A. The Poor in Spirit – 5:3
What this beatitude does not mean:
· Jesus does not mean blessed in spirit are the poor, as if to say that material poverty is in and of itself a virtue. For if it were, “then it would be an unchristian thing for a Christian or any other person to seek to alleviate the burdens of the destitute and the starving. It would mean seeking to abolish that which actually brings them closer to God and to His happiness. If this were the meaning, it would not be right to attempt to relieve those who are starving in war-torn countries. It would not be right to try and provide for the refugees left homeless by natural calamities. There could be no social programs within the Christian churches. There could be no orphanages, no hospitals or inner city missions. None of these things would be Christian if this verse taught that spiritual blessedness was to be derived from material poverty” (Boice, 22).
[Having said this, we must not lose sight of the fact that there is, generally speaking, among the economically deprived a deeper and more intense desire for God and humble reliance upon Him. Those who suffer from sustained social distress have no one else in whom they might place their confidence.]
· Jesus does not mean blessed are the poor-spirited, as if to say that those who experience a deficiency of courage and vitality and zeal are more pleasing to God than others. This is not an endorsement of depression or laziness or the lack of enthusiasm. Jesus is not saying that the introvert, passive personality is more spiritual than the extrovert, aggressive sort. Neither is Jesus saying that the person with low self-esteem or a poor self-image is more spiritual than anyone else. This beatitude has nothing to do with the nature of one’s personality (unless, of course, features of one’s personality are decidedly unbiblical).
What this beatitude does mean:
Although Jesus is not concerned here with financial poverty, he does draw on the analogy of material destitution to make his point. There are two Greek words normally used to refer to the poor: (1) penichros, used of the widow in Luke 21 who had only two small copper coins (she was poor, but at least she had something); and (2) ptochos, the word used here, which means utterly destitute, with no means of self-support, wholly dependent on someone else for sustenance.
In the OT the financially poor and destitute were the powerless and the dependent. Being materially deprived they were frequently exploited by the rich and powerful. This required that they rely solely upon God for protection and sustenance. Here, however, it is the spirit, not the pocketbook, that is poor. In other words, just as he who is without money is wholly dependent on God for physical sustenance, so also he who is without merit is wholly dependent on God for spiritual sustenance. Jesus is pronouncing blessed the person who says: “I don’t have a dime’s worth of merit; no righteousness with which I might purchase admission into God’s kingdom.”
Poverty of spirit, then, is the acknowledgment of spiritual bankruptcy, the conscious confession of absolute spiritual destitution before God. The poor in spirit is the person who senses deeply in their heart that they are impoverished and approaches God on no other basis than that of need. This is the person who banks solely on the righteousness God provides through grace. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17; cf. Jer. 9:23-24).
“The way to rise in the kingdom is to sink in ourselves” (Spurgeon, 21).
Why is this beatitude first? Because poverty of spirit is the foundation of all other virtues. It is only when we acknowledge that we are empty that God can begin to fill us with righteousness. “Till we are poor in spirit,” writes Watson, “we are not capable of receiving grace. He who is swollen with an opinion of self-excellency and self-sufficiency, is not fit for Christ. He is full already. If the hand be full of pebbles, it cannot receive gold. The glass is first emptied before you pour in wine. God first empties a man of himself, before he pours in the precious wine of his grace” (43). Furthermore, “till we are poor in spirit, Christ is never precious. Before we see our own wants, we never see Christ’s worth. Poverty of spirit is salt and seasoning, the sauce which makes Christ relish sweet to the soul. . . . When a man sees himself almost wounded to death, how precious will the balm of Christ’s blood be to him!” (43).
“Because you say ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17-18).
See esp. Phil. 3:3-8.
As for the reward, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” be it noted that Jesus uses the present tense “is”, not the future tense “shall be.” “Because Jesus is present, the kingdom is already present, already theirs despite contradictory appearances” (Hagner, 92). Still, though, there is an eschatological consummation to the experience of all the kingdom entails for the children of God.
B. Those who Mourn – 5:4
Again, we must begin by disspelling confusion about what it means to “mourn”.
· It does not mean that we are to be perpetually morose, always weeping. Jesus is not speaking of the person who is naturally melancholy, walks slightly slumped over and mumbles his words.
· This is not that sort of mourning which is the fruit of self-pity, as when people weep because of dissatisfaction with their job, appearance, or lot in life.
· This mourning is not the product of outward loss, whether material or relational in nature.
· There is what Watson calls a “diabolical mourning” when a man mourns that can’t satisfy his lust or when we mourn the absence of some possession we covet. See also Mt. 6:16.
· Neither is this despair. Judas Iscariot recognized his sin, was sorry, made confession and restitution, yet did not “mourn” as Jesus had in mind. There is a difference between such “despair” and spiritual “mourning.” The former does not look to Christ but to self.
