What did Jesus mean when he declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”? Does this refer to actual poverty or spiritual humility? Does “blessed” mean “happy”? How could the poor be blessed?
Blessed or happy?
We should not equate being “blessed” with being “happy.” Jesus was not making statements about the emotional well-being of people. Western culture is preoccupied with analyzing moods and feelings, whereas being “blessed” is much deeper than an assessment of emotion.
Jesus’ use of “blessed” is better understood as a declaration of divine approval. “Blessed (of God)” are the poor in spirit. After all, Jesus is the one making the declarations.
The eight beatitudes are the qualities of the true disciples of Jesus. What does a true believer look like? — He is poor in spirit; he mourns; he is meek… I agree with the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones in seeing these as progressive spiritual experiences with lasting transformations of character.
Jesus described those who will inhabit heaven
The eight beatitudes are sandwiched in a literary envelop between the repeated phrase “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This offers insight into the kind of people who make up the citizens of heaven. Who will inhabit heaven? Look at the beatitudes. This is true Christianity. Whatever superficial substitute you’ve seen, it must be measured by these qualities.
The meaning of poor in spirit
Blessed — approved of God — are the poor in spirit. To be poor in spirit is to recognize one’s spiritual bankruptcy before God. It is to stand before God, broken and empty without anything to commend ourselves to His approval.
The poor in spirit are like the man described by Jesus who beat himself on the chest and plead for God’s mercy. “I tell you,” Jesus said elsewhere, “that the this man who identified himself as a sinner in need of God’s mercy “went home justified before God.” Then our Lord said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14).
The opposite of the poor in spirit is the proud in spirit. And since we know that God resists the proud (I Peter 5:5-6), we may be confident that nothing of spiritual consequence happens apart from poverty of spirit. God is near to those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18) and “guides the humble in what is right and teaches them His way” (Psalm 25:9). This is why the poor in spirit are blessed!
- “The person who is poor in spirit is truly amazed that God and men would think of him and treat him as well as they do. ” (Martyn Lloyd-Jones).
We’re usually amazed that they don’t teat us better than they do. Yet God has not dealt with us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10). When someone asks how you’re doing, I suggest answering, “Better than I deserve.”
Character precedes influence
It is important to notice how Jesus shifted from third person address (”theirs” is…”they” shall….) in Matthew 5:3-12 – to second person address in Matthew 5:13-16 – “You” are the salt of the earth; “You” are the light of the world. Who is Jesus talking about here? Who is salt and light? The ones he described in the beatitudes. They fulfill the role of salt and light?
“Poor” vs. “Poor in spirit”
Luke’s gospel uses a socio-economic designation without the spiritual addition – “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). This fits with an overall emphasis in the gospel of Luke on God’s concern for the lowly and it’s taught in other places as well.
- “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5).
- “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. ( I Corinthians 1:26-29).
Why is it that material need often helps us to see deeper needs? Blessed are the poor/poor in spirit!