“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Why did Jesus list the “poor in spirit” first in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3–12)?
“Jesus puts this beatitude first because humility is the foundation of all other graces, a basic element in becoming a Christian,” according to “The MacArthur New Testament Commentary.”
The words “poor” and “blessed” don’t seem to belong in the same sentence; right? How can we be blessed and poor at the same time? Do we really know what Jesus was saying here?
Poor can refer to a person crouched in a corner begging, but this is not the same definition that Jesus refers to in this passage. The phrase “poor in spirit” does not mean economic poverty.
Some people have given all their earthly possessions away without possessing the spirit that Jesus is describing. Jesus is talking about spiritual poverty and not monetary poverty. To truly experience this spiritual poverty, we must come before the Lord broken, humble, empty of pride and conscious of the debt owed for our sins. “Poor in spirit” includes an honest confession that we are sinful and utterly without the moral virtues that we need to commend to God.
This deepest form of repentance acknowledges our desperate need for God. Those who are poor in spirit gladly cast themselves on God’s grace. To be poor in spirit is the personal acknowledgement of spiritual bankruptcy before God. When we recognize our spiritual poverty, there is nothing there to protect or preserve. We’re empty. Jesus teaches us that if we want to achieve wholeness of life, if we want to be fulfilled human beings, if we want to be blessed in this way, if we want to experience genuine joy, we must accept the reign of God, acknowledge our complete dependence on Him and place our complete trust in Him.
We not only depend on God for life, but we must trust in God for the meaning of life. We cannot hope to become fulfilled, whole people on our own. We are unable to cope alone. We need to acknowledge our inherent weakness, pray to God and depend on Him. We need to trust in God enough to be able to accept His way of fulfillment without reservation.
We are urged to develop almost every other kind of spirit except poverty of spirit. We hear so much church teaching on how to be filled with the spirit, but where can we learn what it means to be spiritually emptied of self-confidence, self-importance and self-righteousness? The sad truth is we know so little of the blessing of which Christ speaks (and which He gives) because we are all too often full of ourselves and our own means of blessing. The person who is poor in spirit is the person who has been silenced by God and seeks only to speak what he or she has learned in humility from Him. Spiritual poverty is both commanded and commended. It is the basis of our Christian experience — not a onetime event by which a person enters the kingdom of heaven. We must have a continual mindset that leads to a lifestyle of submission and dependence on God.
Here’s a great story Jesus told about what it means to be humble and poor in spirit: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 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.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10–14).
I like this statement from “The Applause of Heaven” by Max Lucado: “You don’t impress the officials of NASA with a paper airplane. You don’t boast about your crayon sketches in the presence of Picasso. You don’t claim equality with Einstein because you can write ‘H20.’ And you don’t boast about your goodness in the presence of the Perfect.”
Brokenness and humbleness allow us to truly experience God and all He has for us. We do not have the spiritual resources in ourselves to put Jesus’ teachings into practice. You and I cannot fulfill God’s standards by ourselves. All that is left for us to do is to come before the Lord “poor in spirit” and in humility. Those who are close to God are poor in spirit, and those who are not poor in spirit are far from God.
Jim Miller is the men’s ministry pastor of Brooke Hills Free Methodist Church in Wellsburg, West Virginia. This article is adapted from a sermon he preached last year as part of the church’s Beatitudes series. Visit bit.ly/jmillerllm to watch the full sermon online.1