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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC 8am & 1045am Svc, 2012-04-15

Text: Matthew 5:3

One country that has been in the news lately is Myanmar. Two weeks ago the National League for Democracy party was led by Aung San Suu Kyi to win a landslide victory in the elections. This long-awaited event is very significant in a country where political repression has been the order of the day for decades. Hopes are now very high as the people look forward to all the needed changes that will take place in their country to improve their living conditions. 

Hopes were also very high in Israel nearly 2,000 years ago. For decades the people of Israel had languished under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. They had been longing for the day when their promised Messiah would come and unite them, and lead them to a landslide victory over the Romans, and restore all the lost fortunes and great prosperity that Israel had enjoyed under King David and King Solomon. 

And then in the year AD 28, many people thought that that day had finally arrived. This was because Jesus had been touring the whole of Galilee for 17 months, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, and healing every kind of illness and disability - the blind could see, the deaf could hear and the lame could walk (4:23,24). As the news of these amazing miracles spread far and wide, excitement began to build up. People came from near and far to join this fast-growing movement. And soon a huge multitude from all parts of Israel had gathered to Jesus, all waiting expectantly for Him to deliver His political agenda to them (4:25). 

As Jesus led them up into a mountain in Galilee, they probably imagined what He was going to say to them. Since most of them were longing for a political Messiah, they may have expected Jesus to issue a powerful rallying call to take up arms and launch a full-scale revolution. They probably thought that He would be looking for the rich and powerful to join His campaign. Surely He would want those who had plenty of influence and confidence in their own abilities. Surely the ones He would prize the most are those who were skilled and strong in overcoming every obstacle to restore the Kingdom of Israel. But when Jesus opened His mouth to speak, what He said was radically different from what most of them expected to hear. 

There wasn't the slightest hint in it of any political agenda, but what Jesus said has had a far greater and lasting impact on the world than anyone then could ever have imagined. Here we see the beginning of the longest recorded discourse of Jesus, which takes up 3 entire chapters of Matthew's gospel. This famous discourse is known today as the Sermon on the Mount. The first part which we just read is known as the Beatitudes. This is what we will be studying in detail over the next two months. What immediately strikes us about the Beatitudes is that they challenge everything that the world values most. The values that are promoted in them are vastly different from what the world promotes.

By the world's standards it doesn't pay at all to be poor in spirit, or to mourn, or to be meek. But Jesus taught that it does in the first 3 beatitudes. The world wants us to take a pragmatic approach towards everything - to hunger and thirst after what is easy, what is most practical and profitable to us. But the 4th beatitude teaches us to hunger after righteousness instead of these things. The people of the world would have us believe that showing mercy, being pure in heart and being a peace-maker will get you nowhere, but these are highly recommended in the 5th, 6th and 7th beatitudes. The same people would laugh at any suggestion that it is good to be persecuted, reviled or falsely accused for doing the right thing. But that's what we are taught in the 8th beatitude. Overall, the world wants us to believe that the kingdom belongs to the rich and famous, but our Lord Jesus wants us to believe the very opposite: that the kingdom belongs to the poor and nameless.

Dearly beloved, if we want to walk worthy of the Lord (which is our church theme for this year), then we'd better learn not to live by the world's values any more, but by the values that Jesus wants us to have. These beatitudes must therefore become subjects for our earnest meditation and application, and this is brought out by something interesting about them: The beatitudes are not plain statements - e.g. It would not be right to rephrase the first beatitude, 'The poor in spirit are blessed for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.' This has the effect of turning it into a mere statement, which is not what it is meant to be. The literary form used here is actually a strong emotional expression - e.g. 'O the blessedness of being poor in spirit!' or 'How blessed are they who are poor in spirit!' This shows how good and highly desirable this condition really is. It means that the person who has it is highly favoured and in fact, he deserves to be congratulated! Let us therefore study these beatitudes with the purpose of making them our own attitudes. 

There are altogether eight of them listed here, and all eight of them are meant for every Christian to have. Please note that they are not optional. You cannot pick and choose which ones you have to have. Some people have the mistaken idea that these eight beatitudes are about eight groups of people who will receive blessing in heaven - one group consists of those who are poor in spirit; then another consists of those who mourn, and yet another are those who are merciful, etc. That is not correct. In the beatitudes, Christ was talking about 8 characteristics that should be found in every believer. Having them will enable us to be like Christ, and to become the salt of the earth and the light of the world (vv.13-16).

And it follows that the various blessings that accompany each of these 8 characteristics are meant for every believer as well (e.g. the kingdom of heaven, comfort, inheriting the earth, obtaining mercy, seeing God, etc.). I would urge you therefore to learn all that you can about each beatitude, and to find out how you can receive the blessing that each one will bring into your life. 

