When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain. After he sat down his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to teach them by saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.
An unexpected opening
In the concluding verse of Matthew chapter 4, we found that large crowds (4:25) from such distant places as Syria and Jerusalem accompanied Jesus. They had heard that he was “preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing” (4:23).
But gathering crowds and leading them was not the mission Jesus had been given. “When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain” (5:1). Since Galilee has no tall mountains, you should think in terms of the Texas hill country — that kind of mountain.
Whenever we read a literary work like Matthew’s Gospel, it is sensible to probe whether simple words may conceal unexpected yet intentional connections. That is the case with “he sat down” (5:1). The Greek verb is used eight times in Matthew, and in most cases it involves sitting in a position of authority or judgment. That will certainly prove to be the situation on this day. Perhaps anticipating Jesus, his disciples gather around him. But, exactly what is a disciple?
When you recall that some of Jesus’ disciples turned away from him (John 6:66), it becomes obvious that disciple is not a synonym for believer. We will contrast discipleship under Jesus with other forms of first-century discipleship. How does discipleship to Jesus contrast with the disciples of the Jewish rabbis or to Greek masters such as Socrates?
Allegiance to a rabbi meant adhering to his view of the Torah, the instruction revealed by Moses in Genesis to Deuteronomy. Allegiance to Socrates was shown by adherence to his ideas or his philosophy. TDNT says: “In contrast to both, Jesus binds exclusively to himself. The rabbi and the Greek philosopher are at one in representing a specific cause. Jesus offers himself. This obviously gives a completely different turn to the whole relation of the disciples to him.” Discipleship under Jesus involves personal commitment to him and the acceptance of his teachings that results in obedience.
Of course, Matt. 5:1 begins the famous Sermon on the Mount, which extends through 7:29. I agree with Turner when he says: “The sermon amounts to personal ethics for the followers of Jesus. . . . The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ authoritative teaching about the way believers should live today.”
Today we will only put a toe in the deep waters of the Sermon by considering 5:3. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” illustrates that “the sharply paradoxical character of most of [the Sermon’s] recommendations reverses the conventional values of society.” If we called for a show of hands from all who strive to be poor in spirit, the resulting inner tension would show how countercultural this is! See Ps. 37:14–17, James 2:5 and Prov. 16:18–19 for further ideas on being poor in spirit.
Turner correctly says, “To be ‘poor in spirit’ is to acknowledge one’s total dependence on God for everything, for righteousness . . . as well as sustenance.”
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 References are Matt. 13:48; 19:28; 20:21, 23; 23:2; 25:31.
 TDNT, 4:447, math?t?s, disciple, q.v.
 David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2008) 144.
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 159.
 Turner, Matthew, 149.