There is a sublime paradox in the first two Beatitudes. We do not readily associate blessedness with poverty or mourning. That seems a contradiction in terms.
Last month we saw that the Beatitudes describe the marks of the disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ – the ‘hallmarks’ of true Christian experience. We now turn to the first of these, which says: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5:3).
How can those who are poor (in any sense) be happy or blessed? Let me begin by clearing away some possible misunderstandings as to just what this ‘poverty’ involves.
Not everything we might call ‘poverty’ is blessed. Clearly material poverty can scarcely be called ‘blessed’. Having little of this world’s goods cannot be the sort of blessed state Jesus alludes to here. Nor can he be referring to what we might call spiritual poverty. Impenitent, unsaved souls are spiritually poor, but obviously unaware of their poverty before God. Such people have not yet been awakened to their real poverty and therefore cannot be ‘blessed’.
‘Poor in spirit’ must also be distinguished from a state of being poor- or mean-spirited. A person may, for example, have a natural reticence that looks like humility, or may have a miserly or ungenerous nature. These things are not the product of biblical religion.
There is an example of this sort of attitude in Dickens’ David Copperfield. Uriah Heep made great play of his humility, but it was false. It was not true poverty of spirit, but rather a subtle cloak for pride or niggardliness.
Again, poverty in spirit is not to be equated with self-denial. Self-denial may flow from a man or woman who is poor in spirit, but it is not in itself the poverty in spirit which Jesus speaks of here. It is not necessarily a blessed thing to make oneself poor, or glory in having nothing.
Perhaps it was admirable for George Orwell, for example, to go among the down-and-outs in the Paris Metro. But in reality he was not a down-and-out nor was he poor. The poverty in spirit referred to by Jesus is something that brings a necessary blessedness in the possession of it. That is not true of any of the states described above.
Humility before God
So what is Jesus referring to in this first Beatitude? Who are the poor in spirit? No doubt it concerns a person’s relationship with God. It has certainly to do with man’s spiritual state, for the Beatitude speaks of poverty in spirit.
This clearly refers to something characteristic of the human spirit and which, where found, involves an experience of true blessing in relation to God. In Isaiah’s prophecy, the Lord speaks of the proper attitude that sinners should have towards himself: ‘Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool … on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at my word’ (66:1-2).
Here we have an insight into the nature of this Beatitude. To be poor in spirit, a person must have a sense of the sovereignty and holiness of God. What effect does this awareness have upon our soul? No doubt there will be a two-fold response.
A sense of sin
Firstly, we are brought into a deep sense of our sin. The sinner will see no goodness in himself and will be cast wholly upon the Lord. As John Calvin put it, we will be ‘those who see nothing in themselves, but fly to mercy for sanctuary’.
There are abundant examples of this attitude in the Scriptures. Take the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The tax collector cannot so much as raise his head. He is ashamed of himself before the majestic holiness of God and deeply conscious of his sin. He beats his breast: ‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’ (v.13).
Or take Paul, as he describes his own experience: ‘I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord … and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ’ (Philippians 3:8). That is being poor in spirit.
Isaiah himself, in the face of a revelation of the holy majesty of God cries: ‘Woe is me for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips; and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips’ (6:5). The poor in spirit inevitably see themselves as unworthy sinners before a holy God. ‘For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts’, continues Isaiah. Only a person brought low before the mighty sovereignty and holiness of God, revealed both in creation and in his Word, is poor in spirit.
Secondly, we are brought to renounce self-reliance and self-sufficiency before the Lord. One of the greatest problems of the sinful human heart is pride. When a man truly comes to the Lord he will be humbled and will humble himself. Pride will be dealt a fatal blow. No doubt this will be a lifelong struggle, but the person humbled before the Lord will be poor in spirit. That person will also need continually to bring himself low before the Lord. Pride, the idol of the heart of natural man, will be knocked off its perch.
Why is this the first Beatitude? Is there any significance in its position? Yes; there is an obvious reason for this being the first of the Beatitudes. It is surely because this humble disposition, where it is found, is the basis of all other graces.
