Sub! When we get to the halfway point in our basketball game that is typically what you hear. Someone yells, “Sub!” because we need to make a substitution. At that point it is time for the extra guys on the sidelines to step in and play. It is an important part of the game for us. The guys who are sitting out want in… and the guys who are not in as good of shape want out! [And if you lack the skill like me, the other guys want you out! (they are a very gracious group to let me play with them).] But every Tuesday and Thursday morning, we recognize our subs and we pull them into the game.
I mention this because the passage that is before us deals with the practice of substation.
It is interesting what we hear on this hilltop. The Lord drowns out most every noise that would have surely clamored that day. He seals our ears from most of the clamor and chatter, and he gives us just a few sound bites. Because of the Holy Spirit, we are allowed to eavesdrop on a few of the conversations. And we recognize that these “The seven words from the cross” or “The seven sayings of Christ from the cross” as we call them are given for a distinct purpose. They are here to help us understand something of God’s redemptive love.
The one before us is the third of these sayings. And the words resonate with this theme of substitution. The Lord Jesus, in the throes of death, acts to substitute himself. He speaks to Mary and to John and he binds them together in one of the most intimate of unions. Interestingly too, he says nothing about himself. But even though he does not use the first person pronoun, we find that astounding things are said. In making this substitution, I want us to see that three things here: Christ distinguishes himself, isolates himself, and he replaces himself.
To begin with, it is important to see that Christ is here distinguishing himself as the promised s
I. He distinguishes himself in history
At this moment Jesus is numbered among those who are common thieves. Everyone who witnesses this awful execution people would be tempted to see him as just another criminal. Yet Christ will not let them do this. In these words he sets himself apart from the others who are sentenced alongside him. As a matter of fact, he distinguishes himself from every other person in history.
Why do I say that? It is because of the nature of this event. In this scene Jesus replays a scene from redemptive history. If you are familiar with how the Bible begins, you know that this is not the first time that a woman has had another man substituted for her lost child. We see this happen in the opening chapters of Scripture (the story of Cain and Able in Genesis 4 to be precise). You may remember that after Abel was killed, Eve conceived another son She named him Seth (which means “appointed”) because God had appointed her another son in the place of Abel. It was a divine substitution! Just like the one we see here at the cross.
Now let your mind play a little bit. Do you remember what Adam first called his wife? Her first name was not Eve. That was the name he gave her after the fall. When he first laid eyes on her he was enthralled with her, and he said, “She shall be called Woman.”
Here at the cross we see that historical moment replayed. The woman (as Jesus designates her) receives another son in the place of the one she lost (or is about to lose as the case may be). Mary is sort of a second Eve. Both the first and second Eve had a child who was tragically ripped away from them and murdered. Sin was the cause of both of them being slain. Both were the victims of sin. But Jesus wants to point out that his death is much more monumental than that of Abel’s.
Now, remember why the first woman received the name Eve. Why did Adam name his wife Eve? It was a result of God’s promise of redemption. When God cursed the snake he said, “there will be enmity between your seed and the seed of the woman.” Adam then started calling his wife Eve because she would be the “mother of all living.” That was his way of saying, “I believe the promise of salvation and life that God has just given us.”
When Cain was born, Adam and Eve might have thought, “Is this the one who is going to crush the head of the serpent?” The answer was a definite no.
Yet here at the cross, Jesus replays the that substitution. His purpose for doing so was to distinguish himself from among all the other men in the world. He is saying that the role of the Eve has been fulfilled in him. From the cross, in a cryptic symbol, he says that the real seed of the woman has come. He was now in the process of crushing the head of the serpent. Yes, his heel would be bruised. Yes, he too would die. An innocent man would be put to death again. But his death would not be a simple letting of blood without any purpose. As the author of Hebrews says, His blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. His blood would be shed for the purpose of defeating sin, death and the devil. Through his blood and through his death, there would come life!
A lot of people think that these words were written for the sake of Mary. They say that Jesus was acting as the sweet son, caring for his mother to the very end. To be sure, there is an element of this. But these words were not just for Mary’s comfort. They are for your comfort. They are here to tell you that God’s promise of salvation has come to fruition. God has procured full atonement for all our sins. He has done it in the body of His own Son.
This makes what comes next all the more vivid. In substituting himself he not only distinguishes himself in history, he isolates himself from others.
II. He isolates himself from others
What you see here is something akin to an athletic event where one athlete is substituted for another. When you have a substitution on the basketball court, one player steps in for another. But the one who was substituted must now leave the game. He must take his seat on the bench. In a sense he is isolated from the rest of the players.
What we see here at the cross is that sort of thing taking place. Christ isolates himself by formally breaking the familial ties he has to his mother. He removes himself from the union and puts another in his place.
As he does this we see him willingly taking upon himself the wrath and curse of God.
Isolation is a curse. When God created us, he designed us to have communion with one another. I know that this may be hard to understand for you. We live in such a fragmented and broken society. But we were created to have communion with one another. True happiness is found being in the presence of other people with complete peace and unity. There is no quarreling in heaven. No factions. Those are characteristics of hell because hell is a place of isolation.
The story of Cain and Able is so telling on this. There you have two men who are to be bound together in the bond of brotherhood. But Cain rises up and kills his brother. God comes along and says, “Cain, where is your brother?” Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” You know what the answer to that is? Yes! You are! You share flesh and blood! Of course you are to be your brother’s keeper. You are to love and cherish him!
But do you remember what happened to Cain? The passage in Gen. 4 tells us that God punished Cain by making him a “fugitive and a wanderer on earth.” As a punishment for his schismatic spirit he was isolated. His lot in life was to bear the curse of loneliness. And he recognized how miserable that would be because his reaction was one of complete despair! He cried out, “O my punishment is too much for me.” “It is greater than I can bear!”
