THE TRUE BLESSINGS: A Study of the Sermon on the Mount (Part One)
In the greatest sermon ever preached, we find Jesus revealing to us how to be blessed by God. He virtually lays out a road map for our search for spiritual treasure, and yet many Christians live as if the map was lost and they never saw it. But the map is all here, and a careful reading of it will stop us from mixing up the blessings that the material world has to offer with the spiritual blessings Christ offers. For here we find the deepest understanding of how God wants us to live, and the promises that will become ours if we comply with His instructions.
Seeing the Multitudes
"And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:" Matthew 5:1-2 (NKJV)
There were many people present the day that Jesus preached this sermon, but when we read that He was "seeing the multitudes," it speaks to us of more than those present at that particular time. Jesus Christ, the Author of life, looked forward into the millions of lives that would be born on earth long after He was crucified and rose again. In His infinite knowledge, He saw each of us and prepared a message that would change our lives. The record of His words still lives on, divinely preserved for us for such a time as the present.
The fact that He was "seated" speaks to us of His established authority. Today we have the chairman of a department in universities, and that title signifies the highest authority in that institution for a particular subject. These college professors are sometimes referred to as the "English Chair," or the "History Chair," in a slang denoting their position. This whole concept comes down from Hebrew antiquity, where a Rabbi would teach sitting down when He was engaged in formal instruction. The leading teacher would take his rightful place in a large, generally well-decorated chair, and the students would literally sit at his feet. In this passage, the expert on life, the One who created all of us, explains to us how we are to live as His disciples in this fallen world. Moreover, He desires to teach these things to us again and again, for the word used here for teach also means "to teach and keep on teaching," meaning He was continually instructing them regarding these things.
He Opened His Mouth
We might say that we well know that Jesus must have opened His mouth if He were to teach the multitudes. However, there is a deeper meaning to this second verse. The Greek words used here refer to a person speaking the oracles of God. Greek culture was full of mythology and pagan religious beliefs, and the language has many phrases and words reserved for reference to deity. The terminology used here reveals to us that as God, Jesus is pouring out His heart in a very wonderful and solemn manner ? revealing to man things that had not been known up to this time in history.
In fact, let us understand the radical nature of this teaching. Never had a wise man or philosopher ever taught these things. Surely the spiritually bankrupt Pharisee leaders did not ? they were rather concerned with bilking widows and their own parents out of their possessions. The Romans had sent spies to listen to Jesus, and when they reported back to Caesar that Christ taught "love your enemies," they started laughing because the concept was so ridiculous. Rome had not conquered the world by "loving" their enemies. This was such a foreign concept that it was preposterous. Hopefully, after two thousand years of teaching these words are not preposterous to us, for if they still are, we have more in common with Rome than with Christ.
Not only the Romans, but the chief priests and members of the Sanhedrin had a problem with this also. They sent officers to arrest Jesus, but let us read what those officers said when they returned, in John 7:45-46, "Then the officers came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, ?Why have you not brought Him?? The officers answered, ?No man ever spoke like this Man!?" Indeed, no man ever spoke like Jesus. This is confirmed in Matthew 13:35 where we read, "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: ?I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world.?"
Unless I Wash You
When Jesus began to wash Peter?s feet, Peter at first declined, until Jesus told Peter that he would have no part of Him unless He washed him. Then Peter in his usual exuberant manner, asked Jesus to wash all of Him. Jesus replied that only his feet needed washing. The reason Jesus said that is probably because our feet are where we have contact with the world in the physical realm. However, in the spiritual realm, it is our minds that have contact with the world. Consequently, we read in Ephesians 5:26, that Jesus cleanses the church: "that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word". Yes, Jesus still comes to us to wash us today, with words He spoke many years ago, and we will find that those words are as relevant to us today as they have ever been. Nevertheless, let us remember that these words still seem like nonsense to the world, for the Pharisees and the Romans are still with us today, and for them, "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." 1Corinthians 1:18. Conversely, the things that they admire should be shunned by us, for in Luke 16:15 we read, "For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God."
