“The Disciple’s Character: Spiritual Dependence” (Matthew 5:3 sermon)

Several years ago I read the testimony of a Hollywood celebrity who had struggled for years with drinking. But they kept denying that they really had a problem. They said the breakthrough came when they got to their lowest point, and finally dropped their pride, and uttered what they said were “the three most important words I ever said: ‘I NEED HELP’.”

“I need help.” Those may indeed be the single most important words anyone can say. They are what every child learns to say: “Mom, I need your help.” “Dad, I need your help.” Our little grand daughter Abigail was over the other day, and she would occasionally look at Cheryl or me and say “hep?” A child knows they need our help, and they aren’t afraid to ask for it. Jesus said that if we want to enter the Kingdom of God, then we need to become like little children — and this is exactly what He meant. If we are going to get into the kingdom, and advance and grow in the Kingdom, then we must be willing to say to God: “I need Your help!”

Last Sunday we introduced our study of Matthew 5:3-12, a passage often referred to as “The Beatitudes.” But we saw that these Beatitudes are not merely 8 random character qualities which God has decided to bless, but rather these are 8 qualities which picture for us the character of Jesus Christ which it is God’s goal to work into our lives. In fact, when Romans 8:28 says that God causes all things to work together for good — Romans 8:29 immediately follows that up by saying that He is causing everything to work together to conform us to the image of His Son. We don’t have to wonder what the “good” is that God is working things together for. He is working things together to make us like Jesus in our character. And Matthew 5:3-12 is where God has strategically placed the description of that character: in the first words of the first sermon of Jesus in the first book of the New Testament. In this prominent place, He has put His goal for every one of our lives: He wants to build these qualities into our character.

This morning, we are going to look at the first character quality, found in Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” This is THE most important quality that can be built into you life, because it is foundational for all the rest of them, and all of the others build on this one. What it teaches us is the importance of “spiritual dependence” — depending on God and asking Him for help.

I. The Meaning of Poverty in Spirit: Spiritual Dependence

There are two Greek words God could have used in the Bible here for “poor.” One describes a “working poor” person; a person who is so poor that every day he works for the bread that he eats; he just barely has enough to get along each day. That is NOT the word the Bible uses here. The word the Bible uses here is “ptochos”, a word that means a totally destitute person, a person who is so poor that he has to beg for anything he gets. He is (and here is the key phrase:) TOTALLY DEPENDENT upon others for his livelihood. This word reminds me of the poor family in Oklahoma a few years ago, which was brought presents from a charitable group for Christmas. When the brought the presents in, the woman responded: “Had you all not brought us these gifts, we would have had NOTHING!” That is close to the meaning of this word. It means to be so poor, you must totally depend upon the mercy of others.

Now some look at this verse and talk about how it is a blessing to be financially poor, but they are missing the real point of this verse. Jesus did not just say “blessed are the poor” here, did He? No, He said “blessed are the poor in SPIRIT”! He is not talking about material poverty, but spiritual poverty. He is not talking about being totally dependent upon others for our material needs. “Poverty in spirit” means that we realize that we can’t save ourselves, and so we are totally dependent upon GOD spiritually.

Now I understand that this idea of “spiritual dependence” may sound odd to you. We tend to see “dependence” as a bad thing – especially here in America:
— We fought our “War For Independence” in 1776.
— We celebrate our victory in that war with “Independence Day”.
— Probably our most famous national document is the “Declaration of Independence.”
— The American Dream is to be “independently wealthy”.
— Many of us as individuals strive to be “independent” — and so on.

And in those senses, those are all good things. But we need to understand that spiritual things are often the opposite of worldly things. Spiritually speaking, it is good to be “dependent” upon God; to realize that we are “spiritual beggars” who must totally depend upon God if we want to get into His Kingdom, and grow in it. The world says it is good to be rich and “independent”; but Jesus says in the spiritual realm, the key to success is not “independence”, but DEPENDENCE upon God! Spiritual dependence upon God was the key to Jesus’ life — and it is the key for us if we want to get into God’s kingdom, and then grow in His kingdom. Let’s look at two vital ways in which this quality of spiritual dependence applies to each of us:


II. Dependence in Salvation

This quality of spiritual dependence applies first and foremost to salvation. If you are going to be saved, it will only happen because you have become totally dependent upon God for your salvation. One of the first things you must learn to be saved is that you are lost because of your sins, and you cannot save yourself. You must learn to put your trust totally in what Jesus did on the cross for you, and depend on HIM to get you into heaven. That’s why Jesus says here: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If you are going to enter the Kingdom of God, you must learn to depend on Jesus Christ alone for your salvation.