You’ve no doubt experienced the misery of isolation. How many of you have been in a church that has been ruptured for some ungodly reason? (there are godly separations. But rarely do they happen for godly reasons.) When that church split, you suffered, didn’t you? You were cut off from other godly people. You lost the opportunity to share in their gifts and graces. It was as if there had been a real amputation in the body of Christ. That isolation is a curse. And that is why it is a foul thing to have the peace, purity and the unity of the church rent asunder.
Our society is a miserable place today, isn’t it? You know why? It is because there is so much isolation. Studies say that 36% of children today are born without fathers in the home. That’s not counting those fathers who leave soon-there-after. Kids are isolated.
Even those places that we would not call broken homes are most often places that are fractured. Whole families live in isolation from one another. Mom and dad go opposite directions in the morning. Kids are shipped off to day care or school or to who knows where afterwards. That’s not the way it was meant to be. The two are to become one. The family unit was to be one of the strongest bonds on earth. Home is to be where communion and happiness is found.
And here at the cross you have a severing of the most intimate of earthly relationships. The tie to the home is cut. Christ isolates himself from his own mother.
We know that Jesus is the Son of God. But he was also the son of Mary, according to the flesh. He was nursed at her breast. He was nurtured by her daily affection. He was cared for just as any other human son.
Jesus was not a stoic. He was very man of very man. And to formally have to cut his ties with his mother would have been mentally excruciating. To have to watch her weep over him at the foot of the cross and then see her walk away under some other man’s arm would have been a hell in itself.
Yet, this isolation was the work of the obedient lamb. He willingly broke up his own family so that he might bear the awful curse of isolation.
But as he substitutes himself he not only distinguishes himself, He not only isolates himself, but he also replaces himself.
III. He replaces himself with his beloved.
We must not neglect to remember that in this substitution Jesus appoints another to fill His shoes. John is thrust into the family in place of Jesus.
Let’s go back to our basket ball illustration. When a sub comes in, what does he do? He replaces one of the players on the court, doesn’t he? He takes his place and stands in his stead. He now has all of the responsibilities and he gets to enjoy all the privileges of the one he took the place of.
Perhaps a better example may be found in the 2008 Summer Olympics. The event was fencing. Italy and China were competing for the bronze medal. Late in the match Matteo Tagliariol, the Italian star, pulled a muscle and had to bow out of the event. His replacement, Stefano Caozzo stepped in and, with only two touches, sealed the medal. What is amazing is that Caozzo got to go home with the medal while the only thing guy who did all the work got to go home with was a terrible limp!
That is a great illustration of how a substitute gets all the blessings that are due to another. And that is a beautiful illustration of what happened right there at the cross.
When Jesus looks at John and says, “Behold, your mother,” he says you now have my spot! You are my replacement. You are going to stand in where I am supposed to be, and you get to enjoy what I am supposed to have.” What was he supposed to have? It was life, of course!
Now I want you to recognize that there is a great deal of symbolism here again. And to understand the symbolism (or typology) you have to know something about John. He was the Beloved disciple. He was the one who was nearest and dearest to Jesus. He had a unique relationship to Jesus and with Jesus.
And I don’t think it is by coincidence that John is at the foot of the cross at this moment. I don’t think that it happened by chance that Jesus appointed him as the one to stand in Jesus’ place. He is chosen to be because he is the beloved disciple. And as the beloved disciple, he represents every disciple that is beloved by Christ.
Therefore we see in this replacement what kind of death Jesus is dying. It is a vicarious death. It is the fulfillment of all the bulls and goats the priests had sacrificed up to this point. Everyday a family would enter the temple and they would bring their animal. They would lay their hands on it and then give it to the priest who would then slay it. In doing so the family was saying, this animal is dying as my substitute. It will stand in my place as the one who deserves death, and I will be the beneficiary. I will stand in its place as the one who shall live.
Jesus here says, you beloved disciples are the beneficiaries of my life. You get to stand in my place. Just like the Italian guy who got the bronze medal, you get to go home with the prize—You get to go home with everything. Christ has thrust you into his place. And because he does so you have become part of God’s family. Because of Christ, you have become one of the sons of my heavenly Father.
It is no wonder why we are made to listen in here. The words were no doubt uttered with the utmost pain and with almost inaudible volume due to the agony of crucifixion. Yet they reverberate through history with seismic thunders. They point us to the fact that Christ has become our Great Redeemer. As the Second Adam and the Second Able, he closed himself off from all contact. He isolated himself in the pit of hell, so that we may walk through the gates of heaven.
One of the forms of entertainment that became quite fashionable in the 18th century was the music hall. This period was marked by a proliferation of classical music, and people who could afford it would go out for a night on the town. After a good meal the people would sit and listen to an opera or some other classical piece. It was these events that caused Franz Joseph Hayden to write his famous piece which has come to be called “The Surprise.”
Hayden was known to be a little playful with his music. Most of his works are characterized by a happy sort of tune. This work in particular was jovial, but in a prank sort of way. The score starts out with a soft light melody. The symphony’s gentle tones were intended to lull the audience who would already be a little sleepy after having finished a big meal. Just as the audience began to nod off, Hayden’s orchestra would strike a sudden fortissimo burst to jar the audience from their sleep. After the jolt of the one cord the music returned to its original quiet theme as if nothing had happened. Thus the symphony was termed, “The Surprise.”
I believe that our passage for this morning somewhat mimics Hayden’s 94th Symphony. This morning’s passage, like Hayden’s piece, is a beautiful work of music. It is a song, and it is one that is perhaps unparalleled by any other ancient work. It stands in a category of its own, literarily.
Some commentators even believe that Isaiah might have even sung this song in the context of a formal gathering—much like Hayden might have played for the nobility of his day. These scholars surmise that it may even have been performed within the royal court itself. We don’t know that for sure, but it would heighten the surprise factor of the song.
Unfortunately though, it is not as jovial as Hayden’s piece.
