Now, in time the people of Israel recognized this truth, and those who submitted to it came to God humbly, confessing their sin, and availing themselves of the cleansing that God had provided through the sacrifices. Those who would not submit to this truth and who, instead, boasted and wished to boast in their own self-righteousness, sought to whittle the high standards of the law down to the low level of their own performance. And they did this by interpreting and reinterpreting it.

What exactly did Jesus mean? We can see the answer to this question when we recognize that being poor in spirit is the opposite of being rich in pride. In fact, you might say that being poor in spirit is to be spiritually bankrupt before God. It is the mental state of the man who has recognized something of the righteousness and holiness of God, who has seen into the sin and corruption of his own heart, and has acknowledged his own deep and permanent inability to please God. Such a person alone is poor in spirit.

There are not many things I know about Sophie Tucker, the actress, but years ago I heard a statement of hers that I have since remembered. On one occasion, the actress was asked about her early struggles for success and whether or not she had found a certain special happiness in her years of poverty. She answered, “Listen, I've been rich, and I've been poor. And believe me, rich is better.” For years I have found this remark interesting. I remember it today because at least on the surface, it seems to be the direct opposite of the first great principle taught by the Lord Jesus Christ about how you and I can find happiness. In the first of the Beatitudes, Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). According to Jesus, happiness is related to some sort of poverty, and the heirs of God will be those who find it. 

The last beatitude, number eight, says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.” This beatitude is stated briefly in verse 10, but then verses 11 and 12 elaborate on it, changing the pronouns from the third person to the second person (from “those who are persecuted” to “you who are persecuted”). These refocuses everything, becoming now not a general principle about persecution but something that is brought to bear upon the disciples themselves and, of course, upon us as well.

The fourth beatitude says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Now at this point it's very natural to think of righteousness as that divine, imputed righteousness of Jesus, which is given to us in the process that we call “justification.” But that's not actually what it's talking about here. I've already pointed out that Matthew doesn't use the word “righteousness” that way. Matthew talks about actual righteousness. We're going to see as we go on in the sermon that what Jesus is saying here is that the people who are blessed by God in this beatitude are those who actually want to be righteous—that is, actually try to do what is right—and also long to see upright behavior in other people.