Kingdom Norms, Part One
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, February 23, 1997
Copyright © 1997, P. G. Mathew
Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit
We are beginning to look into the fifth through seventh chapters of Matthew, that portion of Scripture which is called the Sermon on the Mount. The first twelve verses of Matthew 5 tell us the character of a believer, and today we will consider verse 3, which tells us, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God."
Interpreting the Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount has inspired a mountain of books, but most of them are misinterpretations of it. For example, Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, wrote that if all people would only practice the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, society would be transformed into a utopian kingdom. Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian Hindu, loved the Sermon on the Mount. Like Tolstoy, Gandhi thought that if only people practiced the Sermon on the Mount, all problems would be solved, and peace and harmony would prevail throughout the world.
Others, such as Julian the Apostate, a fourth-century Roman emperor, had their own interpretations of this passage. In light of his interpretation of verse 3, Julian reportedly said, "Let us then confiscate all the properties of Christians, for the Bible says, 'Blessed are the poor; they will inherit the kingdom of God.'" Theological liberals of modern times have interpreted the Sermon on the Mount as being a road map to social progress. The problem with that interpretation is that the history of this century repudiates such superficial understanding of societal problems.
Within the evangelical church, a large segment of people known as dispensationalists look upon the Sermon on the Mount and say that it is totally irrelevant to the Christian church. They say it is the ethics of the millennial kingdom which will be ushered in when Jesus Christ comes again. Others interpret the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus' revelation of the correct interpretation of the Mosaic law, which, of course, no one can keep. Therefore, they would say, the Sermon on the Mount will drive a person to grace.
The Correct Interpretation
What is the correct view of the Sermon on the Mount? That it is a part of Christ's authoritative teaching. It depicts the character of the citizens of the kingdom of God which Jesus Christ came proclaiming. When correctly interpreted, the Sermon on the Mount speaks of the character of every true believer in Jesus Christ the King.
In Matthew 28 we read the great commission of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus sent his apostles into all the world to make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them whatsoever things the Lord had told them. These things included the Sermon on the Mount, and, therefore, the Sermon on the Mount is apostolic doctrine which is relevant for us today.
The Sermon on the Mount is for believers. How do we know that? In Matthew 4:17 we read that earlier Jesus had gone around preaching, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, some of his listeners had repented and entered into the kingdom of God. This teaching, then, was given to those who had already repented and entered into the kingdom of God. It is a teaching for the citizens of the kingdom of God.
The Sermon on the Mount assumes that the listeners have heard the gospel. It assumes that they have trusted in Jesus Christ alone for their eternal salvation. It assumes that they have been regenerated so that they could repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ alone. In other words, it assumes the listeners have become by grace citizens of the kingdom of God. Did not Jesus tell Nicodemus in John 3 that unless people are born again, meaning born of the Spirit, they cannot see or enter the kingdom of God?
When we study the Sermon on the Mount, we notice the kingdom of God is the controlling theme of this section. We see references to the kingdom of God in Matthew 5:3, 10, 17-20; 6:10, 33; 7:21-23. Therefore, if we are Christians, we are to live in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount.
Ethics of Grace
Let me assure you, Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and all theological liberals were wrong in their interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount. Why? No unbeliever is able to live out these ethics. These are the ethics of grace, and only Spirit-born, Spirit-indwelt citizens of heaven are able to live by these kingdom regulations.
In Titus 2:13-14 Paul says, "Jesus Christ. . . gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good." The dead, in other words, are to be made alive by the Spirit of the living God to do good works and to shine as lights in this world.
Every believer has been made alive and translated into the kingdom of Christ from the dominion of darkness. We are under the rule of Jesus Christ the King; therefore, we must demonstrate by the divine dynamics of the Holy Spirit a measure of the character outlined in this sermon. When we do so, we shine as lights in this dark, crooked, perverse, and immoral world.
The Location of the Sermon
In Matthew 5:1 we read, "Now when [Jesus] saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he began to teach them, saying. . ." In the Greek text we are told that Jesus went up to the mountain, meaning a specific mountain. We do not know the name of this mountain, but we know it is a mountainside on the west of the Sea of Galilee.
There are other instances of Jesus teaching his disciples on mountainsides. In Matthew 17 we read that Jesus took some disciples to a high mountain when he was transfigured. He spoke the Olivet Discourse on eschatology on the Mount of Olives as we read in Matthew 24-25. Jesus also gave his great commission to his disciples while they were together on a mountain, as we read in Matthew 28.