I don’t think this truth is better illustrated anywhere than in the story Jesus told of the Pharisee & the Publican in Luke 18:9-14. Many of you are familiar with it. That story is such a vivid picture of what “poverty in spirit” — spiritual dependence for salvation — IS and IS NOT.

The Pharisee in that story is an example of what “poor in spirit” is NOT! If he prayed in the customary Jewish way, he undoubtedly stood and stretched his hands out for prayer. And that was very symbolic for him, too. He felt like he had his “hands full” of the good works he was bringing to God. He said: “I thank Thee that I am not like this other man; I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all I get.” When HE stretched out his arms to pray, he was stretching them out to show God all his good works! But he was wrong! Isaiah 64:6 says “All our righteousnesses are filthy rags.” None of us can enter heaven on the basis of our good deeds. Many people do not realize this, and they try to come to God with “something in their hands.” They try to show God all the good things they have done – like the Pharisee did: here’s how often I go to church, here’s how much money I give, here’s how good I’m trying to be. Some of you, if you were honest, would admit that this is what you have been trying to do: you are trying to be good enough to get into heaven! But you can’t do it; the Bible says the entrance price into heaven is a price that you cannot pay. It says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It says, “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight.” If you try to get into heaven by what you bring in your hands to God, you will never be saved!

But the Publican in Luke 18 was “poor in spirit.” He didn’t stretch out his hands at all; and that too was very symbolic. He knew he had nothing in his hands that he could bring God; he just beat his chest with his hands, and his prayer didn’t talk about anything good that he had done; he just cried out: “God be merciful to me, the sinner.” He knew that he was a sinner, that he wasn’t good enough to earn a place in heaven, and that the ONLY hope he had of heaven was the mercy of God. So he came to the temple empty-handed, and threw himself as a beggar on God’s mercy.

What we must understand is that this is the only way that ANY of us can be saved! We have “ALL sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” “There is NONE righteous, not even one”, Romans 3 says. What you must do is admit that, and cast yourself on the mercy of God that He shows us in Jesus, through His death on the cross. You must become a “spiritual beggar” if you want to get into heaven. It is just like the old hymn says:

​“Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.”

Charles Spurgeon quoted that sentence from the old hymn “Rock of Ages” perhaps hundreds of times in his sermons, and for good reason: that line sums up how you must come to God. You must come with “nothing in your hands.” You can’t “bring” anything to show Him of how you deserve heaven, because you don’t. You have to come empty-handed, and throw yourself on the mercy of God and depend totally on what Jesus did on the cross as your only hope of being saved. You must come to God as a spiritual beggar, saying: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” That is what it means to be “poor in spirit”: to depend totally on God for your salvation. It is the only way you can enter His kingdom.

A few years ago, one of our sailors was on an aircraft carrier out on the open sea when the ship suddenly lurched, and he was thrown overboard into the ocean. As he watched the carrier steaming off into the moonlight, the sailor said his first thought was, “I have to save myself!” Then he said the realization began to dawn on him: “I can’t save myself. I am stuck out here in middle of the ocean, and there is not a single thing I can do to save myself. My only hope is if they come and rescue me; if they don’t, I will perish.” (By the way, for Cheryl & Margaret, and all those who have to know “the rest of the story” — they DID come after him and rescue him, and he lived.) But the point of that story is that that sailor was totally dependent upon the crew of that ship for his salvation, and he knew it. There was nothing he could do to save himself. The same thing is true for us spiritually. If you are going to be saved, you must realize that you cannot save yourself, and you must become totally dependent on the mercy of God through Jesus on the cross to save you.

Now I ask you this morning, is that what you have? Have you become totally dependent upon what Jesus did on the cross for your salvation? Or have you been “holding in your hands” the good works you thought were going to get you there – “I’ve gone to church”, “I am a church member”; “I’m a pretty good person.” If you look at those things as works that you can “hold in your hand” to show God, you are as far from heaven as that Pharisee was. If you are going to ever see heaven, you must come empty-handed, like that Publican, with the attitude of that old hymn: “NOTHING in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” Today, some of you need to lay down whatever it is you hold in your hand; you need to lay down your “spiritual pride and independence”, and you need to cling to the cross of Jesus Christ alone. Turn to God in your heart — even right now, at this very moment — and say, “God, NOTHING in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling. Save me!” If you will put your trust in Jesus alone, then you can claim the promise of this verse: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” But that kind of spiritual dependence is the only way into the Kingdom of God.


