By David Kowalkski
The following sermon was prepared for a congregation’s edification and thus not constructed primarily with Joseph Prince in mind. It consequently does not cover some of the issues I differ with Prince on such as the perpetuity of moral law (Prince does not believe in this but see 1 John 3:4) and confession of sin (Prince opposes this practice but see I John 1:9 which is not written to Gnostics as Prince claims).
Within the sermon I express harmony with Prince on justification by grace through faith but differ with him on the following subjects:
Arguably the best college basketball coach ever was John Wooden who coached UCLA to ten national championships in a twelve year period in the 60’s and 70’s. One thing he was famous for was his first practice with new players in which he would methodically teach them the proper techniques for putting on their socks and shoes. It was crucial to Wooden that his players master the basics. In the two verses we will look at in Matthew chapter five, Jesus gives us the basics of blessedness that He would have us master. These verses come at the beginning of Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and the rest of the content of that sermon is founded upon and flows from these two basics.
Most of us have read that sermon many times, and sometimes we can become so familiar with a portion of Scripture that it loses much of its impact on us. I challenge you to let the Holy Spirit make this sermon by Jesus fresh to your heart sometime soon. It’s such a powerful message. In the old days they would have called it a real barn burner. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus confronts us in a bold, unreserved manner with His kingdom demands of loving God and others.
I have heard and read a lot of sermons. I have even read some of Jonathan Edward’s notably strong classics but I’ve never read a sermon quite like this Sermon on the Mount. It is not surprising that people have devised a variety of schemes to claim that this sermon is not intended for ordinary, modern believers. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, considers the sermon to be to some degree “counsels of perfection” intended for those entering the priesthood or monastery. Others say the sermon is an expression of the Mosaic Law that has nothing to do with those of us under grace. Traditional dispensationalists tell us that the kingdom Jesus speaks of in this sermon must be the millennial kingdom. They say He couldn’t be making such demands on us in the church age. But in the conclusion to the sermon, the demand of present obedience is made clear as Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24) Additionally, after His resurrection, Jesus instructed his followers in the great commission to “Make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Whether we like it or not this message in its entirety is for all believers in this age.
In it Jesus summarizes what the Christian life is to be like. As he describes this life He holds the bar heavenly high and says it must be lived from the bottom of our hearts. He adds that we must be ultimately serious about living this way. Using hyperbole, Jesus says, “If your eye causes you to stumble gouge it out and throw it away…If your hand causes you to stumble cut it off and throw it away” (Matthew 5:29-30). In other words, do whatever it takes. Jesus then warns that the consequences for not doing so are deadly and eternal. He even uses the h word we seem so afraid of today, saying if we don’t get serious about living this life we will spend eternity in hell (Matthew 5:29-30). That’s some strong preaching. It makes a person want to change the channel and get a different preacher to listen to – someone less harsh!
Jesus starts His sermon with a series of declarations regarding whom He blesses. When we consider all of the data provided we see that He made these declarations very forcefully. It was a solemn occasion, and Jesus assumed the seated position of one speaking with authority. He had to have spoken loudly, for Matthew 7:28 tells us the entire crowd heard him and was amazed. The Greek is quite emphatic, and especially if we consider the Aramaic behind it, a legitimate translation of the word for “blessed” would be “Oh how blessed!” The picture we are given is one of a preacher (in this case the God-Man) who, if He had been standing behind a pulpit, might have been pounding it in this introduction to His message:
Matthew 5:3-4 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
We first see that God gives His kingdom blessing to the poor in spirit. Jesus said many things about the economically poor, but the location of the poverty he’s speaking of here is in one’s spirit, and the nature of that poverty is absolute. The Greek word for poor in this verse was generally used to describe not merely the lower class, but the beggar on the street who realizes he has nothing and is completely dependent on the mercies of others for his very sustenance. To those who recognize their spiritually destitute state, Jesus promises the kingdom of heaven which imparts the present possession of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, as well as the promise of heaven.
I’ve visited Lake Peigneur near New Iberia, Louisiana. It was once a relatively small, eleven foot deep lake until in 1980, a Texaco, drilling rig on the lake punctured the top of a salt mine which swallowed up the water, the oil rig, boats and much, nearby land. The Gulf of Mexico flowed northward through a canal into the hole, enlarging the body of water and making the eleven foot deep lake now 1300 feet deep. The vacuum below was filled with the waters above just as the emptied spirit connecting with Christ will be filled with living water.
