Message: The Poor, Happy Servant | Scripture: Matthew 4:23 – 5:3 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Follow along with me as I read from our text this morning. TWoL: 23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24 So 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. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. 1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I’ll be starting off my sermon a little differently today by actually using the first couple of verses to introduce what is to be our focus over the next couple of months, and by the first couple of verses, I mean Matt 4:23-5:2. Most of our time together this morning will be focused on Matthew 5:3, but we shouldn’t neglect what comes before because even those words are inspired by God.
And what these introductory verses in Matt 4:23-5:2 tell us is that the Sermon on the Mount is about the Christ, our Messiah, taking up his mantle as the greater Moses as he gives his commands to those who desire to follow him. He comes to teach and to restore the people of God. But more than taking up his mantle as the greater Moses, as he sits upon the mountain and declares to his great crowd of followers these new sounding commandments—this new ethic, he is also showing himself to be the greater wisdom and the greater psalmist and poet.
This is what the Sermon is—it’s not just a new set of commandments, if we can call them that at all—it’s wisdom—it’s an ethic for a new kind of disciple that are supposed to inhabit and change the world. It’s the Proverbs and the Psalms repackaged entirely in light of Jesus and the new creation he brings into the world. This is the wisdom that is meant to guide what that new creation looks like, just like how the Proverbs are an articulation of what was meant to guide creation under Adam.
The Sermon is all about pointing us to the one who gives it to us, because he will be our example of what the new creation looks like, and that is what Matt 4:23-5:2 is trying to emphasize, namely, that we can’t separate the teaching or the healing from the teacher and healer. The first act of the Messiah isn’t the imposition of his commandments or of this new ethic but the gift of himself. And we cannot rightly hear the command unless we’ve first received the gift. The Sermon is incoherent apart from Jesus.
So, as we come to it, do not approach what’s being said as one who stands above it. This is why I preached first, two weeks ago, from Matthew 23—because those who come to the Word of God—those who approach this Sermon seeking from it to serve and make much of themselves will only find woe. But those who submit themselves to it—those who submit themselves to Jesus—all that he is and all that he’s come to do—and find themselves sitting at his feet as he calls them to himself and draws them near to hear him—not just the noise of his words, but the very heartbeat of his message—theirs, he tells them, is life forever. Theirs, he tells them, is happiness in the heavenly home of God.
This is the context of the Sermon on the Mount—it is a sermon for the spiritual man—not the unrepentant, God-hating man. It is a sermon for those who want to hear about the kingdom of heaven and not the temporary, fleeting pleasures of the kingdom of earth. It is a sermon for those who have received the gift, and thus know nothing about the burdens of the command but only its joy. Only those who are in Jesus—those who know and have his heart—will rightly heed these words.
So, take a moment and lay what pride or unbelief that is in your heart at the cross. Be right with Jesus before you try to be right with his words. And if you are ready, then allow me to begin with Christ’s first command to us from Matthew 5:3, which makes no sense from the world’s perspective, but can be summarized like so: let emptiness pay the cost for your happiness. I’m going to say it over and over—this sermon is about how to be happy—it’s about your relationship to happiness and what you must do to possess it. Yet, before you can possess it, you need to know what it is, which brings us to our first point: in order to let emptiness pay the cost for your happiness, you must first
1) Define the Relationship
At the end of our first official date, I knew Candace and I liked each other. We’d spent a good amount of time getting to know each other as friends, and we enjoyed one another’s company immensely, which led me to ask her, as I drove her home, “Candace, I want to be your boyfriend, but more than wanting to be your boyfriend, I want to marry you someday—not tomorrow, but someday, and I don’t want to date you for the sake of just dating you. I want there to be a purpose and goal to all of this”
Now, this may sound nice, or maybe even innocent, but in hindsight, it was actually quite manipulative because what I was doing wasn’t just boxing Candace into something that she probably wasn’t prepared to answer, I was also trying to define the relationship without knowing the definition of the terms being used to define the relationship. I didn’t know what boyfriend, dating, or marriage really meant—not biblically, and I should have before assuming their use in my question.
But, like you’d expect from a dumb-headed 17 year old, I asked her on our first date, and I can tell you that it is only by the grace of God and his forgiveness of stupid sinners like me, that I can call Candace my wife today. What I learned from all of that is that when we go to define our relationship with anyone or anything, we ought to be very clear about the terms and the words being used to define it.
The Sermon on the Mount is an invitation to relationship. It’s an invitation to relationship with Jesus. It’s an invitation to relationship as a part of the people God. And the word that Christ uses to draw us into that relationship—or to give value and meaning to that relationship—is this first word of Matthew 5:3: Blessed. If you come and follow me—if you become my disciple, Jesus says, you will be blessed. Now, what does that mean?
