Christians down thru the centuries have all agreed that here in Matt 5-7, perhaps more than anywhere else in scripture, we have distilled for us the essence of Jesus’ teaching, & the central principles of what it means to live as a Christian. Nowhere else do we encounter a body of teaching so profound & life-changing as that which we find here in the SOTM. At the same time I think we have to recognize that within these chapters are some of the most difficult and misunderstood words Jesus ever spoke. And so I believe it’s important that we try to wrestle with what Jesus is saying here, and how it applies to us personally. I believe if we really listen, and take to heart & do what Jesus says here in these chapters, it will change our lives. So let’s pray together, that God will open our eyes to see what he has for us as we begin to look at Jesus’ teaching in the SotM
Let me begin this morning by asking you the question: “How would you define the word ‘happiness”? What do you think it really means to be happy? I suppose there are probably as many different answers to that question as there are people in this room. The American Declaration of Independance begins by saying that God has endowed mankind with ‘the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” But for many people today, the idea of achieving personal happiness is something they may have long since given up as an impossible dream. Perhaps because of personal tragedy, or conflict in family rel’ships, or adverse circumstances, they feel that happiness is simply not available to them At the same time, millions of others are actively pursuing what they believe to be happiness thru many different paths, whether it be thru the accumulation of wealth or possessions, or thru experimenting with drugs, or by living a hedonistic lifestyle. But as they travel down these roads, too often all they find at the end of them is heartache & misery, instead of the happiness they are so desperately looking for
But one day, after Jesus had walked with his disciples up the side of a mountain, he taught them that the true way to happiness lies in a very different direction. He began with a series of statements which we commonly call the Beattitudes, or lit, the Blessings. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek…” and so on. And the word Jesus uses in each of them lit means: “You are happy, or fortunate or blessed” when you find yourself in this condition. One immediate obstacle we may have in understanding the Beatitudes is their familiarity to us. Many of us have heard them so often, they have lost much of their impact on us. They roll off our tongues as nice little sayings which we may have even memorized as a child. But when Jesus first spoke these words, they were intended by him to be nothing less than revolutionary. Try to imagine for a moment if the Beatitudes were to be re-written by the people who write commercials on TV today? I suspect they might sound quite a bit different. They might change them to say: “Blessed are the self-assertive, for they shall get what they want” or “Blessed are those with lots of disposable income, for they shall buy all the things they don’t need” or “Blessed are the beautiful, for they shall be admired & popular” It seems to me that these are the things that are seen as having value, which are seen as the prerequisites to happiness in our world today But when we turn to Jesus’ teaching, what we find is that those things are strangely missing from his list here. In fact we find that what Jesus includes here is almost completely the opposte to what the world around us looks to for happiness. To the world, happiness is to be desired & pursued as an end in itself. But to Jesus, happiness was merely a byproduct of living before God they way he wants us to live. To the world, happiness is dependant on the circumstances we encounter in our lives. But for Jesus, our happiness is determined by what is going on inside us, not what’s happening in the world around us
And so Jesus begins “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Now people have tried to interpret the phrase “poor in spirit” in a number of ways. Some have taken it to mean “Blessed in spirit are the poor”, implying that poor people have a special blessing from God. And certainly that’s what Jesus seems to be saying in Luke’s version where he says simply “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20). And while it’s true that God does have a special regard for the poor, the widow, the orphan, it seems to me that the Bible never teaches that poverty in itself has any special merit or is any guarantee of spiritual blessing. Still others might see “poor in spirit” as referring to people who are always going around depressed or sad all the time. But we know there are lots of other places in the scriptures where we are encouraged to be joyful. So I don’t really think that’s what Jesus is talking about either I think when Jesus talks about the “poor in spirit”, he means those who have come to recognize their own spiritual poverty. We are poor in spirit when we come to see that we have nothing in & of ourselves that we can offer to God, that would commend us toward him. NLT: “God blesses those who realize their need for him” I think Jesus is saying it is only as we recognize our own helplessness, our unworthiness, our complete lack of resources- it is only then that we are able to truly come to God & enter the kingdom of heavenThis beatitude comes first because it is really the key to everything else. You cannot enter the kingdom of God, you cannot enjoy the other blessings that God has for us there, without first of all becoming poor in spirit.