It is commonly called the song of the vineyard. Isaiah presents an allegory which compares the Jews to a beautiful vineyard. The surprise of this piece is the same in that it jolts an unsuspecting audience. It starts out as a melodic love song. Listeners would have been drawn in by the initial romantic tenor. However, the audience is then jolted as the tone crescendos into a divine denunciation.
Even today many people are surprised by this song. It is interesting how many commentators characterize this song as a love song. To be sure, it does start out in that way. At the outset, it presents itself as a song of great love and labor.
I. It is a song of great love and labor
The first two lines of the chapter highlight God’s abundant love and how he fawned over Israel. These two verses show that God made every provision for them, and went to great lengths to care for his people. The imagery of how extensive the labor was is not spared in the slightest.
Verse two starts off with quite a remarkable statement. It says he dug it and cleared it of stones. That would have been no small task. If you know anything about Palestine you know that stones are everywhere. Farmers in Ohio would have had a lot of rocks to pluck out when they were first preparing their fields, but Palestine would have surpassed it. The process of digging out the stones would have required extensive time and energy.
There is a Jewish lore that when God created the world an angel was flying with two bags of rocks in his hands to bring to God. When it came over Palestine one of the bags broke. It was a way of saying that it seemed like half of the world’s rocks lay in that little region.
That story may be a fable, but it helps you understand the imagery that God uses to communicate how exhaustive his nurture of Israel was.
Then the care God takes is highlighted by the fact that he didn’t just throw any old vine in there. He chose the choice vines. In other words, he didn’t spare any expense. Then he built a tower and a wine vat. All that is to emphasize the fact that He took every precaution to beautify and nurture his garden. He labored intensely, and we can see that it was a labor of love. This wasn’t just the work of his hands. It was the work of his heart.
Now in listening to what is said here we should remember that this is how God has treated us. As the new covenant people, God has made and is making every provision for us. He treats us with the same love and care.
This passage is here to make us recall “how numerous and diversified were the blessings which God has conferred on us.” (Calvin) Do you know all that God has done for us? Have you thought about his incessant care and watchfulness?
Consider for a moment the events that had to transpire for us to be here today. Our forefathers in the faith at the time of the Reformation lost a lot of blood as they stood steadfastly for our faith. Then they put themselves at risk by taking to the waters and coming to America. The ocean voyage would have been rough enough. But that was the least of their troubles! When they got here, they had nothing. All their labors though secured our faith and our freedom to worship God according to our consciences.
Besides the blessing of our history, we have the blessings of the covenant. Each of us is a part of the church. We’ve been given the oracles of God. We have received the sacraments. Young people, you’ve been blessed with having been born into a Christian home.
That is such a wonderful thing. We hear all the time about these great conversions. There is the fellow who was drugged out and living the life of the gangster. He then bottomed out, was close to death, and miraculously came to Christ. From that point on it has been a testimony to grace in his life. That’s a great thing, don’t get me wrong. But I’m sad that that is always gets the press. Everyone will tell you that having been born into a godly home is one of the greatest blessings you could ever have. You are spared so many things that other people are not. You have the opportunity to get to know Jesus from a very young age. This is a huge blessing.
All of us should be able to testify to the love and care that God has demonstrated towards us. We should be warmed by the mere thought of God’s watchfulness and his most gracious providence.
I don’t want you ever to forget the goodness of God—the goodness that is expressed particularly toward you. This passage is here to remind us that God looks upon us in a way that is different from all the other people of the earth. He does things for us that he does not do for other people. As his elect people, he shows a particular interest in us. He indulges us with his love, and all his labors are for building us up.
But as the song continues on the surprise strikes. What began as a song of love and labor turns to a song of sadness and disappointment.
II. It is a song of great sadness and disappointment
At the end of verse two this song descends into a minor key. After all the happy cords that were struck which highlight God’s love and labor it says, “but it yielded wild grapes.” Then verses 3-4 give expression to the disappointment. He says, “You tell me: What more could I do for my vineyard?”
You all know how frustrating it is to pour yourself into something, only to have nothing come from it. A parent may have poured himself/herself into a child, only to have him or her take the wrong track in life. You come to the point where you say, “What else could I have done for him?” It is irritating beyond all comprehension to have that happen.
All this is to remind us that God expects something out of us. Our lives are to be bearing fruit. Our election, and the favors we receive as a result of our election, are intended to produce righteousness. And if we are not showing love and becoming more and more holy with the passing of time, then God is greatly disappointed with us. That irks God to no end.
The sadness that God experiences may be understood more when you understand the last phrase of verse two. The word wild (from wild grapes) comes from a word that means “to stink.” These were not just wild grapes, they were grapes were putrid. They wreaked to high heaven.
The word can be found in the story of the plagues in Egypt. The very first plague was when Moses struck the Nile and it turned into blood. It says that the fish all died which caused the river to stink.
Then there is the instance when the Israelites were given manna in the desert. The Lord commanded them not to leave any of it until the morning. But some people kept it. And the passage says that it bred worms and emitted a raunchy stench.
That’s the essence of God’s disappointment. That is the extent of the grief that God bears over those who do not produce fruit. God finds their lives so repulsive that they nauseate him.
In the year 1878 an Italian botanist discovered a new species of flower on the island of Sumatra. It happened to be the largest flower in the world. The bloom itself grows to be 10 feet tall and three feet wide. The entire plant can grow up to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide. Because it is so titanic in size, it has been named the Titan Aurum. The plant rarely blooms in cultivation. It typically only grows in the wild. So when it does bloom it is a really big deal. And people go to see it.
It has a nickname. It has been dubbed the Corpse Flower. It is called that because when it does bloom, it emits an extremely foul odor. It is so foul that you have to hold your nose, lest you get sick to your stomach. Some have said that the aroma that wafts from the plant resembles rotting human flesh. Thus the name the Corpse Flower.
It is an ironic twist of nature, isn’t it? It is so beautiful, yet it drives away anyone who would come to admire it. Yet that is exactly the way Israel was (and the church can be!). God has made every attempt to make you beautiful. He has cultivated you and nurtured you so that you are a gorgeous vineyard. Yet when the church is filled with wickedness God cannot stand her. If your life is filled with sin, you become absolutely revolting to Him.
