The Beatitudes: Poor in Spirit

Sermon by Cory Brock on January 26

Matthew 5:1-4

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We’re starting a new series tonight for the next several weeks on the Beatitudes. And you can find the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5. And tonight we’ll not only look at the first beatitude about being poor in spirit, but also the second, about a life of mourning and sorrow. You’ll find the Beatitudes in Matthew chapter 5; you won’t find the word “beatitude” anywhere in the Beatitudes. The word “beatitude” is a Latin term from the Latin translation of this passage and it means “the state of blessedness” or “the state of happiness” – of living a blessed life or a truly happy life. But many commentators over the years have called the Beatitudes “Jesus’ description of the beautiful life.” And the reason they’ve called it that is because the ancient philosophers, the Greeks, were, for years and years asking the question, “What is the good life?” And they said the good life is where truth, goodness and beauty all intersect with one another. 

And when you come to Matthew chapter 5, Jesus is saying this is the good life the philosophers have always been searching for; it’s right here. It’s where the truth Jesus Christ Himself speaks goodness, and so there you have beauty. And so this is the beautiful life. Beauty is more than visual; it’s where truth and goodness intersect. And that’s what we’re reading about here. Jesus is telling us, “Here it is. This is to live a truly beautiful life, is to live the life of the Beatitudes.” So let’s listen to Jesus tell us about it here in Matthew chapter 5. We’ll pray and then we’ll read it. Let’s pray together.

Christ, we want to live life as You prescribe it for us and so we ask now that Your Spirit would come and help us to hear and to see and to walk according to Your ways. And we pray that in Your name, amen.

So we’ll read Matthew 5, verses 1 to 4:

“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.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’”

This is God’s Word.

So there are three things I want to look at with you in this passage tonight and in the very first verse we’re going to notice something about the founder of the blessed life. And then we’ll look at the beginning or the foundations of living the blessed life, the beautiful life. And then finally, let’s ask together, “Where do we get the power to live this life that we’ve been talking and thinking about?” 

Jesus is the Founder of the Blessed Life

So if you look at the opening verse you’ll see that it tells us something about founder of the blessed life, Jesus. And all it tells us is that He saw crowds, He went up a mountain, He sat down on the mountain, and He started talking. And you know, this is one of those verses in the Bible that you would read and move on to the next verse to kind of get the content and the meat, but you have to wait and stop right here because Matthew wants us to read Jesus’, what seems like very simple actions here, four simple verbs in the context of everything that’s happened so far in the book. And when you do that, you find out something pretty significant about this moment, about what’s happening right here. And Matthew is painting a picture so far; he’s writing almost exclusively we think, in the Gospel of Matthew, to a Jewish audience. And like all the other Gospels, the Gospels are asking a question, and that is, “Who is Jesus Christ?” – and why does it matter that we know that? 

And he’s been, Matthew’s been answering it for us already up to this point. And so far, Jesus is a man who hasn’t really said anything yet. So up to this point in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has hardly uttered a word in the text. And now when we hit Matthew chapter 5, we are going to get three chapters of nothing but Jesus’ words, and then beyond that we’re going to get four more discourses of almost exclusively Jesus’ words. And there’s a reason why Jesus hasn’t said anything. Matthew’s been painting a picture to prepare us for the moment when Jesus would start to open His mouth and talk to us so that we could hear it in a specific way. 

So just think about it with me. He’s writing to a Jewish audience and that Jewish audience would know their Old Testament; they would know the background stories of the Old Testament. And so in Matthew chapter 1, what do you have? You have the genealogy, right? And at the very beginning, Matthew says Jesus, this boy, is the son of Abraham and the son of David. And then the next story, this son of Abraham, we’re told, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and says, “You’ve got to get up out of Bethlehem and go down to Egypt or the baby is going to lose his life. You’ve got to get out. You’ve got to go to Egypt!” And we’re told that he took – Mary and Joseph and this little boy, the son of Abraham, down to Egypt until it would be time for God to take Him back up again out of Egypt.

And then if you go to chapter 2, we’re then told why He had to go back to Egypt, go down to Egypt. And you remember, because Herod the king was going to try to kill all the little boys in that region under two years old. So a king was going to kill little Hebrew boys. And for their protection, for Jesus’ protection, God sent Him into captivity, into the heart of Egypt, until He was going to get brought back out of again. And then after that, when He comes out of Egypt, what’s the next story? God, He starts His ministry and He goes and He goes down into the water, down into the sea, down into the river, and He goes down into the water in baptism and He comes back up again. And as soon as He comes up out of the water, what’s the next chapter about? He goes into the wilderness. And how long is He in the wilderness for? Forty days and forty nights. And then when you come to Matthew chapter 5 verse 1, after the wilderness journey, a period of forty days, he says He walks up the mountain.

