A Study Of The Beatitudes In The Bible

Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

Matthew 5:3

1. Frederick William IV of Prussia once visited a school and asked the children questions. Pointing to a stone in his ring, a flower in his button-hole, and a bird that flew outside, he asked to what kingdom each belonged. The children correctly responded: the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms. Then he asked, "To what kingdom do I belong?" This is a supreme question that all humanity must answer. The Scripture tells us that mankind belongs to a kingdom that is not of this earth (Ro 8:16,17). Understanding this fact gives everyone's life a thrilling mission.

2. Ponder the query -- "What do you want to be in ten years?" Anticipate the future and imagine your place. "Where will I be in ten years?" Some will respond in anticipation of vocations -- retired, promoted, working hard to enjoy comfort and security. Some anticipate health situations -- hopes for continued good health, anxious over anticipated illness and struggles. Some anticipate economic situations -- retirement, investments, security, mortgages. How many will anticipate spiritual situations? Do we anticipate the spiritual last of all other considerations? In planning for "happiness," there is a first anticipated planning strategy with which Christ introduces the Beatitudes -- We must anticipate being "poor in spirit"!

3. There are some general observations on this Beatitude which need to be made at the beginning of this lesson.

a. Here are the very first words in the public ministry of Christ. Because this beatitude is the first it should be viewed with great concentration. The first words are significant in that they point to a vital truth about the New Law of Christ -- one must be "poor in spirit" in order to be a part of it!

b. "The first beatitude is foundational, describing a fundamental trait which is found in every regenerated soul ... Why did Christ put it first? He is teaching about a new kind of living, a new standard, and a new way of life. Becoming poor is the first thing that must happen in the life of anyone who would enter the kingdom. The door is very low, and only those who kneel down can enter through this door" (V. P. Black, The Sermon On The Mount, the Seventh Annual Spiritual Sword Lectureship, 1982, 19).

c. "This is the first, because it is obviously, as I think we shall see, the key to all that follows. There is, beyond any question, as very definite order in these beatitudes. Our Lord does not place them in their respective positions haphazardly or accidentally; there is what we may describe as a spiritual logical sequence to be found here. This ... is the one which must come at the beginning for the good reason that there is no entry into the kingdom of heaven ... apart from it" (Lloyd-Jones, 42).

d. Here then is the cornerstone of the Kingdom of God. From this will come all other essential traits. Each is critical but none are MORE critical than this first! Hence it must be studied and accepted before we examine the others.

4. There is much discussion about this foundational quality. Let us list what this IS NOT and hopefully clarify some misunderstandings at the beginning.

a. It is NOT referring to material possessions. Many will quickly affirm they are really "poor" as far as material possessions are concerned. Even those billionaires consider themselves "poor." And to an extent all are right when they affirm their poverty. "Even the man with a million dollars does not have enough to create one loaf of bread or to buy one moment of real contentment or to keep his soul out of hell. Yes, you are poor" (Charles L. Allen, God's Psychiatry, Flemming H. Revell Co., 1953, 130).

Unfortunately some have understood this to refer to material prosperity. They thus have thought the possession of material goods is wrong. Some religious orders have forced a "vow of poverty" upon their followers believing that is what Jesus calls "blessed."

b. It is NOT giving advantage to those in economic poverty. Worldly riches are not wrong/sinful in themselves. Therefore those who do not have the luxury of wealth and possessions are not at a better spiritual advantage than those who do. "Mammon" is an evil tyrant who oppresses the economically wealthy and poor -- it is no respecter of persons. "Luther says very correctly in his explanation of the Sermon on the Mount, 'We may find that many a beggar, asking for bread at our door, is more proud and wicked than any rich man, and many a shabby peasant, with whom it is harder to agree than with any lord or prince' . . . For it might be that God's opinion of us would be similar to the opinion of that wise man of old who said to another who ostentatiously wore a shabby, threadbare garment, 'Through the holes in your garment I see your pride'" (Paul Kaiser, Blessed Are Ye, The German Literary Board: Burlington, IA, 1906, 33, 37).

"There are those who tell us that it should read 'Blessed in spirit are the poor.' ... So they would regard it as a commendation of poverty. But surely that must be entirely wrong. The Bible nowhere teaches that poverty as such is a good thing. The poor man is no nearer the kingdom of heaven than the rich man ... There is no merit or advantage in being poor. Poverty does not guarantee spirituality" (Lloyd-Jones, 43).

c. It is NOT referring to those who are timid and fearful. The ten spies (Nu 13:33), the one talent man (Mt 25:25) depict those who illustrate timidity. There are many today who reflect this same attitude of fear. These are indeed "poor" but not in the sense that our Lord commends (2 Ti 1:7-9). In the other extreme, confidence, one can be very "poor" yet fail to demonstrate this beatitude. Peter was confident (Mt 26:33). He was not "poor in spirit" but he was very "poor" in attitude.

