1. Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit (Matthew 5:1-3)Related Media
When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain. After he sat down his disciples came to him. Then he began to teach them by saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
Matthew 5:1-3 (NET)
Interpretation Question: What is the Sermon on the Mount and what is its purpose?
In Matthew 5-7, Christ begins his Sermon on the Mount. This sermon takes only about ten minutes to read; however, many believe the original sermon was probably very long—possibly a couple of hours.1 What we have in the Sermon on the Mount is most likely a summary of his teaching. In Luke 6, we see a similar but shorter sermon, except it’s given on a plain instead of a mountain. Therefore, it’s quite possible that this was a standard sermon that Christ preached wherever he went—a staple of his itinerant preaching.2
The background to the Sermon on the Mount is Christ’s teaching and healing ministry in Galilee (cf. Matt 4:18-25). Because of this, his popularity had risen and crowds were flocking to him. He goes up on a mountain, sits down (the customary teaching posture of rabbis) and begins to preach to his disciples.3
The major theme of the Sermon on the Mount is the character of those in God’s kingdom. Christ said this in Matthew 5:20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The Pharisees had a legalistic, external righteousness, but the righteousness Christ described was primarily of the heart. It is humble and not prideful like the Pharisees who did their righteous deeds to be seen by men (Matt 6:1-3). It is gentle in response to personal wrong, as Christ taught his followers to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:38-42). It is concerned with building up riches in heaven instead of building up riches on the earth (Matt 6:19-21). It prioritizes God’s kingdom and his righteousness over earthly wealth and personal security (Matt 6:33). The righteousness of true believers is otherworldly.
Interpretation Question: What are the Beatitudes and why are they important?
The character of the kingdom starts with the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-10. The word “beatitude” comes from the Latin word “beatus,” which simply means ‘bless’ or ‘bliss’.4 Each one of the Beatitudes begins with the word “blessed.” But the name “beatitude” also is commonly used to describe how each of these attitudes should “be” part of our behavior. They are the “Be Attitudes” that should be in each of our lives.
Each beatitude gives a character trait and then a promise. They are written in a style of writing called an inclusio, where the first and last beatitude end with the same promise—“for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (v. 3 and 5).5 This means that all eight character traits will be in the lives of those who are part of the kingdom of heaven.
This would have been very challenging to the Jews and the religious teachers listening because many believed they were part of the kingdom of heaven simply by virtue of being Jews and because they practiced the external righteousness commanded in the law, as well as the rabbinical traditions in the Talmud. However, those who had truly entered the kingdom would not only have external righteousness but internal righteousness.
As the Beatitudes convicted and challenged Christ’s audience then, it should convict and challenge the contemporary church today. Many believe that simply because they prayed a prayer and confessed Jesus as Lord that they are going to heaven. However, if their prayer and confession don’t change their lives, then it probably has not changed their eternal destiny.
At the end of the sermon, Christ teaches about this reality. In Matthew 7:22-23, he describes the last days, when many will say to him, “Lord, Lord, we cast out demons and did many mighty works in your name.” But he replies, “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity, I never knew you” (paraphrase). These people confessed Christ as Lord and even practiced some good works, but were not saved. They had never been born again. They never experienced a true heart change and, therefore, continued to live a life of iniquity.
Kent Hughes describes this common anomaly in the contemporary church by considering the professed salvation of Mickey Cohen, a flamboyant criminal in the 1950s. The story goes:
At the height of his career, Cohen was persuaded to attend an evangelistic service at which he showed a surprising interest in Christianity. Hearing of this, and realizing what a great influence a converted Mickey Cohen could have for the Lord, some prominent Christian leaders began visiting him in an effort to convince him to accept Christ. Late one night, after repeatedly being encouraged to open the door of his life on the basis of Revelation 3:20 (“I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will go in and eat with him, and he with me”), Cohen prayed.
