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.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
This is the first in a series of studies based on the Sermon on the Mount. This passage of scripture can be found in the gospel according to Matthew chapters 5 to 7. The studies on this site are based on daily devotions first published by the author on Facebook.
The first part of the sermon is a declaration about blessings and how they are ‘earned’. This section is commonly known as and referred to as ‘The Beatitudes.’ Actually that word ‘earned’ is not such a good word – because all of the things described in the Beatitudes are qualities of character rather than works done. But as it often is with these things, the evidence of a quality of character can be found in the behaviour and deeds of a person.
In this study we are looking at the first quality of character to earn a blessing, being poor in spirit. What does this mean, and what is the meaning of the blessing?
In some ways, despite the simplicity of the words, this can be the most difficult of the blessings to talk about and describe. Various commentators have said many things about what is meant by the phrase ‘poor in spirit.’ And of course, we can see the implication of ownership of the kingdom of heaven. What does that really mean?
Let’s begin with the meaning of ‘poor in spirit.’
Firstly, this is clearly not a weakness but rather a strength in spiritual things. Why else would Jesus declare it to be a blessing? But the natural reaction in the modern world is to treat this word ‘poor’ as indicating a weakness or deficiency in the person or item described as ‘poor’. In the context of this verse, that is completely the wrong way to interpret the meaning.
I would put it this way: the person who is ‘poor in spirit’ is the person who has removed all blockages that are in the way of receiving blessings, or that hinder a closer relationship with Jesus.
Sometimes this description is confused with the word ‘meek’ in another blessing further on in this passage. In my readings of commentaries and articles over the years, I have seen a lot of overlap in the meanings of these two descriptions of character. The more dogmatic and legalistic tend to insist that this verse is one thing and that meekness is completely another thing. Black and white, as it were… But the older I get, the more I realise that things in both scripture and doctrines are often not as black and white as we would like them to be. I would say that, for the two blessings mentioned here, it is OK if there is some overlap of meaning. It does not change the general principles of what Jesus was saying.
So what blockages are removed for the blessing of this verse to be received, and also to be able to become closer with Jesus?
I will give a few examples and you will see the general principle at work here. But it all boils down to this: God wants our needs to be met. Not our wants, but out needs. But we need to realise first of all, most often, how needy we are to then ask and receive.
- We need to recognise our lack of wisdom to receive wisdom.
- We need to recognise our lack of strength when resisting temptation to be able to receive strength from God.
- We need to recognise our ignorance about truth in order to receive teaching of truth.
- We need to recognise we are lacking in forgiveness to receive forgiveness.
To summarize: we need to recognise that we are impoverished by our fallen human nature before we can begin to receive, with thanks, the things we need to become more godly, more healthy, more wise, more loving, more forgiving, and all the other good things we need in our lives.
But people have pride (here is the overlap with the blessing about meekness which I will write more about in another article). They don’t like to admit ignorance or poverty.
Most people seem to go through a stage in life – usually in teenage years – when they feel like they ‘know it all’. Teenagers stop listening to adult advice for a time. There is rebellion and the desire to go their own way. Sometimes this gets them into trouble, and parents need to remain patient and loving to deal with this (heated arguments rarely achieve anything in any situation). This kind of thing we have all seen in everyday life – but sometimes we do not recognise that we can be the same towards God.
This ‘you don’t need to tell me because I know all about that…’ attitude is the very opposite of ‘poor in spirit’ because it is a declaration of ‘I have’ instead of ‘I have not, but I need your help to receive in this area’.
The teenager really does not want to be seen as a ‘little kid’ any more. And some of this attitude can persist into adult life. But this attitude can become a barrier between people and limit relationships. How much more so will this be a barrier that limits relationship with God! And because of that, a barrier to how much you can receive from God into your life.
But God is the greatest and best father there is, who delights to have his children sit on His lap and call him ‘daddy’. He would not hold anything back from us that we need. So if we do not receive, then the problem is not with Him, but with ourselves.
It is because we first need to be poor in spirit.
And this is what it means when it says ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ It means, when we have that correct attitude, when we remove the barriers of relationship, then the whole of the resources of heaven become open to us with the Father giving to us as we need.
Think about it… this is glorious!
When we have that relationship right – in the sense of recognising that we have nothing of ourselves and so we need to receive – then there is really no limit to what it is possible for us to receive.
There is an additional way to see this. If we submit to that dependency (poverty), in a similar way that little children are completely dependent on their parents for survival, then we are living as true children of the Father.
OK… then think about this. Our Father is the one who has the whole of creation and so the whole of heaven. He has already given it to our Big Brother, Jesus – who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We are princes and princesses, because we are adopted children into this great family. So heaven is our inheritance. And as part of the Bride of Christ, we will become spouse to the great ruler of it all.
But first things first: are you poor in spirit so that you can receive?
What is the first thing for you to receive? That is personal salvation! If you do not recognise your need for the saving grace shown in the great sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross, then how can you receive the forgiveness of God that was purchased in this way?
First come to Him, recognise how you can bring nothing because you have nothing. You can’t buy your way into heaven. You can’t work your way into heaven. The only way in is to come to the Lord humbly, recognising that you don’t deserve anything. Recognising that you have nothing of yourself that you can do or give to come before Him at all. Recognising that you need to be forgiven and humbly asking Him to forgive you and to receive and adopt you into His family. Recognising that you need the Lord to empower you to live a better life, to cleanse you from all unrighteousness. Recognising your lack of faith, in order to receive faith from Him…
Knowing you are empty, so that He can fill you with all you need for eternal life and to empower you for the miraculous and exciting Christian life that you are entering into.
Yes, truly blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven! Amen!