What Does It Mean to Be 'Poor in Spirit'? A Sermon Review
(Eds note: As a church, we have started a new series entitled "Sermon on the Mount: Kingdom Living in a Fallen World." Our pastor, Benny Phillips, started the series yesterday with a sermon entitled "Poor in Spirit" which he drew from Matthew 5:1-3. This is a review of the sermon, the entirety of which you can listen to here).
As we begin a series on the Sermon on the Mount, we need to hear the challenges of the Word of God, spoken by the Son of God, calling us to live the life of the kingdom.
What is the Sermon on the Mount? It’s one of the most influential teachings ever given. It influenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote The Cost of Discipleship based on the Sermon on the Mount. It influenced Gandhi’s strategy of passive resistance that helped free India. On the other hand, Nietzsche hated it. He said it created a “slave mentality.” The Nazis also said horrible things about it. We need to see it in the larger context of Matthew 4:23-25:
"Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people… Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region beyond the Jordan followed."
Then, in today’s passage:
"Now when he saw the crowds, he [Jesus] went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
DEFINITION OF THE KINGDOM
The Sermon on the Mount is the description of a lifestyle. It says, “This is what it looks like to repent and belong to the kingdom of God.” The kingdom is not primarily about land and geography, but the rule and reign of God, the expression of his sovereign will. Jesus is talking about the conditions that must be met to be included in the kingdom. There are wheat and tares, and the Sermon is about what separates them.
The kingdom is about the present and the future, the now and the not yet. Jesus says the kingdom has already arrived; it is in our midst. And he and the apostle Paul say the kingdom will be inherited in the age to come, i.e. eternal life. The Sermon will show us how authentic our life of faith really is. Its passages cause us to face ourselves and the reality of who we are and who we are not. Jesus isn’t teaching just about the kingdom itself, but about himself and our relationship with him. Jesus is the king. You can’t divorce the kingdom from the King.
UNDERSTANDING MY NEED FOR HELP
In verse 3 Jesus begins by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus lays before us the standard, the lifestyle, necessary to enter the kingdom. He’s telling us what character and characteristics of the kingdom are about.
At the end of the chapter he says, “Therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We sense how far we fall below the standard. We are spiritually bankrupt. When I think about what God is saying, I’m tempted to despair. However, the Sermon is not intended to bring us to despair, but to set before us a glorious standard. Each verse begins with the word blessed, which means to be joyfully approved by God. Do we want God’s approval or man’s?
What is poverty of spirit? It’s not the conviction that we have no value, that we’re insignificant. Nor is it physical poverty, though when Luke records this verse he leaves off “…in spirit.” It refers to the absence of spirituality.
Isaiah 57:15 says: 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 adds, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”
D. A. Carson wrote: “Poverty of spirit is personal acknowledgment of spiritual bankruptcy.” We recognize we have no virtue that can recommend us to God. It’s a cry of helplessness―we are incapable without God’s help. Both Gideon in the winepress and Moses in the desert told God, “I can’t go unless you go with me.”
EMBRACING THE HELP I GET
A. A sign of grace.
We think the blessed are the strong, the rich, the gifted, the popular. But entering the kingdom starts with recognizing we don’t have anything to offer. Poverty of spirit recognizes I need help to get into the kingdom. It’s a sign of grace at work in my life. We recognize who we are in the presence of God. No one can come to him without recognizing they bring nothing.
As a new Christian, my sense of my own insufficiency had so much further to go. It increases the longer we are Christians. But the posture of spiritual bankruptcy must be a posture of faith. God’s grace brings us Jesus’ righteousness. This is the good news. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” He is perfect, perfect righteousness. The proud, the self-sufficient cannot enter the kingdom.
B. A sign of growth.
A continuing sense of our spiritual need is necessary to continue in spiritual growth. We never outgrow the first beatitude. We sense our poverty of spirit and the power of God to redeem us. We don’t have the spiritual resources to put any of the beatitudes into practice. But emptied of pride and self-sufficiency, we are ready to receive the Spirit of God. The authenticity of this poverty of spirit is the measure of our potential for growth in spiritual maturity.