The Poor in Spirit

These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.

'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven' (Matthew 5:3 ESV).

We are going to start a series through the Sermon on the Mount that will no doubt take us a little while, but there is one hugely important reason for doing this as a young church. Jesus ends the Sermon by saying that the wise man is the one who builds his house on the rock, someone who ‘hears these words of mine and does them’ (7.24). This is true for us as individuals, but it’s also true for churches. If a church isn’t built on Jesus, it’s not a church. When churches distort Jesus’ teaching, or choose bits they like, or diminish the Biblical revelation of who Jesus is they cease being churches. So, there is nothing more important for us in wanting to be his disciples than that we hear and obey what he said.

The Sermon begins with these punchy sayings called the ‘Beatitudes’. Before we begin to engage with the content of the Beatitudes, we need to understand a few key things up front.

First, Jesus intended us to take time to meditate on each saying. They read like proverbs, and you can be sure that Jesus chose each word very carefully and deliberately. He also made them memorable so that they would stick, or like seed, go deep into our understanding. That is why we are going to spend one week on each saying. This is even more important in view of the next point.

Second, every one of these sayings is both counterintuitive and countercultural. They are counterintuitive because our hearts tell us the opposite is true. MLJ, ‘None of these descriptions refers to what we may call a natural tendency.’ We’re not inclined to think this way. They are countercultural for much the same reason; each of these sayings goes against the tides of public opinion. But then the church was always meant to be different.

Third, the Beatitudes are more descriptions than commands. I think this is important. If we read them as commands, we’ll see this as a new law. But they are descriptions of the Christian character, of the people God is making us by the power of his Spirit. Yes, we strive for holiness, but we do so with confidence in God, that God is making us the people Jesus is describing here.

What of this first Beatitude, then? ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…’

Many commentators have observed that there is a kind of logic, a sequence, in the way these Beatitudes are arranged. There is a progression that somewhat mirrors a progression in the Christian life. That makes a lot of sense when you begin to unpack this first Beatitude, because it surely is the right place to start.

We need to clarify that Jesus is not talking about our attitude to money. Jesus is not saying we should be poor, or that we should be suspicious of money.

Rather, Jesus is describing a spiritual condition, an attitude of heart, that says something like this, ‘My life is spiritually bankrupt in itself. There is nothing good in me. I need help.’ That is what it means to be poor in spirit. Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it like this: ‘It really means an emptying… We cannot be filled until we are first empty. You cannot fill with new wine a vessel which is partly filled already with old wine, until the old wine has been poured out.’

Why, then, does Jesus call us blessed if we are poor in spirit? Three reasons.

1. It is the way in to the Christian life
Jesus illustrated this so perfectly in the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18.9-14).

The Pharisee represents everything that is wrong about self-righteousness. In many respects he was living an exemplary lifestyle. He’s the kind of person you’d want to learn from, and even imitate. But he is blind to his most pressing sin: pride.

The Pharisee represents a person who is therefore ‘rich in spirit’ as opposed to ‘poor in spirit’. He seems to think he has it all, that he has made it, that he is better than others, and that God would be lucky to have him in his kingdom. It seems fair to say that most people feel this way at some level. Even if you’re aware of wrongdoing in your life, you still look around and see people who are worse than you. So, most of us judge our spiritual state horizontally, comparing ourselves to others around us.

But Jesus teaches us that such a person has nothing. They are excluded from the kingdom. Jesus hated this prideful religiosity.

Christianity is totally unique in teaching that we are meant to compare ourselves vertically, to God, and then realise that we’re spiritually bankrupt. We need a saviour. We need rescuing because we can’t rescue ourselves or fix our situation. The tax collector said it best when he said, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (Luke 18.13). That is what being spiritually poor looks like, and it is the entrance point to every other blessing in the Christian life. It is the way in.

2. It is the way on/forward in the Christian life
We would be wrong to think that simply because the Beatitudes show a progression in logic, that we can leave behind some of the early ones as we ‘progress’ or ‘mature’ in the Christian life. Not at all. Being poor in spirit is absolutely critical to our ongoing growth as believers. Why?

All through the Scriptures God honours and delights in a posture of dependence, reliance, leaning on him. On the one hand, he always challenges and even rejects the proud. On the other hand, he loves to show himself strong on behalf of the needy and the weak. Why? Because it glorifies him! As the Bible says: ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble' (1 Peter 5.5).

It follows, then, that growth in maturity as a believer is a deeper and deeper sense of our abject and absolute need of God. Dependence is maturity. Being poorer and poorer in spirit is the mark of a mature and growing believer. They see their need more clearly, and Christ’s sufficiency also.

The great temptation as Christians is to fall back on ourselves, and begin to take pride in, or rely on, certain things like our education, our abilities, our efforts, our spirituality. You’ll know you’re doing that when you begin to either feel superior to others, or when you begin to despair and grow depressed with your failures. Either way, you’re spending too much time thinking about yourself! 

The poor in spirit approach God in honest acknowledgment of weakness and emptiness, and he fills them again and again and again. 

3. It leads to every blessing in the Christian life
We need to ponder what Jesus was talking about when he said, ‘…theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Jesus is speaking about the content of the blessing for those who are poor in spirit. And what is it?

The answer is, everything! The ‘kingdom of heaven’ captures every kind of good thing God wants to give to you. But three specific aspects jump to mind.

First, it surely begins with being saved, adopted, justified. Jesus said of the tax collector, ‘I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other' (Luke 18.14) This is so important to keep reiterating and believing. There are days when we feel guilt and condemnation. How do we overcome that? We approach like the tax collector, in poverty of spirit, and know that God makes us clean.

Second, it also refers to blessing, fruit, and favour in life. Now it is wrong to misunderstand this. Jesus never promised us an easy life, and in fact he promised many difficulties and hardships for faithful people. But a life that is eternally significant must begin with poverty of spirit. They are the people God delights to use, and even to ‘exalt’ (Luke 18:14). There are many examples in the Bible.

Third, it refers to our future life with Christ. The poor in spirit are part of the kingdom, and therefore eternally secure. They are the ones who do not place faith in themselves, but in Christ, and therefore God gladly accepts them into his paradise.

Are you poor in spirit? You may say, ‘Of course!’ But the real test is this. How do you react when you’re accused? How do you feel when someone points out sin in your life? Another question: Have you felt the assurance and certainty of God’s love for you and acceptance of you? If not, perhaps you just need to shrink a little and recognise that he only fills those who first are empty.