Written by Dr. Timothy Brophy
We must realize, right off the bat, that Jesus draws from a deep well of Old Testament understanding when he talks about the “poor in spirit.” In Luke’s version of this teaching (better called the “Sermon on the Plain” because it probably represents a similar teaching in a different setting), Jesus says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). But is there really a difference between Luke’s “poor” and Matthew’s “poor in spirit?” Yes, sometimes! Maybe, but not necessarily!
You see, throughout its pages, the Old Testament speaks of those who are literally poor or in material need. But in some places, this physical poverty takes on spiritual significance when the needy, who have no other refuge but God, turn to Him in humble dependence. In Zephaniah 3:12, God says “I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord.” It’s important to mention, at this point, that some of the various Hebrew words for poor can also be translated as lowly or humble as above. This is also illustrated in Proverbs 16:19 which says, “It is better to be of lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.” So the physically poor are sometimes poor in spirit, but not always! I think Saint Chromatius, 4th century bishop of Aquileia in Italy, says it best when he says, “There are many poor who are not merely poor but blessed. For the necessity of poverty does not produce blessedness in each of us, but a devout trust sustained through poverty does.”
The Psalms also possess a rich history when it comes to the poor/poor in spirit. King David refers to himself as “this poor man [who] cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles” (Psalm 34:6). John Stott, in his classic book The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, says that the “poor man in the Old Testament is one who is both afflicted and unable to save himself and who therefore looks to God for salvation, while recognizing that he has no claim upon him.”
This kind of spiritual poverty is also commended in Isaiah’s prophecy. In fact, there are two passages that come very close to the meaning of Jesus’ “poor in spirit” in Matthew 5. In Isaiah 57:15, God, “the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy,” says “I dwell in the high and holy places, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit.” So God, whose kingdom is in heaven, dwells with the poor/contrite/lowly in spirit! Sound familiar? Similarly, in Isaiah 66:2, God again says “this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” Not insignificantly, this is the same group of people to whom Jesus proclaims good tidings of salvation, fulfilling the well-known prophecy from Isaiah 61:1. He says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…” (Luke 4:18; see also Matthew 11:5).
Saint Augustine has an interesting take on the Beatitudes, and the poor in spirit, that connects to Isaiah’s (66:2) mention of God looking to those who are humble/contrite in heart and who tremble at His word. Augustine says that the seven gifts or virtues in the Beatitudes are related to the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 11, albeit in reverse order. So whereas Isaiah begins with the most excellent gift, wisdom, Jesus begins with the lowliest. This first gift in the Beatitudes, poverty of spirit, is therefore related to the last gift in Isaiah 11, the fear of the Lord. He goes on to say that “poor in spirit” relates to humility, which is simply another way of speaking about fear or awe. Augustine cites Romans 11:20 in support of this idea: “do not become proud, but fear [or stand in awe].” Incidentally, both John Chrysostom and Tertullian also see strong connections between the “poor in spirit” and the humble/humility. Augustine sums up all these ideas well in his exposition of The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: “the poor in spirit are rightly understood…as the humble and those who fear God…there could be no more felicitous beginning of blessedness, whose ultimate goal is perfect wisdom: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
As already mentioned above, King David and the multitudes of the “righteous poor” in the Old Testament are certainly good examples of the “poor in spirit.” But Gideon, in Judges 6-8, is another good example from beginning to end. For you see, when Gideon is first approached by God, he confesses that he is incapable of the task at hand and insists that, if the Lord does not go with him, he would much rather stay home and thresh wheat. He says, “Please Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (Judges 6:15). But since God is pleased to dwell with the poor/contrite/lowly in spirit, the story ends with Gideon vanquishing all the Lord’s enemies! In fact, Gideon’s valor and reliance on God are memorialized in the Hebrews 11 “Hall of Faith.” The writer of Hebrews says, “time…fail[s] me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, [and] put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:32-34). Gideon’s weakness and simple faith are made much of in God’s Kingdom!
Before we go any further, I want us to remember that the Beatitudes, including poverty of spirit, are not some special sort of Christian ethic or a list of rules that we must keep in order to “go to heaven.” Instead, they are supernatural attributes that flow from the people of God because they are being transformed by the grace of God. N. T. Wright, in his book Simply Jesus, says that the “Beatitudes are the agenda for God’s people…the way in which Jesus wants to rule the world…through this sort of people – people actually just like himself.” Those who have been conformed to his image (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18). “When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the meek, the mourners, those who are hungry and thirst for God’s justice, the peacemakers, and so on.”
We’ve already seen many examples of God’s Old Testament people who are “poor in spirit,” and this is what we should rightly desire for ourselves as well. We must humbly rely on God’s grace and power to sanctify our sinful natures and to give us this gift. John Calvin, famously known for his forthrightness says, “He only who is reduced to nothing in himself, and relies on the mercy of God, is poor in spirit.” So any of these qualities that we recognize in ourselves must never cause us to boast, but rather drive us to our knees in worship of the One whose grace has the power to transform poor, broken sinners like us! Like the tax collector in Luke 18:13, who wouldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven, we must cry out to God and say, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!”
And this is exactly what Jesus means in Matthew 5:3 when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Blessed – happy, but more than a temporary or circumstantial feeling of happiness; highest type of well-being possible for human beings; existing in an enviable or fortunate position from having received God’s provision or favor; for the Greeks, a kind of blissful existence characteristic of the gods.
are the poor in spirit – those who acknowledge their spiritual poverty or spiritual bankruptcy before God; those with nothing to offer…nothing to plead…nothing with which to buy the favor of heaven; and yet, in many cases, because of their physical poverty or oppression, they have learned to put their trust in God alone.