Jesus frequently took his disciples away from the noise of the world to a spiritual retreat on a mountainside. Why? There he could teach them the things of the kingdom of God so that in due time they could be sent out into the world to instruct others.
Jesus gave this great discourse on the kingdom of God to his disciples on a mountain by the Sea of Galilee. And we must note here that there were others also with him there.
The First Benediction
The first thing Jesus said to his disciples was, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." This is a divine benediction. Blessed!
We find the idea of blessedness in many places in the Old Testament. In Psalm 32, for example, we read, "Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. " In Psalm 1 we find, "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers," and so on. Blessed!
The Latin word for blessed is beatus , from which we get the word beatitude. We can also call these blessings the makarisms, which comes from the Greek word makarios , meaning blessed. Makarios was originally used to describe the transcendent happiness of the gods, a happiness beyond care, beyond labor, beyond tears, beyond death. But if you study the Hebrew word for blessed, it means the blessednesses of, the happinesses of. It is speaking of an abundance of happiness. When we read the word blessed in this passage, it means the immeasurable, superabounding, divinely conferred joys of a believer in Jesus Christ who has come to know the meaning of Paul's statement, "Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound."
True, Superabounding Joy
Do you get such pleasure from drugs or pornography or from any other material thing? Of course there are pleasures in sin, but have you ever considered the happinesses and abounding joys of those who are poor in spirit? Don't ever look upon a Christian as though he is baptized in gloom and misery. And if you are a Christian who is behaving in such a way, you are not practicing this characteristic.
This is the inexpressible joy Peter spoke about in 1 Peter 1:8-9. Peter says, "Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls."
This benediction--this blessedness, this makarism--in a measure is a fulfillment of the Aaronic benediction that we read about in Numbers 6:24-26: "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace." It speaks of the happiness and joy of our communion with God. True blessing consists, not in things, but in the gift of fellowship with a holy and loving God. And we know that this fellowship with a holy and loving God has been made possible only through the mediation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
A Contradictory Blessing
Now look at this pronouncement: "Blessed are the poor in spirit." It is totally contradictory to all the benedictions the world pronounces. What does the world say? "Blessed are the powerful. Blessed are the wealthy. Blessed are the rich. Blessed are the blond. Blessed are the beautiful. Blessed are the tall. Blessed are the politicians. Blessed are the well-born. Blessed are the citizens of the United States. But in this passage we are told something completely and totally different from the world's ideas of blessedness. Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit."
In the Greek there are two words for poor. Penes means one who is a laborer. At the end of the day such a person has nothing left over. He earns just enough to exist each day. But the word used in this passage is ptochos , which means one who has nothing and is completely empty, a beggar.
Was Jesus saying the economically poor are blessed? No. Let me assure you, there is no spirituality in poverty. I know what it is to be poor. I lived that life, and I know more about poverty than most people have ever known. But there is no spirituality in poverty. Poverty as such is not blessed. The poor can be as arrogant and wretched as the rich.
Who Are the Poor?
In Isaiah 61:1 and Matthew 11:5 we are told that the gospel was preached to the poor. What did it mean to be poor in the Old Testament? It meant those who trusted in the covenant God. In the midst of afflictions, persecutions, and poverty, such people trusted in their God.
Therefore, poor in spirit does not mean those who are economically poor. Rather, it means those who are poor in the presence of God, those who do not possess any spiritual qualifications to merit salvation. The poor in spirit are those who are not self-assertive, self-reliant, self-confident, self-centered, self-sufficient. The poor in spirit are not baptized in the waters of self-esteem. They do not boast in their natural characteristics--their birth, their family, their nationality, their education, their physical looks, their race, their wealth, their personality, their culture. The poor in spirit, in this context, means those who are conscious of their sins in the presence of an infinite, most holy God. They know all their righteousness is, as Isaiah said, like filthy rags before a holy God.
In Isaiah 57:15 we read, "For this is what the high and lofty One says--he who lives forever, whose name is holy: 'I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.'" And in Isaiah 66:2 we read, "This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word." Let me tell you, the poor in spirit are those who are conscious of their own sins.
Poor or Proud?
In Luke 5 we find a demonstration of true poverty of spirit. When Peter and his companions had obeyed the command of Jesus Christ, they miraculously caught a great number of fish. How did Peter react to this miracle? Did he become arrogant? No. In Luke 5:8 we read, "When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus' knees. . ." and then he made a strange request. What was it? "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!"
In my counseling people have told me that their parents told them two things: First, always accent your body--in other words, take advantage of it and emphasize it--and, second, always be proud. Now, I know they are not the only ones who ever heard such counsel. We all got this type of counsel. What is it? "If you want to be successful, be pushy. Push yourself forward. Package yourself correctly. Assert yourself. Sell yourself in the marketplace as attractively as possible." This attitude is the antithesis of being poor in spirit.
Our culture is saturated with this idea of self-confidence, pride, and self-esteem. This can easily be demonstrated. A number of students from various countries took an examination in mathematics, and before the examination the students were asked how they felt about the test. American students rated number one in their confidence. Why? They all were baptized in these waters of self-esteem. But how did they do in mathematics? They came in last. In this same situation students from Korea rated somewhat last in confidence but first in mathematics. How afflicted we are by this pushiness, this ungodly self-confidence, this idea that we can do everything!
The apostle Paul illustrated the idea of being poor in spirit in Philippians 3 beginning with verse 4: "If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless." That was Paul's opinion of himself--until he met God. But read on: "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith" (Phil. 3:4-11).
Poor in spirit means that we come to God conscious of our sin and utter lack of righteousness. It means that we profess that we are totally unqualified to commune with God and that we realize that all our assets are liabilities before God. It means we view them as Paul did--as loss, dung, garbage, and rubbish.
We see poverty of spirit also in Isaiah. In Isaiah 6:1-7 the thrice holy God appeared in his glory to the prophet. How did Isaiah react? "Woe unto me!" he cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips" (Is. 6:5). When he saw the holy God, Isaiah realized that he was unqualified, that he was nothing. That is being poor in spirit. It means to be empty of any self-righteousness. It means to realize that of ourselves we have no good works. It means to realize that we are full of sin, in need of grace and grace alone, and in need of the righteousness that comes to us by faith in Jesus Christ.
In Luke 15 we see how the prodigal son became poor in spirit. In all his arrogance he left his father's house, wasted his inheritance and fell into want in a far country. During a severe famine, this son had no job and nothing to eat. At that point, the text says, he came to himself. He went back to his father and said, "I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15:21). That is being poor in spirit.
We see poverty of spirit illustrated again in Luke 18 in the account of the Pharisee and the publican. "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of what I get."'" Was this man poor in spirit? No. No Pharisee is poor in spirit. Pharisees are rich in self-righteousness. But the problem is, God sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:53). Then Jesus continued, "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'" (Luke 18:9-14). That is being poor in spirit. What was the result of the prayers of these men? The Pharisee went home condemned while the publican went home justified.
The Essential Christian Trait
Poverty of spirit is the fundamental trait of a regenerated soul. It is the key characteristic, the first and foundational characteristic, of a citizen of the kingdom of God. Without it one cannot be in the kingdom of God. As Augustus Toplady wrote, "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling."
In Matthew 21:31-32 we read what Jesus said about this issue while he was teaching in the temple courts. He said to the chief priests and the elders of the people, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.'" What an amazing statement to make to these proud leaders! But it is always true. Wherever the gospel is preached, only the poor in spirit enter into the kingdom of God. Why? They come to God with a clear consciousness of their own lostness and sinfulness. (PGM) They readily confess that they are full of guilt and are totally unqualified to enter into the kingdom of God. And what happens? God allows such people to come into his kingdom as they trust in Jesus Christ.
Jesus continued, "For John came to show you the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes did." The tax collectors and prostitutes readily agreed with John the Baptist and with the Bible and confessed that they were sinners. But you see, the Pharisees were full of self-righteousness, just as Saul of Tarsus was full of self-righteousness, which he later identified to be dung and loss. So Jesus continued, "And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him." The rich he sends empty away. The publicans and prostitutes did not claim any righteousness, so they got it. The Pharisees claimed their own righteousness and received no righteousness from God.
The Poverty of Self-Righteousness
In Revelation 3:17 we read what Jesus said to the church of Laodicea: "You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked."
They said they were rich and in need of nothing. If you think you are rich, I feel sorry for you. Why? This is what Jesus is saying about you: you are wretched, pitiful, poor and blind. And in Revelation 3:18 Jesus gave counsel how to become rich, how to receive sight, and how to be clothed.
It is reported that John Murray, the late professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, prayed just before he died, "Lord, have mercy upon me a sinner." I have no doubt that he entered into his glory.
The poor in spirit are those who are in agreement with the doctrine of total depravity and total inability. They will never argue against the biblical doctrine of the total inability of man as set forth by Paul in Romans 3: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless. There is no one who does good, not even one . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:10-12, 23).