Looking in all the Wrong Places
As Christ teaches us the way to joy, let us not be deceived into thinking that there is another path He did not mention. Even as there is no salvation under any other name, let us be assured that there is no other way of having His peace except in the manner He specifically prescribes. Therefore it is interesting to look at what He does not say will bring His blessing ? for surely He would have mentioned them if they had that power. The short list of things He never said would bring His joy and blessings are money, beauty, popularity, a good job, the respect of others, being part of a certain ethnic race, living in a certain country, having great intelligence, having great creative and artistic gifts, being in ministry, being a famous evangelist, being a celebrity, being a famous singer or actor, or being a famous athlete.
Of course, number one on the list is still number one with the world ? great wealth. But let us consider that man does not seek to be happy so that he may be rich, but the reverse: he seeks to be rich so that he may be happy ? his key interest is not the money itself but what he thinks it will bring him. However, Christ rules this out as the way to happiness, and in Proverbs 21:30 we read that, "There is no wisdom or understanding or counsel against the Lord." In other words, we cannot make it be the case. A life with no responsibilities, one in which we do not have to get up in the morning and work, may look good but it will not give us what we are seeking. Consequently, we must kiss it goodbye, and not believe this lie, for it is simply a deception to believe that money will solve our problems. It will not, because He has ordained that it will not. And by the way, it is interesting to read about studies of lottery winners who thought it would, but ended up broke and miserable and estranged from their friends and spouses after their big winnings.
Solomon is one case that stands out in proving that there is no wisdom against the Lord. He was evidently certain that if he just had one more wife or concubine he would have the blessing in his life that he craved. However, joy remained illusive to him because he sought it in opposition to God?s word. In Deuteronomy 17:17 we find specific instructions to kings: “Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself." Here God did say what would not bring joy ? but Solomon disregarded God?s warning, because in the natural realm the wives and wealth seemed to promise what he lacked. As a rich but sad old man he laments in Ecclesiastes 7:28, "Which my soul still seeks but I cannot find: One man among a thousand I have found, but a woman among all these I have not found."
Solomon was the smartest man who ever lived, but that did not keep him from falling into this worldly trap ? and Christians today are being deceived in this manner. The understanding that chasing worldly pleasures does not bring happiness may seem elementary and simple to us, but let us make no mistake about it, it is also sublime and foundational to our spiritual health.
Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit
Jesus begins His magnificent teaching with verse three:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Just what, however, does Jesus mean here by being blessed? Jesus was probably speaking in Aramaic, but the record of His words have been divinely preserved in Greek for us, and the word used here is another one that pertains to deity. The word is "makarios," and it means "deep, godlike joy." In Greek culture, the idea of a human being having godlike joy would be fantastic and unheard of. That word was reserved only for the gods, and man could not share in such a thing. And yet, here is Jesus teaching that it is available to man. Now this godlike joy is different from happiness. The etymology (historical origin) of the word happiness is revealed by the fact that it is composed of "hap" which also makes up happen or happenstance. We see then that happiness actually refers to a temporary, fleeting joy that does not last. Happiness depends on circumstances ? and that is typically how our emotions are manipulated by this carnal world ? through our circumstances. Jesus wants to give us something that will not fade away ? the godlike blessedness that is deep and serene and cannot be disturbed by outward events.
Consider the ocean and the fish that live in it. On the top of the water there may be many storms and winds blowing, or even hurricanes and tidal waves. But if we go deeper, way down into the lower places, there is a steady peace and calm that is never disturbed. In the depths of the ocean, the fish do not care what squall may be raging on the outside. And this is how God wants us to live, regardless of external circumstances. This is why Jesus said:
"Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." John 14:27 (NKJV)
The world gives a temporary "fix," a quick thrill that dissipates and evaporates. God wants to give us something permanent ? something that will especially stand out so that "you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you" (Kipling). Not only does he promise that it is something that the world cannot give, He also promises that it is something that the world cannot take away:
"Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you." John 16:22 (NKJV)
Yes, perhaps we are feeling sorrow even as we read this, and perhaps we feel that these promises are unreachable. But God never offers anything we cannot reach, nor is anything impossible with Him. And now that we understand what it means to be blessed, let us continue our quest to discern the meaning of the rest of this verse.
Who Are the Poor in Spirit?
