Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
1st of a Series of 10 messages on the “Beatitudes”. This sermon was delivered by Pastor Eric Chang on Mar 9, 1980.
Let began to Matthew 5:3 where the Lord Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount which He addressed to His disciples in the hearing, in the presence, of a great multitude of people. He opened up His message with these words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The Poor Rejoice in the Year of Jubilee
A little before this, He preached in the synagogue at Nazareth (as narrated in Luke 4:18) quoting the words of Isaiah 61:1 and saying very much the same thing: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” The good news, the Gospel (gospel simply means good news), is to be preached to the poor. “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord is to proclaim the Year of Jubilee, which means to proclaim the release of all debts. That is what happened in the Year of Jubilee: the recovery of freedom for all slaves. In Israel it took place once in every 70 years. The “acceptable year”—a wonderful year—a year when once in a lifetime, once in 70 years it comes by: the Year of Jubilee. It is a year of rejoicing in which if anyone owed any debts to any person, all debts are remitted. You are free automatically of all debts.
The poor who were under oppression of these debts were immediately set free. Those who could not pay their debts and had to sell themselves into slavery, thus becoming slaves, were released on that year. This Year of Jubilee symbolizes the coming of the kingdom of God when the poor are set free; the captives and the slaves are set free. It is a time of healing, a healing of wounds: the recovery of sight to the blind and liberty to the oppressed.
So the Year of Jubilee is particularly precious, of course, to who? To the poor! The rich have no debt and they are not in danger of becoming slaves. So the rich do not find the Year of Jubilee very desirable because they will have to set their slaves free and they will have to let go of those who owe them money by the Law of Israel. So it is not a year of ‘jubilee’, a year of rejoicing, for the rich, but it is a year of rejoicing for the poor; it is good news to the poor. That is what the kingdom is.
In that light we begin to understand what the Lord Jesus came to do. He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me to preach the gospel to the poor.” What this means in the spiritual area is what we precisely need to study. Now, of course, it tells us that having read this out in Nazareth, His hometown, He closed the book (in Luke 4:20) and gave it back to the attendant. He read this book, this Bible, in the synagogue, as was the practice in those days, and then He said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” You have heard this scripture—Is. 61:1 and following -- fulfilled in your hearing. You are witnesses of the fulfillment of these Messianic words, relating to the promise of the coming King, who would proclaim the Year of Jubilee. In fact, the Year of Jubilee, which was not practised in Israel anymore for a very, very long time, was now to be fulfilled in the Messiah. But, His own people, the Nazarites, did not accept Him.
“A Prophet Is Without Honor in His Own Generation”
There is another passage of teaching in which the Lord Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor save in his own country and among his own people.” [Mt. 13:57 et al.] The meaning of what this means was fully expounded in my Christmas message on ‘Being Spiritually-Minded’. You see, the carnally-minded look at Jesus—look at people—purely from the human point of view: “How can this carpenter be the Messiah? We know Him from His childhood?” They are unable to be free from human thinking. They cannot think that God (manifest in the flesh) can come into the world as a human being, as a carpenter. It seems impossible to overcome this mental hindrance to the carnal mind. The carnal man, the natural man, reduces everything to his own level. He cannot think spiritually. He says, “That is somebody that I know; how can He be the Son of God?” What if the person you know is the Son of the God? How do you know He is not? It is very difficult in the lifetime of a prophet to evaluate the spiritual stature of a prophet.
This so often happens. The great artist is never appreciated in his lifetime. The paintings of these great painters, like of Van Gogh, often were never appreciated in their lifetime. Not even Beethoven, Liszt and all these great musicians were much appreciated in their lifetime. But today, another generation that can be free from these human associations, is able to evaluate the true qualities of these men.
The great prophets of Israel were not honored in their generation. Today we recognize that they are prophets of God, but in their generation they were not honored. Jeremiah was more than once accused as a traitor, thrown into a pit where he nearly died if he were not rescued in the last moment [Jer 38:6-13]. He was dragged away by a bunch of people into Egypt where he did not want to go [Jer. 43:6ff]. He was manhandled and abused. You see that the prophets of Israel, one after another, were abused in their days. When Micaiah prophesied to Ahab that he would die, he was slapped by another so-called prophet. He was contradicted—one against the whole crowd of prophets [1 Kings 22:24ff]. He was the only one who prophesied the truth; all the others prophesied a lie. Yet they all claim to be prophets. So one against so many, who can be right? The majority is surely right? The majority is surely wrong! That is the problem in the spiritual world. It is always the minority that proved to be right as time went on. But in their generation they were not appreciated. A prophet, the Lord Jesus said, is not without honor in God’s eyes; but in his own time, in his own country, he has no honor.
That happened to all the OT prophets—one by one. We know that happened to Amos; it happened to Hosea; it happened to all of them, one by one. They had no glory in their generation. They were ridiculed; they were outcast; they were hated by the people. So much so that Jeremiah almost despaired that he should continue his ministry at all. Many times, you remember, Jeremiah said, “I will not preach anymore. I have had enough of these people. If they want to perish, let them go and perish. I have said my piece. It is finished.” Then, you remember how he says, “The fire burns within me.” [Jer 20:7-9 et al.] His love for God, his love for his people, could not be suppressed. He still had to preach and take the consequences, hated as he was by the people of Israel. Who likes to be told, “If you do not repent you will perish.”? Who likes to be told, “You are sinners that God is about to wipe clean by means of the fire of destruction.”? So it is with all the prophets.