The poor in spirit are in full agreement with what Jesus said in Mark 7:21-22: "For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly." They will never rely on their own works for their salvation. By the grace of God they recognize that their own righteousness is as filthy rags. They are brokenhearted, repenting freely and forsaking their wickedness. They are humble, falling prostrate before God and begging for mercy. Such people alone can sing, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see." They were dead but now they are alive. Having been taken out of the kingdom of Satan, they have been admitted to the kingdom of God.
Only the Poor Are Blessed
In the English text we read, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," but in the Greek it says, ". . . theirs and theirs alone is the kingdom of God." In other words, only those who are poor in spirit are blessed. We are hearing lies when we hear, "Blessed are the rich, blessed are the arrogant, blessed are the pushy, blessed are the self-confident, blessed are the wealthy, blessed are the educated, blessed are the blond," and so on. The truth is, blessed are the poor in spirit. They and they alone belong to the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God belongs to them. They alone are citizens of the kingdom of God. The truth is, others are left out of the kingdom of God. They are left in their darkness, in their lostness, in their arrogance, and in their pride.
In a similar passage in the gospel of Luke, Jesus spoke not only benediction but also malediction. "But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets" (Luke 6:24-26).
All such people are cursed. Only certain ones are blessed--those who are poor in spirit. In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that all true believers will have all of the characteristics listed in Matthew 5:1-12. Dr. Lloyd-Jones says that these characteristics are not natural but Spirit-produced and they show the utter difference between Christians and the people of the world. Christians and non-Christians belong to two different spheres, two different kingdoms. Christians belong to the kingdom of God; non-Christians belong to the kingdom of this world, meaning the kingdom of Satan.
Heirs of the Kingdom --Even Now
We are told, "For theirs is the kingdom of God." The Greek word estin means "is," not "will be." That means the kingdom of God belongs to us now.
True believers alone belong to the kingdom of God and we are heirs of this kingdom even now. What does that mean to us? It means that even now we enjoy the blessings of the kingdom of God in a measure. Even now we enjoy forgiveness of sins and justification by faith. Even now we have peace with God and the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Even now the Holy Spirit dwells in us and guides us. Even now we have the dynamic of the kingdom of God. Even now we are made able not to sin. Even now we enjoy true freedom--freedom to love God and freedom to hate sin. Even now we can resist the devil by faith in Christ and the devil shall flee from us. Even now the gifts of the Spirit are distributed to us. Even now the Spirit produces in us the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Even now we are enabled to resist the temptations of the devil successfully. Even now we are enabled to rejoice in tribulations also with joy unspeakable and full of glory. Even now we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ.
How to Become Poor in Spirit
The poor in spirit are blessed because theirs and theirs alone is the kingdom of God. How, then, do we become poor in spirit? My counsel is to first turn off the noises of the world, the voices of the world, and, second, to go to the mountain, to be with God and look at him.
We must find out who this holy God is. In the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 2, section 1, we read,
There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.
We must read the Holy Scriptures to see the eternal, almighty, true and living infinite God. And when we do so, we will shrink into oblivion and into great spiritual poverty! Then we must pray to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that he may humble us and make us brokenhearted, contrite, and poor in spirit. Pray that he may grant us repentance towards God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let me assure you, he who breaks your heart will also heal your heart. He who humbles you will also exalt you. He who causes you to fall will also cause you to rise also. He who makes you poor will fill you with his riches. He who causes you to grieve over your sins shall make you rejoice with joy everlasting.
A Call to Humility
Jesus declared, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs and theirs alone is the kingdom of God." Do you realize how terrible arrogance is? Arrogance puts us outside of God's kingdom and keeps us there--outside of the realm of life, outside of the realm of the Spirit of the living God, outside of the kingdom of God which Jesus Christ ushered in, which Paul says is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
What about you? Are you seeking pleasure? Do you think pornography will do it? Do you think money will do it? That is what the devil wants you to think, because he does not want you to enjoy eternal pleasures and everlasting joy in the kingdom of God.
God wants to pronounce his benediction upon us. What do we have to do? We must tell God, "I am nothing. I am a sinner. I am guilty. I deserve damnation. I am lost, sick, and dead." It is all summed up in the simple prayer: "God, have mercy upon me, a sinner."
May we take this opportunity to humble ourselves that we may enjoy the treasures of Christ's riches in his kingdom. As we do so, may he pronounce his blessing upon us and fill our hearts with unspeakable joy. Amen.
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Copyright © 1997, P. G. Mathew
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