Jesus: Lead Out of Meekness

Life_in_Tension_web“For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:17 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Meekness is an aspirational character trait and the mark of a natural leader. Tension arises within us because perfection in meekness is not within our grasp. Tension arises between us because leadership involves care and defense of the weaker among us. Tension arises with God because God pushes us to grow pushing our limits while our meekness forces us to live with the pain that growth entails.

Leadership Temptations. The unique thing about meekness is that it is invisible until tested. After his baptism, Jesus: “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1-2 ESV) The devil posed 3 tests:

1. Turn a stone into bread;

2.  Become my vassal; and

3.  Throw yourself down (Luke 4:4,7,9).

What is surprising about this story is that Jesus does not remain silent. He has been fasting and wandering the desert. Still, his answers are descriptive, not hauty. Jesus responds to the devil by citing 3 verses taken from the Book of Deuteronomy [1]. Nouwen (1989, 7-8) sees these tests as common leadership temptations. Namely, the temptation to be relevant, powerful, and spectacular [2]. He (82) observes that: “Christian leadership…is not leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the sufferign servant of Good, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.” In a word, Nouwen sees the Christian leader as meek, like the one who sent him.

Tension Within. The Apostle Paul talks about pursuing “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” (1 Tim. 6:11 ESV) He does not claim to have succeeded in obtaining them. Instead, he talks about inner tension:

“For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Rom. 7:18-19 ESV)

If Paul as an apostle of Jesus Christ cannot in his own power attain all the gifts of the spirit, including meekness, then we also must recognize that the journey of faith will have its ups and downs, and not dispair when we cannot attain perfection in Christ.

Tension With Others. A common complaint among pastors is that their job is 24-7. They are always on duty and called to be a good example. It is like living in a transparent tent in the middle of a parking lot. I always feel compelled, for example, to drive the speed limit when I am wearing a clerical collar—a heavy cross to bear living in the Washington Metro area! People are watching. Pastor, are you really meek?

A friend of mine asked: Isn’t meekness a personal attribute? How can you be meek when you are responsible for other people? One response is that Christian leadership is sacrificial. During his time in prison, for example, Bonhoeffer continued to function as a pastor being allowed to counsel other immates, even the guards (Metaxas 2010, 448). Sacrificial leadership can be painful and, yet, may never be appreciated. Several levels of meekness may be required.

Tension With God. Sacrificial leadership can also lead to suffering, which is never fun. Jesus was meek. But on the cross he also had a moment of dispair crying: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV) Yet, in this moment of dispair he cites Psalm 22 which later ends in praise: “You who fear the LORD, praise him!” (Ps. 22:23 ESV)

We can be meek in the face of suffering, in part, because we know that the future is in Christ—we know that suffering is not the end of the story. The implication of the resurrection of Christ is that we too will share in his victory. As the Apostle Paul writes: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55 ESV)

[1] “…man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deut. 8:3 ESV) “It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.” (Deut. 6:13 ESV) “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test…” (Deut. 6:16 ESV)

[2] Scazzero (2006, 75-78) phrases these temptations more personally as the temptation to perform, to possess, and to be popular.

REFERENCES

Metaxas, Eric. 2012. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1989. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Scazzero, Peter. 2006. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Continue Reading

Jesus: Meek is the Pastoral Gene

Life_in_Tension_web“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:29 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Meekness is the pastoral gene. “Freedom lies in obedience to our calling.” [1]

We know this not only from the words of Jesus, but his disciples and those that followed. For example, Jesus says:

“And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matt. 10:42 ESV)

The Greek word used here for disciple, μαθητής, means: “one who engages in learning through instruction from another, pupil, apprentice” (BDAG, 4662). Here the expression, “little ones”, which is used six times in the New Testament (NT) [2], refers not to children but to young believers (or seekers). Consequently, disciples are not just Jesus’ students but are instructed to teach young believers with meekness—to have a servant attitude in teaching. Teaching is one activity that pastors do all the time—they teach by what they say and what they do.

The Apostle Paul paraphrases Jesus’ command and makes this meekness an explicit requirement for church leaders. For example, he writes:

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2 Tim. 2:24-26 ESV)

Elsewhere Paul includes meekness and gentleness in his lists of the fruit of the spirit. [3]

This same sentiment is echoed by James, Jesus’ brother, and leader of the church in Jerusalem when he says: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” (James. 3:13 ESV) The Apostle Peter admonishes us to practice apologetics also with meekness: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV) But as Bridges (1996, 180) observes, citing George Bethune: “No grace is less prayed for, or less cultivated than gentleness.”

Interestingly, meekness is cloaked in one of the most famous images of Christ: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11 ESV) The image of the Good Shepherd is, in fact, a Messaic image prophesied by Isaiah in one of his Servant Song passages:

“He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” (Isa. 40:11 ESV)

The Apostle John pushes this metaphor even further in the Book of Revelations where the shepherd is also a lamb (Rev 7:17).