All of this reminds us (or at least should remind us) of our lost condition. It reminds us that we are sinners, and we have no power of our own to do anything that pleases God. If it is up to us, then God most certainly will be disappointed with us. We are not any different from the Jews of Isaiah’s time. We are just as defunct spiritually as they are. We are bereft of any ability of our own to please God and do what is right.
One thing that this passage should do is leave us longing for the power that will enable us to produce righteousness that God calls for here. And thank God we have it in Christ. As a matter of fact, if you go to John 15 you see a great link to this passage in Isaiah. In John 15 Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
This passage is here ultimately to point us to Christ. It is here to remind us that Christ is our remedy. He is the one provided for us so that we might bear fruit. And what we must do is abide in Him. That is to say, we must put our faith in him and allow him to work in us. For it is his enablement that is the only way we will ever be able to bear fruit. It is only by His omnipotent hand that the song he sings about us will keep from becoming a song of disappointment and sadness.
Israel was not abiding in Christ. They were refusing their God. They wanted to live their own way. Though they were the blessed of God, they were not producing fruit in keeping with their blessing. That’s why God was disappointed. And that’s why the last stanza of this song crescendos into a song of great anger and wrath.
III. It is a song of great anger and wrath
In verses 5-6 you see God’s disappointment turn into rage. In these two verses God outlines exactly what he is going to do to Israel. He says he is going to tear his vineyard apart. He is going to remove the hedge and break down the wall. He is going to trample it and make it a waste. You can just imagine someone in a fit of rage busting up everything, kicking things over and hacking at the vines.
I think that one commentator put it well when he said that the love song turns into a song of denunciation at this point. It is a denunciation. God here promises that their sins will be repaid.
The heat of this passage reminds us of how incensed God becomes when his people do not produce fruit that is in keeping with his grace. When we spurn our special position, or when we fail to respond appropriately to the special graces afforded to us by God, we infuriate God. Yes, God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Yes, he is patient and not easily provoked. But we should also recognize that those who apostatize will find that they will be sorely treated by God.
The principle is that of “to whom much is given, much is demanded.” In the New Testament Jesus talks about this. In Luke 12 Jesus talks about his return. In that passage he says, “Blessed is the servant who is found doing his Master’s will when the Master returns.” Then he goes on to talk about a servant who blows his master off. Then he gives an example of a wayward servant. The servant thinks to himself, “My master is delayed in coming.” So he begins to mistreat the other servants and get drunk and indulge in revelry. Jesus says that when the Master returns, he will cut him to pieces and put him with the unfaithful.
If that was not bad enough, Jesus then goes on to say that the servant who knew his master's will but did not do it, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating.”
Of course, who are the ones who know the Master’s will? That’s us! Those who have never had contact with God’s covenant—those who have never received these special favors from God, will not be treated as severely in hell as those who have. There are differing degrees of punishment. And those who receive the worst punishments are those who God showed the most favor towards.
A while ago I took some time to read Dante’s Inferno. It is a fictitious account of the different levels of hell. What is interesting about that book is that Dante represents this to some degree. The very first ring of hell in his depiction was the realm of what are called the virtuous pagans. Basically it was just a dark forest. No real torments, just dark and quiet. Then further down in the lower levels of hell you found various popes and priests who had apostatized. At one point they were pictured as being immersed upside down into fiery waters, then hot burning coals put on their feet. It was Dante’s way of showing the evil of their apostasy. (It is a vivid one too: having disavowed their baptism, they are immersed in a baptism of fire and brimstone!)
Of course, Dante’s work does not give an accurate picture of what hell is like. It is much worse than anything that Dante could dream up! But he does illustrate well principle this principle: to whom much is given, much is demanded.
This should then be a warning to us. We need to recognize how important it is to heed the word of God. If I could put it in the words of John the Baptist, if we are not producing fruit in keeping with repentance, then the ax will be laid at the root of the tree.
You young people especially must take note of this. I know I have said this before, but it deserves to be repeated from time to time. You are in a special relationship with God. Because you are in a covenant relationship with God treats you in a different way than he treats other people. I want you to understand that you respond appropriately to his grace. If you are not responding with thanksgiving and love, it is like playing with matches in a dry forest. Once a spark catches, it will consume everything.
Again, we can go to John 15. Jesus says there that he is the vine and his Father is the vinedresser. Every branch that does not bear fruit, he takes away. Then he goes on to remind us that a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine.
Because the branches that do not bear fruit will be thrown away, we must seek to bear fruit. And we can only do that if we are abiding in Christ. That’s exactly what we must do. That’s what God calls us to do in this passage. We must abide in Christ. We must trust in him and seek to develop a personal relationship with him. We must pray to him, and be obedient to his word.
If you are not doing those things, you must go to him and confess that. If there is not a harvest to be gained for Christ in your life, it is time to take heed to your ways. You must amend your ways by going to Christ in repentance and begin to abide in him.
The song that he sings does not have to end with such dissonant tones. Its final stanza can become one of grace and forgiveness if you look to him in faith.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
"The first words of your sermon need to be some of the most striking words of your sermon.”
Those were the instructions that I was given when I was in seminary. My professors told me in my preaching classes that the introduction always needs to grab the audience and bring them in. It needs to peek their interest and make them desire to listen to what you have to say.
I admit that I don’t always abide by that rule. Try as I may, my introductions don’t often have the appeal that they perhaps should.
But that was certainly not the case for our Lord Jesus. When he began to preach the Sermon on the Mount he began with these beatitudes. And with them he most certainly would have peeked the interests of his listeners. That is because the Beatitudes present us with something that is of great interest to us all. It teaches us about God’s blessing and what it means to be blessed.
And the first line of these beatitudes is perfectly crafted for the greatest impact. This first line is a gem because it is so shocking. At least it would have been for the people living in the first century. I’m sure that it has lost something to us. But it would have been quite stirring to them.