Hopes ran high among his believing acquaintances. But with the passing of time no one could detect any change in Cohen’s life. Finally they confronted him with the reality that being a Christian meant he would have to give up his friends and his profession. Cohen demurred. His logic? There are “Christian football players, Christian cowboys, Christian politicians; why not a Christian gangster?”6
The absurdity of Mickey Cohen’s words are repeated in lives of many today. They say, “I’m a Christian, but I can live with my girlfriend out of wedlock.” “I’m a Christian but I believe it’s OK for me to be in a homosexual relationship.” “I believe in Christ, but I like to get drunk, swear like a sailor, and enjoy the things of the world.” However, Scripture says that he who is in Christ is a new creation; old things have passed away, and all things become new (2 Cor 5:17). This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a process of progressive maturity in the life of a true believer. There is. However, if we simply continue living like the world, perhaps, like those in Matthew 7:21-23, we have never been truly born again. From Christ’s description of these people, it appears they were in church leadership. Maybe, those who have served as pastors, missionaries, small group leaders, deacons, and worship leaders are more prone to this deception. Like the Pharisees and teachers of the law, they think their intellectual knowledge of Scripture and their external good deeds means that they are truly saved. However, if there is no internal change that leads to continued growth in holiness, they are probably not.
This is why the Beatitudes are so important. They help us discern whether we have truly entered the kingdom of heaven. One day Christ will say to those who have these blessings, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34). The Beatitudes represent both the nature of kingdom citizens and their aspirations.7 None of these attitudes are something that we conjure up in our flesh. They are the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of someone who has been born again. And while only Christ modeled these attitudes perfectly, if we do not display them in our lives at all, we may not be part of his kingdom.
In addition, it must be noted that the Beatitudes are not given in a haphazard order. The first four deal primarily with our relationship with God, while the last four deal with our relationship with others. Also, there is a progression in them—each quality leading to another. Poverty of spirit leads to mourning, mourning leads to meekness, and so on. Furthermore, there seems to be a direct connection between the first and fifth (the poor in spirit and being merciful), the second and sixth (mourning and becoming pure in heart), third and seventh (the meek and becoming a peacemaker), and the fourth and eighth (hungering for righteousness and being persecuted for righteousness). In this study, we’ll consider the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”
Big Question: What does Christ mean by the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them”? What are some practical applications from this beatitude?
The Definition of Blessed
Interpretation Question: What does it mean to be blessed?
1. Blessed means to be happy.
In ancient literature, the word was at times used of people or gods who were unaffected by poverty, disease, misfortune, and death. It reflected an inward contentedness that was not affected by circumstances.8 In Scripture, it is often used of God, who is the truly happy one. In 1 Timothy 6:15, Paul calls God “the blessed and only Sovereign.” Therefore, man can only receive this blessing—this divine happiness—from God, who desires each of his children to have his divine joy. It is seen in Paul, when he said he had learned the secret of being content in all circumstances, whether well-fed or hungry, whether in plenty or in want, because God gave him strength (Phil 4:11-13). The Beatitudes, therefore, mark the attitudes of someone who is truly happy.
Sadly, people often think true happiness comes from possessions, positive circumstances, or relationships. However, true happiness or blessedness is Divine—something only given by God to those living righteously. In addition, the world regularly seeks happiness in sin and the fruits thereof, but true happiness cannot be attained without holiness. There may be a temporary gratification in the pleasures of sin, but ultimately, it brings God’s curse and not his blessing.
2. Blessed means to be approved.
Though “blessed” can be translated “happy,” it cannot be reduced to only happiness. Happiness ultimately comes as a result of being blessed by God. The word “blessed” also has the sense of being approved. When a man wants to marry a woman, he often asks her father for his blessing—his approval. It’s the same here in the Beatitudes. Those who have these characteristics and are growing in them have God’s approval—they make God smile. He enjoys them. Therefore, if that is our ultimate desire in life—to please God—then we should listen closely to each of these Beatitudes and pursue them through God’s grace, in order to give God pleasure.
