest. This sum may be given either in money or in valuables, but not in real estate, slaves, or promissory notes. The priest may afterward return the money to the father, although such practise is not recommended by the Rabbis. At the redemption the father of the child pronounces the blessing, “Blessed art thou . . . and commandeth us concerning the redemption of a son,” and then also the blessing of “she-heḥeyanu.” It is customary to prepare a feast in honor of the occasion, at which the ceremony is made impressive by a dialogue between the priest and the father of the child. (Jewish Encyclopedia, (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6138-first-born-redemption-of) “Redemption of First-Born”)
Jesus was dedicated to God but He was not redeemed by Joseph! With this, Luke sets the stage for the bar mitzvah of Jesus at the temple (his parents had taken Him there every year (Luke 2:41)). Where else would God’s Son be found except in the presence of the priests, the teachers of the law, asking questions and listening to their answers. Of course, everyone was amazed at his understanding and His answers and, of course, his parents are astonished (Luke 2:48).
With incredible mastery, Luke relates the story of Jesus’ early years with a crescendo that brings us to chapter 3 and the introduction of John the Baptist who would be anchored firmly in the fulfillment of Isaiah’s 800 year old prophecy (Isaiah 40:3-5). Moreover, Luke tells us that John began his ministry during a specific point in history, located specifically in the country around the Jordan River for a specific purpose: “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).
Yes, Luke was likely writing to a primarily Gentile audience. And, of course, they needed to know what their Jewish brothers and sisters had already realized: Jesus was the total and complete fulfillment of ancient prophecies.
In his book, Sit, Walk, Stand Watchman Nee provides incredible insights into Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus. ‘Sit’ in Ephesians 1-3 encourages us to sit down and listen to what God has done forus. In Ephesians 4:1-6:9 Nee observes a shift from sitting to walking lives of gratitude that reflect the result of what God has done for us as we live out our daily lives. Finally, in Ephesians 6:10-24 Paul tells us it is time to stand and prepare for war, concluding with the admonition to pray.
Beginning at the end of October we started working through the various aspects of living the Christian life that are detailed by Paul.
Walk in Unity and Maturity (Eph. 4:1-16)
Walk in the Light (Eph. 4:17-5:14)
Think Differently (4:17-24)
Care for One Another (4:25-32)
Imitate God (Eph. 5:1-14)
Walk in the Spirit (5:15-6:9)
Be Filled With The Spirit (5:15-20)
Love Like Christ (5:21-33)
Honor One Another (6:1-9)
SUBMISSION: THREE PILLARS
With the final two aspects of walking in the Spirit (Ephesians. 5:21-6:9), Paul addresses three main pillars of society that are to be subsumed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ: marriage, family and society. The characteristic, Christ-centered quality of the church is to be one of submission to one another (Eph. 5:21).
PILLAR 1: MARRIAGE
Paul appeals to husbands and wives who submit to one another out of reverence to Christ (Eph. 5:22-30). Husbands take the lead in providing a headship that chooses to lay down his rights to lead as a servant, to provide spiritual leadership that is holy, cleansing, and oriented towards making her ‘radiant’ (vs. 27). With this kind of loving and caring headship the husband hopes for the respect of His wife (vs. 33).
PILLAR 2: FAMILY
Children are to submit to parents because it is a command from God that includes a specific promise: “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth” (Deuteronomy 5:16). Furthermore, fathers specifically work towards a Christ-centered love and discipline that does not exasperate (vs. 4).
PILLAR 3: SOCIETY
In Greek and Roman societies the rights of slaves were going through positive transformations. Perhaps their rights were given impetus, in part, through Paul’s instruction to Christian slaves and masters (Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, Anchor Yale Bible Commentary). Translate to today’s employer/employee relationships and we close the loop to understand that our foremost employer is Christ Himself. To honor Him we do our best to honor one another as equals.
Even today these simple guidelines have proven to be challenging in every realm, across cultures and in societal norms. One has only to wonder what the world would be like with a voluntary egalitarianism that strives to serve others.
