Sermon Notes – 7 October 2018 – Blessed are the Poor in Spirit: Matthew 5:3

Audio from this sermon is available here.

Lots of the credit for the structure and wording of this sermon goes to Halim Suh.

We are going verse by verse through the Book of Matthew, and we are spending 9-weeks in the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, a series of incredible teachings from Jesus called, “The Beatitudes”. We teed up the Sermon on the Mount last week, but let’s just recap a little of what we said to set the context.

  • Jesus is more than a teacher. He is God’s Son, who comes to show God’s Kingdom busting into the here and now. He does this wherever He goes in His ministry.
  • But He is also a teacher, teaching us what it looks like to live the reality of that Kingdom, and inviting disciples to follow Him into that new life.
  • The Sermon on the Mount is His most famous summary of those teachings. It is a Manifesto of the Kingdom.
  • It is – as we said last week – the most famous, the least understood, and the least obeyed sermon of all time.

The sermon begins with 8 statements known as the Beatitudes. The name literally means statements of happiness or blessing. So, it might surprise many of us in our section of Christian tradition to know that Jesus starts His teaching ministry with a short series on how to “Live your best life now”. For real, that is what these statements are about, they are just going to rub up against how we think we are supposed to attain that life.

  • All of the statements run according to a three-part structure:
    • What is the promise (this is the same for all of them)? Blessedness.
    • Who does it apply to? Attributes of citizens of the Kingdom.
    • What is the reason that it applies?
  • So, with that in mind, let’s look at the first of the statements in verse 3. We will look again at the first two verses just for context.

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.  And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [1]

 The Call of the Kingdom is a Call to a Pursuit of Happiness

It is amazing to me that the first word of Jesus’ sermon in the word “blessed”. We have butchered this word in Christianese today, but it is the Greek word Makarios and it literally means happy (flourishing and thriving), and it is a theme in the Scriptures, that the covenant people of God would experience happiness…blessedness.

  • We see it in Genesis 12, where God promises to bring blessing and flourishing to Abram so that he will bring blessing to the peoples of the world.
  • We see it in Numbers 6 in the Aaronic blessing of the covenant community. “The LORD bless you, and keep you. The LORD make his face to shine upon you.” This is happiness and flourishing, that people would know God and be known by Him.
  • We see it in Psalm 1. “Blessed is the man”. Happy and flourishing is the man who doesn’t just go with the flow of surrounding wickedness but separates himself from it and lives counter culturally in holiness.

It is interesting to note that the people of God were unique in the ancient world in their view that blessedness or happiness was even attainable to average people. Scholars show us that nobody in the ancient world expected to be happy. Happiness was the limited privilege of the Gods. It was important to live with virtue and bravery in a cruel world, but happiness and its pursuit was seen as a folly. And the gods were seen as so capricious, that if you somehow stumbled onto happiness you had to hide it, in fear that the gods would see that and punish you for stepping into their territory.

Then enters this obscure tribe and right at the heart of their worldview is not a god who tries to prevent people from being happy but invites people into the happiness that He himself enjoys! And then, one is born from amongst this obscure tribe who claims to be divine, and he puts the pursuit of happiness right at the front of His teaching of very ordinary people!

Jesus invites His people to pursue a life of blessing, a life of happiness. This is great news, because everyone pursues happiness. We all do. It is built into us. The great mathematician and theologian, Blaise Pascal famously said…

“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”                                                                         -Blaise Pascal

 I don’t think he was wrong. We are motivated by this. I eat healthy and exercise when I think it will make me happy to be in shape. Ironically, at other times, I think it will make me happy to lie on the couch covered in chips and queso. We all want to be happy and that desire motivated out behavior. Here is the problem, we don’t really know how to do it, and so (in Christian circles) I see us fall into two errors to deal with this.

One – we just go with the world’s view of what blessedness is.

This leads to a health and wealth and prosperity view. I went on Instagram yesterday, the platform of all things prosperity based. If Twitter is everything wrong in the world, Instagram is the pretense of what we want to pretend is going right. I just searched the hashtag “blessed”. Don’t do it. It wasn’t good for my soul. 99.1 million posts with that hashtag. Lots of beach bods, fancy cars, vacation spots, designer outfits, expensive meals, beautiful people. #blessed

The problem with this is that we know it doesn’t work that happiness could be found in such surface and temporary things. Do celebrities seem like the happiest people alive?Haven’t we all experienced post-purchase cognitive dissonance when we have realized that something we thought would make us happy, just hasn’t?

Two – the second error I see us making in Christian circles is to deny that God wants us to have it in the first place.