Yes, who are these people, the "poor in spirit"? What does it mean to be this way, and why would such a condition be a blessing? Well, first of all, Jesus is not talking about financial poverty. This is not a reference to lacking money, but it is a spiritual analogy to physical poverty. And since it is an analogy, let us carefully look at the Greek words for poverty that are used, so that we may glimpse the parallel meaning for us in the spiritual realm ? for Christ is attempting to reveal something very important for our enlightenment.
There are several words in Greek for "poor," but the most commonly used one is penes, which means having barely enough to get by, but not starving. Penes describes those who work all day for their food and shelter and have little else. These are not people who buy luxuries ? they are rather "the working poor," who have minimal food and shelter. But there is another word that means complete poverty, and it is ptochos. This word means a person who is so poor that he is starving and cannot live much longer ? it is a person who is destitute and desperate ? who sees his life ebbing away because of a lack of nourishment.
If one were to guess which word Jesus used here for the poor in spirit, penes would probably be the first choice. However, the equivalent to the word He used here is ptochos, and this desperate word is used because it identifies the condition of the human spirit in its fallen condition. We know that God is triune. Even though He is one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit compose the Godhead ? the Trinity. However, they are so closely enmeshed, are so much part of each other, that they are also considered one. In the same manner we are tripartite ? we are composed of a body, soul, and a spirit.
The spirit is the highest part of our being, and it is also the part that enables us to have a relationship with God. This separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, and also makes us responsible for our deeds, whereas animals are not. Before we are saved, our spirit is dead, but when we are born again, the spirit is quickened, or made alive. The day we truly trust Christ for salvation, repent of our sins, and ask Him into our hearts, is the day that our spirits live again. We then have a relationship with God that we did not have. This is a spiritual experience which one must have to go to heaven, and this is why Jesus said, in John 3:3, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
The Blessing of Knowing What You Lack
There is, then, a blessing in knowing what you do not have, so that you can acquire it. If we know that we are spiritually lacking, then we can seek Him and find Him. But if we think we are fine although we have no relationship with God, if we do not admit that we have a need to be forgiven, if we insist that we are righteous when we sin every day, then indeed we are in the saddest of positions. Peter was tested in this manner. He was certainly a brave man, for when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, and some say there were as many as eight hundred of them, he pulled out his sword to fight. No man pulls out his sword against that many soldiers, when it means certain death, unless he is brave.
Nevertheless, Jesus had told Peter that he would be tested, but Peter was relying on his own courage. He made a fair show at the beginning, but as soon as Jesus was taken away we find Peter not only denying that he ever knew Christ, but also calling down curses on Him. Why such a change? Why such a dichotomy of personality? The answer lies in the fact that Peter did not understand that his victory rested in a spiritual relationship with God ? he had not apprehended the words Jesus spoke in John 15:5, "without Me you can do nothing." After his failure, however, he must have learned this lesson well; for secular history records that rather than deny his faith he was eventually crucified, and even requested that they nail him to the cross upside down because he deemed himself unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Savior.
The lesson for us here is that we are blessed before coming to Christ if we have the revelation of how much we need Him, and we are blessed after we are saved if we continue in the humility of knowing how much we need Him. In other words, one might say that we are blessed when we realize our own helplessness, sinfulness, and need of divine help ? because then we can acquire that help from God. This type of thinking should not damage our self-esteem ? for it is based on simple fact. Obviously God values each one of us higher than we can imagine if He would die for us. It is simply a reality to understand our position in the world. Lowliness is the beginning of holiness, and it is in humility that we find God and continue to progress in Him.
There is no room for egos at the foot of the cross, and to the extent we allow pride to inflate us, we will lack the presence and blessing of God, for we read in James 4:6 that "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." And what grace He gives the humble ? the poor in spirit! He makes them spiritually rich, useful for His kingdom, and a blessing to those who come in contact with them. Moreover, He gives them a joy that cannot be given or taken away by the world or its circumstances. Our lives may be a roller coaster of losses and victories ? and in fact, they will be such. Nevertheless, if we believe Christ?s eternal words, peace can prevail in our hearts at a deeper level for Jesus tells us in Mark 9:23 “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”