III. Dependence in Your Christian Life

Now, a lot of us (certainly all of us who are Christians) DO understand that the only way we get into the Kingdom is by spiritual dependence. But unfortunately, then, somehow many of us get the idea that, having gotten into the Kingdom by depending on God, NOW we LIVE our Christian life by doing the best that we can. This is totally false idea. The poor in spirit gets INTO the Kingdom of Heaven, and then from that point on, poverty in spirit is THE key spiritual quality for everything you do in the Kingdom. You get saved by depending on God, and then you are to continue to depend on Him for everything you do in the Kingdom as well. In fact, how far you are able to advance in the Kingdom will depend on how much you grow in this principle of spiritual dependence.

Jesus said in John 15:5 “I am the vine; you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit, for without Me, you can do nothing.” (This is our first memory verse for MasterLife, so those of you who are going to start that class with me tonight can get a start on it!) But what Jesus is saying in that verse is that we need to constantly stay “plugged in” to Him, and depend on Him, to do anything in life.

Jesus knows that, because He lived that out in His life here on earth. As with each of these 8 Beatitudes, “poverty in spirit” is first and foremost a quality that Jesus Himself models for us. These are the character of Jesus that God is building into our lives. Now, Jesus did not sin, so He did not have to depend upon God for His salvation. But He DID exhibit the quality of TOTAL DEPENDENCE upon God the Father continually in His spiritual life. In John 5:19, Jesus said, “The Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing.” Just as Jesus could do nothing without the Father, so WE can do nothing apart from Him! We need to learn to depend on Him the way that He depended upon His heavenly Father when He was here on earth.

Among other things, that means daily prayer, like we see Him doing in Mark 1:35. That verse says that Jesus got up early in the morning, during an incredibly busy ministry time in His life, to seek God’s power and direction in prayer. He KNEW He had to have God’s direction and power in prayer; He totally depended upon it.
And He didn’t only begin His day in prayer; He prayed in the middle of His activities, like He did when He was standing in front of Lazarus’ tomb and just broke out in prayer to God (John 11:41-42). The secret to Jesus’ power in His earthly ministry was His total dependence upon His Heavenly Father for power and direction.
That has to become the key for our spiritual lives, too. If we are going to be strong and grow in God’s kingdom, we must learn to be “poor in spirit”, admit that we can’t do things without God’s help, and continually depend on God’s leadership and power in our lives.

But here is the catch: you and I don’t LIKE having to depend upon God. So unfortunately, what most of us do is the exact OPPOSITE of cultivating dependence on God. Instead of learning to depend on Him, we spend our whole lives trying to wean ourselves AWAY from dependence upon Him: we try to get enough money in the bank to where we don’t have to depend on Him for our daily bread; we “play it safe” in our careers and ministries and churches, so we can “control” everything and “know what to expect”. If we had it our way, we would never have to get out of our “comfort zone” and trust God.

I think it was C. S. Lewis who said that God may bring a certain need or difficulty in your life, because He knows very well that if He didn’t, He might never hear from you again! That’s exactly why God allows some difficult things in your life: to get you to turn to Him and depend on Him, when otherwise, you probably wouldn’t!

That’s why I shared last week in the introduction to this series that many of the events in our lives that we consider to be “defeats” in our eyes are actual VICTORIES in God’s eyes — because as bad as those times can be, if they got us to humble ourselves and admit our need and depend on God — then no matter how painful that was, it was actually the best thing that could ever happen to us!

Remember the position of this Beatitude: this is the first quality, of the the first words, of the first sermon of Jesus, in the first book of the New Testament. This is THE single most important spiritual quality there is! We MUST learn to depend on God, both to enter the Kingdom and to grow in the Kingdom — and God will bring whatever He has to into our lives to get us to learn it.

We think: why did I lose that money; why did I lose that job; why did I lose my health; why do I have this certain struggle in my life? — we think these kinds of things are “bad” — but the truth is that God has allowed these situations to come into our lives because He knows that they will cause us to turn to HIM, and depend on HIM — and learning to depend on Him is THE single most important thing that can happen to us!

