Poor in Spirit

Intro: What distinguishes the Christian today? Do we stand out? What does God expect of us?We might focus our attention on passages that speak to God’s requirements for becoming a Christian; faith, repentance, baptism –certainly these acts distinguish the Christian from those who refuse to obey. There are many who claim to be Christians who have not obeyed.  But this is not all that makes us distinct. In our study this morning we spoke about the weaknesses of living for Christ. We noticed that the choices one makes to be submissive and suffer for the cause of Christ appear as a sign of weakness, rather than strength. Paradoxically, Paul tells us that these weaknesses are the avenue through which God is able to display His strength in our lives.

Notice this paradox presented again in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. 1 Cor 1:18 – 18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … 1:26-3126 For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. 27 But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; 28 and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, 29 that no flesh should glory in His presence. 30 But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God — and righteousness and sanctification and redemption —31 that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.”

But when it comes to Biblical teaching that expresses our distinction from the world around us, my thoughts go to Jesus’ most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, and specifically the beginning of that text: the Beatitudes.

  • This sermon describes the Christian in the contrasting context of the world in which he lives. As John Stott writes, “There is no single paragraph of the Sermon on the Mount in which this contrast between Christian and non-Christian standards is not drawn. It is the underlying and uniting theme of the Sermon; everything else is a variation of it. “Rather, Jesus calls his church to be the “counter-culture” – to use all the biblically approved means to distinguish ourselves from non-Christians, to oppose their agenda, and to tear down their unscriptural culture (2 Cor. 10:3-5).”  

I want to consider the first of the beatitudes as a synoptic characteristic of the Christian.

  • Matt 5:3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I believe that Jesus presents the same paradox here in Matthew 5. God’s blessings flow toward those who appear weak to others; God’s standards are counter-cultural.

Are you poor? Who are the poor among us? That is an interesting question. It is certainly a question that must be answered for each particular culture. No doubt we realize that if we transferred our lifestyle to other cultures of the world we would be considered enormously wealthy.

We may consider ourselves as poor because we have much less than others around us.

I. But what did it mean to be poor in the Bible? There are a few different Greek words which translate as poor.

A. One of the most commonly used is penei, (pen – aa) laborer; which refers to the working poor–those who are able to earn just enough to make it through the day. This is not the word used in this Beatitude.

B. The word used here is ptochos. (pto-khos) The verb means “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 refers to those who are utterly destitute and unable to help themselves–they are completely dependent upon the kindness and compassion of others.

1. Widow: Mark 12:43 – the widow’s 2 mites was all that she had – “her whole livelihood”.

2. Lazarus: Luke 16:20-21But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, 21 desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.

3. Luke 14:21‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.’

II. “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” – Matt 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus begins the sermon by speaking in the 3rd person. His objective is to describe a certain type of person. A citizen of the kingdom which predominated the personal preaching of Jesus.

A. Because Luke’s account leaves out the phrase “in spirit” in Luke 6:20, some have concluded that Jesus is referring to material poverty.

1. In the language of Judaism the terms were synonymous. One who was at the point of starvation & in a state of helplessness, was one whose only hope was God. Guelich writes… “In summary, the poor in Judaism referred to those in desperate need (socio-economic element) whose helplessness drove them to a dependent relationship with God (religious element) for the supplying of their needs and vindication.” David McClister says this explains why Luke only has “blessed are the poor” (6:20), omitting “in spirit.” The two phrases come to mean the same thing anyway.

2. 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 ‎ptœchos‎.

3. Additionally, if Jesus were here advocating material poverty he would have contradicted other scriptures that teach us to give financial help to the poor. The task of Christians would be to help make everyone, including themselves, penniless.

4. The poor do have certain spiritual advantages over the rich (not having certain distractions and temptations), but material possessions have no necessary relationship to spiritual blessings.

5. Jesus often had “nowhere to lay His head” (Matt 8:20), but He and His disciples were not beggars. Paul was often economically hard pressed; but he did not beg for food. He worked in order to pay his own expenses in the ministry (Acts 20:34; 1 Cor 9:6-18). On the other hand, no New Testament believer is condemned for being rich (Nicodemus, Joseph, Philemon) but rather warned of the danger of trusting in riches and not in God (1 Tim 6:6-17). 

B. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? “To be poor in spirit is to have a humble opinion of ourselves; to be sensible that we are sinners, and have no righteousness of our own; to be willing to be saved only by the rich grace and mercy of God (Barnes)

1. It is a conviction of one’s own spiritual poverty: as exemplified by the tax collector in Luke 18:13 – 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!

