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The Poor in Spirit (Matt 5:1-3)


Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:1-3

Interpretation Question: What is the Sermon on the Mount and what is its purpose?

In Matthew 5-7, Christ’s 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, accept 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 ministry.[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, as was 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 that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” The Pharisees had a legalistic, external righteousness, but the righteousness Christ described was that 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 is 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 (Mat 6:19-21). It priorities God’s kingdom and his righteousness over wealth and personal security (Matt 6:33). The righteousness of true believers is other worldly.

Beatitudes

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.

The Beatitudes were written in a style of writing called an inclusio.[5] Each beatitude gives a character trait and then a promise. However, the first and the last promises are the same, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In verse 3, “Blesses are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and in verse 10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 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 because they were 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 an internal righteousness that led to external good works.

As this would have cut and challenged the Jews, it should cut and challenge the contemporary church today. Many believe that simply because they prayed a prayer and believe in Jesus that they are going to heaven. However, if their prayer and belief in Christ 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 how in the last days, 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.” These people believed in Christ and even practiced some good works, but were not saved. They had never been born again. They never experience 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 1950’s. 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 what happened with Mickey Cohen happens to 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 a monogamous 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 progressive maturity process in the life of a true believer. There is. But if we just continue living like the world, maybe, like those in Matthew 7:21-23, we have never been truly born again. From Christ’s description of these people, it seems 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, as proof, they are probably not.

This is why the Beatitudes are so important. They tell us if 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; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matt 25:34). They 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 a work of the Holy Spirit in the life of someone who has been born again.

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 and the last four deal with our relationship with others. Also, there is a progression in them; poverty of spirit leads to mourning, and mourning leads to meekness and so on. In this study, we’ll consider the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Big Question: What does Christ mean by the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”? What are some practical applications from this beatitude?

The Definition of Blessed

Interpretation Question: What does it mean to be blessed?

First, we’ll consider the word “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 ruler.” Therefore, man can only receive this blessing—this divine happiness—from God. God 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 contentment 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 thinks 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. The world regularly seeks happiness in sin and the fruits thereof, but true happiness cannot be attained without holiness. There may be temporary enjoyment 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 is ultimately a result of one who is truly blessed by God. Blessed also has the sense of approval. When a man wants to marry a lady, 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.

Application Question: What are some ways people pursue happiness apart from God? How come these other ways 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 uses 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 who had to beg. In Luke 16:20, it was used of Lazarus who laid at the gate of a rich man’s house longing to eat the crumbs that fell from his table. These 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” as beggars did.[10] In fact, a great translation for this word is the “beggarly poor.”[11]

When Christ says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The “theirs” is emphatic in the Greek—literally meaning “theirs 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. However, it does refer 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 come to the place where they have recognized 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. 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 grace and his mercy. Romans 10:13 says, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall 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 of 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, good works, or anything else—only God’s grace and mercy can save someone.

This is opposite spirit of the world. Where a true believer recognizes their spiritual poverty and their need for God, the rich in spirit don’t. They neither glorify God or give thanks to him (Rom 1:21). Some even see faith as a sign of weakness—people who need God to make it in this life. And this is true; however, everybody is truly weak, whether they realize it or not. Christ said this to the Church of Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked (Rev 3:17). 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, “Truly I tell you, unless you change 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 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 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. However, the Christian life is the opposite; when a person is born again, they start at spiritual poverty—recognizing their desperate state and need for God’s salvation—and crying out for it. 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 create this, God allows trials in our life. Trials humble us and show us that we are not our 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 sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” God allowed weakness in his 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 continually cried out for the riches of God’s grace. Those who are poor in spirit are the ones who God used greatest. The kingdom is not just theirs in the future, it is theirs today. The power and authority of the kingdom will abundantly be found in their lives.

For example, with Moses, when God called him to lead Israel, Moses declared how he couldn’t speak and lead. With Gideon, when God called him to lead Israel, Gideon declared how he was from the least tribe in Israel, and he was least in his family. They were both perfect for God, because they recognized their weakness—their spiritual poverty. Therefore, God’s power and kingdom could fully be displayed in their lives. Where others might volunteer and declare their credentials and skills, they 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 your perfect for me. My power will be made perfect in your weakness.” He finds those 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 (Romans 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, in a much greater way, was perfectly displayed in Christ, who in his incarnation declared, “I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing” (John 5:19). Christ was the epitome of spiritual poverty—he depended totally on the Father, just like a child. This same spirit must be in us.

Poverty of spirit is the doorway to salvation and the pathway to sanctification. God looks for these people and uses them greatly for his kingdom (cf. 2 Chr 16:9).

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. However, those who truly recognize their grave condition before the Lord, are thankful even for little things. They thank him for the continual grace they receive, as they recognize 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 which is rooted in pride?

2. If we’re poor in spirit, we will pray often.

Just as a 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, 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 poverty of spirit by asking God for it.

Psalm 51:10 says, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast 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. He resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (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?

Conclusion

When Christ teaches the Beatitudes, he teaches the character 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 door way to heaven—for without it, we won’t recognize our need for salvation. It is the pathway to spiritual greatness, as those who are like children are greatest in the kingdom; those who recognize their total dependence upon God can be used greatly by him. But also, poverty of spirit is the stairwell to all the other attitudes. Poverty of spirit leads to mourning, to meekness before God and others, it leads 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.

[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


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