Have you heard that story before? Yeah! You see, the little baby boy that was under the threat of genocide, under an evil king, goes into the heart of Egypt and then God pulls Him out of Egypt along with the people of Israel and they go into the water and into the wilderness and up the mountain. That’s the exodus story. Right? And what we see here is that Jesus – and this has been pointed out many, many times by commentators – that Matthew is painting the narrative of Christ, the true narrative of Christ, as a life of reliving the Israelites’ story. And the fancy word for this is Jesus Christ is recapitulating the life of Israel in Himself. And in doing that, at every single point of that narrative in the Old Testament, the Israelites shook their fist at God and grumbled at God and said to Moses, “Why did you take us out of this land where we had pots of meat and all sorts of good things to eat? Now we’re wandering in the wilderness and running for our lives!” And they complained and they grumbled. 

And Jesus relives the life of Israel and He does it perfectly. He is everything that Israel never was, and that means the picture that Matthew has been painting for us so far as we step into the Beatitudes is that Jesus Christ is the substitute of humanity. He is the Israel, Israel never could have been. He is representing them and all human beings through them in the life that He is living. 

And now it gets even more specific than that because some English translations in Matthew 5:1 say that He went up “a mountain.” But the ESV gets it right here because it literally says in the Greek text, He went up “the mountain.” And that is the exact same way that the book of Exodus talks about Mount Sinai when it says, “And Moses went up the mountain, the mountain of God.” And so it’s not just that He is reliving the life of Israel here; after He comes out of the wilderness He goes up “the mountain,” meaning we are seeing here – who? We are seeing here the new Moses, walking up the new mountain of Sinai. And what did Moses receive at the top of that mountain? He received the Ten Commandments, the Law of God. And the difference here, from the picture that has been painted for us up to this point, is that when Moses went up the mountain, God from heaven gave to Moses the mediator that Law. But here, we get a Semitic idiom that says instead of the heavens opening, instead of God speaking to Jesus the Law He wanted to deliver to the people, it says that “Jesus opened His mouth.”

And you see, this is the new Moses. The old Moses had to hear God speak the Law, but now we’ve got the God-Man who, when He goes up Mount Sinai, He just opens His mouth and starts to say it. And what’s it saying? “This is God speaking the Law. This is the new Israel, the better Moses that’s walked up Mount Sinai to fulfill the whole point of the Exodus story and deliver the Law, the beautiful life, the good life to His disciples, to His people, fully and finally and forever.” And what that means is that it’s important to know that and to see how Matthew is painting that picture in how we approach the Beatitudes and how we approach the Sermon on the Mount. Because Matthew is trying to say in those four simple verbs – He went up, He sat down, He opened His mouth – that you need to remember the identity of the new Moses that is speaking these Beatitudes to you. This is the Law. This is God speaking. This is His Word as we read and listen to what it looks like to live the beautiful life. This is ethics and it’s coming from the mouth of God Himself on the new Sinai.

And that’s so important because even as people, a lot of us who have grown up in and around the church probably for most of our lives, we are late-modern people. And you know, that means that we are children of the Enlightenment, Modernism, Postmodernism, and now what they’re calling late Modernism. And in late Modernism, the public, the Western world imbibes a notion of ethics that is based in a radical enlightenment principle of freedom; a freedom. And philosophers and sociologists talk about the difference in pre-modern views of freedom and the 20th century view of freedom that developed during much of our lifetime. And what’s the 20th century view of freedom? The 20th century view of freedom is that freedom is negative; it’s a freedom from all constraints and restraints. Freedom today is the maximization of choice, that the free life is to have as many choices as possible and to live in any way that I want to live as long as I don’t harm anybody else. That’s the 20th century vision of freedom; it’s called negative freedom in all the literature. And it says, “It’s my body, it’s my life, it’s my personality, and as long as I’m not bothering anybody else and harming anybody else, I am an individual that has choices and I can exercise my choices and live my life under the constraint of very minimal authority.”