We say things like “God doesn’t want you to be happy…he wants you to be holy.” The two biggest problems with that thinking are the bible and the fact that those two things should never be taught as mutually exclusive. Or we say that God isn’t after happiness, he is after joy. The problem with that is that it takes an exegetical error of note as we read distinctions in English words and make concepts of them that never existed in the world in which the Scriptures are written.

 Friends…breathe. God is inviting you into a genuine pursuit of happiness. That is part of the premise of these teachings of Jesus. Isn’t that good news? We don’t have to be miserable grumps in order to be followers of Christ. Not everything has to suck all of the time in order for us to be faithful.

 But…here is the kicker. Jesus describes to us very clearly what will make us happy. We just don’t believe Him. Let’s look at it again.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [2]

 The invitation is to blessing. The entrance requirement is poverty of spirit. Commentators and scholars through the centuries have said that this first beatitude is the requirement of all the rest. You won’t be able to be any of the rest if you aren’t the first one, because only people who are poor in spirit will get into the kingdom in the first place. This opening statement from Jesus would have caused an audible gasp from his hearers. It flew in the face of everything that was believed about blessing in every worldview. Blessed are the rich would have been a perfectly socially acceptable way to start. Blessed are the poor in spirit? How? Who are they?

There are two Greek words in the New Testament that’s translated as “poor”. There’s one word that describes a poverty that demands diligent daily labor to earn a living. You don’t have a savings account… you’re in all kinds of debt… and you’re pay check to pay check just to survive. That’s really poor right? But that’s not the word that’s in Matthew 5.

The word that’s used here for poor in spirit is the Greek word that means to cower and cringe like a beggar. It has the idea of shrinking from something or someone… cowering… you can’t even lift your eyes to make eye contact with anyone… all you can lift is your hand begging for someone, anyone to give. Ptochos is a picture of someone with no wealth, no influence, no position, no honor… someone who possesses nothing except the rags they wear for clothing. I don’t even know that this kind of poverty can be seen in America today…

  • Eg, beggar on republic road in Joburg. That’s ptochos, you have nothing… you’re not holding up a sign that says “will work for food”… you can’t work, you have no strength, you have no skill, all you can do is beg. That’s what poor in spirit means.

And Jesus is saying, do you want to enter into my Kingdom? This is where you start. When you see yourself as empty, poor, and bankrupt… when you realize that you can’t offer God anything that would contribute to your salvation or accomplish anything that will earn a blessing from Him. When you are face down, like a beggar. Totally dependent, pleading with God for grace and mercy. That’s poor in spirit.

When the German reformer Martin Luther was on his death bed at the age of 62, his friend Justus Jonas asked him if he still stood firm on the doctrines of grace that he spent his life defending, Luther responded in the affirmative and famously said as his last words… “We are beggars. This is true.”

Eg. Was at a Thrice show at Emo’s a couple of weeks ago. Confirmed that I am very old, and that Thrice are very good, and they sang one of their best songs…Beggars. It really speaks of what it means to be poor in spirit.

All you great men of power, you who boast of your feats –
Politicians and entrepreneurs.
Can you safeguard your breath in the night while you sleep?
Keep your heart beating steady and sure?
As you lie in your bed, does the thought haunt your head
That you’re really, rather small?
If there’s one thing I know in this life: we are beggars all.

All you champions of science and rulers of men,
Can you summon the sun from its sleep?
Does the earth seek your counsel on how fast to spin?
Can you shut up the gates of the deep?
Don’t you know that all things hang, as if by a string,
O’er the darkness – poised to fall?
If there’s one thing I know in this life: we are beggars all.

All you big shots that swagger and stride with conceit,
Did you devise how your frame would be formed?
If you’d be raised in a palace, or live out in the streets,
Did you choose the place or the hour you’d be born?
Tell me what can you claim? Not a thing – not your name!
Tell me if you can recall just one thing,
That’s not a gift in this life?

Can you hear what’s been said?
Can you see now that everything’s grace after all?
If there’s one thing I know in this life: we are beggars all.

The Key to Enter Kingdom Happiness is a Declaration of Spiritual Bankruptcy

I love how Jesus contrasts this in Luke 18 with the parable of the prayers of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

  • Pharisee is comforted by his own spiritual accomplishment.
  • Tax Collector is totally dependent on grace.

Friends, this is difficult for us to live out though as it flies in the face of all the thinking of our context here in West Austin. The dominant spirit is one of self-reliance, self-made people, independent, self-determined.

Tony Evans wrote some statements that are the opposites of the Beatitudes. He called them the anti-beatitudes. Sometimes it is helpful to look at somethings opposite to get understanding. Look at this beatitude in opposite form.

…cursed are those who are rich in self-sufficiency, those who can take care of ourselves and control all of their situations, as they are living in a different kingdom, not the kingdom of heaven.

