3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
A number of years ago Ted Turner offended a lot of Christians by saying, “Christianity is for losers.” Remember that? “Christianity is for losers.” That comment created quite the media storm. In fact, the controversy was so intense for Turner that he eventually proposed to Johnny Hunt, the pastor of First Baptist Church, Woodstock, GA, that he, Turner, apologize for the comment at a Christian luncheon, which he did. He has since then apologized again, saying he regretted making the comment.
That comment immediately struck me as interesting. “Christianity is for losers.”
For some reason I did not feel particularly offended by it. For one thing, opponents of Christianity have often leveled that charge, particularly Nietzsche, who railed against what he said was Christianity’s elevation of weakness and pity and “slave-morality.” For another thing, I have long since stopped being outraged when non-believers act like non-believers, and the thought of having a non-believer apologize to believers strikes me as odd on a number of levels. For yet another thing, Paul said something very close to Turner’s statement in 1 Corinthians 1 (albeit, without the intended insult and rancor) when he wrote:
26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
No, Paul didn’t say, “Christianity is for losers.” But he did say that Christianity is generally comprised of people that the world does not call “winners.”
I suppose above everything else, my reaction to the statement, “Christianity is for losers,” was, “Well, kind of, yeah!” Meaning, there is a kind of truth to that, isn’t there? I read the comments of one Christian after Turner’s controversial statement who made a good point. He asked his readers to imagine how the opposite statement would sound: “Christianity is for winners!” Somehow that seems more problematic that Ted Turner’s comment.
After all, everybody who is born again knows that to be born again they had to first reach a point where they realized there great need for the new birth. We wouldn’t say that Christianity is for “losers,” but we definitely would say that Christianity is for “the lost,” right? More than that, Christianity is for people who realize that they have become losers in the great arena of life, that they cannot win on their own, that something is very, very wrong with us, and that we need help from the inside out.
Nobody was ever saved by saying, “Jesus, I’m a winner! Save me!” No, we’re saved by saying, “Jesus, I am lost and broken and rightly condemned! Have mercy on me, a sinner!”
The world condemns such sentiments, considering them to be groveling and beneath the dignity of man. The world celebrates the strong man, the winner, the champion. However, Jesus began His Beatitudes by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Want to hear a controversial statement? Try that on for size! “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
What can that possibly mean? Let’s consider it this morning. First, however, let’s consider the fact that this statement begins what we call the Beatitudes, traditionally numbered at eight (though some see more than that here) and introducing the SM.
What are the Beatitudes?
The SM begins with eight Beatitudes, so called because of the Latin word beatus which, in Latin, means “blessed.” They are:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Again, the number of Beatitudes has been debated and various schemes of organizing them have been proposed, but I will be working with this arrangement, combining what may look like two Beatitudes at the end of the list into one on persecution.
It is important before we begin considering the individual Beatitudes that we understand what Jesus is doing here. Clearly these constitute a unique section, given the similarity of their wording and their prominence here at the very beginning of the SM. There are a few interesting things we should note about these, however, that I think will help us get at a definition of what these Beatitudes are.
To begin, let’s consider whether or not the first word here should be “blessed” or “happy.” The great Greek scholar A.T. Robertson pointed out that there is a Greek word for “blessed” (eulogetoi), but that this is not the word used in the beatitudes. Instead, the word makarioi is used and that word means “happy.” While most English translations have used “blessed” instead of “happy” (presumably because of the connection of the word “happy” with the idea of chance or changing circumstances, or the flippancy with which the word “happy” is used in common English), Robertson protests, “But ‘happy’ is what Jesus said…It is a pity that we have not kept the word ‘happy’ to the high and holy plane where Jesus placed it.”
In other words, because of how shallow and grounded in changing circumstances the word “happy” is in the English language, most translators have rendered it “blessed” instead. This has been done, again, to provide a higher concept than mere happiness, but also in an effort to communicate that these Beatitudes are, in fact, declarations of God over His people. I understand this motivation, and I will be using the word “blessed” throughout, but please do note that a grand and high sense of human happiness was in the heart of Jesus when He gave these.
