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Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Wyckoff, NJ.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Surely, everyone who has ever memorized the beatitudes remembers the first of them all. This is well, for indeed this beatitude is first not only as a matter of order, in the sense that it stands at the beginning or head of the list, but in the sense that it defines the entire sermon of Christ on the kingdom of heaven.

These opening verses of the sermon describe for us the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The citizens have very specific qualities, qualities which distinguish them from those without the kingdom. The blessedness of this identification is that it conveys a confidence of membership in this kingdom, the blessedness of fellowship with the living God through the King of this kingdom. It is for the believer to see himself reflected in these verses.

Such is indeed the blessedness of which Jesus speaks: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is the crown of blessedness, the essence of blessedness: citizenship in that great, everlasting kingdom. For that kingdom itself is the blessing. The King about whom we have seen so much in pages before is the Head of this kingdom. To belong to this kingdom is to belong to Him, to be blessed by Him with all manner of blessings. This thought must govern the whole of these beatitudes.

Keep in mind that the King Himself is the One who reveals this kingdom. “And he opened his mouth, and taught them saying.” His word is authoritative. As He shall define this kingdom, so it must be. The great blessedness of hearing His definition of this kingdom with all its aspects is the knowledge that such is indeed this kingdom. When He describes its citizens, they are very really in that kingdom. It matters not what the world thinks or says, or what so many churches think or say. As the King speaks, so it must be.

The first 12 verses of Matthew 5 we may divide into three different sections. The first, verses 3-6, describes these citizens from the viewpoint of their need. The second, verses 7-9, describes them from the viewpoint of their reflection of the blessedness of God. The third, verses 10-12, describes them from the viewpoint of the attitude that the wicked world takes toward them. This progression is significant. We can take these sections as three different steps: The citizens’ poverty, their riches, and the seal of their blessedness.

Blessed in Poverty

Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Some imagine that the reference here is to material poverty. Since, it is thought, money is the root of all evil, and the rich shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven, Jesus here must be ascribing to those without wealth or riches the kingdom of heaven. Now they have nothing. But after this life of poverty they shall possess the kingdom of heaven.

Such may even seem to be fair treatment. The rich receive the good things of this life, while the poor have nothing. Therefore, it would follow that roles should be reversed in the kingdom of heaven, as with Dives and Lazarus. The justice of God would be revealed at the end of time. When the judgment is rendered, the rich shall be brought to the poverty-stricken desolation of hell, and the poor brought into the riches of the kingdom of heaven.

From another eschatological viewpoint, it may be argued that the inheritance of the rich kingdom of heaven ought to be given to the poor right now. If it is our goal to bring about the kingdom of heaven upon the earth, the poor must receive the substance of the kingdom—earthly riches and power. This is the impetus behind the social gospel and liberation theology. The lower classes of society must be brought to an equality with the higher, through the redistribution of wealth. The church’s work to bring about this kingdom is to encourage the government to form and maintain many social programs. The church must also work to “liberate” the oppressed working poor in other countries, overthrowing their “capitalist oppressors” even by the use of force.

Such is the way in which the first beatitude is realized, according to many.

All, but for two little words: “in spirit.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Spiritually poor are these citizens who are destined to receive the kingdom of heaven. That makes matters quite different. The materially poor are not necessarily poor in spirit. The materially rich are not necessarily rich in spirit. Neither riches nor poverty determine the glorious inheritance of the kingdom of heaven. Rather, to the spiritually poor belongs the kingdom of heaven. Even more, we must include the understanding. Only those whose eyes are open to see and admit their spiritual poverty have any inheritance in this glorious kingdom. All men are spiritually bankrupt, having nothing. Part of that spiritual bankruptcy is blindness to this actual condition. Only some possess this understanding. They are the elect. They have been regenerated by grace and illuminated by the Holy Spirit, to see their poverty. To them belongs the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed in Mourning

The next three of these beatitudes further describe this spiritual poverty. This spiritual poverty causes mourning. The substance of that mourning is the spiritual poverty. It is the stark realization not only that one is destitute of any spiritual good, but also that one is deep in spiritual debt before God. Infinitely deep. Before the face of the infinitely holy God, the mourner sees the infinite debt caused by his sin. With himself, he finds only reason to be excluded from the kingdom of heaven. Out of his deep desire to inherit the kingdom of heaven, he mourns greatly.

