Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3
The real Jesus. The historical Jesus. The biblical Jesus. The Jesus who stands over all of us and tells us to repent. That unsettling Jesus is the one we want. Without him, nothing will ever change. With him, our hearts can finally crack open to the love of God. How can we disconnect with the Jesuses of our own invention and reconnect with the real Jesus?
The Sermon on the Mount is a direct route back to him. Let’s start over. Let’s listen again. Let’s peel away the layers of falsehood that keep him at a distance. Isn’t that why we came here today? We didn’t come here today to tell God how lucky he is to have us on his team. We came here today to say to God, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to your cross I cling.” We have come here today to repent, because the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and we want in (Matthew 4:17). All the Lord is looking for is need, openness. The risen Christ is looking down on Nashville right now and asking, “Who needs me enough to start listening?”
Here is what he’s saying to us today: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Three simple questions. One, what did he mean by “Blessed”? Two, who are the “poor in spirit”? Three, why does it matter that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”?
What did Jesus mean by “Blessed”?
The Sermon on the Mount begins with “the Beatitudes,” in verses 3-12. That word “Beatitude” has nothing to do with our English word “attitude.” It comes from the Latin word “beatus,” which means “fortunate.” So the word “blessed” is saying something like, “How fortunate you are!”
The opposite of the word “blessed” is the word “woe” (Luke 6:20-26). That word “woe” means sorrow and regret. When Jesus says “Woe!” to people, he’s saying, “You’re doing so well you don’t need me? What a tragedy. I wanted to bless you. I was thirty seconds away from pouring out on you unprecedented blessing. I was just beginning to tip over the bowl of my fullness out on you, when you turned away. A thought of self-exaltation entered your heart, and you let it stay. I am so sorry for you. How I wanted to bless you!” That’s a “woe.”
But when Jesus says to the poor in spirit, “Blessed are you,” he’s saying, “You find nothing in yourself to be proud of, you find nothing but sin and temptation, nothing but need? Congratulations!” The word “blessed” is a biblical high-five. It’s an atta-boy. It’s a pat on the back. The Beatitudes are not commands. When Moses went up on Mount Sinai, he gave us commands. When Jesus preached this Sermon on the Mount, he gave us encouragements. For sinners under the law, commands amount to wishful thinking, and nothing more. For sinners under grace, encouragements put wind in our sails. The word “blessed” declares encouragement from above. Jesus said there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15). The Father above sees even one sinner repenting and shouts out, “Angels, do you see? My love is getting through to that guy. He’s looking at the cross. He’s melting. He’s turning. He’s coming home. Hooray! Rejoice with me! Let’s party!” There’s nothing prim and proper about heaven. It’s a constant explosion of nuclear powered happiness over broken sinners coming home. This word “blessed” is Jesus saying to us, “I am rejoicing over you.”
But this world has its own beatitudes too. This world has its own sense of what to celebrate. So let’s flip each of the Beatitudes around into their opposites, to see the reality of our world.
Congratulations to the entitled, for they grab what they want. Congratulations to the carefree, for they shall be comfortable. Congratulations to the pushy, for they shall win. Congratulations to the greedy, for they shall climb the food chain. Congratulations to the vengeful, for they shall be feared. Congratulations to those who don’t get caught, for they shall look good. Congratulations to the argumentative, for they shall get in the last word. Congratulations to the popular, for this world lies at their feet.
Isn’t that our world today, with its own trophies and awards? Every day we hear this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of this world is here to stay. Nothing is ever going to change. So, turn from Christ, give up and give in.” But can you think of one person who pushed his or her way through life with these dark unBeatitudes, and then came to the end a satisfied, radiant, wise, humane person, whose life you wanted for yourself? We all know these things are wrong. But when there’s money on the line, or when power is up for grabs, or when there’s an argument to be won, do we repent of Jesus and join the other side? When Jesus told us, “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), he was saying there’s a new Sheriff in town. His Beatitudes are declaring how we show our allegiance to him when everything is on the line.