And when the Lord Jesus preached, it was no exception. They hated Him, especially the leaders, the religious leaders of Israel. And they finally nailed Him to the cross. “A prophet is not without honor....” They would not hear. The only kind of people who will hear, who will rejoice at the year of Jubilee, at the coming of the kingdom are the poor. So we need to study that these are the only kind of people who are spiritually open, who will and can become spiritually-minded. The rich—they are the ones who have everything to lose. Therefore, they do not welcome the Gospel unless you will so trim the Gospel and so overlay the Gospel as to make it acceptable to the rich. But the Lord Jesus does nothing of the kind.
The Lord Jesus’ words ring true of Elijah, who did not go to the Israelites but to the foreigners, to Sidon and to a woman who was a Gentile, because the Israelites did not accept so great a prophet as Elijah. They did not accept Elisha either. Elijah was the greatest of the OT prophets in terms of spiritual power but he was rejected by his generation. There is no glory in serving the Lord in one’s own generation. One is likely to be hounded and persecuted for one’s trouble in preaching the truth.
Parallels of “Blessed Are the Poor” in Matthew and Luke
Let us turn to Mt. 5:3. The parallel passage to this is Luke 6:20 which reads “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” So there is a difference between Luke and Matthew in that Luke has ‘Blessed are the poor’ and Matthew has ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, and we shall study that also in a moment.
There is also the parallel that in Matthew, you have ‘the kingdom of heaven’ and in Luke, you have ‘the kingdom of God’. These two are, of course, exactly the same thing as this parallel shows. ‘The kingdom of God’ and ‘the kingdom of heaven’ have no difference whatsoever. That is only a difference in terminology. The Jews, being reluctant to use the word ‘God’, always like to use a circumlocution [or indirect phrase] for God. They like to call God ‘the Majesty’, or simply when they speak of God, they refer to ‘heaven’ instead. But there is no difference at all in meaning in the terms ‘kingdom of God’ and kingdom of heaven’.
There are three parts in this passage that we need to look at. First, ‘blessed are’; secondly, ‘the poor’; and thirdly, ‘the kingdom of God’. What do these mean? What does it mean ‘to be blessed’? What does it mean to be poor, or poor in spirit? What is the kingdom of God?
First ‘happy’. Happy is very easy; we all know what happy means. The word ‘blessed’ simply means ‘happy’. “’Happy’ is the man...”. In fact that is how the Psalms begin. Ps. 1:1 begins with this very word: “Happy is the man...”. What kind of a man? The first thing we need to notice about ‘happy’ is that throughout the Scriptures, happiness is promised to a certain kind of man. [Ps. 1:1 reads:] “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night.”
What kind of a man is happy? The man is happy who does not walk in wickedness, but walks in righteousness. Happy is the man who delights in God and in His law and thinks about God’s word day and night. Happiness, i.e., spiritual happiness, applies in the Bible to a certain kind of person. In fact, these beatitudes, this blessedness appears in the Psalms quite a number of times. All together, this word occurs 19x. There are 19 beatitudes in the Psalms, very much in parallel to the Lord’s own beatitudes here. “Blessed is the man...”. In other words, this kind of a man is happy because God imparts to him blessings. He is blessed because he is blessed by God. It is God who will make him happy. God brings joy to a certain kind of person. If you are that kind of person, you will be happy. You will have God’s blessings which will make you happy and will give you joy. But first you have to be that kind of a person. If you want to see the kind of person that God blesses in the OT, you need only take out a concordance and look at the word ‘blessed’ in the Psalms. You will see 19 kinds of blessedness. If you remove the passages which repeat themselves, you will still have 15 or 16 blessings of different kinds, or rather, blessings of different beatitudes, but they all refer to the same kind of person, namely, the righteous, the blessed man, who does not sit in the seat of the wicked.
... Are the Poor
This takes us to the second point. Who are these people whom God blesses with His joy, i.e. whose blessings bring joy into their lives? Well, the words are ‘Blessed are the poor.’ That is the exact reverse of what the world thinks. The world’s motto is: ‘Blessed are the rich’. But the Lord Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.” In Hong Kong the key blessing during Chinese New Year is ‘blessed are the rich’—gong xi fa cai1 [or in Cantonese kung hei fat choy]. They think of blessing, which is ‘fook’ in Cantonese. But ‘fook’ is only for the rich! Why? What is ‘fook’? It is riches; it is wealth; it is prosperity. And the Lord Jesus turns everything upside down by saying, “Blessed are the... poor.”
