Whether you grew up in church or not, at some point, you have heard the Beatitudes. They begin with “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).” You may not know what they mean, but you’ve heard them. It may be a part of the Bible you think is pretty but doesn’t really have anything to do with your day-to-day life.
This is where you might be mistaken. The Beatitudes are found in the section of the Gospels known as the Sermon on the Mount. This is the very first recorded sermon of Jesus. It focuses on his teachings and signifies a major shift from the religious leaders at the time who preached external obedience. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teaches the importance of the internal. His teachings focus on the heart.
Basically, his premise is if you get the heart right, the externals will take care of themselves.
We all know someone who plays by the rules but has a nasty spirit. You can be ultra-religious and yet be unloving. In contrast to the Pharisaical leaders of the time, Jesus teaches the importance of character. And, as Warren Wiersbe explains, “Conduct flows out of character.” Therefore, the Sermon on the Mount is a collection of Jesus’ teachings on having a righteous character “heart.”
The Beatitudes begin the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus teaches those with righteous character will be blessed. To give you some background, the word “beatitudes” comes from the Latin word for blessed “beatus.” By beginning his sermon with the word “blessed,” Jesus captured the crowd’s attention and showed them a new way.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
– Matthew 5:3
What Poor in Spirit Actually Means
The phrase “poor in spirit” is confusing and often misinterpreted. Jesus was not talking about money or finances, and he wasn’t talking about those who are poor-spirited. “Poor in spirit” means to be humble. Someone who is “poor in spirit” has an excellent understanding of himself.
Do you know anyone who does not have a true understanding of himself? Do you know someone who is prideful? Do you know someone who boasts about himself or is full of self-praise? Is that someone possibly you? This is why the Beatitudes still matter today. Being “poor in spirit” is in contrast to the advice our culture gives us. We are taught to be competitive, to get to the top at all costs, and to take pride in ourselves.
Pride Comes Before a Fall
However, Jesus teaches pride is not only sinful but also harmful. Even if you are not a Christian, you have surely seen the consequences of someone’s prideful behavior.
“Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall.“
– Proverbs 16:18
When we begin to think we are better than someone else or we do not need others, we run into problems. There are consequences. Think about the times in your life when your pride or arrogance had repercussions.
Now, consider this first beatitude. Jesus says those who are blessed are those who are “poor in spirit.” Unlike those in the proverb above, these people are humble, honest, and know their need for grace.
So Does Self-Reliance
Similarly, our culture praises self-reliance. From the time they are little, children are taught to take care of themselves. While we do need to take care of ourselves, there is a big difference between doing what we can to take care of ourselves to believing we are self-reliant. Self-reliance means we believe we do not need anyone else – least of all a Savior.
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”
– Romans 12:3
Do you know anyone who thinks he or she is above reproach or believes he can do no wrong? When we begin to think too highly of ourselves, we lose sight of our spiritual need. Those who are “poor in spirit” recognize their own shortcomings. They realize they are sinners in need of a savior – in need of forgiveness.
Why False Humility is Not the Answer Either
Before we move on to talking about the blessing those “poor in spirit” receive, it is important to point out one more thing “poor in spirit” is not. It is not false humility. It is not someone cloaked in self-deprecating sadness who walks around saying “I am not worth anything” or “I can’t do anything.”
“But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’”
– James 4:6
Those who are “poor in spirit” are humble because they know they are sinners and they know their spiritual need. But, they also know the grace of a loving Savior. They know they are worthy of love and grace because they are heirs to the Kingdom of God (James 2:5).
For Theirs Is the Kingdom of Heaven
This first beatitude concludes with the blessing “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What exactly does that mean? Ultimately, it means the Gospel belongs to them. They understand their need for God; therefore, they will have this need met by God. Through their understanding of themselves and their need, their hearts are in tune with the Gospel.
Reference: Wiersbe, Warren. Be Loyal: Following the King of Kings. David C. Cook, 2008.