In the Gospel of John’s great pastoral passage, the risen Christ asks Peter three times if he loves him and to each of Peter’s responses he asks Peter to care for his sheep (John 21:15-18). Just like he does with Peter, Jesus bids us, as disciples, to care for his flock and to do it with gentleness clothing ourselves with meekness.

 

[1] Colson and Fickett (2005, 30)

[2] Matt. 10:42; 18:6, 10, 14, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2.

[3] e.g. Gal 5:19-23; Col. 3:12-14.

REFERENCES

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

Bethune, George. 1839. The Fruit of the Spirit. Reiner Publications.

Bridges, Jerry. 1996. The Practice of Godliness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Colson, Charles and Harold Pickett. 2005. The Good Life. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers.

Continue Reading

God’s Meekness Speaks Volumes

Life_in_Tension_web“Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (Num. 12:3 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The idea of tension resolving into identity suggests a learning process. This is because meekness is not a natural state; rather, meekness is a fruit of the spirit [1]. If meekness is a fruit of the spirit and Jesus is meek, does that imply that God Himself learned to be meek? What can we say from the law and the prophets about Jesus fulfilling this Beatitude? [2]

The Law. Meekness is not directly mentioned very often in the Books of the Law. However, meekness is indirectly manifested in the narratives. The image of God in the Books of the Law is that of creator, covenant maker, and, with Noah, destroyer by means of flood. The primary direct reference is to Moses who has an especially intimate relationship with God (Num 12:3).

As creator, God is pictured as a sovereign issuing decrees. The first decree is: “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” (Gen. 1:3 ESV) We are not told how light came to be, only who decreed it be done. God is verbal, but he is not chatty. His next statement is a declaration: “And God saw that the light was good.” (Gen. 1:4 ESV) He does not brag; he simply observes. While his ability to create illustrates God’s power, God could also be said to be meek—“…not [being] overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate” (BDAG 6132). Creating is “no big deal” for God.

As covenant maker, God is objective and thoughtful, not vengeful and domineering. The covenant with Adam, for example, is mostly implicit. Basically, God creates Adam and Eve, gives them a mandate (be fruitful and multiply), sets them in a garden, and leaves only one limitation—don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When Adam and Eve disobey God’s limitation, he does not kill them on the spot, as expected, and create another couple. Instead, God punishes (curses) them and sends them out of the garden. But before they go, like a mother preparing her child for the first day of school, “God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” (Gen. 3:21 ESV) While God was perfectly in his right as covenant maker to be harsh with Adam and Eve, in fact, he treated them gently—another indication of meekness.

As destroyer, God sends a flood to wipe out humanity and every living thing—almost. The writer of Genesis records God’s motivation as follows:

“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them. But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.” (Gen. 6:5-8 ESV)

What we see here is a reluctant destroyer. God is moved by grief over sin to send the flood. This is interesting because we expect anger, not grief, as the motive for sending the flood—not the image of a wrathful God that some might advance. And God is careful to spare Noah, his family, and a pair of each of the animals. The ark with Noah, his family, and the animals is a kind of prototype of the remnant of Israel later spared during the Babylonian exile. This care of the remnant is another example of a meek God choosing to exercise only a portion of his rights, like a parent offering discipline and not like a judge imposing penalties.

From this brief review of the Book of the Law, we can argue that God does not need to learn to be meek—he is already meek.

The Prophets. Meekness and humility are widely mentioned in the Books of the Prophets, especially Isaiah and Psalms, and appear in important Messianic passages. Guelich (1982, 82) observes that: “there is little or no difference between the poor and the meek in the Psalms or Isaiah”. For example,

  1. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD… but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.” (Isa. 11:1-5 ESV)
  2. “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” (Ps. 25:9 ESV)
  3. “But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” (Ps. 37:11 ESV)
  4. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech. 9:9 ESV)

The association of meekness with Messianic passages suggests that meekness is understood by the writers of the prophets to be an important property of God’s image.

Fulfillment. Meekness appears in the Old Testament has both a character attribute of God and a kind of solidarity of God with his people. Elliot (2006, 123) notes that “Israel’s God was emotionally stable” and his attribute of meekness typifies this stability.  Theologians use the term, immutability, which means that God does not change [3]. Thus, when Jesus describes himself as gentle or meek (Matt. 11:29), a Jewish audience might rightly hear such words as a Messianic claim.  The stability of God’s emotions and character is part of his transcendence. It implies that there is only one, objective truth.  Why? [4]

Meekness is a fruit of the spirit for us, but for God it is just who he is.

[1] “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:19-23 ESV)

[2] Note: Matt 5:17.

