It’s Not What You Know, But Who You Know

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:19-20

It’s been another challenging week in the news.

Lightning struck a tree at the Tour Championship in Atlanta yesterday. It exploded, injuring six spectators with debris.

A New York Times article warned us that if the Yellowstone supervolcano were to erupt, it would be “like nothing humanity has ever experienced.” It would cover large parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah in up to three feet of volcanic ash.

The ash cloud would destroy crops, ruin power lines and transformers, plunge global temperatures, and devastate farming. One group of researchers called such an eruption “the greatest catastrophe since the dawn of civilization.”

In other news, an asteroid that could have leveled an entire city flew by our planet recently. What makes the story so frightening is that astronomers did not detect it until it passed us. If it had struck our planet, “it would have gone off like a very large nuclear weapon,” according to one scientist.

We could talk about the fact that shark attacks have doubled in highly populated areas in the last twenty years. Or the New Zealand teenager who may have exposed hundreds of people to measles when she visited Disneyland and other popular tourist destinations.

We are all mortal. This fact means that we must all prepare for what happens when this life ends. I cannot promise you that you will die this week, but I cannot promise you that you won’t.

But the good news is that if we will live for heaven on earth, we will live our very best life on earth. It’s as C. S. Lewis says: “Aim at heaven and you get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you get neither.”

How do we best “aim at heaven” today?

How to be great in heaven

Jesus’ Sermon continues: “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 19). Here Jesus shows us who will be great in heaven, and who will be least.

The “great” will be those who “practice and teach” the word of God. Both are crucial, and in this order. The “least” will be those who break the “least” of the commandments of God and influence others to do the same. Those who do not live by the word and will of God and lead others away from his word as well.

Practice and then preach. This is how we conform to the image of Christ, achieving God’s definition of success for our lives. This is how we are like Jesus, and how we help other people follow Jesus.

This is why Billy Graham is great in heaven—not because he has preached to two billion people, but because he first practiced what he preached.

Dr. Graham would not step onto an elevator alone if a woman was in that elevator alone. An associate always went into a hotel room before he did. He would not eat a meal alone with a woman except his wife. He did not take one dollar from the collections given at his Missions, drawing only a salary that was publicly disclosed. His team always undercounted the crowds at his meetings, lest he be accused of exaggeration.

Billy Graham was on Larry King Live twenty-four times. During one of their interviews, King asked Dr. Graham what his greatest fear in life might be. His answer: “My greatest fear is that I might do something before I die which would bring dishonor to my Lord.”

His life was his most powerful sermon. So is yours. So is mine.

How to miss heaven

So Jesus shows us how to be great in heaven. Now let’s ask an even more urgent question: how do we get there? “For I tell you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20 NIV).

“I tell you” shows that these words come from Jesus himself. Your righteousness must “surpass,” an emphatic word which means to go far beyond, to outdistance greatly. Your “righteousness” must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. What was theirs? What must ours be?

The Pharisees were a small group, never more than six thousand men. Their name meant “separated ones,” and it describes their passionate commitment to separation from regular life in obedience to the minutia of the Torah, the Law of God.

The Pharisees calculated that the Law contained 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, and they aspired to keep them all. As an example, they had thirty-nine categories of Sabbath laws. Not thirty-nine laws—thirty-nine categories. No group in human history has been more religious than were the Pharisees. If it were possible to go to heaven through human effort, their reservations in paradise would have been guaranteed.

But they were not: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” “Certainly not” is a double negative: “by no means,” “there is no way that” you can enter heaven unless you are more righteous before God than were the Pharisees, the most religiously righteous people on earth.

In other words, you cannot do enough or be religious enough to go to heaven. The ladder doesn’t climb high enough. Religion won’t work, no matter how much of it you do. If it didn’t work for the Pharisees, it won’t work for us.

But we try, and we think we’re successful.

Most Americans are nowhere as religious as were the Pharisees. By some estimates, less than 20 percent of Americans attend worship services regularly, and about one in three read the Bible even once a week.

But only 2 percent of us are afraid we might to go hell. When Mother Teresa died, 78 percent of Americans said they thought she was in heaven, but 87 percent were sure they would go there.

Why? Because we’re “good people.” We believe in God and live good lives. Most have a church membership where they attend at Christmas and Easter and occasionally through the year. And our good deeds and religious beliefs are good enough, we’ve decided. But they’re not.

How to go to heaven

So, how do we get there? How can our “righteousness” surpass that of the most religiously righteous people who have ever lived?

I remember well my last visit to the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels. They are beautiful, but they are also off limits to me. There is literally nothing I can do to earn the right to wear them.

