Hopefully at some point during the past week (maybe even just this morning), you saw the title of this morning’s sermon. Some of you may have heard that my sermon title was “The Best Sermon Ever” and concluded that I had become a little full of myself. Let me be clear, I’m not saying that the sermon I am preaching is the best sermon ever, but rather that we were going to begin our study of the best sermon ever preached. This morning we begin a study of the Sermon on the Mount, which was a sermon preached by Jesus to many of his followers. While I hope the sermon I preach today is a good, solid message, I can say with great certainty that the message which Jesus preached stands above every other sermon that has ever been preached.
This morning I want to start our study of the Sermon on the Mount by taking a look at the sermon as a whole. This sermon (which is found in Matthew 5-7) contains some of the most well-known passages in the Bible. Listen to some of the famous phrases that come from the Sermon on the Mount:
- The meek shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5)
- Turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39)
- Go the extra mile (Matthew 5:41)
- The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13)
- Judge not, lest ye be judged (Matthew 7:1)
- Do not cast your pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6)
- Do to others as you would have them do to you (commonly referred to as the golden rule) (Matthew 7:12)
- A wolf in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:16)
Jesus’ words have been repeated and revered by people both inside and outside of the church for two thousand years. As a matter of fact, some of these axioms have become so familiar that many people have no idea they actually come from the Bible.
The Sermon on the Mount is, without question, the best sermon ever preached, which is why we are going to devote several months to studying it. But we want to be sure that we understand the Sermon the Mount correctly, so before we begin studying the specifics of the sermon, we need to stop and be sure we approach it with the right mindset.
Understanding the Sermon
The first thing we need to remember about Matthew 5-7 is that these three chapters comprise one complete sermon. In Matthew 5:1-2 we are told,
One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, 2 and he began to teach them.
From Matthew 5:3 until the end of Matthew 7, Jesus continues teaching the people one thing after another. At the end of chapter 7, we read,
28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 for he taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law.
Verse 28 shows us that all of these teachings were connected—it is all one continuous sermon. We need to keep that in mind when we study the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus did not intend for us to study one part of the sermon while ignoring the rest of it.
Whether they realize it or not, many people fall into this trap. They take one teaching of Jesus and elevate it as the ultimate expression of faith. Some people read these verses and conclude that Christians should never tell someone what they are doing is wrong, because Jesus said we shouldn’t judge people. Others look to these verses and claim that Christians should be pacifists, because Jesus said to turn the other cheek. Still others believe there is special power in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, regardless of whether we understand them or not.
Jesus did not intend for us to emphasize one part of the sermon while completely ignoring the rest of it. That is incredibly frustrating for a preacher! It is as if you came away from a sermon we preached where we made a joke about the Chicago Cubs (which is a lot of sermons!) and concluded that you needed to start rooting for the Cubs. Now, while it’s good to be a Cubs fan (though often not pleasant!), that is not the point of the message! If you fixate on one thing, but miss the big picture, then your time has been wasted!
So, with that in mind, let’s look at how to properly understand the Sermon on the Mount. It may be easier to see the right way to look at this passage by pointing out some of the wrong ways to do so.
Wrong way #1: The Sermon on the Mount shows us what we need to do to be saved. There are some excellent moral principles in the Sermon on the Mount. The prerequisite to understanding this sermon is to understand that no one can keep God’s law—we are all sinful, and cannot do enough good things to deserve or earn God’s favor. So to simply see the Sermon on the Mount as a list of rules to keep in order to earn salvation is to misunderstand it entirely.
Wrong way #2: The Sermon on the Mount gives us guidelines for world peace. The result of this view is what is called the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel says that what the world needs is simply to learn to love each other better. If we can just learn to set aside our differences, if we will just overlook the bad things other people do, then we can make the world a perfect place. But this misunderstands Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ point was that the traits He describes are a natural result of a relationship with Him. To try to manufacture these traits apart from a life-changing relationship with Jesus is an exercise in futility. Human effort alone (whether by humanitarian work, political action, education, etc.) cannot change the world—only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can do that.