· This is not the sort of mourning that laments the consequences more than the crime, the sentence more than the sin.
Here is what Jesus had in mind.
· This is the spiritual counterpart to poverty of spirit. “It is one thing to be spiritually poor and acknowledge it; it is another to grieve and to mourn over it. Or, . . . confession is one thing, contrition is another” (Stott, 41). We must do more than acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy; we must agonize over it.
· This is not the sorrow of bereavement, but of repentance. It is personal grief over personal sin (cf. Isa. 6:5; Rom. 7:24). It is grief for particular sins, not simply sin in general. When a man is sick he does not say to the doctor: “I don’t feel well” and leave it at that. He points to his wound and specifies his pain. Speaking of sins in general can easily become a cover for denying sins in particular.
· This is the sort of spiritual mourning that makes us more holy. “Our tears drown our sins. We must not only mourn but turn” (Watson, 65). See Joel 2:12-13. Again, Watson asks: “What is it to have a watery eye and a whorish heart?” (65).
· This is also sorrow over the sins of others. “Most of us would prefer merely to condemn. We are prepared to walk with Jesus through Matthew 23 and repeat his pronouncements of doom; but we stop before we get to the end of the chapter and join him in weeping over the city” (Carson, 19). See Mark 3:5; Phil. 3:18; Psalm 119:136; Daniel 9. Do we mourn over the loss of truth, integrity, and decency in our society? In our churches?
· James writes, “Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you” (4:9-10). This is not an indictment of joy or a demand for perpetual sadness. The context of James 4 indicates that he is addressing people who had become flippant, casual, and indifferent toward sin because of their “love affair” with the world. This, then, is a call for sober repentance.
In summary, we are to be mournful but not morose, serious but not sullen, sober-minded but not cold or prohibitive.
Their reward: “they shall be comforted.” These people “exchange the sackcloth of mourning for a garment of praise, the ashes of grief for the oil of gladness” (Carson, 19). The key to this experience is the reality of forgiveness. Cf. Rom. 7:25a (“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!”); 2 Cor. 1:3-5. The ultimate fulfillment of this promise is found in Rev. 21:4.
C. Those who are Meek – 5:5
The word Jesus uses is praus (cf. the use of prautes in Gal. 5:23; 6:1). What is the essence of “meekness” or “humility”? Bobby Knight, boisterous basketball coach at Indiana University, once said: “The meek may well inherit the earth, but they rarely get rebounds!” This comment reveals the common misconception of meekness: that it entails indolence, laziness, weakness of heart, a sort of mental and emotional flabbiness, perhaps a fear of expressing oneself forcefully, lack of aggression, a tendency to compromise when the truth is at stake. Others would identify meekness with a docile, dependent personality. No.
· Although meekness is not weakness, let us not lose sight of an essential element: tenderness and sensitivity, a capacity to deal gently and compassionately with others.
· An essential element in meekness is the willingness to allow others to say about me the same things I readily acknowledge before God.
· The meek person is not easily provoked: “A meek spirit, like wet tinder, will not easily take fire” (?). Again: “Those who seek my life lay snares for me; and those who seek to injure me have threatened destruction, and they devise treachery all day long. But I, like a deaf man, do not hear; and I am like a dumb man who does not open his mouth” (Ps. 38:12-13).
· Meekness is the antithesis of hastiness, malice, revenge.
· Meekness is living in accordance with the abilities God has given us, neither as if we had more nor less; neither pressing ourselves into situations we are not equipped to handle (for fear that if we don’t people will lose respect for us), nor shying away from those we can.
· Meekness is being like Jesus: “I am gentle and humble in heart” (Mt. 11:29; Phil. 2:5-11).
· The key to meekness/humility is a healthy acknowledgement of and submission to the sovereign grace of God. In 1 Cor. 4:7, Paul writes: “For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” Meekness should always be in direct proportion to one’s grasp of grace. Pride is the fruit of the lie that what I have I didn’t receive. Meekness or humility is the fruit of the truth that everything is of God. See also John 3:22-30, esp. vv. 27 and 30.
The reward: “they shall inherit the earth,” a clear allusion to Psalm 37:9,11,29. Not merely the “land,” but the “earth”! See Rom. 4:13 where “world” replaces “earth”; 1 Cor. 3:21-23 and especially Heb. 11:8-13.
D. Those who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness – 5:6
If we are to grasp our Lord’s meaning we must envision the worst imaginable condition of physical hunger and thirst, the sort we often see in third world countries. . . . Here Jesus says, “Blessed are those whose appetite and thirst for righteousness is as intense as that of starving children for food and water!” Are we as hungry for righteousness as they are for food? Are we willing to go to any lengths necessary to obtain it? Is there anything you are not willing to give up to get it? Do you feel in your heart the same depth of spiritual anguish, for lack of righteousness, that a starving child feels in his stomach, for lack of food and in his mouth for lack of water?