Well, two weeks ago, remember, we talked about what a “woe” is, right? It’s a word used to describe those who are in a state of condemnation. Now, when I say, “state of condemnation,” I do not mean that these Pharisees and Sadducees were in their condemnation in that moment—they were not, as they stood and listened to Christ in the temple, burning in the flames of hell simultaneously.
No, Jesus was pronouncing a state of condemnation upon them because they stood under the shadow of their impending judgment, like a brooding cloud that looms overhead waiting to wash the earth of its filth. They may not have been suffering their punishment as the Messiah spoke, but it was something that they could have confidence was coming for them regardless of their current circumstances, feelings, riches, power, fame, and earthly pleasure.
And this is important for us to know because those woes are intimately connected with these blessings. To be under the woe of God is to, whether you know it or not, be objectively without hope. It’s to sit in waiting for a destiny that cannot be escaped by how you feel or how you think about yourself as a good person. That’s not how that works—condemnation looms over them by virtue of the fact that they are objectively treasonous and rebellious towards God as those who not only mutilate Scripture but lead others to trust their false teaching.
So, then, what is it to be blessed? Well, if we translate the word, μακαριος, directly, it means happy, but just like the word “woe” does not describe or call a person to some sentimental feeling of sorrow, the word “blessed/happy” here does not describe a sentimental feeling of happiness. It’s not describing a worldly happiness—it’s not that warm bubbly feeling when you walk out of a building after securing the job you’ve wanted your whole life, it’s not that incredible sense of warmth as you hold your family member, friend, wife, or child near to you. Those worldly, fleeting perceptions of happiness are nice (gifts from God), but they are, exactly that, fleeting—dependent upon how you feel in that moment—dependent upon your interpretation of your own circumstances. In fact, what may serve to make you happy in a moment may serve to make another person completely miserable in theirs.
But what Jesus is talking about here has nothing to do with how you feel about yourself. A good clue to this is that the word μακαριος is the same for the Hebrew word אַשְׁרֵי. It’s a word that is used more times in the Psalms than in any other book of the Bible. So, we have to look at how they’re used there to determine what Jesus means by its use here.
And one person who helps us see how it’s used in the Old Testament is actually another New Testament author named Paul. And Paul takes Psalm 32:1-2: Blessed (אַשְׁרֵי) are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed (אַשְׁרֵי) is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin, and he places Ps 32:1-2 into Romans 4:7-8, the context of which is that Paul is talking about the means by which Abraham was saved. Was he saved by works or was he justified, counted righteous, by the grace of God alone through faith alone in the ultimate sacrifice and atonement of Christ Jesus alone?
This is pivotal because Paul is defining for us what the Psalmist means when he uses the word, “Blessed.” If we did a study to show the parallels and synonyms of Paul’s words, what we would find is that to be blessed isn’t the description of a temporary feeling but of one’s permanent reality in being counted righteous by God—as good—as loveable—as acceptable—in his sight REGARDLESS of anything you’ve ever done—regardless of anything that you think you’ve contributed in his acceptance of you. This blessedness—this happiness—this security, confidence, peace, soul-satisfaction—can belong to you, Jesus says, despite how you feel (about yourself) at any given moment.
This is what Jesus means by ‘Blessed’. It isn’t a feeling he’s describing, it’s a disposition—it’s a character description of who you are and how you’ve been mercifully counted worthy in the eyes of God—it’s an identity that stands true regardless of when we feel unhappy and when we are most unworthy. And Jesus is beckoning his people not only that they can have this kind of blessedness, but that they will need it as they go with him to Jerusalem.
See, unlike 17-year-old me, Jesus not only knows exactly what he means by the words he uses when he offers us a relationship with him, but he uses those words with such precision because he knows what we need to stay the course—for this relationship to work. Yes, he brings you in, and he does the heavy lifting, but following him is not easy, and he knows that there will be some who want only the exciting parts of the relationship—the moral high ground, the fellowship, the favourable attention of a famous, powerful person, without any of the accompanying suffering, stigma, or sacrifice.
We need to be clear from the start: the only way that this relationship survives—the only way that you will remain committed—knowing how sinfully fickle you are—is if you become fixated and satisfied in something far greater than the fleeting, life-draining things that you think you want, and that you think Jesus will give you. He comes to offer you something, but it is greater than what you or I can think of. It’s a satisfaction, contentment—a confidence to persevere—that is genuine, unchanging, and life-giving. And he doesn’t simply offer it, he assures it with his own life.
