Sermon Text: Matthew 5:3-4
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.In order to understand these verses, we need to answer a few questions. First, who, exactly, are the “poor in spirit” and “those who mourn?” Second, what happens when Jesus blesses in this way? Third, what do these verses have to do with us today, in our church, existing in our culture?
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Who Are the Poor in Spirit?
So who are these that are identified by Jesus as “the poor in spirit” and “those who mourn?’
This question is important, because we can make a mistake when reading these beatitudes. The individuals receiving these blessings are not receiving them on the basis that being poor in spirit or in mourning are somehow virtuous. Jesus is not saying here: “Look how wonderful it is to feel crushed or to be mourning!” Theses beatitudes are not virtues, but are blessings granted to particular people in particular circumstances.
Jesus goes to those who don’t have it all together, but have fallen apart. In this way, he’s fulfilling all that was promised in the Old Testament. To whom does God grant blessings? Let’s look at just a few examples:
Isaiah 57:15 - “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
Isaiah 66:2 - “All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.
Psalm 149:4 - “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation”
Proverbs 3:34 - “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.
To be “poor in spirit” likely means to be abjectly poor, really destitute, and desperate for rescue. Such poor actually feel their poverty and are crushed as a result. Nothing is working out for these folks, and they are routinely overlooked, ridiculed, and avoided by others. These are the people in our communities who we would prefer to imagine aren’t here (they are). Some fo these folks may be sitting near you right now.
Jesus blesses people who really are poor, who feel it, who are experiencing the crushing burden of their poverty. It is to these people that Jesus looks first. That says something very important about Jesus, which means it also says something about the way the church should approach economic, spiritual, and psychological poverty.
What is says about Jesus is that he has particular care and concern for these individuals, because these are the individuals who are looking for rescue, who are the end of their ropes, and need salvation. It is to these people that Jesus says, “I bless you! I am for you! Look to me and be strengthened.”
What this says to the church is that, as the body of Christ, we are to have the same concern for the poor, and we are to share in the rich abundance of God’s blessing to the saints with the same people Jesus is looking out for. As saints in the church, we ought to have eyes and ears tuned for just these people, because they are the objects of Jesus’ magnificent blessing. That should take us right into the soup kitchens, the food shelves, and similar ministries. The first beatitude also humbles those in the church who might presume a spiritual sophistication or advancement that is inappropriate and full of pride. When we get to the moral and ethical commands of Jesus which follow these blessings, what we will see is that our lives pale in comparison to what Jesus demands of us, so much so that without these opening blessings we might be led to despair. Instead, we are led back in poverty of spirit to the foot of the cross, where we are renewed by the costly sacrifice of Jesus.
What Is the Blessing?
What do those who feel the crushing spiritual effects of poverty receive from Jesus? They receive the very kingdom of God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Notice the present tense verb is. Those who receive this blessing have the joy of an abundant inheritance is experienced now because it’s guaranteed to come. In fact, this hope is so certain that this inheritance is already theirs, as Jesus says – “theirs is” the kingdom of God.
For those psychological, spiritually, and physically crushed and impoverished, Jesus particularly blesses you and grants to you even now the inheritance of the coming kingdom of God.
Who Are Those Who Mourn?
Those who are in mourning are brokenhearted. These are the ones who pray with David in Psalm 25:16-17
Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses…This beatitude is for those [plural ] who are [present-tense] in mourning. For such people, Jesus grants gracious blessing with the promise that they will be comforted. This is not an individual lament over one’s own loss that looks to the self, but a godly grief that produces a sense of deep sorrow that only God can relieve.1 Here’s what Paul says about such grief, in 2 Corinthians 7:10
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.Saints of the church, Jesus on the side of those individuals who are in mourning now. Jesus blesses those who are presently feeling this deep sadness. And the promise for those who experience such sadness is comfort, a comfort so secure and abiding that it yields as the blessing joy in Christ, so that they may sing:
Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. [Ps 30:5]Twice in a row now, Jesus has placed himself on the side of people many would rather avoid. This will be his pattern throughout his ministry. And his ministry will be seen most fully in its glory when Jesus pours out his life for the spiritually destitute on the cross, becoming the source of ridicule and scorn in order to give the blessing of salvation to his people.
What happens when Jesus blesses this way?
