The Keys to True Comfort

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:4

Memorial Day may be the most confusing holiday of the year. It began in 1864 in response to the Battle of Gettysburg when women from Pennsylvania put flowers on the graves of their fallen soldiers. The next year, a group of women decorated the graves of soldiers buried in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The year after the Civil War ended, communities began organizing events to honor their fallen soldiers. The holiday became known as Decoration Day and wasn’t officially changed to Memorial Day until 1967.

As the son and grandson of military veterans, I know something of the sacrifices so many men and women have made to preserve our freedom. On this day we remember with gratitude the 1.1 million soldiers from all our wars who died so we could live.

At the same time, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. Barbeques and parties mark the holiday. Americans will consume 818 hot dogs every second from Memorial Day to Labor Day (seven billion in total). We will purchase $1.5 billion in meat and seafood for the holiday. More than forty-two million of us will travel over the weekend.

We’re celebrating at the same time we’re remembering.

Last week we began a summer series in the Beatitudes, the eight statements of Jesus that serve as the foundation for the Sermon on the Mount. Today we come to his second beatitude. In light of our text, it seems entirely appropriate on this weekend that we learn how to hold mourning and celebrating together.

The beatitude is simple: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). And yet its complexities are deeper than our finite minds can fully understand.

Today we’ll claim God’s promise to us: we will mourn, but we will be comforted. Where is his statement relevant to you?

Seek to be “blessed”

Let’s begin with some background.

Jesus has launched his public ministry. Scripture says that “his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:24–25).

In response, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on a mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them” (Matthew 5:1–2). This is the area marked by the Church of the Beatitudes, a Franciscan chapel completed in 1938. Somewhere in this area, Jesus preached the most famous sermon of all time.

His first beatitude laid the foundation for all the others: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 3). To be “poor in spirit” is to know how desperately we need God. When we admit that fact, we make God our king and advance the “kingdom of heaven.” Then we are “blessed” with God’s best.

The second beatitude begins in the same way: “Blessed.” This is a translation of the Greek word, Makarios, meaning “a sense of wellbeing that transcends circumstances.” Our culture offers happiness based on happenings, but Jesus offers blessedness based on his grace. Our culture offers us what our circumstances can give but Jesus offers us what no circumstance can give or take.

Don’t settle for happiness. Don’t settle for what the world can steal. Don’t settle for anything but God’s best.

How do we experience it? Admit how much we need God, how much he could do with our lives if he were fully our king. Envision what it would be like to be led by his omniscience and empowered by his omnipotence. Then make him king of every dimension of our lives.

Expect to mourn

But such blessedness does not insulate us from suffering. The opposite, in fact. The second beatitude does not say, “Blessed are those who might mourn” or “who happen to mourn,” but “who mourn.” The implication is that everyone will mourn. And this is a fact.

“Mourn” translates penthountes, which describes a kind of grief so deep that it takes possession of the entire person and cannot be hidden. Genesis 37 uses it to describe Jacob’s grief upon learning of the supposed death of his son, Joseph (verse 34).

What causes such mourning?

We mourn our losses. The death of my father at the age of fifty-five is still the great loss of my life. He died ten days before Christmas in 1979. He never saw me married or heard me preach. He never met my sons (he would have been a wonderful grandfather).

The survivors of our war dead are mourning on this Memorial Day, and we mourn with them. What other losses are you mourning today?

We mourn our failures. We all have mistakes in our past that we would pay a high price to correct. Things we did but should not have done; things we did not do but should have done. People we hurt; opportunities we missed. I had a friend in high school who took his own life. I will wonder for the rest of my life what I could have done to help him.

What failures are you mourning today?

We mourn our sins. These are moral failures, things we thought, said, and did that violated the word and will of God. After David committed adultery with Bathsheba then arranged for the death of her husband, he said to God, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). We all know the feeling.

Expect to be comforted

So we’ve seen the mourning side of our Memorial Day study; now let’s move to the celebrating side: “for they shall be comforted.” The Greek means literally, “they shall be encouraged” or “they shall be invited in.”

Note that this is unconditional: not, “they may be comforted” but “they shall be comforted.” This is a future indicative, the promise of an absolute fact.

And yet, so many in our world mourn but are not comforted. How can God make this promise?

The first beatitude empowers the second. When I admit how much I need God, I bring my grief to him. I don’t try to handle it myself. I don’t ask other people to do what only God can do. I bring it directly and unconditionally to God. I make him the king of it.