5. The fundamental requirement for those in the New Covenant (the Kingdom of Heaven/God) is a different kind of "poverty" that is not connected with material possessions. This is best illustrated in Luke 18:10ff. The fundamental "poverty" is the realization that we are nothing without God! It refers to a humility of heart that admits we need God's power to succeed!

a. This beatitude immediately condemns the proud as an unfit citizen for God's Kingdom! Pride has always been responsible for mankind's problems; humility has always been responsible for mankind's success. Pride sees no need for God, feels self-sufficient in knowledge while humility renounces such ideas. Thus, this first beatitude is indeed the MOST essential for until one admits that man does not have the ability or knowledge, s/he will not turn to God.

b. "Poor" is translated by two different Greek terms. One kind of "poor" refers to those who lacked wealth and always faced struggles in life. Another kind of "poor" were those who literally had nothing as their resources. It is this second reference that Jesus used in Mt 5:3. Those who are fit for citizenship in the Kingdom have no resources, they are in abject poverty. Thus the "poor in spirit" are those who can offer God nothing. Their pride, self-sufficiency, and knowledge are regarded as useless. They realize that God and God alone can meet their spiritual needs. This realization results because they have refused pride.

c. Pride surrounds mankind and entices him/her to trust upon their own understanding; their own knowledge; their own strategies.

1) Christ was surrounded by the proud: The Jews boasted of their father Abraham (Mt 3:7-12). The Pharisees trusted in themselves (Lk 18:9-14). The philosophers were proud of their own intellectual insights (1 Co 1:18-25; 2:6-14). None of these would comprehend the urgency of being "poor in spirit."

2) Modern Believers are still surrounded by those in the world who live in pride's snare. We see man's philosophies seeking to present a wisdom that contradicts Divine wisdom. We see those who are proud of their own moral goodness and think that they do not need God in order to be "good." We see those who trust in their ancestors' faith in order to be Christians. Our call for these to become "poor in spirit" is ignored.

3) Pride even masquerades as "humility." In all that God has required for man, Satan has devised a counterfeit (i.e. apostles, prophets, Bible, miracles, etc.). Such is true regarding humility as well -- God requires humility and the devil has convinced some that a false humility is acceptable (cf Col 2:18-23). Pride masquerades as humility when one endeavors to escape God's Truth and its demands, that they cannot really "know" or "presume" to judge issues of Truth (see James D. Bales, Spiritual Sword, Vol. 4, Nu. 3, Apr 1973, 2).

d. True humility conquers pride. It comes when one recognizes that s/he cannot re-define God's Truth, does not have the knowledge necessary to overcome sin and stand justified before God. The truly humble are not self-willed, self-seeking, or self-glorifying (Bales, 3).

e. This beatitude emphasizes that only the "poor in spirit" ARE appropriate citizens for God's Kingdom! Only those who are teachable; who sense their own unworthiness; who long for God's forgiving mercy! Such are often illustrated in Scripture:

6. Examine some of the critical aspects of this beatitude and observe why it occupies such a critical place in Christ's Kingdom. a. It is fundamental to the Christian's conduct. As noted above, all other traits will spring from this one. This fact alone stresses its importance. However, this is fundamental because it expresses the "emptying" that must precede the "filling" by the traits that follow. Until one can empty his/her heart of the evil, it will be impossible to fill it with the good. "The 'poor in spirit' have so emptied them-selves of themselves -- the pride of their accomplishments, the selfishness of their desires -- that the Spirit of God has come into their emptiness" (Allen, 131).

Renouncing Self must occur before you can follow God (Lk 9:23). The only way you can renounce Self is to become impoverished in spirit! Some have been "Christians" for many years, yet they have never been "poor in spirit." One can state the "fundamentals" of conversion in many words, yet Christ's words offer the most concise statement of anyone! Fundamental Fact -- before you can fill your heart with righteousness, before you can become a citizen in God's Kingdom, you must become "poor in spirit."

b. It offers a searching test for Christian. This simple statement forces us to admit that we are powerless in spiritual matters. Regarding salvation -- it is God's work. Regarding the Church -- it is God to give the increase. By ourselves we have absolutely NOTHING -- we are "dirt poor." Many are unwilling to admit this fact. They want to trust in worldly wisdom and human potential for success, yet they are unknowingly demonstrating pride! They conceive only in what you and I can do and forget God. In forgetting God, everything falls upon our shoulders and when success does not come, we lie defeated by Pride!

The Sermon on the Mount, in other words, comes to us and says, 'There is the mountain that you have to scale, the heights that you have to climb; and the first thing you must realize as you look at that mountain which you are told you must ascend, is that you cannot do it, that you are utterly incapable in and of yourself, and that any attempt to do it in your own strength is proof positive that you have not understood it'" (Lloyd-Jones, 43).

