The first of Jesus’ Beatitudes is about having a humble spirit and the rewards that will come to those who have this attitude. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” has been an important message for Christians throughout the ages.
Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is one of the most extensive and significant collections of His teaching that is recorded in the Bible. This foundational message begins with a series of traits or ways of thinking called Beatitudes, which, when practiced, yield joy and peace of mind. For an overview of these spiritual traits, see “Beatitudes: Keys to Real Happiness.”
The first is a profound and meaningful statement that is translated into 13 simple English words:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
Blessed are the poor in spirit
It’s not an accident that the first of the Beatitudes is about being poor in spirit. This is a necessary trait for a Christian—an essential requirement in order to follow God’s way of life. With this humble spirit it becomes possible to develop the rest of the characteristics that Jesus lists and to learn more about God’s way.
The Greek word for “poor” is ptōchos, which is used to describe someone who is physically “destitute of wealth, influence, position, honors,” reduced to begging, and who has no power to help himself or improve his position (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). This is the word used of the beggar Lazarus in the well-known parable (Luke 16:20-22) and also for the widow who gave her two mites to the temple treasury (Mark 12:41-44).
When used in the spiritual sense, as it is in this Beatitude, it refers to someone who is humble enough to recognize how powerless he or she is compared to God, who has awesome power, and someone who is willing to submit to that power. You don’t have to be physically poor to be poor in spirit, though the physically rich may have a harder time (Matthew 19:23; James 1:9-11).
Compared to God, we are nothing. The poor in spirit don’t compare themselves to others (2 Corinthians 10:12). After looking at how insignificant one is compared to God, it’s impossible not to feel humbled (Psalm 39:4-7). After God gave Job a glimpse of His greatness through the creation, Job declared, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). For more about the greatness of God, look at our “God” section.
There are many reasons God requires this deep humility. The humble are teachable (Psalm 25:9) and repentant (Psalm 34:18; 51:17). They acknowledge their dependence on God and recognize His greatness (Psalm 69:29-36; Isaiah 66:1-2).
For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
The poor in spirit are given an incredible promise: they will inherit the very Kingdom of God! (Matthew uses the terms Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven interchangeably.) This is a promise that is woven throughout the Bible in various forms to those who are humble and poor in spirit.
“For thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Isaiah 57:15).
The Son of God was willing to live as a lowly human and to die an ignominious death.This is something that our forerunner Jesus Christ has already demonstrated. When He lived on the earth, Jesus humbled Himself greatly (Philippians 2:5-8). The Son of God was willing to live as a lowly human and to die an ignominious death. After His resurrection, however, God raised Him up to an incredible position of glory at the right hand of God’s throne over all the creation (verses 9-11).
And God is making humble Christians heirs of the Kingdom alongside His Son (James 2:5; Romans 8:17)!
The way of man
Humility isn’t easy or natural. Most people don’t even try to be humble. To many, it’s the proud and independent who seem to be the most successful. Humility and dependence on God are seen as weaknesses. This pride prevents the true repentance and humility God so strongly desires (James 4:8-10).
Pride leads to destruction (Proverbs 16:18-19). Contrary to what most people imagine, the humble will be honored as the prideful are brought down (Proverbs 29:23). It’s not something that happens immediately, but the humble will be exalted “in due time” (1 Peter 5:5-6).
What being poor in spirit looks like
In order to be poor in spirit, it is vital to know what it looks like. Here are three things that are indications that someone is poor in spirit and thus an inheritor of the Kingdom.
Without obedience, God and His way of life are nothing more than head knowledge—and head knowledge that is quickly forgotten at that. The only way that God’s way of life becomes more than knowledge is if it is obeyed (Deuteronomy 8:11-17). This obedience cannot be partial, but must be complete and include every word of God (Matthew 4:4).
2. Not setting self above others.
A key aspect of humility is our relationships with others. A Christian’s dealings with others should reflect a spirit that doesn’t strive for the best for oneself (Luke 14:8-11). A Christian should “let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Philippians 2:3).
It takes being poor in spirit to be truly repentant—to recognize the sin in one’s life and change. A repentant spirit is evidence of a poor, contrite spirit (Luke 18:9-14). Seeing the sin in one’s life is humbling and adds emphasis to the difference between sinful man and righteous God. For more on repentance, read the articles in our section on “Repentance.”
This sets the stage for the second of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4).
The poor in spirit are those who are humble enough to acknowledge God’s greatness and to depend on Him. God will only grant the inheritance of His eternal Kingdom to those with this humble attitude.
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