A pastor who served in California for a number of years shared the testimony of a Hollywood celebrity he knew, who had struggled for years with a drinking problem. But one of the most difficult things they had to deal with, was that this person kept denying that they really had a problem. They kept saying things like: “I can handle it; I don’t need anyone’s help.” But the pastor said things finally began to change (as they so often do) when this celebrity hit bottom, and finally dropped their pride, and asked for help. This celebrity later said that “the three most important words I ever said were: ‘I NEED HELP’.”
Those may indeed be the most important words anyone can say: “I need help.” Every child says: “Mom, I need your help.” “Dad, I need your help.” I was walking down our street the other day and at the end of the cul-de-sac a little 3-year-old boy had spilled his toys on the driveway and he looked up at me crying and asked for help. Children aren’t afraid to ask for help, are they? Do you remember how Jesus said that if we want to enter the Kingdom of God, we have to become like little children? This is exactly what He meant by that. He was teaching us that if we’re going to get to heaven, we have to be willing to humble ourselves, and say to God those “three most important words”: “I need help!”
Last Sunday we introduced our study of Matthew 5:3-12, a passage we often refer to as “The Beatitudes.” But we saw that these Beatitudes are not merely 8 random character qualities which God has decided to bless, but these are 8 qualities which together picture for us the character of Jesus Christ which it is God’s ultimate goal to work into our lives. We saw that when Romans 8:28 says that God causes all things to work together for good, that Romans 8:29 immediately follows that up by saying that He is causing everything to work together “THAT we might be conformed to the image of His Son.” We don’t have to wonder what the “good” thing is that God is working all things together for. The Bible tells us that He is working all things together “THAT” He might make us more like Jesus in our character. And we saw that Matthew 5:3-12 is where God has strategically placed the description of Jesus’ character: in the first words, of the first sermon of Jesus, in the first book of the New Testament. In this prominent place, God has written the goal that He has for each one of our lives. And the most important thing He wants to do in each of us is to build these 8 qualities into our character.
So this morning, we are going to look at the very first character quality Jesus gives us here in Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” This first quality, as you might expect, is FOUNDATIONAL. All of the others are built on this one. And as Jesus indicates here, it is vital. You can’t even get into the Kingdom of Heaven without it! So let’s look at what it means.
I. The Meaning of Poverty in Spirit: Dependence upon God
There are two Greek words God could have used in the Bible here for the word “poor.” One word describes a “working poor” person; someone who is so poor that every day he works for the food that he will eat; he just barely has enough to get along each day. That is NOT the word the Bible uses here. The word used 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 sustenance. This word calls to mind how a charitable group brought Christmas presents to a poor family in Oklahoma a few years ago. When the group brought the presents in, the woman responded: “Had you not brought us these gifts for Christmas, we would have had NOTHING!” That experience pictures for us the meaning of this word. It means to be so poor, you are totally dependent upon the mercy of others.
Now, it’s important for us to notice that Jesus did NOT just say “blessed are the poor” here. He said “blessed are the poor in SPIRIT”! He is not talking about material poverty here, but spiritual poverty. He is not saying that it is a blessing to be totally dependent upon others for our material needs, but that it is a blessing to be totally dependent upon GOD for our SPIRITUAL needs. The person who is “poor in spirit” realizes that they have sinned against God, and they can’t save themselves, so they cast themselves entirely upon the mercy of God for their salvation — and when they do, Jesus says, they will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now, this idea of “spiritual dependence” may sound odd to many of us in America, who tend to see “dependence” as a bad thing:
— In 1776 We fought our “War For: Independence”!
— We celebrate our victory in that war with “Independence Day” on July 4th.
— Probably our most famous national document is the “Declaration of Independence.”
— The American Dream is to be “independently wealthy”.
— Most of us as individuals strive to be “independent” — and so on.
And all of those things are good. 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; it is good 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! If you want to be successful spiritually, you need to make, NOT a “declaration of independence,” but a “declaration of DEPENDENCE” upon God! Spiritual dependence upon God is the key to get IN to God’s kingdom in the first place, and then to grow in His kingdom. Let’s look at these two vital ways we need to apply this quality of spiritual dependence:
II. Dependence Is Necessary For Salvation
This quality of spiritual dependence applies first and foremost to salvation. If you are going to be saved from your sins and spend eternity with God in heaven, you must become totally dependent upon God for your salvation. You’ve got to say to God, “I need help.” You must realize that you are lost because of your sins, and that you cannot save yourself. You have to put your trust entirely in what Jesus did on the cross for you, and depend on HIM, and nothing that you have done for yourself, 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 realize that you are a “beggar” spiritually, and depend on Jesus Christ ALONE for your salvation. You have to humble yourself and ask for His help.
