"Rich Are the Poor"
(Delivered Sunday, June 6, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)
This morning, we begin a closer look at the portion of the Sermon on The Mount that we've come to know as The Beatitudes. And specifically, we look at the very first of the affirmations we find in The Beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3).
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If I were to ask you what one sinful attitude is most responsible for keeping people from coming to Jesus Christ to be saved, what attitude would you name? What's remarkable about this particular attitude is that, at the same time as it keeps people from coming to Christ, it's also the very thing that people of this world put a positive frame on and most admire and aspire to. But it also happens to be the attitude that's most contrary to what is called for in this first of the Beatitudes.
The attitude that I'm speaking of is pride. If we were to put it into the more positive spin that the world accepts, we would call it "spiritual self-sufficiency" - the confident assurance that we can stand before God as acceptable in His sight on the basis of what we ourselves can do or be. But even if we put a positive spin to it, it's still nothing other than sinful pride.
The perfect illustration of the difference between this attitude and the attitude described for us in the first Beatitude is Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Listen to the story; and see if you can't detect the two different, very opposite attitudes:
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, "God, I thank You that I am not like other men - extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:9-14).
Compare the two attitudes. The Pharisee was given to us as an example of a man who 'trusted in himself' that he was righteous before God - which is another way of describing 'spiritual self-sufficiency'. He stood proudly before God (a symbol of his confidence), and thanked God that he was better than others. He pointed to the sins of others, and boasted that he was not like such men. He boasted in what he did - fasting twice a week, and giving tithes of all he possessed. He exalted himself. He felt free to 'stand' before God as if he were accepted on the basis of what he himself did. He was - in his own eyes, anyway - 'spiritually self-sufficient'.
The poor tax collector was not. Far from feeling free to 'stand' before God, he would not dare to even lift up his face toward Him. He didn't dare to compare himself with others, because - as a despised tax-gatherer for the Romans and as a traitor to his own people - he knew he was a far greater sinner than anyone he could point to. Instead, he was the object of comparison by which others could boast in their own righteousness. He certainly couldn't appeal to any good deeds; because whatever good he may have performed in life had been overshadowed by the greatness of his sins. He had great sin to give account for; and there was nothing of himself that would make him worthy in God's sight. In fact, he could do nothing before God but beat himself on the breast as a display of deep sorrow and mourning over his sinfulness. Literally, all this poor man could do, in the absolute poverty of his soul, was cry out to God and plead, "Be merciful to me a sinner!"
And stop and think. Who is it of the two that the world would most admire and applaud? Wouldn't it be the one who - by comparison - had the most righteous deeds to boast in? Wouldn't it be the one who was "spiritually self-sufficient"? And yet Jesus tells us that, for all the Pharisee did, and for all his pride in himself, he went home 'unjustified' (that is, not declared righteous in God's sight) - still ignorantly satisfied with himself, but nevertheless lost in his sins and rejected in the sight of God. And instead, it was the poor, needy, helpless, pathetic tax collector - who had absolutely no sense of sufficiency in himself, but could only cry out to God in the bankruptcy of his soul and beg for mercy - that went home righteous that day.
And Jesus tells us why; "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Personally, I can't think of a better story than that one to illustrate this first Beatitude to us: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
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I wish I could impress enough on you how important this first Beatitude is. It's very important, of course, from the standpoint of it being, according to Matthew, the first recorded words of Jesus' official teaching ministry upon this earth. What a wonderful thing it is that Jesus' public ministry begins with the encouraging assertion, "Blessed are . . ." The law, the Bible tells us, brings a curse (Gal. 3:10); but our Savior comes with the good news of blessing!
But this first Beatitude is also important from the standpoint of it being the first idea communicated to us in the whole Sermon on The Mount. Do you realize that every command the Lord gives us in His Sermon is meant to drive us to the place were we come to God as "poor in spirit", and thus cry out to Him, "God, be merciful to me a sinner"? Jesus said, ". . . I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). Jesus speaks definitively. You will by no means get into heaven on the basis of your righteousness, unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the "scribes" (the strict students of the law of Moses) and the "Pharisees" (the strict practitioners and teachers of the law). How do you compare with the scribes and Pharisees in terms of your performance of God's law? How often do you fast? How precisely do you tithe? How does hearing such a thing from the Son of God impact your own sense of 'spiritual self-sufficiency'?
Jesus said that, until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or one tittle would in any respect pass from the law until all of it was fulfilled (v. 18). He didn't come to destroy the law but to fulfill it (v. 17). And what He taught us in the Sermon about the law's true intention shows us how far we are from even remotely keeping it. He taught for example that the law against murder meant much more than simply not taking another person's life. It meant that we are worthy of hell every time we are angry unjustly with someone or insult them or call them names (vv. 21-22). Or how about the law against adultery? Jesus taught that the law intended much more than simply not sleeping with someone you're unmarried to. It meant that we are guilty and worthy of judgment if we even look at someone with lust in our hearts (vv. 27-28).
The law forbids us from swearing falsely, and from taking God's name in vain. But Jesus taught that the law intended much more than that. He taught that we are guilty of breaking the commandment of God and are guilty of judgment if we swear at all - either by heaven, or by earth, or by Jerusalem, or even by our own head - or do anything else than say what we mean and mean what we way (vv. 33-37). The law taught us that we are to be fair in justice - "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". But Jesus taught us that the real intention of this law was that we respond to those who treat us unjustly by 'turning the other cheek', or 'giving away our tunic', or 'walking the extra mile' (vv. 38-42). The law teaches us to "love our neighbor"; but Jesus taught us that the real intention of that law was not that we could then "hate our enemy", but that we must also love our enemy - to bless the one who curses us, and to do good to the one who hates us, and to pray for the one who persecutes us (vv. 43-47). If that's the standard of righteousness through the law, then who could ever 'stand' as righteous before God?
Jesus set the highest possible standard for righteousness before God on the basis of the law when He said, "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (v. 48). That statement alone should be enough to destroy all boasts of spiritual self-sufficiency. What could any of us do but cry out, in the poverty of our soul, for mercy from God? Can you see how all of the commandments of the Sermon on The Mount bring us back to this first Beatitude, "Blessed are the poor in spirit . . ."? One commentator has suggested that, if it hadn't been named after the place it was given, The Sermon on The Mount could just as rightly have been called, "The Sermon of The Blessed Poor".1
But even more, this first Beatitude is of great importance because it is nothing less than a summarization of the whole doctrine of justification by faith. In just a few words (just twelve in the Greek), it lets us know that no one will ever be declared righteous in God's sight on the basis of their own performance. It puts to death the whole idea of "spiritual self-sufficiency" before God. It condemns the idea altogether; and instead, it affirms to us the Good News of the gospel - that it's only the woman or man who comes to God in the complete poverty of their spirits, and pleads for His mercy, that are sent away righteous and are made possessors of the very kingdom of heaven.
These first words are the first word of The Beatitudes; and since The Beatitudes describes for us what it looks like to be a disciple, then this makes these first words the initial assertion of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It gives us the "first step" toward genuine discipleship; and lays before us the pathway to heaven.
In fact, you can simply speak this Beatitude to others, then explain to them what it means, and you will have shared the Good News of the gospel of salvation to a needy and lost world. Can you think of anything greater than what is being told to us in this first Beatitude?
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Let's consider this Beatitude in greater detail. And let's begin by asking . . .
1. WHO ARE THE POOR IN SPIRIT?
The word "poor" is translated from a particular Greek word. There are two Greek words in the New Testament for "poor". One word that the Bible uses is "penichros", and it means to be a poor laborer - someone who is not wealthy and who is forced by need to work for his daily bread. Jesus used this word to describe "a certain poor widow putting in two mites" into the treasury (Luke 21:2). It describes someone who is poor, but a condition in which they are, nevertheless, able somewhat to meet their own needs. Today, we might translate this idea as "the working poor".
The other word that the Bible uses for "poor" however is "ptochos"; and it refers to someone who is as poor as they can be - utterly destitute and reduced to being a helpless beggar. This word refers to someone who has absolutely no resources; someone who is completely bankrupt, and who can do nothing but plead for mercy from others. And this is the word that Jesus uses in the phrase, "Blessed are the poor . . ." He means, "Blessed are the absolutely broke; the absolutely destitute; the people reduced to complete poverty and beggarliness."
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Please pardon me if I digress for a moment. As I describe what that word means, I recognize that there may be some child of God here this morning that could almost be described in that way. "Poverty", for some brother or sister here today, might not be simpy a metaphor; but a painful reality. Perhaps, because of no fault of your own, your earthly resources are nearly drained and you've almost come to the end of your rope. Whether that's really your situation or not, you may certainly feel pressed in as if it were so. You have bills to pay, and needs to meet, and mouths to feed; and you have no earthly idea where such resources will come from. You feel very strained. You feel that you are - if not literally are - reduced to nothing.
May I share two things with you? First of all, if you are a believer, know that God your Father sees your situation. Jesus Himself, as we will read later on, has already spoken to the issue in His own Sermon on The Mount. He has encouraged us not to give thought to what we will eat, or what we will drink, or what we will wear. In fact, He orders us not to worry about such things. He promises that our Father already knows we need these things; and He says, "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Matthew 6:33). The great Bible teacher R.A. Torrey used to say that, throughout much of his life, he and his family had to live from hand to mouth - but it was a condition he described as "from God's hand to my mouth". And he never found God's hand to be anything but faithful. Neither will we.
But more than this; as "poor" as you may be in this world's goods, dear brother or sister in Christ, that does not describe your real situation at all. Jesus used this same word - the word for abject poverty - in speaking to the suffering saints in the ancient city of Smyrna. He uttered these words to encourage a deeply persecuted church, and said, "And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, 'These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life; "I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich) . . ."'" (Rev. 2:8-9). Think of that! They thought that they were poor; but Jesus said, "No; you're not really poor at all. If you only knew what you already have in terms of the kingdom of heaven, you'd never again think of yourselves as poor. You'd know the truth - that you are richer than any king on this earth!"
Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs IS the kingdom of heaven" - not "will be" but "is"! Satan once offered Jesus all the kingdoms of this earth - all the authority over them and all their glory - if He would worship him. But Jesus turned the offer down - keeping His eyes fixed instead on a greater and more glorious kingdom. And He says that, if we come to God in the poverty of our spirit, and cry out to Him for mercy, then that kingdom is already ours - no matter what we may or may not possess of this world's temporary wealth. The Bible tells us, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9).
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And now, back to the Beatitude. The Beatitude says, "Blessed are the poor . . ."; and though I don't believe wrong to recognize in these words Jesus' own compassion for the materially poor of this world, we need to remember that He isn't talking about the "materially poor" in this Beatitude. We should never take this Beatitude in the way that many have understood it in the past; that is, to mean that all who are poor in this world's goods are automatically recipients of the kingdom of heaven. Many have interpreted Jesus' words as if there were some kind of virtue in being stricken with poverty; or as if being poor automatically "merited" heaven in some way - as if to make up for all their suffering. To think this would be to grossly misapply Jesus' words. And if such an idea were true, then the whole goal of missions should be to cease all humanitarian efforts in third world countries and stop trying to help them - so that they can suffer even deeper poverty and be blessed of God. In fact, if that were true, we should try to take whatever goods the poor might still have away from them, and REALLY send them on the pathway to blessing!
No, there's no virtue in being materially poor; and it's a part of the church's duty to help relieve the suffering of the poor in whatever way we can. But that's not the kind of poverty Jesus is speaking of. If you'll look carefully, you see that Jesus 'qualifies' who it is that He is speaking of by the phrase "poor in spirit". This means that He's not talking about all poor people, but only a particular kind of poverty - the kind of poverty of soul exhibited in that tax collector in Jesus' parable.
That being the case, a man or woman can be very wealthy in this world's goods and not even realize that they are in the deepest and most profound kind of poverty. In another of His letters to the seven churches - the church of the Laodiceans - Jesus said,
"I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish that you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing' - and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked - I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see" (Rev. 3:15-18).