[3] “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Mal. 3:6 ESV) Horton (2011, 235) writes: “Building on a patristic consensus, Thomas Aquinas argued that God is actus purus (’pure act’), which means that there are no potentialities in God. Complete and perfect in himself from eternity to eternity, God has no potential that is not already fully realized. God cannot be more infinite, loving, or holy tomorrow than today. If God alone is necessary and independent of all external conditions, fully realized in all of his perfections, then there is literally nothing for God to become.”

[4] One God, one set of physical laws to the universe, one objective truth.

REFERENCES

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Horton, Michael. 2011. The Christian Faith: A Systemic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Continue Reading

Jesus: Resolve Tension into Identity

Life_in_Tension_web“But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” (Ps. 37:11 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One way the tension in our life can be resolved is for it to become who were are—an aspect of our identity. When we accept the pain of life and refuse to yield to it, in some sense we come to wear it as a badge of honor.

The third beatitude is unique to Matthew: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt. 5:5 ESV). What does it mean to be meek? Meek means to: “…not [be] overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate” (BDAG 6132). Meek is like applied humility (poor in spirit)—a character trait of being humble [1]. Three verses in Matthew suggest that Jesus was meek:

  1. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:29 ESV)
  2. “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” (Matt. 21:5 ESV)
  3. “And the high priest stood up and said, Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you? But Jesus remained silent.” (Matt. 26:62-63 ESV)

These three events—Jesus’ invitation to discipleship (bear the burdens that I bear), his parade into Jerusalem, and his trial illustrate his meekness. The Apostle Paul explicitly described Jesus as meek (2 Cor 10:1). The writings of the Peter and James also echo this description [2].

Neyrey (1998, 181-182) discusses honor in meekness in these terms:

“…It can indeed be understood as grounds for praise for refusing to be a victim…according to the choreography of honor challenges, the ‘meek’ person could be one who makes no honor claims (e.g. Matt 21:5), or, more likely, one who does not give a riposte [response] to challenges and does not respond in anger to insults. In this light, a ‘meek’ person disengages entirely from the typical honor games of the village…failure to seek revenge”.

The sermon on the Mount is full of allusions to meekness lived out. For example, Jesus said:

  1. “…everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matt. 5:22 ESV)
  2. “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matt. 5:37 ESV)
  3. “Do not resist the one who is evil [3]. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matt. 5:39-41 ESV)

In other words, when given an opportunity for vindication is possible through conflict, offer no response or make peace instead. The echo of identity is present here because by refusing to engage in a response, one remains true to one’s meekness rather than allowing the conflict to snatch it away.

Paraphrasing a pep talk by Jesus for the disciples, Ortberg (2012, 107) illustrates Jesus’ meekness:

“Here’s our strategy. We have no money, no clout, no status, no buildings, no soldiers…We will tell them [Jewish and Romans leaders, Zealots, collaborators, Essenes] all that they are on the wrong track…When they hate us—and a lot of them will…we won’t fight back, we won’t run away, and we won’t give in. We will just keep loving them…That’s my strategy.”

Meekness is not weakness. It steals the thunder from one’s adversary.

 

[1] “…there is little or no difference between the poor and the meek in the Psalms or Isaiah…” (Guelich 1982, 82)

[2] See for example: 1 Pet. 3:13-17 and James 1:21.

[3] Savage (1996, 57-61) offers an interesting application of this principle of not resisting evil which he refers to as “fogging”. When one is criticized, one responds by finding something in the criticism to agree with—even if only implied. This frustrates the attacker and keeps one from becoming defensive. Jesus employs a variation on this approach when asked about taxes (Matt 22:17-22).

REFERENCES

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Ortberg, John. 2012. Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Savage, John. 1996. Listening and Caring Skills: A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Continue Reading

Jesus: Grief Builds Character, Defines Identity

Life_in_Tension_web“Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me. And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:38-39 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The emotional tension that we feel within ourselves when we mourn forces us to make a decision. Do we turn inward leaning into our pain or do we honor the commitment that brought us to this point? Because of this decision, mourning is an emotion that defines who we are. Standing under the shadow of the cross at Gethsemane, Jesus had to decide whether to be obedient to the will of God and proceed to the cross or to seek another future. The same decision faces us as Christians. Our character is defined by the choices we make and the pains we bear because of them [1]. It is interesting that grief is the only emotion that appears on the list of Beatitudes—why not joy or love?

Our grief arises out of the loss of the things that are important to us. In writing about the second Beatitude, Billy Graham (1955, 20-26) identified five objects of mourning:

  1. Inadequacy—before you can grow strong, you must recognize your own weakness;
  2. Repentance—before you can ask for repentance, you must recognize your sin;
  3. Love—our compassion for the suffering of our brothers and sisters takes the form of mourning and measures our love of God;
  4. Soul travail—groaning for the salvation of the lost around us; and
  5. Bereavement—mourning over those that have passed away.