One of the best places we see this in scripture is in Luke 18:9-14, and the story Jesus told of the Pharisee and the Publican. It is such a vivid picture of what “poverty in spirit” IS and IS NOT.
The Pharisee in that story is an example of what “poor in spirit” is NOT! He most likely prayed in the customary Jewish way, and stretched his hands out for prayer. And that stretching out of his hands was very symbolic for him, too — because he felt like his “hands were full” of all the good works he was bringing to God. He said: “God, 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 of his good works; all the reasons God should take him to heaven. But he was wrong! Isaiah 64:6 says “All our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.” All of our supposed “good deeds” can never save us and make us right with God.
But so many people are just like this Pharisee. They think that to be right with God and go to heaven, they have to show God all the good things they have done: “Look, Lord, here’s how often I go to church!” “Look, God, here’s how much money I give.” “Look God, here’s how good I’m trying to be — I”m not like ‘these other people’ out there causing trouble.”
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 God to let you into heaven! But the Bible says you can never do it; the entrance fee into heaven is a price that you can never pay. The Bible says “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God … By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight.” If you try to get into heaven on the basis of the good things you can bring in your hands to God, you will never be saved!
But the Publican in Luke 18 was what Jesus called here, “poor in spirit.” He didn’t stretch out his hands in prayer; and that too was very symbolic. He knew he had nothing in his hands that he could bring God; instead, Jesus says he just beat his chest with his hands, and in his prayer he didn’t talk about anything good that he had done at all; 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 ever getting heaven was the mercy of God. He came to the temple empty-handed, and as a “spiritual beggar” he just threw himself on the mercy of God. And Jesus ended this story saying THAT was the man who went down to his house justified — sins forgiven; made right with God; going to heaven. Because he declared his “spiritual dependence” upon God. He knew that God’s mercy was the only way he would ever get into heaven.
THAT is what Jesus means here by “poor in spirit.” We’ve got to understand that the only way we can be saved is by the mercy of God, not anything we can do for ourselves. If you want to be saved, admit to God that you are a sinner, and that you are NOT good enough to go to heaven, and ask Him for His help; ask Him to do for you what you can’t do for yourself, because Jesus died on the cross for you.
One of the greatest lines of a Christian hymn in all history comes from the old hymn, “Rock of Ages.” It says: “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.” Charles Spurgeon must have quoted that line hundreds of times in his sermons, and for good reason: because it sums up how you have to come to God. You have to come with “nothing in your hands,” like the Publican. You can’t be like the Pharisee and try to “bring” anything in your hands to show God how you deserve heaven, because you don’t. You have to come empty-handed, “nothing in my hands I bring” — 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, and say: “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 the kingdom of heaven.
One night few years ago, one of our American sailors was standing on the edge of the deck of an aircraft carrier out on the open sea when the ship suddenly lurched, and that sailor was thrown overboard into the ocean. As he watched the carrier steaming away from into the moonlight, he 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 that they come will and rescue me; and if they don’t, then I will perish.” (And thankfully they did come and rescue him!)
But the point of that story is that that sailor was totally dependent upon someone else for his salvation, and he knew it. There was nothing he could do to save himself. He needed HELP. What WE have to realize is that the same thing is true for our salvation. If you are going to be saved, you have to realize that you can’t save yourself. You have to humble yourself and say to God like a little child, “God, I need Your help.” You’ve got to depend totally on the mercy of God through Jesus Christ to save you.
So I ask you this morning: what are you trusting in for your salvation? Some of you would admit: I have been “holding up my hands” to God, and trying to show Him all the good works you thought were going to get you to heaven: “I’ve gone to church”, “I am a church member”; “I’ve been baptized;” “I’m a pretty good person.” Maybe, honestly, that’s why you came to church today, to try to earn “credit” with God to help get you into heaven. If that is what you have been doing, then you are as far from heaven right now as the Pharisee in Luke 19 was! You’ve got to “empty your hands” this morning. You’ve got to say like that Publican, “God, I am a sinner. I need Your help. Please just be merciful to me, a sinner.” You have to come to God with the attitude of that old hymn: “God, NOTHING in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” “I need Your help!” Only the cross of Jesus will save me, or I will be lost forever!”