1 This is a customary greeting during Chinese New Year wishing the other person to prosper, i.e. to have riches.
This is the fundamental principle of the kingdom of God: all the values of this world are turned upside down. That is the first principle you need to understand. There is a fundamental change of order, or sense of value. Now, in ‘blessed are the poor,’ first of all, you have got to know, are you poor or not? Because if you are not poor, you might as well not listen to the Lord’s teaching here because it has nothing to do with you. Because it says, “Blessed are the poor.” And you say, “I am not poor.” Too bad for you. There is no point carrying on looking at this passage because you are not going to be included. This is only for the poor. If you are not poor, forget it. It is as simple as that. Who are the poor?
You Have to Know If You Are Poor
So, before we study who ‘the poor’ are, you also have to know whether you are poor or you are rich. There is a great tragedy that there some people who are poor, yet think that they are rich. This happens also very much to Christians, especially in this generation.
Let me read to you Rev. 3:17. This applies to the church of Laodicea. Christians indeed! And how many Christians are poor and think they are rich. But because they think they are rich, they have deprived themselves of God’s blessing. Because you not only have to be poor but you have to know that you are poor. That’s very important. Otherwise you think you are rich and you do not class yourself among the poor. Rev. 3:17: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered (that is the thing we would like to happen to us) and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” “Not knowing” means you say or you think you are rich and have prospered and need nothing; but you do not know your wretchedness, your poverty.
There is nothing so wretched as being poor and not knowing that one is poor, as being sick and not knowing that one is sick. As in Jn. 9:40,41 the Pharisees say, “Are we blind? We are not blind.” Jesus said to them, “Because you say you see, because you say you are not blind when in fact you are blind, therefore your guilt remains with you.” To be blind and not know one that is blind; to be poor and not know that one is poor, that is a state of self-delusion. That is most pitiful.
Some people today may think they are healthy when in fact they are sick. They may feel just fine, but right now, in some people, perhaps a deadly cancer is already present in the body, but they feel fine. That is what happened to my father. He went to the hospital for a routine medical check-up. He felt fine; no problem with him at all. The doctor said, “What’s this lump you have got on your neck?” “Oh, that lump? It does not hurt. It is no problem to me at all. I feel fine.” But the doctor said, “Yes, you feel fine but I do not like the look of this lump.” Two months later he was dead. So, one can be sick and not know it, that one carries already the seeds of death in one’s body and one does not know it.
Sometimes it is the sick person that lives longer than the healthy one. My mother was always sick, always weak. She had this and that problem. My father was always healthy and strong. He exercised; he boxed; he walked; he ate vitamins. He took care of his health. My father was always healthy; my mother was always sick—swallowing tablets, i.e., medicine, all the time. Do you know who lived longer? My mother. The sick who knew herself to be sick lived longer. Strange!
Many times I think about it in the Scriptures, “The race is not to the swift, nor is the battle to the strong.” [Eccl. 9:11] Nothing is so sad. Of course, in my father’s case, there was no way that he could have known he was dying; that cancer was already in his body. There is no way that you and I can know it. But spiritually we can know it, because the Spirit of God is here to point out to us the fatal disease that is in our souls.
So, do you know whether you are poor or not? Maybe you feel that you are not poor, and because you do not feel that you are poor, you feel these words of Jesus have no application to you. “Blessed are the poor” and you say, “I am not poor.” So you might as well turn away. Who has to listen to this? Who needs to listen to the Sermon on the Mount? This is the message for the poor. Seeing that you are rich, or you think you are quite well off; you do not need it. Let us consider then what this poverty is. What does this poor mean?
“Poor in Spirit—Financial Poverty that Leads to Spiritual Humility”
But first let’s consider the question about the relationship of Matthew to Luke. We saw already that Matthew has ‘poor in spirit’ and Luke simply has ‘poor’ with no qualifying phrase at all. It is simply the poor. We saw that when the Lord Jesus quoted the words in Is. 61:1 in Lk. 4:18, He quoted these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the gospel to the poor”. There is no qualification of ‘in spirit’.
Of course both are true. The reason is simply this: Matthew is correct in the sense that just being financially poor is not a qualification for spiritual blessing. Financial poverty in itself is not a ticket to heaven. There must be more than just material poverty. There must be a poverty, which leads us to also a corresponding poverty in the spiritual realm. In other words, it is blessed to be poor financially if that financial poverty also leads you to a spiritual humility. That is very important. If you are poor but you try to pretend you are rich, i.e., you try to bluff your way into impressing people, then you have made nothing but a fool out of yourself.
Those of us who know the situation in Hong Kong know that this so often happens. A person lives beyond his means. Say, a person cannot afford to buy a car, but he will buy a car even if he has to borrow for it, just in order to have ‘face’. He has to be able to put a face out. And so he lives beyond his means and as a result he gets poorer and poorer because he goes further and further into debt.
This so often happens when somebody gets married in Hong Kong. Of course to pick up the bride, the groom has to drive a presentable car. So he goes to find a rich friend who might lend him the car, which is very unlikely, since rich friends are the most unlikely to lend cars, they being the most stingy people there are in the world. And so what he has to do is go and rent a car—hopefully not something small—but rent, for the ‘face,’ for one day: a big car. And so even if it kills him, hopefully he can rent a Rolls Royce. If he cannot manage that, maybe a Mercedes Benz. For one day he uses several hundred dollars to rent this wretched thing so that he can take his bride to church or wherever they are going to get married in something presentable.