Mitchell and Anderson (1983, 36-45) widen this list to identify six major types of loss, including:

1. Material loss;
2. Relationship loss;
3. Intra-psychic loss—loss of a dream;
4. Functional loss—including loss of autonomy;
5. Role loss—like retirement; and
6. Systemic loss—like departure from your family of origin [2].

What is surprising about this list is that each loss must be separately grieved. Elderly people find themselves experiencing many of these losses and grieving them surrounded by loved ones who may be completely unaware. But we all face losses in our daily lives that challenge the assumptions that we live by. With each of these events, we find ourselves in a “Gethsemane moment”. Do we surrender ourselves leaning into our pain or do we surrender our griefs at the foot of the cross and stay the course as disciples of Christ?

My grandfather provided an important lesson to me on the nature of love and grief. My grandmother was afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease for about ten years before she died. Alzheimer’s disease had taken her mother before her and many of her siblings. My grandfather cared for her until the end in spite of the fact that he was himself towards the end over one hundred years old. In his grieving over her slow departure, he expressed his love. When I think of him now, I always remember what he did.

Saint Francis of Assisi said it most appropriately:

Lord, grant that I may seek rather
To comfort than to be comforted,
To understand than to be understood,
To love than to be loved;
For it is by giving that one receives,
It is by self-forgetting that one finds,
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven,
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life (Graham 1955, 24).

Our character is defined by the choices we make and the pains we bear.

 

[1] “Through the CALL of Jesus men become individuals. Whilly-nilly, they are compelled to decide, and that decision can only be made by themselves.” (Bonhoeffer 1995, 94)

[2] Mitchell and Anderson (1983, 46-50, 51) then go on to identify 5 attributes of those losses: 1. Avoidable or unavoidable, 2. Temporary or permanent, 3. Actual or imagined, 4. Anticipated or unanticipated, and 5. Leaving or being left. Surprisingly, they observe that: Growing up and leaving home involves…every form of loss but functional. It is surprising because we often take the process of growing up for granted—consequently when problems arise as in the case of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) we are caught unaware and unprepared.

REFERENCES

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

Mitchell, Kenneth R. and Herbert Anderson. 1983. All Our Losses; All Our Griefs: Resources for Pastoral Care. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.

Continue Reading

Jesus: Death Means Resurrection

Life_in_Tension_web“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, Where have you laid him? … When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, Lazarus, come out.”  (John 11:33-43 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When Jesus weeps, the dead are raised [1]; when Jesus dies, we have life. Our grief is redeemed, becomes godly grief, when we grieve over the sin that separates us from Christ [2].

The Apostle Paul framed our view of Christ in these words: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10-11 ESV) Paul furthermore advises us to imitate Christ when he writes: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Rom 12:14-15 ESV) We are to place our emotions in God’s service so that the world might too be redeemed.

The hope of the resurrection permits us to look beyond grief to our future in Christ. The Prophet Jeremiah understood this point when he wrote:

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer 29:11 ESV)

Hope redeems our mourning. Paul talks about all of creation groaning as in childbirth [3] because a mother’s pain is overcome by the joy of seeing her baby. In fact, we can hear an echo of Jeremiah in Jesus’ next words in the Sermon on the Mount about anxiety when he says:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt 6:25 ESV)

Anxiety is a form of grieving over our daily challenges—what to eat or what to wear.  In Christ, even the ultimate challenge of death does not have the final word (1 Thes 4:13).

The Apostle Paul sees this inward tension as critically important in our spiritual formation. He writes: “For godly grief (θεὸν λύπη) produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Cor 7:10 ESV) Paul uses an entirely different word for grief in the Greek which means: “pain of mind or spirit, grief, sorrow, affliction” (BDAG 4625). In Paul’s analysis we see grief tinged with guilt and shame—a motivator for repentance.

In grief over sin we lament our brokenness and after we pour it all out, we are able to turn to God. For this reason, the Psalmist can write:

“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” (Psa 126:5-6 ESV)

Here we see Luke’s version of the Second Beatitude:  “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:21 ESV)

Through grief God gently leads us to salvation.

 

[1] Also: Mark 5:38-41; Luke 5:13-15.

[2] Isa 6:5; 2 Cor 7:10.

[3] Jer 4:28; Rom 8:22.

Continue Reading

Jesus: Lament over Sin

Life_in_Tension_web“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” (Psa 126:5 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What do you mourn for from the bottom of your heart? What does God mourn for?

One of the earliest indications of God’s experience of grief in scripture is over human sinfulness:

“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen 6:5-6 ESV)

Not only did Adam and Eve sin in the garden, the generations expanded on their depravity—bad seed ran in the family—and God’s heart was broken.  God’s broken heart leads into the story of Noah and the flood (Gen 6:7-8).