Wrong way #3: The Sermon on the Mount gives Christians a checklist by which we can evaluate each other. This is the same mistake the Pharisees had made with the Old Testament law. They felt self-righteous because they were doing everything that God had told them to do. But they were missing the point. They were doing the right things, but with the wrong motives. God’s instructions to us are not intended to make us feel smug because we are checking the right boxes, but they are intended to draw us closer to Him. They are designed to point us to our need to rely on Christ for help in living as we should. If reading the Sermon on the Mount makes you feel superior to others, you are missing the point!
The Right Way: So what is the right way to understand Matthew 5-7? The right way to understand this passage is to see that Jesus was trying to teach His followers what the gospel is all about. The gospel is not about keeping a list of rules, or about somehow living a life good enough to please God. Rather the message of the gospel is one of mutual love. Even though we have nothing in us that deserves God’s love, He showed His love for us through Jesus Christ. And when we experience that love and forgiveness, we respond in love, and we begin to live in a way that is different from the rest of the world.
As we look at what Jesus says about how to live, we need to understand that they are not a list of rules to live up to, but they are examples of what happens when we live devoted to the Lord. If we seek after the Lord, these things will naturally become a part of our lives.
Now that we understand how to study the Sermon on the Mount, we can begin digging into the text in earnest. The Sermon on the Mount begins with a series of statements that each starts with the phrase, “God blesses those who…” These statements are collectively known as the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes serve as the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, and they are essential for understanding the rest of the sermon.
The first question we should ask is what does it mean to be blessed by God? Some translations of the Bible try to avoid this question altogether by using a phrase that is more familiar. They translate “blessed” as “happy”. But happiness is something fleeting, a feeling you have in one moment, and is gone in the next. Happiness is dependent upon our situation. But this blessedness that comes from God is not dependent upon our situation. It is true no matter what.
When Jesus says that God blesses us, he is saying that we have God’s approval. He loves us, and He sees us as His children. There can be no greater blessing than to be approved by God Himself! Now, this truth should cause us to be happy—we should rejoice that God approves of us, but being blessed by God goes so much deeper than a mere feeling of happiness. It should give us confidence to face the day, it should give us confidence that we do not live life alone, and it should give us the reassurance that even when it feels like the world has turned its back on us, God has not.
Each Beatitude tells us a characteristic that results in God’s blessing. We are going to turn our attention to the first Beatitude this morning, and we will look at several more in the coming weeks. The first Beatitude says this:
3 “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,
for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. (Matthew 5:3, NLT)
Christians have debated for years how best to understand this verse. The New Living Translation says that God blesses those who are “poor and realize their need for him,” while most other translations simply say that God blesses the “poor in spirit,” which is closest to what the original language says. The question we must ask is what does it mean to be poor in spirit? Does it have to do with material poverty, or is it something else?
Some confusion arises because when Luke quotes Jesus, he simply says,
“God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.” (Luke 6:20, NLT)
Some have concluded that Jesus is saying that somehow God will give people who lack material possessions a special blessing. Some have gone so far as to say that God gives preferential treatment to poor people, but I don’t think Jesus was saying that some people are approved by God because of their economic situation. I think that Matthew and Luke were both quoting the same thing, but Matthew includes the full statement, while Luke only included part of it.
I believe the right way to understand this passage is that Jesus was saying that those who are poor in spirit will be blessed. So what does that mean? Let me give you a translation given by another pastor that more clearly communicates the point of this passage.
Blessed are those who realize that they have nothing within themselves to commend them to God, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The person who is poor in spirit accurately recognizes that they do not deserve God’s favor. Jesus is saying that those who will go to Heaven are those who recognize they can do nothing to earn it. This mindset sets the stage for the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. As we study the guidelines that follow, we must never forget that it is only those who recognize they cannot earn God’s favor that will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Becoming poor in spirit starts with understanding our place before God. We must understand that God’s law demands perfection in order to have right standing before Him. Anything less than perfection is not good enough. And there is no one who is perfect. The person who believes that they are “good enough” or that God should be pleased with the things they’ve done is not poor in spirit. They are prideful and misunderstand God and themselves. True poverty of spirit begins with the understanding that we have nothing to offer God and that the only reason we can be blessed is because of what Jesus Christ alone has done on our behalf.