It is all for the ‘face’. You don’t want anybody to see that you are poor so you have to pretend that you are rich. So the point here simply is this: being poor is not a ticket to heaven. It is being poor and recognizing this in such a way that it leads to an attitude towards God of humility.
Riches a Positive Hindrance to Being a Disciple
Turning it the other way around, riches—and I mean physical riches, material riches is—in the Bible, a positive hindrance to one’s spiritual life. Here there is no compromising whatsoever. Being poor can be a spiritual blessing if it is translated into the right spiritual attitude. But being rich not only can be, but is a positive hindrance to one’s spiritual life, unless one deals with his riches in a properly spiritual way. This point the Lord Jesus makes very, very clear without any shadow of a doubt. Riches is a hindrance.
We see that for example in His words to the rich young ruler. He did not allow the rich young ruler to become His disciple except on the condition that he sold everything that he had, gave it to the poor and then followed Him. He would not allow the rich young ruler to follow Him as he was. Most people today would be willing to tolerate that. It would be nice today to say that, “I have a disciple who is a millionaire. He has 5 Mercedes Benz’s; he owns a factory. That is my disciple.” The Lord Jesus said, “No.” He said to the rich young ruler, “There is only one condition upon which you can be my disciple.” The rich young ruler eagerly says, “Yes, yes, what is it? Could I pay a hundred thousand dollars?” The Lord said, “No. Much more than that. You sell everything you have got, give it to the poor, and then you come and follow me.” Now, if the Lord Jesus could have made it easier for the rich young ruler, you can be sure he would have done so. Don’t you think so? He would have done so, because the scripture tells us that He loved the man. He did not do this out of hatred for the man; He said it out of love for the man. But the reason the Lord did this is because material riches is a positive hindrance to one’s spiritual attitude.
Today the Western church is in the grip of spiritual trouble because we want to compromise our attitude towards riches. You cannot do it. I would not be preaching faithfully to you today if I try to gloss this over. Riches is a positive hindrance. That is why James says in James 5:1: “Woe to you rich!” No qualification whatsoever. Woe to you rich! Blessed are the poor! And woe to the rich! The Gospel has never been a gospel for the capitalist. Unfortunately for the capitalist, he has never been able to reduce the teaching of Jesus to suit capitalism. It will not do. Everywhere if you study the Lord’s teaching on possessions, it comes to the same thing. He will not compromise with the rich. He does not tolerate a person who goes about trusting in riches. Therefore in the Sermon on the Mount, it says, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” [Mt. 6:24] You cannot do that. But the church wants to say, “Yes, you can. I am serving mammon, i.e., serving money, and I serve God, too.” The Lord Jesus says you cannot do this. You either live for God and therefore mammon becomes a slave; money becomes a slave, only a means to an end. You simply dispose of it, but you cannot serve it.
That makes the Gospel so difficult for a society such as we have in Canada; a society in which everybody except a few of us have a reasonable bank account. You say, “Well, what is your qualification for you to preach like this? You wear a nice tie, a white shirt. Your jacket does not look so bad. Here you are preaching against the rich, when you have a car in the car park there, none less than an Oldsmobile. Here you are talking about the ‘rich’.”
Testimony: Being Poor, Yet Lacking Nothing
As God is my witness, let me say one thing to you: I lack nothing. Let me say that in all the years of preaching the Gospel, and I say again, as God is my witness, I have never once been able to save up one cent. Not one cent. You do not know this but I say this. I have not—through all the years of preaching the Gospel, in this ministry—I have never been able once to save up one cent. I have not stored up one cent out of the preaching, out of the earnings of my preachings. And God is my witness to that. I have no surplus. I have nothing in which I have ever stored up or laid aside for a future year, from my preaching. I have never made riches out of my preaching. But I say this not in order to draw forth compassion from you. Let me say this right away: I lack nothing. I appreciate your love and concern.
You see, my jacket is good; so do not buy me another jacket; I have nowhere to put other jackets. This tie is nice; it is going to last me a good many years. So I am in good condition. But I want to say this as a matter of truth. Though I have preached the Gospel for many years and have spoken at many conferences—and conference fees are high, for a three-day conference as a main speaker you can be paid up to $600 for 3 days—in spite of this I have not saved up one cent out of my earnings through preaching the Gospel. “Store not up riches for yourself on earth.” I have not been made rich through preaching the Gospel.
When I preached in Liverpool, I lived on subsistence income. I lived on purely freewill contributions. I did not take even a salary. My successor today—I sow and somebody else reaps—receives an income five times today what I received when I was in Liverpool. Even though he receives five times as much, he is only getting, more or less, maybe a little bit above the average income in England. I received one fifth of his income. I am in no way unhappy about this because, for me, I aim to store up riches in heaven. Now what he does with his income is for him to decide. Maybe for him, he also stores up riches in heaven. I do not know what he does. But I say this because it is important for a preacher, to not just be blowing hot air, but that he witnesses by his life of what he preaches. So, in case anyone thinks I am preaching here simply from my head, and from theological learning, let me say to you, if I cannot live this life, I do not wish to preach it. The Lord said, “Store not up for yourself...”. I say again, as God is my witness, I have stored up none of it.
