Author(s)Andrew Towner
Date 26 February 2020
Category The Beatitudes

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
  for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
  for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
  for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
  for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
  for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
  for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
(Matthew 5:1-12)

Starter Question
At the start of Jesus’s longest recorded public teaching, what themes are you surprised to see or not see?

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him,  and he began to teach them. He said:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:1-3)

Before we focus in on our specific verses, there are a few things to note about verses 3-12, which are known as the Beatitudes. These beautiful attitudes focus on the kingdom of heaven, verses 3 and 10 serving as bookends, and promise blessing in every single verse. They have a structure, flowing from and into each other, and they are addressed to both disciples and crowd, so two types of hearer are in view.

Turning to the first few verses, our text for today, we consider three questions about poverty of spirit: what is it? why is it a blessing? and how might we gain or grow in it?

Poverty of Spirit
At school I was never very good at the high jump. I’m sure it was fun for my classmates to watch, but I was a total failure. I couldn’t clear a bar of even medium height. The great news as Jesus starts his preaching about the Kingdom of God is that there’s no high bar to clear, but rather a call to lowliness—an invitation to humility, a normality-inverting charge to pursue being “poor in spirit” — because in Jesus’s revolutionary kingdom, the way up is always down.

As Jesus teaches his followers, and the crowd listen on, he explains that kingdom blessings are not for the self-satisfied, self-sufficient, or proud. Instead, entry to the kingdom is by coming to the end of ourselves and our own capacities, what has been called ‘a healthy sense of self-despair’. Imagine the encouragement that was to an early follower who knew they understood little, could never live a life good enough for God, and was looking to Jesus for everything. And imagine the challenge to an observant Pharisee trusting in his own righteousness.

The blessing of spiritual poverty
Why is being ‘poor in spirit’ a blessing? The simple answer is that ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Being poor in spirit is the necessary qualification to be saved and in the Father’s eternal kingdom. To become a follower of Jesus, all you need is need. Tragically some members of the crowd then, and hearers of the gospel today, fail to enter the kingdom because they’re not needy enough: their self-sufficiency keeps them out.

The second answer is to understand this saying as a doorway to the other Beatitudes, and indeed the whole Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). To have come to the end of your tether will motivate and enable you to mourn sin (verse 4), be meekly teachable (verse 5) and keenly seek godliness (verse 6), which will include the attitudes and lifestyle associated with mercy (verse 7), purity (verse 8), peace-making (verse 9) and distinctiveness (verses 10-12).

A third answer is to ask what sort of people you’d most like in your office, family, or friendship groups? The attitudes which we’ve seen flow from being “poor in spirit” are a great blessing to all whom they impact. Jesus showed that perfectly, and his followers will too, in increasing measure.

Growing in spiritual poverty
How can we grow in being ‘poor in spirit’? Simply by the gospel: what do we bring to God’s great work of salvation? Only the sin which requires Christ’s death on our behalf. As David sang: ‘Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD Who may stand in his holy place?’ (Psalm 24:3). And as Matt Redman has taught us to sing ‘Who, O Lord, could save themselves?’

As we read on through these stunning and challenging verses, and even on into the following chapters, we will find ourselves fleeing back again and again to verse 3, to re-enter Jesus’s doorway to blessing. Our humble, dependent striving to live out Jesus’s challenging portrayal of the kingdom cannot be solved by works (which lead to ‘pride of spirit’) but by allowing the gospel to humble us more fully. Verse 3 always and naturally leads on to those which follow, so we shall come back there again and again.

Indeed, reading on into the Sermon on the Mount, many of Jesus’s lines seem designed to lovingly lead us back there. In God’s sight a nasty word is murder and a lustful look adultery (5:22, 27), and understanding this leads to poverty of spirit. Reviewing our giving, praying, and fasting (6:1-18) and considering whether our living is focused on either eternity or now (6:19-34) will develop that poverty of spirit. Any reflection on specs and planks and judgmentalism (7:1-5) will do the same. And thus throughout Jesus great sermon we are having poverty of spirit developed in us.

Not a high bar in sight — what a relief! I could never jump high enough. Rather, here is the Christlike glory of lowliness and poverty of spirit, the gateway to great blessing.

Questions for Reflection
1. What signs of being ‘poor in spirit’ can I see in myself and thank God for?
2. How might growing increasingly ‘poor in spirit’ bless me, and then others through me?
3. What do these verses teach me to pray for myself, for my Christian brothers and sisters, and for the lost?

Almighty God,
who alone can humble the proud and delights to exalt the humble:
remove from our hearts the sin of pride,
and replace it with poverty of spirit,
that we may enjoy the blessings of your kingdom in increasing measure,
thinking and living more and more like your King, our Saviour Jesus Christ,
in whose humility we glory,
and though which we are saved,