I give him my grief over my father’s death. I trust him with my failures and mistakes. I ask him to forgive my sins and transgressions.

And when I do, I “shall be comforted.”

The challenge is, we must give our mourning to God to receive his comfort. His word teaches: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).

Have you done this? Have you named your grief, your failure, your sin, and made him the King of it? Have you put it in his hands and left it there?

If you will, God will comfort you. His Spirit will speak to your spirit, giving you the “peace of God.” He will work through circumstances to bring you strength and help. His word will give you guidance and hope. He will lead people to bring you his wisdom and presence.

I don’t know all the ways God will comfort you when you give him your mourning, but I promise you that he will:

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted” (Isaiah 49:13).

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28–29).

Dwight Moody was right: “God never made a promise that was too good to be true.”

Look for ways to comfort others

Expect to mourn, and when you trust your mourning to God, expect to be comforted. One last principle: look for ways to comfort others. One of the most significant ways God comforts us is by using us to help others.

I believe that God redeems all he allows. One way he redeems our suffering is by using it to help us help other people who are suffering.

His word is clear: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).

When my son, Ryan, was diagnosed with cancer, people who had dealt with cancer could help us as others could not. When you have faced tragedy and struggles, people who have been where you are were God’s instruments of healing.

Now we are called to pay it forward, to help others as we were helped, to be wounded healers.

Ask God to guide you to someone who is going through what you’ve been through. Ask him to open your eyes and heart to people he wants you to serve. Ask him to redeem your mourning by using it to comfort someone who is mourning. And know that he will.


The day after my father died, a friend from college named Ricky Wilcox drove across Houston to stay with me. I don’t remember that he said anything at all. He was just there. And I’ll never forget his kindness and the presence of Jesus I sensed in him.

I didn’t see him again that semester, then I graduated from school, got married, and moved on to seminary. I have not seen him since. I don’t know where Ricky is today.

But I know this: he was God’s gift to me that day. I want to pay that gift forward to you today.

Now it’s your turn.

The Surprising Path to True Success

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:1-3

Israel has been the hinge of history for forty centuries. From the time of Abraham to today, superpowers to the south and the north have fought on its narrow plains. One city, Megiddo, was destroyed and rebuilt twenty-seven times. Jerusalem has been besieged fifty times and destroyed ten times.

Across the country’s remarkable history, with all the armies and generals and conquerors and pharaohs that have marched on its lands, it is shocking that the most important figure of all was an itinerant Galilean rabbi. And that the most important sermon ever preached was preached on a hillside by him.

This summer, we will explore that sermon and its surprising path to true success. Each week, we’ll discover another principle that flies in the face of our culture and illumines the way to the life God wants for us.

We begin with background for the Sermon on the Mount. Then we’ll discuss its first verse as foundational to all the rest and to true success today.

Sermons before the Sermon

Matthew’s Gospel reports that after Jesus’ baptism and wilderness temptations, he left Nazareth and “lived in Capernaum by the sea” (Matthew 4:13). Capernaum was one of the most significant business centers in the Galilee. It stood on one of the main branches of the Via Maris, the main intercontinental highway in the region, bringing trade from across the world.

It was a major agricultural center, feeding thousands with its produce. It was the leading fishing center in Israel, supplying salted fish to the nation. And it stood on a major political border crossing, bringing taxes and revenue to the Roman Empire.

It was here that Jesus based his public ministry. It was here that he “began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'” (v. 17). It was here that he called his first disciples along the shore of the Sea of Galilee (vv. 18–22). It was here that “great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (v. 25).

And it was here that, “seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him (Matthew 5:1). This verse makes it clear that the Sermon on the Mount is intended for disciples of Jesus. While the crowds heard it, its focus was on his followers. It tells us not how to become Christians but how to live as Christians.

And it offers us divine wisdom for every soul and need. “He opened his mouth and taught them” translates a Greek phrase that described a divine oracle delivered to humans. These are not suggestions or ideals but commands and principles from God to us.

At every turn, they turn upside down the conventional wisdom of his day—and ours.

What it means to be “blessed”

The most famous sermon in human history begins simply: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 3). Every word is worthy of our study and application.

“Blessed” points to a sense of wellbeing that transcends our circumstances. The culture seeks happiness, but that is based on happenings. Jesus offers us something much higher and deeper, a joy and peace that the world cannot give or take.

