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).
The Poor in Spirit
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:3)
Discussion of this first beatitude demands that it be looked at from five perspectives: the meaning of poor in spirit, the location of this virtue in the list, the way to achieve that attitude, how to know if we have that attitude, and the result promised for having it.
the meaning of poor in spirit
Ptōchos (poor) is from a verb meaning “to shrink, cower, or cringe,” as beggars often did in that day. Classical Greek used the word to refer to a person reduced to total destitution, who crouched in a corner begging. As he held out one hand for alms he often hid his face with the other hand, because he was ashamed of being recognized. The term did not mean simply poor, but begging poor. It is used in Luke 16:20 to describe the beggar Lazarus.
The word commonly used for ordinary poverty was penichros, and is used of the widow Jesus saw giving an offering in the Temple. She had very little, but she did have “two small copper coins” (Luke 21:2). She was poor but not a beggar. One who is penichros poor has at least some meager resources. One who is ptōchos poor, however, is completely dependent on others for sustenance. He has absolutely no means of self-support.
Because of a similar statement in Luke 6:20—“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”—some interpreters have maintained that the beatitude of Matthew 5:3 teaches material poverty. But sound hermeneutics (the interpretation of Scripture) requires that, when two or more passages are similar but not exactly alike, the clearer one explains the others, the more explicit clarifies the less explicit. By comparing Scripture with Scripture we see that the Matthew account is the more explicit. Jesus is speaking of a spiritual poverty that corresponds to the material poverty of one who is ptōchos.
If Jesus were here advocating material poverty He would have contradicted many other parts of His Word—including the Sermon on the Mount itself (5:42)—that teach us to give financial help to the poor. 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.
Those who are materially poor do have some advantages in spiritual matters by not having certain distractions and temptations; and the materially rich have some disadvantage by having certain distractions and temptations. But material possessions have no necessary relationship to spiritual blessings. Matthew makes clear that Jesus is here talking about the condition of the spirit, not of the wallet.
After He began His public ministry, Jesus often had “nowhere to lay His head” (Matt. 8:20), but He and His disciples were not destitute and never begged for bread. Paul was beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, stoned, and often economically hard pressed; but neither did he ever beg for bread. It was, in fact, a badge of honor for him that he worked in order to pay his own expenses in the ministry (Acts 20:34; 1 Cor. 9:6–18). The Lord and the apostles were accused of being ignorant, troublemakers, irreligious, and even mad; but they were never charged with being indigent or beggars.
On the other hand, no New Testament believer is condemned for being rich. Nicodemus, the Roman centurion of Luke 7, Joseph of Arimathea, and Philemon were all wealthy and faithful. That “not many mighty, not many noble” are called (1 Cor. 1:26) is not because they are rejected due to their positions or possessions but because so many of them trust only in those things (1 Tim. 6:6–17).
To be poor is spirit is to recognize one’s spiritual poverty apart from God. It is to see oneself as one really is: lost, hopeless, helpless. Apart from Jesus Christ every person is spiritually destitute, no matter what his education, wealth, social status, accomplishments, or religious knowledge.
That is the point of the first beatitude. The poor in spirit are those who recognize their total spiritual destitution and their complete dependence on God. They perceive that there are no saving resources in themselves and that they can only beg for mercy and grace. They know they have no spiritual merit, and they know they can earn no spiritual reward. Their pride is gone, their self-assurance is gone, and they stand empty-handed before God.
In spirit also conveys the sense that the recognition of poverty is genuine, not an act. It does not refer to outwardly acting like a spiritual beggar, but to recognizing what one really is. It is true humility, not mock humility. It describes the person about whom the Lord speaks in Isaiah 66:2—“To this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.” It describes the person who is “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18), who has “a broken and a contrite heart” before the Lord (Ps. 51:17).
Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer to “certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” As the Pharisee stood praying in the Temple, he proudly recited his virtues and gave thanks that he was not like those who are sinful, especially the tax-gatherer who was nearby. The tax-gatherer, however, “was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me, the sinner!’ ” The tax-gatherer, Jesus said, “went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:9–14). The Pharisee was proud in spirit; the tax-gatherer was poor in spirit.
When God called Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt, Moses pleaded his unworthiness, and God was able to use him mightily. Peter was still aggressive, self-assertive, and proud, but when Jesus miraculously provided the great catch of fish, Peter was so overawed that he confessed, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8). Even after he became an apostle, Paul recognized that “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18), that he was the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), and that the best things he could do in himself were rubbish (Phil. 3:8).
In his Confessions Augustine makes clear that pride was his greatest barrier to receiving the gospel. He was proud of his intellect, his wealth, and his prestige. Until he recognized that those things were less than nothing, Christ could do nothing for him. Until Martin Luther realized that all his sacrifice, rituals, and self-abuse counted for nothing before God, he could find no way to come to God or to please Him.
Even at Sinai, when the law was given, it was evident that God’s own chosen people could not fulfill its demands on their own. As Moses was receiving the law on the mountain, Aaron was leading the people in a pagan orgy in the valley below (Ex. 32:1–6).
Israelites who were spiritually sensitive knew they needed God’s power to keep God’s law. In humility they confessed their helplessness and pleaded for His mercy and strength. David began his great penitential psalm with the plea “Be gracious to me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness; according to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions.… For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:1, 3).
Other Israelites, however, took another approach to the law. Knowing they could not fulfill its demands, they simply brought the law down to a level that was more manageable and acceptable. They piled interpretation upon interpretation, creating man-made traditions that were possible to keep in the flesh. Those traditions came to be known as the Talmud, a commentary on the law that leading rabbis developed over many centuries and that eventually superseded the law in the minds of most Jews. They exchanged the Torah (God’s revealed law) for the Talmud (man’s modification of the law). In the name of interpreting and protecting the law they contradicted and weakened it. They brought God’s standards down to men’s standards—which they could keep without God’s help. They then taught as doctrine those precepts of men (Matt. 15:9). They made the fatal error of thinking that God was less holy than He is and that they were more holy than they were. The result was the illusion that they were sufficiently righteous to please God.
Traditions have to do with what we can see and measure. They involve only the outer man, whereas God’s law involved the whole man. The Ten Commandments cannot be fulfilled simply by doing or not doing outward acts. They not only forbid making idols but also require love of God (Ex. 20:4, 6). Honoring father and mother is first of all an attitude, a matter of the heart, as is covetousness (vv. 12, 17).
Every thoughtful Jew knew that God’s law was far above his own human power to obey. The proud and self-satisfied responded by diluting the law. The humble and penitent responded by calling to God for help.
If God’s Old Testament standards are impossible for man to meet by himself, how much less attainable by one’s own power are the standards of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus here teaches not only that people must love God but that they “are to be perfect, as [their] heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48), and that unless their righteousness exceeds the external, man-originated “righteousness … of the scribes and Pharisees, [they] shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20).
why humility is first
Jesus puts this beatitude first because humility is the foundation of all other graces, a basic element in becoming a Christian (Matt. 18:3–4). Pride has no part in Christ’s kingdom, and until a person surrenders pride he cannot enter the kingdom. The door into His kingdom is low, and no one who stands tall will ever go through it. We cannot be filled until we are empty; we cannot be made worthy until we recognize our unworthiness; we cannot live until we admit we are dead. We might as well expect fruit to grow without a tree as to expect the other graces of the Christian life to grow without humility. We cannot begin the Christian life without humility, and we cannot live the Christian life with pride.
Yet in the church today there is little emphasis on humility, little mention of self-emptying. We see many Christian books on how to be happy, how to be successful, how to overcome problems, and on and on. But we see very few books on how to empty ourselves, how to deny ourselves, and how to take up our crosses and follow Jesus—in the way that He tells us to follow Him.