2. To be poor is spirit involves at least 3 attitudes toward God and myself. How do I see myself in relationship to God?

a. humility – God is everything, not me.

b. devotion – Because He is everything, He is to be praised and appeased; not me.

c. dependence – Because God is everything I must depend upon Him for everything. Simply put, it is a way of talking about “total commitment” to God, as each of these attitudes is absolute. In many ways it is the exact opposite of what the world tells us: believe in yourself, be self-reliant, self-assertive, self-confident, etc.

3. What poor in spirit does not mean:

a. Weakness: the one who depends on God can accomplish every good work. 2 Cor. 9:8 – And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work.

b. Cowardice: It is not a fear of disapproval that leads to inactivity. The man with the one talent was not poor in spirit, he was poor in faith. Consider Jesus. Was He a coward? Paul describes Jesus as becoming poor for us. 2 Cor 8:5 – 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich. What was Jesus’ poverty that made us rich?

III. The Priority of being “poor in spirit” – seen in the context of these verses, we notice that this quality is listed first. Why? 

A. God accepts “the spiritually poor”…

1. Isaiah 57:15 – 15 For thus says the High and Lofty one Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, With him who has a contrite and humble spirit, To revive the spirit of the humble, And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.

2. Isaiah 66:1-21 Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool. Where is the house that you will build Me? And where is the place of My rest? 2 For all those things My hand has made, And all those things exist,” Says the LORD. “But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, And who trembles at My word.

3. Psalms 51:1717 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart — These, O God, You will not despise. 

B. God uses the “spiritually poor” …

1. When God called Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt, Moses pleaded his unworthiness, and God was able to use him mightily.

2. John the Baptizer would have been criticized today for his low self-esteem. But God used him in the poor spirit. (I am not worthy to carry his shoes)

3. 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).

4. Paul, even after he became an apostle, 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). He learned to know that God’s grace was sufficient for him.  

IV. “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – it is often viewed that Jesus is saying the poor in spirit will go to heaven when they die. Although this is true, the phrase “The kingdom of heaven” here refers to the reign of God. “Heaven” is a Jewish idiom for “God.” (The Jews refused to speak the name of God out of reverence. So they would substitute heaven – as the place where God is- for God Himself.)

A. Often when used by Jesus, the word kingdom conveyed special emphasis on submission to God, living under his reign. “The kingdom of God is at hand” meant more than just the coming of the church in Acts 2. It meant the time was near when everyone would live under the rulership of God. (“Kingdom of God is within you”)

1. The Pharisees had a legalistic view of the kingdom; those who were truly under God’s reign were those who kept the law best. The problem with this approach was that it fostered pride in man: “Look how obedient I am.” Jesus says that the one who is truly under God’s reign is the one who has emptied his spirit of all notions of worth, merit, or sufficiency. Again, it is an internal disposition, not an action that Jesus here calls for.

B. Poverty of spirit is the key to greatness in the Kingdom. Matthew 18:1-418 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3 and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

1. In God’s kingdom, the way up is down. God does not dissuade us from seeking to be great. We are just mistaken about what constitutes true greatness. Does this partially account for why some never grow as Christians?

a. James 4:1010 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up. God resists pride In order to appropriate the grace of God that saves, man must humble himself.

b. Proverbs 16:1818 Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall. Pride is at the root of every rebellion against God. 2. Jesus says that the kingdom does not belong to the mighty or physically powerful, but to those who are poor in spirit.

V. Some practical manifestations of poverty of spirit: Where does poverty of spirit show up in our lives? 

A. In Our Prayers: There is hardly a better way to show God every day our dependence upon Him. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus uses prayer as the occasion to illustrate the difference between the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18? 

B. In Our Unity: (treatment of others) Romans 12:3For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. The emphasis in the context is on unity among God’s people, and the proper use of the gifts God has given us. Humility breeds unity; self-centeredness only breeds division and fighting. Every command and admonition mentioned in this chapter rests on the attitude of spiritual poverty. Philippians 2:3-43 Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. 4 Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. 

C. In Our Obedience: Those who are dependent on God do not balk at obedience. They follow God wherever He leads.  

Conclusion: Humility (poorness of spirit) is not much celebrated in our world – it never has been the way of men. But it is not a perspective of powerlessness. It is the perspective from which God displays his power to the world. Love is seeking another before myself. Thus, the poverty of one’s spirit that subjugates personal desires to the needs of others is the perspective of love – the proper understanding of the love God has for us. God’s love does not make Him weak. It is the essence of His strength.

Are you poor in spirit? Will you obey God today?