Grief over sin also shows up the New Testament.  Jesus’ journey to the cross begins with his grief over sin:

“And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (Mark 3:4-6 ESV)

When Mark writes about the hardness of heart of the Pharisees, he is comparing them to Pharaoh (Exod 4:21).

The Mark 3 episode: “is the only passage in the gospels where Jesus is said to be angry.” (Elliott 2006, 214) To understand why Jesus gets angry, we note that earlier in Mark Jesus says: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27 ESV) Jesus clearly believes that healing is more important than Sabbath observance. The response of the Pharisees accordingly offends his sense of justice. This chain of reasoning—belief, contrary action, emotional response—an example of the cognitive theory of emotions where emotions flow out of our judgment or thinking rather than arising spontaneously in some unexplained manner (Elliott 2006, 31). Lester (2007,14-16,106) agrees seeing anger as a response to a threat to basic values and beliefs which can help us sort out our true feelings, when we pay attention.

Mourning in the Pentateuch is mostly associated with grief over the death of a person [1] For example, we read about Abraham mourning over the death of his wife, Sarah (Gen 23:2), and Joseph leading an elaborate funeral service at the death of his father, Jacob (Gen 50:3). Other times, we see crying [2]. For example, a significant point in the life of Moses arises when he cries as a baby laying in the basket floating in the Nile and the daughter of Pharaoh hears the crying and is moved with emotion; she disobeys her father’s edict to drown all Hebrew baby boys and she rescues and raises the child (Exod 1:22;2:6). Later, Moses cries to the Lord as an act of a prayer for healing of his sister, Miriam, who has be struck with leprosy and God answers his prayer (Num 12:13 ESV). By contrast, crying in the sense of whining or self-pity evokes God’s anger (Num 11:10).

The focus of mourning in the Prophets shifts from death of a person to anguish over the fate of the nation as a whole.

In the early years after leaving Egypt, the Nation of Israel has strong, charismatic leadership in the persons of Moses and Joshua. Moses led them out of Egypt; Joshua led them into the Promised Land. But then they entered a period, like our own, when: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6 ESV) During a period of almost 400 years, a cycle of sin, trouble, revival, and restoration (Younger 2002, 35). The turning point in this up and down cycle came as the people cried out (prayed) to the Lord. This cycle is repeated over and over. For example, “But when the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother.” (Jdg 3:9 ESV) [3]

Mourning becomes more prominent in the period of the exiles of Judah to Babylon. For example, the “Mourning Prophet” is Jeremiah, the author of the Book of Lamentation. But mourning is also prominent in the Psalms. For example, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” (Psa 137:1 ESV) But this anguish becomes the seedbed for a greater promise of eternal salvation. The Prophet Isaiah expresses this hope most clearly in moving from grief to promise:

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.” (Isa 65:17-19 ESV)

Notice the movement from restoration of the earthly Jerusalem to the promise of a heavenly city—a new heaven and earth.  Also, it is interesting that Cyrus, the gentile King of Persia, that plays the role of deliverer of the exiles in Babylon (Ezra 1:1-2).

A key point in understanding mourning in the Psalms is understanding that once the heart is emptied of bitterness, it is open to God. Lament turns to praise (Card 2005, 21). This is how and why Jesus can say: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4 ESV)

 

[1] This result follows a word study on the Second Beatitude in Matthew 5:4.

[2] This result follows a word study on the Second Beatitude in Luke 6:21.

[3] The exact phrase in Greek—ἐκέκραξαν οἱ υἱοὶ Ισραηλ (Jda 3:9 BGT)—is used at least 5 time (Judges 3:9, 15; 4:3; 6:6-7; and 10:10).

REFERENCES

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NAVPress.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

Lester, Andrew D. 2007. Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Younger, K. Lawson. 2002. The NIV Application Commentary: Judges and Ruth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Continue Reading

Jesus: Joy in Sorrow

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The tension within ourselves is never more obvious than when we grieve. Grief vanquishes all pretense of our self-sufficiency. From the bottom of our hearts we cry out to God knowing our total dependence on Him. It is paradoxical to be honored or blessed in mourning because no one who mourns feels blessed. Mourning is a the most basic form of human suffering (France 2007, 109).

Mourning is the somber mood of Good Friday.  The irony of the cross is that our salvation is secured through the ultimate act of humility.  The Apostle Paul writes:  “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18 ESV)  Jesus’ own words are prophetic:  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4 ESV)  Without the cross there can be no Easter.

The second Beatitude in Matthew speaks of mourning and encouragement, while Luke’s Beatitude speaks of crying and laughter [1]. The Greek word for mourning (πενθέω) means: “to experience sadness as the result of some condition or circumstance, be sad, grieve, mourn” (BDAG 5773 (1)). And, the word for encouragement (παρακαλέω) means: “to instill someone with courage or cheer, comfort, encourage, cheer up” (BDAG 5584(4)).

