Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Like a child with shoulders slumped low from a long day of school, poverty drags a backpack of negative connotations wherever it goes. Even those who dedicate their lives to caring for the poor do so understanding poverty to be the outworking of sorrow, corruption, and suffering. It is something to be avoided, changed, or fixed.

Despite this reality, Jesus embraces poverty as the foundation of his kingdom ethic. He begins his famed Sermon on the Mount with these words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” To be a follower of Jesus, one must embrace the poverty of the spirit.

The Beatitudes

To grasp the importance of these words, the reader must understand the flow of Jesus’s Sermon. The Beatitudes found in verses 3-10 describe the essence of Christian character. To quote the famous British Pastor John Stott,

The group exhibiting these marks is not an elite, a small spiritual aristocracy remote from ordinary Christians. On the contrary, the Beatitudes are Christ’s own specification of what every Christian ought to be.

All Christians are to be poor in spirit, sorrowful, meek, hungry, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.

But to arrive at the later virtues, Christians must know the poverty of Jesus. Without it, no one can reach the kingdom of God. So what is it? What does Jesus call us to when he pronounces blessing upon the poor in spirit?

Poor or Poor in Spirit?

Theologians have hotly debated the meaning of Matthew 5:3. Some like St. Francis of Assisi and John Calvin have claimed that Jesus is addressing earthly poverty. While the “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests…the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Lk 9:58).” Those who beg for a living seem to have more in common with Christ than those who live in palaces. Moreover, in Luke 6:20, the parallel or sister passage to Matthew 5, Luke omits the phrase “in spirit” giving us the following rendering: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” This quotation seems to support the notion that the kingdom of God is made up of the physical poor. The question then becomes which passage should interpret which?

Which Passage?

I believe as did Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Stott that we should follow the Reformation maxim and allow the clearer text to interpret the vaguer phrase as all Scripture is inspired by God. The prepositional phrase “in spirit” should be viewed as a divine interpretive insight into our savior’s meaning. We should always reason from the more clear to the less clear. When we apply this principle to the “poor in spirit” debate, we cannot help but conclude that Jesus was speaking of spiritual matters and not of economics. A quick survey of Scripture confirms this interpretation. Though Jesus saves one thief on the cross, the other enters hell (Lk 23:43). Jesus heals 10 lepers and yet only one returns to worship the Son of God (Lk 17:11-19). Moreover, Jesus redeems men such as Matthew, Nicodemus, and Zacchaeus, who oppressed the poor prior to their conversions.

God cares for the poor. Those who walk the path of affliction with the well torn shoes of difficulty are often more disposed to the concept spiritual poverty than those managing hedge funds. But one’s lack of wealth does not turn the key to heaven. As the church father Chromatius noted,

The necessity of poverty does not produce blessedness in each of us, but a devout trust sustained through poverty does.

In other words, poverty of spirit can be found both in government housing and in fenced off communities. Earthly poverty does not always equal heavenly glory.

What is Poor In Spirit?

To be poor in spirit, one must recognize his or her ultimate worthlessness in comparison to the majesty of God. Lloyd-Jones helpfully defined poor in spirit as, “a complete absence of pride, a complete absence of self-assurance and of self-reliance.” In other words, The poor in spirit realize that they have nothing within themselves by which to commend themselves to God outside of the wages of sin and death. Instead of boasting in their church attendance, in the successes of their children, in their common sense, in their giving, in their service hours, or in their ability to be better than their neighbors, those who are poor in spirit have one prayer: “God, be merciful to me a sinner (Lk 16:13).” They understand that they come to God much like the mail-order bride with billions of dollars in credit-card debt comes to the Crown Prince of England. They have no hope outside of a ridiculous their appeal for mercy.

The great news of the gospel is that Jesus responds to this cry for help. Jesus dies and burst out of the tomb on Easter morning so that he might redeem sinners such as us. Second Corinthians 15:19-20 declares, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”

To obtain the riches of the kingdom, we must first understand our poverty. As one early church sermon on Matthew noted, “The root of all evil is pride, and the root of all good is humility.” Once we understand we are nothing and give up all hope of saving ourselves, then and only then, do we begin to inherit everything. Only those who are poor in spirit can enter the kingdom of heaven.

To quote Jesus again, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.”

The Sermon on the Mount: A Kingdom Ethic for A Kingdom People

The Sermon on the Mount remains one of the most unique texts in the Bible. Though Jesus’s sermon simmers with deep theological truth that militates against the secular conscience, those living well outside the confines of the established church still find the treatise to be a wonderful source of inspiration and insight. After all, most souls who have languished under bad bosses, corrupt political systems, and cruel neighbors long for a world defined by love, peace, and justice. For example, both those who pray for hours in a state of heightened spirituality and those who stumble about the streets for hours in a state of inebriation can resonate with the golden rule found in Matthew 12:7: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”

The fact that both atheists such as Richard Dawkins and that pastors such as John Stott can find much to praise in the Sermon on the Mount raises an important question: “Who is the Sermon on the Mount for?” In other words, can atheist live out Jesus’s message or is it a unique message for Jesus’s followers?

A Kingdom Ethic For A Kingdom People

According to Jesus and to the New Testament authors, the Sermon on the Mount is a Kingdom ethic for a Kingdom people.  Both Matthew 5 and its sister passage in Luke 6 affirm that the Sermon was delivered to by Jesus to his disciples. Jesus’s message is not for the crowds of this world. It is for those who are willing to sit at the feet of Jesus to hear his words. To achieve the ethic of the kingdom, men and women must willingly submit to the full teaching of Jesus which stretches across all 66 books of the Bible. Jesus came to fulfill the law.