Perhaps the story which best illustrates this principle is the parable that Jesus told in Luke 18, about 2 men who went to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed like this: “I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else, especially like that tax collector over there! For I never cheat, I don’t sin, I don’t commit adultery, I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’ But the other man, the tax collector, stood at a distance, ashamed. He would not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ Jesus concluded the parable by saying that it was this 2nd man, not the Pharisee, who returned home justified before God. This is really the paradox of the gospel. As long as we are relying on our own good moral standing, our own good works to win us acceptance before God, as the Pharisee was, we can never enter the kingdom of heaven. It is only as we come to the end of ourselves, as we come with a humble & contrite heart, recognizing our own spiritual poverty, that we then can find the grace & mercy & blessing that God has for us.
That’s really what Jesus was saying to the church in Laodicea, in Rev 3:17: You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” It is in this 1st beatitude that we see marked out so clearly for us, the contrast between the attitude of the world, and the value system of the kingdom of God. Because what Jesus teaches us here is in direct opposition to that which the world would tell us And I would even say that this presents a special problem for us in our modern Western society today, because in so many ways we have become so incredibly self-sufficient. We have been taught to be confident in our own abilities & resources, to maintain a positive attitude, to believe that there’s nothing we can’t do if put our mind to it. We’ve been taught: “If you want to succeed, you have to believe in yourself, you have to assert yourself” And we admire the person who is self-confident, self-reliant I’m not saying that those attitudes are always wrong, or that they don’t have a place in our lives. What I am saying is that they are totally inappropriate when it comes to our rel’ship to God, & in anything we try to do for him. If we come into the presence of God without a sense of our own complete unworthiness & emptiness before him, then perhaps we have not yet understood what it means to be poor in spirit
The 2nd beatitude then ties in very closely with the first: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” Again from the world’s point of view this sounds like utter nonsense. How on earth can those who mourn be happy? The word Jesus uses here for mourn is a very strong one. It portrays the person who is overcome with grief, who is completely broken-hearted. How does Jesus intend us for us to understand this? How can a person who is in mourning be seen as happy or fortunate or blessed? In it’s simplest sense, Jesus may simply be saying what the Psalmist says: that God promises to “heal the broken-hearted.” God is able to come alongside those who are grief-stricken over the loss of a loved one, for eg, and comfort them. But I believe he means more than just thatAgain we must remember that these beatitudes are pointing to our spiritual condition, not just our natural state. And so, just as in the 1st beatitude Jesus spoke of our spiritual poverty, here in the 2nd one, he may have in mind the mourning or sorrow that comes when we see clearly the true condition of our own hearts. William Barclay paraphrases it this way “Blessed is the man who is moved to bitter sorrow over the realization of his own sin” This too is a painful, but necessary step as we seek to enter into the kingdom of God
Friends, how we need to hear what Jesus is saying here. It’s so easy for us to fall into the world’s way of thinking. It’s so easy for us to be proud & self-satisfied about our spiritual condition. To feel that we’re doing pretty good. But Jesus says we are blessed as we come to see our spiritual poverty, when we mourn over the sinful condition of our hearts. I’m sure that never in a million years, could you or I in our own human wisdom, have come up with the insight Jesus gives us here. We desperately need to hear what Jesus is saying to us in these beatitudes. This is the only way to true happiness and fulfillment in our lives.And so as we close this morning, I would ask each of us to come to the Lord and ask him to show us the true condition of our hearts. To show us where we need to change our attitudes and our thinking and consequently our lives.