Our nation might be headed for some hard times. Nothing could be more relevant to us right now than this word “Blessed” from the lips of the King. Whatever else might befall us, whatever we might suffer, if Jesus is pronouncing his blessing, we’ll be okay. As the Roman Empire was falling apart 1500 years ago, Augustine the pastor said this to his people:
You are surprised that the world is losing its grip, that the world is grown old? Think of a man: he is born, he grows up, he becomes old. Old age has its many complaints: coughing, shaking, failing eyesight, anxious, terribly tired. A man grows old; he is full of complaints. The world is old; it is full of pressing tribulations. . . . Do not hold onto the old man, the world; do not refuse to regain your youth in Christ, who says to you, “The world is passing away, the world is losing its grip, the world is short of breath. Do not fear. Your youth will be renewed as an eagle.”
Who are the “poor in spirit”?
We know from chapter seven that when he finished preaching this sermon, the people were astonished (Matthew 7:28-29). Now we see why. Jesus is telling all the people who think they’re good that they’re going to hell. He’s telling all the people who think they’re important that they don’t count. He’s telling all the people who think they’re smart that they flunk. And he’s telling all the sinners and whores and porn-addicts and hypocrites and failures and idiots and weaklings who turn to him, that they are the future of the world. The Pharisees looked at those people and said, “You’re the ones bringing society down.” Jesus looked at those same people, as they turned to him, and said, “You’re the ones I’ll build my kingdom with.”
To be poor in spirit – what does that mean? It doesn’t mean you have a dull personality. After all, Jesus gives us sparkle! But he is saying that wealth begins with poverty, and life begins with death, and a better future begins with facing the past. When he talks about “the poor,” he doesn’t mean people who have little; he means people who have nothing. He doesn’t mean financially poor, because he adds “in spirit.” So, who are the poor in spirit? They are the sinners who have lost everything, they have squandered their chance at life, but in their desperation they are reaching out to Jesus.
The poor in spirit look at the cross, they see the Son of God dying for their forgiveness, and they know they can’t put in a claim with God. They’ve sinned their way out of all entitlements. The old spirit of demandingness has died. When the Lord taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts,” the poor in spirit feel their indebtedness. So, I hope I never hear anyone in this church say, “Well, I’ve been a member of this church for X number of years, and what I say is ______________.” What is that but self-importance? “You don’t matter as much as I do. I’ve earned my say around here. Even God owes me!” Where is the gospel in that? The real Jesus is saying, “You realize God doesn’t owe you anything? Wonderful! You are the ones to whom he’ll give everything!”
That is not our approach to building a kingdom. When we want to start a movement, we recruit the cool people, we invite the winners, we want to be identified with the heavy hitters. We look for people with everything this world admires – people who are smart and funny and impressive. Jesus looks for the losers, who are down so low they need everything. Who would start a think-tank with dropouts? Who would start a business with gamblers? Who would start a religion with sinners? Jesus. Because the King provides everything. We get the mercy, he gets the glory.
Jesus said to his church in Laodicea, “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing, not realizing you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17). All they could think about was their strengths. What they needed was a radical reappraisal of their weaknesses, because it’s weakness that Jesus is drawn to.
George Whitefield was an Anglican evangelist during the First Great Awakening of the 1740s. He preached a sermon in which he said, basically, “Yes, you need to repent of your sins. But you also need to repent of your righteousness. And until you repent of your righteousness, you cannot know the peace of God.” Here’s exactly what he said:
You must be troubled for the sins of your best duties and performances. You must be brought to see that God may damn you for the best prayer you ever put up. Our best duties are so many splendid sins. Self-righteousness is the last idol taken out of the heart.