Until a soul is humbled, until the inner person is poor in spirit, Christ can never become dear, because He is obscured by self. Until one knows how helpless, worthless, and sinful he is in himself, he can never see how mighty, worthy, and glorious Christ is in Himself. Until one sees how doomed he is, he cannot see what a Redeemer the Lord is. Until one sees his own poverty he cannot see God’s riches. Only when one admits to his own deadness can Christ give him His life. “Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 16:5).
Being poor in spirit is the first beatitude because humility must precede everything else. No one can receive the kingdom until he recognizes that he is unworthy of the kingdom. The church in Laodicea said proudly, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” not knowing that she was instead “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Those who refuse to recognize that they are lost and helpless are like the blind Roman slave girl who insisted that she was not blind but that the world was permanently dark.
Where self is exalted, Christ cannot be. Where self is king, Christ cannot be. Until the proud in spirit become poor in spirit, they cannot receive the King or inherit His kingdom.
How, then, do we become poor in spirit? Almost by definition, it cannot start with us, with anything we can do or accomplish in our own power. Nor does it involve putting ourselves down. We are already down; humility simply recognizes the truth. And simply being hopeless, helpless, and in need obviously is no virtue. That is not God’s will for anyone. His will is to get us out of that condition and into blessing. The fulfillment of that goal depends on His sovereign, gracious work of humbling.
Humility is not a necessary human work to make us worthy, but a necessary divine work to make us see that we are unworthy and cannot change our condition without God. That is why monasticism, asceticism, physical self-denial, mutilation, and other such self-efforts are so foolish and futile. They feed pride rather than subdue it, because they are works of the flesh. They give a person a reason to boast in what he has done or not done. Such self-imposed efforts are enemies of humility.
Yet even though genuine humility is produced by the Lord as an element of the work of salvation, it is also commanded of men. There are numerous divine commands to humble oneself (Matt. 18:4; 23:12; James 4:10; 1 Pet. 5:5), which the Lord perfectly harmonizes with His sovereign work of humbling. Sovereign saving work is never without personal cooperation. Because of that it is helpful to look at some of the steps from the human side of the divine paradox.
The first step in experiencing humility is to turn our eyes off ourselves and to look to God. When we study His Word, seek His face in prayer, and sincerely desire to be near Him and please Him, we move toward being poor in spirit. It is the vision of the infinitely Holy God in all His sinless purity and perfection that allows us to see ourselves as sinners by contrast. To seek humility, we do not look at ourselves to find the faults, but at God Almighty to behold His perfection.
Second, we must starve the flesh by removing the things on which it feeds. The essence of the fleshly nature is pride, and to starve the flesh is to remove and avoid those things that promote pride. Rather than looking for praise, compliments, and popularity, we should we be wary of them. Yet because our human sinfulness has a way of turning even the best intentions to its advantage, we need to be careful not to make an issue of avoiding praise and recognition. The evil is not in being given praise but in seeking it and glorying in it. When, without having sought it, we are praised or honored, to ungraciously reject the recognition may be an act of pride rather than of humility.
The third and balancing principle in coming to humility is asking God for it. With David we should pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). Humility, like every other good gift, comes only from God. Also as with every other good thing, He is more willing to give it than we are to ask for it, and He stands ready to give it long before we ask for it.
knowing when we are humble
How can we know if we are genuinely humble, if we are poor in spirit? Thomas Watson gives seven principles we may apply in determining humility.*
First, if we are humble we will be weaned from ourselves. We will be able to say with David, “My soul is like a weaned child within me” (Ps. 131:2). One who is poor in spirit loses his self-preoccupation. Self is nothing, and Christ is everything. Paul’s humility is nowhere more beautifully expressed than in his saying, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). To the Philippian believers he wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Second, humility will lead us to be lost in the wonder of Christ, “with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, … being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). Our satisfaction will be in the prospect of one day being fully in the likeness of our Lord.
Third, we will not complain about our situation, no matter how bad it may become. Because we know we deserve worse than anything we can experience in this life, we will consider no circumstance to be unfair. When tragedy comes we will not say, “Why me, Lord?” When our suffering is for Christ’s sake we not only will not complain or feel ashamed but will glorify God for it (1 Pet. 4:16), knowing that we will “also be glorified with Him” and realizing “that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:17–18).
Fourth, we will more clearly see the strengths and virtues of others as well as our own weaknesses and sins. With “humility of mind” we will “regard one another as more important than [ourselves]” (Phil. 2:3) and will “give preference to one another in honor” (Rom. 12:10).
Fifth, we will spend much time in prayer. Just as the physical beggar begs for physical sustenance, the spiritual beggar begs for spiritual. We will knock often at heaven’s gate because we are always in need. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, we will not let go until we are blessed.
Sixth, we will take Christ on His terms, not on ours or any other. We will not try to have Christ while keeping our pride, our pleasures, our covetousness, or our immorality. We will not modify His standards by ecclesiastical traditions or by our own inclinations or persuasions. His Word alone will be our standard.
Watson said, “A castle that has long been besieged and is ready to be taken will deliver up on any terms to save their lives. He whose heart has been a garrison for the devil, and has held out long in opposition against Christ, when once God has brought him to poverty of spirit and he sees himself damned without Christ, let God propound what articles he will, he will readily subscribe to them. Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’ ” (p. 47).
Seventh, when we are poor in spirit we will praise and thank God for His grace. Nothing more characterizes the humble believer than abounding gratitude to his Lord and Savior. He knows that he has no blessings and no happiness but that which the Father gives in love and grace. He knows that God’s grace is “more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:14).
the result of being poor in spirit
Those who come to the King in this humility inherit His kingdom, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. God has gladly chosen to give the kingdom to those who humbly come to Him and trust Him (Luke 12:32).
When the Lord called Gideon to deliver Israel from the Midianites, Gideon replied, “O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house”—to which God answered, “Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man” (Judg. 6:15–16). When Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted,” he cried in despair, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips.” Then an attending seraph touched the prophet’s mouth with a burning coal and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven” (Isa. 6:1, 5–7).
Those who come to the Lord with broken hearts do not leave with broken hearts. “For 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’ ” (Isa. 57:15). God wants us to recognize our poverty so that He can make us rich. He wants us to recognize our lowliness so that He can raise us up. “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord,” James says, “and He will exalt you” (James 4:10).
In giving up their own kingdom, the poor in spirit inherit God’s.
How to Inherit God’s Kingdom
I do not know much about Sophie Tucker, the actress, but years ago I heard a statement of hers that I have remembered. She was being asked about her early struggles for success and whether or not she had found a certain special happiness in her years of poverty. She answered, “Listen, I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. And believe me, rich is better.” For years I have found this remark interesting. And I remember it now because it seems to be the direct opposite of the first great principle taught by the Lord Jesus Christ about how you and I can find happiness.
Poverty of Spirit
In all fairness to Sophie Tucker, however, I must admit that when Jesus Christ was talking about poverty of spirit he was not talking about poverty in the same sense that most of us talk about it. He was not talking about the opposite of being materially rich. This is the sense in which many commentators on Matthew’s Gospel have taken Christ’s saying, but this is not its true meaning. There would be some justification for this interpretation if Luke’s version of the Beatitudes was all that we possessed in our Bibles, for Luke reports Jesus as saying: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). This could be material poverty, but it is not; for Matthew rules out this meaning by quoting Christ’s full saying. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” To be poor in spirit is to be poor in the inward man, not in outward circumstances. Consequently, to be poor in spirit is to recognize one’s poverty spiritually before God.
