K:JNWTS 28/3 (December 2013): 12-16

Poor in Spirit

Matthew 5:2-3

Marc Renkema


As we begin our examination of the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount, it is necessary that we start with a consideration of the structure of the first section of this great message. The first major section of the sermon comprises verses 1-16. Understanding the structure of this section enables us to see more clearly the overall meaning of the text. 

Structure: Matthew 5:1-16

vv. 1-2—Introduction to Christ’s sermon
vv. 3-9—Seven Beatitudes vv. 10-16—Commentary
vv. 3-6—what is done to believers
as they live in the world
vv. 10-12—what is done to believers
as they live in the world
vv. 7-9—what we do in the world
in spite of persecution
vv. 13-16—what we do in the world
in spite of persecution

The first question that we must ask is: How many beatitudes are there? If one looks at the text and simply counts up the number of times that we find the word “blessed” at the beginning of a sentence, we would say that there are nine beatitudes—nine “blesseds”. However, many commentators are inclined to combine the last two blessings found in verses 10-11 because they deal with the same subject, i.e., persecution. Thus, we are left with eight beatitudes. Furthermore, these commentators divide the passage into two parts: verses 3-12 and verses 13-16. 

While there is something attractive and simple about that division, I would suggest that it is not the best way to look at this pericope. Instead, it would be more accurate to state that there are seven beatitudes and that verses 10 through 16 ought to be regarded as further commentary. Verses 10-16 throw additional light on the seven—in effect, explaining them to us as divinely inspired commentary. Therefore, the text ought to be divided into verses 3-9 and verses 10-16. Now bear with me as I explain why this makes the most sense.[1]

You will notice that there is a parallel between verses 3 and 10—the repetition of the phrase “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Now admittedly, we might say that the repetition opens and closes the beatitudes, a common pattern referred to as an inclusio. However, it is more likely that the repetition of these words is indicative of the fact that Jesus is taking us back to the beginning; he is starting over again. Thus, verses 10 and following take us back to the beginning of the beatitudes in order to explain them.     

I would argue that this fits the pattern of Matthew’s gospel much better—especially as we consider the apostle’s use of the number seven throughout the gospel. He notably begins his gospel this way with the genealogy of fourteen generation in each subsection, twice seven (1:1-17). The Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13) has seven petitions; in chapters 8-9, he records seven miracles; in chapter 13, he includes seven parables. Matthew makes use of this highly symbolic number many more times throughout the gospel in order to indicate fullness or completeness. Seven beatitudes leave us with the understanding that the blessings of the kingdom of heaven are full; they are perfect; they are all we need. 

If we recognize this division (cf. the structure above), then we can see quite simply that the second section divides into two parts: vv. 10-12 and vv. 13-16. The first part deals with persecution. The second part deals with salt and light. The first part speaks of that which is done to God’s people in the world. The second part speaks of how God’s people are to live in the world in spite of that persecution. We also see then that this commentary applies to the beatitudes themselves, dividing them the same way. Verses 3-6 are related to verses 10-12 in that they speak of what is done to God’s people in the world; verses 7-9 correspond to verses 13-16 speaking of how we are to live in the world in spite of this persecution. 

I realize that this may appear complex. Nonetheless, using the basic structure above, as a means of understanding the beatitudes correctly, we proceed to examine the first beatitude, namely, “blessed are the poor in spirit.”

First of all, who are “the poor in spirit”? How should we define this phrase? We also want to understand how Christ embodies this state most completely/fully. Finally, how are we, who are in Christ, also “poor in spirit”? 

The Poor in Spirit

For many conservative Christians, to be poor in spirit has to do with the recognition of our true spiritual state before God. It is the realization that we come to when we come to grips with our own spiritual depravity. We have nothing to offer God. We can only come to him as beggars, undeserving of anything, but rather seeking his grace and mercy. It is an internal acknowledgement of complete dependence upon God—that he give us that we which we desperately need. It is the state of mind present in the hearts of all believers who understand that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, not of works lest any man should boast (Eph. 2:8-9). We are spiritually helpless, hopeless, and in a state of wretched spiritual poverty apart from the saving grace of Christ. It is this knowledge that drives us to the cross of Christ—to God from whom all blessings flow. Without a doubt, we can say that we are spiritually destitute and we share the conviction that we are dependent fully and completely upon God’s goodness in Christ Jesus alone for our salvation. Still, the question remains: is this what Christ means in this passage? Is this all that he has in mind?

Any definition has to take into consideration what the Scriptures themselves declare about the poor. Quite frequently the poor are spoken of in terms of contrast with the rich. In general, we may say that the Lord looks favorably upon the poor and in contrast frequently admonishes those who are rich. This is especially prominent in the Psalms and the prophets. Read through Psalm 35, 72, and 109. Look at the prophet Isaiah in chapters 61 and 66. There are numerous texts besides these. All of them indicate that behind the proper understanding of the phrase “poor in spirit” are the literal poor—those who have nothing. Add to this what Jesus himself teaches concerning the poor and rich. He tells us not to lay up treasures on earth. He speaks to the rich young ruler and tells him to sell all that he has and give it to the poor. He speaks of the difficulty of the rich in inheriting the kingdom of God. Generally speaking, the gospel is preached in the NT to the poor and though some who are wealthy believe, most of the believers are genuinely poor. 

