“To the poor the gospel is preached”

When John the Baptist received reports of the miracles Jesus was performing, he sent to Jesus from prison two of his disciples with the question, “Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?” Our Lord answered indirectly: “And in that same hour he cured many of their infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits…” and then Jesus bade John’s disciples, “Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached” (Luke 7:20–22). The title of this editorial is drawn from these words. It is an important observation to notice what kind of people would respond to Jesus’ teaching, and there are important lessons and even warnings for us.

Who responded to Jesus’ preaching?

When Jesus stood up to read in the synagogue in Nazareth, “the book of the prophet Isaiah” was delivered to him. That day, he said the following would be fulfilled: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18–19; Isa 61:1–2). The following verse in Isaiah continues, “To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (v3).

We cannot help but notice that Jesus’ words do not include the elite, the intelligentsia – the Sadducees, scribes, Pharisees and lawyers of his day. They would be so absorbed in their own sense of self-worth, their knowledge of the intricacies of the Law, the tradition of the elders etc. that they would discount Jesus’ words and not respond to his preaching; they would even challenge him because they considered him such a threat to their status.

Corroborating this, it is notable that the Beatitudes also define those who would respond to the good news of the kingdom of God: “Blessed are the poor in spirit … they that mourn … the meek … they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness … the merciful … the pure in heart” (Matt 5:3–8). Is there evidence in the Gospels that persons like this responded? A simple reading confirms that this was the case: “the common people heard him gladly” (Mark 12:37), whereas the Sadducees and Pharisees failed to heed, despite the indisputable evidence of the miracles. Now here is monumental blindness and a lesson, perhaps even a warning, for us. How would we have responded to this itinerant preacher?

There is another beautiful appeal by Jesus that tells us both about himself and about those who would receive his message: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28–30). It is a remarkable thing that he did not ‘court’ the rich, the mighty or the intellectuals of his day: he knew that their attitudes, their pride, and their pseudo-values would preclude them from accepting his claims. He defines himself as “meek and lowly in heart”. What an amazing revelation for the Son of God to make and how it draws us to him! He could relate to those who “labour and are heavy laden”, having himself emerged from obscurity and humble circumstances. He had come “to speak a word in season to him that is weary” (Isa 50:4). They were the ones drawn to him like iron fillings to a magnet.

The education that is important

Jesus was instructed daily by his heavenly Father: His Word exclusively was the source of his learning and to it he made frequent appeals. He recognised no other authority and nor should we.

Today the Word of God is dismissed and not given its rightful eminence. Ready access to vast amounts of ‘knowledge’ on the internet and other sources appear to have diluted the primacy of the Bible. Our own community is not immune. Some are even seeking degrees and recognition by doing religious studies in ‘divinity schools’ outside our brotherhood. This is dangerous and among other things it could lead to a sense of self-importance, self-belief or an aura that effectively separates them from the people our Lord defined as responding to his invitation. Associated with this may be a disregard for the wisdom and experience of elders who should be honoured (1 Tim 5:17).

Essentially there is only one book that we need to know, the Bible, the Word of God: “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa 8:20); “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet 4:11).

When “the seventy returned” with joy following their preaching, the Lord made a telling observation that is relevant to our discussion: “In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight” (Luke 10:17, 21).

The Lord issued many warnings about the wiles of the flesh: he roundly condemned rivalry among his disciples, calling them to him and saying, “Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42–45). The “great ones” in our Lord’s estimation are humble servants and those who minister.

Paul and intellectuals

Paul was brought up at the feet of the renowned teacher Gamaliel, and prospered in the Jews religion, but this ill-equipped him and he became the greatest opponent of Jesus of Nazareth! His conversion wrought great changes in his attitude to knowledge and learning. He debunked what he formerly esteemed highly for “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8, RSV). He could see the vanity and danger of mere head knowledge: “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know” (1 Cor 8:1–2).

There is a simplicity about the Gospel message that needs to be preserved: it must remain within the grasp of those our Lord defines, those who would believe. Going beyond and complicating the essential message is fruitless and fraught with peril: “to the poor the gospel is preached”. Viewing the results of preaching Paul draws the telling conclusion: “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called… That no flesh should glory in his [God’s] presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:26, 29–31).

Confronting philosophies in Colosse, Paul made it clear that in reality there was no knowledge outside of Christ: “In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words” (2:3–4).

In saying this I am not discouraging Bible study but quite the opposite: it has been a life’s occupation to come to know the holy Scriptures, “which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). Paul exhorted Timothy to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). Notice that it was the Bible that he was to study. Other sources of information are secondary, not inspired, and should be treated with caution, however esteemed they might be by the world.

Old Testament times

The same message permeates the Old Testament. In the Psalms, for example, we read of Yahweh’s nearness to the humble and afflicted; those aware of human frailty, who fear Him and seek His mercy; who are often oppressed; who hope in Him, trust His Word, and are educated by it:

“I am small and despised: yet do not I forget thy precepts… Trouble and anguish have taken hold on me: yet thy commandments are my delights… I have longed for thy salvation, O LORD: and thy law is my delight” (Psa 119:141, 143, 174).

“The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart: and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit” (Psa 34:18).

Through Isaiah our Father makes clear the attitudes He finds acceptable: “to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word” (66:2). This follows an earlier extraordinary declaration, that One so great could be mindful of others so small and insignificant, “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a  contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (57:15).

“God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:6). It is a consistent  message in Scripture and we have to ask ourselves the question, ‘Do I fit the mould God and His Son  find acceptable?’

The example of the 12 apostles

Many of the chosen twelve had been instructed by John the Baptist. Being earnest seekers of truth they saw him as the forerunner of the Lord. After a night of prayer to his Father our Lord named the twelve, the ones who would be his closest companions, his disciples, who would hear his teaching and witness the miracles. These experiences qualified them to be his apostles, the ones to take his message to the world.

But what were their qualifications? They were not academics. They were despised by the intellectuals of the day as “unlearned and ignorant men” (Acts 4:13)! They had not sat at Gamaliel’s feet, but they were the best men alive to bear the Gospel to the world. By their word and example “the twelve” would make the Gospel of the Kingdom of God known. They answered to the description of the “blessed” in the Sermon on the Mount, and the description of those to whom God said He would “look”. They were genuine, convicted believers; for their Lord’s sake they endured persecution, sealing their conviction with their own blood.

You and me in the affluent western world

These contemplations present us all with a challenge. In the western world we live in times of unprecedented knowledge, wealth and leisure. These could easily goad us in the wrong direction so that we have little sympathy for those whom the Lord pronounced “blessed”, let alone ourselves being poor in spirit, mourning and meek. It is a serious challenge to us personally.

Each of us have to do what we find hard; turn the searchlight of introspection upon our own hearts and ask ourselves if we fit into the Lord’s mould. It is a serious matter and the Lord Jesus Christ is coming soon and he will be the judge.