3. Blessed means to receive God’s favor.
There is also a third sense of the word “Blessed.” Not only does God approve of these people and bestow Divine happiness upon them, he also favors them. He lavishly bestows grace, mercy, and peace upon their lives. He favors them in a myriad of ways. Like Psalm 23:6 says, “goodness and faithfulness” follow after them all the days of their lives. Those who personify the Beatitudes are truly blessed by God.
Application Question: What are some ways people pursue happiness apart from God? Why can they never bring lasting happiness or contentment? How do you struggle with pursuing happiness apart from God?
Poverty of Spirit
Interpretation Question: What does it mean to be poor in spirit?
There are two Greek words for “poor”; one refers to the working poor and the other to the truly poor.9 In Luke 21:2, when Christ described the poor widow, who gave her only two copper coins as an offering, he used the word for the working poor. She was poor with meager resources, but she had something. Then, there was a word used of those who were destitute with no resources and therefore had to beg. In Luke 16:20, it was used of Lazarus who lay at the gate of a rich man’s house, longing to eat crumbs that fell from his table. Such beggars often would hold one hand out for money and hide their face with the other hand because of shame. The word “poor” means “to shrink, cower, or cringe,” even as beggars did.10 In fact, a good translation for this word is the “beggarly poor.”11
When Christ says, “the kingdom of heaven belongs to them,” “them” is emphatic in the Greek—literally meaning “them alone.”12 Only these people enter the kingdom of heaven. “Poor in spirit” does not mean that these people think they are worthless for that wouldn’t be true; all people are Divine image bearers and therefore have unimaginable worth. Rather, it refers to an awareness and admission of one’s utter sinfulness and lack of virtue before God.13 It is a recognition of one’s spiritual bankruptcy.
Interpretation Question: Why is spiritual poverty necessary?
1. Spiritual poverty is necessary for salvation.
This is placed first in the Beatitudes, as it is both the doorway to the kingdom of heaven and also the other attitudes. No one can enter the kingdom of heaven unless they have first come to a place where they recognize their inability to please God and be accepted by him. Hebrews 12:14 says without holiness no one will see God. Because of our sins, we are unacceptable to God and under his wrath (John 3:36). Romans 6:23 says the wages of sin is death. This is where every person who enters the kingdom of heaven begins. They recognize that because of their sin, they are unacceptable to God and under his wrath.
This turns them into the beggarly poor. They cringe before God because they can demand nothing based on their own merit—all they deserve is death. Therefore, they come before God in humility, asking for his grace and mercy. Romans 10:13 says, “For everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” God hears their cry and saves them. Those who have experienced this, and those alone, enter the kingdom of heaven.
In Christ’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14, it was the broken tax collector and not the prideful Pharisee who left the temple justified. The Pharisee boasted in his righteous works before God, but the tax collector cried out for God’s mercy—he was the broken in spirit. This is the pathway of all true believers. Therefore, poverty of spirit supports the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It affirms that nobody can be saved by baptism, pilgrimage, charity, good works, etc.—only God’s grace and mercy can save someone.
This is the opposite of the spirit of the world. Where true believers recognize their spiritual poverty and need for God, the rich in spirit don’t. They neither glorify God nor give thanks to him (Rom 1:21). Some even see faith as a crutch—a sign of weakness; it is for people who can’t make it in this life on their own. And in one sense, this is true; however, everybody is truly weak, whether they realize it or not. Christ said this to the Church of Laodicea, “Because you say, ‘I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing,’ but do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev 3:17). The church considered themselves rich, but they were really poor. In fact, many believe this church was full of unbelievers, as they had not recognized their spiritual poverty and Christ stood outside their hearts knocking—trying to get in (Rev 3:20). Without spiritual poverty—without recognition of our bankruptcy and need for God’s salvation—no one will enter the kingdom of heaven.
Have you ever had a time where you recognized your spiritual poverty—that nothing, apart from God’s grace, could save you—and cried out for God’s grace like a spiritual beggar? If not, you have not entered the kingdom of heaven. It is the poor in spirit, and theirs alone, whose is the kingdom of heaven.