His Disciples Are Called to Trust Him to Supply Their Needs
Here is the point that the Lord is calling us to: to be poor in spirit. And the point I am illustrating is: there is a close association between poverty on the financial level.... Poverty does not mean that you have nothing to eat; poverty simply means that you have no surplus or you do not keep or retain a surplus. So, oftentimes, we simply have to understand this relationship, because as we see in the Sermon on the Mount, we are called to trust in Him to supply our needs.
For years I have to put that into practice, with no income and no resources. In my student days, I just have to look to God; nowhere to turn to, but God. And He never fails. “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
I am one well-acquainted with poverty. For three years in China, I knew what it was to suffer hunger in the stomach, literally. But He never failed me. He said, “Seek first the kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” “I promise you that if you follow Me unconditionally—you seek My kingdom first—I will see to it that you lack nothing.” I have lacked nothing. I lack nothing. So good is God. Even though I did not store up anything so as to be able to fall back onto, I lacked nothing.
When I was in England I had some reserves upon my father’s death. But because my income in working for the church was so small, I virtually wiped out even those reserves. I had nothing to store up. And since coming to Canada, I had nothing to store up either. I do not aim to store up anything. Somebody might say, “What about your retirement? I mean, what happens when you retire? You have got no money.” My God has His way to supply me. Whatever I have, I am but a steward of it. But God forbid that I should get rich from preaching the Gospel. God forbid.
So there is a close relationship between material poverty and spiritual poverty. Let us bear this point very carefully in mind. To the rich young ruler, the Lord Jesus would not, under any circumstances, allow him to be a disciple except he goes and sells everything. But today the church tones down the message; after all we are a church of middle class people today. Therefore we tone down the message. “Oh, it is okay. Do not worry about it.” Sure, do not worry about it, but the result is: you are not poor, and therefore you are not poor in spirit, and therefore, is yours the kingdom of heaven?
Don’t congratulate yourself by saying, “Oh, well, if you are poor, I am poor too. Most of us are students; I have no money. Hallelujah! So the kingdom of God is ours.” First of all, you might get rich one of these days, when you graduate here and you carry your degrees. You are going to walk around with your Bachelor’s, your Master’s, or your Ph.D.’s. and then you are going to bring in all the money. Yes, you are going to be rich one of these days. Then you will say, “’Blessed are the poor.’ I hope the pastor does not preach on this again. I hope I do not have to listen to this again.” The Gospel makes you very uncomfortable. Why? Because it forces you to trust in God, not in your bank account. We want to have God and we want to have mammon. We want to have both, and alas the Lord will not allow it.
So one of these days, whether you explicitly or implicitly make a choice, you will make a choice, or you have made your choice. But if you are right now poor, do not congratulate yourself either. Not so fast. As we have said, being poor is not a ticket to heaven. You have got to be poor in spirit. “Oh,” you say, “getting to the kingdom is really hard. I thought I was poor and therefore I am already qualified. Still I have to be poor in spirit.”
The Meaning of Poor
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? When we study this word, we discover that ‘poor’ in fact—even without the word ‘in spirit’—the word ‘poor’ in Hebrew itself means ‘humility’. It means in itself ‘meekness’. You can see this for example in Prov. 16:19 where the Hebrew word for ‘poor’ is literally the word ‘poor’ but it means, in that context, very clearly ‘meekness’, ‘humility’. In Is. 11:4, it says that the Messiah, when He comes, will deliver justice to the poor. There again the poor means ‘the meek’, ‘the humble’.
This is very curious. If you take the word ‘poor’ which in Hebrew is wn”[’((anav) and look it up in the Hebrew dictionary, you will see that the word means ‘poor’, ‘lowly’, ‘meek’, ‘humble’. There is no way to separate the meaning when this word is used; the richness of this really comes forth. I just read Is. 61:1. The word ‘poor’ again is the same word which actually again means ‘meek’ or ‘humble’ as well as ‘poor’. This comes out most powerfully in Num. 12:3 where this word is used.
Moses Was Very Meek, that is, He Was Very Poor
Let me read to you Num. 12:3 of Moses, that servant of God, which shows you what kind of a person the Lord Jesus is thinking of when He says, “Blessed are the poor.” In Num. 12:3, here is the case when Miriam and Aaron -- you know that Miriam is Moses’ sister and Aaron is Moses’ elder brother—spoke against Moses. “Well,” Aaron thought, “I am your older brother, so I am entitled....” You see, the same attitude of the flesh rather than the spirit. Thinking the same way as these Jews thought when they looked at Jesus: “You belong to Nazareth, you are our kinsman here, and you say you are something special, the Messiah, the Son of God?”