Looking for a church? Perhaps one of the best predictors of congregational satisfaction for a seeker can be found in churches that exhibit these qualities among one another as well as to others.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
They say that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” In Ephesians 5:1 Paul encourages his readers to “be imitators of God.”
In our study of the first 3 chapters of Ephesians over the last few weeks we have covered the first half of the book. Paul tells us that by God’s power, strength and might Jesus was raised from the dead and seated at God’s right hand (Eph. 1:18-21). More than that, God also made us “alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6, NASB).
Simply stated, Paul is telling us “Sit down and listen while I tell you what God has done for you!” Chapters 1 through 3 are an incredible review of God’s divine plan from before the beginning of time. Center stage: Christ and the church (Eph. 3:20-21).
Sitting down and resting in what God has done for us in Christ is so important!
Currently we are in the midst of chapters 4 and 5 of Ephesians. Here Paul places a great emphasis upon how we walk all day, every day. In fact, Paul literally uses a word we literally translated as “walk” to describe our lives once we have been seated in God’s throne room. He contrasts between the way we once walked, in the futility of our minds (Eph. 4:17), and the new way we walk, renewed in the spirit of our minds (Eph. 4:23-24). Likewise, on Sunday mornings, we will spend time on more practical application.
It is in this context that Paul encourages us all to be ‘imitators of God.’ This truly is the sincerest form of flattery plus a few other things like honor, glory and praise. In his book, Just Like Jesus (1998) Max Lucado gives a great illustration of what this looks like. He asks a simple question: “What if, for twenty-four hours, Jesus wakes up in your bed, walks in your shoes, lives in your house, assumes your schedule?” Essentially, He lives your life with His heart. Would anyone notice a change?
This intriguing question is a great focus point for personal meditation, confession, and repentance. But, more than that, it is a great tool for contemplating the changes that need to occur in our lives. That’s one reason I love the subtitle of Lucado’s book: “God loves you just the way you are, but he refuses to leave you that way. He wants you to be Just Like Jesus.”
Ephesians 1-3 keep us from falling into despair when we contemplate fulfilling the challenges Paul places before us in chapters 4-6. Learning to imitate God is an overwhelming task that is greater than we are.
Of course, God knew that.
This is why He sent His Son, “while we were yet sinners.”
Lord willing, by December, we will be concluding our study in Ephesians. We will be talking about how God’s actions (ch. 1-3) have changed believer’s daily lives (chapters 4-6:9). These people are now ready to make a stand and pray!
Speaking to His people through the prophet Jeremiah, God asks a simple question:
“Have you no respect for me? Why don’t you tremble in my presence?”
God’s people, Israel, had messed up terribly, trying to make it through life without God. Because of this they were suffering heavily and God was warning them that there was more to come.
And so, God tells them,
“I, the Lord, define the ocean’s sandy shoreline as an everlasting boundary that the waters cannot cross. The waves may toss and roar, but they can never pass the boundaries I set.”
– Jeremiah 5:22 (NLT)
God’s point was that no matter how badly the storms may become He is still in control. He sets the boundaries of the winds and waves, providing a shoreline of safety to those who will seek Him.
In life we all struggle with wanting to do things our own way instead of surrendering ourselves to God’s ways. Then, when the storms of life visit us we find ourselves making poor choices under pressure that often make our situations even worse than they were before.
But God is still in control.
So, when we find ourselves in the middle of life’s storms, bobbing up and down in its currents and rip tides, taking on water, we look for the safety of land. And standing on the shoreline, calling us to safety is God’s Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior.
Isn’t that what church is supposed to be? A place to safely gather with others who struggle with life’s storms. A place to rest in the promises of a God who is in control and has provided just what we need to make it. A place where life makes sense and is filled with meaning and purpose in spite of all of our mistakes.
This is the meaning behind our name: Shoreline. Here, Jesus stands, arms open wide, welcoming God’s children home.