If it were true that Matthew 5:3 refers to material poverty, then it would be an unchristian thing for a Christian or any other person to seek to alleviate the burdens of the destitute and the starving. It would mean seeking to abolish that which actually brings them closer to God and to his happiness. If this were the meaning, it would not be right to attempt to relieve those who are starving in war-torn countries. It would not be right to try and provide for the refugees left homeless by natural calamities. There could be no social programs within the Christian churches. There could be no orphanages, no hospitals or inner city missions. None of these things would be Christian if this verse taught that spiritual blessedness was to be derived from material poverty.
Fortunately, the verse does not say that at all. And what is equally important, God does not sanction poverty in any other biblical passage either. It is true that there are verses that teach that sometimes riches can be a bad thing. Christ said that it is often hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. A person can be so caught up in the material things of this world that he can miss God’s spiritual benefits. That is true. But if it is true that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, it is true that it is sometimes difficult for a poor person to enter also, for the poor man can be equally materialistic. No, the first beatitude is not talking about either material riches or material poverty.
It is not talking about the “poor in spirit” in the sense of being poor-spirited, either. A poor-spirited person is a person who lacks drive and enthusiasm for life. There are many Christians who seem to be like this. But this is not endorsed by Christ’s teaching. David was the one man in all the Bible who was called a man after God’s own heart, and there was not a more ambitious or successful man in all of Israel’s history. David was a man who entered vigorously into the affairs of his day. He forged a nation out of diverse and mutually jealous tribes, and he united them successfully enough to be able to drive off all the surrounding nations that desired to conquer Israel. David was not poor-spirited! And yet, he epitomized, perhaps far more than any other character in history, what Jesus meant when he said that his followers were to be poor in spirit before God.
What exactly did Jesus mean? We can see the answer to this question when we recognize that being poor in spirit is the opposite of being rich in pride. In fact, you might say that being poor in spirit is to be spiritually bankrupt before God. It is the mental state of the man who has recognized something of the righteousness and holiness of God, who has seen into the sin and corruption of his own heart, and has acknowledged his inability to please God. Such a person is poor in spirit. It is to such a person, Jesus said, that the kingdom of heaven belongs. Seen in this way, the first of the eight Beatitudes is one of the strongest statements in the Bible of the great doctrine of justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone, for it is a statement of a person’s complete inability to please God by any human effort.
This first great teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is one that can be spelled out more clearly in a number of related propositions. The first is this: we must recognize as a first principle for understanding the Sermon on the Mount that we cannot fulfill the standards of the Sermon on the Mount by ourselves. The Sermon on the Mount was not given so that a man could say to himself, “Come on, old chap, I guess we’ll just have to try harder to pull you up by your bootstraps.” This cannot be done. Paradoxically, Jesus teaches that the Sermon on the Mount is only for those who know that they cannot live by it.
Have you ever recognized this same fact about the law of God given in the Old Testament? It was not given by God so that a person might fulfill it, or some of it, and then congratulate himself on how well he is doing. It was given to drive a man to God for God’s mercy.
This is clearly demonstrated in the first giving of the law on Mount Sinai. The people of Israel had asked for the law, and God had called Moses up into the mountain to receive it. There, Moses was told that there were to be no other gods before the one true God of Israel. There were to be no idols. There was to be no greed, no adultery, no murder, no breaking of the Sabbath day, and so on. But while the precepts of the law were being given to Moses on the top of Mount Sinai, the people who had come with him out of Egypt were down in the valley doing the very things that God was forbidding. And so, right at the beginning of Israel’s history we have a demonstration that the standards of God’s righteousness cannot be achieved by sinful human beings.
In time the people of Israel recognized this truth. And those who submitted to it came to God humbly, confessing their sin, and availing themselves of the cleansing God had provided through the sacrifices. Those who would not submit to this truth and who, instead, boasted and wished to boast in their own self-righteousness, sought to whittle the high standards of the law down to the low level of their own performance. They did this by interpreting and reinterpreting it. Under the direction of the scribes a series of supplementary commandments was added to the law which had the effect of lowering its requirements, although they would not acknowledge this. Actually, the rabbis said that they were putting a “hedge” about the Torah. This meant that they were constructing a series of safeguard commandments around the central, God-given commandment, so that anyone who came close to breaking it would be warned before he did so and thus be kept from sinning. In practice, however, this meant only that the individual could tell himself that he had kept the Sabbath if he did not travel more than a Sabbath day’s journey, did not cook in his home, did not work in the field, and so on. And it was possible for him to escape entirely the far more important demands upon his mind and conduct that in God’s view actually made the day holy.
This was the situation in Jesus’ day, and the result was that Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of the religious people directly. Jesus said, “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” (Matt. 5:20). And he ended the first great section of the Sermon on the Mount with the categorical statement, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). In other words, Jesus was saying, “Even though you may have kept the commandments of Rabbi Hillel, Rabbi Jehuda, or Rabbi Jose, that does not necessarily mean that you have kept the commandments of God. And the purpose of those commandments is actually to show you that you have not kept them and that you will never be able to keep them.”
Years later the apostle Paul came along and spelled out this teaching for his churches. He wrote, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom. 3:19–20). All the verses which I have quoted boil down to this: the one thing that the law cannot do is to make a man righteous before God. Rather, it condemns him. Consequently, if we are ever to understand the ethical teachings of Jesus Christ, we must recognize as a first great principle that we just cannot abide by them. And we must come in faith to the only One who did fulfill them and who alone can fulfill them in those who give their lives to him.
Let me illustrate the truth in this way. To preach the standards of the Sermon on the Mount to persons who are unregenerate and who do not have Christ’s nature within them is a bit like preaching the prophecies about the bliss of the millennium in Isaiah to the animal world. The eleventh chapter of Isaiah says that when Jesus Christ will return to this world to set up a holy kingdom, all things will be made right. Sin will be stopped, and even in nature the wolf will dwell with the lamb. Well, try practicing that today. I have been to the zoo often enough to know that a lamb wandering into a wolf’s cage would be dinner with wool on—no matter how many preachers were reading the eleventh chapter of Isaiah to the wolf. If the prophecy is to be fulfilled, it is necessary for the wolf to have a new nature. And so, too, if the law is to be fulfilled in us it is necessary for us to have a new nature. We need to recognize as a first principle of Christian ethics that a new nature, given by the Lord Jesus Christ, is prerequisite.
The second great principle suggested by Matthew 5:3 is that there must be an emptying in our lives before there can be a filling. We must become poor in spirit before we can become rich in God’s spiritual blessings. The old wine must be poured out of the wineskins before the new wine can be poured in.
Right back at the beginning of the Lord’s earthly life Simeon acknowledged this in a prophecy made to Mary and Joseph when they appeared in Jerusalem for the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple. Simeon said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34). Notice the order: first the fall, then the rising again. In other words, the emptying comes before the filling, repentance before conversion, a recognition of worthlessness in God’s sight before acceptance of his salvation.
This is what all God’s children have found. It was known to St. Augustine. Before his conversion, the future Bishop of Hippo was proud of his intellect and knowledge, and these things actually held him back from believing. It was only after he had emptied himself of his pride and his sense of being able to manage his own life that he found God’s perfect wisdom through Scripture. Luther’s experience was similar. When the future German reformer entered the monastery at a young age his purpose was to earn his own salvation through piety and good works. Nevertheless, he experienced an acute sense of failure. It was only after he recognized his own inability to please God and emptied himself of all attempts to earn his salvation that God touched his heart and showed him the true meaning of salvation by grace through faith. Then Luther became the great reformer of the Church. In the same way a modern hymn writer has written:
But tho’ I cannot sing, or tell, or know
The fullness of Thy love, while here below,
My empty vessel I may freely bring:
O Thou, who art of love the living spring,
My vessel fill.