Now Moses was appointed by God to be the leader, the prophet in Israel, and Miriam and Aaron often had reasons to be envious. They thought that in virtue of their personal association with him as brother and sister, they have the right to speak too. That is very wrong. Be careful of speaking against the servant of God. So, they spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he has married. Moses had married somebody who was not of Israelite stock, but was a Cushite. And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” “Are you the only prophet around here?”, in other words.
And the Lord heard it. Be careful of what you do because the Lord hears what you say. And now v. 3. Now, Moses did not say, “Hey, you be careful. I am the prophet of God around here.” Moses did not answer them with one word. He did not debate with them; he did not talk back. Instead he fell on his face before the Lord. Such is the man.
And so v. 3, “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all the men that were on the face of the earth.” As a result he just went before God. And God, as you know, as you read on, brought judgement in v. 4 onwards, brought sudden judgement. “And suddenly, the Lord said to Moses, to Aaron and to Miriam, ‘Come out, you three.’” Wow! They must have had quite a fright there. “Come and meet with Me.” And the result, of course, is judgement against Aaron and Miriam.
But the point I am getting at here is this: v. 3: “Now the man Moses was very ‘poor’.” Very poor. That is translated the Hebrew word that is here translated ‘meek’ here. It is the same Hebrew word as in Is. 61:1, “the Gospel is preached to the poor.” That is exactly the same Hebrew word as is here translated as ‘meek’. That is very interesting, isn’t it? “Moses was very poor, more than all the men on the face of the earth.” Here, of course, it means ‘poor in spirit’. ‘Poor in spirit’ therefore means ‘meek’, ‘humble’. That is why I say, if you are financially poor, let that poverty permeate to your spirit. Don’t let the world mislead you and think that you have to bluff your way into impressing people. Let the God of all mercy look upon you and He will have regard for your poverty. He will lift you up. You do not have to brag your way or bluff your way through life. Let God be your strength and your power. Let Him lift you up and set your feet upon the rock.
That is the word ‘poor’. You see this Hebrew word ‘poor’ can mean literally poor or poor in spirit. Here, as we see, in Num. 12:3 it means poor in spirit, not just materially poor.
Moses was brought up in the house of princes. He was brought up in Pharaoh’s household. He was able to inherit the position of a royal prince. But what did he do? Unlike the rich young ruler, he turned his back upon the world. He turned his back upon the position of being a prince in Egypt and all its glories. As we read in Heb.11, he chose rather to suffer affliction, poverty with the people of God than to enjoy the riches of Egypt. He was poor both literally—because he chose it—and he was poor in spirit; that is even more important.
In Is. 29:18&19 we find again this same Hebrew word ‘poor’. In v. 18, it says, “In that day...,” in the day of the Messiah; in v. 19, “the meek...” -- again the Hebrew word ‘poor’ (the RSV has translated as ‘meek’, and quite correctly so) -- “the poor shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among men shall exalt in the Holy One of Israel.” Again, you see because the Gospel would be preached to the poor.
Now, what about the poor? In Amos 2:6&7, you find that the ‘poor’ is a synonym for the ‘righteous’. The righteous and the poor are mentioned together as synonyms. Because if you are poor in spirit, that is the essence of righteousness. The poor are the defenseless, the people who are oppressed by the rich and the powerful. So that they have to look to God as their shield and their defender. If you are rich you can defend yourself; you do not need God to defend you. But the poor have no one to defend them; they have to put their cause before God. The poor are people without hope in this world. They cannot look forward to a rich retirement. They cannot look forward to having a speedboat out on the St. Lawrence or a summer cottage by the lake. They have no such means. They have no hope as far as this world is concerned. God alone is their hope. They have no sufficiency of themselves. God has to be their sufficiency. They must look to God day by day.
Testimony of Trusting God to Be Provider
And I know that life. I have lived it many times. Three years in China, I had to live everyday, “ Lord, I have no food to eat. Please supply me my food today. Give me this day my daily bread.” Oh yes, literally I had to pray this everyday. I would get up in the morning and my stomach would be groaning. I put my hand in my pocket and I did not have one cent there. I would say, “Father, You are my Father. Your child has no food to eat. Please supply my food today.” And He did! He did day by day through three years.
The same thing happened when I went to England. As I told you I was studying there. Many times I had no means. I did not know how I was going to pay my term fees. I had no money. But I would say, “Father, if You want me to study, You provide the means.” Many a time I would register for the next term and I did not have the 50 pounds to pay for the term’s fees. I would just come and say, “Father, if You want me to study, You provide the means. If You don’t want me to study, I’m happy to drop this degree. It means nothing to me.” What is a degree? It is the Lord that matters. But the Lord provided my needs, so much so that when I graduated, my mother said, “I do not understand it. Your God is truly the Living God. I do not know how it is done but really your God provides all your needs.”
You see, I practice these things; I know them to be true. The Lord does not put to shame those who trust in Him. This is the reason why if you say, “Is this man foolish that he does not store up money; he does not care about his retirement; or how his child is going to go to school, how is she going to study when she grows up?” My God is sufficient for my needs! If you consider that foolishness, then it is blessed foolishness! Because God never fails. He never fails.
