The Right Stuff
January 21, 1996
I clearly remember the first time the Beatitudes caught my attention. During the summer of 1980 Marlene and I traveled to Bogota, Columbia, to spend two weeks working with some missionaries we had met six years earlier. Our oldest son was six months old at the time. During our visit we spent several days a Christian camp in a remote village called Sasima–coffee country. I recall that we traveled a long way on dirt roads that wound around the mountains. It was hot, humid and very sticky. By Columbian standards the camp was luxurious, but by American standards it was very primitive.
Nevertheless we had a wonderful time there. I taught the Old Testament Walk-Thru each morning to the 35 or so eager teenagers who gathered for the camp.
In the Sermon on the Mount we have the lifestyle of a Christian; in the Beatitudes we have the definition of a Christian.
On a whim I had packed a book by John Stott called Christian Counter-Culture. It was an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. There in the remote reaches of Columbia, cut off from the three staples of my life–TV, radio, and newspapers–for the first time in my life these ancient words of Jesus began to come alive to me. Looking back, I think I had to leave America for that happen.
I remember sitting on a rock near the entrance of the camp and reading–really, for the first time ever–the words of this sermon–the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and all the rest. I felt like an alien dropped into a foreign land where nothing fit like it was supposed to. Then and there I saw how radical these words of Jesus really are. In the Sermon on the Mount we have the lifestyle of a Christian; in the Beatitudes we have the definition of a Christian.
These eight statements mark off the follower of Jesus from the rest of the world. They separate the Christian from his culture. I saw that for the first time during those days in Sasima. From that time until this I have believed that the Beatitudes are the best answer to the question, “What is a Christian?”
According to Jesus, a Christian is someone who is poor in spirit, who mourns, who is meek, who hungers and thirsts after righteousness, who is merciful, who is pure in heart, who is a peacemaker, who is persecuted for righteousness.
That’s what it means to be a Christian. This is much different from the prevailing American view that tends to focus on outward things like church attendance, habits of life, and clothing styles. All of that is important but it misses the central point. You are not a Christian because of what you are on the outside. You are a Christian because of what you are on the inside.
That is why the study of the Beatitudes is so essential. This is where the spiritual life begins.
The Beatitudes are the best answer to the question, “What is a Christian?”.
With that as background, we come this morning to the third beatitude: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Immediately we run into an enormous problem. What does the word “meek” mean?
We begin with the observation that the word “meek” does not have a positive connotation in our culture. It suggests many things, none of which are very appealing. If you tell something you think they are meek, they will probably not take it as a compliment. In fact, they will probably think you are implying something negative about their character.
A quick check of the thesaurus bears this out. Here are some listed synonyms for “meek:”: humble, docile, mild, calm, gentle, peaceful, tame, submissive, soft, spineless, passive, and broken. Some of those words are positive, others are not. Another source lists the following phrases as illustrative of meekness: “to eat dirt,” “to lick the dust,” “to cringe like a dog,” “to take it on the chin.”
That graphically illustrates the problem. Just try sticking some of those words and phrases in the third beatitude and see what you get:
“Blessed are the spineless, for they will inherit the earth.” It doesn’t sound right, does it?
Or how about, “Blessed are those who cringe like a dog.” It’s hard to imagine Jesus (or anyone else) saying that.
Most of us tend to associate “meekness” with “weakness,” as if Jesus had said, “Blessed are the weak.” For instance, if we call someone a meek little man, we mean he is a caspar milquetoast without any backbone. If say, “There goes a meek woman,” we mean that she lets her husband walk all over her.
It’s no wonder that we don’t want to be called meek. I wouldn’t either, if that’s what the word really means.
But this is the word Jesus used to describe his followers. Therefore, we need to understand what this word really means.
I. Meekness Defined
To the ancient Greeks, meekness described a virtue that lay midway between two extremes. The meek man was neither timid nor given to fits of anger. Aristotle defined this as the absence of excessive anger. He also said it meant getting angry at the right time for the right reason in the right way.
The Greeks also used the word to describe mild words, soothing medicine, refreshing wind, and a horse that has been tamed. What do those four things have in common? They all represent different forms of power that can be harnessed for good or evil. A meek horse is not a weak horse, but rather a powerful beast brought under its master’s control. A meek medicine is one that has the strength to heal.
The “meek” man has yielded his rights to God.
In the Old Testament (particularly Psalm 37), the equivalent Hebrew word is used to describe a man who is submissive to the will of God. The “meek” man has yielded his rights to God. He kneels that he may stand, he keeps silent that he may speak later. He has no need to insist upon his own way.
With that in mind, here is a simple three-word definition of meekness: Power under control. The meek man has enormous power, but uses it only when he needs it. Perhaps you’ve seen that television commercial for a certain brand of tires. It shows an athlete running through the streets of a city, faster than any human could ever run. Somehow he runs up the side of a building, across the roof, and comes screeching to a halt just before he falls of the edge. A camera shot from beneath shows tire tread on his sneaker soles with this caption: “Power is nothing without control.”