I am an empty vessel—not one thought
Or look of love, I ever to Thee brought;
Yet I may come, and come again to Thee,
With this, the empty sinner’s only plea—
Thou lovest me.
An empty vessel! “I am an empty vessel.” If you will say that, then God will fill you with the life of Jesus Christ—supernaturally—and you will begin to live the standards of the Sermon on the Mount by the power of the One who gave them and who himself lived them perfectly in this world.
Confronted by God
There is only one more observation that needs to be added to these comments on the first beatitude. I have said that there must be an emptying of a person before there can be a filling by God. There must be a true poverty of spirit. But this is unnatural to man, and, therefore, impossible. We must, therefore, add that nothing but a direct confrontation with the holy, just, and loving God will produce it.
You see, it is never possible to create a true poverty of spirit by looking within or by looking around at other people. The human heart is corrupt. And because of it you will always latch upon someone who is worse in some respect than you. You will find someone who is prouder than you are, and although you may still be quite proud you will congratulate yourself on being humble. You will find someone who has strong fits of temper, and although you too have a temper you will congratulate yourself on being more moderate in your temper than he. So it will go with all the failings that make you less perfect than Jesus Christ and therefore the fit object of his mercy and salvation.
And yet, you need not look to other men for the basis of a self-evaluation. You may look to God as you see him reflected in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. There you will learn a true humility, a true sense of need, and the result will be beneficial. You will say as Isaiah did when he saw God, “ ‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty’ ” (Isa. 6:5). C. S. Lewis once wrote of this experience, “Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.”
As we proceed in our studies of the Beatitudes I am sure that both of those things will happen. But one other thing will happen also. We shall see more and more of Jesus, the One who is himself the Sermon on the Mount, and we shall be drawn increasingly closer to him.
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).
3 “Poor in spirit” recalls the ʿanîyîm or ʿanāwîm, the “poor/meek” of the Psalms (see above section 5), who, while they do experience material poverty, are also, and primarily, presented as God’s faithful people, humbly dependent on his protection in the face of the oppression which they endure from the ungodly rich. For “poor in spirit” cf. also Isa 66:2, “the poor/humble (ʿānî) and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.” “Poor” continues to be used in this positive sense in later Jewish literature, particularly the Psalms of Solomon and the Qumran literature (where the phrase ʿanîyî-rûaḥ, “the poor in spirit” occurs in a similar sense, 1QM 14:7; cf. rûaḥ ʿanāwâ, “a spirit of meekness”, 1QS 4:3). The bold NEB translation of this verse, “How blest are those who know their need of God,” while it may have been too specific (and was abandoned by REB), well reflects this background of thought. “Poverty in spirit” is not speaking of weakness of character (“mean-spiritedness”) but rather of a person’s relationship with God. It is a positive spiritual orientation,22 the converse of the arrogant self-confidence which not only rides roughshod over the interests of other people but more importantly causes a person to treat God as irrelevant. To say that it is to such people that the kingdom of heaven belongs means (not of course that they themselves hold royal authority but) that they are the ones who gladly accept God’s rule and who therefore enjoy the benefits which come to his subjects. The second clause of v. 3, repeated in v. 10 (see above section 3), thus establishes the general context for the more specific blessings promised in vv. 4–9. This is the “good news of the kingdom” (v. 23) announced in v. 17, and poverty of spirit is the product of the repentance which was there declared to be the appropriate response to the coming of God’s reign.
5:3 Blessed are. These words begin Jesus’ announcement of blessing upon the most unlikely audience: those who are destitute, grief-stricken, oppressed, and longing for justice (see below). Two contextual frames help the contemporary reader hear these beatitudes (blessings) along the lines of a first-century audience. First, the broader Greco-Roman world of the first century was highly conscious of status, producing a stratified social system based on various kinds of status (e.g., rich over poor, aristocratic over peasant, male over female, free over slave). Various words and phrases in the beatitudes are best understood from this context and can be described as status language, even though a contemporary reader may not initially hear the language in this way (e.g., “poor in spirit,” “meek”). This suggests a reading of the beatitudes as an announcement of status reversals that accompany the arrival of God’s kingdom.
Second, in Jewish theology and hope Yahweh was revealed as a God who sides with the poor and lowly (e.g., Isa. 61:1–3). Jewish eschatological hope centered on a day when God would make all things right, so that those who lived to see the time of the Messiah would experience the great blessings of that day. For example, Psalm of Solomon 17 announces this blessing: “Happy are those who shall live in those days [of the Messiah], to see the good things of Israel that God shall accomplish in the congregation of the tribes” (17:44 NETS).
|Outline for the Sermon on the Mount
| 5:1–16 Introduction to the sermon
| 5:1–2 Setting
| 5:3–12 The blessings of the kingdom
| 5:13–16 The identity and mission of Jesus’ disciples
| 5:17–7:12 Body of the sermon
| 5:17–48 Jesus as fulfillment and authoritative interpreter of the Torah
| 6:1–18 Practicing covenantal expectations for God alone
| 6:19–34 Allegiance to the kingdom instead of wealth
| 7:1–12 Discernment and prayer instead of judgment of others
| 7:13–29 Conclusion of the sermon
| 7:13–23 Warnings against disobedience
| 7:24–27 Concluding parable about covenant obedience
| 7:28–29 Response to Jesus’ teaching
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The blessings (beatitudes) that Jesus announces in Matthew are carefully structured, with eight stanzas that can be understood as two sets of four blessings. (The final beatitude in 5:11–12 is really an expansion on the eighth and moves outside of the poetic framework of 5:3–10.) It is significant that the first and last blessings (5:3, 10) hold the same affirmation: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This inclusio highlights the “already” of the kingdom. Jesus announces that the reversal of situation and status has already begun. Yet the “not yet” of the kingdom—that is, the fact that final restoration and reversal of fortune is still to come—is signaled by the intervening six blessings: “they will be comforted,” “they will inherit the earth,” and so on. Each of these is framed in the future tense. In this way, Matthew communicates the “already and not yet” nature of God’s reign in Jesus (see comments on 4:17).
the poor in spirit. The first beatitude evokes language from the Old Testament, specifically Psalms and Isaiah. These writings frequently connect those who are most destitute physically with spiritual destitution and despair and also affirm God’s particular care for them. For example, Isaiah 61 speaks of the Lord’s servant who will proclaim “good news to the poor” and “bind up the brokenhearted” (61:1). The Psalms affirm that the Lord hears “the brokenhearted” and the “crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). In this theological context it is likely that Jesus’ words affirm that, quite against normal expectations, the kingdom belongs to those who are poor and despairing.
The Supreme Blessedness
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
Before we study each of the beatitudes in detail, there are two general facts which we must note.
(1) It can be seen that every one of the beatitudes has precisely the same form. As they are commonly printed in our Bibles, each one of them in the Authorized Version has the word are printed in italic, or sloping, type. When a word appears in italics in the Authorized Version it means that in the Greek, or in the Hebrew, there is no equivalent word, and that that word has had to be added to bring out the meaning of the sentence.
This is to say that in the beatitudes there is no verb, there is no are. Why should that be? Jesus did not speak the beatitudes in Greek; he spoke them in Aramaic, which was the kind of Hebrew people spoke in his day. Aramaic and Hebrew have a very common kind of expression, which is in fact an exclamation and which means: ‘O the blessedness of …’. That expression (asherē in the Hebrew) is very common in the Old Testament. For instance, the ﬁrst Psalm begins in the Hebrew: ‘O the blessedness of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked’ (cf. Psalm 1:1). That is the form in which Jesus ﬁrst spoke the beatitudes. The beatitudes are not simple statements; they are exclamations: ‘O the blessedness of the poor in spirit!’
