The other day I put on my “Blessed” t-shirt because I wanted to remember this study throughout the day. When I wear it, I anticipate varied reactions from those I meet or pass while walking my dog on our town’s popular “river walk.” That day some folks responded to my eager greeting of “Good morning.” Others, though, politely but cooly gave me the slightest acknowledgment. One gracious couple, walking their two friendly dogs, stopped to converse. I was hoping that at least one of my neighbors, who share their faith with me, would ask me why I felt blessed. I guess they presumed it meant that I was grateful for all of God’s provisions and help. I am sure no one could imagine that I also wanted to remember that I am spiritually poor. We’ll continue our study of the Beatitudes by meditating on how God blesses the “poor” with an abundance of grace. I need reminders to humble myself, and having just studied 1 Peter 5 certainly helps. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.” (1 Peter 5:6) When we are humble, we are blessed.
Who are the Poor in Spirit?
Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). “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… To be ‘poor in spirit’ is to acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy before God. For we are sinners, under the holy wrath of God, and deserving nothing but his judgment. We have nothing to offer, nothing to plead, nothing with which to buy the favor of heaven.” (1) “The first of the Beatitudes leaves no doubt about whom the Lord is speaking…He is describing redeemed people, those who have believed, those who are part of the kingdom. Here is what their faith is like. Its foundational characteristic is humility — a poverty of spirit, a brokenness that acknowledges spiritual bankruptcy. Genuine believers see themselves as sinners; they know they have nothing to offer God that will buy His favor…If you see that God’s standard is higher than you can possibly attain, you are on the road to the blessedness Jesus spoke of in the Beatitudes. It begins with the humility that grows out of a sense of utter spiritual poverty, the knowledge that we are poor in spirit. And it consummates inevitably in righteous obedience. Those are characteristics of a supernatural life.” (2) Jesus addresses believers, rather than unbelievers, not with a formula for salvation but with a description of its fruit—blessedness as citizens of heaven. As those who have already been transformed by Christ’s irresistible, electing gospel, we wrestle with our tendency to be prideful. But when we humble ourselves and submit to the Lord, we are blessed. “Some have translated Jesus’ opening words ‘Happy are’…Though the Greek can and does mean ‘happy,’ it is seriously misleading to render it ‘happy’ in this case. Happiness is a subjective state, whereas Jesus is making an objective judgment about these people. He is declaring not what they may feel like (‘happy’), but what God thinks of them and what on that account they are: ‘blessed.'” (3)
“Hebrew uses the same word to describe both a man of lowly rank, and one who has suffered humiliation and loss. This is because prosperity puffs us up with pride and ambition; as a result we long for the limelight, and are keen to get the better of our neighbor. On the other hand, once God takes the rod to us and tames us, our haughty manners disappear. In so far, then, as suffering disciplines us, Jesus’ expression designates both the poor and the humble…That person, then, is truly blessed, who is poor in his own estimation, who willingly abases himself, who sees nothing good in himself, makes no false claims about himself, and instead accepts rejection by the world. Here we see the real significance of Jesus’ words, and the benefit which we may gain from them.” (4) Jesus turns our thinking upside down with the Beatitudes to actually “right” it for a biblical Worldview. He is radically counter-cultural, and if we are faithful followers, we will also be non-conformers. We are either attached to the world’s values, priorities, pressures, and desires or committed to God’s will, ways, and covenantal promises. When we embrace our inability to keep ourselves clean, right, or even acceptable to Him, God blesses us with an abundance of gracious spiritual and earthly blessings.
Detachment from This World’s Sentiments
“‘The kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit.’ By this we are to understand that we should not be content with what our eyes see, but that we should have in view the final goal…So this is what the passage teaches: in order to taste the blessedness of which God’s Son speaks, we must learn first that this world is a pathway to something else; it is not a place where we are to rest or where real life is to be found; we must press further on and lift up our eyes to the heavenly inheritance…God’s promises are most useful, then, in detaching us from the world. And when we have finally left present things behind, then we will know that poverty, affliction, distress, trouble, and everything else which would destroy us, cannot touch us. It is enough that God loves us, that his love has been made known to us, and that by faith we lay hold of that love when we leave this world. Let us go on, then, to finish our course, until in due time God confirms his promises to us.” (5) God has his reasons for putting us in the world, though. In John 17, Jesus prayed, “they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world (John 17:14-18). “Let’s all agree it’s clear that Jesus does not want his followers to be ‘of the world’…But notice that for Jesus being ‘not of the world’ isn’t the destination in these verses but the starting place. It’s not where things are moving toward, but what they’re moving from. He is not of the world, and he begins by saying that his followers are not of the world. But it’s going somewhere…Jesus is not asking his Father for his disciples to be taken out of the world, but he is praying for them as they are ‘sent into’ the world. So maybe it would serve us better — at least in light of John 17 — to revise the popular phrase ‘in, but not of’ in this way: ‘not of, but sent into.’ The beginning place is being ‘not of the world,’ and the movement is toward being ‘sent into the world.” (6) This is the thinking that leads to God’s blessings.
“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…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…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. 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.”‘ (7) “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” (Psalm 121) We are blessed here through our our poverty of spirit.
Related Scripture: Genesis 3:12; Exodus 19:16-18; Psalm 138:6; 147:6; Proverbs 3:34; Isaiah 6:5; Jeremiah 10:10; Mark 10:43; Luke 5:8; 22:61-62; Romans 7:14-24; Philippians 2:12-13; 1 Peter 5:6-8.
- Stott, John, The Beatitudes—Developing Spiritual Character, pp. 10-15, InterVarsity Press, 1998.
- MacArthur, John F., The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 165, Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
- Stott, Ibid.
- Calvin, Sermons on the Beatitudes, pp. 21-25, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2006.
- Calvin, Ibid.
- Piper, John, “Desiring God, Let’s Revise the Popular Phrase ‘In, But Not Of’”, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/lets-revise-the-popular-phrase-in-but-not-of
- Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Matthew 5:3-4, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
August 11, 2022