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Your thoughts naturally focus on the so-called important issues in the world–family, work, possessions, getting ahead in life, experiencing life, and so on. It’s easy to relate to this way of thinking, because it’s so predominant and such a natural result of living on earth. There is a strong reality about it because you continuously experience it both physically and mentally. How could you possibly deny the value of thinking this way?
The issue is not whether the world system is real or whether you should think about it. Rather, it’s a matter of realizing the greater reality of another system and reshaping your thinking so you can live effectively in it.
You are a spiritual being who happens to be temporarily living in a physical body. Your mind is a liaison between your spirit and body, and is strongly oriented toward your physical existence and life on earth. But your spiritual strengths and capabilities greatly surpass those of your mind and body.
Because your mind focuses almost exclusively on your earthly existence, and because it has been programmed all your life to accept the world’s ways, you very naturally accept the world’s values and standards. Because you are a Christian, however, your spirit has new life–it is born again–and you are a member of God’s kingdom. You still live on earth, but you no longer belong here and you no longer owe allegiance to the world system. That means you no longer have to think the way people in the world system think and you can have different values. In fact, not only is it possible for you to think differently, you really must.
The predominant theme of this book is repentance, or changing the way you think. Because you no longer belong to the world system or Satan’s kingdom, it’s reasonable to conclude that your values and standards must change to conform to God’s kingdom. “What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15, NIV), so moving from Satan’s kingdom to God’s requires a major shift in your values. The question now becomes whether God has clearly stated the values of his kingdom.
It’s significant that the Gospels record an in-depth teaching Jesus presented in the early stages of his ministry on earth. Put yourself in Jesus’ place. His role on earth was to introduce people to his Father and his Father’s kingdom, then make it possible for people to become part of that kingdom. If he wanted to teach about the kingdom, what it is and how it works, he should begin with basic principles and show some practical ways the kingdom differs from their current system. That actually is what he did, and his introductory teaching about the kingdom is what we call the Sermon on the Mount.
Permit me to list phrases from that teaching to show that it’s about God’s kingdom. He spoke of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:3, 10, 20; 7:21), children of God (Matt. 5:9), reward in heaven (Matt. 5:12), the least and greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:19), your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:45; 6:1, 9, 14, 32; 7:11), God’s kingdom (Matt. 6:10), and treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:20). We could call the Sermon on the Mount “An Introduction to God’s Kingdom.”
Sinful man cannot relate to God, comprehend his nature or understand his kingdom. Much as a toddler can’t comprehend social graces and must be taught laboriously with rules, such as “Don’t do this” or “Behave this way.” Because God still loved his creation and had a plan to redeem it from sin, he had to develop a concept of his kingdom that man could understand: the do’s and don’ts of the law. So we wound up with a list of rules: Don’t murder, don’t steal, observe the Sabbath, and so on. The law of Moses was the only legitimate concept mankind had of God and his kingdom for thousands of years. That is, until Jesus came.
Jesus’ purpose on earth included introducing people to a more accurate image of God and his kingdom. Jesus frequently made such statements as, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9) He also used analogies to present images of the kingdom: “the kingdom of God is like ….” (Mark 4:26, 30). He was explaining what the kingdom is, how it works and what its principles are.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the list of rules they understood, and explained the motivation and process behind the law. Sinful man, separated from God and having a terribly inaccurate concept of God, could only understand and accept specific laws, such as “You shall not murder.” Jesus explained there is much more to it, however. Whereas the law prohibited specific actions, Jesus identified the motivating attitudes. He moved the focus from the external to the internal.
To understand the motivations behind God’s law is to have a clearer understanding of God himself. It is God’s nature, rather than his laws, that governs his kingdom. Jesus’ role was to shift the emphasis from God’s edicts to his character. A child has little comprehension of a gracious demeanor until he learns he can’t slug somebody for doing something he doesn’t like. The law must precede character development.
The law brought man to a point of impossibility: “How can I possibly observe all these rules? I can’t do it!” At the right time, Jesus introduced God’s nature: “If you change your character to be like God’s, you can easily honor these rules. Better yet, the rules will no longer be necessary.” That is the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount: to shift the emphasis from obedience to character, from a list of rules to attitudes. God knows that attitudes determine actions. If someone were to control their behavior without changing their attitude, the results would be both temporary and frustrating. If instead they corrected their attitude, then correct behavior would immediately follow. We can see this emphasis on attitudes in Jesus’ teaching.
In the very first remarks of his introduction to the kingdom, Jesus presents an overview of kingdom values. What we call the Beatitudes are actually kingdom values, concise statements of attitudes that God values very highly. If we want our attitudes to be compatible with God’s, we should consider his statement of values.
At first reading of the Beatitudes, they seem to be almost arbitrary statements, as if God were choosing to bless random groups of people: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who desire righteousness, the merciful, the pure-hearted, peacemakers and the persecuted. These are all admirable qualities for God to select, but the list is somewhat puzzling. To begin with, some of these categories appear beyond an individual’s control: poorness of spirit, meekness, pure-hearted and persecuted. Second, only a few are clearly the result of personal effort: peacemaking, for example. As humans, we prefer lists of tasks we can do to qualify for rewards, and this seems an unusual list.
If we consider that one of the primary themes of the New Testament is repentance, or changing the way we think, we begin to see the relevance of the beatitudes. With that in mind, let us consider some of them.
Poor in Spirit
Jesus was going throughout Galilee, the northern region of Israel, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the Good News of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness among the people. As word spread about him, people came from all over the region to receive healing and to hear his teaching.
One day, a large crowd was gathering around Jesus and his disciples, so he went up a mountainside and sat down so the people could see and hear his teaching. His disciples gathered around him and he began to teach them.
The first recorded statement of his teaching is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). The phrase “poor in spirit” doesn’t recur in the New Testament, therefore its obvious interpretation is probably the best.
The word translated “poor” is the standard word for a poor person, someone who is destitute. When we say someone has no spirit, what do we mean? Only that they have no will to do anything on their own. If we say someone is a spirited person, we mean they are full of vigor and courage, that they assert themselves and do things their own way with great energy or confidence. So the phrase “poor in spirit” describes someone who is spiritually destitute. Such a person lacks a domineering character or attitude, considers himself unequipped to care for himself or do what he desires, or even lacks the personal desire to do so.
We must recognize, however, that this is not a universal principle. We are not to envy everyone with a poor self-image, for example. To understand Jesus’ statements, we must keep them in the context of his teaching, which is the kingdom of God. Taking these statements out of context would grossly distort their meaning, because they are meaningful only within the context of God’s kingdom.
Poorness in spirit has to do with humility, a poverty of self-interest, the most honored attribute in God’s kingdom and the basis of all the others.
Based on the kingdom values God presents in the Beatitudes, we can identify some worthwhile changes for you to make in your thinking. These changes will help you make the transition from slavery in the world system to effective partnership in God’s kingdom.
It would be extremely beneficial for you to become poor in spirit; this speaks of humility, which is the most basic and most essential trait of godly character. Learning to grieve over evidences of sin in yourself and the world around you is one of the results of seeing sin from God’s perspective. Meekness will make you gentle, considerate and patient; and it’ll cause you to inherit the earth’s benefits, rather than have to earn them by your efforts. Developing an intense hatred for sin can lead to an insatiable desire for righteousness, which enables you to have intimate relationship with God. Be aware that living an exemplary, godly life will cause unbelievers to hate you and persecute you for making them look bad; but also be aware this gives you an immediate identity with the kingdom and immediate reward in heaven.