“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).
Poverty of spirit is a prerequisite to salvation and to victorious Christian living.
In Luke 18:9–14 Jesus tells of two men who went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee boasted to God about his self-righteous efforts; the tax collector humbly acknowledged his sin. The Pharisee was proud and went away still in sin; the tax collector was poor in spirit and went away forgiven.
The Greek word translated “poor” in Matthew 5:3 was used in classical Greek to refer to those reduced to cowering in dark corners of the city streets begging for handouts. Because they had no personal resources, they were totally dependent on the gifts of others. That same word is used in Luke 16:20 to describe a “poor” man named Lazarus.
The spiritual parallel pictures those who know they are spiritually helpless and utterly destitute of any human resources that will commend them to God. They rely totally on God’s grace for salvation, and they also rely on His grace for daily living. Jesus called them happy people because they are true believers and the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.
The word translated “theirs” in Matthew 5:3 is emphatic in the Greek text: the Kingdom of Heaven definitely belongs to those who are poor in spirit. They have its grace now and will fully enjoy its glory later (1 John 3:1–2). That’s cause for great joy!
Isaiah 57:15 says, “Thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, ‘I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” David added, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
Like the humble tax collector, recognize your weaknesses and rely totally on God’s resources. Then He will hear your prayers and minister to your needs. That’s where happiness begins!
Suggestions for Prayer: Thank God that when you come to Him in humility and contrition, He hears you and responds. ✧ Prayerfully guard your heart from the subtle influences of pride.
For Further Study: Read the following verses, noting God’s perspective on pride: Proverbs 6:16–17; 8:13; 11:2; 16:5, 18–19.
Happy Are the Humble
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:3)
The series of conditional blessings promised in Matthew 5:3–12 have long been called the Beatitudes, a name derived from Latin and referring to a state of happiness or bliss. Jesus presents the possibility of people being genuinely happy, and that available happiness is the opening theme of the Sermon on the Mount. Many people, including some Christians, find that hard to believe. How could a message as demanding and impossible as the Sermon on the Mount be intended to make people happy? Yet the first and greatest sermon preached by Jesus Christ begins with the resounding and repeated theme of happiness, a fitting start for the New Testament’s “good news.”
Far from being the cosmic killjoy that many accuse Him of being, God desires to save men from their tragic lostness, to give them power to obey His will, and to make them happy. In this great sermon, His Son carefully and clearly sets forth the way of blessedness for those who come to Him.
Makarios (blessed) means happy, fortunate, blissful. Homer used the word to describe a wealthy man, and Plato used it of one who is successful in business. Both Homer and Hesiod spoke of the Greek gods as being happy (makarios) within themselves, because they were unaffected by the world of men-who were subject to poverty, disease, weakness, misfortune, and death. The fullest meaning of the term, therefore, had to do with an inward contentedness that is not affected by circumstances. That is the kind of happiness God desires for His children, a state of joy and well-being that does not depend on physical, temporary circumstances (cf. Phil. 4:11–13).
The word blessed is often used of God Himself, as when David ended one of his psalms with the declaration “Blessed be God!” (Ps. 68:35). His son Solomon sang, “Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, who alone works wonders” (Ps. 72:18). Paul spoke of “the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11) and of Jesus Christ “who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (6:15). Blessedness is a characteristic of God, and it can be a characteristic of men only as they share in the nature of God. There is no blessedness, no perfect contentedness and joy of the sort of which Jesus speaks here, except that which comes from a personal relationship to Him, through whose “magnificent promises” we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).
Because blessedness is fundamentally an element of the character of God, when men partake of His nature through Jesus Christ they partake of His blessedness. So it becomes clear at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus is speaking of a reality that is only for believers. Others can see the kingdom standards and get a glimpse of kingdom blessings, but only those who belong to the kingdom have the promise of personally receiving and experiencing the blessings. To be blessed is not a superficial feeling of well-being based on circumstance, but a deep supernatural experience of contentedness based on the fact that one’s life is right with God. Blessedness is based on objective reality, realized in the miracle of transformation to a new and divine nature.
The Beatitudes seem paradoxical. The conditions and their corresponding blessings do not seem to match. By normal human standards such things as humility, mourning, desire for righteousness, mercy, and persecution are not the stuff of which happiness is made. To the natural man, and to the immature or carnal Christian, such happiness sounds like misery with another name. As one commentator has observed, it is much as if Jesus went into the great display window of life and changed all the price tags.