This is what he is asking you to receive, the pleased countenance of God himself, and he is asking you now, as you sit in the car with him, and as you come nearer and nearer to the end of your journey—he asks is that something you want—is this happiness sufficient for you? And I ask that you consider your answer as we turn now to our second point:
2) Forsake the Stink
Perhaps something I’ve said or something that’s been revealed to you in our time together thus far has led you to say, “I want that—I want what you’re talking about.” The next question you should be asking, then, is, “How do I get it? Do I simply accept, and then receive the magical ability to be wholly content regardless of what I’m going through?” And while I think this is the right question to ask, my answer to you would be somewhat counterintuitive because in order to possess this happiness, there isn’t anything that you really can do.
This is what Matthew means when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” because to be poor in spirit means simply that you are dead to rights—that you are empty of value and worth—that you’re spiritually bankrupt. When you’re bankrupt, you’re taking whatever you can get because you have no claim to anything, and if you get something—if someone is gracious enough to spare you a dollar, then you know that it is more than what you deserve. That is why Christ only gives two options: woe or blessedness. You either get the reward of your own spiritual bankruptcy or take what he offers you, which is more than you deserve.
Now, that might seem harsh, but I assure it’s not because what does it mean to be spiritually bankrupt? Well, it means, firstly, that you’re a sinner, but here’s the thing—any person off the street can acknowledge they’re a sinner. There isn’t a single gospel-conversation that I’ve had where it was difficult for the person to admit their sinfulness.
All I have to do is to run them through what I call the Ray Comfort test (which is really a ten commandments test): I ask, “Can you name some of the ten commandments?” (They say, “do not steal, commit adultery, murder.”) So, I continue on, “have you ever hated someone before? Yes? Well, the Bible says to hate someone is to commit murder. Have you ever been jealous for something? Yes? Well, the Bible says to covet is tantamount to theft. Have you ever lusted after a woman or a man before? Yes? Well, the Bible says that to lust after someone is to have committed adultery with that person. So, by your admission, you’re a stealing, adulterous, murderer, and the Bible says that the only place that stealing, adulterous, murderers belong is in hell.” It’s not difficult to prove to someone that they’re a sinner, and that they deserve some kind of punishment for it.
But what is difficult to prove after revealing someone’s sinfulness to them is that because of their sin, they are also helpless to remedy their situation. See, so many of these conversations, at this point, go in this direction: “well, in comparison to those thieves, wife-beaters, and murderers in prison, I’m doing okay. I think I’m a pretty good person relative to so many other people.” To which I’ll usually follow up by asking them, “what is the basis for which you can make the claim that you are good compared to others? Is it the fact that you’re not in prison? Is that the standard? Because Donald Trump isn’t in prison (yet). Or is it that people don’t outwardly know your sins while you secretly sit and judge them for the sins you know about them? Because that’s hypocrisy. Where do you derive your standard for good, and how do you determine that you qualify? Better yet, how do you know that your standard is the right standard in contrast to someone, say, like Gandhi or M. Theresa?
Then, at some point, in that conversation, I’ll simply turn it to say that no human standard of rule-keeping will ever be sufficient because every human, even Gandhi and M. Theresa, is a sinner under the only objective law—which must be, absolutely, God’s law as the only one who is without sin, and every sinner under that law stands helpless. Every sinner stands condemned.
This is the difference between those who are blessed and those who are condemned—those who are condemned know the law of God and in their knowledge of it, they compare themselves to the list and congratulate themselves for how well they’re doing in upholding it because they don’t see their helplessness. Whereas, those who are spiritually bankrupt—those spiritually blessed, they are those who see the law, look at their own hearts and lives in light of it, and are driven to the feet of its author for mercy because they know they have broken it, and there is nothing that they can do to escape its just penalty.
In the Old Testament, one of the most common words for wrath is actually directly translated as “nose,” and that’s because sin is like a stench to God that he cannot stand. It must be eradicated in order for him to be at peace. And here is the great paradox of the first beatitude—that in order to become counted as loveable and acceptable to God—in order to become a fragrant aroma to him, we must first be brought low and told that we stink. Then, in our stink, we must flee to the only one who can make us clean. We must first be made empty of our wickedness so that we can be satisfactorily filled with happiness because if we aren’t made empty, and if we aren’t filled with happiness, the only other outcome is to be left with our woe and the hopelessness of our nothingness and helplessness.