I could renounce my American citizenship, move to England, and become a British citizen. I could serve in the British armed services and rise to their highest rank of office. I could immerse myself in British politics and become elected prime minister. But there is literally nothing I can do to achieve the status of royalty, for I was not born into the royal family. I need a different kind of achievement than is possible for me to realize.

So it is with the righteousness of God required to enter heaven. I cannot achieve it, nor can you, or the Queen of England for that matter. Only God can give this to us. This is the righteousness he gives to those who accept his Son as their Savior. Then we become the children of God—born into the family of God, born again into royalty.

This is the “righteousness” which surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees. This is the only righteousness that brings us to heaven.

Jesus explained it this way to the religious leader Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3 NIV). Paul added: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). No one. No Pharisee. No Baptist. Not Billy Graham. Not you or me.

You cannot get to heaven by what you do, but only by what Jesus has done. It’s not what you know, but Who you know. We must “put our faith in Christ Jesus.” Is Jesus your Lord and Master? Do you know him personally, intimately? Does he know you?


Today Jesus has shown us how to get to heaven and how to be great when we are there. Make him your Savior, your Lord. Then do his word and will and teach others as well. Follow Jesus, and help people follow Jesus. This is the gospel. It is so simple a child can understand it, and so profound we will spend our lives living it.

This is the gospel Billy Graham preached all over the world. It is the only way to heaven there is, and the only way we need.

Are you sure you are going to heaven? If you are, are you sure you will be great when you arrive? Will you receive eternal rewards that far outweigh their cost on earth? Are you living by the word of God and helping others live by the word of God?

When Cecil Sewell retired as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Union City, Tennessee, a town of ten thousand residents, his decision made no headlines in Dallas or across the nation. But he will truly be great in heaven.

In 1973, Rev. Sewell was leading a thriving church in Birmingham, Alabama, when the pastor search committee from a start-up church in Houston came to visit. Their church was so small and unimpressive that they did not show him pictures of its buildings. When they finally persuaded him to visit their church, they drove him around the area, hoping to impress him with the new homes and nearby college before they showed him their tiny campus.

Against all odds, he agreed to resign his large church and become their pastor. Later that year, he started a bus ministry to reach kids in the nearby apartment complexes. In August of 1973, that bus ministry invited me to his church. His wife, Sharon, led me to Christ. He baptized me and my brother, licensed and ordained me to ministry, and performed my father’s funeral and our wedding.

I have never known a man more committed to prayer and evangelism than Cecil Sewell. Every person I reach with God’s word is an extension of his ministry. I will be in heaven because he will be great in heaven.

Who will be in heaven because of you?

The Best Definition of Success

Topical Scripture: Judges 4:1-24

Sonora Smart Dodd, one of six children raised by a widower, thought there should be an annual day to honor fathers. She went to local churches, shopkeepers, and government officials with her idea. She was successful: Washington State celebrated the nation’s first statewide Father’s Day on June 19, 1910. President Nixon made the day a permanent national holiday in 1972.

Father’s Day is now that annual holiday when you try to find gifts that your father doesn’t have but would want. Another tie is probably not on the list.

You might consider a wi-fi coffeemaker, which your father can program through an app on his smartphone. Or rent him a day in a classic car (I would choose the 1974 Ford Bronco for $225). Or give him a day at car racing school.

As we think about gifts for fathers, let’s also consider what our heavenly Father wants fathers to give their children. There are two commitments we can make to God that will directly influence our families and our culture. Each of them is vital to the health of our souls as well. Together, they define a life a life well-lived.

As we continue our series in Judges, this week we come to a woman who changed the world. We will learn from her example how fathers and the rest of us can do the same.

Risk your present to the God of the future

Last week’s sin pattern persists in this week’s study: the judge dies, and the people return to their sins (Judges 4:1). God must bring judgment and punishment; this time he “sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor” (Judges 4:2).

Hazor was situated in the northern region of the Promised Land, in the area inhabited by the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun (v. 6; Joshua 19:32-39). Joshua had earlier exterminated its residents; it was the only city in that region which he destroyed by fire (Joshua 11:11–13). Later the Jabin Dynasty recovered power and restored the city. Solomon would later make it a fortified city and raise a levy to pay for the project (1 Kings 9:15). Its precise location is still disputed today, and several sites are suggested by archaeologists.

The commander of Jabin’s army was named Sisera (not a Canaanite name; perhaps he was a mercenary from a nearby nation). He commanded “nine hundred iron chariots,” perhaps a broad military coalition rather than the forces of a single city. Such an army is known to history; Pharaoh Thutmose III boasted of capturing 924 chariots at the battle of Megiddo in the fifteenth century BC.