In a way, happiness is misery with another name; Jesus has changed the price tags. He teaches that misery endured for the right purpose and in the right way is the key to happiness. That basic principle summarizes the Beatitudes. The world says, “Happy are the rich, the noble, the successful, the macho, the glamorous, the popular, the famous, the aggressive.” But the message from the King does not fit the world’s standards, because His kingdom is not of this world but of heaven. His way to happiness, which is the only way to true happiness, is by a much different route.
Seneca, the first-century Roman philosopher who tutored Nero, wisely wrote, “What is more shameful than to equate the rational soul’s good with that which is irrational?” His point was that you cannot satisfy a rational, personal need with an irrational, impersonal object. External things cannot satisfy internal needs.
Yet that is exactly the philosophy of the world: things satisfy. Acquiring things brings happiness, achieving things brings meaning, doing things brings satisfaction.
Solomon, the wisest and most magnificent of ancient kings, tried the world’s way to happiness for many years. He had the royal blood of his father, David, coursing through his veins. He had vast amounts of gold and jewels and “made silver as common as stones in Jerusalem” (1 Kings 10:27). He had fleets of ships and stables filled with thousands of the finest horses. He had hundreds of wives, gathered from the most beautiful women of many lands. He ate the most sumptuous of foods on the finest of tableware in the most elegant of palaces with the most distinguished people. He was acclaimed throughout the world for his wisdom, power, and wealth. Solomon should have been immeasurably happy. Yet that king, so great and blessed by earthly standards, concluded that his life was purposeless and empty. The theme of Ecclesiastes, Solomon’s personal testimony on the human situation, is “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?” (1:2–3).
Jesus came to announce that the tree of happiness cannot grow in a cursed earth. Earthly things cannot bring even lasting earthly happiness, much less eternal happiness. “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed,” Jesus warned; “for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Physical things simply cannot touch the soul, the inner person.
It should be pointed out that the opposite is also true: spiritual things cannot satisfy physical needs. When someone is hungry he needs food, not a lecture on grace. When he is hurt he needs medical attention, not moral advice. True spiritual concern for such people will express itself first of all in providing for their physical needs. “Whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17).
But the more common danger is trying to meet almost every need with physical things. That philosophy is as futile as it is unscriptural. When King Saul was distressed, his jewels and his army could give him no help. When King Belshazzar was having a great feast with his nobles, wives, and concubines, he suddenly saw a hand writing on the wall, “mene , mene , tekel , upharsin .” He was so terrified that his “face grew pale, and his thoughts alarmed him; and his hip joints went slack, and his knees began knocking together.” His military power, his influential allies, and his great possessions could give him no solace (Dan. 5:3–6, 25).
The great Puritan saint Thomas Watson wrote, “The things of the world will no more keep out trouble of spirit, than a paper sconce will keep out a bullet. … Worldly delights are winged. They may be compared to a flock of birds in the garden, that stay a little while, but when you come near to them they take their flight and are gone. So ‘riches make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven’ ” (The Beatitudes [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1971], p. 27). The writer of Proverbs said, “Do not weary yourself to gain wealth, cease from your consideration of it. When you set your eyes on it, it is gone” (Prov. 23:4–5).
Tragically, many preachers, teachers, and writers today “who must be silenced” (Titus 1:11) are passing off worldly philosophy in the name of Christianity-claiming that faithfulness to Christ guarantees health, wealth, success, prestige, and prosperity. But Jesus taught no such thing. What He taught was nearer the opposite. He warned that physical, worldly advantages most often limit true happiness. The things of the world become fuel for pride, lust, and self-satisfaction-the enemies not only of righteousness but of happiness. “The worry of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful,” Jesus said (Matt. 13:22).
To expect happiness from the things of this world is like seeking the living among the dead, just as the women sought Christ at the garden tomb on that first Easter morning. The angels told the women, “He is not here, but He has risen” (Luke 24:6). Paul said, “If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1–2). John said, “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. … And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15, 17).
True blessedness is on a higher level than anything in the world, and it is to that level that the Sermon on the Mount takes us. Here is a completely new way of life, based on a completely new way of thinking. It is in fact based on a new way of being. The standard of righteousness, and therefore the standard of happiness, is the standard of selflessness-a standard that is completely opposite to man’s fallen impulses and unregenerate nature.
