I remember praying one night with a guy who was hospitalized and dying of AIDS. He was raised in a Christian home, but he had been involved in a homosexual lifestyle for over 20 years.
I went to see him, and he told me that he was afraid to die and afraid of the judgment of God. He told me that he had lived a wicked, sinful life. And he knew it was wicked and he knew it was sinful and he knew it was worthy of the judgment of God. And he said, “I don’t deserve to go to heaven. I don’t want to go to hell. I don’t want to die lost. I don’t want to die in my sin.”
After he had unloaded this, I said, “Do you understand the gospel?” And he said, “Yes, I understand the gospel.” I said, “Do you understand that Jesus Christ died on the cross in the place of sinners? That Jesus Christ actually bore the punishment of God in His own body for all the sin in which you’ve been living for 20 years?” And I said, “If God is gracious enough to do that, I think you ought to reach out in faith.”
He said, “What do I do?” And I said, “I only know to tell you one thing: You’re a beggar and you just need to ask God to be merciful. God saves whom He saves when they cry out to Him.”
So he prayed for a long time, saying, “God, please be merciful. I only want mercy. Be gracious. Please forgive me.”
When we stopped praying, he looked at the calendar and the clock on the wall. And I said, “What are you looking at?” And this is what he said: “I want to remember the time and the day of my new life.” And a smile came across his face.
He lived for five more days, and for those five days he had me give him all of these books and tapes about God and Christ, making up for lost time. And I told him, “You know, you’re going to go to heaven and this is all going to be old stuff when you arrive. In a few days, you’ll understand more than me.”
I wanted to tell this story in order to give you a picture of why, at the beginning of the first recorded sermon of Jesus, the very first statement He makes is this:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
Why start with this? Because it is the fundamental characteristic of the Christian. All other characteristics flow from this one. This is where happiness begins, because this is where entrance into the kingdom begins.
Jesus begins by saying, “There’s a mountain you have to scale, and you can’t get there on your own. The mountain is too high. And you have to start with that realization. You cannot enter my kingdom, you cannot be happy, until you realize your bankruptcy.”
As long as I’m clinging to my own self-importance and self-righteousness, my own accomplishments and morality — as long as I’m holding onto this dirt as if it can somehow gain me access to God — I can never receive the gold of God’s grace. Happiness is only for those who are unworthy.
Until you see yourself clothed in filthy rags, you can’t appreciate the robe of righteousness that Christ brings. Until you’re poor, you can’t be rich. Until you’re a fool, you can’t be wise. Until you lose your life, you can’t save it.
Inevitably, what prevents people from entering into the kingdom is pride. So at the very start, pride must be broken. The only way to come into God’s kingdom, the only way to receive blessing, the only way to be genuinely happy, is to confess your own utter incapacity to meet God’s standard.
So what exactly does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? The Greek word translated “poor” is ptōchos. Ptōchos means to cower and cringe like a beggar. It has the idea of shrinking from something or someone. Ptōchos is being so poor and so destitute and so unskilled that begging is your only option. You don’t have the capability to work, making you totally dependent on the gifts of others. Everything comes to you from an outside source. This is somebody with no wealth, no influence, no position, no honor, no respect, in some cases possessing nothing but the ragged clothes they wear.
When you see yourself as empty, poor, helpless, bankrupt, and unable to contribute one single thing to your salvation, you are ptōchos. You need mercy. You need grace from an outside source, from God Himself, because you can bring nothing. You are helplessly dependent.
Do you want to enter Jesus’s kingdom? This is where you start. This is the true diagnosis of man. And it’s only when you recognize it that you become a candidate for entrance into God’s kingdom of happiness.
Jesus says that the people who see themselves this way are blessed. He says, “Happy are the destitute. Happy are the beggarly. Happy are the hopelessly dependent. Happy are the people who have nothing and can earn nothing.”
So compare yourself to God’s standard, recognize how far short you fall, and then cry, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” When you do this, you will have taken the first step toward true and lasting happiness.
Then you will find another attitude manifesting in your heart that matches the second Beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn.” And we’ll talk about that next time.
This blog post is based on Dr. MacArthur’s sermon “The Only Way to Happiness: Be Poor in Spirit,” originally preached in 1998.
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