In the kingdom of heaven, it is, first, poverty that gives way to prosperity, and not a simple, fleeting prosperity that suits the world, but a prosperity fitting for the King of kings. It is the emptying of our sinfulness that pays the cost for our happiness. So, let poverty and emptiness take its course in your life—let all your bondage to sin be forsaken and flee to your Saviour—because in so doing the gates of hell shall not prevail and the glory of God is being prepared for you. But we must, as we do so, realize that it’s not all just about the future, because there’s an element of it all that breaks into and effects our lives now, and we’re to admire it and take joy from it in this life, which leads me to our third point:
3) Admire the Difference
One more thing needs to be said about the difference between the blessed man and the man who faces the condemning woe of God, and that is the promise that is attached to each statement. In the latter instance, for those who are condemned, if you remember that first woe in Matthew 23:13, the hypocrites who sinfully use the word of God to advance their own position in the world are cursed, never to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but their non-entrance isn’t because they don’t know what sin is. No, Pharisees and Scribes knew very well about sin probably better than the rest of Israel. Their problem, however, wasn’t in their understanding of sin but in their rejection of who could save them from it. To them, it wasn’t God who would come for them, it was their own works—their own selves that would provide deliverance, and it puffed them up full of pride to think so.
And the consequence for that pride wasn’t that God had to kick them out of the kingdom, he let them do that all on their own. Matthew 23:13 tells us that the Pharisees and scribes reject the kingdom of heaven themselves while also actively keeping others out who follow them. This, then, is the promise of those who refuse to acknowledge that they are poor in spirit and in need of help, God will not step in where he is not wanted, and he will leave you to the fate that you’ve chosen for yourself in your rejection of him. He leaves you to the richness of your pride and watches as you fall.
But for the lowly man, the one who sees there is no hope apart from God, and who cries out for his mercy, good news comes to the poor. For the Lord promises that he will send his Messianic Saviour to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to open the prison for those who are bound (Isa 61:1). He who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at God’s Word, he is to whom God will look with favour (Isa 66:2).
And the incredible thing is that this Saviour comes to the humble and contrite not in the way that the Pharisees or the scribes or the rest of the world expected him to, but he comes as one who is the ultimate example of spiritual poverty himself. For he, we’re told in Philippians 2, empties himself—hides from our eyes the glory, which he possessed in eternity, comes to dwell among men, taking on in his first condescension the likeness and limitation of man. Then in a second, greater act of condescension, having lived the life would could not live, satisfying every requirement of the law, yet seeking not the glory of the law but the favour and happy satisfaction of his God, he dies a criminals death and upon his shoulders is placed the full weight of our sin and wrath. Brothers and sisters, there was no man poorer in the eyes of God than this man!
But then what happens? Is this pauper of men left in his poverty? He is not. If you’re there in Philippians 2, what does it say becomes of him? It doesn’t say that he is simply raised. And it doesn’t say that he is simply restored to his previous state of glory, which already exceeded all the glory of the universe. No, we’re told that because of his condescension, this poor man is exalted and given glory of a double portion—a glory that is above every name, that shall cause every knee to bow throughout the cosmos, and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the eternal praise of the Father because he planned for exactly this!
Do you see the difference, church? For those who are condemned, they are condemned to the most hellish of fates—a fate that they have captured for themselves. A fate where the best they will ever get is dependent on what this dying world deigns to give them. But for those who are blessed—for those who are happy—they are happy in an immoveable way, why? Because they know now and already of what is to come—that one day, as the world bows to its King of glory, we shall stand with him, and just like he took on our appearance, on that day, we shall take on his—a radiance—a glory—a happiness that has no compare nor an end, and its supply shall be infinitely generous because it comes from an infinite God.
Don’t believe me? Well just look at Christ’s words back in our text of Matthew 5. What is the promise? Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom of heaven? You don’t have to flip to other parts of the Bible. Just read down the page: the kingdom of heaven is comfort from your weeping, it’s an inheritance of all things though you deserve nothing, it’s a satisfaction of all your possible longings, it is mercy though you deserved penalty, it is seeing the very face of God when the devil was once your reward, and more than all of this, the kingdom of heaven is a place where we will no longer be called beggars, as the world thinks of us, but sons and daughters at home with the living God.
This is why the two options that Christ offers of condemnation and blessing according to what he is pleased to give is not harsh at all. Because condemnation is what you deserve. But what he offers you as a blessing isn’t a mere trifle, it’s more than you could have ever deserved even if you were the best sinful human there ever lived.
Do you see now why being poor in spirit is the first step to being happy? Do you see now why emptiness is the payment for our blessedness? It is because in becoming empty—in becoming poor, we emulate our Christ who died in our stead, and in emulating our Christ, who is the fulfillment of every beatitude, we can have every confidence, no matter what our circumstance is in this life, that he has secured for us his heavenly reward. This is the secret of happiness. This is the joy of heaven’s blessed assurance. I pray that each of us might give our lives for it to the praise of our God and the glory of his Son from now and for all time.