It is impossible to follow Jesus’ new way of living without having His new life within. As someone has suggested, one might as well try in our own day to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that in the Millennium the wolf, lamb, leopard, kid, lion, and cow will live together peaceably (Isa. 11:6–7). If we were to go to a zoo and lecture a lion on the new peaceable way he was expected to live, and then placed a lamb in the cage with him, we know exactly what would happen as soon as the lion became hungry. The lion will not lie down peaceably with the lamb until the day when the lion’s nature is changed.
It is important to remember that the Beatitudes are pronouncements, not probabilities. Jesus does not say that if men have the qualities of humility, meekness, and so on that they are more likely to be happy. Nor is happiness simply Jesus’ wish for His disciples. The Beatitudes are divine judgmental pronouncements, just as surely as are the “woes” of chapter 23. Makarios is, in fact, the opposite of ouai (woe), an interjection that connotes pain or calamity. The opposite of the blessed life is the cursed life. The blessed life is represented by the true inner righteousness of those who are humble, poor in spirit, whereas the cursed life is represented by the outward, hypocritical self-righteousness of the proud religionists (5:20).
The Beatitudes are progressive. As will be seen as each one is discussed in detail, they are not in a random or haphazard order. Each leads to the other in logical succession. Being poor in spirit reflects the right attitude we should have to our sinful condition, which then should lead us to mourn, to be meek and gentle, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, pure in heart, and have a peacemaking spirit. A Christian who has all those qualities will be so far above the level of the world that his life will rebuke the world-which will bring persecution from the world (5:10–12) and light to the world (vv. 14–16).
3 Two words and their cognates stand behind “blessed” and “blessing” in the NT. The word used in vv. 3–11 is makarios (GK 3421), which usually corresponds in the LXX to, ʾas̆rê (GK 897), a Hebrew term used almost as an interjection: “Oh the blessednesses [pl.] of.” Usually makarios describes the person who is singularly favored by God and therefore in some sense “happy”; but the word can apply to God (1 Ti 1:11; 6:15). The other word is eulogētos (GK 2329), found in the LXX primarily for Hebrew berākâ (GK 1388) and used chiefly in connection with God in both OT and NT (e.g., Mk 14:61; Lk 1:68; Ro 1:25; 2 Co 1:3). Eulogētos does not occur in Matthew; but the cognate verb appears five times (Mt 14:19; 21:9; 23:39; 25:34; 26:26), in one of which it applies to man (25:34), not God or Christ. Attempts to make makarios mean “happy” and eulogētos “blessed” (Broadus) are therefore futile. Though both appear many times, both can apply to either God or man. It is difficult not to conclude that their common factor is approval: man “blesses” God, approving and praising him; God “blesses” man, approving him in gracious condescension. Applied to man, the OT words are certainly synonymous (cf. THAT, 1:356).
As for “happy” (TEV), it will not do for the beatitudes, having been devalued in modern usage. The Greek “describes a state not of inner feeling on the part of those to whom it is applied, but of blessedness from an ideal point of view in the judgment of others” (Allen). In the eschatological setting of Matthew, “blessed” can only promise eschatological blessing (cf. NIDNTT, 1:216–17; TDNT, 4:367–70); and each particular blessing is specified by the second clause of each beatitude.
The “poor in spirit” are the ones who are “blessed.” Since Luke speaks simply of “the poor,” many have concluded that he preserves the true teaching of the historical Jesus—concern for the economically destitute—while Matthew has “spiritualized” it by adding “in spirit.” The issue is not so simple. Already in the OT, “the poor” has religious overtones. The word ptōchos (“poor”—in classical Gr., “beggar,” GK 4777) has a different force in the LXX and NT. It translates several Hebrew words, most important (in the plural) ʿanāwîm (“the poor,” the plural of GK 6705; see also GK 6714), i.e., those who because of sustained economic privation and social distress have confidence only in God (e.g., Pss 37:14; 40:17; 69:28–29, 32–33; Pr 16:19 [NIV, “the oppressed”; NASB, “the lowly”]; 29:23; Isa 61:1; cf. Pss. Sol. 5:2, 11; 10:7). Thus it joins with passages affirming God’s favor on the lowly and contrite in spirit (e.g., Isa 57:15; 66:2). This does not mean there is lack of concern for the materially poor but that poverty itself is not the chief thing (cf. the prodigal son’s “self-made” poverty). Far from conferring spiritual advantage, wealth and privilege entail great spiritual peril (see comments at 6:24; 19:23–24). Yet, though poverty is neither a blessing nor a guarantee of spiritual rewards, it can be turned to advantage if it fosters humility before God.