This beatitude offers a perfect illustration of the difference that must exist between the Christian and the non-Christian. The Lord's emphasis is upon those who are humble, totally dependent upon Him for success. The world 's emphasis is upon the opposite -- self-reliance, self-confidence, self-help! The world says the way to success is to look within you and find the answer. Corporations are spending millions of dollars training employees to find answers within their own groups. Total reliance on self is preached -- YOU can find the answer within yourself! "That is the whole principle on which life is run at the present time -- express yourself, believe in yourself, realize the powers that are innate in yourself and let the whole world see and know them. Self-confidence, self-reliance ... Everywhere we see displayed this tragic confidence in the power of education and knowledge as such to save men, to transform them and make them into decent human beings" (Lloyd-Jones, 45). The Christian DOES NOT allow this worldly attitude of Self-importance direct him/her. S/He knows that they have no answers within them. The poor in spirit asks, "Lord, to whom shall we go?" they know it must be God and not Self!

c. This is not a popular beatitude today. It is not popular to suggest that modern philosophy (self-centeredness) will not offer the "magic bullet." The "answer" to problems in society, business, government, and even the Lord's Church, is often thought of in terms of one who is a "take charge executive." Great efforts are made to place in leadership roles those with this drive. There is nothing so foolishly regarded by God as one who proudly plans than that over which s/he has no control (cf Lk 12:20). Today there is seldom appreciation shown for those who are "poor in spirit." Instead these are often run over, abused, and ignored. Paul did not "preach himself" when he entered Corinth. He went in humility and trusted God for success. "How far we tend to wander from the truth and the pattern of the Scriptures. Alas! How the Church is allowing the world and its methods to influence and control her outlook and life. To be 'poor in spirit' is not as popular even in the Church as it once was and always should be" (Lloyd-Jones, 47).

d. This does not allow us to be weak in the Faith. Some think they should not be commanding and thus they go to the other extreme. They are indifferent, retiring, weak, and lack courage to speak. There are some who are born "naturally unobtrusive," but this is not the poverty of spirit that Christ commands. Some seem to "glory in their poor spirit" -- "I'm a nobody. Very unimportant. I just don't count." Such is an extreme to be avoided and it definitely does not explain this beatitude.

e. This beatitude should not suppress the personality. In order to achieve this you do not have to change your name and assume a personality that is contrary to you. You do not have to go out of life in order to be "poor in spirit." God wants you to use your own personality. However, He wants you to govern your personality with this beatitude! Consider how these personalities were "poor in spirit":

1) PETER -- Naturally aggressive, self-assertive, self-confident. Yet he possessed a poverty of spirit that was commendable (Lk 5:8; 2 Pt 3:15,16). He never stopped being bold but he never became timid. His essential personality remained yet it was "poverty " stricken!

2) PAUL -- Had great natural powers that would have easily allowed pride to conquer his heart. However he fought against pride (Philip 3) and counted all of earthly successes as garbage. He appeared in Corinth as one filled with fear and trembling. His success was in the fact that he depended upon God (2 Co 12:10).

"That, then, is what is meant by being 'poor in spirit.' It means a complete absence of pride, a complete absence of self-assurance and of self-reliance. It means a consciousness that we are nothing in the presence of God. It is nothing, then, that we can produce; it is nothing that we can do in ourselves ... it is to feel we are nothing, and that we have nothing, and that we look to God in utter submission to Him and in utter dependence upon Him and His grace and mercy" (Lloyd-Jones, 50, 51).

The "poor in spirit" then is willing to say to the Lord God Almighty, "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling." Such will honor God's Word and never modify it; will work with God's plan and never revise it; will follow God's commands and never deny them!

7. How can Christians make sure they develop this marvelous attitude within themselves?

a. Understand that we are dealing with the Lord God Almighty and not a fellow mortal. His greatness and goodness ought to humble our hearts and we should never imagine that we can do anything that is contrary to His Will (Is 6:1-5).

b. Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Christ. Spiritual growth makes us aware of how far we are from God's perfect standard -- Jesus Christ. This should not discourage but encourage us to advance in spiritual maturity (2 Pt 3:18).

c. Look at things in their true light -- following human potential has always brought disaster in spiritual situations. Only an absolute trust and dependence upon God will lead us to salvation's safety. The way to become "poor in spirit" is to look at God -- Read His Book, follow His Law, look at His expectations, contemplate His Judgment. "You cannot truly look at Him without feeling your absolute poverty and emptiness" (Lloyd-Jones, 52).

8. Concluding Thoughts:

a. V. P. Black asks "How may I know when I am poor in spirit?" (20).

b. The last words about the Sermon on the Mount observe that the people are astonished at Christ's teachings (Mt 7:28-29). This same reaction is viewed in those today who have never become "poor in spirit." They are trusting in Self, in human potential for success in spiritual matters. Tragically they will only bring ruin.

c. "The Mount of Blessing in Matt. 5 stands in sharp contrast with the 'Valley of Woes' of Matt. 23. They are in striking contrast because they start from opposing positions. The blessings can be given to the poor in spirit but the woes come to the self-righteous for they are proud in spirit. Concerning our lives each one needs to ask: Is it: Blessed am I? Or is it: Woe unto me? We shall never experience the blessing if we have poverty of spirit and follow through with that which this implies and necessitates. It is woe unto us if we feel self-righteous and refuse to turn from the course of self-sufficiency" (Bales, 3).

Written by John L Kachelman.jr

Return to the Sermon Outlines page

Return to the New Testament Study of Matthew