Think back again on that Pharisee in Jesus' parable. He thought he was "rich" in terms of righteousness before God. He was "spiritually self-sufficient". He even looked "sufficient" in the eyes of the people of this world. He was confident that all his good deeds and faithful religious habits assured him of God's full acceptance. But he never realized that, in reality, he stood before God as spiritually "wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked"; and so, he never cried out to God for the mercy that he so desperately needed, and therefore was not at all justified in God's sight.
That's really a fit description of every person born into this world. Because of the sin of our first parents, we are all born "wretched" - born into this world under the curse of sin that was passed down to them from Adam. God does not look upon the "spiritually self-sufficient" as if they were someone to be admired; someone to be "thanked" or "all the fine good deeds" they did. Instead, He looks upon them as someone who is "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1-3).
They are "miserable" - alienated from the One who made them for Himself, and thus not allowing themselves to come to terms with the real emptiness that their separation from Him creates in them. They attempt to fill the void with the things of this world - material riches and possessions, relationships, experiences, busyness, entertainments, pleasures. They stuff their lives with thing after thing, thinking that an abundance of such things shows how fulfilled they are - but never realizing that the reason they go from thing to thing is because those things didn't fulfill them in the first place. They fill their lives with such things, in order to anesthetize themselves to the pain of an empty and miserable soul.
They are "poor" - not realizing the debt before God that their sins have placed them in. They are like someone who blithefully maxes out their credit card - thinking that they are rich because of all that they can see and touch; when in reality, they are so far in debt that they'll never be able to pay their way out. God looks upon them as someone who is storing up nothing but wrath for themselves for His great day of wrath - and yet, the whole time long, they think themselves "rich".
They are "blind" - never seeing themselves as God sees them, never seeing their situation as God sees it. Instead, they measure themselves against others around them - always being able to find someone who is a little worse than they are on the horizontal level; but never realizing that they fall horribly short of the glory of God.
And they are "naked" - thinking themselves "clothed" because of good deeds they may have done, or religious observances they may have kept; never realizing that all their righteous deeds are as filthy rags in the sight of God. They believe that everyone sees them the way they present themselves to be; never realizing that "no creature is hidden" from God's sight, and that "all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account" (Heb. 4:13).
But when a man or woman comes to terms with the truth about themselves - when they realize that, however else the people of this world see them, they stand before God "wretched" and "miserable" and "poor" and "blind" and "naked" - and they beat themselves, as it were, upon the chest, not daring to even look up to heaven but only crying out, "God, be merciful to me a sinner"; then, they have become "poor in spirit". They realize that they have nowhere to turn but to the cross of Jesus Christ - and when they do that, then they have taken the first step forward into eternal life. They have done the first thing that is required in becoming a follower of Jesus Christ; that is, to lay aside all pride - all spiritual self-sufficiency - and become poor in spirit. Then, they have entered into blessedness.
That's why whoever wishes to be a disciple of Jesus Christ must first come to grips with this Beatitude. They've got to face the ugly truth about their condition. They must recognize that they stand before God - not as spiritually self-sufficient - but in desperate spiritual poverty. As J.C. Ryle has said, "Humility is the very first letter in the alphabet of Christianity. We must begin low, if we would build high."2
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That's who the "poor in spirit" are. They are those who have come to terms with their spiritual bankruptcy before a holy and just God. They are those who consciously confess their own unworthiness before Him, and realize that they have nothing about them that could commend themselves to Him, but can do no more than cry out to Him for mercy.
Now, let's consider . . .
2. WHY ARE THEY BLESSED?
How can such people be called "blessed"? It's because our wonderful Savior is gracious to the spiritually needy who cry out to Him for mercy.
In the Gospel of Luke, we're told of the time that Jesus entered into the synagogue at Nazareth and read publically from the Scriptures. The passage that He read was from Isaiah 49:8-9; and this is what He said of Himself:
"The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Jesus is merciful to the poor in spirit. King David prayed, "But I am poor and needy; yet the LORD thinks upon me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God" (Psalm 40:17). The Bible tells us that God "hears the poor, and does not despise His prisoners" (Psalm 69:3). We're told that "He will deliver the needy when he cries, the poor also, and him who has no helper. He will spare the poor and needy, and will save the souls of the needy. He will redeem their life from oppression and violence; and precious shall be their blood in His sight" (Psalm 72:12-14). He uplifts the poor; because we're told, "He sets the poor on high, far from affliction, and makes their families like a flock" (Psalm 107:41). God Himself says, "I will satisfy the poor with bread" (Psalm 132:15). Isaiah the prophet even tells us this:
For thus says the High and Lofty One
No wonder the "poor in spirit" are blessed!