Now I am not suggesting that Jesus is speaking here of those who are materially or economically impoverished. He is not suggesting by any means that all those who are materially poor will inherit the kingdom. He is not idealizing poverty and making it a virtue. He is not advocating that we sell all that we have to become poor. What I am saying is that Jesus is speaking of something about the nature of being poor which informs our understanding of what it means to be poor in spirit. There is a similarity between the material poor and the spiritual poor. 

The parallel may certainly be seen in the manner in which the poor are treated by the rich. Again this is a common theme in the prophets. The rich abuse and oppress the poor. They take advantage of them. Their abusiveness and bullying is represented most forcefully in the story of King Ahab and his theft of Nabboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-16). The poor are treated contemptuously by the rich. They are denied justice. The poor suffer. 

Furthermore, the poor are treated as if they are nothing. They are powerlessness in this world. They are perceived as weak. They have nothing to contribute. They are overlooked and forgotten. They are shunned and avoided by the rich who look down their noses at them. The poor are deemed inferior. The rich perceive of themselves as superior. They boast in their own prosperity and despise the poverty of the poor. 

We may also look at the poor themselves. They are afflicted and their lives are filled with hardship and many struggles. As Calvin says, the poor are constantly being pressed and afflicted by adversity. They can only look up to God for their aid. Their hope is in the Lord. Apart from him, they would live in hopelessness and despair. They are down-trodden, but they look to God for deliverance. Theirs is also a detachment from the things of the earth. Their minds are set on things above. That is where their treasure is. They possess nothing on the earth of any value. 

The point is not that we are materially poor, but rather that the spiritual life in the kingdom of heaven as we live in this world mirrors that of the poor. It stands in stark contrast to those whose lives are centered upon the things of the earth—whose hearts and minds are set on carnal things. Indeed, many of those who are materially poor are nonetheless preoccupied with the things of this world and are not looking to God for their sustenance. On the other hand, some of those who are rich materially are nonetheless treated as if they were poor and afflicted. Read through some of the psalms of David and you will see that though rich, he identifies himself as one of the poor who is rejected and despised by the rich, suffering the same afflictions as the poor. He is looking to God for his deliverance. The life of the poor in spirit is one of poverty in the eyes of the world. It possesses nothing worldly and therefore is regarded as nothing. 

In order to comprehend this life of spiritual poverty, we need to look no further than Christ himself. Where do we find anyone who embodies the life of poverty more than the one who emptied himself of all his riches and came to earth to live a life of poverty. As Paul declares: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus, the king of heaven, was born in a stable—born into poverty. Jesus, who has no place to lay his head—not only because he had no wealth, but because he was unwelcome here. He was dismissed as worthless and meaningless. He was treated contemptuously and unjustly by the powers that were. He possesses nothing in this world other than his people. He is despised and rejected by men. He was afflicted and oppressed. He had no attachment to worldly things. His mind was set on things above. Jesus infinitely, perfectly embodies all that it means to be poor in spirit. There is none like him, nor ever will be. We, who are in Christ, are made perfect in the one who is perfectly poor in spirit. Jesus, our Lord—the eschatological One “poor in spirit”! 

At the same time, the text is calling us into this life of poverty—a life that is united to Christ in his poverty. What you must see is that this is not simply a state of mind; it is rather a state of being. This is your position in the world. You are poor in spirit by virtue of your relationship with Christ. As the world hated Christ, they will hate you. As Christ endured suffering and hardship for the sake of the gospel, so will you. As Christ was offered the world in his temptation by the devil, so will we be tempted to pursue the things of the world. As Christ forsook the world, so we must forsake the world. We must set our minds on things above. Our treasure is in heaven. We may not be materially deprived of possessions here on earth, but we possess nothing that we would not readily surrender. All that we have is as rubbish compared to what we have in Christ. We are the semi-eschatological possessors, being “poor in spirit” in Christ Jesus. 

You see how contrary this is to the spirit of those who preach a health and wealth gospel. They do not preach poverty in regard to the world, but a gospel of prosperity. They do not proclaim a message of identity with the sufferings of Jesus but a message of worldly success and power. They preach a gospel that is an abomination, contrary to that which Christ teaches in our text. It is not a gospel of worldly prosperity that Christ brings, but a life of poverty with regard to the world. The health and wealth folk do not advocate that believers be poor in spirit, but that they might be rich in spirit. This is the spirit of the world. This first beatitude is made into ‘blessed are the rich in spirit for they will inherit the earth.’ This is the devil’s temptation. Be rich. Possess the earth. But they who do so will inherit the kingdom of darkness. Heed the blessing and warning Jesus gives the churches in Revelation 2 and 3. To the Laodiceans in particular, he says: “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked, I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore, be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:16-19).

To the church at Smyrna on the other hand, he writes: “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:9-10).

Let us be poor in spirit even as Christ is poor in spirit, being forsaken by and forsaking the world, being poor in the things of the flesh that we might be rich in Christ.

People of God, this is who we are in Christ. We are poor, weak, despised and humbled in the eyes of the world. Yet even so, we are tremendously blessed by God on account of the riches of Christ Jesus, our Lord.

[1] Suggested by Charles G. Dennison in a sermon on Matt. 5:1-16, dated Sept. 25, 1988.