1 When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him,” 10 but God has revealed it to us by His Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
I wrote in the bulletin today that so much of what Jesus taught us is misunderstood, and the first beatitude in Matthew 5 is no exception: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” John MacArthur, in his commentary says, “If Jesus was teaching the innate blessedness of material poverty, then the task of Christians would be to help make everyone, including themselves, penniless. Jesus did not teach that material poverty is the path to spiritual prosperity.” I think we all know that reducing the application of this saying of Jesus to mere material wealth or poverty is to almost entirely miss its point.
There is only one prayer in the book of Proverbs, found in chapter 30, “Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.” (Proverbs 30:7-8)
The Apostle Paul knew both poverty and riches, and in Philippians 4:11–12 he makes it clear that wealth or poverty was all the same to him. “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” So inheriting the kingdom of heaven has nothing to do with how much or how little money we have in the bank.
Being poor in spirit does not mean poor-spirited either. Poor-spirited people lack drive and have no enthusiasm for life. Basically, poor-spirited people have no real motivation to accomplish anything
When Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” He was talking about a spiritual frame of mind.
The beatitudes were given in a very definite and methodical sequence. They are not a random collection of sayings, because nothing that Jesus said and did was without purpose. The beatitudes are a picture of man turning to God.
This first beatitude begins with the emptying of one’s self, while the remaining seven speak of a filling.
One of the first steps for a sinner turning to God is to examine our own hearts. We need to have an accurate understanding of just who we are, and how God sees us, rather than depend on our own opinions of ourselves.
The world places a great emphasis on self-reliance and self-confidence. While it’s important to understand our worth and our value, particularly in our formative years, we easily overstep the mark and think that it’s all about us.
It is unusual to see truly humble people in positions of leadership, because the experts tell us that one of the most important characteristics of a true leader is one who is assertive, and can make the so-called hard decisions even if it means being unpopular.
The Apostle Paul placed no confidence in himself. He made Jesus the focus of his life and work. Have a look at his words in 1 Corinthians 2 again: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words.” If Paul were alive today and was asked to fill in a self-assessment survey, based on that statement, he would not be regarded as a natural leader. But as we know, believers do not live by the standards and expectations of the world.
Paul was poor in spirit, but being poor in spirit is not a suppression of your personality.
You don’t have to be ashamed of your personal abilities, the money you have worked for, the car you drive, or the house you live in. While we are not to flaunt our wealth, there is nothing wrong with being rich.
Solomon is regarded as the wealthiest man in history, yet he was poor in spirit (before his fall from grace, of course). 1 Kings 3:5-9 says, “At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, ‘Ask for whatever you want me to give you.’ Solomon answered, ‘You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day. Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?’”
When God called Gideon to lead the Israelite people his response was, “How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (Judges 6:15) We know Moses’ initial response when he was called to undertake the huge task of leading the Israelites out of Egypt: “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)
These people (and there are many others in the Bible) were great leaders, but they understood that without God, they had and were nothing. They were poor in spirit.
Probably the best illustration that Jesus gives us of poverty in spirit is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18.
This proud and deluded Pharisee left the Temple, thinking that had earned his eternal salvation. He had completely missed the point that the tithes he prided himself on giving were merely tithes on what God had blessed Him with. He seemed to think that God was lucky to have him on His side! This is a man who was proud in spirit and had no sense of his utter worthlessness before God.
The tax collector on the other hand, was humble, contrite and heartbroken. Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
His only hope was to recognise his spiritual poverty, and throw himself at the mercy of God. The Pharisee thought he needed nothing and that is exactly what he got, while the tax collector saw his need for mercy and received it.
Paul was a man of great power and education. In Philippians 3:3–6 he writes, “it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh - though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” Paul could easily have taken pride in his pedigree, his education at the feet of Gamaliel, or his Roman citizenship. But once his life was changed so dramatically by Jesus, he continues by saying, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:7-11)
If you had to do a snap poll of heroes of the Christian faith, the Apostle Paul would be very high on that list, if not at the very top, yet in 1 Timothy 1:15-16 he wrote, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life.” Those are the words of a man who was poor in spirit.
So what did Jesus really mean by this phrase ‘poor in Spirit?’
Firstly, it is a complete absence of pride and self-reliance. Again, Paul understood this principle so well. In 1 Corinthians 3:18-19 he wrote, “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”
Being poor in spirit means that we are keenly aware of the reality that we are nothing before God, yet in His eyes we are precious. David put it so well in Psalm 8. “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour.”
When we are poor in spirit we don’t depend on our ancestry, our money, our education or social standing to find our worth, because we know that these things are meaningless before God.
As I quoted in the bulletin today, “To be poor in spirit is not to lack courage but to acknowledge spiritual bankruptcy. It confesses one’s unworthiness before God and utter dependence on Him.”