Even the first word would have been tantalizing to them. I don’t think that it is an accident that the first word we hear from Christ’s mouth is the word “Blessed.” Nothing is a coincidence with Christ. I believe that this is profound for one very good reason: The last word of the Old Testament is the word “curse.” Yet the first word from the mouth of Christ is the word “Blessed.”
Christ was the man of blessing. His life and ministry on earth was for the purpose of blessing. And here we see that he defines for us the essence of a blessed life.
Now again, first words are important. Jesus is here defining what it means to be blessed of the Lord. Now, what would you expect to be the first thing that came out of his mouth? I bet you would expect to hear something like this, “The blessed of God are the theologically astute.” Seminary professors, with all their bible knowledge and all their degrees, those are the ones that God blesses right?
That’s not what Jesus says. He says that the blessed of God are…eh’em…the poor in spirit. Hopefully you see something of the shock value in this. Jesus was tearing down the elitist perceptions of his day. And he was showing that those who God blesses are not those that we normally thing of.
I would assume this will turn our world upside down too. Who do we typically think of as blessed? We think of people on Wall Street, with their millions of dollars. We think of movie stars and baseball players. We see the guy coming up and getting his Trophy or award an we think, “He sure is blessed.”
But when we look at what Jesus says, we find that the blessed are quite different from our normal perceptions.
I hope that I will have more opportunities to speak to you in the upcoming months. It would be a pleasure to develop a relationship with you all and have the opportunity to talk about what it means to be blessed of God. But as it stands today, I find it a privilege to talk about this one verse and what it says about being blessed.
As we think about this subject, I want us to see who Jesus says is blessed. The Son of God says that a blessed person is, at the very outset, one who is poor in spirit.
I. Who are they?
Our Lord Jesus says the blessed are those who are “poor in spirit.”
Now I want you to be particularly aware of the phraseology here. I want you to understand that it is not merely the poor that are blessed. It is the poor in spirit that have God’s favor.
Some people throughout the history of the church have interpreted this verse in an economic way. They would say that if you take a vow of poverty and renounce all worldly gain, you ascend to some greater spiritual plane than those who don’t. If you have a Roman Catholic or Anglican background, you might be familiar with this. These traditions have typically interpreted this verse in that way. They believe it has to do with one’s financial standing in society.
But there is nothing blessed in being fiscally destitute. Neither is there anything spiritual in renouncing temporal gain. God does not give any special favors just because they happen to be in a lower tax bracket. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Therefore everyone deserves to be stripped of all that they have, and no one stands in God’s good graces—no matter what their bank account may be.
Moreover, there are many people who have been rich in this world who have been blessed of God. I think of Abraham. God opened the floodgates of heaven for him. He was quite wealthy. Then there is King David. The Bible says that he was a man after God’s own heart. But he certainly would have had a great deal of wealth.
So don’t think that your economic standing has anything to do with this verse. God is not countenancing those who are financially poor. He is talking about those who are poor in spirit.
Now what does it mean to be poor in spirit? Well, to be poor in spirit means that you recognize how incredibly sinful you are. Being poor in spirit means acknowledging the fact that you have fallen short of the glory of God—and you recognized how far short you have fallen! To be poor in spirit means you recognize that you are spiritually bankrupt before God!
Some of you might be familiar with the story that Jesus once told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. These two men went up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood up in the middle of the court with his head and hands raised high and said, “God I thank you that I am not like other men, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all that I have.”
His prayer was more of a litany of his greatness, wasn’t it? You could say that the whole time he was praying he was boasting of his self righteousness. “I have done this;” “I have done that.”
But the tax collector was different. He stood at a distance. In other words, he didn’t even feel that he could come close to God. So he found a little corner and tucked himself away. Then it says that the poor wretch could not even bare to lift his head. He only beat his breast and said, “God, forgive me, a sinner.”
Now it should be obvious to you that he was so distraught that his mouth could hardly even function. He makes no eloquent speech. He only says, “God, forgive me, a sinner.” This is barely a sentence. It is more like Morse Code or short hand. And he does not say that he is “a sinner.” The original language says “the sinner.” That is to say, if ever there was a sinner, it is I! He believed himself to be the chief of sinners.
This man knew what it meant to be spiritually destitute. He recognized that before God he had nothing of worth—nothing of merit. He had no righteousness of his own to which he could look or depend. The only thing that he saw when he took an inventory was how vile his life was because of his sin. That was the only thing his soul had to offer.
This is what it means to be poor in spirit, my friends! To be poor in spirit is to admit that you have nothing to offer God but your sin. You have no righteousness of your own.
The thing about poor people is that they have to rely on others, don’t they? Of course, I am not talking about American poor people. I’m talking about poor people—people who are completely destitute. Those little African kids you see on TV commercials—the ones who’s stomach’s are bloated and whose bodies are wasting away. They are people who cannot by any means support themselves. They are completely dependent upon other people for their sustenance.
This is the attitude of the spiritually poor before God. They recognize that they are more than bankrupt. They are utterly destitute. Their only hope of survival is in someone else—someone who has the means of sustaining them spiritually.
Who you may ask is that? It is Jesus, of course! The only one alive who we can take care of our poor wretched soul is our God! His mercy is our only means of survival.
The one who is blessed is the one who goes to Christ for that mercy and finds him to be All in all. If you are poor in spirit, you come like the Tax Collector to Christ and say, “I cannot give you anything, but my sin.”
Think how different this is from what we are used to. Does not Christ completely flip our normal view of things completely upside down? Are we not usually people who are given to self aggrandizement? We typically will do our best to make ourselves look the best, won’t we? And when we think about our standing before God we try to do our best to find something that he would glory in.
But you know what they say, “The man who sings his own praise is usually off key.” And in this case, when it comes to our standing before God, we are way off.