Prior to the second Beatitude, Matthew speaks of mourning only once in describing the slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem by King Herod (Matt 2:18). At that point, Matthew cites the Prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” (Jer 31:15 ESV)[2]  After the second Beatitude, Matthew uses the word, mourn, only once: “And Jesus said to them, Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matt 9:15 ESV) Because both Jesus’ coming and his going in Matthew are accompanied by mourning, this suggests that for Matthew the focus of mourning is always Jesus [3].

Mourning requires an object—what does Jesus mourn for?

The key words distinguishing the second Beatitude in Matthew, mourn and comfort, are taken from Isaiah 61:2. The full sentence in Isaiah reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.” (Isa 61:1-3 ESV)

The context for Isaiah is prophesy announcing the release of the Judean captives from slavery in Babylon. They were captives because of having displeased God and twice rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon (2 Kings 24 and 25). Because of their sin, they were slaves in Babylon [4]. For them, salvation meant being released from slavery and allowed to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-3).

The common connection between the Beatitudes and Jesus’ call sermon [5] arises as Jesus is leaning into his role as a prophetic messiah. In Greek, messiah (Μεσσίας) means: “anointed one” (BDAG 4834). Another word for messiah is Christ [6]. In Jewish tradition, prophets, kings, and priests were anointed which defines the three types of messiahs. The classic expression of prophet voice, woe (οὐαὶ), is another word for mourning which Luke uses in opposition to makarios in his Beatitudes. In Greek, woe is an: “interjection denoting pain or displeasure, woe, alas” (BDAG 542(1)). Matthew uses the word, woe, eleven times, but not in the context of his beatitudes [7].

Mourning is also a form of anxiety—another form of tension with ourselves [8].  As such, the second Beatitude anticipates later Sermon teaching focused on anxieties about food, clothing, and the future (Matt 6:15-34). Jesus concludes here: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt 6:33 ESV) Jesus’ brother James completes this thought: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you…Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:8-10 ESV) [9]

The Nestle-Aland (2012, 9) study of surviving manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel show that some early manuscripts reverse the second and third Beatitudes. As argued in earlier posts, “poor in spirit” and “meek” can be expressed in the same Hebrew word, ana, found, for example, in Numbers 12:3[10]. Both suggest humility. One theological interpretation for this reversal is to bracket with humility the prophetic voice found in mourning (woe) offering truth but only in the context of grace (John 8:11).  An example is given by Jesus on the Mount of Olives:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt 23:37 ESV)

Another interpretation is to read mourning as the soul crying out in anguish over sin, as with the Prophet Isaiah:

“And I said: Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:5 ESV)

In this case, mourning becomes another synonym for humility making the first three Beatitudes an emphatic triplet of humility.

 

[1] It is interesting that scholars consider Matthew 5:4 part of Q manuscript (Guelich 1982, 35). Q stands for the German word, quelle, which means source.

[2] Rachel died in child-birth when her second son was born. She called him—Ben-omi (son of my sorrow)—while Jacob renamed him: Benjamin (son my right hand; Gen 35:18). In the quote from Jeremiah the Greek word for weep (κλαίω) is the same word as used in Luke’s second Beatitude and it simply means: weep or cry (BDAG 4251(1)).

[3] A possible exception is that hell is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (ὁ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὁ βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων; Matt 8:12, 13:42, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, and 25:30). The stories of the widow at Nain (Luke 7:11-16) and Lazarus (John 11-12) do not appear in Matthew.

[4] The experience of slavery in Babylon was on account of sin which was unlike the experience of slavery in Egypt which came about more because of a change in political fortunes (Exodus 1:8).

[5] Luke 4:16-20.  The connection is Isaiah 61:1-3.

[6] When Jesus calls Andrew, he runs to find his brother, Peter, and says: He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah (which means Christ).” (John 1:41 ESV)

[7] Matt. 11:21; 18:7; 23:13, 15-16, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24:19; and 26:24. The primary object of his woe, scribes and pharisees, calls to mind the Prophet Ezekiel who writes: “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” (Ezek 34:2 ESV)

[8] It is interesting that in the second Beatitude Matthew focuses on the inward tension and release of grief (mourning/encouragement) while Luke focuses on its outward express (crying/laughing). The Apostle Paul sees this inward tension as critically important in our spiritual formation. He writes: “For godly grief (θεὸν λύπη) produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Cor 7:10 ESV) Paul uses an entirely different word for grief in the Greek which means: “pain of mind or spirit, grief, sorrow, affliction” (BDAG 4625). In Paul’s analysis we see grief tinged with guilt and shame—a motivator for repentance.