How do we become poor in spirit? This teaching goes against everything our society teaches doesn’t it? The world tells us to believe in ourselves. The world says that we should never admit defeat or ask for help. Our society admires those who seem to be self-confident and self-assured. So how do we get to a point where we see ourselves as wholly dependent upon God and in need of His forgiveness?
I think it is a matter of perspective. Over the last couple of years I have started playing golf. I’m not a great golfer, but when I’m having a good day, I can beat a lot of the other guys I typically play with. On those days, I might come home and imagine myself to be a great golfer. Here’s the problem—I’m not a great golfer, I’m mediocre at best! Why do I sometimes feel like I’m great—because I’m comparing myself to other mediocre golfers! (no offense to those of you who play golf with me!) If I were to go and play a round of golf with one of the top players on the PGA tour, I would suddenly feel very self-conscious about my poor play—I would be under no illusions that I was a great golfer; I would see my skills for what they really are.
That’s the same trap that we fall into in regards to our spiritual lives. We compare ourselves to the people around us. We focus on their failures and conclude that since we don’t have the same kinds of failures as they do, we must be pretty good. We look at the good things we do and conclude that God should be really pleased with us, because after all, we are really pretty good people! The problem is we are comparing ourselves to other sinful people—the mediocre golfers of life! It is only when we begin to focus on the Lord, and compare ourselves to Him and to the standard He has set that we begin to realize how far we are from being anything even close to a “good person.”
This is step one of becoming a Christian, and it is why Jesus starts here. Let me state this very clearly. The person who thinks they are a basically good person is not a Christian because they do not understand the gospel. Step one of Christianity is recognizing your need for a Savior. Unless you have come to understand that you are hopelessly sinful and that you have nothing to offer God, you cannot possibly go to heaven. Jesus is saying, however, that when we feel the weight of our own sin, when we understand just how helpless we really are, that is when we are truly blessed—because it is at that moment that we are finally ready to turn to Jesus as our Savior.
But being poor in spirit is not a one-time thing. It is an understanding that cuts to the core of who we are. The person who is truly poor in spirit realizes that they have no reason to be prideful, no reason to look down on other people. This is the kind of attitude that should categorize every aspect of the Christian life. We must never lose sight of the fact that apart from the grace of God, we would be eternally lost. Anything good that comes out of us is a result of the work of God within us.
So what impact should being poor in spirit have on the way we live?
- It will make us gentle in how we deal with those outside (and inside) the church, because we recognize that we are not better than them, we have simply been forgiven because of God’s grace.
- It will cause people to see us as humble, rather than arrogant.
- It will make us open to correction, because we recognize that we are far from being perfect and that others may see something we don’t.
- It will make us willing to extend grace to others, because we have had grace extended to us.
- It will keep us from trumpeting our own accomplishments, because we find our value in how God views us, not in how everyone else does.
- It will cause us to try to point others to Jesus, because we know they need Him just as much as we do.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the best sermon that has ever been preached. It is timeless, and it has influenced people for thousands of years. But just as with any sermon, it is important to be careful to understand the big picture of its message. Many people have failed to understand the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount because they have forgotten how it begins: with a reminder that unless we are poor in spirit, we cannot inherit the kingdom of Heaven.
So today, I challenge you to change your focus. Instead of focusing on the world arond you and comparing yourself to them, instead of focusing on the priorities that others deem important, choose to focus on God. When we see Him clearly, everything else comes into focus. When we see God clearly, it is impossible for us to think of ourselves as anything more than what we are—sinful people who have been extended amazing grace by a God who loves us more than we can imagine. If we can keep that in mind, it will change every aspect of our lives.
 R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 19.