If you remember, when I spoke in November last year I talked about the passage in Revelations Chapter 2 where the Church in Ephesus was warned that despite the good things they had done they were in danger of losing their lampstand. That was because they had lost their first love. They were therefore urged to return to their first love and do the things they did at first.
I used that as a warning to this Church also – that we shouldn’t just sit on our laurels – we should have a fire burning inside us that burns as brightly as it did at first.
I also said that this was the responsibility of each one of us as individuals because the Church is not a building – it is a group of people and the life of the church is in its people. If the people are not living lives filled with the Spirit then neither will the Church. And a Church without the spirit will die. Therefore each one of us is urged to return to our first love.
I referred also to God’s promise about this contained in Malachi Chapter 3 – “Return to me and I will return to you”.
What I want to do over the series of talks I am now scheduled to give, is to deal with the related issue – how do I return to God?
Of course, this is relevant not only to those who have been Christians for many years who need to return to their first love, but also to those who do not profess to be Christians and who are therefore away from God in the first place.
There is no more important question a person can ask than this. How do I return to God? It really is a matter of life and death. And yet there’s perhaps nothing so obvious than that people go around their daily lives with all its good times and bad without stopping to ask themselves this very question. How can I be right with God? How can I reap life everlasting? What have I got to do in this life and in this world which will render me immune to what may happen around and about me, which would enable me to smile in the face of death, which already assures me that I have nothing to fear when I come to the judgment seat of God and which guarantees me eternal bliss? And what do I have to do if once I had an assurance of these things but know that I’ve somehow lost direction in my journey to glory? I believe that Jesus gives us the answers to these vital questions here in the beatitudes set out in Matthew Chapter 5.
It seems to me that we sometimes do not spend enough time studying what Our Lord himself had to say. We spend a lot of time looking at the letters of Paul and meditating on the great doctrines of justification and sanctification and the other issues he deals with throughout his letters such as the fruits of the spirit and the nature and function of the church. I know that when I pick up the Bible and am not sure what I should read, I turn to the epistles and read these wonderful truths.
Now I am not saying that this isn’t beneficial. And I am not saying that Paul was not full of the spirit when he wrote these things or that his role in Christian teaching has been puffed up too far. Certainly not! Other than Our Lord I would venture to suggest that Paul was the greatest Christian teacher who ever lived. What I am saying though is that I believe we do need to spend some time listening directly to Our Lord.
That’s why I come to these beatitudes. They are very first words of the first sermon Our Lord gave. Surely that gives us some idea of their importance. For thirty years Our Lord had remained silent before he begins his public ministry. And for around 400 years before that God had been silent. So 400 years pass and then God himself comes down to this world and personally gives us his message. Although every word in the Bible is important, I don’t think I could ever overemphasise the importance of taking great heed to these first words that God had stored up in his heart for us. And His words do not disappoint. They immediate show us that the one thing that God wants more than anything else is that his people return to him. He wants his people to be reconciled to him and he tells us straight away in the beatitudes what is required of us. What a tragedy that we don’t spend enough time listening and meditating on what he has to say to us!
Today I want to draw your attention in particular to the first beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit. But first, I think it’s necessary to take a general look at them as a whole.
I think if you look at the Beatitudes as a whole and indeed the Sermon on the Mount which follows them, it is clear that Jesus was addressing these matters to Christians. He was telling us the behaviours that are to be expected of a Christian. The behaviours that flow naturally from his heart … a heart that has been fundamentally changed at conversion. He is not saying “Live like this and you will become Christian”, he is saying “Because you are Christian live like this”. That’s an important point because there are many people in this world who will say “I live a good life”. They believe that because they live a good life they are a Christian. But they’ve got it totally the wrong way round. It is because a person is a Christian that they have the power to live a good life.
Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus constantly admonished the Scribes and Pharisees. They believed they were living good lives. They believed they were keeping God’s commands. But they were only fooling themselves. You see the Scribes and Pharisees had tried to live good lives, but they found that they could only live in accordance with the Law by diluting it, making it fit in with their own needs and capabilities rather than with God’s actual commandments. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes it quite clear that such lip service to the Law is not enough. Look at verse 20 of Matthew Chapter 5: unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
In the rest of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus expounds God’s commands, showing that the behaviour that is acceptable to God is something that the scribes and Pharisees could only dream of achieving. Now if the Pharisees could not achieve a level of behaviour that was fitting for God’s Kingdom, what hope is there for modern man? None! - Because the heart of man is corrupt.
The heart of man must be changed – the Sermon on the Mount is addressed to Christians. The behaviours Jesus refers to are the behaviours to be expected of the Christian because they alone have the power of the spirit within them. They alone have power over sin.