Some of you can look at a painful or situation in your life, that just put you on your face before God. That’s how I was 3 years ago. I was so sick that when I resigned from the church I was pastoring, I could not stand up for 10 seconds to pack my belongings and leave. I got up to try to pack, but I had to lay down on the floor — and some of our friends from our church who came over to help literally stepped over me on the floor while they were packing. It was humbling. I could do nothing for myself, and I knew it. But listen: being on your face before God is the best place you can be! That’s where God wants us: realizing that we must depend on Him.

C.S. Lewis said in another place: “All (our) trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, ‘You must do this. I can’t.'” That’s when God comes and helps us in areas of our lives: when we put aside our pride and say, “God, I can’t do this; You’ve got to help me.” THAT is being “poor in spirit” — and that person is “blessed” because God has promised to help the poor in spirit. He said in Isaiah 66:2, “To this one I will look, who is humble and contrite in spirit.” I think that’s what a lot of people are going to find in the “Celebrate Recovery” class starting tonight. Your first step in the right direction is to admit: “I can’t do this; I need God’s help.” Maybe your first step is even to admit you need to BE in a group like that. But when you humble yourself like that, God WILL help you.
How do you KNOW if you are being “poor in spirit” and depending upon God? For one, you are humble. You don’t hesitate to admit that you need God’s help. But I also believe that one of the best evaluators of poverty of spirit for a Christian is your prayer life. If you are continually praying, that shows that you are constantly depending upon God. If you are NOT continually praying, that shows that you think you can handle things on your own; it is the “giveaway sign” that you are NOT depending on God.

We show how much we really depend upon God by the way that we pray:
— If you spend 10 hours working on a sermon or Sunday School lesson, and 2 minutes praying, it’s obvious what you’re really trusting — you’re trusting your preparation and skill; not God.
— If you spend dozens of hours working on some ministry project, and maybe 10 minutes praying about it, it’s clear where your dependence is — and it’s not on God!
— When you spend an hour getting ready in the morning physically: getting your clothes just right, and your hair just right, and your teeth just right, and your makeup just right — but don’t take but a minute or two to pray, it shows that You obviously think that things depend far more on the way you look than on God’s power.
See, if you really think things depend on God, then you will pray. PRAYER is the great indicator of just how “poor in spirit”, how dependent upon God, you really are.

Listen: Jesus was not exaggerating when He said, “apart from Me, you can do nothing.” We really can’t do anything without Him! I believe that one of the greatest reasons why Christians are failing today is that we are failing right here at this fundamental principle: we are not depending on God daily like we should. We NEED Him! It is like the old hymn says: “I need Thee every hour …” — and every minute, every second! You may say that you believe that — but you show how much you really believe it, by how much, and how often, you pray.


Over 200 years ago, our forefathers made a “Declaration of Independence” that became one of the most important days in our nation’s history. But it will be the most important day in your life today, if you will make a “declaration of DEPENDENCE” on God: Tell Him today, “I need You — to save me; to help me, today!”

LISTEN: it is NOT a bad thing for you to say: “I can’t handle this; God, I need your help.” It humbles our pride. But God says if you’ll do it — if you’ll be “poor in spirit” and depend on Him — then the Kingdom of Heaven will be yours!


— Some of you need to depend on Jesus for your salvation for the very first time. Admit that you can’t save yourself, and ask Him to save you. Make a “declaration of dependence” on Jesus today. Tell Him in your heart the words of that hymn: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling” and ask Him to save you — then come and share your decision with me.

— Others of us, even as Christians, need to make a new “declaration of dependence” on the Lord in your daily spiritual life. You have not been depending upon God, and your prayer life shows it. Ask God to help you to make a new “declaration of dependence” upon Him, and truly lean on Him in prayer every day: start your day with prayer, and pray all through the day.

— Some of you are facing a specific situation in which you really need to depend upon God. In fact, God may have designed this specific situation just so that you WOULD have to depend upon Him, because you have been too proud, too self-reliant, too independent of him. Today, God is calling you to make a “declaration of dependence” on God in your situation. Give it over to Him. Say, I can’t fix this; I am going to have to depend upon God to do it.
— Some of you may need to join the “Celebrate Recovery” class tonight, as a way of saying, “I need God’s help.
— Or you can humble yourself by coming forward to seek God’s help for yourself or someone you love in prayer. Don’t hesitate to do that; God love to help those who humble themselves and seek Him.

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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