Even knowing we’re speaking of a superior, kingdom blessing, there’s still something counterintuitive or paradoxical to us in this declaration that the poor in spirit are blessed, and it was so in Jesus day as well. The popular heroes of that day were the Pharisees who sometimes gave lip service to this concept of spiritual poverty but who generally thought themselves spiritually rich. A number of years ago I read a book by a Jewish author who idolized the Pharisees of Jesus day, and reading the book I saw these men from a perspective I never had before. Momentarily setting aside what I knew of them from the Gospels, the Pharisees seemed like spiritual giants. They memorized vast portions of Scripture, said a lot of commendable things, and went out of their way to avoid breaking laws and traditions. I remember having conflicting emotions as I read because I thought I would have admired these men had I been alive at the time, but these were the ones Jesus called blind, hypocrites, a brood of vipers, and whitewashed tombs!
Jesus crossed swords with these Pharisees on a number of issues related to the law and tradition but in Luke 18:9-14 He spoke to the heart of the matter – to the fundamental dispute He had with them:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get. “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus diagnosed the Pharisees as having a high sense of spiritual achievement – of being quite pleased with themselves before a holy God. From a heavenly perspective no one should have a high sense of spiritual achievement. A sense of self satisfaction is a sure sign of a sick soul. If you think you can approach God on your own merits rather than those of the cross of Christ alone woe be unto you whoever you are!
After attending a funeral a couple of years ago, I became persuaded that I did not want to be eulogized (to have praise spoken of me) at my own funeral. I wrote out what I wanted to be read instead. It is a brief testimony of how Christ saved me in my apartment at the age of nineteen in 1975 after I had ruined my life and reached my lowest point. I then describe how wonderfully Christ changed my life but note that I always found a way to mar every beautiful thing He did with mistakes, impure motives, and unbecoming conduct. I conclude with the following:
Facing eternity I have no right in myself to claim a place in God’s, holy heaven. That destination is far too good for me. I have no more right in myself to be welcomed favorably there by God than I had to be welcomed favorably by Him in that apartment in 1975. I am undeserving of such favor but will gratefully receive His grace. Out of His amazing and wonderful love, Jesus Christ paid the price for my sins on the cross. I have never had any merit or hope outside of that cross, and the only truly good thing about me was my Savior. If there is to be any eulogizing at the time of my death it should be of Christ alone.
To the natural mind it seems too good to be true, but we will enter God’s heaven just because of what Christ did for us. Oh how blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!
As we turn our attention to the second of these beatitudes we see this poverty of spirit is not just how we get in, it’s how we keep on. It does not just characterize the origin of the Christian life but the ongoing of it as well. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The Greek indicates a continuous state of mourning of the kind associated with loud weeping and wailing. This mourning represents a serious dissatisfaction with the status quo. Such mourners obviously feel unhappy about some things, and Christ pronounces His kingdom blessing upon those who have the proper kind of unhappy feelings arising from this sense of holy dissatisfaction.
To begin with, how can one live in a world that is in rebellion against its creator and feel good about that? The psalmist said “Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed” (Psalm 119:136). Paul said in Philippians 3:18, “For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” Also, how can we live in continual comfort in the midst of the painful effects of the fall? Deeply moved, Jesus wept at Lazarus tomb (Luke 11:33-39). Even more so, how can we realize that judgment is coming to people beloved of God and not feel bad about that? Jesus wept over rebellious Jerusalem as He foretold its coming judgment (Luke 19:41-44). There is so much wrong with this fallen world that an enlightened person in their right mind can’t help but weep sometimes.
But dare we look at ourselves for a moment? What response does an enlightened, inward gaze produce? The apostle Paul taught a principal not of obsessive introspection but of healthy self-examination. In 2 Corinthians 13:5 he told us to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith, and in 1 Corinthians 11:28 he said that “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup” of the Lord’s supper. The principle is clear. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us the heart is deceitful above all things. We all have a tendency toward self-justification and need to occasionally examine ourselves in prayer as we let God shine His light on our conduct and heart.
Does an enlightened, inward gaze make us feel proud of ourselves? A sense of self satisfaction is a sure sign of a sick soul. We cannot exalt ourselves in the presence of God’s glory. When Isaiah saw the Lord high and exalted he cried out, “Woe to me…I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6:5). We cannot behold His holiness and feel proud of ourselves. Furthermore, a spiritually healthy believer has an active, spiritual nervous system that feels bad when he or she has done bad things. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to expose some things that needed correction in the church. The effect it had upon the Corinthians was a desirable and productive one. Paul’s inspired letter caused a godly sorrow in the Corinthians that led them to change their ways:
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. (2 Corinthians 7:8-10)
Exposure of bad things within makes godly people feel bad. This kind of enlightened mourning follows from the experience of poverty of spirit because we never achieve a state of spiritual wealth in ourselves and are, in this age, occasionally forced to confront various aspects of our deficiency.