That is most important, for it means that the beatitudes are not pious hopes of what shall be; they are not glowing, but vague prophecies of some future bliss; they are congratulations on what is. The blessedness which belongs to Christians is not a blessedness which is postponed to some future world of glory; it is a blessedness which exists here and now. It is not something into which Christians will enter; it is something into which they have entered.
True, it will ﬁnd its fullness and its consummation in the presence of God; but, for all that, it is a present reality to be enjoyed here and now. The beatitudes in effect say: ‘O the bliss of being a Christian! O the joy of following Christ! O the sheer happiness of knowing Jesus Christ as Master, Saviour and Lord!’ The very form of the beatitudes is the statement of the joyous thrill and the radiant gladness of the Christian life. In the light of the beatitudes, a gloom-encompassed Christianity is unthinkable.
(2) The word blessed which is used in each of the beatitudes is a very special word. It is the Greek word makarios. Makarios is the word which specially describes the gods. In Christianity, there is a godlike joy.
The meaning of makarios can best be seen from one particular usage of it. The Greeks always called Cyprus hē makaria (the feminine form of the adjective), which means The Happy Isle, and they did so because they believed that Cyprus was so lovely, so rich and so fertile an island that there was never any need to go beyond its coastline in order to ﬁnd the perfectly happy life. It had such a climate, such ﬂowers and fruits and trees, such minerals and such natural resources that it contained within itself all the materials for perfect happiness.
Makarios, then, describes that joy which has its secret within itself, that joy which is serene and untouchable, and self-contained, that joy which is completely independent of all the chances and the changes of life. The English word happiness gives its own case away. It contains the root hap, which means chance. Human happiness is something which is dependent on the chances and the changes of life, something which life may give and which life may also destroy. The Christian blessedness is completely untouchable and unassailable. ‘No one’, said Jesus, ‘will take your joy from you’ (John 16:22). The beatitudes speak of that joy which seeks us through our pain, that joy which sorrow and loss, and pain and grief, are powerless to touch, that joy which shines through tears, and which nothing in life or death can take away.
The world can win its joys, and the world can equally well lose its joys. A change in fortune, a collapse in health, the failure of a plan, the disappointment of an ambition, even a change in the weather, can take away the ﬁckle joy the world can give. But the Christian has the serene and untouchable joy which comes from walking forever in the company and in the presence of Jesus Christ.
The greatness of the beatitudes is that they are not wistful glimpses of some future beauty; they are not even golden promises of some distant glory; they are triumphant shouts of bliss for a permanent joy that nothing in the world can ever take away.
The Bliss of the Destitute
Matthew 5:3 (contd)
It seems a surprising way to begin talking about happiness by saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ There are two ways in which we can come at the meaning of this word poor.
As we have them, the beatitudes are in Greek, and the word that is used for poor is the word ptōchos. In Greek, there are two words for poor. There is the word penēs. Penēs describes a man who has to work for his living; it is deﬁned by the Greeks as describing the man who is autodiakonos, that is, the man who serves his own needs with his own hands. Penēs describes the working man, the man who has nothing superﬂuous, the man who is not rich, but who is not destitute either. But, as we have seen, it is not penēs that is used in this beatitude; it is ptōchos, which describes absolute and abject poverty. It is connected with the root ptōssein, which means to crouch or to cower; and it describes the poverty of those literally forced to their knees to beg. As has been said, penēs describes the person who has nothing superﬂuous, while ptōchos describes the person who has nothing at all. So this beatitude becomes even more surprising. Blessed are those who are abjectly and completely poverty-stricken. Blessed are those who are absolutely destitute.
As we have also seen, the beatitudes were originally spoken not in Greek but in Aramaic. Now the Jews had a special way of using the word poor. In Hebrew, the word is ’ani or ebiōn. These words in Hebrew underwent a four-stage development of meaning. (1) They began by meaning simply poor. (2) They went on to mean, because poor, therefore having no inﬂuence or power, or help, or prestige. (3) They went on to mean, because having no inﬂuence, therefore downtrodden and oppressed. (4) Finally, they came to describe those who, because they have no earthly resources whatever, put their whole trust in God.
So, in Hebrew the word poor was used to describe the humble and the helpless people who put their whole trust in God. It is thus that the psalmist uses the word, when he writes: ‘This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble’ (Psalm 34:6). It is in fact true that in the Psalms the poor person, in this sense of the term, is the good person who is dear to God. ‘The hope of the poor [shall not] perish for ever’ (Psalm 9:18). God delivers the needy (Psalm 35:10). ‘In your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy’ (Psalm 68:10). ‘May he defend the cause of the poor of the people’ (Psalm 72:4). ‘He raises up the needy out of distress, and makes their families like ﬂocks’ (Psalm 107:41). ‘I will satisfy its poor with bread’ (Psalm 132:15). In all these cases, the poor are the humble and helpless who have put their trust in God.
Let us now take the two sides, the Greek and the Aramaic, and put them together. Ptōchos describes someone who is absolutely destitute, the person who has nothing at all; ’ani and ebiōn describe the poor, and humble, and helpless who have put their whole trust in God. Therefore, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ means:
Blessed are those who have realized their own utter helplessness, and who have put their whole trust in God.
If people have realized their own utter helplessness, and have put their whole trust in God, there will enter into their lives two elements which are opposite sides of the same coin. They will become completely detached from material things, for they will know that things do not have the power to bring happiness or security; and they will become completely attached to God, for they will know that God alone can bring them help, hope and strength. Those who are poor in spirit are men and women who have realized that things mean nothing, and that God means everything.
We must be careful not to think that this beatitude calls actual material poverty a good thing. Poverty is not a good thing. Jesus would never have called blessed a state where people live in slums and do not have enough to eat, and where health deteriorates because conditions are all against it. It is the aim of the Christian gospel to remove that kind of poverty. The poverty which is blessed is the poverty of spirit, when people realize their own utter lack of resources to meet life, and ﬁnd their help and strength in God.
Jesus says that to such a poverty belongs the kingdom of heaven. Why should that be so? If we take the two petitions of the Lord’s Prayer and set them together:
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done in earth as it is in heaven,
we get the deﬁnition: the kingdom of God is a society where God’s will is as perfectly done in earth as it is in heaven. That means that only those who do God’s will are citizens of the kingdom; and we can only do God’s will when we realize our own utter helplessness, our own utter ignorance, our own utter inability to cope with life, and when we put our whole trust in God. Obedience is always founded on trust. The kingdom of God is the possession of the poor in spirit, because the poor in spirit have realized their own utter helplessness without God, and have learned to trust and obey.
So, the ﬁrst beatitude means:
o the bliss of those who have realized their own utter helplessness, and who have put their whole trust in god, for thus alone can they render to god that perfect obedience which will make them citizens of the kingdom of heaven!