That this is the way to interpret v. 3 is confirmed by similar expressions in the Dead Sea Scrolls (esp. 1QM 11:9; 14:6–7; 1QS 4:3; 1QH 5:22). “Poor” and “righteous” become almost equivalent in Sirach 13:17–21; CD 19:9; 4QpPs (37) 2:8–11 (cf. Schweizer; Bonnard; Dodd, “New Testament Translation Problems I,” 307–10). These parallels do not prove literary dependence, but they do show that Matthew’s “poor in spirit” rightly interprets Luke’s “poor” (cf. Gundry, Use of the Old Testament, 69–71). In rabbinic circles, too, meekness and poverty of spirit were highly praised (cf. Felix Böhl, “Die Demut als höchste der Tugenden,” BZ 20 : 217–23).
Yet biblical balance is easy to prostitute. The emperor Julian the Apostate (AD 332–63) is reputed to have said with vicious irony that he wanted to confiscate Christians’ property so that they might all become poor and enter the kingdom of heaven. On the other hand, the wealthy too easily dismiss Jesus’ teaching about poverty here and elsewhere (see comments at 6:24) as merely attitudinal and confuse their hoarding with good stewardship. R. T. France (“God and Mammon,” 3–21) presents a fine balance in these matters.
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. Therefore those who interpret the Sermon on the Mount as law and not gospel—whether by H. Windisch’s historical reconstructions (The Meaning of the Sermon on the Mount [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1951] or by classical dispensationalism (cf. Carson, Sermon on the Mount, 155–57), which calls the sermon “pure law” (though it concedes that its principles have a “beautiful moral application” for the Christian)—stumble at the first sentence (cf. Stott, Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 36–38). The kingdom of heaven is not given on the basis of race (cf. 3:9), earned merits, the military zeal and prowess of Zealots, or the wealth of a Zacchaeus. It is given to the poor, the despised publicans, the prostitutes, those who are so “poor” they know they can offer nothing and do not try. They cry for mercy, and they alone are heard.
These themes recur repeatedly in Matthew and present the sermon’s ethical demands in a setting that does not treat the resulting conduct as conditions for entrance to the kingdom that people themselves can achieve. All must begin by confessing that by themselves they can achieve nothing. Fuller disclosures of the gospel in the years beyond Jesus’ earthly ministry do not change this; in the last book of the canon, an established church must likewise recognize its precarious position when it claims to be rich and fails to see its own poverty (Rev 3:14–22).
The kingdom of heaven (see comments at 3:2; 4:17) belongs to the poor in spirit. It is they who enjoy Messiah’s reign and the blessings he brings. They joyfully accept his rule and participate in the life of the kingdom (7:14). The reward in the last beatitude is the same as in the first. The literary structure, an “inclusio” or envelope, establishes that everything included within it concerns the kingdom: i.e., the blessings of the intervening beatitudes are kingdom blessings, and the beatitudes themselves are kingdom norms.
While the rewards of vv. 4–9 are future (“will be comforted,” “will inherit,” etc.), the first and last are present (“for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”). Yet one must not make too much of this, for the present tense can function as a future, and the future tense emphasizes expectation, not mere futurity. There is little doubt that here the kingdom sense is primarily future, postconsummation, made explicit in v. 12. But the present tense “envelope” (vv. 3, 10) should not be written off as insignificant or as masking an Aramaic original that did not specify present or future, for Matthew must have meant something when he chose estin (“is”) instead of estai (“will be”). The natural conclusion is that, though the full blessedness of those described in these beatitudes awaits the consummated kingdom, they already share in the kingdom’s blessedness so far as it has been inaugurated (see comments at 4:17; 8:29; 12:28; 19:29).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1993). Drawing Near—Daily Readings for a Deeper Faith (p. 106). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 140–145). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 161–162). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.