And Aaron, Ehrenhalt, a German sociologist, he puts it like this. “To the modern mind, choice is a good thing in life. The more of it we have, the happier we will be. The more choice we have, the happier we will be.” And so to the modern ear, to the late modern ear, maybe even to our ears, authority is constraint; authority is binding. Authority is a net that squeezes in on us and what we’re about to do a whole sermon series on is God, the God-Man, speaking with the absolute authority saying, “There is a good way to live and it can be lived out in a multiplicity of ways, but there is a good life. And it requires that you do with your mind and your body and your emotional life and even your personality what He tells you to do with it right here.” It says that there is a reality that we exist to conform to. Not to have an endless amount of choices, not to shirk authorities, but to conform to the reality as God has made it and as Jesus has spoken it right here in the Sermon on the Mount. In other words, it’s saying that true freedom, unlike the modern notion of freedom, is life lived under liberating authority; that we need good authority. Good authority is liberation. And the best authority we can have to set us free to live a beautiful life is the authority of the life that Jesus Christ speaks to us here in the Beatitudes. Here, we are reading the authoritative, ethical principles of God; how He wants us to live. It’s serious. It’s really serious. Ethics is really serious. That’s what we’re being told here.

And so, even as late moderns and even as Christians, and anybody, every person knows instinctively that there’s no such thing as a maximization of choice; that we’re all constrained, that we’re all restricted in life in so many different ways. And that has never been more true than when you find that your own desires and your own heart start to conflict with one another. And then you really know, “I’m not free. My own personality is even in conflict and it’s binding me, choices that bump up against each other.” You may have found this out this morning. If you came to church this morning and went to Sunday school perhaps, if your class was like my class, you walked in and you saw a table and there, sitting on that table, were donuts. And you know, when you’re fifteen and you see the Sunday school donut table, it’s not a big deal. You can eat six and it’s not going to affect you! You’re going to be the exact same right after and the next day, and you can do it week after week! But when you hit thirty, the metabolism starts to slow down and you realize that you have conflicting desires starting to develop and you think, “I want a donut, but I know that this is going to ruin my afternoon. I’m going to feel terrible.” And even in your own personality, in your own heart, you’re not free; you’re constrained. And when you hit fifty-five, you start to say, “The choice now is between donuts as a lifestyle and decades. What am I going to choose?” Right? 

We’re not free! We didn’t choose where we were going to be born. We want things that are not good for us and we are constrained by our own natures. There is no such thing as the modern, contemporary notion of maximalized freedom. Tim Keller, in his book, The Meaning of Marriage, notes a French magazine called Le Monde, which means, “the world.” And in it, they interview a French novelist and they ask him the question, “Have you had the freedom that you wanted in this life?” And he says, “I was free until I fell in love with someone.” And of course he, like everybody, knows that if you ever want to have a relationship that’s actually loving, you’ve got to lose your freedom; you’ve got to sacrifice. You’ve got to give up your dreams sometimes to truly love another person. Right? Jesus Christ tells us here this is the authoritative, ethical life – from the King Himself! And this is beautiful constraint. This is the freedom of true, liberating, ethical principle that we’re reading about in this series. 

The Foundations of Living the Blessed Life 

Alright secondly and briefly, now the Beatitudes. The first two reveal to us the beginning of the blessed life. And you can see in verse 2 that Jesus is – sorry, verse 3 – Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And for the rest of the Beatitudes, they’re all about a life lived out of a person who is a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. And what it’s not saying is that here are the ethical principles you have to follow if you want to merit the kingdom of heaven. What it’s saying is, for a person who has submitted to the man on the mountain, King Jesus, if you are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, this is how life ought to be marked. This is the virtues, the character, that ought to be developing in your life. And here is the beautiful life. Scholars call it, the first three, the negative Beatitudes. And the first ones says if you want to live the beautiful life, the blessed life, embrace poverty of spirit. And your life shall be marked by mourning and sorrow. So welcome to the truly happy life – full of poverty of spirit and full of sadness and mourning.

What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Well I do think that we need to recover Jesus’ teaching about the materially poor in the gospels and our duty and ethic towards the materially poor. This is not about that. It’s not saying that poverty, material poverty, is a good in itself. And we know that because it says “poor in spirit.” Right? Which means it’s pointing us to a poverty deep in our soul, in our consciousness, at the core of who we are, in our spirit. And it’s to understand, poverty of spirit is to understand that you are poor in goodness and rich in sin. That you are very poor in righteousness and very wealthy in sin. It means to admit that you have problems to the core and that you don’t have the solution for them. It’s to admit that you are bankrupt, to deny all entitlement, to reject the modern sense of Western individualism by saying, “I am not king of my own life and I don’t have the resources to lead my own life and do well in life!” That’s poverty of spirit.