Ver. 3.—Blessed (μακάριοι); Vulgate, beati; hence “Beatitudes.” The word describes “the poor in spirit,” etc., not as receipients of blessing (εὐλογημένοι) from God, or even from men, but as possessors of “happiness” (cf. the Authorized Version of John 13:17, and frequently). It describes them in reference to their inherent state, not to the gifts or the rewards that they receive. It thus answers in thought to the common אשׁרי of the Old Testament; e.g. 1 Kings 10:8; Ps. 1:1; 32:1; 84:5. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The first Beatitude is the sum and substance of the whole sermon. Poverty of spirit stands in contrast to self-sufficiency (Rev. 3:17) and as such is perhaps the quality which is most of all opposed to the Jewish temper in all ages (cf. Rom. 2:17–20). For in this, as in much else, the Jewish nation is the type of the human race since the Fall. Observe that vers. 3, 4 (οἱ πτωχοί, οἱ πενθοῦντες, possibly also ver. 5, vide infra) recall Isa. 61:1, 2. As recently in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:18, 19), so also here, he bases the explanation of his work on the prophecy of that work in the Book of Isaiah. The poor (οἱ πτωχοί). Πτωχός, in classical and philosophical usage, implies a lower degree of poverty than πένης (2 Cor. 9:9 and LXX). “The πένης may be so poor that he earns his bread by daily labour; but the πτωχός is so poor that he only obtains his living by begging.… The πένης has nothing superfluous, the πτωχός nothing at all” (Trench, ‘Syn.,’ § xxxvi.). Hence Tertullian (‘Adv. Marc.,’ iv. 14; cf. 15) purposely altered Beati pauperes of the Old Latin to Beati mendici, and elsewhere (‘De Idol.,’ 12) rendered it by egeni. But in Hellenistic Greek, so far as the usage of the LXX and the Hexapla goes (vide Hatch, “Biblical Greek,’ p. 73), the distinction seems hardly to hold good. Hatch even infers—on, we think, very insufficient premisses—that these two words, with ταπεινός and πραΰς (but vide infra), designate the poor of an oppressed country, i.e. the peasantry, the fellahin of Palestine as a class, and he considers it probable that this special meaning under-lies the use of the words in these verses. Whether this be the case or not, the addition of τῷ πνεύματι completely excludes the supposition that our Lord meant to refer to any merely external circumstances. In spirit; Matthew only (τῷ πνεύματι). Dative of sphere (cf. ch. 11:29; 1 Cor. 7:34; 14:20; Rom. 12:11). Jas. 2:5 (τοὺς πτωχοὺς τῷ κόσμῳ) forms an apparent rather than a real contrast; for the dative there marks, not the sphere in which, but the object with reference to which, the poverty is felt (“the poor as to the world,” Revised Version; Wiesinger in Huther), or possibly the object which is the standard of comparison, i.e. in the judgment of the world (Winer, § xxxi. 4, a). Christ here affirms the blessedness of those who are in their spirit absolutely devoid of wealth. It cannot mean that they are this in God’s opinion, for in God’s opinion all are so. It means, therefore, that they are this in their own opinion. While many feel in themselves a wealth of soul-satisfaction, these do not, but realize their insufficiency. Christ says that they realize this “in (their) spirit;” for the spirit is that part of us which specially craves for satisfaction, and which is the means by which we lay hold of true satisfaction. The actual craving for spiritual wealth is not mentioned in this verse. It is implied, but direct mention of it comes partly in ver. 4, and especially in ver. 6. For theirs. Emphatic, as in all the Beatitudes (αὐτῶν, αὐτοί). Is. Not hereafter (Meyer), but even already. The kingdom of heaven (vide note, p. 150). The poor in spirit already belong to and have a share in that realm of God which now is realized chiefly in relation to our spirit, but ultimately will be realized in relation to every element of our nature, and to all other persons, and to every part, animate and inanimate, of the whole world.
3. Happy are the poor in spirit. Luke 6:20. Happy (are ye) poor. Luke gives nothing more than a simple metaphor: but as the poverty of many is accursed and unhappy, Matthew expresses more clearly the intention of Christ. Many are pressed down by distresses, and yet continue to swell inwardly with pride and cruelty. But Christ pronounces those to be happy who, chastened and subdued by afflictions, submit themselves wholly to God, and, with inward humility, betake themselves to him for protection. Others explain the poor in spirit to be those who claim nothing for themselves, and are even so completely emptied of confidence in the flesh, that they acknowledge their poverty. But as the words of Luke and those of Matthew must have the same meaning, there can be no doubt that the appellation poor is here given to those who are pressed and afflicted by adversity. The only difference is, that Matthew, by adding an epithet, confines the happiness to those only who, under the discipline of the cross, have learned to be humble.
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. We see that Christ does not swell the minds of his own people by any unfounded belief, or harden them by unfeeling obstinacy, as the Stoics do, but leads them to entertain the hope of eternal life, and animates them to patience by assuring them, that in this way they will pass into the heavenly kingdom of God. It deserves our attention, that he only who is reduced to nothing in himself, and relies on the mercy of God, is poor in spirit: for they who are broken or overwhelmed by despair murmur against God, and this proves them to be of a proud and haughty spirit.
3. Poor in spirit warns us immediately that the thought here is not (as it is in Luke 6:20) of material poverty. The phrase alludes to an Old Testament theme which underlies all the beatitudes, that of the ‘poor’ or ‘meek’ (‘ānî or ‘ānāw) who occur frequently in the Psalms and elsewhere (N.B. Isa. 61:1–2, alluded to in v. 4, and Ps. 37, alluded to in v. 5), those who humbly trust God, even though their loyalty results in oppression and material disadvantage, in contrast with the ‘wicked’ who arrogantly set themselves up against God and persecute his people. The emphasis is on piety and suffering, and on dependence on God, not on material poverty as such. In later Jewish writings, particularly the Psalms of Solomon and the Qumran literature (‘poor in spirit’ occurs in 1QM 14:7), ‘the poor’ continues to denote the faithful and persecuted people of God, whom he will ultimately vindicate. This humble, ‘unworldly’ attitude, which puts its trust only in God (G. Barth, TIM, pp. 123–124, uses the phrase ‘empty before God’) is the mark of the disciple; the kingdom of heaven belongs to (perhaps better ‘consists of’) such men. They are God’s people.
The poor in spirit (3)
It has already been mentioned that the Old Testament supplies the necessary background against which to interpret this beatitude. At first to be ‘poor’ meant to be in literal, material need. But gradually, because the needy had no refuge but God, ‘poverty’ came to have spiritual overtones and to be identified with humble dependence on God. Thus the psalmist designated himself ‘this poor man’ who cried out to God in his need, ‘and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles’.5 The ‘poor man’ in the Old Testament is one who is both afflicted and unable to save himself, and who therefore looks to God for salvation, while recognizing that he has no claim upon him. This kind of spiritual poverty is specially commended in Isaiah. It is ‘the poor and needy’, who ‘seek water and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst’, for whom God promises to ‘open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys’, and to ‘make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water’. The ‘poor’ are also described as people with ‘a contrite and humble spirit’; to them God looks and with them (though he is ‘the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy’) he is pleased to dwell.2 It is to such that the Lord’s anointed would proclaim good tidings of salvation, a prophecy which Jesus consciously fulfilled in the Nazareth synagogue: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’ Further, the rich tended to compromise with surrounding heathenism; it was the poor who remained faithful to God. So wealth and worldliness, poverty and godliness went together.
Thus, to be ‘poor in spirit’ is to acknowledge our spiritual poverty, indeed our spiritual bankruptcy, before God. For we are sinners, under the holy wrath of God, and deserving nothing but the judgment of God. We have nothing to offer, nothing to plead, nothing with which to buy the favour of heaven.
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.
This is the language of the poor in spirit. We do not belong anywhere except alongside the publican in Jesus’ parable, crying out with downcast eyes, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ As Calvin wrote: ‘He only who is reduced to nothing in himself, and relies on the mercy of God, is poor in spirit.’