Application Question: Why are so many professing believers self-deceived about their salvation (like the Pharisee, the Church of Laodicea, and those who approached Christ in Matthew 7:21-23)? How can assurance of salvation be developed?
2. Spiritual poverty is necessary for spiritual growth and being used by God.
Similarly, in Matthew 18:1-4, Christ took a little child in his arms. In the original language, the word “child” is used of an infant or toddler. He says to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!” (v. 3). An infant is utterly helpless; he cries out for the help of his parents for food, covering, and cleaning. This is also true of believers. Romans 8:15 says that we have received the Spirit of adoption by which we cry, “Abba Father.” The Spirit of God creates in the hearts of true believers a dependence upon their Daddy. They cry out not only for salvation, but for their daily needs—God’s peace, strength, power, and mercy.
After this, Christ also says that those who are like this child are the “greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (v.4). Not only is spiritual poverty the doorway to salvation, it is also the pathway to sanctification. Those who are greatest in the kingdom of heaven—those whom God uses in the greatest manner—are like little children, totally dependent upon their heavenly Father.
The Christian life in many ways is the opposite of the natural life. When a child is born, he is totally dependent upon the parents; however, he quickly begins the process of becoming independent. Where before parents brushed the child’s teeth and hair, the child eventually learns how to do this on his own. Progressively, the child grows up and becomes totally independent from his parents. The Christian life is the opposite; when people are born again, they leave their life of independence for a life of spiritual poverty—recognizing their desperate state and need for God’s salvation—and crying out for God. But as we mature in Christ, we begin to recognize our spiritual poverty on a deeper level. We start to see how much we need him for every aspect of life. We need him to make it through another day at work. We need his grace for our relationship issues. We need his grace to discern our future. Those maturing in Christ continually learn their dependence upon him.
Often, in order to develop this, God allows trials in our lives. Trials humble us and show us that we are not our own masters. We are not strong enough, smart enough, or wealthy enough. We continue to need God’s grace. Through trials, God trains us to call out, “Abba Father!” This is what happened with Paul, as he endured a thorn in his flesh. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, God said to him: “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” God allowed weakness in Paul’s life to create a greater spiritual poverty, and it was through this spiritual poverty that God’s power could be fully displayed.
Therefore, it is the spiritually poor that God uses the most; those who experience this are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Martin Luther, who it is often said single-handedly brought the Great Reformation, is famous for this saying, “I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done.”14 Luther knew his spiritual bankruptcy and thus continually cried out for the riches of God’s grace. Those who are poor in spirit are the ones who God uses the most. The kingdom is not just theirs in the future, it is theirs today. The power and authority of the kingdom will abundantly be manifest in their lives.
For example, when God called Moses to lead Israel, Moses gave excuses for why he couldn’t speak and lead. When God called Gideon to lead Israel, Gideon declared how he was from the least tribe, and he was least in his family. They were both imperfectly perfect for God, because they recognized their weakness—their spiritual poverty. Therefore, God’s power and kingdom could be fully displayed in their lives. Others who might volunteer and declare their credentials and skills are often too strong and too confident for God’s purposes. He prefers the weak—the poor in spirit who recognize their poverty. He says to them, “You say you’re too weak, but you’re perfect for me. My power will be made complete in your weakness.” He finds such people and sows his kingdom deep in them so they can help spread his glory throughout the earth.
This was the same spirit displayed in Paul who declared that nothing good dwelled in his flesh (Rom 7:18), that he was chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15), and least of all God’s people (Eph 3:8). Poverty of spirit was also displayed in Christ, who in his incarnation declared, “I tell you the solemn truth, the Son can do nothing on his own initiative, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). In John 14:29, he said, “For I have not spoken from my own authority, but the Father himself who sent me has commanded me what I should say and what I should speak.” Christ was the epitome of spiritual poverty—he depended totally on the Father, even for what to say. He was just like a child—greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This same spirit must be in us.