This morning we shall consider the first beatitude: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.' A good illustration of this beatitude is found in a parable that Jesus told, called the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican found in Luke 18:9-14. According to this parable, two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican (tax collector). The Pharisee stood very self-confidently and prayed like this, 'God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.' 

But the publican, standing afar off, would not even dare to look up, but beat his chest, saying, 'God be merciful to me a sinner.' The result was that the publican was justified while the Pharisee was not. To be poor in spirit is to be like that publican. There are three important things we need to know about this poverty of spirit. The first is that

I. It is a Disposition of the Soul

This distinguishes this poverty from material poverty. There are some who have misinterpreted this beatitude to mean that those who are poor materially are specially blessed by God. And therefore they claim that it is good to have no wealth and to be economically distressed. In the 4th century, there was an anti-Christian Roman emperor known as Julian the Apostate (332-363) who said with vicious irony that he wanted to confiscate the property of all Christians so that they might all become poor and enter the kingdom of heaven! 

This misinterpretation of the first beatitude also contributed to the practice of taking vows of poverty in order to become a monk or a nun. Thinking that they will be blessed if they become poor they gave up all their riches. But many who have taken such vows have ended up priding themselves in being superior to the common people. And a few have secretly acquired properties and wealth for themselves by abusing their ecclesiastical privileges while hiding behind a false front of poverty. You may remember that there was such a case in 2004 of a parish priest in Singapore who was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment for misappropriating $5.1 million in church funds.

The plain truth is that there is no intrinsic goodness in being poor. Becoming materially poor may even be a bane rather than a blessing. This can be seen in Proverbs 30:8,9 'Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain.' A person who is poor may still refuse to acknowledge his unworthiness before God. In fact he may blame God for making him poor. There are many poor people in the world who cannot accept their poverty. They murmur and complain about how unfair life has been to them. 

Whether a believer is materially rich or poor, therefore, he has the same responsibility to trust and obey the Lord. Hence, what the first beatitude is talking about is not material poverty but spiritual poverty. That is the first important thing we need to know about poverty of spirit. The second important thing we need to know about it is that 

II. It Makes Us Realise that We Have Nothing

This comes from understanding what this beatitude means by being poor. Most people think of poverty as having a low income. Here in Singapore a monthly gross total household income of S$1,500 or below is considered 'poor.' There is no doubt that it is a great struggle to make ends meet with so little, especially with the rising cost of living. But the poverty level in other countries is actually a lot worse than ours. Do you know that 20% of the world's population have to survive on less than $2 a day? They may not even have their basic needs met, like food, water, sanitation, shelter and clothing. This is much closer to the kind of poverty that is indicated by the word 'poor' in our beatitude. The Greek word from which this is translated does not refer to one who has a low income. It literally means 'one who cringes, trembles or shrinks with fear.' It speaks of the extreme poverty that reduces a person to being a beggar - one who is totally lacking in resources, and who needs to depend fully on others, because he is really unable to help himself. 

This means that the poverty of spirit Jesus spoke of in this beatitude is nothing less than total spiritual bankruptcy. To be poor in spirit is to come to the painful realisation that we have nothing, we are nothing, and we can do nothing. It makes us realise that we are just like beggars before God, cringing and holding out a trembling hand for mercy: We have no ability whatsoever to please God and we do not deserve to receive any thing from Him.

The truth of the matter is that whether we realise it or not, everyone is spiritually bankrupt. When anyone stands before God, there is nothing he can boast about. According to Isaiah 64:6, 'All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.' The only things that we can ever claim for ourselves are all the bad things and sins we are guilty of. Just listen to God's assessment of man as found in Romans 3:10-12 'As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.'

Here we see the truth that everyone is spiritually poor. But the problem is this: Not everyone wants to admit that they are spiritually poor. Many will refuse to acknowledge this. They like to think they are spiritually rich and that they can claim at least some degree of righteousness before God. They made the same mistake as the Pharisee in the parable that we heard awhile ago. Can you remember how he prayed? 'God, I thank you that I am such a good man, not like that sinner praying over there. I have done many good things for You all on my own. Aren't you pleased to have someone like me on Your side?' Was God pleased at all with this prayer? No, because the Pharisee was claiming credit for things that were not his to claim. The Pharisee did not realise how sinful he was to steal God's glory and use it for himself. His greatest sins were his pride, and his arrogance to think that he was so much better than others. Therefore, this Pharisee was really very, very poor spiritually, although he did not think so.

Like the Pharisee, the publican was also very spiritually poor. He was guilty of fraud and deceit because he collected more taxes from the people than he should in order to make money. But unlike the Pharisee, he did not deny his spiritual poverty, but fully confessed it with a repentant heart: 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' God was pleased to answer his humble plea, and granted him the mercy he prayed for. As Charles Spurgeon once said, 'The way to rise in the kingdom is to sink in ourselves.'