To such, and only to such, the kingdom of God is given. For God’s rule which brings salvation is a gift as absolutely free as it is utterly undeserved. It has to be received with the dependent humility of a little child. Thus, right at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contradicted all human judgments and all nationalistic expectations of the kingdom of God. The kingdom is given to the poor, not the rich; the feeble, not the mighty; to little children humble enough to accept it, not to soldiers who boast that they can obtain it by their own prowess. 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.
Perhaps the best later example of the same truth is the nominal church of Laodicea to whom John was directed to send a letter from the glorified Christ. He quoted their complacent words, and added his own assessment of them: ‘You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.’ This visible church, for all its Christian profession, was not truly Christian at all. Self-satisfied and superficial, it was composed (according to Jesus) of blind and naked beggars. But the tragedy was they would not admit it. They were rich, not poor, in spirit.
Still today the indispensable condition of receiving the kingdom of God is to acknowledge our spiritual poverty. God still sends the rich away empty. As C. H. Spurgeon expressed it, ‘The way to rise in the kingdom is to sink in ourselves.’
Ver. 3. Poor in spirit.—
Poor in spirit:—
- Examine the character here spoken of. 1. We should not confound the poor in spirit with the poor in worldly circumstances. 2. We are not to associate the mean-spirited with the poor in spirit. 3. We are not to understand that the poor in spirit are poor in spirituality. Poorness of spirit involves—(1) Humility; (2) Contentment; (3) Submission; (4) Gratitude.
- In what their blessedness consists. 1. Theirs are the privileges of the Church on earth; reconciliation; illumination; communion; joy. 2. The felicities of the Church in heaven. (J. Jordan.)
The blessedness of the poor in spirit:—
- By the poor in spirit are meant those who have been convinced of their spiritual poverty. All without Christ are wretched, blind, naked, poor. They are sensible of their wants; the higher their attainments, the deeper their humiliation. Have high thoughts of Christ. We are not to understand the poor in this world; not the poor-spirited or cowardly in the service of Christ; not the excessively timid and poor-spirited.
- In what does their blessedness consist? By whom was this assurance given? By Him who is the source of all blessings. They are heirs of the kingdom of peace, righteousness, and joy. (D. Rees.)
Poverty of spirit:—1. Do not misjudge a Christian’s expression of lowliness, for these are genuine expressions of poverty of spirit. 2. So far as you find restfulness and complacency in your own attainments, you may doubt the reality of your growth. 3. Poverty of nature rather than poverty of spirit may be revealed by censoriousness. 4. The Holy Spirit alone can correct self-ignorance; from His illumination will result genuine poverty of spirit. (J. T. Duryea, D.D.)
A few considerations which may serve to cherish this spirit:—I. Let us think much on the character of God as shown to us in His Holy Word. II. Let us be careful to separate any good intentions which we may find springing up in our hearts from ourselves, and ascribe them to God’s Holy Spirit. III. Let us be watchful against occasions of pride. IV. Another great step to the attainment of humility, is to forget those things which are behind, and press onward to those before. V. We must be ever looking at the Cross. (H. Alford, M.A.)
The blessedness of the poor in spirit:—1. The promises of the gospel belong to them. 2. They enjoy the means of grace. 3. In the Christian conflict the humble man has all the advantage. (Ibid.)
The poor in spirit:—
- Some things which must be rejected as not intended by Christ. It is not a mere peculiarity of temperament—not the obsequiousness and meanness often associated with poverty—not the simple fact of being poor—not voluntary religious poverty.
- The features of spiritual poverty. 1. The conditions: In a spiritual sense all are poor. 2. The state of mind—poor in spirit, implying great humbling—difficult of attainment, so repugnant to the flesh, so opposed to our fancied excellence.
III. The blessing promised. It is the spirit in which the kingdom is to be received (Matt. 18:1–5). Is the spirit of the Master (Phil. 2:1–12). Blessed with all the titles and riches of the kingdom (James 2:5). Is the essence of a filial spirit. (W. Barker.) Blessedness is the perfection of a rational creature; it is the whetstone of a Christian’s industry; the height of his ambition; the flower of his joy; the desire of all men. I. Let us so deport ourselves that we may express to others that we do believe a blessedness to come, by seeking after an interest in God, and that our union with God and the chief good makes us blessed. II. Let us proclaim to the world that we believe in blessedness to come, by living blessed lives; walk as become the heirs of blessedness. Let us lead blessed lives, and so declare plainly that we seek a country (Heb. 11:14). (Thomas Watson.) You may as well expect fruit to grow without a root, as the other graces without this; till a man be poor in spirit he cannot mourn. I. Till we are poor in spirit we are not capable of receiving grace. 1. God doth first empty a man of himself, before He pours in the precious wine of His grace. 2. None but the poor in spirit are within Christ’s commission. II. Till we are poor in spirit, Christ is never precious. (1) Before we see our own wants we never see (2) Christ’s worth. (3) He that wants bread, and is ready to starve, will have it, whatever it cost; bread he must have, or he is undone; (4) So to him that is poor in spirit, that sees his want of Christ, how precious is the Saviour! III. Till we are poor in spirit we cannot go to heaven. (1) The great cable cannot go through the eye of the needle, but let it be untwisted and made into small threads, then it may. (2) Poverty of spirit untwists the great cable; (3) Makes a man little in his own eyes, and now an entrance shall be made unto him. (Ibid.) I. He that is poor in spirit is weaned from himself. 1. The vine catcheth hold of everything that is near, to stay itself upon. There is some bough or other, a man would be catching hold of to rest upon; how hard it is to be brought quite off himself. II. He that is poor in spirit is a Christ-admirer. 1. He sees himself wounded, and, as the wounded deer runs to the water, so he thirsts for the water of life. 2. “Lord,” saith he, “give me Christ, or I die.” III. He that is poor in spirit is ever complaining of his spiritual estate. 1. He ever complains, “I want a broken heart, a thankful heart.” 2. He mourns he hath on more grace. IV. He that is poor in spirit is lowly in heart. 1. Submissive. 2. He blusheth more at the defects of his graces, than others do at the excess of their sins. V. He that is poor in spirit is much in prayer. 1. Ever begging for spiritual alms. 2. Will not away from the gate, till he have his dole. VI. The poor in spirit is content to take Christ upon His own terms. 1. Sees himself lost without Christ. 2. Willing to have Him upon His own terms. VII. He that is poor in spirit is an exalter of free grace. 1. He blesses God for the least crumb that falls from the table of free grace. 2. He magnifies mercy, and is thankful. (Ibid.)
Poverty of spirit:—Christ begins with this, and we must begin here if ever we be saved. Poverty of spirit is the foundation stone on which God lays the superstructure of glory. There are four things may persuade Christians to be poor in spirit:—
- This poverty is your riches. 1. You may have the world’s riches, and yet be poor. 2. You cannot have this poverty, but you must be rich. 3. Poverty of spirit entitles you to all Christ’s riches.
- This poverty is your nobility. 1. God looks upon you as persons of honour. 2. He that is vile in his own eyes, is precious in God’s eyes. 3. The way to rise is to fall. 4. God esteems the valley highest.
III. Poverty of spirit doth sweetly quiet the soul. (1) When a man is brought of himself to rest on Christ, what a (2) blessed calm is in the heart! IV. Poverty of spirit paves a causeway for blessedness. 1. Are you poor in spirit? You are blessed. (Ibid.) The kingdom for the poor in spirit. Here is comfort to the people of God. I. God hath provided them with a kingdom. 1. A child of God is oft so low in the world that he hath not a foot of laud to inherit; he is poor in purse, as well as poor in spirit. 2. Here is a fountain of consolation opened. 3. The poorest saint who hath lost all his golden fleece is heir to a kingdom. II. This kingdom excels all the kingdoms and principalities of the world. III. The hope of this kingdom, saith Basil, should carry a Christian with courage and cheerfulness through all his afflictions; and it is a saying of Luther’s “The sea of God’s mercy, overflowing in spiritual blessings, should drown all the sufferings of this life.” IV. What though thou goest now in rags! Thou shalt have thy white robes. What though thou art fed like Daniel, with pulse, and hast coarser fare! Thou shalt feast when thou comest to the kingdom. Here thou drinkest the water of tears; shortly thou shalt drink the wine of paradise. Be comforted with the thoughts of a kingdom. (Ibid.)