And that means that being poor in spirit is more than just a one-time moment in your life where you confessed faith in Jesus and confessed your sin and said, “Yes” to Him – a getting saved sort of moment. It’s more than that. Being poor in spirit is a daily spiritual poverty lived every single morning and every single evening. It’s a whole life of reckoning with deep repentance and confession consistently. It’s a tenor; it’s an attitude. It’s a spiritual humility that you’re marked by all the time. And the first two, being poor in spirit and mourning, go together. And a lot of commentators will say that that prepositional phrase, “in spirit,” is to actually be read into the rest of the Beatitudes. So you’re to go to the next Beatitude and read, “Blessed are those who mourn in spirit, for they shall be comforted.” And the logic of that is that when you’ve actually wrestled with who you are before the face of God and how impoverished you are in righteousness in spirit, in your soul, then you naturally turn towards sorrow over the condition of your own heart. You mourn.

And a person who mourns in spirit, it’s not an ordinary mourning. It’s not a mere mourning over the loss of people that we love. That’s an ordinary mourning and a righteous morning, but this is something different than that. This is a sorrow because you are walking around sensing the curse of the world, sensing the curse that hangs over the entire world. You, in some sense, bear sorrow for the fact of sin in its entirety. People who mourn in spirit get out of their own head because they’re preoccupied with other people’s burdens all the time. They bear up and hold fast for the sake of other people. They’re joyful, and so sorrowful at the same time. They’re grieving with those who grieve and mourning with those who mourn. And so these two are dispositions that go together that you could summarize as spiritual humility; a lifestyle of spiritual humility.

And so just to close this point, the irony then of the Christian principle of life is this. If you want to become a person of true happiness, of true happiness, you have to start with the fact that you are not good and never can be on your own. If you want to live a beautiful life, a life of true blessedness, the irony is that you have to start saying, “That’s not me and I can’t do it!” That’s the irony of the Christian principle of life is owning who you are before the living God all the time, every day, not just once.

Many of you will have heard the story that’s almost cliche at this point and perhaps apocryphal, but of G.K. Chesterton when Time magazine wrote to a number of authors, apparently, and asked one question, “Can you write us an essay answering the question, ‘What is wrong with the world?’” And Chesterton famously wrote a letter back and he said, “Dear sir, I am. Yours truly, G.K. Chesterton.” And that’s, at least in letter form, being poor in spirit. That’s the exact expression if it; it’s spiritual humility. John Noland, an Anglican professor at Regent University, he says that “The negative beatitudes here are the daily attitude of powerlessness before God.” 
And so to summarize, Leon Morris, “What we read here is Jesus Christ’s radical reversal of the values of this world” – a life lived in the poverty of spirit, day in and day out.

Where Do We Get the Power to Live the Blessed Life? 

Finally, as we come to a close tonight, where can we get the power to live like this, to be marked by this? Because one of the points of being poor in spirit is that we don’t even have the resources to become poor in spirit. We don’t even have the power to humble ourselves to get to the place where we say we don’t have what it takes, that there is no righteousness in us. We even need help to get there! And so where can we get that power? And it’s right here, of course, in this passage, in the man on the mountain. And scholars, Biblical scholars have often pointed this out, that it’s not merely a practical reality that Jesus goes up a mountain here. Although when the crowds gathered, He would have practically needed to go up a mountain in order to speak out to them if it was a big crowd. But they’ve noted that it’s not merely a practical reality, that there’s something else happening. Because if you look at the Old Testament and the gospels one of the things that you begin to notice is that whenever God comes down, whenever the kingdom comes, whenever God’s presence appears, it almost always appears on top of a mountain. The land of Eden – we know from the Old Testament – was on top of a mountain. And God first meets Abram on top of a mountain. He tells him to sacrifice Isaac, the great picture of the Gospel in the Old Testament, on top of Mount Moriah where Jerusalem would one day sit. And then He meets Moses of course, twice, on top of the mountain. And then when He tells Israel where to build the temple, where are they supposed to build it? I’ll bet you can figure it out! On top of a mountain; on top of a mountain in Jerusalem, right? And then, even in the prophets, the prophecy is that one day the city that is to come, Zion to come, will be Mount Zion, will be on top of a mountain. 