[9] In another possible object of mourning is family abandonment  which Neyrey (1998, 172) speculates is in view here because many Christians found themselves in tension with their families.  Even Jesus may have suffered in this way (Matt 12:46).

[10] “Now the man Moses was very meek (עָנָיו), more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (Num 12:3 ESV)

REFERENCES

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

France, R.T. 2007. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Continue Reading

Living Out Poor in Spirit

Life_in_Tension_web“So when they had come together, they asked him, Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? He said to them, It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The tension that we feel within ourselves as Christians arises when we live out Jesus’ teaching. Honoring the “poor in spirit” in a world that honors the powerful, the rich and the famous puts us at odds with our natural selves. Why should I be humble in a world that rewards the proud? Who wants to be “a doormat” for those around us who are already looking for places to wipe their feet?

Jesus brought new meaning to the idea of the kingdom of God. He and John the Baptist both taught: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 3:2; 4:17 ESV) But John focused on judgment while Jesus emphasized forgiveness. Being forgiven by God, he permitted us then to forgive others (Matt 6:14-15). By emulating Jesus and accepting the Holy Spirit into our lives, we take on kingdom values. In our own sanctification, the kingdom of God breaks into our world. It is not, however, fully realized in us. It is only fully realized until Christ’s return [1]. The kingdom of God is already here, but not yet fully realized (Ladd 1991, 57-69).

Jesus’ disciples did not get it. When they asked the risen Christ—“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)—they are looking for Jesus to overthrow Roman rule and to re-establish the Jewish kingdom of David. This was the mandate of a kingly messiah, as one might interpret Psalm 2.

It is interesting that the kingdom focus is on sharing the Gospel and establishing a Godly community, not the modern preoccupation with love and freedom [2]. The double love command—love neighbor, love God (Matt 22: 36-40)—does not even appear in the Beatitudes. Jesus’ preeminent act of love was a sacrificial life-style that took him to the cross.  A humble person exhibits love and permits freedom (for the other ) through sacrificial living and dying [3].  Absent humility, love and freedom elevate self, not community.  Although the Apostle John speaks the most about love [4], it is the Apostle Paul who defines it.  He writes:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:4-7 ESV)

Interestingly, Paul uses the word love, but describes what it means to be humble in loving one’s neighbor.  The heart of agape love is humility.

Behind Matthew 5:3, the focus  on Isaiah 61:1 on bringing good news to the desperately poor is a critical departure for those focused on other things. What is the good news? God through Jesus Christ has redeemed us from bondage to sin. In our spiritual poverty, we are saved from the despair of life without meaning, from the obsession with ourselves, and from the addiction to useless things—especially a self-centered, sinful life.  Instead, life is given new meaning. Sin and death do not have the final word. We are free in to live within the boundaries of God’s love for us.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question is interesting—”It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7) Jesus refers to two types of time distinguished in Greek, translated here as times (chronos) and seasons (kairos). Chronos time is time measured by a wristwatch or calendar while kairos time thought of as a crisis or decision moment [4].  When God breaks into our lives, it is a kairos moment.

A fitting example of a kairos moment comes in the next versus: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV) In other words, the kingdom of God will come upon you through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit and in the act of evangelism. Whenever God enters our lives, we experience a crisis. The moment that you become a Christian, the kingdom of God is manifested and it is manifested in the act of evangelism.

The simplest act of evangelism imaginable is to be humble when everyone else is proud.

 

[1] Guelich (1982, 262) writes: “This tension between the Kingdom present and the Kingdom future, between the fulfillment and consummation of God’s promise of salvation for human history, applies not only to history but to the experience of the individual.”

[2] Guelich (1982, 413) writes:  “The conducted demanded represents neither a radicalizing of the Mosaic Law nor the streamlining of the complex Mosaic Law by use of the love commandments but a call for conduct that corresponds to the new relationship that God now offers to his own as seen in the coming of the Kingdom…Discipleship involved more than a legalistic obedience to the Law of Moses or even the “law” of Jesus; it also involved a totally different attitude and focus of one’s life in terms of Jesus Messiah and what he came to accomplish.”

[3] Jesus appears much less interested in political freedom than freedom from sin—hence, the need for the atonement of the cross. In fact, the path to freedom comes through discipleship (John 8:31-36).

[4] For example, Matthew uses the word, love, 11 times, Mark 5 times, Luke 13 times, and John 49 times.

[5] Chronos (BDAG 7991(1), χρόνος) is translated as: “an indefinite period of time during which some activity or event takes place, time, period of time.” Kairos (BDAD 3857(3), καιρός) is translated as: “a period characterized by some aspect of special crisis, time.”