- Who are meant by the poor in spirit? To the poor in spirit, or those that possess a spirit of poverty, the text annexes a blessedness, and promises a reward.
- What are the proper virtues of a poor and low estate, such as every man, whether high or low, rich or poor, is bound to endeavour after? (1) Humility; (2) Patience; (3) Contentment; (4) Trust and hope in God. (Bishop Ofspring Blackall, D.D.)
Virtues taught by a state of poverty of spirit are:—(1) Industry. They that want nothing think it needless to labour; (2) Temperance; (3) Frugality; (4) Contempt of the world. (Sir William Davies, Bart., D.D.) Neither indigence nor wealth in itself has the least connection with real religion. 1. Poverty of spirit consists in a deep conviction of guilt and depravity, before a pure and holy Being. (1) By the entrance of God’s Word into the mind, and the (2) triumph of His grace in the soul, we become “poor in spirit.” (3) When conviction flashes in the conscience of a sinner, when he sees the (4) number of his sins, (5) strength of his corruptions, and (6) weakness of his resolutions, then this disposition is implanted in him. Already he had the beginning of blessedness in his breast.
- Poverty of spirit consists in humility through every stage of the Christian’s pilgrimage. 1. It commences with a deep sense of sin, guilt, and desert of punishment. 2. It is the vital principle of the believer’s spiritual constitution. 3. It grows with his grace. 4. Increases with the increase of his knowledge in God. 5. As he becomes a father in Christ, he will become a little child in his own estimation. 6. The most eminent Christian is the most humble. 7. His humility exalts him, and makes him great.
III. Poverty of spirit includes contentment with the allotments of Providence. 1. It is opposed to the restlessness of ambition, and the haughtiness of pride. 2. It turns away from that “covetousness which is idolatry.” 3. It does not eagerly and improperly desire the honours and riches of this world. 4. “Having food and raiment,” it has learned to be contented therewith. Such an elevation of soul should be acquired, and such a spirit of cheerful contentment should be cultivated by all who have taken on them the Christian name. (J. E. Good.) There may be pride in poverty as well as in wealth.—There was a story in old times told of a severe, cynical philosopher, visiting the house of one who was far his superior in genius as in modesty. He found the good philosopher living in a comfortable house, with easy-chairs and pleasant pictures round him, and he came in with his feet stained with dust and mud, and said, as he walked upon the beautiful carpets, “Thus I trample on the pride of Plato.” The good philosopher paid no attention at first, but returned the visit, and when he saw the ragged furniture and the scanty covering of the floor of the house in which the other ostentatiously lived, he said, “I see the pride of Diogenes through the holes in his carpet.” Many a one there is whose pride is thus seen by his affecting to be without it; many a one whose poverty, whose modesty in spirit, can best be appreciated by seeing how the outward comforts and splendour of life can be used by him without paying any attention to them. (Dean Stanley.) Poverty of spirit conducive to prayer. Never pauper pleaded more at your gate for some gift of charity than he does. And because he has nothing but what he receives, therefore he is always asking. (J. Vaughan, M.A.)
5:3 “Blessed” This term meant “happy” or “honored” (cf. vv. 3–11). The English word “happy” comes from the Old English “happenstance.” Believers’ God-given happiness is not based on physical circumstances but inner joy. There are no verbs in these statements. They are EXCLAMATORY in form like Aramaic or Hebrew (cf. Ps. 1:1). This blessedness is both a current attitude toward God and life as well as an eschatological hope.
“poor in spirit,” Two terms in Greek were used to describe poverty; the one used here was the more severe of the two. It was often used of a beggar who was dependent on a provider. In the OT this implied hope in God alone! Matthew makes it clear that this does not refer to physical poverty, but to spiritual inadequacy. Man must recognize God’s adequacy and his own inadequacy (cf. Jn. 15:5; 2 Cor. 12:9). Possibly these first few beatitudes reflect Isa. 61:1–3, which predicted the Messianic blessings of the coming New Age.
“kingdom of heaven” This phrase, “Kingdom of Heaven” or “Kingdom of God,” is used over 100 times in the Gospels. In Luke 6:20 it is the “kingdom of God.” Matthew was writing for people with a Jewish background who were nervous pronouncing God’s name because of Ex. 20:7. But the Gospels of Mark (cf. 10:14) and Luke were written to Gentiles. The two phrases are synonymous.
The phrase refers to the reign of God in human hearts now that will one day be consummated over all the earth (cf. Matt. 6:10). This is possibly confirmed by Matthew alternating between PRESENT TENSE “is” in v. 3 and 10, and FUTURE TENSE “shall be” in vv. 4–9.
3. Blessed (are) the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The world says the exact opposite, “Blessed are the rich,” etc. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor, mourners, meek.” Reason: one’s outward condition may be ever so enviable; in the end it vanishes like a dream. God never made a soul so small that the whole world will satisfy it. But the inner state and character of the soul abides. Cf. Luke 12:15; 1 Cor. 7:31.
However, Jesus does not pronounce these people blessed because they are poor in material goods, though for the most part they are that also. They are called blessed as being poor in spirit, not in spirituality but “with respect to” their spirit; that is, they are the ones who have become convinced of their spiritual poverty. They have been made conscious of their misery and want. Their old pride has been broken. They have begun to cry out, “O God, be thou merciful to me, the sinner” (Luke 18:13). They are of a contrite spirit and tremble at God’s word (Isa. 66:2; cf. 57:15). They realize their own utter helplessness (Rom. 7:24), expect nothing from self, everything from God.
Theirs, theirs alone, right now is the kingdom of heaven, that is complete salvation, the sum-total of blessings that result when God is acknowledged as King over heart and life. See definition on p. 249, under point b. It is theirs even now in principle. Therefore they are pronounced blessed.
The book of Revelation contains two vivid passages that respectively show a. how one can be poor though deeming himself to be rich, and b. how a person can be rich indeed in the midst of his poverty. The risen and exalted Church Visitor, Jesus Christ, addresses lukewarm Laodicea as follows:
“So because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am about to spew you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich and have become richer right along and have need of nothing whatever,’ but you do not know that you are the one who is wretched and pitiable and poor [or: beggarly] and blind and naked” (3:16–17).
But he gladdens the church of Smyrna by saying:
“I know your tribulation [or: affliction] and your poverty, but you are rich” (2:9).
How, then, can the poor be called rich? The answer is found in such meaningful passages as, “I have everything” (Jacob to Esau, Gen. 33:11); and “To them that love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). For further confirmation of this glorious truth see Ps. 23; 63:1; 73:23–26; 81:10; 116; Prov. 15:16; 16:8, 19; 19:1; John 1:16; 14:1–3; 17:24; Rom. 8:31–39; 1 Cor. 3:21–23; 2 Cor. 4:8; Eph. 1:3; 1 Peter 1:3–9; 1 John 5:4; Rev. 7:9–17; 17:14; 21:1–7.
 Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount: an expositional commentary (pp. 19–24). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 1, pp. 260–261). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Stott, J. R. W., & Stott, J. R. W. (1985). The message of the Sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian counter-culture (pp. 38–40). Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.