To be poor in spirit is to have a proper perspective of just who we are in God’s eyes. We are to have a humble opinion of ourselves, to be sensible and honest enough to acknowledge that we are sinners, and have no righteousness of our own. When you are poor in spirit you understand that you need to be saved, and you know where to go to find salvation: To God, through Christ, to experience the grace and mercy of God. Then to be willing and available to be where God places us, to suffer and even die if necessary for the cause of Christ. When we are truly poor in spirit, we will go where He sends us and be willing to be His hands and feet in the world. It is the complete opposite of the pride, vanity and ambition that we see in the world.
In his book Inherit the Kingdom, FB Meyer writes, “To be poor in spirit is to be vacant of self and waiting for God. To have no confidence in the flesh; to be emptied of self-reliance; to be conscious of absolute insufficiency; to be thankfully dependent on the life energy of the living God - that is poverty of spirit; and it has been characteristic of some of the noblest, richest, most glorious natures that have ever trodden the shores of Time. Happy are they who are conscious of a poverty which only the Divine indwelling can change into wealth.”
There has to be an emptying of our lives before there can be a filling. We must become poor in spirit before we can become rich in God’s blessings. There needs to be a recognition of our unworthiness before God before we can accept His salvation. We know the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:24 so well: “You cannot serve both God and money.” Again, money in this context is not cash in the bank. Jesus is talking about worldly things in general. We need to rid ourselves of worldly things before we can become poor in spirit. There needs to be an absence of human pride and self-assurance before we’re able to bow before our God and humbly submit to His will.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. The second half of the first beatitude is also important.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
What does that mean?
The kingdom of heaven is the consequence of being poor in spirit, not the reward for it. It is vital that we understand the difference here. The Kingdom of Heaven is not something we earn.
McGarvey and Pendleton, in their commentary on this beatitude refer to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector when they write, “The poor in spirit are those who feel a deep sense of spiritual destitution and comprehend their nothingness before God. The kingdom of heaven is theirs, because they seek it, and therefore find and abide in it. To this virtue is opposed the pride of the Pharisee, which caused him to thank God that he was not as other men, and to despise and reject the kingdom of heaven. There must be emptiness before there can be fullness, and so poverty of spirit precedes riches and grace in the kingdom of God.” (McGarvey and Pendleton, The Fourfold Gospel).
In Matthew 6:33 Jesus says, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The mistake we make here is to think that the Kingdom and God’s righteousness are things we need to work at, but that is the exact opposite of what Jesus intended. The first step towards the Kingdom and the righteousness of God is to do exactly what the tax collector in the parable did: To know that we have no righteousness and to throw ourselves at the mercy of God. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
To be poor in spirit is to be humble. Humility is the first step toward entering the Kingdom, because until we submit our will to the will of God we cannot enter the Kingdom. We come to Jesus hopeless and helpless, naked and vile. In the words of Ephesians 2:12, “Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.”
John Stott wrote a wonderful book on the Sermon on the Mount, and he wrote this about the first beatitude taught by Jesus: “In our Lord’s own day it was not the Pharisees who entered the kingdom, who thought they were rich, so rich in merit that they thanked God for their attainments, nor the Zealots who dreamed of establishing the kingdom by blood and sword, but publicans and prostitutes, the rejects of human society, who knew they were so poor they could offer nothing and achieve nothing. All they could do was to cry to God for mercy, and He heard their cry.”
One of my favourite hymns is Rock of Ages, and one of the verses makes this incredible statement of spiritual poverty: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling. Naked, come to Thee for dress, helpless, look to Thee for grace.
Foul, I to the fountain fly, wash me, Saviour, or I die.”
In this world where we’re told over and over again that we need to make our mark and be assertive, is true humility and spiritual poverty really possible?
That all depends on how you see yourself in the presence of the almighty, perfectly holy God who created you and who loves you with an everlasting love. The simple answer is yes. If someone like Saul (or Paul as he became known) could humble himself before God, then so can each of us.
In the words of Psalm 51 again, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
The kingdom of God can be yours when you realise your own utter helplessness without Jesus. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Homegroup Study Notes
Read Luke 18:9-14
The first Beatitude in Matthew 5:3 says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”
What are some of the common mistakes we make when trying to understand what Jesus meant with this statement?
Using the parable Jesus told in Luke 18, discuss some of the differences between spiritual pride and spiritual poverty.
The Bible makes it clear that spiritual humility is a requirement before we’re able to turn to God.
Why is this so important?
Self-worth and self-esteem are important.
Experts on parenting young children say we should encourage and commend them, whether they have done well or not, and we’d all agree that this is vital for their upbringing.
Problems arise though when we reach the point where we feel we have no need for God, because we can do or achieve whatever we put our minds to.
How have you fallen into this trap, and how have you struggled to be poor in spirit instead?
Next week: Matthew 5:4.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”