So the first point I want to make is that the beatitudes are addressed to Christians. And if that is the first point, then the second point must be that they are addressed to all Christians and not just to a select few of them. This is the fatal mistake of the Catholic Church. They have divided Christians into pairs: the saints and others, priests and congregation. But that is not what the bible tells us. There are no rankings among Christians. Look at the various epistles and see how they are written to “all the saints” or “the saints at Ephesus” or “the saints at Philippi”. All who are truly Christian are saints. People are of course though called to different offices in the church – as it says in Ephesians 4:11, he calls “some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers”. But they are all members of one body. It’s not the office that makes you a Christian, or a better Christian. Being a prophet doesn’t itself make you more holy. Being a pastor doesn’t make you holy. You know I once went to a wedding and the bride and groom, knowing I was a Christian, sat me next to the vicar for the reception. (You know I sometimes think that one of the proofs of being a Christian should be that you get sat next to the vicar at weddings! Has it ever happened to you?!) Anyway it was shortly before I was to be married too and the vicar asked me what hymns we were having. I told him that our first hymn was to be “Amazing Grace”. And you know what? He said “Is that really a hymn? I thought it was a pop song!”. No, being a vicar doesn’t make you a Christian.
So if there is no distinction among Christians, in the sense that you are either a Christian or you or not, and if the beatitudes are addressed to Christians -as they are - then it follows that the beatitudes are addressed to all Christians not just a chosen few of them.
The third general point I need to make is that all Christians are meant to manifest each of the 8 characteristics referred to in the beatitudes.
If you look at verse 3 you see that it says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” and then if you look at the last Beatitude in verse 10 you read “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”. This is a stylistic device called “inclusion”. It’s as though verse 3 and verse 10 are brackets around the whole Beatitudes making it clear that they are one whole. Therefore all Christians are to manifest all the characteristics mentioned in these verses.
It is true that some will be more manifest in some people than in others, but that is simply because of our imperfections. Were we all perfect we would all manifest each of these characteristics perfectly. The glory is that we will all one day be made perfect if we first set our foot on that spiritual journey. At the moment you’ve got to put up with my imperfections and I’ve got to put up with yours! But one day we will all be made perfect. What joy there will be in Heaven on that day!!
We are not made perfect through ourselves, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. The works that Jesus refers to in the beatitudes and indeed throughout the Sermon on the Mount are all works of the Holy Spirit and have nothing to do with our natural tendencies. We all have our own particular natural tendencies. I’m generally thought of as meek and mild (mind you get me behind the wheel of a car and you will see the real me! Wolf in sheep’s clothing then!). But the work of the Holy Spirit takes us beyond our human nature and causes us to behave in ways that are different to the paths we used to take. What the beatitudes really illustrate then is the essential differences between the Christian and the non-Christian.
So we come now to our consideration of the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.
It is not surprising that this is the first beatitude. There’s a great logic flowing through them all. Our Lord doesn’t simply pick out 8 random phrases. They all link together and they all follow on one from the other as we will see over the coming months. It’s not surprising that this one comes first therefore. It is fundamental for there is no entry into the Kingdom of Heaven without being poor in spirit. It lays down the baseline: only Christians can exhibit all the characteristics mentioned in these verses and you can’t be a Christian if you are not first “poor in spirit”.
So we must ask “What does it mean to be poor in spirit”? Notice it is “poor in spirit”, it is not just “poor”. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that being poor makes you more spiritual or commends poverty as something for which we should strive. Of course, it warns against the dangers of riches. For the rich man may rely on his worldly wealth and position that this brings without realising that this is of no value in the world to come. But it is equally wrong to rely on poverty to save us. It’s not our wealth or our lack of wealth that will deliver us on the day of judgment - it is our hearts, our relationship to our Saviour that will be our salvation.
It’s a poverty of spirit that Our Lord is concerned with. It’s man’s attitude to himself that matters. That is why it shows the complete difference between the Christian and the non-Christian. What Jesus says that characterises the Christian stands in complete and utter contrast to the world’s values. The world treasures self-confidence, self-reliance and self-assertion. This is how it judges success.
Look at the way the world interviews people for jobs. I do it myself. Who are the candidates who impress? – they are the ones who ooze self-confidence, the ones who are forceful. They are the ones we look at in preference to the others who are not so forthcoming because we see that as weakness. And we now even have a television show that lets us all see this in action. Have you watched the Apprentice? Who are the people who are going to be attractive to Alan Sugar? Is he going to select someone he perceives as weak and in need? Never!
