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.”