The passage of Scripture that we now refer to as Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount” extends from Matthew 5:1 to Matthew 7:29. Consisting of three entire chapters and 111 verses, it stands as one of the most significant speeches of Christ’s life. Nowhere else do we find so thoroughly detailed the principles and ideals underlying His kingdom and mission.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with 9 objective statements collectively known as the “beatitudes.” Each statement promises a present or future spiritual blessing to individuals who fit a specific set of criteria outlined in the statement. In each case, the word translated “blessed” is derived from the Greek word makarios, which is roughly defined as “happy” and “supremely blessed.” In other words, those who fit the criteria specified in the statement should rejoice and be happy beyond all earthly joy, for they are the recipients of a great spiritual blessing.
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
The first beatitude reads as follows: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, KJV). Let’s tackle this statement point by point. Firstly, notice the phrase “poor in spirit.” This state of being is the specific precondition for the promised blessing. If one is poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But what exactly does it mean to be “poor in spirit?”
The word translated here as “poor” is derived from the Greek word ptochos. In almost every single instance where it is used in the New Testament, it is used to denote the state of being deprived, not just of money, but of that which is necessary to sustain a vibrant and abundant life. The word translated here as “spirit” is derived from the Greek word pneuma. While Paul’s use of the word later in the New Testament suggests a broader definition, when used in the Gospels it is used exclusively to identify either the Holy Spirit, demonic angels, or the possession of humans by either entity.
Thus, it is clear that the phrase “poor in spirit” is being used here to specifically identify those individuals who are deficient and lacking in that which is necessary for spiritual life and growth. In other words, they are lost, shut out from heaven due to their deficiency in spiritual life and health. Furthermore, they are helpless. They have no power to improve or otherwise better their condition. They have no merit with which to barter for favors or rewards. They have no hope of their condition improving either in the present or in the future. This is what it means to be poor in spirit.
A Spiritual Paradigm Shift
Taking into consideration the full scope of the definition, one could easily be forgiven for assuming that those who fall under the category of “poor in spirit” would be the furthest from the favor of God—the outcasts, those whom God cannot aid or bless. But the great paradox of this first beatitude is that it is those who are poor in spirit—those who, to human eyes, appear to be the furthest from the favor of God—who are specified as the inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.
This statement would have made little sense to Christ’s hearers at the time. In the Jewish mind, the favor and blessing of God was attained through merit—through faithfulness and obedience to God’s law. Nowhere is this mindset more clearly illustrated than in Christ’s encounter with the rich young ruler, a story found in Matthew 19:16-22.
In the aforementioned passage, a wealthy young man comes to Christ, asking Him to detail the actions he must take in order to inherit eternal life. The very question itself reveals the underlying assumption that salvation is predicated on works and individual merit. Christ responded by explaining that the key to heaven lay in perfect obedience to the commandments of God. The young man, satisfied in the knowledge of a lifetime of sincere law-keeping, was likely quite sure of his place in heaven at that point. If works were the key, he was on the fast-track to eternal glory.
However, betraying a lack of full assurance, he continued on to ask a follow-up question: “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?” (Matthew 19:20b, KJV). In answer to this question, Christ revealed the true root of the problem. Strictly speaking, the young man’s problem was not that he was too focused on keeping the law, or that he had neglected other duties in his zeal for righteousness.
The root problem was that the standard of God’s law was far, far higher than anything the young man was capable of even attempting to obey, Yes, perfect obedience is the ticket to heaven, but what good is it as a precondition of entrance if man is incapable of attaining to it? And if man is incapable of fulfilling the necessary precondition for entrance into heaven, what hope has he of receiving eternal life?
Rituals, Rules, and Righteousness
Later on in Matthew 5, Christ expounds on this concept of the worthlessness of man’s obedience to save himself. In Matthew 5:20, He states, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (KJV). This statement serves as the proverbial “nail in the coffin” for any who would argue that stringent obedience of God’s law could somehow be sufficient for entrance into the kingdom of God.
The scribes and Pharisees, with their endless rules and rituals, their obsessive zeal for even the most miniscule of Scriptural commands, and their fanatical devotion to obedience at all costs, represented the epitome of human “righteousness,” the highest possible attainment of law-keeping which it is possible for humans to achieve. Thus, if the works of the scribes and Pharisees were insufficient for entrance into heaven, the record of obedience from any other human being would therefore be woefully insufficient.
Thus, when all has been heard, we recognize that human works—our attempted obedience to the perfect law of God—are wholly insufficient for the attainment of eternal life. Of ourselves, in our own strength, we are helpless and hopeless, woefully incapable of attaining to eternal life and gaining entrance into the kingdom of God.
It is in this sense that it could be said that we, as humans, are all fundamentally equal. For what difference is there between rich and poor, free and enslaved, black and white, Christian and atheist, evangelical and Adventist, conservative and liberal, if we are all lost and shut out from the kingdom of God?
If our works—our most sincere attempts at holiness and obedience—are utterly worthless before God, if we are all alike helpless before Him, all of the artificial barriers and distinctions which divide us from our fellow man—what difference do they make? We are all equally helpless and all equally hopeless.
But Scripture does not leave us entirely without hope. Though the story of the rich young ruler ends in disappointment, Christ offers an intimation of hope for humanity. When questioned by His disciples regarding how it could be possible for men to attain to eternal life, He stated, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26b, KJV).
Notice here the two components of that statement. Firstly, Christ makes it clear that, for man (by his own merits and in his own strength), it is wholly impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven. He has no chance. He is wholly and utterly helpless. But yet he is not doomed, for with God it is possible. Secondly, notice also that God does not simply “help” or “aid” man in this process; the attainment of salvation is not partly of man’s efforts and partly of God’s. The entire undertaking, from beginning to end, is wholly and completely an act of God.