Friends, if we just look at the dominant message given to us in contemporary Christianity, we would have to come to the conclusion that we have rejected the input of Jesus.

It doesn’t make much sense that we would embrace Christ’s goal of happiness and ignore his instructions on how to get there. Or most of us want to obey the instruction, but just not go all the way. We know that we need to be humble as it is a pre-requisite of salvation, but we don’t want to go crazy all the way Jesus extremist. So, many of us are content to try see if the middle-class in spirit are also blessed.

  • The person who is middle-class in spirit says, I can do it if I work hard enough // While the person who is poor in spirit says, I can’t do it, apart from Jesus I can do nothing.
  • The middle-class in spirit person looks at their sin and says, I could definitely use some help… I need to work on that but I’m not as bad as these other people // but the person who is poor in spirit says, wretched man that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
  • The middle-class in spirit person says, if I get caught in sin, I’ll repent // but the poor in spirit person says, Jesus I need you to make me repent, apart from you I’ll never repent
  • The middle-class in spirit person looks at other people’s sin and says, oh I could never do that // but the poor in spirit person says oh Jesus, if it were not for your grace, I would do that and much worse
  • The middle-class in spirit person says I can’t go to Jesus right now… I need to get my life right first // but the poor in spirit person says I could never get my life right unless I go to Him first
  • The middle-class in spirit person says that they are grateful for what Jesus has done for them and so will try fit faith and devotion into their lives // but the poor in spirit are so overwhelmed by grace that they continually lay their whole lives at Jesus’ feet and say…do whatever you want with this life Lord! It’s yours!

 

Friends, the only ones who get in are those who know that they have nothing to get them in. Like, really nothing! All you need is nothing, but man, nothing is really difficult to have.

Okay….

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [3]

The Reward is Access to the Kingdom Here and Now

Jesus said, theirs is the kingdom of heaven… in the Greek it has the sense of theirs alone. Nobody else. And He says, theirs IS, not theirs will be, but theirs is… in the here and now. The promise to those who are poor in spirit is true blessedness… true happiness… the promise to those who are poor in spirit is the Kingdom of Heaven and King Jesus Himself… and when will you get these things? Are these only reserved in future for you? No, Jesus said, right now they’re yours. He’s saying, right now… my Kingdom is yours… right now, I am yours.

And so, there are very practical, present implications to our having the King and His Kingdom now:

  • It means that you never have to worry about God’s approval of you… you know that His love for you and His approval of you is not bound up in what you can do for Him and what you can bring to Him because He invited you in when you had nothing and when you could do nothing.
  • It means that you don’t have to live in shame and guilt anymore… you don’t have to try to hide your unworthiness and your poverty of spirit, but you can confess your poverty of spirit and agree with Him that that is your condition knowing that what He promises those who are poor in spirit is not condemnation but mercy.
  • It means that you can be freed from the nastiness of entitlement. You don’t have to walk around being offended at every little thing… you can be free from being so angry and bitter about what someone has said or what they’ve done against you… because you know that in all the ways that you’ve failed Him and sinned against Him, He’s met you not with anger and offense, but with forgiveness and reconciliation purchased by His blood.
  • It frees you from the tyranny of continual comparison. You don’t care how you are doing relative to others. You’re a beggar who has been adopted!

 

Jesus is pointing us to our poverty of spirit not to shame us but so that He can bring you to the fullest blessing and lasting happiness of being healed by Him, being to near to Him and saved by Him.

I love Psalm 34:18

18          The Lord is near to the brokenhearted

and saves the crushed in spirit.[4]

God meets with people right at the end of their ropes. He stands to meet us right at the end of the runway of our own capabilities and self-assuredness.

But I worry that we need to heed the warning given to the church in Laeodicea. Jesus warns them that they are in trouble. A group of people who look really successful in the eyes of the world. But they aren’t poor in spirit!

17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.[5]

Man, okay. How then can we be saved? Well this King Jesus didn’t just teach poverty of Spirit, he modeled it, and in so doing he made a way for us to be with Him in His Kingdom.

  • As He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf
  • As the eternal Son lost His Father, and cried out my God, my God why have you forsaken me…
  • And as the matchless King was stripped of his robe… and His dignity and crucified naked…
  • As He laid down His rights, His authority to call down a legion of angels but instead laid down His life as a suffering servant

We see how we could be invited in. We see that Jesus, though He was rich, He became poor… so that we might by His poverty become rich and might reign with him forever.

[1]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mt 5:1–3.

[2]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mt 5:1–3.

[3]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mt 5:1–3.

[4]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ps 34:18.

[5]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Re 3:17.

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