Contrast this with the world’s view that meekness is weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Meekness is power brought under control. That’s why the Greeks used the word to describe a man silent in the face of insults and a king lenient in his rule.
A survey of the New Testament shows how important this virtue is. Galatians 5:22-23 lists meekness as one of the fruits of the Spirit. Colossians 3:12 includes it as part of the “clothing” of the Christian. James 1:19-21 tells us that meekness is the opposite of anger and moral filth. It is the basic attitude we are to have toward all people (Titus 3:2), especially those who oppose us (II Timothy 24-26). By a meek and quiet spirit a Christian wife may win her unbelieving husband (I Peter 3:1-6).
II. Meekness Illustrated
Did you know that only two people in the Bible were ever called meek? First, Jesus used the word to describe himself in Matthew 11:28-30. Second, Numbers 12:3 tells us that Moses was “a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (The NIV uses “humble” but the word means “meek” and is translated that way in other versions.) I don’t known what words you would use to describe Moses, but the word “meek” doesn’t easily come to mind. After all, here is a man who in a fit of anger killed an Egyptian and then hid his body. Later he went toe-to-toe with Pharaoh, saying, “Let my people go!” Again and again, he summoned the courage to face the most powerful man in the world. Later he led the children of Israel across the Red Sea and climbed Mt. Sinai where he met God face to face.
That certainly doesn’t fit any of our modern stereotypes of “meekness.”
It helps to know the background of this story. Numbers 12:1 tells us that Moses had married a Cushite woman (that is, a black African woman). His decision (which was not forbidden since God had not yet given the law) was criticized openly by his brother Aaron (the high priest) and Aaron’s wife Miriam. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (v.1) The answer, of course, is yes, God had spoken through them, but that didn’t give them the right to criticize Moses. Verse 1 tells us that God “heard” their critical comments–a fact that does not bode well for them.
Before we go on, please note that the criticism stems partly from the fact that Moses had entered into an interracial marriage. Though some commentators pass over this fact, the text explicitly says that it was Moses’ marriage that caused the criticism. But Moses was not wrong to marry the Cushite woman providing she would join him in worshipping the God of Israel. While the Bible does forbid an “unequal yoke” of believer deliberately marrying an unbeliever (II Corinthians 6:14-18), it does not forbid Christians to marry across racial or ethnic lines. For the Christian the issue is always the heart attitude toward Jesus Christ, not skin color or ethnic origin.
So God calls Moses, Aaron and Miriam to meet him in front of the Tabernacle (another bad sign for the two offenders). Then he tells Aaron and Miriam to step forward (trouble is on the way). Verses 6-8 record God’s word to the two critics:
“When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
This is a devastating rebuke to Aaron and Miriam. “I speak to Moses face to face. He is my main man. I trust him with the future of my people. If I want to say anything about his wife, I’ll do it myself. He doesn’t need your criticism and I don’t need your help. Who do you think you are to have any opinion at all about who Moses marries?” Ouch! The ax is about to fall.
Verses 9-12 tell us the judgment. Miriam will be stricken with leprosy–the equivalent of AIDS in that generation. It is significant that Miriam now is white as snow from leprosy. It is as if God had said to her, “Moses’ wife is black, and you think white is better. Fine, you’re going to be white all over.” It is a judgment fitted to the sin of racial prejudice. God despises the haughty attitude of those who think look down on others simply because of the color of their skin. After all, man looks on the outside, but God judges the heart (I Samuel 16:7).
Suddenly Aaron has had a change of heart about Moses. When he realizes that he’s been on the wrong side, he quickly becomes Moses’ best friend. He begs him to pray for Miriam that she might be healed of leprosy.
What does all this have to do with Moses and meekness? One question: While all this is going on, what is Moses doing? Nothing. His first recorded words come in verse 13 where he cries out, “O Lord, heal her!” It is at this point that we see Moses’ greatness.
He didn’t fight back.
He didn’t answer his critics.
He didn’t get angry.
He didn’t seek revenge.
He didn’t argue or try to explain his actions.
He didn’t complain about his unfair treatment.
Instead, he kept silent and let the Lord take up his cause. He only opened his mouth to pray for Miriam.
No one would ever call Moses a pushover or a doormat. But he didn’t strike out at his critics. He let God take care of them. In fact, he prayed on their behalf. Moses normally was a man of action, but here he refuses to defend himself. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. It is as if he didn’t hear what they said.
That reminds me of a wonderful story concerning Jonathan Edwards, considered by many to be the greatest theologian America has ever produced. At one point in his career, he was dismissed from the church he pastored by a vote of 222-32. He was voted out because he insisted that only saved people should take communion. Many men would be destroyed by such a calamity, but one of his friends explained that “his joy in God was beyond the reach of his enemies.” That’s what meekness does for a man.
III. Meekness Applied
This quality of meekness is not natural but supernatural. The “natural” response to adversity or criticism is either anger or despair. But the meek man responds differently because the Lord is in control of his life.