This morning, l hope you will lay down your “spiritual pride;” lay down your independence, and make a spiritual “Declaration of Dependence” on God through Jesus Christ. Right now in your heart — at this very moment — just say, “God, I need Your help. NOTHING in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling. Save me!” If you will put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation, then you can walk out of here this morning, and know that you are going to heaven. And from this day forward you will be able claim the promise Jesus gave us in this verse: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” And if anyone ever asks you if you’re going to heaven, you just say, “I don’t deserve it, but I am, because of God’s mercy in Jesus.” If you’re making that decision today for the very first time, tell me about it at the end of the service. It is the single most important decision of your life. Because dependence on Jesus alone is the only way into the Kingdom of God.
III. Dependence Is Vital In Your Christian Life
Now, I think probably many of us today would say that we already know that the only way we are going to get into heaven is by spiritual dependence on Jesus, and we’d say we have that. But unfortunately, many Christians have somehow gotten the idea that, having gotten IN to the Kingdom by depending on Jesus, NOW we LIVE our Christian life by doing the best that we can. And that idea is totally false. Poverty of spirit gets you INTO the Kingdom of Heaven, and from then on, poverty in spirit is THE key quality for everything you do in your Christian life. You get saved by depending on God, and then you must continue to depend on Him for everything you do in His Kingdom as well. In fact, how far you are able to grow in His Kingdom will depend on how much you grow in this principle of spiritual dependence upon God.
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.” Jesus says there that we must constantly stay “plugged in” to Him, and depend upon Him, to be able to do anything in the Christian life.
As we saw last week, these Beatitudes are first and foremost, character qualities of Jesus Himself. He lived them out perfectly. Now, Jesus never sinned, of course, so He had no need to depend upon God for His salvation. But He DID exhibit the quality of TOTAL DEPENDENCE upon God the Father continually throughout His life here on earth. In John 5:19, Jesus said, “The Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing.” Jesus knew He had to depend upon His Father for everything He did here on earth.
Well, just as Jesus could do nothing without the Father, so WE can do nothing apart from Jesus! That means we need to be constantly asking for His help in prayer. Prayer is the mark of the spiritually dependent person. If you are depending upon God, then you will be continually praying. If you are NOT continually praying, then you can be sure that you are NOT depending upon God! Prayer is the “giveaway sign” of how much you are really depending upon God.
— If we are really depending on God for the day ahead, then we will do what Jesus did in Mark 1:35, and get up early in the morning to seek God’s power and direction for the day in prayer. In the incredibly busy times of His ministry on earth, Jesus KNEW He had to have God’s direction and power each day, so He got up early to seek His Father’s help in prayer.
— And Jesus not only began 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 everything He did.
In the same way, we show how much we really depend upon God by the way that we pray:
— If you get up and walk right out into the day without praying, you are showing you don’t think you need God’s help for this day.
— When you spend an hour in the morning getting your clothes just right, and your hair just right, and your makeup just right — but you hardly take a minute or two to pray, or read the Bible — it shows that you really think that the way you appear to others is more important than your need for God’s power and help.
— When you work all afternoon and never breathe a prayer to God asking for His help, you are saying you really don’t think you need Him.
See, you show by the way you pray, how much you really think you need God’s help. If you want to know how “poor in spirit” you are as a Christian, just look at your prayer life. PRAYER is the great indicator of how dependent upon God you really are.
If we are going to grow in God’s kingdom and be strong in His Spirit, we must learn to constantly depend upon God in prayer, just like Jesus did. We’ve got to realize that without God’s help, we will fail. This is why the Bible says, “Pray without ceasing.” That’s why it says, “Be anxious for nothing, but pray about everything.” Constantly depend on God in prayer. We need to build into our lives the habit of seeking God in prayer, and asking His help in everything we do:
— I have been trying to get in the habit, whenever the phone rings, of praying: “God, help me to deal with this call in a way that would glorify You.”
— Every time someone says, “Pastor, let me ask you a question …”, I’m trying to get in the habit of just instantly whispering the prayer: “God, give me YOUR answer to whatever this is.” I do need His help; and I need to get in the habit of constantly depending on Him in prayer.
