“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3
The Lord’s discussion on the Beatitudes begins with the attribute of being poor in spirit. I do not believe that the ordering of the conditions for blessedness was purely by chance: Jesus had a particular reason for calling out this trait first and foremost among the others. Thomas Watson (1660) describes it in these terms: “Poverty of spirit is the foundation stone on which God lays the superstructure of eternal glory”.
What does being “poor in spirit” mean?
Contrary to what some believe, it does not mean being poor in a material sense, and shunning worldly riches. It is also not the same as being “spiritually poor”, that of being without grace and having no sense of one’s own moral poverty; nor is it the same as being “poor-spirited”, that of possessing a mean base spirit, acting below oneself. (p. 2)
The Greek word for “poor” means being destitute, not only of outward, but also of inward comfort. Following the lines of this definition, those who are poor in spirit are “those who are brought to the sense of their own sins, and seeing no goodness in them, despair in themselves and look wholly to the mercy of God in Christ. It is “self-annihilation”, a kind of emptying of self so that God is free to fill the soul with His grace through Jesus Christ. (p. 2)
Why does Jesus begin with poverty of spirit in the Beatitudes? It is because herein lies the foundation of everything that follows in the Christian experience of salvation. Unless one is poor in spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Without being poor in spirit, one cannot mourn, or be meek, or merciful, or hunger and thirst after righteousness. Being poor in spirit ushers in all the rest. (p. 2)
What are the marks of a person who is poor in spirit? Here are some attributes: (pp. 5-7)
* One who is weaned or detached from himself. In so doing, he becomes an empty vessel so that God can pour in the precious wine of His grace. In contrast, one who is puffed up in his own self-sufficiency and self-excellence is not fit for God’s grace; he is already full: “his hand is full of pebbles — it cannot receive gold”. But the poor in spirit are those who are broken in the sense of recognizing their own unworthiness.
* One who is a Christ-admirer. He runs to Christ in his nakedness to be clothed in the garments of the Lord’s righteousness; he sees himself in a state of death and clings to the tree of life; he sees that all his riches lie in Christ. Everything is Christ, Christ is all in all.
* One who is ever lamenting of his spiritual estate. Like a poor man who is about to starve, he ever looks to God, laying down his life at the gate of mercy and living upon the altars of free grace.
* One who is lowly in heart. As rich men are haughty, the poor are submissive. The more grace he has, the more humble he is because he now sees himself as a great debtor to God, yet forgiven of his debts; he lives, yet it is not him, but that Christ lives in him; he labors, yet not he, but by the grace of God.
* One who is content to take Christ upon Christ’s own terms. The proud sinner will contend and bargain with Christ: he will have Christ and the world’s pleasures; he will have Christ but retain his own righteousness. “But the poor in spirit sees himself lost without Christ, and is willing to have Christ upon the Lord’s own terms, a Prince to rule him, as well as a Savior to save him”. He is as Paul when brought to the end of his rope, to the very depths of knowledge of his own human frailty, he calls out to God saying, “Lord, what will you have me to do?” (Acts 9:6)
* One who is an exalter of free grace. There are none who so magnify God’s mercy as the poor in spirit. As those who are poor are innately thankful, those who are poor in spirit greatly proclaim the goodness and mercy of God, they “bless God for the least crumb which falls from the table of free grace”.
We must labor to be poor in spirit. “Christ begins with this trait, and this is where we must start if ever we are saved. “ (p. 6)
* Reference: Thomas Watson, 1660, The Beatitudes: An Exposition of Matthew 5:1-12, “Poverty of Spirit”.
* Photograph: Waiting for the Tide by Kevin Temple