The pursuit of righteousness is not altogether a popular thing even among Christians:
“Many today are prepared to seek other things: spiritual maturity, real happiness, the Spirit’s power, effective witnessing skills. Other people chase from preacher to preacher and conference to conference seeking some vague ‘blessing’ from on high. They hunger for spiritual experience, they thirst for the consciousness of God. But how many hunger and thirst for righteousness?” (Carson, 21).
Jesus has in mind zeal for purity in conduct, in thought, in language, in action, in our feelings. He is talking about the person who yearns for the unholy to become holy, for the whole of life to be a reflection of the righteousness of God himself. [Be it noted, however, that not everyone thinks Jesus is referring to personal holiness. Hagner contends that the Greek word dikaiosune, translated “righteousness,” here means justice. “The poor, the grieving, and the downtrodden (i.e., those who have experienced injustice) are by definition those who long for God to act” (93). Perhaps both ideas are involved, as Spurgeon’s words would seem to indicate:
“With hunger and thirst he cries, ‘Lord, end the reign of sin! Lord, cast down idols! Lord, chase error from the earth! Lord, turn men from lust, and avarice, and cruelty, and drunkenness.’ He would live for righteousness, and die for righteousness: the zeal of it consumes him” (I:57).
As Stott put it, “it is not enough to mourn over past sin; we must also hunger for future righteousness” (46). Watson has suggested that to hunger and thirst for righteousness is to hunger for Christ alone:
“Hunger is satisfied with nothing but food. Bring a hungry man flowers, music; tell him pleasant stories; nothing will content him but food. . . . So a man that hungers and thirsts after righteousness says, ‘Give me Christ, or I die. Lord, what wilt thou give me seeing I go Christless? What though I have wealth, honor and esteem in the world? All is nothing without Christ. Show me the Lord and it will suffice me. Let me have Christ to clothe me, Christ to feed me, Christ to intercede for me. While the soul is Christless it is restless. Nothing but the water-springs of Christ’s blood can quench its thirst” (128).
How might we know if we are hungering and thirsting for righteousness?
· Are you satisfied with yourself? The person who is pleased and content with his own righteousness will see little need for God’s. No matter how mature we may become, we should always be prepared to declare: I’m hungry for more.
· Do you have an insatiable appetite for God’s Word? See Ps. 119:1-3,18-20,97-104,129-131,161-168.
· Is your hunger and thirst unconditional? The rich young ruler wanted Christ and his possessions. Do we say, “I want Christ and my pride . . . and my immorality . . . and my cheating . . . and, and, and?”
· The person who is truly hungry and thirsty for righteousness won’t eat between meals! He will do nothing to dull his appetite (such as eating the delicacies of the world).
The promise is that “they shall be satisfied.” See Ps. 107:9. But with what? Paul prays, “Now may the God of peace fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). But surely Jesus means that if we hunger and thirst for righteousness it is with righteousness that we shall be filled. This is both present (John 4:14; 6:35) and future (Eph. 5:25-27; 1 John 3:1-3).
E. Those who are Merciful – 5:7
Jesus has been describing the moral man or woman, the righteous. Some have the idea that this will only serve to make us hard, severe, cool, cranky, and relationally distant. But the test of true biblical morality is not whether it makes you tougher, but whether it makes you tenderer (!). The moral person, says Jesus, is the merciful person.
Why is mercy important? See Ps. 109:6-9,16.
What does it mean to be merciful?
It means to be like God! See Luke 6:36 (“Be merciful, just as your Father in heaven is merciful”); Ps. 145:9; 1 Pt. 1:1-4. There are two words for “mercy”, one of which refers primarily to the emotion one feels, hence = pity. But Jesus uses the word that focuses on the action to which the feeling of pity compels us. God did not simply feel sorry us. Because of his great “mercy” for us he acted and “caused us to be born again” (1 Pt. 1:3). Thus “mercy” is kindness and generosity and loving sacrifice on behalf of the wretched and unworthy.
Mercy is best seen in the spirit you display when you unexpectedly find yourself in a position of power over someone who has mistreated you without cause. Are you vindictive? Do you feel an overwhelming urge to exert your rights?
The reward: “for they shall receive mercy.” But from whom and when? Probably not from people. Although they may reciprocate, there is no guarantee that you will ever see any earthly reward, any earthly recognition, any earthly gratitude from those on whom you have showered mercy. Our reward comes from God: “God is not unjust; He will not forget your work and the love you have shown Him as you have helped His people and continue to help them” (Heb. 6:10). But when? See Mt. 25:31-46