“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Last week we began our series on the Sermon on the Mount with an overview of what the Sermon is about and how we should interpret it. This week we actually begin the sermon with what is famously called the “Beatitudes”, starting with the first one. But before we begin, I want to give you three principles for understanding the eight Beatitudes.
- The eight beatitudes are describing one person, or group of people. This isn’t describing eight different kinds of people, but rather is explaining the fundamental characteristics and responsibilities of someone who has made Christ their Lord.
- Each beatitude builds on each other. They are connected in an unbreakable chain. So if we are poor in spirit, we will mourn, and if we mourn, we will be meek, and if we are meek we will hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc. Imagine it like when you go to the eye doctor and they place numerous lenses over your eyes so you can see the letters on the wall clearer. Each Beatitude is another lens that is helping us see Jesus and His Kingdom more clearly.
- Each beatitude has an aspect that is fulfilled here and now, and another aspect that is not yet fulfilled and will be when Jesus returns and consummates the fullness of His Kingdom. For example, the pure in heart shall see God (5:8) here and now by faith, but one day we will fully and totally see God. So each beatitude is a promise fulfilled now for those who are Christians, but is also not fully realized and therefore creates a longing in us for Christ to return. One could compare it to a pregnant mother already being a mother, but also not yet being a mother.
Each of the beatitudes opens with “Blessed are…” But that is a word we don’t really use much anymore, right? Unless someone sneezes, which is kind of weird. So what does “blessed” mean? Well, the word for blessed literally is translated as “happy”. So why don’t we have the word “happy” instead of “blessed”? Well, because what the gospel writers meant by “happy” is different than what we mean by it. Usually when we use the word happy we are talking about us getting what we want, and what we feel when that happens. But that doesn’t work, because the second beatitude is “Blessed are those who mourn.” The word used here doesn’t mean that at all, but rather has to do with God looking at us and conferring His pleasure and approval of something, saying, “This is good, I like and approve of this.” It is an outside word spoken to us. One pastor says that the closest word we have to it in our English language would be “congratulations,” but even that is still lacking. View it like this: a promise of deep joy in light of God’s approval. So the question we must immediately ask is this: what is God pleased with?
Poor in Spirit
The gospel of Luke leaves out the “in Spirit” and just says, “Blessed are the poor,” (Luke 6:20). “The poor” is a group of people that is used in the Bible to describe those who are literally without material goods or a home, but it also has a spiritual meaning. Jesus is using that same imagery here: he is talking about those who are literally poor to illustrate those who are spiritually poor. What’s the connection between the two?
Literal Wealth: Jesus warns us repeatedly that an abundance of wealth and riches makes it difficult for us to enter into the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:23), and Paul warns us that those who desire to be rich plunge themselves into destruction (1 Tim. 6:9). The Bible almost always talks about wealth and riches more like a curse than a blessing – why?
Blinding to Spiritual Poverty: Because having a lot of money swells our pride and self-sufficiency. Our money, our resources, gives us this illusion of power and control. If something goes wrong, we can fix it. If we want something, we can get it. We feel like we can insulate our lives from bad things happening. Now, of course all of that is an illusion – at any moment our security and comfort can vanish in a second and no amount of money can help us. But God’s Word is telling us that it is still spiritually dangerous, illusion or not. He is saying that what is happening to us materially is bleeding into our spiritual lives. Here’s why: because if we spend so long under the illusion that we are essentially self-sufficient, then you will either think
- That you don’t really need Religion is for those who need a crutch, and you don’t.
- Or, you’ll fit God into your life. You’ll carve out a nice little place for God to slide into amidst all of the other things going on your life.
We see this in the book of Revelation, where Jesus speaks to a wealthy church in Laodicea that has grown lukewarm in their faith, “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked,” (Rev. 3:16-17). Notice a few things about this passage:
- Jesus connects their lukewarm faith with their wealthy mindset, “I need nothing.”
- Though the Laodiceans were materially wealthy, Jesus says that in reality they are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. The problem is that their material wealth has blinded them to their spiritual poverty.
- Jesus vomits them out of his mouth. The Kingdom of heaven is not for those who say to themselves, I need nothing, but the poor in spirit.