This is what we should be doing all the time. That’s not being obsessive; just what do we think we can do in this life, without God’s help? We need His help in everything, which explains why we should be continually praying. It shows that we are constantly dependent upon God for everything, which is exactly what being “poor in spirit” is.
But here is the catch: you and I don’t always LIKE having to depend upon God. So unfortunately, what many of us do is, instead of learning to depend on God, we spend our whole lives trying to wean ourselves AWAY from dependence upon Him: we try to put enough money in the bank so we don’t have to depend on Him for our daily bread; in our decisions for our careers and our churches we “play it safe” so we can “control” everything and don’t have to depend upon God. If many of us had it our way, we would never get out of our “comfort zone” and never have to depend upon God.
This is exactly why God allows many of the difficult things in our lives that He does: because it forces us to depend on Him, because otherwise, we never would! I shared last week in the introduction to this series that many of the events in our lives that we consider to be “defeats”, are actual VICTORIES from God’s perspective — because as bad as some of those times can be, if they caused us to humble ourselves and admit our need and depend on God — then even it was very painful to us, it was actually the best thing that could ever happen to us! Because THE most important need we have is to depend on God. So if you don’t depend on Him, He may well bring something into your life that you can’t handle, specifically to CAUSE you to seek Him and depend on Him.
This quality of dependence on God is SO important. Remember: 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! And because it is so important, God will bring whatever He has to into our lives to get us to learn it.
We think it’s a “bad” thing to lose our job, or our health, or whatever — but God may know that it’s not a bad thing at all, but a good thing, if it causes us to learn to depend upon Him.
Some of you know that although I have basically recovered from the illness I had in 2012, I still have some “struggles” with shakiness, that makes it difficult for me to stand for long periods of time. I might wish I didn’t have that; it seems to me like my life and my ministry would be a lot better without it. But one of our sweet deacons in North Carolina once told me that he thinks that God has allowed me to struggle with this, just like Paul did with his “thorn in the flesh,” just to keep me dependent upon Him every week. And you know, I can’t argue with that. It does keep me humble: I can’t even walk around the stage when I speak; it does keep me praying – many Sundays I don’t know if I’ll have the strength to make it through. It keeps me dependent upon God. And whatever causes me to depend upon God is ultimately good — because being “poor in spirit” and learning to ask God for help is THE most important thing we can ever learn!
Maybe you’ve got a similar situation in your life. You’ve been thinking this is “bad” — but today maybe like me you can look at your situation and say, “You know what; this keeps me humble; this keeps me praying; this keeps me dependent upon God” — that’s not a bad thing; from God’s perspective, it’s a good thing, if it makes me “poor in spirit.”
Listen: Jesus was not exaggerating when He said, “apart from Me, you can do nothing.” We need Him. We really can’t do anything without Him! I believe that one of the greatest reasons why many Christians are failing today is right here at this fundamental principle: we are not depending on God every day like we should. We NEED Him! It is like the old hymn says: “I need Thee every hour …” — and every minute, and every second! We need Him; and the sooner we realize that, the better.
Over 200 years ago, our forefathers made what we call the “Declaration of Independence” — one of the most important statements in our nation’s history. But THE most important statement of your life will be when you make a “declaration of DEPENDENCE” upon God: Tell Him those “3 most important words” today; for your salvation, and for your Christian life; tell Him: “God, I NEED HELP.” If you will, then as Jesus said, the Kingdom of Heaven — and all that God has for you — will be yours!
— If you’ve never done it before, make your “declaration of dependence” on Jesus as your Lord & Savior today. Tell Him: “Jesus, I need Your help.” Tell Him: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling” and ask Him to save you right now — and if you are doing that, come and share your decision with me, and we’ll set up a time for you to be baptized …
— Others of us, who are Christians already, need to make a new “declaration of dependence” on the Lord for your daily life. You haven’t been depending upon God, and your prayer life shows it. Tell Him: “God I need Your help.” Ask Him to help you to truly seek Him in prayer first thing in the morning, and to pray all through the day in everything you do.
— Maybe you are in a situation today, and God is showing you today that He has allowed this, just so that you would have to depend on Him. Give that thing to Him. Say, God I can’t fix this; I am going to have to depend on YOU to do it. Tell Him those 3 words, “I need help” … and ask Him to do what only He can do!