These iron chariots gave Sisera and his soldiers complete advantage over the agrarian Hebrews. They could not outrun a chariot or defeat its protected driver in battle. So Sisera “cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years” until “they cried to the Lord for help” (Judges 4:3).

The only judge who was a prophet

His answer came in an unusual form: “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time” (v. 4). Her name means “Bee.” She is the only judge to be identified as a “prophet,” but not the only woman in the Bible with this ministry. Miriam (Exodus 15:20) was before her, and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and Philip’s “four daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:9) would follow after her.

A “prophet” or “prophetess” was less a foreteller of the future and more a forthteller of God’s word. The spiritual gift of “prophecy” and office of “prophet” can be linked to the ministry of preaching today (cf. Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Romans 12:6). In our text, Deborah functioned as one who gave God’s word to his people.

She was also “leading Israel” as a judge during this time: “She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided” (Judges 4:5). Other judges took their places of authority in the city gate; she held court under a palm tree. Her location was considerably south of Hazor, which may explain the fact that she was able to lead Israel from her palm tree while they were being oppressed by Jabin’s army to the north.

Deborah could have preserved her position and security, but her countrymen in the northern tribes were being oppressed and God had compassion on them. He used his prophetess to give his word to “Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali” (v. 6a). He lived in the region directly affected by Sisera and was apparently a likely choice to lead a rebellion against his oppression.

Deborah’s word came directly from God: “Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor” (v. 6b). This was a mighty army for the time. They were to hide atop Mount Tabor, 1843 feet above sea level, situated at the border between the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali and thus accessible to all.

God would then “lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands” (v. 7). The heavy, iron-clad chariots would perhaps founder in the plain along the Kishon, especially if heavy rains came (cf. Judges 5:4 (NIV), where “the clouds poured down water”). Sisera would think he was chasing his adversaries into a dead-end, but the defeat would be his.

All Barak was called to do was obey and the victory would be his, but he refused to lead the army’s rebellion unless Deborah went with him (Judges 4:8). So, she spoke prophetically again: “Very well, I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman” (v. 9).

Barak and Deborah led their army up the mountain and down into battle against Sisera, and “the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword” (v. 15). Barak pursued Sisera’s army back to their general’s home of Harosheth Haggoyim, and all fell by the sword (v. 16).

Lessons learned from a prophet of God

From this part of our story we learn two important facts. One: God will use anyone who will follow him by obedient faith. Neither Deborah nor Barak did anything to earn their selection as leaders of God’s people.

It was the same for Abraham, the father of their nation: “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you'” (Genesis 12:1). There is absolutely no indication that this future father to more than half of the world’s religious population did anything to earn this call on his life. He didn’t graduate from Harvard Law on his way to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Neither Abram, Deborah, or Barak had resumes, lists of achievements, merit with God.

Such is the pattern of Scripture. Noah saved the human race, then planted a vineyard and got drunk; Moses ran from Egyptian authorities for forty years before returning to free his people from them; Bathsheba overshadows Goliath on David’s resume; Peter denied Christ before he preached him; Saul murdered Christians before he taught them.

God uses the usable. He does not call the equipped—he equips the called. If God could call Deborah and Barak, what’s to keep him from calling you?

A second fact emerges from this part of our narrative: Obedience is the key to victory with God. If Barak and Deborah had been unwilling to climb Mount Tabor, they could not have ridden down its elevation to victory over Sisera. If they had not done what God said, when he said it, how he said it, they would have lost the battle.

Armies must follow their leaders if they are to be successful. Athletes must obey their coaches if they are to improve. Students must follow their teachers’ direction if they are to learn. We must follow God if he is to lead us.

Mother Teresa was opening an orphanage in New York City, and a press conference broke out. One reporter shouted the question, “How will you measure the success of this work?” The tiny nun turned to the camera, smiled, and said, “I don’t believe our Lord ever spoke of success. He spoke only of faithfulness in love.” Success is obedience with God.

Risk your present to God’s future, and you’ll have his victory.

Risk your future to the God of the present (Judges 4:17–24)

The battle was over, the forces of Deborah and Barak victorious. But Sisera was still on the run. And he knew where to go to hide.

“Heber the Kenite” had moved from his ancestral home in the southern part of Canaan to the northern area, to alight himself with Jabin king of Hazor (vv. 11, 17). “Kenite” means metalworker, perhaps indicating that Heber was an engineer partly responsible for creating the king’s fleet of iron chariots.