Here is what Jesus is teaching us: No matter who we are and how much money we have in the bank – we all are spiritually needy. Whether we are talking to a big shot CEO who is making millions, or a homeless drug addict, we are talking to the spiritually bankrupt. But it is much easier for the homeless addict to admit that they are spiritually destitute than the accomplished CEO. This is why the message of the gospel has always flourished in the communities of the poor – because they are not typically prone to walk around with the mindset, I need nothing. This is why this Summer we are going to be taking a team of High Schoolers to a mission trip in Denver where we are going to get an opportunity to share the gospel with the poor. We will be working almost exclusively with the homeless, speaking with those who know they don’t have it all together, and be able to give them good news.
Jesus tells us that if we want to know how we are to approach God, we should go look at the poor. Look at the beggar on the street – desperate, needy.
Let’s think for a minute as to how “in debt” to God we are.
- First off, everything that exists (including you) does so because God made it and sustains it. So, the reason you woke up this morning, the reason you are still breathing, is because God wills it to happen. You are not self-sustaining – you are here because God has willed that you are still here. “All things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together,” (Col. 1:17-18).
- Secondly, though we are entirely dependent upon God, we still sin against him. We are biting the hand that feeds us, every day! Every time we refuse to obey God, honor God, love God, listen to God, we slip deeper and deeper into debt. And dear friends, there is a reckoning day coming when all of the accounts will be settled, and from the impoverished slave-children in Asia to the millionaire celebrities in America, all will be on their faces before God. Because as soon as we see Him, we will know the weight of that debt and how far we have fallen short.
So, yes, we are very much in debt to God and are therefore poor. But what do we do? See, all I have done thus far is maybe make you feel guilty, but take heart friends – there is good news.
You see, there is good news because if we admit our spiritual poverty, then Jesus promises that the kingdom of heaven is ours. What does that mean? Well it means a lot of things. In this life, it means that Jesus Christ has become the Lord of your life; He is your king, so you follow Him, you love Him, you live for Him. However, when we die or the Lord returns, and He brings His Kingdom in its fullness, it will be given to us. There is a place in the book of Corinthians where Paul simply says that we shouldn’t be so concerned with being too impressed with the sinful wisdom of this world because one day we are going to inherit the whole world (1 Cor. 3:21). So now, for us to have the Kingdom of Heaven means that we have a relationship with Jesus and bow to Him as king, but in the future it will fully complete itself in us being kings and queens of the whole earth! (Matt. 25:34; Rev. 21:24).
How does this work though? How does admitting we are weak save us? Let’s look at a parable which illustrates this,
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. ’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner! ’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted, (Luke 18:9-14).
What we are seeing here, and in Jesus’ beatitude is that if we admit our weakness, sin, failure, and spiritual poverty, we shall be justified and blessed by God. And maybe you have been in church for so long that you are thinking, Well, yea, of course. But can you sit and think about the strangeness of that for a moment? Is there any other area in life where we do this? Could you imagine trying out for a sports team, and when the coach asks you why you should be on the team you say, I probably shouldn’t – I can’t really play that well. Or, your in an interview for a job and you open up with, I don’t work that hard, I am under qualified, and I’m just hoping you’ll be merciful. Or, you are wanting to date a girl and her father sits down with you and asks why he should entrust you with his daughter, Well, I don’t know if you should honestly. Nowhere else in life do we admit that we bring nothing to the table – you don’t make the team, you don’t get the job, and you definitely don’t get the girl if you can’t meet some requirements.
But when it comes to entrance into the kingdom of God, all that is needed is an admission of weakness. You see, with sports and jobs and dating relationships, in all of those conversations the other person is needing something from you – performance, results, self-control. But with God it is entirely different – He doesn’t need anything. In fact, what God wants most eagerly to do is to give, not receive. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price,” (Isa. 55:1).
How is all of this remarkable generosity possible? Someone else has footed the bill, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich,” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus Christ, infinitely wealthy, left His heavenly palaces and became a man. He didn’t come as a prince, or wealthy man, but as a humble peasant – when asked to pay taxes he responded that he had no money, and when asked where he lived he responded that he had no home. And when he died on the cross he experienced ultimate, absolute poverty. He absorbed our spiritual debt and paid the bill with his very life – so now, when that day of reckoning comes, Jesus can hand us a receipt that reads “Paid in full”.
This is the good news. This is why the poor and lowly can rejoice. This is why the humble will be exalted. This is why the sinner can sing. But, it can only come if we can admit our need.
It is as the old hymn Rock of Ages sings,
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the Cross I cling,
Naked come to Thee for dress,
Helpless look to Thee for grace,
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Savior or I die.