Secondly, William Barclay has pointed out that the word “are” that is used in each of the Beatitudes is absent from the Greek. He points out that Jesus was actually employing here “a very common kind of expression” in Aramaic and Hebrew, and that instead of “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” it should read, “Oh the blessedness of the poor in spirit…” This means that “the beatitudes are not simple statements; they are exclamations…[T]he beatitudes are not pious hopes of what shall be; they are not glowing, but nebulous prophecies of some future bliss; they are congratulations on what is.”
This is significant for us to understand. The Beatitudes are joyful, bursting expressions of divine favor over those whom the world rejects. “Oh the blessedness of the poor in spirit!”
Finally, New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg has pointed out that “an important change in tenses separates vv.3 and 10 from vv.4-9. In the first and last Beatitudes, Jesus declares God’s kingdom to be present for those who are blessed. In the intervening verses he refers to future consolation.” This is important for two reasons. First, as D.A. Carson has pointed out, “To begin and end with the same expression is a stylistic device called an ‘inclusio.’ This means that everything bracketed between the two can really be included under the one theme, in this case, the kingdom of heaven.” Second, this changing tense helps us understand something very important about what Jesus calls “the kingdom of heaven.” Simply stated, the fact that some of the blessings are present and some are future reveal that the kingdom of Heaven, the kingdom of God, is a reality that is breaking into the kingdom of the world right here and right now in and through the people of God but it is also a future reality that will not be perfectly realized until the grand consummation of all things.
I’ve put together a little image that I think may help us get at this important truth, the kingdom of God as having come but still coming, as being “already/not yet.”
As I say, this is a very basic image and it is intentionally designed so. On the left we have the world. This is the world in which we live. It is fallen. It is dead and dying. It is under the curse of sin. Satan holds sway here.
Yet the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God has stepped into this fallen world, which He originally made good, and has offered a way for us to be saved through the sacrifice of His Son on the cross and through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
When we come to Christ, we are changed from the kingdom of darkness and death and sin to the kingdom of God, which is a kingdom of salvation and light and truth. The kingdom of God is so much bigger than the world! It has so much more to offer. We enter it through the cross, which you will note is there at the center of the overlapping circles.
For our purposes, however, I simply want to note that the kingdoms overlap a bit now in the reign of Christ among His people, the Church. There was a time in my Christian life when I might not have put that diagram together just like that. I would have seen the kingdom of the world here, then the cross within it, then perhaps a bridge from the cross to the whole separated kingdom of God. In other words, there was a time when I saw the kingdom of God as wholly future. The purpose of Jesus, then, was simply to get me ready for what was coming after death.
However, in reading the Bible I noticed that Jesus did not always use the future tense to speak of the kingdom of heaven. In fact, He told people to repent for “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). Even more provocatively, I found this in Luke 17:
20 Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
The King James Version translates verse 21 to say, “The kingdom of God is within you.”
Well! This is an astounding thought. What this must mean is that there is a sense in which the kingdom of God is coming. We will not receive it fully and perfectly until we die and stand before our God. But there must be another sense in which it is already beginning to break into this old and dying kingdom into which we were born. And that happens in the current reign of Christ in and among His people.
What this means, then, is that the church, believers in Christ, are now equipped to begin modeling what the kingdom of God is in their current lives and relationships while awaiting the complete fruition of this in the days to come. The kingdom has come. The kingdom is coming. And this brings us to the Beatitudes and, indeed, the entire SM.
This means that the Beatitudes are kingdom of heaven proclamations here and now over those who have come and are coming to Christ. It is a picture of the true state of things. This world may see them as odd, and may, indeed, see Christianity as being for losers. But in the kingdom of God and the economy of God, what the world rejects as useless God calls blessed. Therefore, the poor in spirit are happy and blessed!
