A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on June 10, 2018.
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:1–5).
The spiritual culture of the world, the flesh, and the devil is subtle, pervasive, and consistent. Because we live our lives within this earthly kingdom, we are surrounded by its worldliness. Because it is where we live we become accustomed to its ways. It takes no training class to be indoctrinated to the world. Its subtle, pervasive, and consistent ways seek to conform us to its darkness.
To compliment this conforming, our sinful flesh is ever-present. You wake up with it. Go to bed with it. It is with you until death. So powerful is its influence that it uses the worldly tools to attack you where you are most vulnerable. One size does not fit all. It is a custom fit of fleshly desires for worldly temptations.
If this news were not bad enough, you also have a spiritual enemy, a fallen angel of light with minions at his disposal. He is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. He is neither omnipresent nor transcendent. He is neither immanent nor immutable. He is neither infinite nor sovereign. He is however a powerful spiritual creature who desires your destruction. He is an angel of light who craves your fall into darkness.
The subtlety of the world, flesh and devil is that you embrace them without recognition of evil. The pervasiveness of the world, the flesh, and the devil is that you need not seek them out. They surrounded you. The consistency of the world, the flesh, and the devil is that while you rest they do not. Such is the world in which we live. Such was the world that heard these words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). Jesus did not preach a message of acceptance of sin but of repentance. He knows the spiritual culture of the world, the flesh, and the devil upon the human heart and mind. He knows the conforming power of darkness upon the hearts and minds of even God’s covenant people. He knows that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He calls us to confess our sin (1 John 1:9) and to turn from it and to Him alone (Acts 3:19). By God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone to the glory of God alone we are saved from our sin, justified as righteous, adopted as children of God, and secured as eternal citizens of the kingdom of heaven. But, Christian beware: in Christ, our battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil not only continues it intensifies. Yet, by God’s grace through His indwelling Holy Spirit we are enabled to live for Christ our King, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, day-in-and-day-out within this earthly kingdom.
What does this look like? What are the marks of a citizen of the kingdom of heaven? In chapters five through seven of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus answers this question, in His Sermon on the Mount. To be clear, the Sermon on the Mount is not a lecture on human ethics, or a list of goals for living a better life. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount is not for everyone. It is exclusively for Christians, describing what life looks like for the Christian. So, we are going to take our time walking through these chapters, partly because of the way these passages have been abused in the past, and partly because we are so easily ensnared by the world, the flesh, and the devil, that we need to listen carefully to Jesus’ teaching. Today, we are looking only at the first five verses of the fifth chapter, in which we consider that the Christian is blessedly broken, mournfully comforted, and meekly rich.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). The Hebrew understanding of “blessed” does not translate easily into modern understanding. Some have sought to translate it as “happy,” but considering its use to describe the fickle nature of human emotion this word falls short. Blessed may be best understood comparatively. For example, the first psalm begins, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:1-2). The blessed man is one who is characterized by godliness. He has not earned a blessing by doing godly things. He is blessed by God, as evidenced in godly things.
Therefore, we can understand the term “blessed” as a state or condition of God’s gracious favor. We hear this clearly in the Apostle Paul’s use of Psalm 32: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin” (Rom. 4:7-8). Those who have by God’s grace repented and believed the gospel of Jesus Christ have been forgiven and continue justified in the imputed righteousness of Christ. What word would you use to describe such a person? Jesus uses the word “blessed.”
The blessed are characterized as “poor in spirit.” The Bible has much to say about economic poverty but not in this verse. Poverty of spirit is not economic, nor is it psychological. Poverty of spirit is to be bankrupt spiritually. The world would have us consider this a tragedy, but in the kingdom of heaven it defines us as citizens. If you think you have something to give God to merit His favor, you aren’t poor in spirit. If you think that tomorrow you will live a better life that God might save you, you aren’t spiritually bankrupt. If your prayer begins, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12), then you aren’t spiritually bankrupt. This is what a poor in spirit prayer sounds like: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).
Yet, to be poor in spirit is to be blessedly broken. Consider, why does Jesus teach his disciples to pray, “forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12)? Before a holy God, we are sinners, overdrawn on our spiritual accounts, and in incalculable sin debt. We cannot work our way out of it. God must act, and so He has! “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18). Only the Christian can sing:
He paid a debt He did not owe
I owed a debt I could not pay
I needed someone to wash my sins away
And now I sing a brand new song
Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.
Blessed indeed is the poor in spirit, for by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone to the glory of God alone, you are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. In other words, you are blessedly broken.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). We often think of mourning as experiential and reactive, as in mourning the death of a loved one. If however, blessed is a state of God’s gracious favor, then mourning is evidence of a right relationship with God and His heavenly kingdom. Because the blessed is poor in spirit, he mourns over his sinfulness. Paul mourned, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). He mourned over his sinfulness even as he knew the gospel truth: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7:25).
One might argue, if I am saved from my sin in Christ, why mourn over it? But, this is to confuse our justification with our sanctification. Indeed, in Christ we have been justified as righteous, but we still contend with “this body of death,” the flesh, in our sanctification. This is why the Christian life can be joyful yet mournful. Consider Isaiah’s response when he saw “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isa. 6:1). He did not boast in his goodness, but cried, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5). When confronted with the holiness of God, Isaiah mourned over his sinfulness.
But mourning is not wallowing in sin. The psalmist asks, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? (Ps. 130:3). And then declares, “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Ps. 130:4). For the Christian it is God’s grace that leads us to mourn our sin and be comforted in His forgiveness. In other words, we are mournfully comforted!
However, you cannot mourn over sin of which you are not conscious. Are you conscious of your own sin? (I know you are conscious of your neighbor’s sin, but what about you?) Would you pray that God would open your eyes to your own sinfulness that you may mourn? As your eyes are open, to your sin before God, remember the gospel. As Isaiah declared, “[Christ came] to bring good news to the poor… to bind up the brokenhearted…to comfort all who mourn” (Isa. 61:1-2). So, in Christ alone we are mournfully comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). As we understand our spiritual poverty, mourning over our sinfulness, it has an effect on us. It makes us meek. We begin to lose the arrogance of our self-sufficiency and rejoice in our dependence upon the Lord. Consider the life of the Apostle Peter, the daring and the bold, the broken and mournful. He slashed at the enemy with his dagger and denied the Lord thrice with his mouth. Yet, by God’s grace he was blessedly broken, mournfully comforted, and he became meekly rich, admonishing the Church: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Pet. 5:6).
Of course, the world, the flesh, and the devil would have us believe that the world revolves around us, that we exalt ourselves. Poet William Ernest Henley wrote,
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
This has a ring of truth; does it not? The rugged individualism of our “unconquerable soul” resonates with the pride of our flesh. But for the Christian, your soul has been conquered according to His providence. He is the Captain of your soul!
The meekness of Christ declares to our souls, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). It is in this blessedly broken, mournfully comforted meekness that we recognize the spiritual culture of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and see it for what it is: the culture of a temporal kingdom that will pass away. Our heavenly kingdom inheritance awaits us in a new heaven and new earth. Until that day we live as exiles in this earthly kingdom, living in Christ blessedly broken, mournfully comforted, and meekly rich lives to the glory of God.