It’s referred to by many as “The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached.” The Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5-7, contains the words of Jesus Christ as he taught his disciples at the outset of his earthly ministry. Several well-known phrases and themes find their origin in these chapters—“Salt and Light,” “Love your enemies,” “Turn the other cheek,” “Judge not,” and the Golden Rule.
Perhaps the most famous portion of the Sermon on the Mount is the Beatitudes, found in Matthew 5:1-12. The Beatitudes are a series of phrases, each beginning with “Blessed are the ______,” by which Jesus identifies those who are truly the recipients of God’s blessing. The first beatitude was sure to shock many of his listeners as he declared that the “poor in spirit” were the ones who had access to the “kingdom of heaven.”
Who Are the Poor in Spirit and Why Are They Blessed?
Many of the beatitudes, in fact, most likely shocked the listeners as Jesus declared that blessedness belonged to, not only the “poor in spirit,” but also “those who mourn” (v. 4), the “meek” (v. 5), and those who are “persecuted” (v. 10). Jesus was turning much of the conventional wisdom of the day on its head. While the Pharisees, the religious elite of the day, were marked by moral superiority and prestige, Jesus elevates those who recognized their own helplessness and desperate need for divine grace.
It is in this context that Jesus mentions the “poor in spirit.” These are the ones that fully recognize that they have nothing spiritually to offer God. In his commentary on the book of Matthew, Leon Morris states that the “poor in spirit” are “those who recognize that they are completely and utterly destitute in the realm of the spirit. They recognize their lack of spiritual resources and therefore their complete dependence on God. Only those that realize they have nothing to offer God can be the recipients of God’s grace.
This is a theme that stretches throughout Scripture. Isaiah 66:2 says that God looks on the one who is “humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” One cannot receive the good news of the Gospel if he has not first recognized his own desperate need for it. In this sense, being “poor in spirit” is a prerequisite to receiving the grace of God. Those who are prideful and self-righteous are resisted by God (1 Peter 5:5).
The Pharisees in Jesus’s day considered themselves to be “rich in spirit.” They loudly proclaimed their own righteousness and took great pride in their studious and meticulous adherence to the Law of Moses. Jesus highlights the contrast between the “rich in spirit” and the “poor in spirit” in the parable of the Pharisee in the Tax Collector (found in Luke 18:9-14). In this story, a Pharisee and a tax collector pray at the temple. While the Pharisee proclaims to God his own righteousness, the tax collector “would not even lift his eyes up to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (v. 13). It was this poor-in-spirit tax collector who “went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (v. 14). Those who recognize their spiritual bankruptcy can be recipients of God’s grace and mercy.
What the Poor in Spirit Does Not Mean
Being “poor in spirit” does not mean having a spirit of abjection or wallowing in misery. While it is appropriate for us to have no misconceptions about our own spiritual depravity apart from Jesus, it is inappropriate to elevate self-pity or misery as a virtue. Often, self-debasement is another form of pride disguising itself as a faux humility. Being “poor in spirit” is less of an emotion and more of a recognition of reality—a clear understanding that we have nothing to offer God and a humility that naturally flows from that understanding. Such humility does not wallow in hopelessness, but rather runs to God, desperately calling out for his grace and mercy.
“Poor in spirit” also does not refer to material poverty. While Jesus gave clear commands for his followers to give to the poor (Matt 5:42) and to show no partiality to the rich (James 2:1-7), Jesus nowhere elevates material poverty as virtuous or something to be sought after. In fact, it is quite possible for someone to pursue material poverty as a way to proclaim their own spiritual superiority. Just because someone is materially poor does not mean they are “poor in spirit.”
What Was Jesus Trying to Teach the People by Saying This?
Jesus’ message in the beatitudes is clear: we desperately need him. Jesus didn’t come to earth to save those who already have it figured out—he came to save those who cannot save themselves. As the Pharisees in Jesus’s day clearly portrayed, our natural inclination is to achieve our own righteousness, to earn favor with God, and work our way to heaven. Jesus came to earth because that natural inclination in the heart of man is a lie. Jesus described the self-righteous Pharisees as blind men (John 9:39-41), proud of their own righteousness and oblivious to their own depravity. Jesus came to save those who knew they were blind and recognized their spiritual poverty.
If all this is true, then Christians should be the humblest people on the planet. Sadly, this is often not the case. We so easily become pharisaical in our hearts. We’re naturally inclined to promote our own righteousness, rather than desperately beg Jesus for his. We have nothing to offer God, and we shouldn’t pretend that we do. But praise Jesus that he came to “preach good news to the poor” (Isaiah 61:1). Those who recognize their own spiritual poverty can run into the open arms of a gracious God, the one who “near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).
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Aaron Berry is a co-author for the Pursuing the Pursuer Blog. You can read more articles from Aaron and his colleagues by subscribing to their blog or following them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Aaron currently resides in Allen Park, MI with his wife and two children, where he serves in his local church and recently completed an MDiv degree at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary.
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