I love how N.T. Wright put this. He wrote, “[The Beatitudes] are a summons to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future; because that future has arrived in the present in Jesus of Nazareth. It may seem upside down, but we are called to believe, with great daring, that it is in fact the right way up.”
Taking all of this into consideration, here is how I have defined the Beatitudes: The Beatitudes are divine, celebratory pronouncements of present and future joy for those in the Kingdom of God yet living in the world. They do not appear to make sense in the world because the world is upside-down.
Who are the “Poor in Spirit”?
With this Kingdom perspective in mind, let us turn to the first Beatitude and ask ourselves who these “poor in spirit” are. Let us begin, first, with the word “poor.”
John MacArthur notes that the word for “poor” used here, ptochos, means “to shrink, cower, or cringe” and was used in Classical Greek “to refer to a person reduced to total destitution, who crouched in a corner begging. As he held out one hand for alms he often hid his face with the other hand, because he was ashamed of being recognized. The term did not mean simply poor, but begging poor.” In other words, Jesus is speaking here of the poorest of the poor. He is speaking of absolute gutter poverty and destitution.
But what kind of poverty is this? Is it material poverty? No, Jesus is speaking of “the poor in spirit.” The Bible actually never hails poverty per se as a blessed state, nor does it condemn wealth per se as a curse. To be sure, it often pronounces good news to the poor and oppressed, for whom humility is often a gift. And it often warns the wealthy, for whom pride is often an inclination. But it never makes a blanket statement about either. In truth, a poor man can be proud and a wealthy man can be humble. In terms of this first Beatitude, we might say that a materially poor man might actually be “rich in spirit” and a materially wealthy man might actually be “poor in spirit.”
No, this is not a simple reference to material poverty. It is poverty of spirit. But what is poverty of spirit? Simply put, to be poor in spirit is to realize your complete bankruptcy of soul outside of the grace of Jesus Christ. It is to realize that, without God’s saving hand, you are utterly lost and hopeless and condemned. It is not a statement of worthlessness. No human being is worthless. Instead, it is a statement of perspective and the condition of our souls. It is a recognition of our desperate need for a savior.
Some have defined poverty of spirit as humility. I think that is not far off. In truth, the poor in spirit refers to the man or woman who is humbled over his or her lostness, his or her need for a Savior, and his or her poverty outside of the Lord. It is a recognition that we are not God. Furthermore, it is brokenness under the weight of the knowledge of what we are without Him.
It is not surprising that the spirit of our proud age hates and detests this idea of being poor in spirit. Our world does not value humility, lowliness, a recognition of the insufficiency of our own efforts. On the contrary, our world, in its blindness, treasures the exact opposite, considering mankind to possess inherent rights to power and title and privilege. As such, it mocks this Beatitude.
Consider, for instance, an article entitled “The Failure of Christianity,” published in 1913 in the journal, Mother Earth, by the atheist, anarchist Emma Goldman. In it, she said this:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Heaven must be an awfully dull place if the poor in spirit live there. How can anything creative, anything vital, useful and beautiful come from the poor in spirit? The idea conveyed in the Sermon on the Mount is the greatest indictment against the teachings of Christ, because it sees in the poverty of mind and body a virtue, and because it seeks to maintain this virtue by reward and punishment. Every intelligent being realizes that our worst curse is the poverty of the spirit; that it is productive of all evil and misery, of all the injustice and crimes in the world. Every one knows that nothing good ever came or can come of the poor in spirit; surely never liberty, justice, or equality.
Do you see? To Emma Goldman the poor in the spirit are not blessed, they are cursed. She would say to us that there is no God to whom we are accountable and there is no God by whom we are saved. There is no higher power than man before whom we should bend our knee. But Jesus said precisely the opposite, and everything in our experience confirms the truthfulness of what Jesus has said.
