Intro – During a strike by British firefighters in January 1978, the British army assumed firefighting duties. So, when the cat of an elderly lady in London became trapped up a tree, she summoned an army unit. They came; they saw and they rescued, whereupon the grateful lady invited them all in for tea. A good time was had by all, and then the army went out, got into their vehicles and drove off, running over and killing the cat in the process. Rescuer turned failure. Just the feeling that Jesus feared His disciples might develop as they saw how tough things were about to get.
Which goes to prove that what looks like blessing may not be so. We can be and often are fooled and confused about true blessing. If the disciples had listened to the religionists of their day, they would have rejected Christ out of hand. But they chose Him. And tho they did not know it yet, hard times were coming as a result of that decision. Jesus is concerned that when adversity strikes, they may develop concern about whether or not they’ve made the right choice to leave all they’ve been taught and follow Him. Will they worry that the One they thought was their rescuer would get them killed? So here in the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, he is keen to assure them they have indeed chosen the way of blessing, tho it will not always look like it.
Note v. 20: “And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples.” It is to His disciples that this sermon is particularly addressed. Jesus’ ministry has caught the antagonistic scrutiny of the scribes and Pharisees – religious elite! And they are not happy campers. In particular, Jesus’s message of repentance galled them. They are shocked that He is not impressed with their righteousness. Messiah? They expected Messiah would set up His kingdom with them at the center, but Jesus says, “You must repent,” knowing they’ll kill Him.
So, He prepares His followers for what is coming. They’ve signed on, but things are not going to be what they expect. They are swimming upstream against everything they’ve ever been taught. But He assures them, they are the truly blessed people. He’s not telling them how to be blessed; He’s assuring them they already are – despite what it is going to look like. This sermon contrasts the religious approach – I obey, therefore I am accepted; and the gospel approach – I am accepted in Jesus Christ, therefore I obey. Tho oppressed, believers are blessed.
The Pharisees thought they were blessed. They were buying God off. “If I do these things, God must accept me.” Jesus looks His disciples right in the eyes and says, “No, you are are blessed. Despite being poor, hungry, and persecuted, you are blessed -- because your heart is toward God.”
The word “blessed” suggests this interpretation. Many translate it “happy”. Whole books assume it’s about how to be happy. But that is much too shallow. “Blessed” translates the Greek work μακαριοσ (makarios). It applies to people who fear, trust and reverence God. Psa 1:1-2, “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; 2) but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The ultimate in blessing is found in Psa 32: 1) Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2) Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Happiness is outside – dependent on circumstances; blessing is inside. It’s about forgiveness and cleansing. Blessing is an inside job; that’s why circumstances are irrelevant! To be blessed is to know God which renders all else immaterial.
Now, one other thing about blessing. Makarios specifically speaks of an already existing state of being. Jesus is not saying as many suppose, “Blessed are the people who do X because they will receive Y.” He is not exhorting. He is saying, “Blessed are those who are mine even though they experience X, because they receive Y.” Blessed people look at future reward.
Vv. 20-22 give four characteristics of those who are blessed – characteristics that the Pharisees and the world would mock as being signs of blessing. Vv. 24-26 Jesus contrasts these with the opposite of each – things the world holds precious. Jesus pronounces Woe on those. He is flying in the fact of human reason. Woe is a strong word. Jesus is saying, “Better you weren’t born if these things characterize your life.” The contrast is huge, so let’s look at the first pair.
I. Blessed are the Poor
V. 20, “And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” It’s a simple statement, but difficult to interpret. What exactly did Jesus mean?
The Poor – Some suggest Jesus is declaring a blessing on the physically poor. The impoverished. Those without material means. Most of the disciples were poor, and Jesus would be reminding them that it’s not about how much money you have in the bank.
James 2:5 reminds us, “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” The physically poor are prime candidates for God’s kingdom. In Luke 18 a rich ruler comes to Jesus seeking the kingdom. But confronted with the test of giving away his riches, he turned sadly away because “he was extremely rich.” Jesus remarked, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25). The more we have, the more we have pulling us away from Jesus. Things keep people out of the kingdom. The poor have the advantage of less pulling away from God.
But the primary target of Jesus’ comment is spiritual poverty. Several reasons. 1) First, if Jesus meant physical poverty, then every poor person would automatically inherit the kingdom of God and every rich person would automatically be eliminated. The Bible has believers both rich (like Abe, David, Zacchaeus) and poor. 2) We must always remember that God always looks on the heart. I Sam 16:7: For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” It’s what’s inside that counts – Jesus’ aim here is poverty of heart.
3) If doubt remains, the principle that Scripture to interprets Scripture nails this one. In Matthew’s version Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). Jesus clearly affirms the blessed are poor in spirit. Who are they? Very simple. Those who acknowledge they have nothing to bring to Christ; those who trust in Him alone as opposed to their own goodness. Poverty of spirit is humbling. That’s why so few people come to Christ. They won’t own their moral bankruptcy.
