“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” What is poverty of spirit? It is the opposite of that haughty, self-assertive, and self-sufficient disposition that the world so much admires and praises. It is the very reverse of that independent and defiant attitude that refuses to bow to God, that determines to brave things out, and that says with Pharaoh, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice?” (Ex. 5:2). To be poor in spirit is to realize that I have nothing, am nothing, and can do nothing, and have need of all things.” Arthur Pink, The Beatitudes, Page 5, Kindle Edition.
As a Christian young in the faith I could not understand the first of the Beatitudes. Jesus had gathered a crowd and His disciples around Him on a hilltop. It was to this congregation that He addressed His first and greatest sermon. It bewildered me that He would hold any worth to those that were “poor in spirit”. I had wrongly equated the concepts of faith and spirit and assumed He was praising those of a weak faith. I could not have been further from the truth.
A renowned boxer who recently passed away was famed for declaring “I am the greatest”. Jesus however, in the Sermon on the Mount, was to bless not those that claimed to be the greatest but those that emptied themselves of all pride and instead humbled themselves before their God. It is the humble that are to be blessed and it is the humble that will see the Kingdom of God and receive God’s promises.
The Beatitudes define the Christian character and their position before God. They are defined spiritually in a manner that is characterized by a true righteousness which in turn will produce blessedness and genuine happiness. Throughout Scripture God has prescribed for His people a path they must take to achieve a proper relationship with Him and the blessings that will naturally flow from walking in His ways. These are spiritual standards and not standards that man can achieve outside accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. These are matters of the heart. The ideals and principles in the Sermon on the Mount are utterly contrary to human nature and the culture we see around us. The ways of His Kingdom are first and foremost a matter of the spiritual nature of man. The transforming power of accepting Jesus Christ as Savior is meant to create a new creation and that creation will be fashioned after the spiritual traits outlined in the Beatitudes. The new creation will be one that is constantly being transformed into a likeness of Him. That is the central focus of the Sermon on the Mount.
It is important to understand that to live the life of the Beatitudes we are to be conformed to the ways of God and not the world. Paul tells us “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). John also addresses this same command when he writes “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” “And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15,17).
It is therefore very understandable that the first Beatitude is a blessing for those that are “poor in spirit” since all the rest flows from emptying ourselves of our pride and self-centered desires. To be poor in spirit is to recognize one’s spiritual poverty apart from God. It is to see oneself as one really is. We must realize that apart from Christ we are lost, hopeless, and helpless. Apart from Jesus Christ every person is spiritually destitute, no matter what his education, wealth, social status, accomplishments, or religious knowledge. No amount of wealth or possessions can make us spiritually right before God.
Humility is the point of the first beatitude. The poor in spirit are those who recognize their total spiritual depravity and their complete dependence on God. We must realize that all that we are in our relationship to God is by His Grace alone. We must understand that our position before Him and the salvation that we have achieved through our Lord Jesus Christ have been accomplished through nothing that we ourselves have done. We must realize that we possess no spiritual merit and can earn no spiritual reward on our own. We need to empty ourselves of our pride, self-esteem and self-assurance and stand empty-handed before God. We need to become that person the Lord speaks of in Isaiah 66:2 “this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” The Psalmist describes the person who is “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18), who has “a broken and a contrite heart” before the Lord (Ps. 51:17). Humbled, contrite in spirit, broken and contrite in heart describe the “poor in spirit”.
In his Confessions Augustine makes clear that pride was his greatest barrier to receiving the gospel. He was proud of his intellect, his wealth, and his prestige. Until he recognized that those things were less than nothing, Christ could do nothing for him. Until Martin Luther realized that all his sacrifice, rituals, good works, and asceticism counted for nothing before God, he could find no way to come to God or to please Him. We as followers of Christ also have to realize that we are nothing before God until we empty ourselves and surrender our will to Him. That is the meaning of being poor in spirit.
Jesus puts this beatitude first because humility is the foundation of all the other blessings, a basic tenet in becoming a Christian. Jesus in Matthew 18:3-4 makes it very clear “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” We are to humble ourselves because humility must precede everything else. No one can receive the Kingdom until he recognizes that he is unworthy of the Kingdom. Humbling one’s self is putting ourselves positionally before God into His perspective not our own.
Paul’s humility is nowhere more beautifully expressed than in his statement, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). We are to empty ourselves and live life in humility before the world and before our Creator. We must continually remember that it was our Lord humbled Himself for our sakes. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:8
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