As we live in this perplexing world with our ever-wandering hearts, the Beatitudes are road signs pointing to our true home. Jesus teaches that we can find happiness only by following his pathway to God. Christ alone can give what is unattainable, and only He can give the joy which endures despite all pain and loss.
So what is the first road sign to blessedness? It is in Matthew 5:3,
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
That’s a surprising way to introduce happiness: to talk about poverty! Each of the Beatitudes do this. Do we really think that those who mourn are happy? Do we really expect the meek and lowly to inherit the earth? Is it a blessing to be persecuted? Like Jesus often does, He turns things upside down. The way to blessedness is opposite to the path which people normally follow.
To get into God’s kingdom, Christ says, you have to be poor—and not just short a few dollars. In the New Testament there are two Greek words for being poor. One describes the kind of man who had to work for his living every day; he never had anything extra, but neither was he penniless.
The other word for poor means poverty-stricken, bankrupt, without a single asset—and this is the word Jesus uses: “Blessed is the person who is utterly destitute.” It’s the same word for the miserable beggar Lazarus in Luke 16.
There have always been beggars on our streets, and in some countries they are countless. But very few are spiritual beggars. Few people have a deep longing for God’s grace, the kind of longing which arises from being confronted with our guilt and emptiness. Yet this must be our attitude: ‘poor in spirit.’
Jesus lived and breathed the Old Testament, so when He declares, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” we are meant to hear an echo of a theme in Scripture, like Psalm 34:6. There David says,
This poor man called, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.
In what sense was David poor? When he wrote his Psalm, he was helpless against his enemy and despairing. He was struck with the realization that he had no resources in himself, so if God didn’t come to his rescue, he was utterly lost.
Such a person is ‘poor in spirit,’ and knows that all they can do is depend on the LORD. And it is these poor people whom Christ came to deliver. The prophets always said that the Christ would come and preach good tidings to the poor, heal the broken-hearted, and free the prisoners (Isa 61:1-2). In Matthew’s Gospel, this is what Christ has already been doing, healing diseases and driving out demons. These were the ‘poor’ in Israel, and his compassionate heart went out to them.
But not only the physically sick and mentally troubled need help. Jesus’s miracles were meant to teach a deeper lesson about his mission: He came for those who are conscious that they have nothing and can do nothing. We have to admit that apart from a right relationship with God, we are utterly destitute. The door of the kingdom is closed unless God brings us in by his own free grace.
This kind of need is not easy to acknowledge. By nature, we are proud and prefer to be self-sufficient. We hate to be the needy person, and we figure that it is other people who really need help, not us. So we keep thinking that we can still get by, that we can manage. And what happens? We don’t go to God.
We don’t forget God entirely, of course. But He is more of a backup than a Saviour. Behind everything else that we have built up for ourselves, we figure that it’s good to have some insurance called ‘faith.’ This has always been the deadly danger of riches. How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God!
And not just material riches, where you have a top-tier home and full bank accounts. None of us want to admit our poverty, so we insist that we are rich in one way or another: “My knowledge makes me rich. My talents or my influence make me rich. I’m rich with opportunities, and I am wealthy with all my friends and grandchildren. And this makes me happy.”
But will you keep being happy with your earthly things? Could our satisfaction in life continue, even when we lose our job, or lose our health, or lose our family? Maybe that will never happen.
But it is certain that we will all die. So Christ teaches us to take a good, hard look at every earthly gift and worldly position. Not one of them will not fade or be lost—and what then? Jesus puts it this way somewhere else, “What does it profit you if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?”
This first Beatitude shows that going to Christ with your whole heart means confessing that you are poor. It’s about having a right view of ourselves.
Do you confess that you’re a sinner? Do you acknowledge that you have no righteousness of your own? Do you know that your earthly security and confidence will come to nothing? Are you holding all things here below loosely, and holding tightly to Christ?
When we know that we have nothing and that we are nothing, and when we find our everything in Christ, then we are truly blessed. For the poor in spirit are brought into restored fellowship with God. It is they who get to know and love the Saviour Jesus, and God the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!