Poor in Spirit

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The first recorded teaching of Jesus is found in the Sermon On the Mount in Matthew 5, where He begins: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (vs 3) What does this mean? Why does Yeshua begin His teaching in this way?

Firstly, we may observe that the wording of the second part of the verse, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” describes why Christ says the poor in spirit are blessed, in an immediate interpretive context. Theirs implies ownership or relationship: it is not merely that the poor in spirit are in God’s kingdom or that they belong to it — they comprise it; the kingdom of God is defined by them: they are the kingdom. For if the poor in spirit share the kingdom with one who is not … then the kingdom cannot be said to belong to the poor in spirit any more than it can be said of anyone … rendering Messiah’s words meaningless.

And what does it mean to comprise the kingdom of God and yet not be in the family of God, or to be a child of God and not part of His kingdom? Again, such words mean nothing if they are not equivalent; which implies that Yeshua is expressing a boundary condition, a definition: all who are poor in spirit are also children of God … and only the poor in spirit are God’s children; all of the children of God are poor in spirit and only God’s children are poor in spirit. One cannot distinguish between being poor in spirit and being a child of God. In effect, Yeshua begins His teaching by describing what being a child of God looks like, what it means to be born of the Spirit.

Secondly, we may observe that Jesus does not merely say here, “Blessed are the poor.” In a similar text, Luke 6:20, He says directly to His disciples,  singling them out specifically, “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God,” but this is not quite the same as saying all poor people are blessed. In general, since their physical poverty is a constant reminder to them of other types of poverty, poor people are perhaps also likely to be poor in spirit, but this need not always be the case. Jesus is not teaching that all of God’s children are monetarily poor, or that physical poverty in itself guarantees salvation or produces blessing. To get at what Jesus is teaching we must consider what “poor in spirit” means.

To be poor is to have insufficient but necessary means, to lack basic necessities. To be poor in spirit then must express a condition of acute and constant awareness of personal spiritual insufficiency, an acknowledgement of one’s inability to meet some type of necessary moral or spiritual standard without supernatural aid. This does not imply that we are weak, for the Bible commands us to “be strong.” (1Co 16:13) Neither does it require us to be timid or fearful, for “the righteous are bold as a lion.” (Pr 28:1Ac 19:8, 2Ti 2:2) It does not deny our intelligence, character, abilities or gifts, or that of others, for this is not walking in truth. (1Sa 17:33-9), Phm 1:21)

Yeshua teaches us that being a child of God implies living in a continuing and settled awareness of our own inadequacy to either measure up to God’s moral standards without His constant aid, or to properly represent Him to others in our own strength. Paul acknowledged this, constantly trusting in and depending on the enabling grace of God to function spiritually: “And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament.”  (2Co 3:4-6) Paul knew that without the unwavering, faithful, steady help of God his thoughts and motives would be wholly inadequate, falling entirely short of God’s calling and expectation.

Paul knew that to abide in God was to be a walking savor of Christ to the world, which he was incapable of being in and of himself. “To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?(2Co 2:16) Yet Paul knew that he was not walking alone; he knew that God was always with him, strengthening him in the midst of his personal weakness: “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Co 12:9) Yes, it is our happy state to take the yoke of the living Christ upon us and learn of Him who said: “I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” (Mt 11:29)

Pride is enjoying and pursuing self-exaltation, a willful pattern of thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought, and this is dreadfully wicked: “Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished.” (Pr 16:5) Paul therefore exhorts believers to avoid this pattern of life, even as he acknowledges the power of God enabling him to exhort us so: “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” (Ro 12:3) True humility then is not going to the other extreme and thinking of ourselves as less than we truly are, but thinking soberly, realistically and accurately of ourselves. We must therefore acknowledge our gifts and worth and calling in God, for it is real and verifiable, but we must never presume that we are spiritually adequate to walk with God as we should in our own strength apart from Him. Evidently, only a child of God can live in this awareness as a manner of life, and all of God’s children will tend to do this as a manner of life.

So, as Yeshua begins His teaching He challenges us to examine ourselves, whether we be in the faith. (2Co 13:5) He calls us to prove ourselves, to make our calling and election sure, for if we do these things we shall never stumble and fall in our walk with God. (2Pe 1:10-11)

Jesus does this, not by asking us to examine what we claim to believe, pointing us to our doctrine or our statement of faith, but by examining our hearts, where are true beliefs and doctrines manifest. It is here, in the heart of life as children of God, constantly aware that we are inadequate in ourselves and incapable of pleasing God on our own, where we search our hearts and find that we are indeed walking more and more in His way. We feel the grace of God, His enabling power for the journey of holiness … to pursue Him, and follow in His steps.

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