Poverty of spirit is the doorway to salvation and the pathway to sanctification. God looks for people with this spirit and uses them greatly for his kingdom (cf. 2 Chr 16:9). With the prideful, he fights against them to make them humble so he may lift them up (James 4:6).
Application Question: How can we tell if we are poor in spirit?
1. If we’re poor in spirit, we will be grateful and less likely to complain.
Complainers believe they deserve better—they deserve better food, better housing, better resources, better church services. Their complaints are rooted in pride and an incorrect view of what they truly deserve. However, those who truly recognize their grave condition before the Lord, are thankful even for little things. They thank God for the continual grace and mercy they receive, as they understand that they deserve nothing more than God’s wrath. Those who truly know their spiritual poverty are grateful people. They start to learn how to give thanks in all situations for this is God’s will for their lives (1 Thess 5:18).
Are you commonly thankful? Or are you prone to complaining?
2. If we’re poor in spirit, we will pray often.
Just as physical beggars continually beg for money and food, spiritual beggars continually plead with the Lord for spiritual resources such as grace, strength, peace, and opportunities to serve and bless others. As in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, they begin to learn something of praying without ceasing.
Are you a spiritual beggar? Are you, like Jacob, wrestling with God until he blesses you—meets your needs, empowers you to serve, or changes somebody’s life? That’s a characteristic of spiritual beggars.
Application Question: How can we grow in awareness of our spiritual poverty?
1. We grow in spiritual poverty by knowing God more.
When we focus on ourselves or others, it creates pride, even if it manifests in insecurity. However, when we focus on God through his Word, prayer, fellowship, and serving, we see our own sin. In Isaiah 6:5, when Isaiah had a vision of God, it led to confessing his sin and that of his people. When Peter recognized Christ, he said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). The more we know God, the more we will see our spiritual poverty and therefore our need for God’s mercy and grace.
Are you pursuing a deeper knowledge of God?
2. We grow in spiritual poverty by asking God for it.
Psalm 51:10 says, “Create for me a pure heart, O God! Renew a resolute spirit within me.” Like David, we must cry out for a humble spirit that pleases God instead of a prideful spirit that God fights against (James 4:6). Many miss God’s best because they have the spirit of this world—pride—instead of the spirit of heaven—a humble, broken spirit.
Are you crying out for more of God’s grace?
Application Question: What are some hindrances to spiritual poverty? How is God calling you to pursue growth in spiritual poverty?
When Christ teaches the Beatitudes, he teaches the character traits of those in the kingdom. True believers possess these and yet aspire to grow in them. Have you experienced poverty of spirit? It is the doorway to heaven—for without it, we won’t recognize our need for salvation. It is the pathway to spiritual maturity—for those who are like children are greatest in the kingdom. Those who recognize their total dependence upon God can be used greatly by him. Moreover, poverty of spirit is also the stairwell that leads to all the other attitudes. Poverty of spirit leads to mourning, to meekness, to hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and so on. Are you poor in spirit? It is by this characteristic that we will ascend the stairwell of the rest of the Beatitudes. Lord, help us look more like you!
Copyright © 2019 Gregory Brown
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1 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 16). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
2 Guzik, D. (2013). Matthew (Mt 5:2). Santa Barbara, CA: David Guzik.
3 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (pp. 16–17). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
4 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 21). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
5 Carson, D. A. (1999). Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World: An Exposition of Matthew 5–10 (p. 17). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
6 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 17). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
7 Guzik, D. (2013). Matthew (Mt 5:3–12). Santa Barbara, CA: David Guzik.
8 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 140–142). Chicago: Moody Press.
9 Guzik, D. (2013). Matthew (Mt 5:3). Santa Barbara, CA: David Guzik.
10 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 145). Chicago: Moody Press.
11 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 19). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
12 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 22). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
13 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 19). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
14 Accessed 3/4/17 from http://www.christianitytoday.com/moi/2011/006/december/too-busy-not-to-pray.html