Sisera knew where Heber lived, and assumed he would be given safe haven. He found Heber’s wife at the foot of the tent. Jael (her name meant “Mountain Goat”) welcomed him inside. In their culture, only her father or husband would be permitted inside her tent, so the forces of Deborah and Barak would not think to look there for the general. She gave him goat’s milk for his thirst, enticing him to nap.

She then took the only implements available to her, a tent peg and hammer, and used them to kill the mighty general. In this way Deborah’s prophecy came to pass: the Lord handed Sisera over to a woman (v. 9). And the greatest enemy Israel knew was destroyed by the wife of one of their greatest traitors.

Jael is truly an unsung hero of Scripture. Her part in the story reminds us that God will use all who will be used, and that obedience is the key to success. What tent peg and hammer has he put into your hand this week?

This courageous woman could have acted to protect her security and relationship with her husband. She could have allowed Sisera to escape, and none would have blamed her. She risked her marriage and family, with no promise of material provision. She could have lost her home and even her life if her husband caught her in the act of killing Sisera. She trusted her future to the God of the present. And he continues to make her name great today.

What about the future most worries you today? Where is God leading you on an uncertain path? Where are you challenged to trust him with the results of your obedience? If you are faithful in tithes and offerings, will your financial needs be met? If you are willing to share your faith, will your friend still be your friend? If you are faithful to use your gifts for ministry, will you have time for your family and career?

Jael trusted her present to the God of the future and invites us to join her today. Remember: all of God there is, is in this moment.


If we trust our present to the God of the future, and our future to the God of the present, we position ourselves to be used by our Lord in transformative ways. Fathers can give their children no greater blessing. Children can pay their fathers no higher honor.

God will use anyone who will be used. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.

Think about it: the wealthiest man in Dallas is no more important to God than his gardener. Name the last five Nobel Peace Prize winners, or the Super Bowl champions of two years ago, or the World Series champions last year, or the monarch of Great Britain before Queen Elizabeth II. Every one of us can change the world. But only if we seek his will and surrender to his voice. Only if we measure success by obedience.

Do you?

The Key to True Righteousness

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:6

I saw some interesting signs recently:

  • On a plumber’s truck: “We repair what your husband fixed.”
  • At an optometrist’s office: “If you don’t see what you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.”
  • Outside a muffler shop: “No appointment necessary. We heard you coming.”
  • Seen at a café: “If our food, drinks, and service aren’t up to your standards, please lower your standards.”

We’re talking about success today. What drives you? What defines success for you? If you could be anything in the world, what would you be? What should you be?

Let’s ask Jesus.

What do you want?

“Blessed are the ones hungering and thirsting,” Jesus begins in the literal Greek. Our Lord assumes that we all hunger and thirst for something. He doesn’t say, “Blessed are you if you hunger and thirst . . .” He knows that we do. And of course, he’s right.

In his day people knew physical hunger and thirst every day. People died without food or water. Droughts weren’t a nuisance for the lawn, but a threat to life itself. Crop failures didn’t mean debt, but death. While our society has passed that place, we’re no less hungry and thirsty for the things that matter to us. We’re all driven by something.

Theologian Paul Tillich was right: we each have an “ultimate concern.” Something or someone which matters more than anything else to us. There’s something in your life which means success and significance to you: Raising successful children; becoming president of your company; retiring at fifty-five; publishing bestselling books; getting into the right school, making the right grades, having the right friends; becoming a famous artist or doctor or lawyer or scientist or singer or teacher; being “happy.”

What drives you? What should? How can you be sure that when you climb to the top of the ladder, it’s not leaning against the wrong wall? What constitutes success with God? What makes us “blessed” by God? For what should we “hunger and thirst” this morning?

What should you want?

“Hunger and thirst after righteousness,” Jesus continues. The Greek word here reduces to the idea of uprightness, of doing what is right. But there’s more to the word than that. Unpack it with me for a moment.

First, there’s an internal sense here—personal character and morality. Not just what you do, but who you are. Dwight Moody said that your character is what you do in the dark. It’s been said that what you are when no one is looking, is what you are.

“Righteousness” here requires personal, intimate holiness. A person whose attitudes and motives are just. The word means to be the same thing in private that you are in public, to be godly in character both places, every day.

One reason to value such righteousness is that what we are in the dark is usually exposed to the light. We read daily of business leaders who lied about the bottom line, fabricated profits, misrepresented in shareholder reports, and have to “take the fifth.” But there’s no fifth amendment with God.

A friend once said to me, “Happiness depends on circumstances; blessedness depends on character.”