REFERENCES

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Ladd, George Eldon. 1991. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Continue Reading

Jesus: Be Humble, Be Salt and Light

Life_in_Tension_web“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matt 5:13 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The importance of Jesus’ teaching on the poor in spirit comes in his expanding on it and living it out.  What comes immediately after the Beatitudes? What were some of Jesus’ last acts during his time on earth?

The Beatitudes introduce the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew interprets the Beatitudes in the context of discipleship with special reference to Isaiah 61:1 which reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound…” (Isa 61:1 ESV)

The Hebrew for “to bring good news to the poor” is rendered in two words [1]. The word for poor (ana) can mean “poor, afflicted, humble, meek” (BDB 7238) [2]. The other word means bring good news. Matthew with his focus on discipleship turns after the Beatitudes to the task of bringing good news. The task of disciples is evangelism which itself expands on the first Beatitude [3].

Matthews uses Jesus teaching about salt, found also in Mark 9:50 and Luke 14:34, to point to the centrality of evangelism. Salt is a gregarios; its usefulness comes only in combination with food. No one puts salt on their table to ingest alone. Salt is used to enhance the flavor of foods and to preserve them. Matthew’s point is that: “The disciple is to the earth what salt is to food.” The disciple who refuses to be salt, is useless and stands under judgment—”good only to be thrown out and trampled” (Guelich 1982, 126-127). Matthew goes on to reinforce his discipleship theme with a second metaphor about light (Matt 5:14-16). Clearly for Matthew the tension between the disciple and the world is real, ongoing, and at the core of the mission. Luke’s discussion of enemy-love, which immediately follows the Beatitudes (Luke 6:27-25), also embodies this tension [4].

Jesus himself exhibits “poor in spirit” through at least two significant acts of humility on the night of his arrest: the foot-washing ceremony at the Last Supper (John 13:4-5) and the prayer in the garden at Gethsemane (Matt 26:39).

The Gospel of John records the Last Supper in great detail. Details begin John observing that Jesus’ was aware that he would be betrayed and would die (John 13:1-3). Under such circumstances, we might expect him to be withdrawn, paralyzed with fear, or bitter. Instead, Jesus begins an object lesson about humility:

“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him…If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:3,4,14 ESV)

Foot-washing was the ultimate act of humility in the first century. Animals commonly shared the same roads as people and most people either wore sandals or walked barefoot. Dirty, stinky feet were the norm and slaves did the foot-washing. This is why Peter objected to Jesus washing his feet (John 13:8). He was also probably not anxious to get a lesson in humility because he was Jesus’ right hand man and leader among the disciples.

Luke overlooks the foot-washing, but records the lesson in humility. He writes:

“And He said to them, The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called Benefactors. But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.” (Luke 22:25-26)

Both passages focus on the importance of humility in Christian leadership.

While Jesus’ object-lesson in foot-washing demonstrated humility among Christian leaders, Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane demonstrated humility before God. Jesus prays: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew records Jesus repeating this prayer three times (Matt 26:39,42,44 ESV) [5].  While this prayer can be taken as piety or courage [6], it demonstrates the ultimate humility to be willing to die for others, including God, for purposes that are not fully understood [7].

The early church clearly got the message about being poor in spirit.  For example, humility is a character trait instrumental in the Apostle Paul’s ministry. He writes:

“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:11-13 ESV)

What Paul is saying here is that humility is a core principle in his ministry practice.  His evangelism depended on his humility.  This point was made over and over in his work with the church in Corinth where he refused to accept a salary, in part, so that the Gospel could be freely and rightly preached [8].

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Matt 5:3 ESV)

 

[1] לְבַשֵּׂר עֲנָוִים (Isa 61:1 WTT)

[2] This word is familiar because it appears also in Numbers 12:3 cited in a previous post (Jesus’ Mission Statement Gives Us Hope; http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Uq).

[3] “The first Christian missionary was not Paul, but Peter and Peter would not have preached a ‘missionary’ sermon at Pentecost if he had not been a student of Jesus for three years.” (Schnabel 2004, 3)

[4] Luke’s focus on enemy love right after the Beatitudes may lead some to jump immediately to the double love command in Matthew 22:36-40.  But enemy love is qualitatively different—evangelism hangs on loving one’s enemies—people you have no attachment to.  The real question for the modern church is:  why is the double love command not the centerpiece of the Beatitudes?  The fact that it is not suggests that the priorities of the modern church have been misplaced.

[5] Also see Mark 14:36 and Luke 22:42 which place the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.

[6] Neyrey (1998, 110,152) sees both courage and piety.

[7] The Apostle Peter and Jesus’ brother, James, both echo Jesus’ humility citing Proverbs 3:34: “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.” (1 Peter 5:5 and James 4:6).

[8] Act 18:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 11:6-9.

REFERENCES

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Schnabel, Eckhard J. 2004. Early Christian Mission. Vol 1: Jesus and the Twelve. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Continue Reading