As Jesus sat down to teach the multitudes, in the lesson that has come to be known as, “The Sermon on the Mount,” He began by describing the qualities of character necessary in those who wish to enter God’s heavenly Kingdom (Matthew 5:3-10). These qualities of character have come to be known as the Beatitudes, a transliteration of a Latin word meaning “blessed,” because Jesus begins each description of character with the statement, “Blessed are…”
The characteristics are each, of themselves, a spiritual necessity, and together they form a perfect whole, a single individual possessing the qualities God values in His servants.
The theme of the Sermon on the Mount is “Righteousness,” and the necessity for it within the Kingdom (Matthew 5:20). The Beatitudes set the tone for the broader lesson, as an introduction, by giving those qualities of character which help produce righteousness within us, as well as qualities that flow out of having a righteous character. Further, Jesus encourages us to possess said qualities by assuring us that in possessing them, we will be blessed.
The very first of the qualities Christ extols is that of being “poor in spirit:” “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3).” The phrase, poor in spirit, is an interesting one and many have wondered over the years what exactly did Jesus mean by it.
The word, “poor,” means exactly what it sounds like: a poverty or lacking. The question then is what is the “spirit,” that we are to be poor in?
Some mistakenly conclude that Jesus is refereeing to a weakness of character, a lacking of courage; but that would seem to be contrary to the general idea that these are desirable traits. Further, elsewhere, Jesus chastised His apostles for their fearfulness (cf. Matthew 8:26), connecting fear with a lack of faith. It would seem strange for Jesus to tell His disciples that they need to have greater fear and timidity, and then just a few days later berate them for the same.
Though the phrase, “poor of spirit,” is not found verbatim elsewhere in the Scriptures, there are passages which might help us understand the general idea Jesus is putting forth. The Psalms, for example, teach, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18; ESV).” James, in his epistle to the church, writes, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6; ESV).”
Perhaps the best understanding, Scripturally, of the poverty of spirit that God wants from us is humility, an absence of pride. When we are “rich” in pride, we are spiritually bankrupt. But when we are “poor” in spirit, God exalts us and gives us His riches (cf. James 4:10).
Likewise, the crushed spirit spoken of in the Psalms, is the man who is willing to turn to God for help, acknowledging that he needs God (cf. Psalm 34:15, 17). If we are too proud to humbly ask God for salvation, in humility submitting ourselves both to His will and His protection, we are not going to have a place in God’s Kingdom.
Thus, blessed is the poor in Spirit, because he is the one who is going to acknowledge his own shortcomings and sins, he is the one who is going to be willing to admit the same to God, and he is the one who is going to do what God tells him to do in order to make the situation better. The proud man will not acknowledge his faults, he will not admit he needs help, and he will not ask for help, and when God gives instruction, he will not follow it.
The connection between being “poor in spirit,” genuine humility, and obedience to what God tells us to do is one we would do well to keep in mind. Jesus begins the sermon on the mount commending the poor in spirit. He concludes it by stressing the need for obedience, saying it was the one who actively did the will of God that would enter the Kingdom (Matthew 7:21) and that the wise man was the one who heard the words of Jesus and obeyed them (Matthew 7:24). Let us pray that we are humble enough to hear and understand.
If you would like to learn more about the Kingdom, and how to be a part of it, the church of Christ invites you to worship and study with us, at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise if you have any questions or comments, we invite you to share them with us at chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.