The Poor in Spirit
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 3). - Matthew 5:1–3
Throughout history, the church has treasured Matthew’s gospel as a primary teaching tool, mainly due to his incorporation of large blocks of Jesus’ instruction including the Sermon on the Mount.
Some preachers try to separate the Sermon on the Mount from the person who preached it. They then try to apply it to all men — non-believers as much as believers. But it is not a treatise on social ethics. Certainly, the sermon has bearing on our relationship to society, but it cannot be divorced from allegiance to Christ (Matt. 5:11). Above all, the sermon describes life in God’s kingdom, that place where God’s people embrace His rule. It is given to Jesus’ disciples (v. 1), making it a guide for life in the believing community — the church. John Calvin alludes to this truth, commenting that the Sermon on the Mount collects “the leading points of the doctrine of Christ” relating “to a devout and holy life.”
Jesus does not present the material in this sermon only on this one occasion, for as an itinerant preacher He repeats the same basic content in many different situations. Christ may also take several days to deliver this instruction, since He sometimes teaches a crowd over a long span of time (15:32). In any case, He preaches at least part of the Sermon on the Mount from a seated position (5:1), following the custom of the rabbis in His day.
The sermon opens with the Beatitudes, the first of which tells us “the poor in spirit” are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (5:3). In this context, Jesus is basically saying that only those who do not rely on their own goodness will be granted entrance into God’s kingdom. It is not an appeal to deny our worth as human beings, but to recognize our sin and desperate need for salvation. Matthew Henry comments that “to be poor in spirit, is to have humble thoughts of ourselves, of what we are, and have, and do. …[It is] to shun all confidence in our own righteousness and strength, that we may depend only on the merit of Christ and the spirit and grace of Christ. …The kingdom of grace is composed of such, the kingdom of glory is prepared for them.”
Elsewhere, Jesus speaks these same words to the poor (Luke 6:20), because those who have nothing are often able to see their need for salvation most clearly. Still, one does not need to lack possessions to see the kingdom of God. John Calvin writes that “he only who is reduced to nothing in himself, and relies on the mercy of God, is poor in spirit.” Rich or poor, if we fail to see our need for salvation, we will fail to enter the kingdom.
Passages for Further Study
- Psalms 34; 68:20
- Isaiah 57:15
- Luke 18:9–14
- Romans 4:1–8
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