Preaching the Gospel from Matthew, Part II

Title: Preaching the Gospel from Matthew

Text: Matthew 5:3, Luke 6:20

Time: August 12th, 2007

How did Christianity spread in its early days? How could the Christian faith spread so rapidly in the ancient world? What can explain its rapid growth in the midst of a hostile environment? The only explanation is that the gospel— the message itself and the powerful results of faith in the gospel—won the ancient world to Christ. But what was it about the gospel that so won the hearts of the ancient people? To put things in perspective, in roughly 300 years after Christ, Christianity had conquered the mighty Roman Empire. It was made the official religion of the empire because of its spiritual power and size. Rome implemented the old saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” And so Christianity became the heart and soul of the Roman Empire. But what was it about the gospel message that could transform ordinary people and eventually transform an entire world empire? Today, I’d like to answer that question by zeroing on the gospel that Jesus preached from the Gospel According to Matthew. I’ve been preaching the gospel from the four gospel books, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I’ve been explaining key Bible passages in each of these books that bring out the essential gospel message. Today, I’d like to go back into the Book of Matthew and explain one of the teachings of Jesus concerning the gospel message that explains why so many people received Christianity in those early days. The message of Jesus was very unique for its time. It pointed people away from the commonly understood means to obtaining the good life on earth. The message Jesus preached was the very opposite of the message that the world’s common wisdom taught. It was also different than the message the world’s religions commonly taught. Jesus pointed people to the reign or rule of God as the means to obtain a blessed life. While the world’s wisdom was instructing people to obtain worldly goods, power, position, wealth, fame, money, possessions, success, achievement, etc. as means to obtain the blessed life, Jesus was instructing his followers to God and spiritual blessings as the means to a truly good life. Now how does all of this connect with us today, now, in the twenty-first century? It connects in many ways. How? Because we hear the same voices coming from the world, and sadly also from religion, that to obtain the truly blessed life, one must achieve or succeed in obtaining worldly, earthly things, whether that be wealth, power, position, success, etc. But Jesus came to deliver us from all these false goals. He came to show us the way to true blessings. He did so by teaching a simple yet profound spiritual truth: a blessed life comes not from man or earth or even from self, a blessed life comes only from God and being in a right relationship with Him. That’s what Matthew 5:3 (read) teaches. So let me unpack this teaching today in order that we might hear, understand, and live out its truth in our lives.

First, The world teaches that the good life comes from the good things of this earthly life. Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” The world teaches the very opposite; always has, always will. What’s the common sense understanding of a happy life? Isn’t it always adding something to one’s life? Isn’t it always looking for that something that you don’t yet have, whether it’s a new job or career, a new house, a new car—these things we are told will or can make us happy and fulfilled. We see it all the time in advertising; they always tell us our problem is that we don’t have something, this or that, and so they will sell it to us, and then we’ll be happy—so the sales pitch goes. But advertising is just an extension of what the world has always been telling us—you can be happy, you can have the good life, you can be fulfilled, you can be blessed—you just need to get certain things, or you need more of certain things. Now the Jews at the time of Jesus were thinking along these same lines because they all thought that their main problem in life was that they weren’t free, the Romans were holding them captive with troops stationed in Jerusalem and in Israel. The Jews thought that if they could just get their political freedom they’d be blessed. They were looking for a Messiah or political leader to lead them to freedom and establish the Jewish kingdom like in the time of King David. But that hope or dream was an illusion. Look back during the reign of King David, things weren’t perfect then either, people weren’t fulfilled, they complained about life back then too. The Jews at the time of Jesus were chasing the false illusion that a blessed life consists of having the right earthly things. For them it was political freedom. But what about the other people living back in those days, like the Gentiles within the Roman Empire, what did they strive for in obtaining the good life? And by good life I mean the kind of life that perfectly satisfies our deepest desires and gives us complete fulfillment. For most people back then, as most people today, they think the good life is about getting enough money to live well, afford the good things of life, or in other words, to obtain a certain level of wealth. For other people, the good life meant having the right kind of relationships, whether a marriage relationship or friendships or family or business connections or community ties, etc. For others it was achieving success or achievement in some field that would distinguish them from the crowd. Many of the officials in the vast Roman Empire sought fame, honor, position, recognition, etc. for fulfillment. For them, that was the good life. But whether speaking to a Jew or a Gentile, Jesus taught all people that the blessings of life don’t consist in the things of life on earth. And the people who didn’t have the good things of life, or couldn’t ever get these good things, received Jesus’ message gladly, because it promised them the blessed life apart from the world’s commonly accepted teaching.