That mourning which brings true comfort, therefore, is holy. Not all who mourn will find the comfort of the kingdom of heaven. There are those who mourn over their poverty in material things. They cast their eye of envy upon those who have more. They mourn out of covetousness. For them is not the comfort of the kingdom of heaven, for in that covetousness they are under the wrath of God. There are those who mourn over the heavy (and sometimes not so heavy) afflictions they bear because of their sin. Homes broken by divorce, bonds of kin and friendship broken by animosity. Diseases and famines. All these things are cause for much mourning. Those so afflicted mourn greatly. But they mourn only over the punishment of their sin, never their sin itself. In that mourning they will find no comfort. That mourning is only the beginning of their sorrow.

Only for such mourners that mourn truly, over their sin, the word of the King is comfort: Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Their broken hearts shall be healed, and their tears dried. Their comfort is the blessedness of the kingdom of heaven. Though they have no claim to that kingdom in themselves, because of their infinite debt, they have a home there. To them comes the comforting word of the gospel, that the debt of their sin has been paid by the King Himself. By His rich grace they have an inheritance in the kingdom. By grace alone. What comfort!

Blessed in Meekness

Then, “Blessed are the meek.” The spiritual poverty, manifested in mourning, leads to meekness. Comforted with the gospel of the kingdom that theirs is that kingdom, they walk in calm assurance.

Meekness is difficult even to describe, perhaps because we see so little of it, even in ourselves. It is compared with gentleness, humility, patience. It is the calmness of soul wherein the believer finds all worth and value outside of himself in God. Meekness is the opposite of self-assertion. The one possessing this meekness does not have his feathers ruffled when he meets with things and persons adverse to him. He does not respond to adversity with evil thoughts or actions, but gives way. In patience he possesses his soul.

These meek ones are blessed in that they shall inherit the earth. How very strange! Do not only the great and mighty possess the earth, its wealth and power? Is it not the case that only the strong, those who leave such qualities as meekness far behind, survive? After all, are not the meek trodden in the dust of the earth? Not so, according to the King of the kingdom of heaven. As the King, He possesses not only the heavens, but also the earth. And He will distribute to those whom He wills, not those who take. By the word of the King, they shall inherit the earth.

And what an earth they will inherit! Not an earth filled with sin and death. Not an earth characterized by corruption. They will inherit a new earth, in which righteousness dwells, a new earth, which contains the heavenly Jerusalem, coming down as a bride from heaven. This is a glorious, holy inheritance, regally given by the glorious King to His meek ones.

Blessed in Hunger

With the final beatitude of this first section, we come to understand the fundamental reason why all these things are true. Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. The citizens of the kingdom are poor in spirit exactly in their hunger for righteousness. Their poverty gives them this hunger and thirst. They mourn over their sin exactly as their lack of righteousness. Their meekness comes from the realization that they have no righteousness in themselves. Such is their hunger and thirst: a deep, spiritual longing for the only thing that truly satisfies.

Their blessedness is having that hunger and thirst fully satisfied. That satisfaction is justification. Having no righteousness in themselves, they find it all in their King, Jesus Christ. He Himself is the righteousness of God, sent to fill their hunger and quench their thirst. To them God imputes His royal righteousness. He feeds them the living bread which came down from heaven. He causes them to drink the wine of the blood of the Lamb. And they are filled to overflowing. They look nowhere else than to Christ. In Him they find the ground of the inheritance of the new heavens and the new earth. In Him they find not only comfort, but also the joy of their salvation. In Him they find the righteousness that guarantees the kingdom of heaven for them.

Questions for Meditation and Further Study

1. In what ways are the beatitudes contradicted by the world and by much of the church world?

2.What is the significance of these qualities as spiritual? What is the terrible loss when these qualities are seen in physical terms?

3.What things have the tendency to diminish the knowledge of true, spiritual poverty? What things take away from your true mourning? By what means can you build up this sense of spiritual destitution in your consciousness?

4.What is meekness? How is this attribute demonstrated in Moses, according to Numbers 12:3? How is this attribute demonstrated in Christ, according toMatthew 11:29? How does this virtue clash especially with worldly thinking, especially when it comes to ownership of the earth?

5.How does the truth of righteousness as identified in verse 6 close off the section that begins with poverty of spirit? What is the relation between this first section and the blessed doctrine of justification by faith alone?