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – having learned to put their trust in God alone, and to their unspeakable joy, they find out that the kingdom is God’s free gift to them; such joy springs from sheer, unimaginable grace.
John Stott says that the kingdom of heaven is only given to those who are poor in spirit, “For God’s rule which brings salvation is a gift as absolutely free as it is utterly undeserved. It has to be received with the dependent humility of a little child.” Similarly, D. A. Carson, in his exposition of The Sermon on the Mount, says that “poverty of spirit depends on a full, honest, factual, conscious, and conscientious recognition before God of personal moral unworth.” He goes on to say that this is the “deepest form of repentance.” Is it really that surprising, then, that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these? In fact, it might be argued that the genuineness and depth of this kind of repentance is a prime requirement for entering into new life.
As we’ve already discussed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (vv. 3, 10) is the present-tense promise that “bookends” the Beatitudes and, therefore, applies to the entire set. But this promise also provides the general context for the more specific blessings of the kingdom, promised in verses 4-9. These promises (and the “good” attributes of the Beatitudes, themselves) are the good news of the kingdom just announced in Matthew 4:17, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And to be poor in spirit is one of the natural products of the repentance just declared to be the proper response to the coming of God’s reign! R. T. France says, in this regard, that “to say that it is to [the poor in spirit] that the kingdom of heaven belongs means that they are the ones who gladly accept God’s rule and who therefore enjoy the benefits which come to his subjects.”
It seems appropriate to bring my thoughts to a close in much the same way that I began them, by considering the somewhat radical teachings of Dallas Willard on the Beatitudes. Willard contends that Jesus taught in a concrete, contextual way – taking advantage of his immediate surroundings or events from everyday life. He does this in three different ways: 1) with the parables; 2) as occasions/questions arise while he’s teaching; and 3) when he wants to highlight a “kingdom principle” that contradicts prevailing assumptions or practices.
Examples of parables are numerous, but Jesus’ use of occasions/questions to illustrate kingdom principles (sometimes against the status quo) can also be found throughout the Gospels: man wanting his early inheritance in Luke 12; Jesus’ mother and brothers calling attention to new heavenly family in Matthew 12; the Passover meal in Matthew 26 taking advantage of bread and wine; the rich young ruler as a foil to kingdom principles in Mark 10; and Jesus at dinner in the house of a religious leader illustrating who should really be invited to a feast in Luke 14. Luke 10 may be one of the best examples of Willard’s ideas because, in it, Jesus uses “concrete” teaching styles from all three categories above. He obviously uses a parable to tell the story of the Good Samaritan but also takes advantage of the lawyer’s initial question on how to inherit eternal life; and he definitely uses the entire situation to highlight a kingdom principle that contradicts the status quo (Who is my neighbor?).
So what does all this have to do with the Beatitudes, you might ask? Well, remember, we’ve already said that, through the Beatitudes, “Jesus turns conventional thinking on its head and disrupts the status quo…that those who are least likely to gain entrance into the Kingdom are the very ones to whom it will be given.” This sounds a lot like the type of situation where, according to Willard, Jesus uses concrete or contextual teaching methods to convey kingdom principles. And that’s exactly the point!
Who’s in the crowd while Jesus is teaching the Beatitudes? The poor? The hungry? The grieving? Those who are hated and possibly even hurt because of their association with Jesus? Yes, of course! They’re all there! And to them belongs the kingdom of heaven! All of them! Every single one of them! By proclaiming blessings on those who are humanly hopeless, Jesus opens the kingdom of heaven to everyone! Willard goes on to say that the “Gospel of the Kingdom is that no one is beyond beatitude, because the rule of God from the heavens is available to all. Everyone can reach it, and it can reach everyone.” And the only proper response to the Beatitudes is living as if they are true, both for ourselves and for others! Amen, make it so Lord!
Previous Article: Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit Pt. I
The Rev’d Dr. Timothy R. Brophy is the Senior Pastor/Vicar at Church of the Good Shepherd. He is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and holds a Ph.D. from George Mason University. Pastor Tim also holds a Master’s degree from the Rawlins Divinity School at Liberty University and has taken additional courses at the Anglican School of Ministry as well as Gordon-Conwell & Reformed Theological Seminaries. He has spiritual gifts of pastoring and teaching, and is committed to the authority of Scripture and its applicability to everyday life. Tim has been married to Michele for nearly 25 years and has been blessed with six children: Timmy, Emily, James, John, Peter, and Chloe! Pastor Tim is also a professor at Liberty University, teaching courses in environmental biology. When he’s not teaching or pastoring, Tim enjoys hanging out with Michele & the kids: skateboarding & rolling on the floor with the boys, shopping and going on dates with the girls, watching movies, and looking for salamanders in the woods!
Augustine, Saint. The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Translated by John J. Jepson. Westminster,
MD: The Newman Press, 1948.
Carson, D. A. The Sermon on the Mount: An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7. Grand
Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978.
ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT). Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing
Green, Michael. The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven (Bible Speaks Today).
Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.
Simonetti, Manlio, ed. Matthew 1-13. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New
Testament, 1a. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Stanley, Victor, Jr. “Blessed are the…” The Double Edge, June 2, 2018. https://www.hebrews4.
org /blogs/beatitudes.html (accessed July 2, 2018).
Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-
Culture (Bible Speaks Today). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978.
Wilken, Robert Louis. “Augustine.” In The Sermon on the Mount Through the Centuries: From
the Early Church to John Paul II, edited by Jeffrey P. Greenman, Timothy Larsen, and
Stephen R. Spencer, 43-57. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco:
Wright, N. T. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters.
New York: HarperOne, 2011.