What were the Jews’ chances of overthrowing the Roman Empire and re-establishing the Jewish kingdom? Slight to none. So if a Jew were to put all hope in this to obtain the blessed life, he’d never obtain it. Jesus said to the Jews, “Forget about being blessed with a free Israel. That’s not the path to blessings anyway, since it wasn’t paradise even during the reign of David and Solomon in a free Israel. Economic freedom isn’t the path to the good life. Jesus also spoke to the Gentiles. He basically said, “It isn’t about being poor or rich, it isn’t about having wealth and power and position. A blessed life doesn’t depend on these things. Don’t hold your breath waiting for these earthly things to materialize before you are happy. If you put your hope in these things coming into your life, you’ll be disappointed. Plus, even if you obtained them, these things don’t make for a blessed life, because there are people who have them yet are sad and unfulfilled.” Imagine the relief a poor person living in the Roman Empire felt when the burden of obtaining the good life through gathering the good things in life was lifted from his shoulders? It must have felt good to hear that being blessed didn’t consist in possessing the good things of earth, especially to those who had no hope in obtaining them, and thus no hope in obtaining the good life through that means. But Jesus was telling them that even if you had the means to obtain the good things of life, these things wouldn’t guarantee the good life. That was good news for the poor, for the masses, for the vast majority of the Roman Empire. Want to know why so many people received the gospel of Jesus Christ? It was because Jesus explained to them that being blessed wasn’t a practical impossibility. He taught them that there was more to life than earthly things, that fulfillment and meaning and purpose in life doesn’t come through the things that people pursue in life, that it wasn’t limited to a few people who could obtain the good things of life. This is a message we need to hear more today because we live in a time when the illusion of the good life through the good things of life is stronger today than ever. In our modern world, with the hope of prosperity and higher standards of living, the illusion of the good life through the good things of life is even more tempting. People today are always saying to themselves, “If I only had a better job, if I only made more money, then I’d be happy and fulfilled.” They say, “If I got married, if I started a family, bought a nice home, lived the American dream, then I’d be happy.” People look to government, “If the government would cut taxes, if they’d pass this bill or that, if the president did this or that, then we’d all be blessed.” The same old illusion is alive and well today that says the good life depends on getting the good things of life. But Jesus teaches something entirely different.

Second, Jesus teaches the good life comes through being in a right relationship with God and doing His will. Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” In Luke’s version of this teaching it omits the phrase, “in spirit” and simply says, “Blessed are the poor.” What is Jesus talking about because it seems so contradictory to everything we’ve grown up hearing. Modern advertisers tell us that the reason we aren’t happy or fulfilled is because we don’t have something or we don’t have enough of something. Advertisers claim that they have what we need to be happy or in order to make our lives fulfilled. But it’s not just advertisers, it’s all of society teaches this too. Education, as in college or technical training, is sold on the same basis: what you need in life is more training or more education to live the life you’ve always dreamed of having. Houses are sold every day with the promise that this new home will be the fulfillment of the American dream: if you buy this house you will begin to live the good life, you’ll finally be fulfilled and satisfied.” And on and on the false promises go. This is exactly what Jesus taught not to believe: don’t believe the false and empty promises of the world, don’t buy into the false illusions of the world. He also teaches us that we don’t have to be wealthy or powerful or famous or in an important position in society to be blessed. We don’t have to have all the good things of the world to have the good life. Then what is it that we need to have the good life? This one simple thing: a right relationship with God. It’s that simple, and it’s that simple message people received gladly in the ancient world, and humble hearts still receive today, because the phrase “poor in spirit” means “humble in spirit.” Blessed are the poor in spirit means blessed are those who aren’t living life largely, who don’t possess the false means to the false illusions of the world. Blessed are those who have nothing but open hearts to God, who are poor in everything the world calls wealth but are open to God. Are you lacking in many of the things the world considers essential for happiness and the good life? Are you lacking riches? Do you lack a nice fancy home? Do you lack a position of power in society? Do you lack fine possessions and a life of luxury? If so, cheer up, Jesus says these things are not important in obtaining the good life, the true and real good life of meaning, purpose, fulfillment, satisfaction, because only in a right relationship with God can we be truly blessed. Poor people can be blessed, down and out people can be blessed. You don’t have to be one of the “beautiful people” as they are called in order to be blessed. That isn’t where true blessings are to be found anyway. True blessings are found in God and God’s will. What does Jesus teach elsewhere? “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you,” Matthew 6:33. You don’t have to be rich to do that, or have power or position to do that, just faith.

Third, for us, trusting God and doing His will is the good life. Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” The whole modern world is telling is to do this and do that in order to find life, but Jesus is telling us to trust God and do His will in order to find life. The world is telling us to go after money and make lots of money and buy lots of things in order to find happiness and fulfillment, but Jesus is telling us that money and the things it buys can’t buy us a blessed life. It is obtained only in relating to God through forgiveness of sins and childlike faith in God’s will for our lives. The world tells us to go out and live life any way we want, pay no attention to the Bible or the teachings of Christianity, just live and let live. But Jesus says the very reverse—to not just go out and live any old way but to love God with our heart, mind and strength, and love others as we love ourselves, believing by faith that by following such a path it will lead to blessings. What kind of blessings? Can’t we trust God to give us the kind of blessings we need? Will we ever be rich in this life? Probably not, but so what? If God chooses to bless us with money, then we’ll gladly receive it. But if God chooses to bless us with something else either now or in the next life, we can trust that He knows what he’s doing. It bothers me that I see so many Christians so worried about getting rich or owning lots of possessions or reaching a certain status level in society or working in positions of prestige and power. What are they thinking? They are thinking like the world thinks instead of how God thinks. Why should we chase after the false illusions of this world as if these illusions were real? Why can’t we be content to trust God and follow His will instead of following after the world? It bothers me to see so many pastors and teachers in the Christian church pandering to the worldly desires and ambitions of worldly people. These pastors promise wealth and success for those who follow their teachings, as if these worldly means to worldly ends lead to blessings. They don’t. Jesus specifically teaches that a man’s life doesn’t consist in his possessions, that obtaining the good things of life doesn’t make for the good life, yet some pastors and many Christians follow after these false teachings. Some people think that if they could only win the Lottery things would be better for them. Not necessarily. Read the stories of Lottery winners and find that winning lots of money can just as easily ruin a person’s life as help it. But Jesus already taught us something like that before, we just keep forgetting. The challenge we face today living in the world as we do is to keep from forgetting what Jesus teaches us and to keep reminding ourselves what Jesus does teach. The blessed life comes from knowing God and doing His will. When we do this we can trust that God will take care of us and bless us with blessings nothing else can give us.

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