This then is the lesson that we must learn from the first beatitude: When you come before God, you should be like the publican. Be ready to confess how sinful and spiritually bankrupt you really are. You must honestly admit to God that you have nothing, and that you stand in desperate need of grace and mercy from Him. 

And rest assured that when you do that, God will look upon you favourably and He will not turn you away, because He has given many wonderful promises on this in His Word. For instance, we are told in Isaiah 66:2 'but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.' As Psalm 34:18 tells us, 'The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.' And as Psalm 51:17 tells us: 'The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.'

This also helps us to understand why this particular beatitude comes first before all the rest. It reveals our soul's great need for God. This is the most basic need of every soul. Hence, it forms the foundation for all the other beatitudes. Unless we sense our need for God, how can we mourn for our sins, or hunger and thirst after righteousness? If we have no need for God, then what's the point of being meek, or merciful or pure in heart? And how can we ever be patient enough to be peacemakers or strong enough to withstand persecution for righteousness sake, without God in our lives? This leads us now to the third important thing that we need to know about poverty of spirit. 

III. It Makes Us Depend Fully on God

When a person finds himself in a sorry state of abject poverty, he will not just sit and do nothing. He will do all he can to find relief from it. He will seek all the help he can get to alleviate his poor condition - that's why he keeps begging and begging for help and provision from others. His poverty compels him to depend on others to provide for his basic needs. In the same way, poverty of spirit will compel us to depend on God to provide for all our needs - including our need for salvation from sin and eternal death. 

If anyone here is still outside Christ, please listen to this: The greatest need that you have is for salvation. You desperately need to be saved from sin and from eternal death. And God has provided a sure way of salvation - it is through His only begotten Son the Lord Jesus Christ who died on the cross. But only those who are compelled by their spiritual bankruptcy to depend on Christ alone will receive salvation and inherit the kingdom of heaven. Thus we see that poverty of spirit is what every sinner needs in order to be saved.

And so if you are outside Christ, you must respond to the gospel call that is found in this beatitude 'Blessed are the poor in spirit!' Will you now come with poverty of spirit to confess that all your righteousness is like filthy rags? Will you admit before God right now that there is nothing you can do to be saved from the eternal death you deserve for all your sins? If you will, then come right now to the Lord Jesus and ask Him to save you. And if you depend fully on Him for your salvation, then the blessing of this beatitude will become true of you 'Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.'

But being saved into God's kingdom is not the end of your dependence on God. All of us who are saved like poor beggars must continue to be like poor beggars, for now we must depend fully on Him for all that we need in order to live the Christian life. We must therefore maintain a humble, teachable and receptive attitude towards our Lord. In John 15 Jesus used the illustration of the vine and the branches to teach us that we need to keep abiding in Him in order to be fruitful Christians. He said, 'I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.' (John 15:5)

The most fundamental principle of Christian living is that we need to depend fully on Christ in order to live as Christians. What eventually counts most for all eternity is not what we have done in our own strength for Christ, but what Christ does through us by the power of the Holy Spirit. If you miss this principle, then you have missed the most basic and most fundamental of all principles for Christian living. Anyone who thinks that he is self-sufficient and does not need to depend on Christ to as he should is only deceiving himself. Like the believers of Laodicea, he thinks that he is rich, increased with goods and has need of nothing. This self-sufficient attitude is perhaps the reason why so many of us are weak in our prayer life and inconsistent in our Bible reading - Why bother to do these things if we are already sufficient in ourselves? This may also be the reason why some of us have been living in spiritual and moral defeat, unable to resist temptations to sin, when they come. And perhaps this may also be the reason why we have not been able to make much of an impact for Christ on others, and have been ineffective as witnesses.

As long as we think that we are sufficient in ourselves to live as we should, and have need of nothing, we deceive ourselves. And we deserve the sharp but loving rebuke that Christ gave to the Laodiceans in Revelation 3:17 'Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.' Perhaps it is time for us to realize our spiritual poverty. Let us settle it in our hearts and minds today that we need the Lord Jesus Christ every moment of every day, and that we must live in full, constant dependence on Him.

This principle is actually implied by the end of the first beatitude which says,'for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.' The kingdom of heaven isn't just something that will come in the distant future when Jesus returns and sets up His world-wide rule on earth. There is a present aspect to the kingdom of heaven, and that refers to the reign of Jesus Christ in our lives. He alone must reign as king in our lives.

And so the final question we are confronted with is this: Is Jesus truly the Lord and King of your life? Do you depend fully on Him, and submit to His rule? If you do, then you will enjoy all the blessings of being led, directed, protected and provided for by Christ Himself. Only as Christ is given His rightful place as the King of your life, will you find true spiritual wealth and experience real prosperity in your life. May the Lord therefore grant to all of us this wonderful prosperity of being poor in spirit.

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25