You know, that Pharisee who stood up to pray is a good picture of the way we typically are. “Look at me. Isn’t it great that I fast or tithe. I’m a good boy, aren’t I, God?” The thing is we do not recognize that the good things we do are so soiled and sullied with sin that God would fear even to look upon them if it were not for Christ. And we would never have done even the least bit of good if it had not been God’s all gracious hand there restraining our sin.
You know, after we have dinner, we begin our nightly routine of clearing the table. And it never fails that there comes to be a gross glob of gunk sitting in the strainer at the bottom of our kitchen sink after we’ve rinsed all the dishes. Now imagine having company over to your house. And you take that slimy piece of goo out to them and say, “Look what’s for dinner! Isn’t this a wonderful treat!”
Yet this is what we do when we glory in ourselves. If we ever tried to hold anything up before him and get his approval, it would be like a little impoverished child holding up dung before him.
If you wish to be blessed of God, you must recognize this poverty of spirit. You must come to the point where you admit that you have nothing to give to God and that his mercy is the only thing that will guarantee your survival. For these people are the ones who are blessed of God.
And as you look at the second part of the verse you will notice exactly why they are blessed.
II. Why are they blessed?
The Lord Jesus says “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Now I want you to think about how profound these words are. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. It says here that he who has nothing, has everything! Those who are poor in spirit are made rich beyond their wildest expectations! These paupers become princes in a land that they did nothing to conquer or subdue. Christ simply bestows this majestic endowment upon them. And he makes them co-regents. People who will rule with him in and for eternity. He gives them who had nothing, everything! Including a crown to wear and a scepter to hold.
This is the greatest rags to riches story ever. We all love the story of little Orphan Annie, don’t we? Why is that? It is so sweet to see this little girl rise from her low estate to the upper echelons of society. And we think, “How blessed is that girl!”
But that is nothing compare to what the poor in spirit receive. Those who admit that they have nothing, are nothing, and can do nothing for God receive much more than Mr. Warbucks could ever imagine! They receive life in and the fullness of the kingdom of heaven.
The blessing of God is that you no longer stand outside God’s doorstep! The king of heaven opens the door to you. But what is so magnificent is that he not only invites you to come in, but he gives you a deed to the property. He makes you the ruler over it and gives you the right to take full advantage of all that it has to offer.
I hope that you understand in this that this is the glory of the gospel of grace. This is grace at its best. Do you know what grace is? It is giving someone something that they do not deserve and have no claim by themselves. And here you see that a gift, of gargantuan proportions, is given. The entire kingdom over which God rules is bestowed upon them.
Tell me. Which one of you will go out right now and find the poorest man in our area and give him your whole estate? Imagine walking out of this place right now and seeing a beggar at the bottom of the steps. He doesn’t look up at you, he doesn’t even ask anything of you. He is just sitting their in his filth. Would you toss the keys to him and say, “Here you go. It’s yours.”
But that’s what God does to the one who is poor in spirit.
Perhaps you hear something of the parable of the prodigal son in this. Do you remember that story? It is found in Luke 15. It is about a boy who said, “Father, I wish you were dead. That way I could have my inheritance.” That is a nice thing to say, isn’t it? But the father complied with the boy’s wishes. He gave him his share of the inheritance and let him go off. And the boy squandered every penny in licentious living. But then, when he was destitute—when he was looking at the pods that he was feeding the pigs and thinking how delicious they looked—he realized that he would be much better off if he went home and became a servant in his father’s house.
So he went home. And what happened when he got there? His father said, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him.” Then he said, “Put a ring on his finger. Put sandals on his feet!” These were all marks of royal status. His father made him heir of his estate again.
My friends, that is what is true of every person who is a Christian. When he bows before God and casts himself upon his mercy, God lavishes upon him the kingdom of heaven. He is blessed because God gives him not just eternal life, but all that the has! He looks at you and says, “Every square inch of My glorious realm is yours.”
During each of these services, we sing the doxology. We say, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Yet, do we realize the extent of blessing that we really do have? We possess infinite measures of unending happiness. Security is ours in boundless measures. To the poor in spirit, honor is as common as water and sand. And we have not even begun to taste of its fullness! For Christ has not yet come and his kingdom has not yet been consummated.
My friends, there is nothing more rewarding than to find yourself abased before God and holding only to Christ. To him whose life is so characterized, God bestows riches forevermore.
“Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.”
Some time ago I heard an interesting study that had been done which had to do with your brain’s health. Those who did the study had found that if you don’t exercise your brain, you will be more likely to develop brain problems later in life.
The study said that the brain is a lot like any other muscle or organ in your body. If it isn’t used much, then it will begin to deteriorate. It’s just like your biceps or any of the muscles in your legs. If you don’t do a lot of walking or lifting, then the muscles in your legs or arms will begin to go through atrophy. They will begin to waste away.
But you see those guys in the weight room pumping iron. What happens to them? The more they exercise, the stronger their muscles become.
That’s what this study has reported about your brain. If your mind isn’t being exercised, then—like any other organ or muscle—it will begin to degenerate. So, later in life, people who haven’t used their brains much, are more likely to develop things like dementia or Alstimers. But, on the other hand, those who have tried to apply themselves in some sort of regular study—some brain workouts, you might say—these people’s brains are stronger. They are more likely to stay off these problems and live longer healthier lives.
Now you know how I love it when science points out things that are very pertinent to the Christian life. And this study is one such example.
As Christians, we are to be “a studying people.” We are people who are to be known as “a people of ‘The Book.’” Because when Christ calls us, he calls us to be his disciples. And a disciple is nothing more than a student. We are to be students of Christ’s teaching—students of His Word—constantly growing in “what we are to believe about God and what He requires of us.”
Now our proverb for this morning touches on just this very thing. It talks about how we are to be diligent disciples. Here we see that God calls us to exercise our minds by being lovers of instruction. Yes, we must love instruction! We must savor it and seek after it. It doesn’t matter if it’s hard or if it’s harsh, we are to love instruction.