The religions of his day were built on transactions. Jews brought their sacrifices to their temple and sought to obey their 613 laws. Romans made their sacrifices to their gods as well and sought to placate them with their service.

Neither could make their followers “blessed.” Neither could offer forgiveness and security of salvation. Neither could offer true peace with God, others, or ourselves. Like all religions, they sought to climb up to God. But no stairs on earth can reach into heaven.

What it means to be “poor in spirit”

By contrast, Jesus tells us, “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Right now, this moment. Not just in heaven, but on earth as well.

Note the definite article: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” They and they alone qualify. So, what does it mean to be “poor in spirit”?

Greek is a fascinating language. Its vocabulary is considered the richest in the world, with more than five million words. (By contrast, the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains entries for 171,476 words).

For example, Greek has two very different words that are translated into English as “poor.” One is penes, which describes a person who has nothing to spare. This is the family living hand to mouth, surviving paycheck to paycheck. But this is not the word in our text.

Our text employs a different Greek word: ptochos, which describes a person who has nothing at all. This is the family that is starving to death, who has no idea where their next meal is coming from.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are starving to death spiritually.” The Message puts it: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.” The New English Bible says, “Blessed are those who know their need of God.”

This is the exact opposite of how Jesus’ culture and ours measure success. Jews believed that material prosperity was a direct sign of divine blessing. Romans believed the same. Both wanted as much financial means as they could possess, seeking to be as wealthy and healthy as possible.

None would say that a person who was starving spiritually was blessed. But that’s exactly Jesus’ claim.

Why we must be dependent to be blessed

Why? “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

This concept is referenced more than thirty times in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus gave us its most succinct definition when he taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). God’s kingdom comes when his will is done. His kingdom comes when he is King.

Why must we be “poor in spirit” to do the will of God and make him our King?

Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that the “will to power” is the basic drive in human nature. In his view, everything we do is motivated by a quest for more power over the world, others, and ourselves.

Nietzsche was right. The essential temptation in human experience is the first temptation in human experience: “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). Each of us wants to be our own God. We want to be king of our kingdom, ruler of our world.

It is only when we recognize how broken we are and how desperately we need God that we turn from ourselves to him. Only when we are spiritually starved will we get off the throne of our hearts and elevate him there. Only when we are desperate will we become dependent.

And when we are dependent, we position ourselves to receive all that our Father wants for his children. When we are dependent, we will follow his leading into his “good and acceptable and perfect” will (Romans 12:2). When we are dependent, we will yield to his Spirit’s power and direction (Ephesians 5:18).

When we are dependent, we are blessed.

Three steps to true success

This verse is foundational to all that follow. If we will not admit our need of God, we will not obey the words that his Son gave us. We will not heed his principles and live out his truths. And we cannot be “blessed.”

So, let’s summarize the first beatitude with three steps to true success.

First: Measure success by spirituality. Unlike Jesus’ culture and ours, our Lord knows that material success is fleeting but spiritual success is eternal. He knows that our souls outlive our bodies; that eternity is longer than today; that heaven is more important than earth. He calls us to measure success by his definitions, not ours.

Second: Measure spirituality by dependence on God. The more we are “poor in spirit,” the more we admit our desperation for God’s wisdom, direction, healing, forgiveness, and grace, the more we will have what we need.

Third: Measure dependence by obedience. When we are truly “poor in spirit,” we will do the will of God at any cost. Then we will advance the kingdom of God and make Christ our King.


Of all the beatitudes, this one is not only the most foundational—it is also the most surprising and countercultural, then and today.

So, here’s my question: Are you “poor in spirit”? Do you know how much you need Jesus? Or are you separating Sunday from Monday, the spiritual from the secular, religion from the “real world”? Are you confining the Lord of the universe to part of your life, or are you seeking his will and word for every dimension of your life?

We can get there in one of two ways: through our problems, or through our potential.

We can let our challenges drive us to God, getting so far down we have nowhere to go but up. Or we can envision what our lives could be like if we were truly dependent on our King. If his omniscience led us and his omnipotence empowered us.

Think of the difference we could make in our culture if the God of the universe were in complete control of us. Think of the souls that would be saved, the lives that would be changed, the ways God would be glorified if we were “poor in spirit.”

C. S. Lewis: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Are you?