“Righteousness” is first internal, and second horizontal. It points to our actions with others. The word means to practice uprightness and justice with all we know. Abigail Adams, wife of our second president, once wrote to her sister Elizabeth, “To be good, and do good, is the whole duty of man.”

Such horizontal righteousness is vital to our society. President George W. Bush made this eloquent and perceptive statement about corporate dishonesty: “All investment is an act of faith, and faith is earned by integrity. In the long run, there’s no capitalism without conscience; there is no wealth without character.”

“Righteousness” is internal, then horizontal. And it is vertical as well: being right with God. Righteous in the sense of keeping God’s commandments; living by his word; fulfilling his will; confessing our sins when we commit them; being sure nothing is wrong between us and our Father; walking close to him.

Jesus makes this the key to character, the attribute for which we must “hunger and thirst” each day, the pathway to “blessing.” If you can be only one thing, be righteous.

Niccolò Paganini was in concert with a full orchestra when a string snapped. He continued, improvising his solo. But then a second string snapped, then a third. Three limp strings hanging from Paganini’s violin. He continued and finished the difficult piece with one string. Then he played an encore piece on that one string. And then he held up the violin and said to the crowd, “Paganini and one string!”

What should your “one string” be? Jesus makes the answer clear today.

How do we achieve it?

So, here’s the practical question: How do we achieve “righteousness” with ourselves, others, and God? How do we play our lives on this string?

Here’s the first step: want to be righteous.

Decide that you will be godly in character, actions, and faith if you are nothing else. Choose holiness above everything. Hunger and thirst for it.

C. S. Lewis: “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.”

Settle for nothing less than righteousness as the central attribute of your character. Seek it with desperation and passion. Then you can receive it from God: “they will be filled,” satisfied completely. If you hunger to be righteous, your hunger will be satisfied. But you must hunger first. You must want this food before you can have it.

Second, admit that you are not righteous without God.

Here’s what God says of us: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:10–11). This is the biblical doctrine called “total depravity.” It means that every part of our lives is affected by sin.

The cancer has metastasized throughout the body of the patient. The patient can still read the paper, drink coffee, even go to work perhaps; but the disease is everywhere, and death is inevitable.

In the eyes of a holy God, “there is no one righteous.” Let’s see. Think about your last sin. That one sin alone is enough to keep you out of God’s perfect heaven. So admit that you cannot be righteous without the help of God.

Third, seek the righteousness of God by faith.

You cannot make yourself righteous. That’s why Jesus’ Beatitude is in the passive tense: “they will be filled.” Not “they will fill themselves,” for we cannot. This is not a call to try harder to be better. Not works righteousness. We can do better for a while, but ultimately, we’ll fall and fail again. I’ve tried. So have you.

Instead, accept this fact: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ is our righteousness. He will impart to us his Spirit, his holiness, his character. This is the exchanged life. Believe that Christ lives in your heart, by faith. Ask him to make himself real through your character, your personality. Ask him to help you exhibit the righteousness of God.

Give him time to do so. Meet him in Scripture, so he can transform your mind. Meet him in prayer, so he can transform your spirit. Meet him in worship, so he can transform your soul. Let the carpenter work with the wood, molding and shaping it into his own image. And believe that he is.

So, where do you need to be righteous this morning? Where are you grappling with sin or temptation—with yourself, with others, with God? Identify that issue right now. Hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God. Admit to him that you cannot make yourself righteous. Be sure that you’ve made Christ your Savior and Lord. Ask him for his character, his holiness, his power, his righteousness. Spend time with him, allowing him to transform you into his image. And you will be “blessed” indeed.


Our culture says good enough is good enough. So long as you’re as moral as the rest of us, you’re as moral as you need to be. Don’t stand out—don’t be different. Go along to get along.

Jesus says that if you want to live your best life, you must hunger and thirst for the righteousness only God can give. You must settle for nothing less than his character, his integrity, his Spirit powerfully working in and through your life. You must seek to be so much like Jesus that others see Jesus in you.

Can God do this?

A group of American ministers once visited England to hear some of her famous preachers. On a Sunday morning they attended the renowned City Temple. Some two thousand people filled the building, and the pastor’s forceful personality dominated the service. His voice was powerful, his message biblical, and the Americans left saying, “What a wonderful preacher is [name]!”

That night they heard Charles Spurgeon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. The building was much larger and the congregation more than twice the size. Spurgeon’s voice and oratory were the finest they had ever heard.

But the Americans soon forgot all about the building, the congregation, and the voice. They even overlooked their intention to compare the two preachers. When the service was over, they found themselves saying only, “What a wonderful Savior is Jesus Christ!”

What will people say about you this week?

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?