It’s all about self-confidence, self-assurance and self-reliance. It pervades our whole society and leads to the erroneous notion that man can save this society through his own efforts – it leads to the false assumption that a perfect society can be produced by controlling it through Acts of Parliament. I’ve had a look as I’ve been preparing for this message over the last few weeks and done some arithmetic and I’ve found that on average there are around 300 Acts of Parliament passed each year. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. What the politicians do nowadays is within Acts of Parliament they give Secretaries of State to make further laws without the whole matter having to come back to Parliament for approval. The Secretaries of State do this by means of what are called Statutory Instruments. I’ve had a look at these too and I’ve found that there have been an average of 3,000 statutory instruments made every year. So law after law is passed, laws come and laws go, laws are changed and amended and then changed and amended again. And is our world any better for it? Is there any evidence that these Acts of Parliament and Statutory Instruments are making people behave any better? Well, I can’t complain – I make a living out of it – even if it’s hard work keeping up-to-date!
But the Gospel of Christ says the opposite to these worldly notions. It tells us clearly that it’s not about self-confidence, self-assurance, self-reliance or anything else within us. If you are going rely on yourself and your own power to get to heaven you are already lost because the kingdom of heaven doesn’t belong to such as you. It belongs to the “poor in spirit”. It’s no good relying on your physical strength, or your intelligence, or your wealth or your poverty. It’s no good relying on your family or the nation you were born in. It’s no good having any confidence in any of these things because all these things will decay and be valueless. You must be poor in spirit: you must realise your own worthlessness and powerlessness when you are confronted by the majesty of Almighty God and realise that there is nothing you can do but to look for a Saviour.
Self-confidence, self-assurance, self-reliance may all have their place when we are looking from the perspective of man to man. But what the Bible is concerned with is the relationship of man to God. If you don’t feel complete poverty of spirit when you come face-to-face with God then you’ve never really met him at all.
What it really means to be “poor in spirit” is best illustrated by the personalities we come across in the Bible. Take Gideon for example: (Judges 6:15) When the angel of the Lord appeared to him and gave him the job of rescuing Israel from the Midianites he didn't say "Wow, yes, I'm your man! I'm big and strong! I can sort this out, no problem!!" He said: “How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” You see it in Moses who thought himself unworthy of the task and you see it also in David when Saul offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage. He said in 1 Samuel 18:18 “Who am I and what is my family or my father’s clan in Israel, that I should become the King’s son-in-law.” You see it of course perhaps most famously in Isaiah when he experienced the presence of the Lord Almighty whilst he was in the temple. He realises his own utter inadequacy and cries out “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips”.
You see it in the New Testament too. Take Peter, for example, he was naturally full of confidence, naturally aggressive, naturally self-assertive. But look what happens to him when he sees the Lord: This is what we read in Luke 5 – he says “Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man”. And then there was Paul who was possessed of tremendous natural gifts. He gives a list of them in his Epistle to the Philippians “in regard to the law a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness faultless”. And yet, when he met Jesus on that road to Damascus, he realised the worthlessness of all these things and his own need of a saviour. As he said in Philippians 3 “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ … I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ … not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith”.
In Ancient Greek the word used for “poor” in this beatitude means “bend or cringe like a beggar”. It is exactly the same word that is used of the beggar in Luke 16. In classical Greek usage it was used of someone who crouches, who bends, who is ashamed, who wretchedly begs for money or for worth. It means to live beggarly, it simply describes someone who cannot survive of themselves, someone who cannot be self-sufficient - but someone who does not simply ask, does not work, but begs outside of himself for worth, for money, for wealth. That is what the New Testament word means - it could be literally translated 'beggarly poor', 'Blessed are the beggarly poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven'. 'Blessed are those who are so desperately poor in their spiritual resources that they realise that they must have help from outside sources, theirs is the kingdom of heaven'.
Are you poor in spirit like a beggar? Do you realise that you’ve nothing to offer God on the day of judgement that will be sufficient? Do you boast or are you humble? Are you going to rely on your own goodness or on God’s mercy? Are you going to rely on your reasoning or on Christ’s work? Beware you Christians too! Have you become complacent?. Is the reality that you’ve lost your first love? Do you boast that you are a Christian or do you boast of Christ. Imagine yourself as you step before your Lord and maker. What is your plea then? Are you going to say you deserve salvation because you’ve been a Christian for the last 20, 30, or 40 years? Are you going to boast of that? Are you going to boast of that title or are you going to boast of what Jesus has done. Only the beggar will inherit the kingdom of heaven. Only he that realises that he has done nothing but that God’s grace has done it all. The cross is all that matters. This is our only salvation. Come to the cross today. Kneel down at it’s root and look up at your saviour. Realise your need. Hold out empty hands. Reach out and cling to that cross and that cross alone. Cling to it as a drowning man clings to a lifeline and never letting go allow him to pull you from the stormy sea of life to the green pastures of life eternal.
Let us pray.
originally preached by David Talbot in Great Harwood, Lancashire on 13th April 2007