Now, I know that most all of you have forgotten about your New Year’s resolutions by now. You made them, you broke them, and by now you have completely forgotten about them. It has been so long you probably don’t even feel guilty about having broken it anymore too!
But why is it that we break our New Year’s resolutions? I would assume that it is because it is hard. We don’t keep up with it because it takes discipline.
This is exactly why we often forsake the Scripture too. But this passage makes it clear that we are to love instruction, even though it may be hard (hard to do).
I. A true disciple of Christ loves discipline, even if it may be hard.
The passage begins by saying, “Whoever loves discipline, loves knowledge.” If you have a different version, it might say something slightly different, but the meaning is the same. It might say “Whoever loves instruction, loves knowledge.” When you think about instruction, what do you think of? I hope you think about discipline.
Probably the thing you think of when you think of “instruction” is sitting in a classroom. There is a teacher and students listening to the teacher’s instruction. Now that takes a lot of discipline, doesn’t it? It takes a lot of discipline to sit and to concentrate and be instructed.
But a disciple of Christ is someone who wants knowledge. He wants to learn more about Christ, about God, about the Bible. That means he loves to be instructed. That means he loves the process of discipleship, even though that might suck up some brain power.
Now think about this. Think about how foreign this is to us fun-loving Americans. We, for the most part, don’t like discipleship. Let’s admit it. It’s hard. We don’t like things that are hard—we don’t like things that take discipline. We like things like the drive through at McDonalds—it’s fast and it’s easy. Cooking our own meals takes discipline. It is a whole lot easier to pull up to the window at McDonalds and say, “Give me a burger!”
That’s why our form of worship is not that popular today. It is hard. It isn’t very “fun.” And a lot of people will come and go because our style of worship revolves around loving instruction. Most people don’t want that for worship though. They rather have someone performing for them.
And it is no different when it comes to our personal or family devotional time. Let’s face it, we like to be lazy. We rather flip on the television and have the bobbing head in the box entertain us for a while.
Just this week I read an article from the AP about America’s TV watching habits. This article—you might have seen it in the TG a week ago or so—started off by saying, “Americans spend more time watching TV, listening to the radio, surfing the internet and reading newspapers than anything else except breathing.” The only thing we do more than breathe is spending our time in various forms of media.
The article went on to say that the average American watches almost 5 hours of TV a day. And that number is only projected to increase as the Baby boomer generation—the largest portion of America’s population—begins to retire.
I think we are going to be seeing a lot of minds beginning to deteriorate in the upcoming years. (There’s a reason why they call it “the idiot box,” you know).
As Christians we have to watch how much TV we are watching. And some of our daily time is to be spent in the study of—not just the reading of—God’s word.
I listened to one of Ligonier’s Tape of the Month messages this past week. The message was by Sinclair Ferguson. Ferguson told the story about a parishioner of his who came to him once and said how much they loved the book of Ephesians. They had just finished reading the book of Ephesians and they were raving about how good it was. Ferguson rejoiced with them, and then said, “Well, have you taken the Ephesians test?” The person looked at him and said, “What’s the Ephesians test?” Ferguson, making up on the spot, said, “The Ephesians test goes like this: Can you give an outline of the book? Or can you recite some of the verses from memory? If someone came up to you and asked about the book of Ephesians, could you tell them something about its form and content?”
You can see that’s a pretty good test. And, as Ferguson says, it can have 65 other names! But passing that test will only come if you’ve disciplined yourself.
We are to love discipline—we are to love instruction. The Word of God is to change, not only our actions and beliefs, but it is to change our affections too. When it comes to discipleship, we are to love it. As Apostle Peter says, “As newborn babes, crave pure spiritual milk.”
I’ve been told that a newborn baby will actually seek out his/her mother’s milk. I’ve been told that, if you place a newborn on your stomach, the child—never having been taught this—will begin to nudge its way up. It is a natural instinct that God has given newborns, to seek out their nourishment.
That is what Peter says we are as Christians are to be like. We are to crave instruction. We are to love it so much that we yearn for it.
I hope that, if you do not do so already, you will be motivated to turn off the TV for a while and say, “I’m going to spend some time really digging through the book of ___.” Or perhaps take up the challenge of discipline and say, “I’m going to try and memorize this psalm or this passage of ___.”
Make an attempt to exercise your brain. If you do, I can guarantee this: you will find that it’s not just your mind that becomes stronger; your soul will be strengthened too.
As a disciple of Jesus Christ, our Heavenly Father calls us to love discipline. We are to love instruction. But we are to love it not only when it is hard; we are to love it when it is harsh too. That is to say, we are to love it when it is hard to take.
II. A true disciple loves discipline, even if it is hard to take.
Look at the second part of our verse. It says, “He who hates reproof is stupid.”
What you have here is a specific form of instruction: that of reproof. What is a reproof? It is a correction, isn’t it? It is someone coming to you and letting you have it because you are in the wrong.
This reminds us that discipline (or teaching) is not always palatable, is it? Sometimes it stings.
Have any of you young people had the board of education applied to the seat of knowledge? How did you like that? That probably wasn’t easy to take, was it? That hurts! But that is a form of instruction. That’s a reproof, and we are to love that.
Now, most of us don’t get spanked…at least not physically. We do get reproved though. We can get verbal spankings. When someone comes up to us and corrects us that is instruction. When they pull us aside, or when a minister reproves us on the basis of Scripture that is instruction. And sometimes that can be something we don’t want to hear.
But we are to love instruction, even when it is harsh.
I really like the way the older versions put the second part of this verse. The KJV says, “He who hateth reproof is brutish.” Brutish, I like that. It is kind of like calling someone a beast. “If you hate being corrected, you are not human. You are sub-human. You are like a stupid donkey.”
Some of you might know the story in the Book of Acts about Paul’s conversion. He was on his way to Damascus where he was going to persecute a bunch of Christians. But the Lord confronted him there. Do you know what the Lord said to Paul when he confronted him? He said, “Saul, Saul, why do you kick against the goads?”