Listen to the Law

The Law, the spoken words of God, prove essential to our understanding of the kingdom of God. Humanity’s failure to heed God’s teaching necessitated Jesus’s famed sermon. He preaches it and seeks to reconstitute the kingdom of God because Adam and Eve had destroyed the kingdom of God thousands of years ago. In Genesis 3:1-7, the first royal couple eats the fruit of the tree “that is in the midst of the garden (3).” The first expression of pride comes about because Adam ceased to listen to the words of God, preferring the insights of his bride Eve to the wisdom from above. The failure to heed the voice of God led to humanities expulsion from the kingdom of God. To regain the kingdom of God, men and women must once again heed the voice of God. Jesus explicitly states this idea in Matthew 5:19: “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Kingdom power resides in the words of God.

Jesus Says, “You Can’t Do It Alone”

Those who reject Jesus’s words cannot hope to live out the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus does not applaud us for maintaining the generic level of goodness that society can attain at times. For example, in Matthew 7:27-30, Jesus does not pat husbands on the back because they had the self-control not to sleep with their secretary or a prostitute. The Son of God looks past external goodness. He says the law must control the hidden depths of the heart. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Instead of applauding the man for keeping his pants on, Jesus takes issues with all the times the man has looked at a woman other than his wife and thought about bedding her. As a coworker once noted, this standard of goodness is “impossible.” The liberal theologian Richard Niebuhr concurs writing that Jesus, “does not direct attention away from this world to another but from all worlds…to the one who creates all worlds, who is the other of all worlds (29).”  No man or women in his or her own strength can live out the Sermon on the Mount. No one can reach the ethic of the kingdom apart for the ruler of that God for it is other worldly.  The kingdom ethic is for a kingdom people.

The Hope

Though humanity’s inability to live out the kingdom ethic should cast a shadow of despair over those who have refused to sit down with Jesus’s disciples atop the mountain, hope has not been vanquished. The path to hope runs through that despair. When men and women give up their aspirations of bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth through human effort, then and only then will they be able to finally see the beauty of the cross and the empty tomb. They can finally realize that Jesus has done for them what they could never do for themselves. This poverty of spirit and mourning over sin leads the soul into the kingdom of heaven and to everlasting comfort. The kingdom ethic is for a kingdom people, a people who value the words of God. Stop working. Come sit at the feet of Jesus.

Caring For Sick Christians: Jude’s Spiritual Triage

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The church should stand at the ready to confront sin and error. Jude warned Christians that doctrinal viruses would sweep into local churches, destroying the healthy bodies who host them. To handle spiritual pandemics well, the local church should readily quarantine the fake Christians, flushing out false doctrine. If the wicked refuse to repent, the church should then force them out of the body, following the steps laid out in Matthew 18. But even the best prevention methods can fail. False teachers can infect health believers while the church awaits the surgical processes of church discipline. When the viruses of error begin to infect true believers, the local church must stand at the ready to care for those spiritually ill. Jude writes,

And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. (22-23)

Jude calls his readers to rescue three types of Christians, the doubting, the almost destroyed, and the filthy.

When men and women stumble into church exhausted by sin and the unstable messages of culture, they need mercy instead of rebuke. The woman whose homosexual desire that causes her to doubt the convictions of her faith should be meet with softly spoken spiritual truth. The man who questions the humanity of Christ should be welcomed into his pastor’s office. And the teenager who comes to church wrestling with the truthfulness of the Bible should be invited to voice his questions so that he can find biblical answers. The soul who doubts should not be criticized for doubting but shown mercy. Christ continual forgives us when we wonder from the foundations of our faith. Can we refuse to extend to others what God has given to us?

Secondly, we need to be ready to snatch some from the fire. Some brothers and sisters move from questioning the commands of God to leaving the commands of God. When a friend calls to say they will leave their spouse in the morning to pursue their one true love, we should run to their home and plead with them to forsake their sin. When a nephew tells us they have decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery, we should ardently call them back the joy of Christ. And when our college friend tells us they are going to join the Mormon church, we should contend with them, calling them to return to sound doctrine. If we do not warn them, these men and women will ingest sin into their souls and will experience the firers of hell. When we see or hear of brothers or sisters about to step in front of the bus of destruction, we should snatch them from the fires doom.

Lastly, we need to have mercy with fear. Some go behind doubting and preparing for sin. They become infected by sin refusing to follow the quarantine guidelines of truth. We will come across men and women who have welcomed sin into their soul and deemed it to be a sign of grace. To such Christians, we are to show mercy with fear. We are to remind our immoral friends that sexual immorality in all of its forms ends in judgment. When a friend slaps the coexist bumper sticker onto his car and proclaims that all ways road lead to heaven, we are to rebuke him. And when a women proclaims that gossip can cohabit with the gospel, we must clearly denounce her as a fraud. Jude says such people wear stained garments. The expression means, these Christians have stained underwear. To welcome those who have wet the spiritual bed into our churches is to welcome all kinds of worldly filth into the kingdom of God. Instead of embracing their sin, Jude calls us to hate it. We are to unequivocally call those infected by sin to repentance. If they will not repent, we must remove them according to the procedures laid out by Matthew 18. If love filth, our churches will become the filth. We must show mercy with fear.

Spiritual virus will come. Are we ready to care for the sick, rescuing the doubting, snatching others from hell, and confronting those stained by the world? Are you ready?