The apostles Jesus addresses had cut loose from all material moorings. They had left businesses, families and material security to follow him – exactly, by the way, the opposite of the teaching of the prosperity gospel preachers. They left all – but more importantly, they had given up all designs on their own ability to be accepted by God. Paul graphically described his own poverty of spirit in Phil 3:4-7, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Paul was a good Pharisee, but he realized to be accepted by God, he had to give up everything he had worked for all his life. All his goodness – negated as self-righteousness. He became poor in spirit and was blessed by gaining Christ!
In order to have Christ, Paul had to learn that even his Sunday best would never do. It was based in self-righteousness and would never do. Bob Newhart says, “I was an accountant. I wasn’t a very good accountant. I always felt if you got within two or three buck of it, that was close enough.” We would never go to a bank that got within 2 or 3 bucks, would we? We would never accept clothing that was only 1 or 2 sizes off. But we think God will accept anything over 50%. But, of course, He cannot. He can only accept those who realize they fall short of His glory. Our goodness will never do.
The Rich – Now, flip the coin. V. 24, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Who are the rich? Not the physically wealthy. If so, no rich people could be saved. And we know that contemporaries of Jesus, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea were believers. In fact, Jesus’ disciples included some women of wealth. Luke 8:3 was, “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” So it is not simply wealthy people that Jesus is talking about here.
Others have suggested that when Jesus says “rich” He is targeting anyone whose is focused on money – whether they have it or not! He’s talking to those whose god is money. But while it is true that the idol of material things keeps many from Christ, that is not Jesus’ main point in this verse. So who?
Remember, the “rich” contrast to the “poor”, and we’ve already seen that those are the poor in spirit – those who have given up personal merit as a way to God. The opposite of that – the rich – would, therefore, be those who are rich in good deeds -- those who think they can buy God’s favor with their goodness. They believe they have enough moral capital to buy God off.
This perfectly describes the Pharisees. They think they are rich toward God. They believe they put God under obligation to them by their actions. They think that Messiah, when he comes, will honor them for their moral rectitude. They have the whole population of Palestine revering their piety. That is the rich that Jesus is talking about – those who are morally wealthy in their own eyes, but whose hearts as black as sin.
Jesus saved some of His harshest words for those antagonists. His last sermon in Matt 23, aimed at Pharisees, is hard reading. He says in vv. 27-28, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful (outward moral compliance), but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness (hearts of sin and treachery). 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Man, that’s heavy artillery aimed squarely at those were rich in their own goodness.
The sum total of these two verses is this: “You who are poor in spirit, who have discarded any pretense that your righteousness could find acceptance with God, who have declared moral bankruptcy and repented of your sins –-- yours is the kingdom of God – RIGHT NOW. It is my rule in your hearts now and in heaven later. You own it all; it’s yours. But you who insist on your own righteousness have all you are ever going to get right now. Your consolation is the reverence of men that you have cultivated, but that will last only in this life; you have no credibility with God and no hope of being part of His kingdom glory.” Jesus’ message to all who are enamored of their own goodness is, “Enjoy it now because that’s all there is.” A few years of being revered by men followed by an eternity of unremitting regret.
It was this very spirit that Jesus condemned in His comments to the church at Laodicea in Rev 3:17, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing (that is, I’m good with God), not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” That’s describing anyone who thinks, “I’m getting in because I’m better than the next guy.”
A missionary to India was talking to an Indian – a Hindu who was so steeped in the idea of good works that he could not grasp the idea of salvation as a free gift. His own religion required that he walk 900 miles to Delhi on his knees to appease his gods. “Free” did not compute with him. He wanted his own moral wealth to offer God. Years passed and on the day that the missionary was leaving to return home, the man brought him a gift – a beautiful pearl. He explained that his own son lost his life retrieving it from the bottom of the sea. This missionary recoiled. “Thank you, my friend, but I can’t possibly take something so valuable. But I’d be happy to pay you for it.” At that the man was offended and upset. He said, “Don’t you realize? This pearl is priceless to me. Nothing you could offer could satisfy its value. It’s already been paid for by the life of my son.” And with his own words, the light came on. He suddenly saw the priceless value of the salvation the missionary had been teaching him about. He saw how utterly impossible it was that any good works could be acceptable to God in place of the sacrifice of his own son. He realize you can’t buy the gift of salvation; you can only accept it.
How about you? Is it religion, or relationship? If you have any thought of buying your way in by your works, give it up. Do it now. Wait not another minute. Declare bankruptcy. Repent of your sins and pride. Throw your good intentions in the trash where they belong and accept the righteousness of Jesus. It is humbling. But blessing comes to the impoverished in spirit. Repent your sins. And when you do, the kingdom of God is yours. Now – and forever. Don’t wait. Let’s pray.