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 complete 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 in 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 loving kindness; 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.
Source: MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Matthew 1-7.