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But there's more. Jesus tells us very specifically why they are blessed: "For theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The kingdom of heaven is that which John the Baptist announced (3:2) and Jesus preached (4:17). It's that for which Jesus died, and over which He will rule in resurrected glory. And when He says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit, He is saying nothing less than that He shares His kingdom - and all the riches of His inheritance in it - with them! This is the greatest "rags to riches" story the universe has ever heard! And it goes, not to the spiritually self-sufficient, but to the poor in spirit.
Note the emphasis of this word "theirs". Jesus is saying "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs" - that is, the very ones who are poor in spirit - "is the kingdom of heaven." Though they were poor in spirit, it's these very same ones who become rich in the kingdom of heaven. And also note the exclusivity of this world. Jesus is saying that the kingdom is not given to everyone, but only to a specific group. It is given to those - and those only - who come to Him "poor in spirit"; not boasting in their own righteousness or good deeds, but seeking mercy from Him in the poverty of their own souls. And once again, note the tense of the verb. It's not that theirs "will be" the kingdom of heaven, but "is". It's theirs right now.
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This is the very first step, then, in becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. The first step toward true blessedness is to become "poor in spirit". How, then, does someone become "poor in spirit"?
Well, first of all, I would definitely urge that you don't try to "make" yourself "poor in spirit". Many people attempt this. They try to humble themselves in an outward way - and make a display of their fasting and praying and personal misery. This doesn't lend itself to any real "poverty of spirit" at all. Instead, it lends itself to the very pride that was exhibited in the Pharisee in Jesus' parable. We'd soon find ourselves in the contradictory place of taking pride in how "poor in spirit" we are. True poverty of spirit is a by-product of coming to terms with other spiritual realities; so we should never try to "make" ourselves "poor in spirit" in a direct way.
Instead, we should first of all pray and ask God to show us the truth about ourselves. If you would be "poor in spirit", then ask God to make you this Himself. Jesus taught that the Holy Spirit was going to be sent by the Father into the world; saying, "And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment" (John 16:8). God has a vested interest in showing us the truth about our situation, and humbling us down. And when we pray and ask that He reveal to us our true condition before Him, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit will show that true condition to us.
Second, if you want to become genuinely "poor in spirit", then read the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit reveals the truth to us through the written word of God. The Bible says of itself, ". . . For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Heb. 4:12).
If you wish to become genuinely "poor in spirit", read and carefully study the Ten Commandments. Learn them well, and commit them to memory. Paul said, "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law now flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:19-20). And while you're at it, read and carefully study The Sermon on The Mount. Jesus explains the true meaning of the law to us in it in such a way as to show us how truly "poor" we are before Him. None of us can truly read His sermon and come away in spiritual pride. When we realize how far short of God's holy standards we have fallen, and we see how desperately we need His mercy and grace, then we become "poor in spirit".
Third, if you want to become genuinely "poor in spirit", and see yourself as you truly are, I strongly recommend that you take a long, hard look at Jesus as He truly is - the only One to ever walk this earth in perfect obedience to the Father. You'll never become "poor" if you look at other people like yourself. Instead, look at the sinless Son of God. Read of His life in the Gospels. Seek to become not only His student, but also a student of Him. Peter once took a good, long glimpse of Jesus, came to terms with who He truly is, and fell down at Jesus' knees saying, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" (Luke 5:8).
That's a good place to fall in our poverty - at the feet of Jesus; because Jesus lifts us up, makes us His servants, and declares to us that the kingdom of heaven is ours as a gift of His Father's grace. That's how we learn to set aside all spiritual self-sufficiency. That's how we become "poor in spirit". That's how we become one of His disciples, and step into true blessedness.
1Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary; Vol. 1: The Christbook (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), p. 161.
2J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), vol. 1, p. 32.
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