The biggest barrier between you and Christ might be your Christianity. As Ed Stetzer has said, “Bible Belt people need to be saved from their salvation and come to Jesus.” Why? Because sin lurks even in our goodness, and Jesus cannot bless sin, no matter how well polished it is on the outside. But the difference is this. We feel the pain of our bad sins. But our good sins feel good, and yet they’re more poisonous. A man who commits adultery feels guilty about it. But a man who looks down on an adulterer feels good about that. Which is why good sinners are surprised when God sends them to hell. “What do you mean you’re sending me to hell? I was good. I did the right things. I fought all the right causes. How can you do this to me?”
Our good sins don’t warn us. They don’t shock us. They lie to us. They flatter us. And we love that lying flattery within. Our lying hearts tell us we’re just fine. But we’re not fine. We are evil. Yes, we’re nice people. But the deeper truth is, we’re nice, evil people. You and I might keep fit, but if we have cancer within it’s fatal. And Jesus loves us too much to put a superficial layer of blessing on us when we’re dying inside, but that superficial glaze on the outside is the very thing religion is for. Denial is the whole point of religion. Not facing ourselves is the whole point. And we love it. We need the gospel to tell us the truth. What is that truth? William Beveridge said this 300 years ago:
I cannot pray but I sin. I cannot hear or preach a sermon but I sin. I cannot give alms or receive the sacrament but I sin. I can’t so much as confess my sins, but my confessions are further aggravations of them. My repentance needs to be repented of, my tears need washing, and the very washing of my tears needs still to be washed over again with the blood of my Redeemer.
That’s “poor in spirit”! Those are the people Jesus can help, because they know their need and they bring to Jesus. The poor in spirit are as sinful as everyone else, but they’re walking in the light of honesty (1 John 1:7). Do you know why? In the presence of the real Jesus, they find gospel + safety + time.
But it isn’t easy to get there and to stay there, is it? Think of Gollum and his “precious.” The most precious thing we own is our innocent self-image. It’s our golden ring of power. And the whole drama of our lives is taking that thing to the fires of Mount Doom and throwing it in. There’s no other way for your Shire to be saved. If you’re going there with Jesus, moment by moment, he’s looking you in the eye this morning and saying to you, “Blessed are you. The kingdom of heaven is yours.”
Why does it matter that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”?
We saw last seek that “the kingdom of heaven” is the presence of God coming down from heaven into this world through Jesus his Messiah. He began his new work of recovering a perfect world 2000 years ago, and he will finalize it at his second coming. But what does his kingdom amount to right now? What is it like to experience the richness of his kingdom even in our poverty? Why should we get excited about possessing the kingdom here in Nashville? How is it a satisfying reward right now?
This question matters, because we don’t want to be misled. Not everything going on in churches is of God. We want the real Jesus and the real kingdom. So the Bible gives us five clear indicators that God has drawn us in. You can be a messed up person. But if these five things are growing in your life, the kingdom of heaven is coming into you by the power and authority of the risen Jesus. I am following Jonathan Edwards’ essay, “The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God.”
One, if you revere and embrace Jesus as the Son of God crucified for your sins, you are a rich sinner. Two, if you hate sin and the corruption of this world and you want to break free from it and live for Christ, you are a rich sinner. Three, if you receive the Bible as the Word of God, if your heart is open to it, whether the message is comfort or rebuke, you are a rich sinner. Four, if you hunger for sound theology and your eyes are being opened to who God really is and how short life really is and how much is at stake, you are a rich sinner. Finally, if you love your brothers and sisters, if you feel unworthy to be among them, you are a rich sinner. What’s happening to you is coming down from heaven. The devil not only won’t do such things, he can’t do such things. God is giving you his very best gifts, though you deserve hell, just as I do.
The only way to spiritual wealth is poverty, to be emptied of ego. Christ fills emptiness, not fullness. Christ raises the dead, not the living. Christ wipes the tears from weeping eyes, not dry eyes. Give up your life. Give up your okayness. Give up your future. Give up your plans. Lose, lose, lose. Pour it all out at the feet of Jesus – all your sin, but even more, all your righteousness. Impoverish yourself entirely, and Christ will fill you forever with his very best.