Yes, this Beatitude is hated by the world. The anti-Christian Roman Emporer who we know as Julian the Apostate used this Beatitude to defend his confiscation of the property of early Christians, saying that he simply wanted to help them enter the Kingdom of Heaven poor. So the world hates and mocks these words of Jesus. Against these antagonists of the truth we might remember Jesus’ charge against the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3:17, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
The world may despise these words, but to us they are the very words of life. Why? Because poverty of spirit is how we receive the grace of God in Christ! Those who are rich in spirit have their hands full of their own perceived majesty and cannot receive Jesus as a result. The poor in spirit, by contrast, have their arms opened in humble acceptance of all that God will mercifully grant us in Christ…and that is everything.
The Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 66:2b and said, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” Do you see the beauty of this? The Lord looks upon the poor the spirit, “he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at [His] word.” This is not showy groveling. This is sincere humility before a holy God.
And that is key: the recognition of God’s utter holiness. It is not until we see the splendor of His Spirit that we are able to see the desperation of our spirits. It is not until we see Him as He is that we are able to see ourselves as we are. Poverty within us does not come about until we stand in awe of the majesty within Him. This is why D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “The way to become poor in spirit is to look at God.”
See Him, and you will see yourself. Then you will be poor in spirit, unless you turn from the truth to a lie.
How is the Kingdom of Heaven “Theirs”?
But how are the poor in spirit “blessed”? In particular, how is the kingdom of heaven “theirs”? I think that question is most beautifully answered by Jesus Himself in a story He told in Luke 18 about two very different men. Listen:
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Ah! The Pharisee was rich in spirit, was he not? He thought he had a lot to offer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” Then he lists off his resume. He was haughty. He was proud. He did not show genuine humility. To hear him pray, you wonder why he even felt the need to do so if he was already so wonderful.
But the tax collector, a man deeply despised in that culture, was poor in spirit. He doesn’t say much, just, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And he is immediately blessed by God. How so? “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” The poor in spirit are richly blessed!
The kingdom of heaven is for the poor in spirit because Christ is for the poor in spirit. In Christ, we inherit the riches of our God. As Paul says in Romans 8:
12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Christ is for the poor in spirit because Christ humbled Himself, even to the point of death on the cross. He became low for the lowly. He became poor for the poor in spirit. He took our poverty and gave us instead His riches!
In “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?”
Oh blessed the poor in spirit!
Oh happy the humble before God!
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol.1. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.39. On the other hand, Hughes: “Contrary to popular opinion, blessed does not mean ‘happy,’ even though some translations have rendered it this way. Happiness is a subjective state, a feeling. But Jesus is not declaring how people feel; rather, he is making an objective statement about what God thinks of them.” R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), p.17. But Hughes’ rejection of “happy” is based less on linguistic considerations than on the current, vapid usage of the word in American culture, whose insertion into the interpretation of the Beatitudes he rightly rejects. Stott recognizes this outright, that “the Greek can and does mean ‘happy,’” but that “it is seriously misleading to render it ‘happy’ in this case.” John Stott, The Beatitudes. John Stott Bible Studies (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Connect, 1998), p.11-12. However, Carl Vaught has pointed out that there are, in fact, two Greek words for “happiness,” and Matthew chooses the higher one: “The word that Jesus uses at the beginning of his teaching points to the concept of happiness. There are two words for happiness in Greek that our author could have used. One is the word eudaimonia and is the term Aristotle uses when he speaks about human happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics. By contrast, Matthew uses the word makarios, which points beyond human happiness to a divine realm and to the kind of happiness appropriate to it.” Carl G. Vaught, The Sermon on the Mount. (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2001), p.12.
 William Barclay, Gospel of Matthew. Vol.1. The Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1968), p.83.
 Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew. The New American Commentary. Vol.22 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), p.97.
 D.A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987), p.17.
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone. Part One. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p.38.
 John MacArthur, Matthew 1-7. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1985), p.145.
 Augustine, Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies of the Gospels. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. First Series, Vol.6. ed., Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), p.4, n.10.
 D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p.42.