In other words, “Saul, why are you acting like a donkey?” A goad was a stick that someone used to get their donkey going. Donkey’s are known to be stubborn things, and sometimes they won’t go when you say, “Giddy-up.” So you would use this sharp stick to prick them in the behind to get them going.
Paul was acting like that donkey who wouldn’t listen to his master. No doubt he had heard about Christ. He was a Pharisee and he knew the Scriptures forwards and backwards. These Christians were telling him that the Messiah had come. But he wouldn’t accept it. He bucked against it as hard as he could. He was as stubborn as a donkey.
That’s really how everyone is who hears the gospel, but won’t accept it. They are like a stupid animal. They won’t accept the fact that they are sinners and there is one who is Lord over them.
Really that’s what Romans 1 tells us about the unbeliever. In Romans 1 it says that the unbeliever’s thinking has become futile and their hearts are darkened. In other words they are beasty—beast-like people. Since the beginning of the world God has revealed through his creation that he exists. But the sinner suppresses the truth. Psalm 19 says “The heavens declare the glory of God.” They are not whispering. They declare—they are shouting: God is our maker!” But an unbeliever will not receive that correction. They won’t seek him out. How foolish.
But it is even more foolish when someone won’t listen to the Lord’s special revelation! Not the correction that comes through creation, but the correction that comes through the Bible.
You know, I heard one preacher tell a story about an experience he had on his grandfather’s farm. On that farm there was a cow that had been injured. Somehow it had gotten a sharp sliver stuck in its leg. The stick was protruding from the animal and the wound was bleeding and had become infected. The vet had been called in order to help restore the beast. But the animal wouldn’t let the vet come near him. Every time the doctor approached the stupid little bovine, it would lash about & try to escape. The very hand that was there to heal, was rejected.
But, you know what, that’s how a lot of people act. When a preacher or a friend comes with a word of correction—no matter how gently and lovingly they come, the person just will not listen. They rather continue in their sin than submit to God.
Speaking of animals…I am told that in parts of Alaska that there are wolves that will kill themselves. I am told that a person can take a knife and dip it in blood, and let the blood freeze on the knife. Then that person will place the handle of the knife in the ground—with the sharp side sticking up. Then they will wait. At some point a wolf will be attracted by the scent of the blood. That stupid animal will then begin licking the blood-cicle. As he does so he will pierce his tongue and begin to bleed. Tasting the fresh blood the animal will continue licking all the more—until at last he bleeds to death.
What a stupid animal. He has to be experiencing a lot of pain, but he won’t heed the correction.
Yet it is a picture of some people who won’t listen to God’s word. They will continue in their sin, despite the reproofs they hear. Even the painful consequences of their sin won’t be enough to stop them. They will act like a stupid animal, and they will end up piercing themselves through. They would rather harm themselves than listen to God’s healing correction.
I want to ask you: How do you react to reproof? When someone wants to get something straight with you, how do you react? Do you go on the offensive? Do you automatically put up your defenses and want to fight back?
Or do your eyes glaze over? Or do you listen politely but as soon as they are gone you roll your eyes and say, “What’s with them?”
How do you react? I know that people might not come at you carefully or in the most loving way. How do you react when they come though? I am probably the chief of sinners when it comes to not correcting someone gently. I am terrible at it. But even if someone corrects you in a way you don’t think is right, doesn’t give you an excuse to refuse their correction.
I remember a time where I was corrected—it was more of a searing scold! I was not expecting it in the slightest. I was sitting with a guy I did not know and we were keeping score of an intramural basketball game. It was a really good game and I was really getting into it. I was actually trying to act like a sports announcer. I don’t remember all that I said, but after the game, the guy next to me just hauled off on me. He chewed into me with a vengeance. I don’t remember everything he said, but basically he said that I was the most arrogant, obnoxious person he had ever met.
I just looked at him in disbelief. I was ready to tear into him. What gave him the right to say that, and why in the world was he saying it? I had just met the guy an hour ago!
But you know what? Looking back, I can see how I could have been obnoxious. I could see how I might have come off as arrogant. I didn’t mean to. I wasn’t trying to act like a jerk. But there was a grain of truth to his words. It might not have been to the degree that he made it. And he certainly could have gone about it in a much nicer way. Nevertheless, there was some truth to his words.
The point is, there was a correction. I could have blown him off (I could have punched him in the nose!)—I could have acted in a brutish/stupid manner. Or I could say, “You know, your right. I’m sorry. I’ll try and do better.”
We have to love instruction—even when it is hard to take.
In the end, the question comes down to this: “Are you going to sit at Jesus’ feet?”
Remember Mary and Martha. Jesus came to their house and these two ladies had different reactions. Martha took to the kitchen, and Mary took to the feet of our Lord. She wanted instruction! And Jesus commended her, “She has chosen the wiser.”
Are you going to sit at Jesus’ feet? When Jesus speaks (be it by means of a friend or by the preacher), are you going to listen to him? Are you going to love that instruction?
Better yet, rather than waiting for him to come to you, are you going to seek him out? Are you going to love instruction? Are you going to discipline yourself so that you receive that instruction? If you are, that means things may have to change in your life. Your whole schedule will have to be rearranged. All the other events of your day are going to be scheduled around your time with the Lord, in his word.
Your Saturday may have to look a little different too. Young people, you may have to buckle down and get your homework done on Saturday. That way, you don’t have to be doing it on Sunday. Then with your Sunday open you can come to worship. And with your Sunday free from any other obstructions, you can focus on the Lord all day long. You have a whole day set aside for instruction—and that takes discipline!
It’s hard setting aside fun things, I know. We love those things, don’t we? But these things can distract us from our first love, Jesus Christ. And they can distract us from being the disciples he has called us to be.
May God grant us a heart that he has called for here. May he fill us with the heart of the Psalmist who cried out, “Oh how I love your law!”
Kindled Fire is dedicated
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.