Sermon on the Mount: The Poor in Spirit (Matt. 5:3)
What’s your idea of happiness? What things make you the most happy? For you it might be time with family, being successful at work, watching Captain America with your girlfriend, or playing football with your buddies. Because we’re all different, there are different things that make us happy. For me, I am happy when I get new books, have good theological discussions, or write college papers on systematic theology (I know, I am a nerd).
But let me just say from the beginning: Jesus’ idea of happiness is a lot farther from ours than we’d like to think. The beginning of the Sermon on the Mount is a section known as the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:2-12). In them, Jesus describes true happiness on His terms. He presents the possibility of people being genuinely happy, but the conditions and their corresponding blessings do not seem to match. He says that the humble will be saved, the sad will be comforted, the gentle will inherit the earth, and the like. By normal human standards, things such as these are not the stuff of which happiness is made. “The world says, “Happy are the rich, the noble, the successful, the macho, the glamorous, the popular, the famous, the aggressive”—John MacArthur (1). But the message from Jesus is just the opposite because His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). And so the first description of true happiness in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is all about humility.
The Text: Matt. 5:1-3
“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The Meaning of Poor in Spirit
The word “poor” here is from a Greek verb ptochos meaning “to shrink, cower, or cringe,” as beggars often did in that day. Classical Greek used the word to refer to a person reduced to total destitution, who crouched in a corner begging. As he held our one hand for alms he often hid his face with the other hand, because he was ashamed of being recognized. The term did not mean simply poor, but begging poor. Jesus is speaking here of spiritual poverty. To be poor in spirit is to recognize one’s spiritual poverty apart from God.
What is Our Spiritual Poverty Apart From God?
The Scriptures have much to say about our spiritual poorness apart from God. Just to name a few, Romans says that we are haters of God (Rom. 1:30), not seeking Him or doing any good (Rom. 3:11). The prophet Ezekiel says that the “soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezek. 18:20, KJV). If that’s the case (Rom. 6:23), then who has sinned? “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Ephesians probably describes our depravity with the most vivid picture: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Further, Paul describes there that we walked with the world, followed Satan, and were “sons of disobedience” (2:2); that we lived in the passions of our sinful flesh, and were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (2:3). Similarly in Colossians, we were “alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Col. 1:21). This is only a brief examination of our spiritual poverty apart from God, and being “poor in spirit” is to see oneself as one really is: lost, hopeless, helpless. Apart from Jesus Christ, every person is spiritually destitute, no matter what his education, wealth, social status, accomplishments, or spiritual knowledge.
That is the point of the first Beatitude. The poor in spirit are those who recognize their spiritual poverty and their complete dependence on God. They perceive that there are no saving resources in themselves and that they can only beg for mercy and grace. They know they have no spiritual merit, and they know they can earn no spiritual reward.
Proud or Poor?
Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-gather to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). Jesus says that “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:10-13). The Pharisee was listing his spiritual accomplishments, and considered himself to be self-righteous, while the tax-collector would not even lift his eyes to heaven! The Pharisee was proud in spirit; the tax-collector was poor in spirit.
Who are you like most in this story? The proud, self-reliant Pharisee or the humble tax-collector?
Why is Poor in Spirit First?
Why do you suppose that humility is first in the Beatitudes? The Beatitudes are not haphazardly presented. Jesus didn’t just say what Christian characteristics He could remember like “Oh yes, and being pure in heart is also important.” They are in obvious order. Each one suggests the next, and leads to the next. That is why poor in spirit/humility is first. It is the basic element in becoming a Christian. Until a soul is humbled, until we truly realize who we are without Christ, we will not recognize our need for Christ. “The door into His kingdom is low, and no one who stands tall will ever go through it”—John MacArthur (2). Being poor in spirit is the first Beatitude because humility must precede everything else. No one can receive the kingdom until he recognizes that he is unworthy of the kingdom. James 4:6 says, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Where self is exalted, Christ cannot be. Where self is king, Christ cannot be. Until the proud in spirit become the “poor in spirit,” they cannot receive the King or the kingdom.
How to Achieve Being Poor in Spirit
How then, do we become poor in spirit? First of all (with respect to salvation), it cannot start with us. It isn’t something we can accomplish in our own power. We are already down; humility simply recognizes this truth. The fulfillment of that recognition depends on God’s saving work at conversion. We are so corrupted by sin that we will never recognize our lowliness and depravity apart from the grace of God. That is why salvation “depends not on human will or exertion (physical or mental effort), but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16). Humility (being poor in spirit) is not a necessary human work to make us worthy, but a necessary divine work to make us see that we are unworthy and cannot change our condition without God.
But with respect to our Christian lives, we need to strive to attain humility (again, this too is not apart from the grace of God):
The first step in experiencing humility is to turn our eyes off ourselves and look to God. When we study God’s Word, seek His face in prayer, and sincerely desire to be near Him and please Him, we move toward being “poor in spirit.” It is the vision of a holy God in all His greatness, splendor, majesty, and perfection that allows us to see ourselves as sinners by contrast.
Second, we must starve the flesh by removing the things on which it feeds. You’ve probably heard it said before, “What you feed will live; what you starve will die.” And that is what we must do with our flesh. “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24).
Third, we must continually ask God for it. With David we should pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). Also, as with every good thing, God is more than willing to give than we are to ask for it, and He stands ready to give it.
The Result of Being Poor in Spirit
What does Jesus say is the result of those who are poor in spirit? “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Those who come to the King in this humility inherit His kingdom. Those who come to the Lord with broken hearts do not leave with broken hearts: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). In giving up their own kingdom, the poor in spirit inherit God’s. Are you poor in spirit? If not, why not?