The meek man responds differently because the Lord is in control of his life.
That leads me to suggest an expanded definition of meekness. Meekness is self-control which manifests itself in a gentle spirit based on an unshakable confidence in God. It is self-control based on God’s control. Thus, it is truly a supernatural virtue produced by the Holy Spirit. Meekness comes because you have so surrendered your life to God that he is free to demonstrate his power in you in the most difficult moments of life.
In that sense the greatest men and women of the Bible were meek. Meekness gave Abraham the courage to leave Ur. It enabled Joseph to withstand Potiphar’s wife. It led David into the Elah Valley and sustained Daniel in the lion’s den. Because Mordecai was meek, he could challenge to approach the king. Because Esther was meek, she did it. And so it goes. The people who accomplished the most for God were men and women whose power was completely yielded to God.
What does meekness look like in practice? Here are three practical answers:
1. Gentleness when provoked.
2. Boldness in the face of evil.
3. Open and approachable by others.
It is here that we see the quality of meekness in the life of Jesus. He was the most powerful man who ever lived and yet his power was always under his Father’s control. He got angry when he chased the money-changers out of the temple but he never lost his temper. He rebuked the Pharisees but ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. He welcomed children, spoke to large crowds, but felt the touch of a woman whose fingers brushed the hem of his garment.
Jesus was no sissy.
This Jesus was no effeminate sissy. He could raise the dead, cast out demons, and calm a stormy sea. Yet the Bible says that as a lamb before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth (Isaiah 53:7). He didn’t debate Pilate, he didn’t curse Herod, and he didn’t fight the soldiers. As the old gospel song says, He could have called ten thousands angels, but he died alone for you and me.
That’s true meekness. Ultimate power under God’s control. He was the Son of God who made others feel welcome around him. When people came to him, they felt rested, not harassed or pressured. No wonder the common people loved him.
Meekness is that quality which is best demonstrated when you are dealing with unreasonable people. It’s not hard to be gentle when you are feeling good and have no pressure. That’s not meekness; it’s niceness.
Meekness is seen when you are under the gun, up against deadline, surrounded by problems, hip deep in alligators and no way to drain the swamp, and you feel yourself getting frustrated. If you don’t have it then, you just don’t have it at all.
Do you have “The Right Stuff?”
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones comments that meekness comes from having a right view of yourself before God. You don’t worry about what others say about you because you know you deserve it and more. Instead you are amazed that God treats you so well and that men are as kind to you as they are. In your heart, you know you deserve worse than you are getting. That is true meekness.
The meek man does not fight for his own rights, does not insist upon personal vindication, does not always have to correct others, does not repay in kind, does not return insult for insult, and does not use force and intimidation to get his way.
A few years ago I read a book called “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe. It’s about the development of America’s space program from the late forties to the first flights of the Mercury program. When Tom Wolfe did his research, he discovered that there was something that set the best test pilots apart from other men–some quality that combined courage, coolness under pressure, and total self-control. They had it and others didn’t. There was no name for that quality, so he made one up. He simply called it … the right stuff.
As I read that book, the wheels started turning in my mind. There is a kind of Christian right stuff that sets us apart in the world. It, too, is courage plus calmness plus total self-control. But it doesn’t come from a mammoth ego. It comes from an unshakable confidence in God. And instead of making men difficult to live with, it makes them gentle, kind, and approachable.
I submit to you that meekness is the real “right stuff.” It is self-control manifested in a gentle spirit based on an unshakable confidence in God.
One final note. This verse has a promise attached to it: “they shall inherit the earth.” Notice the wording. We shall inherit the earth. He means it quite literally. This little ball of dirt where we struggle so hard with sin–one day we will inherit all of it!
How can that be? Right now the wicked rule and the good die young. But a better day is coming, a day when King Jesus will vacuum off the wicked and we will be the only ones left.
It is on the earth, where sinners currently reign and where the meek often seem to take a back seat. We will reign with him on the earth forever. This is our inheritance as Christians.
How strange this seems. Often it seems that the meek go to the wall. “Good forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.” We honor the Dirty Harrys of the world, the Rambos and the Terminators, the Magnum Force that rules through violence. Or we laugh at the Madonnas who flout the rules of life.
But Jesus said that some day the meek will come marching in.
Do the bad guys seem to win all the battles? Do the ungodly always seem to carry the day? But their victory is illusive because the things they reach for they never find. They live and die frustrated and unfulfilled. They go for all the gusto and find that it doesn’t satisfy.
And what about us?
We have all we need and then some. And a never-ending banquet spread by our heavenly Father in the kingdom. We have the best of both worlds. We are forgotten, yet we reign. We are despised yet blessed. We are reviled yet defended by God. As Christians we have nothing yet possess everything.
And the best is yet to come.
Do you want to go to heaven? You can, but you must enter through the door marked “meek only.”
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth after the proud have killed themselves trying to possess it.