Taking into consideration the full scope of this fact, it now becomes painfully obvious to us how foolish it is for a man to boast of his good works or acts of holiness, or to esteem himself more righteous or holy than his fellow men by virtue of his perceived holiness relative to theirs. We are all equally helpless, all equally lost.
Our only hope for eternal life and salvation resides in the unmerited favor—the grace and mercy—of God. Our prayers should never contain boasts of our perceived holiness, for it is all-worthless before God. Rather, we must seek God humbly, recognizing both our utter worthlessness as well as the fact that our only hope and our only help is found in the unmerited mercy of God alone.
Christ elaborated on this very same concept when He related the parable about two men who visited the temple to pray, a story found in Luke 18:10-14. In this parable, we find two men travelling to the temple in order to commune with God; by the very nature of this action, we may determine that both individuals were seeking after God and for the spiritual blessings which He alone could bestow.
Connecting this passage back to Christ’s original statement in Matthew 5:3, it is of note that, in Israel, the Pharisee would have been considered of all men to be the most worthy to receive the approval and blessing of God. In contrast, the publican (otherwise known as a tax collector) was widely considered to be the most evil, despised, and worthless of men, and thus of all men to be the most rejected and despised of God, wholly unworthy of even the least spiritual blessing which God could bestow.
The Pharisee reflected these assumptions in his prayer. He began by exalting himself above his fellow man, clearly indicating the belief that he had somehow earned the favor and blessing of God through his many works of obedience. He continued to pray, giving evidence of his stringent obedience and piety. His assurance of God’s favor was based on the belief that his works were meritorious. As a result, he looked with scorn on those possessing “lesser” righteousness than that which he himself possessed.
However, in actuality, his condition was the perfect opposite of that which he perceived it to be. While he took pride in his stringent obedience of the law, considering his works to be meritorious before God, the truth was that his works were wholly insufficient for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Ironically, his true condition before God was no better than that of any of the individuals which he had pridefully scorned and ridiculed in his prayer. Most critically, his only hope of improving his condition lay, not in himself, but in the mercy and grace of God. But without a recognition of his great need, he was wholly unable to seek for such a bestowment of grace. Thus he left the temple that day as lost and as hopeless as when he had first entered it.
In contrast to the Pharisee, the publican made no assumptions or pretensions regarding his righteousness and his resulting standing with God. He made no claim to the favor of God, for he knew that there was nothing of himself to recommend to God. He fully recognized his lost and hopeless condition. There was nothing he could do to improve or better his standing with God, and thus he stretched out his hand in faith to grasp the own hope for entrance into the kingdom of heaven—the unmerited, undeserved, and unearned favor of God.
Though he entered the temple of God having nothing with which to recommend himself to God, the Bible tells us that “this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 18:14b, KJV). It was the publican, not the Pharisee, who left the temple justified that day. Though he had nothing of himself with which to claim the blessing of God, his great need alone was of itself sufficient.
This is what it means to be poor in spirit. To be poor in spirit means to recognize, on a fundamental level, one’s complete inability to satisfy the claims of God’s law, and thus one’s utter helplessness and hopelessness. To be poor in spirit mean to lose all dependence on self—on one’s on merit to curry favor with God, one’s own strength to save, and one’s own wisdom to guide. It means to recognize that, without outside intervention, without the unmerited, undeserved, and unearned mercy of God, one has no hope of eternal life.
But why is this poverty of spirit the necessary precondition for entrance into the kingdom of heaven? The answer is simple. Would you visit an emergency room if you were sure of your health and safety? Would you visit an addiction treatment center if you had no addictions from which to be freed? Would you call the police if you had nothing for which to seek help and assistance? The answer in each case is an obvious “no.” In each case, the act of seeking help and assistance must necessarily be preceded by a recognition of both one’s need for help, as well as one’s helplessness to improve their circumstances without outside aid.
It is no different with our spiritual condition. We cannot come to the foot of the cross, pleading for the mercy and forgiveness of God, until we, like the publican in Luke 18, truly recognize our own sinfulness and depravity. We will never seek the aid of the Great Physician until we fully recognize that our souls are irretrievably ravaged by the terminal cancer of sin. And it is only once we have lost all confidence in self, when every human source of strength and assurance has been found hollow and empty, when all confidence in our ability to save ourselves has been pulled out by the roots, that God can help and save us.
For on that day when the redeemed of God enter into heaven, there will be none there who can say, “I have earned my place here because of my many good works of righteousness and holiness,” or “I have a right to enter here because of my long life of faithfulness in the service of God.” There is nothing that man can do that will earn him a place in the kingdom of heaven; if all we have to recommend us to God are the filthy rags of our own righteousness, we will not find entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
But there is another means by which entrance into the kingdom of heaven may be attained. It consists wholly of the unmerited, undeserved, and unearned mercy of God bestowed on helpless and hopeless sinners. In his sermon at the 1893 General Conference, A. T. Jones describes those who enter heaven by this means far more eloquently than I could attempt:
There is going to be another company there that day–a great multitude that no man can number- -all nations and kindreds and tongues and people, and they will come up to enter in. And if anyone should ask them that question, “What have you done that you should enter here? What claim have you here?” The answer would be:
“Oh, I have not done anything at all to deserve it. I am a sinner, dependent only on the grace of the Lord. Oh I was so wretched, so completely a captive and in such a bondage that nobody could deliver me but the Lord Himself; so miserable that all I could ever do was to have the Lord constantly to comfort me, so poor that I had constantly to beg from the Lord; so blind that no one but the Lord could cause me to see; so naked that no one could clothe me but the Lord Himself. All the claim that I have is what Jesus has done for me. (A. T. Jones, General Conference Daily Bulletin, February 27, 1893, pg. 416-417)