And New Testament, Gospel researchers, have come and said it’s amazing how often Jesus is on top of the mountain in the gospel. And here, He’s on the mountain, but two more times, very significant. One is when He goes up the mountain of transfiguration. And you know, in that moment we see His glory unveiled; we see that this is God. This is more than Abraham, more than Moses, more than Elijah. This is God and His glory is unveiled. That is in such stark contrast to the next mountain He goes up. You know, I know that as we close, I know that nobody really reads academic papers from Biblical studies departments. I don’t know, maybe you’re the odd exception, but they say that when a paper in one of these academic disciplines in the humanities is published, the average readership is three to six people. And of course that’s like your wife, your mom! But there was a paper four years ago in the U.K. by a woman named Helen Bond. And it probably wasn’t that many, but for that year it was the most read academic journal article in the world of Biblical studies in all of Europe. And in that article, she is studying a man that we will see later in this gospel, Simon of Cyrene or Cyrene – that’s what some people say. You remember Simon of Cyrene? He was there at the crucifixion. When Jesus was about to walk up that mountain, Mount Moriah, also called Golgotha, the soldiers picked Simon of Cyrene to carry Christ’s crossbeam. 

And in her research – she is an expert in Greco-Roman culture – and one of the things she studied for years and years was the way a monarch, the Roman emperor, some other lower level monarch, would enter into a city in Greco-Roman culture. And every single time when a monarch would come to a city they would send a man ahead of the parade to carry a beam across his back. And on that beam would be the announcement of the coming of the king. And if it was Caesar himself, the Roman emperor, it would say “Kaiser Kyrios” – “Caesar is the Lord” – written across it. And all the people would know it’s time to come line up in the streets to prepare for the coming of the king. When the Roman soldiers at Mount Golgotha put the crossbeam on the back of Simon of Cyrene, that was not merely because Jesus was tired. But she notes that it was because in their culture this was the announcement, the forerunner of the coming of the King. And in this instance, what were the Roman soldiers doing? They sent Simon of Cyrene as the head of the parade so that in the parade people would line up and they would spit at Him and they would mock Him. This is the most upside-down display of kingship that’s ever been in human history and it was just like every other Greco-Roman king had ever entered a city except the total opposite because it was there to mock Him, to undermine Him, to call Him a fool, to kill Him, to murder Him. 

We went from seeing God the King on the mountain of transfiguration in all His glory, from God the King going up the mountain and speaking the principles of the beautiful life to us, to this moment at Golgotha where He’s being mocked and spit on and crowned with thorns. He chose to move from transfiguration in His glory to this moment where He marches up a different mountain. He chose that because of our spiritual poverty, because of our pride, because we could never come by ourselves and say, “Woe is me! I am a man or woman of unclean lips!” You see what He is doing in that moment? He is living the life of the Beatitudes out in front of our face. He became truly poor in spirit even though He did not need to be. He became a man who was in absolute mourning over sin He was carrying, and He never needed to carry it; it wasn’t His to carry. He, all the way from meekness to mildness, He was persecuted for righteousness sake, the ninth beatitude. See, He went up that mountain and He saved us so that we could see our spiritual poverty and at the very same time He lived the beatitude life in front of our eyes. He is our Savior and our example. He saves us so that we can then turn and submit and live a life in the direction that He lived it. And it’s what Luther called “the cruciform life.” He lived the Beatitudes when He went to the cross.

And so let me just ask you this. Tonight, when we think about this life of spiritual poverty, that this is the characteristic of the Christian life, of those who have submitted to King Jesus, let me ask you as we step into Monday – Is this you? Is it me? And it’s not just have we submitted at some point in our life to this new Moses, but are we submitting every single day in service and submission of King Jesus? Are we coming to Him every single day in confession, in repentance, recognizing our spiritual poverty? Are we bothered by the curse of the world? Is that what we’re marked by in our thoughts as we walk through the day? Do other people’s burdens occupy our minds? Do we get outside of our own head in our day to day life because of other people’s sorrows? Do we grieve with those who are grieving? Do we look like the beautiful life? That’s the question for us tonight. And we can. He is the power of the blessed life and if this is the life you choose, the irony is that you will be really, really happy. So let’s pray.

Father, we ask that You would help us to know our poverty of spirit and that we would mourn over our sin tonight and every single day and that we would turn for hope no other place than You, our King, who destroyed death and lived the life of blessedness for us to see. We ask for help, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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