How blessed it is to be poor and in that poverty to know God—the God who never fails. The rich do not know what they are missing. They are the truly poor. They have never experienced what God can do for them. Have you experienced God’s provision? How can you rejoice in God when you do not know what it is for God to be your defender? to be your upholder? your provider? your strength?
Trusting God to Be Upholder
In these days I have to trust in God in another way—for my physical strength. You know God takes us through various stages of training. Now it has come to the point where now I must depend upon physical strength from Him, day by day. I am physically now so weak that many times, I say to Helen [my wife], “I do not know how I can survive this training program.” Many times I come back and my head is throbbing and I am utterly exhausted. And I think, “In two days’ time, there will be the next training program. I do not know how I am going to survive. I do not know how I am going to see myself through this.” Sometimes, in the morning, I am just so worn out. I just have no strength to get up. But the Lord is going to be my strength. Now I have to depend on Him for physical strength, even for the literal physical strength to see me through.
I hold on to this promise: “As thy days, so shall thy strength be.” [Deut. 33:25] In other words, God will never give you a job that He does not give you the strength, the physical strength, to see you through. Sometimes, in these last days, where, through exhaustion, even my whole chest just cramps up. I just have to say, “Lord, I am trusting You to see me through this training program. I do not know how I am going to survive it, but if I have to die at the end of it, at least see me through it until the last day. That will be to Your praise and to Your glory.” It is so wonderful that He sees us through.
For me who used to be physically very strong and very healthy, it is very hard to take that you have arrived at a stage where physically, your strength is so gone that you must depend on Him. So, I am poor, in every sense; even physically. In health, blessed be God. I am so poor—poor physically—that I must depend daily for that strength, to preach His words, get on with the training team and the one hundred and one other things that remain to be done: in ways of looking through manuscripts, writing letters and visitation and so on and so forth.
Trusting God to Be Defender
Thus, to be poor and its blessedness. “Blessed is the man who is poor.” We find this throughout the Sermon on the Mount. In Mt. 5:38 and following, we find the poverty of the man who does not hit back, who when he is slapped, merely—in his meekness—turns the other cheek; in humility turns the other cheek. Oh, that is poverty. “I don’t fight back. I don’t use my kung fu, my judo, my boxing. Yes, I know judo, I know boxing.” Yet the Lord says, “No, I shall be your defense. When they slap you, I, the Lord, will repay.” I am poor to the extent that He is my defense; I do not even defend myself anymore. I am no more my own defense minister. My minister of defense has been cancelled from my cabinet. My finance minister is also cancelled. Everything is gone. Only now I am left with the king. He is the king. He is the foreign minister. He is the minister of justice. He is the minister of provisions, minister of finance, of everything. I have to look to him for everything now.
There you see, unless you can accept this key statement which opens the Sermon on the Mount, you cannot accept anything in the Sermon on the Mount. There is nothing in the Sermon on the Mount that is acceptable to you, is there? Be honest with yourself. It is distasteful to you. “Turn the other cheek.” “Come on! Do you know what belt I have for my judo? This wretched guy that dares to hit me, I will let him feel what it feels like to get messed up with my type. You know what boxing is like? You know what kind of an upper cut I can deliver? You give me one here and I will show what an upper cut I have got. What kind of a punch I have packed in this fist of mine.” The Lord says, “No. I will repay. You trust Me.” It is distasteful to the natural man; he would say: “I can’t stand this!” Can you?
Having ‘Faith’ and Not Laying Up Treasure on Earth
Then, in Mt. 6:19 we have that same thing again. It says, “Do not store up treasure on earth.” You say, “If I do not store up treasure, how am I going to live when I am out of a job, when I retire, when I am sick? How am I going to live?” The Lord says, “Look to Me. I will supply your needs. Do you trust Me or do you not trust Me? Do you see the birds of the air? I feed them. Do you see the flowers of the field? I clothe them. How much more will I do that for you. Do you trust Me?”
You see, the whole thing is faith—the faith to trust God to defend you, the faith to trust God to supply your needs. What if you are wronged by other people? “Judge not.” Leave the judgement to God. You are slandered, you are maligned, you are misrepresented. It is okay. “Judge not.” Leave the judgement to Him. Oh, the call to discipleship—how high a call!
What Salvation Is and Is Not
Let us then notice one thing here; let us notice it very clearly. What kind of a man is happy? “Blessed is the man who believes that...”? No, I got it wrong there. “Blessed is that man who does a lot of good works to save himself?” No, it did not say that either. “Blessed is the man who is poor in spirit.” Here is the heart of the teaching of the Lord concerning the whole Christian life, concerning the whole of salvation. You are going to be saved not because you believe the right doctrines, not because you do a lot of work which is meritorious so that you can earn your own salvation, but because you are a certain kind of person, namely, poor in spirit. You see how perfect is the Lord’s teaching? It is not what you believe, it is not what you do; it is what you are that counts. There is the power and beauty of the Lord’s teaching.
Do not make the mistake of so many evangelicals today who think they will be saved because they believe the right doctrines even though they are detestable people who behave disgracefully, who are rude and arrogant, who trust in riches, who boast in riches, who are unsympathetic, critical, without compassion. And they think because they believe all the right doctrines, they will be saved. This is foolishness.