You see fruit on a tree. Where has it come from? Obviously, from a healthy, well-nurtured plant. Only when men and women are truly poor in spirit in the sense described, having a deep sense of sin and humbling themselves before the Lord, will the other Christian virtues highlighted in the Beatitudes follow. For example, without this self-abasement, how can a believer mourn over sin, or hunger and thirst for righteousness?
This leads us to reflect on the importance of this Beatitude. There are three things that may be said.
1. The man or woman who does not recognise what they are before God, and what he is in himself, will scarcely desire the other graces and fruits of the Holy Spirit. If a man’s pride is not dealt with, he is unlikely to seek conformity to the Lord and his revealed will for his life. Thomas Watson put it this way: ‘If your hand is full of pebbles it cannot receive gold’. We must be emptied and broken if we are to progress in the fruits of grace. Hence the importance of poverty in spirit.
2. The man or woman not humbled before the Lord will scarcely be found desiring Christ, because they will not fully see their need of him. Whoever is not poor in spirit will still be self-reliant. And whoever is exercising self-reliance, even as a Christian, will not be relying upon the Lord as they ought. Poverty in spirit is required in order to see one’s need for Christ, whether in salvation or in sanctification.
3. If there is no brokenness in a person’s life, they will not get to heaven. The promise attached to this Beatitude is ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are poor and of a contrite spirit and who tremble at God’s Word. Those who are genuinely saved will be brought low before God; and that is a characteristic of all who are destined for heaven.
Moreover, this should not just be thought of in passive terms. Believers are encouraged constantly to bring themselves low before the Lord. In that way they exhibit this characteristic and prove they are citizens of heaven.
What, then, are the marks of being poor in spirit? We will know whether or not we possess this characteristic by its effects.
1. The poor in spirit will be properly humbled before the Lord. They will have no inflated sense of self-importance, because their life will be imbued with the fragrance of humility before the face of God.
Such souls will not be full of their own achievements or ‘status’ but see themselves as debtors to the mercy and grace of God. Thomas Watson uses an effective picture to emphasise this point: ‘As the ship gets to the haven more by the benefit of the wind than the sail, so when a Christian makes any swift progress, it is more by the wind of God’s Spirit than the sail of his own endeavour’.
That is not to say that there should be no endeavour after this poverty in spirit. As Peter exhorts his readers: ‘humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time'(1 Peter 5:6).
2. The poor in spirit will be cast upon Christ. As with the apostle Paul, there will be a renunciation of self-righteousness and a corresponding desire to ‘gain’ the Lord (Phil. 3:9-10). The truly poor in spirit will seek to live not to self but to the Lord. For such souls, Christ has displaced self, and their desire, however weak, will be: ‘For to me, to live is Christ’ (Philippians 1:21).
Prayerfulness and grace
3. The poor in spirit will be much in prayer. Prayer, of course, implies a spirit of submissiveness to God. It will reflect an attitude of real need on our part and an acknowledgement that our help is to be found in the Lord.
Prayer is therefore a mark of poverty in spirit. The prayers of the Bible demonstrate this fact. Think of Daniel crying out: ‘O Lord, to us belongs shame of face…because we have sinned against you’ (9:8). Or Ezra, tearing his garment, plucking out the hair of his head and beard, sitting down appalled, and crying: ‘O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to you, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens’ (9:3,6).How much of such feeling is there in our praying?
4. The poor in spirit will exult in free grace. The man or woman brought low before God recognises the glorious reality of the free grace of God. Some people object to the doctrines of grace, claiming that they inspire a sort of spiritual pride. Certainly, the reality ought to be the reverse. It is these great biblical truths that bring men low before God, and cause them to acknowledge his sovereignty and power over all of man’s best efforts. John Calvin’s own ‘motto’ was simply this: ‘I offer my heart to thee, Lord, promptly and sincerely’.
How common is this poverty in spirit in the church of the present day? Sadly, there seems to be little of this spirit of humility before God; of men and women having a profound sense of the holiness and majesty of God.
May the Lord himself bring his people low before him! May they bring themselves low before him! Here is an anchor for the soul from which other graces and fruits will follow. This is a priority: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. And here is the rich promise attached to it: ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.