When Jesus blessed someone this way, what is communicated verbally is actually conveyed to the recipient. Something really happens to the person whom Jesus is blessing. I think the same thing can happen here, in your hearing of these works, if it would please the Holy Spirit to do so.
To show what I mean by this, suppose you are watching a baseball game. What happens if you’re a batter and swing and miss on a third strike pitch? The umpire declares strike three, and you’re out. Something is declared which changes your circumstances and the circumstances of the game permanently. Now, for the batter, this isn’t necessarily a blessing, especially if you’re name is Alex Rodriguez, and you have a chance to keep the playoff season alive for the New York Yankees, as happened Thursday night in their final division playoff game against Detroit. You get the meaning, though. The umpire’s declaration in this case meant game over and season over the Yankees. As Mark Driscoll said just at a conference just the other night, that the New York Yankees loss to Detroit is proof that God is sovereign and that he loves us.
This illustration is just meant to show how something spoken can change circumstances forever. “I love you” has the same effect. Something changes when those words are spoken and heard. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” an actual blessing from the incarnate God is granted to the recipient described in the blessing. This is in accord with Jesus’ earlier speech that resulted in immediate changes. When Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John, there is no negotiation. Jesus’ calling of his disciples also creates his disciples, and so they pick up and follow him. When Jesus blesses a particular group of people, they are actually blessed. Jesus isn’t just delivering platitudes, like we do in order to manage our anxiety over the pains of others. These aren’t just pick-me-ups. Jesus is conferring something tangible to people who really are destitute financially, spiritually, and emotionally. What is he conferring upon these people? He is giving them Himself and all the benefits of knowing Him. It is to those people who are in the spiritual condition necessary for salvation that Jesus comes and presents Himself as their salvation. Blessed are you poor in spirit, because in me you are a fellow heir of the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who mourn, because I will grant you an everlasting comfort by taking you to myself.
First: Jesus conferrs his blessing to those, who are like those sung about by musician Steve Taylor, “Just as I am, needy and dry; Jesus is for losers; the self-made need not apply.” He blesses those who spiritual, financial, and emotional situation is critical. To those in such a condition, Jesus declares, with power and effect, you are blessed.
Second: He grants to those who are poor in spirit the very inheritance of the kingdom of God. If you lack now, Jesus says, you are blessed, because you have received the very kingdom of God. So there can be joy now, because you have been written into the will and testament of almighty God by virtue of your blessing from the glorious Christ. To those who mourn, he grants joy of his sure promise of comfort and peace.
These blessings show how false our wordly-gospels of “successism” and “properity” really are. Successism says to those with much, “Blessed are the rich!” Also false is the notion that if you’re rich in spirit, you are also blessed. No, in the bible, Jesus’ blessings come to those who have nothing and are nothing and feeling like they’re nothing and mourn as a result.
As a result, these blessings from Jesus are a huge stumbling block for many people today. With just the first beatitude alone, Jesus totally demolishes the underlying assumptions of much contemporary life, beginning right in grade school, that preaches the worldly doctrine of self-esteem. Loved ones, the bible doesn’t have much of anything good to say about our contemporary, modern, secular, worldly movement to build up self-esteem. But the bible has much that is blessing for those who experience actual poverty and sadness. Jesus says to those folks, you have me.
I like how John Piper puts it:
The biblical answer to the paralysis of low self-esteem is not high self-esteem; it is sovereign grace. You can test whether you agree with this by whether you can gladly repeat the words of Isaiah 41:13, "Fear not, you worm Jacob . . . I will help you, says the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel." In other words, God's way of freeing and mobilizing people who see themselves as worms is not to tell them that they are beautiful butterflies but rather to say, "I will help you. I am your redeemer . . . Go to Egypt now, and I will be with you."God does not particularly care about our sense of self-esteem. What God does care greatly about is His own glory, which means he cares about how much we esteem Him and glorify His holy name. In order to be maximally glorified in this way, he goes to the poor and brokenhearted, to those who do not have it all together, and who are in a place where they are most likely to recognize and feel their deep need for God, and Jesus blesses them. He says to those impoverished and utterly depressed, “You have the very kingdom. It’s yours. And your comfort in me will be lasting, eternal joy.”2
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
1Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary. The Christbook. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007. 165.
2John Piper. "Blessed Are The Poor in Spirit Who Mourn." Feb 2, 1986.
Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
October 9, 2011
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew