One day in 1974 Pastor Ira Stanphill was listening to the radio as he drove home from his church office in Fort Worth, Texas. A commercial for a bar was on the air, advertising their Happy Hour. Then a cigarette commercial told of how their product would bring happiness to smokers. This caused him to think about how often the promise of happiness was used to sell products. Then he thought about how most people really longed to be happy. Finally, it struck him that true happiness did not come from acquiring things, but with knowing Jesus. He began to create a chorus and went straight to the piano when he got home. In a short while he composed this snappy song:
Happiness is to know the Savior, Living a life within His favor,
Having a change in my behavior, Happiness is the Lord.
Happiness is a new creation, Jesus and me in close relation,
Having a part in His salvation, Happiness is the Lord.
Real joy is mine, no matter if teardrops start,
I’ve found the secret – It’s Jesus in my Heart.
Happiness is to be forgiven, Living a life that’s worth the livin’
Taking a trip that leads to heaven, Happiness is the Lord.
This song reveals the source of happiness and joy for believers in Christ—it is Jesus! Our Lord preached on that subject from a hillside in Galilee early in His ministry. It was probably the greatest sermon of all time. We know it as “The Sermon on the Mount.” In this sermon, presented in Matthew 5—7, Jesus began with eight ways for Christians to be happy or “blessed.” We call them the “Beatitudes.”
Among the thousands who heard Him that day his twelve disciples had front row seats. In fact, the sermon was aimed mainly at them, as He explained in understandable terms, the way Christians ought to live. This is important: The Beatitudes are not things you do to gain God’s favor, but ways to live because you have received God’s favor, through faith in Jesus Christ. He never intended for His commands to be lived out in human strength, but with divine power, generated by the Holy Spirit, who indwells every believer in Christ. The Lord’s disciples had already received and believed in Him, so in this sermon, He tells them how to live for Him in this world.
Jesus wanted them to know: to be happy—they needed to be humble—“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). The word “blessed” really means “happy.” In these verses, Jesus describes the inner qualities needed in a follower of Christ that would bring him blessings in the future. Incidentally, these inward characteristics were in stark contrast with the self-righteous Pharisees, who were proud, boastful and judgmental.
It is amazing that the first recorded sermon of Jesus focuses on how to be happy as a Christian. Most non-Christians do not categorize believers as being happy. Somehow unbelievers visualize God as a cosmic killjoy and His followers as sour, skeptical and judgmental toward anyone perceived as having “fun.” Though untrue, that is the common worldview.
In this great sermon, Jesus offers happiness based on a new kind of living—self-less living in a humble lifestyle. His teaching flies in the face of society’s selfish trends. This sermon tells Christians how to live happily for Jesus in this world.
Jesus begins by challenging His followers to be “Poor in Spirit.” So, what does that mean?
- The Meaning of Being “Poor in Spirit”
Being poor in spirit is the fundamental characteristic of a Christian following Jesus. Humility is the opposite of pride, and nobody ever enters God’s Kingdom with a haughty, prideful spirit. In fact, Jesus said it was impossible to enter His kingdom without humility: “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all” (Mark 10:15).
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. They started construction on the building in AD 326, but the amazing thing is the main entrance to the church is through a door that is only four feet high and two feet wide, called the “Door of Humility.” You must bow down to enter. Similarly, the first requirement to enter God’s kingdom is humility, admission of sinfulness and confession of sins, as we realize we cannot save ourselves.
Happiness begins with humility—realizing what Christ has done for us. Even after salvation, humility continues to be a needed characteristic in life, “All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility, for God’ resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5-6).
- The Result of Being “Poor in Spirit”
When Jesus said the “poor in spirit” would be happy, did he mean only those in material poverty, who have no money, income or property would be blessed? Being poor in spirit has nothing to do with the lack of material prosperity. Scripture promises God would bless his followers materially (Psalm 37:25; Malachi 3:10-12). Neither Jesus, nor His apostles, nor His church were poverty-stricken, begging for food.
Jesus said those who are “poor in spirit”—those who are depending totally on Him spiritually—would be most blessed. When we realize we are bankrupt “in spirit”—that we are helpless spiritually—that we can do nothing to save ourselves, then His salvation floods our souls. This sums it best: “The Lord is near to those who are of a broken heart, and saves such as be of a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18).
- The Way to Be “Poor in Spirit”
So, if Jesus says those who are poor in spirit are happy and blessed. How can we reach that spiritual poverty? You won’t get there by becoming a poverty stricken monastic. That may reveal the worst kind of pride, as you desire people to view your great sacrifice.
First, realize that, in yourself, you are nothing. You have a sinful nature that goes away from God, not toward Him. In fact the best we can do is still empty, “and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rages (Isaiah 64:6).
Next, confess your sins and call on God to save you. Jesus said the justified one prayed, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Then revealed, “Everyone that exalts himself shall be abased, and he that humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14). He is blessed! He is made happy! “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).