Or they are the other kind of wretched people who think that because, “I do a lot of good works; I give a lot of money to the poor; I help other people whenever I have time, which is not very often, but when I have time, I help them; and I do this and I do that. And therefore I am a good man and I deserve to be saved. I have earned my own salvation.” They think they will save themselves by works. These are also fools.
It is not what you believe only or what you say you believe. It is not what you do. It is what you are that matters in the teaching of Christ. Do not make one error or the other. The error of so many evangelicals who think that just believing is going to save; and the mistake of so many other people, so many other religions including some parts of the Catholic church—and I say some parts, because it is not official Catholic doctrine—who think that by good works they will be saved. This is equally wrong. The Lord’s teaching is that what you are that matters. The question is then: you have to be poor in spirit. Now, what kind of a person is poor in spirit? How do we become poor in spirit?
How to Become Poor in Spirit
The only kind of person who can be poor in spirit becomes so through repentance and through becoming a new creation. The psalmist puts this perfectly in Ps. 51. Let me read to you some verses in Ps. 51 that sums it up perfectly. Salvation is taught already in the OT very clearly, even as the Lord Himself quotes the OT. If you want to be this kind of person and you ask how can I then become poor in spirit, you have to start with Ps. 51:1: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy steadfast love; according to Thy abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions, O God. Wash me thoroughly from my sin, my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”
Repentance. You become poor in spirit and recognize your poverty in spirit when you recognize that you are a sinner and you say, “Have mercy on me, O God.... According to Thy abundant mercy, blot out, I beg of you, my transgressions.” That is repentance. Repentance is well known in the OT. It is not a new discovery in the NT. The OT saints are gloriously saved too, you know. They have a lot to teach us about salvation.
The next part is this: to become a new person. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” [Ps. 51:10] A new creation! “Create in me a new heart; put a new spirit within me.” Yes, the psalmist understood perfectly. You need to repent; and you need to let God recreate you—make a new person out of you. The OT saints, I say again, are gloriously saved. They knew what it was to be poor in spirit. That is why when you are recreated, you become a new kind of person. So it is not what you believe, not what you do; it is what you are by God’s power in making you a new person. So this being poor in spirit is simply the means by which God has made us to be a new person. This is the new person that we are talking about. There is no other way you can inherit the kingdom of God except by becoming a new person.
This is what John 3:5, that well-known verse, says: “A man must first be born of water and of the spirit before he can enter the kingdom of God.” This is the same teaching simply put in different words, (but clearly defined for us) that we understand (when the Bible speaks of faith) what faith means. In John 3, do not go and quote “God so loved the world that whosoever believes in Him shall... have eternal life” and so on, without knowing what ‘believes in Him’ means. Because earlier on in John 3:5 it tells us what ‘believes in Him’ means. ‘Believes in Him’ means ‘believes in him’ in such a way that God is able to regenerate you, recreate you, that you are born again of water and of the spirit. It is not your faith that saves you; it is God who saves you through becoming poor in spirit. There is nothing miraculous about faith. It is God who is the author of miracles, who creates a new person.
Inheriting the Kingdom, Receiving Jesus as King!
We begin to see then ‘inherit the kingdom’ as we see from John 3 is simply to inherit eternal life. “Theirs is the kingdom”, that is, God will give them the kingdom; God will give them eternal life. But you do not get this eternal life without having the king. The kingdom is nothing without the king. If you are going to receive the kingdom, you do not receive a package called ‘The Kingdom’. You receive the King. That eternal life is in Christ. Outside of Christ, you do not get it. The only way to have eternal life is to receive the King. In receiving the King you receive life. Life is a consequence, i.e., eternal life is a consequence of having Jesus as King in your life.
The rich do not like to have Jesus as King. He might tell you, like He did the rich young ruler: “Sell all that you have.” “I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to hear this. I like what the preacher said the other day, ‘Just believe in Jesus, and you have eternal life. No conditions.’ But ‘Sell all you have’, no, no, no. That is only for the rich young ruler. That is not for me. One law for the rich young ruler and another law for me. Hallelujah! God is so good.” Do not kid yourself. The same principle that applies to the rich young ruler applies to everyone of us. He does not stand in a special kind of category. You think he loves money more than you do and more than I do? How we kid ourselves! Not at all. There is one law for all persons. There are no two laws for different people: one law for the rich young ruler and one law for me. No.
It is the poor who accept Jesus as king. And in receiving Jesus as King, you have received the kingdom. The kingdom simply means His government. How can you receive His government without receiving Him? But in receiving Jesus as King, the consequence is you have also received life because He is the King who brings life. “Of His government there is no end.” [Is. 9:7] He brings eternal life into your soul.
So let us ponder this question once more: Are you poor? Are you poor in spirit? Do you know that you are poor? Are you open and receptive? Do you have the faith to trust God to supply your spiritual and material needs? Do you have faith to trust God to be your defense when you are oppressed? Do you have faith to trust God to see you through physically and spiritually? Do you still receive Him as your king?
(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church