One day Jesus walked up on a hillside and sat down. After His disciples gathered around Him He began to teach. That teaching, in Matthew 5:1- 7:29, is called the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins with nine observational promises, often called the beatitudes. My plan is to unwrap each of those promises in the coming weeks.
Before we begin however we need to consider the first word in each of those nine promises – blessed. Some equate blessing with happiness, prosperity, and being fortunate. Those are okay for as far as they go. I think that the deeper meaning, however, lies in God’s grace and favor because each blessing is a freely given gift from God.
Over the years I’ve heard several different understandings or frameworks upon which to hang these verses. They’ve been called the “be-attitudes”, been taught as steps to a holy life, or simply considered as stand-alone promises. There is merit in each one of those frameworks. To be honest I’m taking this journey with you. I have no master plan or framework other than unwrapping each one, in turn, to see what Jesus is saying to us today. We will not only be looking at the “be” part and what that means in our walk with Jesus but also the promise part and what that may mean for today.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, NASB95)
The first promise of Jesus begins with a puzzle. We have a pretty good understanding of what it means to mourn or to be gentle but have difficulty grasping what it means to be poor in spirit. It doesn’t help that Luke’s version of the promises replaces poor in spirit with being simply impoverished. (Luke 6:20) Taking the words literally places us on shaky ground. If poor means something along the lines of “to lack” then you end up with nonsense – blessed are those that lack spiritual reality, who have nothing in their spiritual bank account, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven. I am confident that Jesus meant something different.
Most commentaries agree that “poor in spirit” is an idiom, a catch phrase like “hit the lights” which doesn’t literally mean to punch the light bulb or knock over the lamp but to simply turn the lights on or off. The meaning of “poor in spirit” is perhaps best seen through its opposite, spiritual arrogance. Therefore, we could say that being “poor in spirit” is spiritual humility.
What does spiritual humility look like? Well, we know what spiritual arrogance looks like. The Pharisee’s are example number one. Perhaps the best picture of spiritual arrogance is Jesus’ teaching about logs and sawdust in Matthew 7:3-5. It takes massive arrogance to pick at someone’s petty sin before seeing and dealing with our own gigantic issues. But perhaps the best example of what being poor in spirit looks like come from other times Jesus said something like “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” While Jesus often taught about what the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God is like there are only a few instances with phrasing similar to “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The first instance comes a few verses later when Jesus taught, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10, NASB95) That often happens when spiritual arrogance encounters anything that challenges their worldview. Jesus faced it, the Apostles faced it, Paul faced it, and if we are following Jesus, we very well could face it. The second instance provides what I think is the best picture. Matthew records, “But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”” (Matthew 19:14, NASB95) Also see Mark 10:14, John 3:3-5. Children have a humility of spirit. They easily grasp spiritual truths which are why parents must be cautious as to the spiritual truths they teach. If you ever have the opportunity to hear a young child pray listen well. They may not say the right words in the right way but they always pray with their heart; simply, honestly, and with the kind of faith that epitomizes being spiritually humble.
There is one more example of spiritual humility that I’d like to bring out which will also lead us to what this means for us today. Much later in Matthew Jesus paints a picture of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31:46. In Jesus words we see two groups, both groups declare Jesus as Lord (vs 37 and 44). However, one group is invited into the Kingdom of Heaven, the other is cast away. In spiritual humility born of love, the first group fed the hungry, provided drink for the thirsty, a roof for the stranger, clothes for the naked, comfort for the sick, and company for the prisoner. They did this naturally, not to gain favor with God or man, but because they walked with compassion in their world. The second group did none of these things. We are not told how they exercised faith or what was the anchor of their hope, perhaps it was right doctrine, right heritage, right religious practice, or even right church membership. Regardless of what form their assumptions took, they walked in a kind of spiritual arrogance which blocked the compassion of the Holy Spirit from operating in their lives. The first group operated in spiritual humility, so much so that they did not even expect their simple acts of mercy to earn them any reward in heaven. They didn’t do these things to grow a church, to extend their reputation, or to alter political realities. It would seem that they, like children that imitate their parents, sought only to follow Jesus’ example in their world.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” God’s grace shines on those that walk and serve and live spiritually humble lives by following Jesus like a child follows their parents; God’s kingdom is open wide to them. I don’t know about you but this challenges me. It challenges me to place doctrine and judgment in their proper place. It challenges me to repent of religious arrogance, pride, and haughtiness. It challenges me to watch my own walk with Jesus instead of comparing my righteousness with that of others. It challenges me to find opportunities and ways to imitate Jesus’ compassion in the world around me. How does this challenge you?