Wherever God’s Spirit moves, this holy mourning can be seen. I’ve spent a good bit of time studying revival phenomenon, and I have found that one very common mark of true revival movements is weeping as the Spirit moves upon people who consequently see and feel their need to change. One typical event occurred on July11, 1742 during the first Great Awakening, as George Whitefield spoke to a crowd of around 20,000 people in Scotland. During that service “people wept over their sins and some fell prostrate.” In one meeting led by Jonathan Goforth in the North China Revival of 1908 we are told “Upon the meeting being thrown open for prayer many arose to pray, only to break down weeping.” One minister observed that in these meetings “the floors were wet with pools of tears.” Goforth noted the comments of a fellow missionary who witnessed the revival:
Hitherto I have had a horror of hysterics and emotionalism in religion, and the first outbursts of grief from some men who prayed, displeased me exceedingly. I didn’t know what was behind it all. Eventually, however, it became quite clear that nothing but the mighty Spirit of God was working in the hearts of men.
Whenever I preach I always make a concerted effort to avoid any controversy, and I’ve actually succeeded in that effort two or three times. I just don’t seem to be very good at that endeavor as you will see. Not many years ago a supposed revival movement swept through the land that was characterized by mass, hysterical laughter. I do believe that one can be influenced by God’s Spirit in a way that results in a kind of holy laughter, but I do not believe that a movement characterized by mass, hysterical laughter can be called a true revival movement. I’ll let God be the judge of what it is but it is not revival. Revival is not playtime. It is serious business in which God visits His people in power to transform, motivate, and empower them for service. I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones who said the following:
There can be a lot of laughing and lightness, and obvious organization in evangelistic campaigns. Never in a revival, but rather awe, this reverence, this holy fear, the consciousness of God in his majesty, his glory, his holiness, his utter purity. And that…leads inevitably to a deep and terrible sense of sin, and an awful feeling of guilt. It leads men and women to feel that they are vile and unclean and utterly unworthy and, above all, it leads them to realize their utter helplessness and hopelessness face to face with such a God…In their utter helplessness and hopelessness they prostrate themselves and cast themselves upon the love and mercy and compassion of God.
James said “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 4:9-10). When God initially exposes the distance between where we are and where He wants us to be, a sane person who really sees that mourns.
Now that mourning inevitably leads to incredible peace and profound joy. God comforts those who mourn with the “oil of joy,” but you cannot bypass the mourning that shows you’ve seen yourself in the Lord’s light. I recently read a couple of books by an author who claimed in both books that the Lord will never show us anything wrong with our hearts or conduct. This author maintained that the Lord will only show us the righteous standing we have through justification. I would suggest this man reread Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2-3. Jesus tells five of those churches in very strong terms about the things He has against them, calling all five of these to repent. He tells the Laodiceans “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.” (Revelation 3:19). This same author redefines repentance, by the way, but scholars still agree that repentance involves a turning away from sin.
Am I saying that when God visits us in power by His Spirit, and shines His light on our heart and conduct we will never feel proud of ourselves? That’s exactly what I’m saying. When God turns the bright lights on and exposes all the dirty nooks and crannies of our temple it does not initially please us. But let me be very clear, that exposing light is also a healing light. The same light that exposes our sin reveals Christ in all of His love and mercy. For the repentant, mourning gives way to the peace that passes understanding and to assurance of eternal joy. Oh how blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted!
At this point it should be clear that Jesus uses this word “blessed” in an unusual way. From the second beatitude we saw that this blessing is deeper than emotions since those who mourn are counted blessed. When we look down to verse eleven of Matthew five we observe that this blessing is irrespective of circumstances. Jesus says there “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” So what the beatitudes convey is not conventional, worldly wisdom. Jesus looks past mere, surface issues to things of the Spirit and matters of eternity. A lot of people are obsessed with what Solomon described as meaningless vanities under the sun, but Jesus is more concerned that we know His kingdom blessing which surpasses everything under the sun.
God gives grace to the lowly and contrite heart (Isaiah 66:2) resulting in this blessing that surpasses pleasant circumstances and happy feelings as a mighty river surpasses a rivulet of water running down one’s driveway. Kingdom blessedness is infinitely deeper and longer lasting than worldly success or pleasantness. The blessedness God intends for you is far more than a temporary circumstance or fleeting emotion. What He wants for you is eternal glory – eternal and glorious beyond comparison. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven! Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted!
David Kowalski is working on an evaluation of the teachings of Joseph Prince, the senior pastor of New Creation Church in Singapore. His review of Prince’s books Destined to Reign and Unmerited Favor will soon be posted at Apologetics Index.
Note: As the above article is a sermon, no footnotes are provided. All Scripture references are from the New International Version.