The beatitudes describe the characteristics of people who belong to the kingdom of heaven. This begins the most countercultural sermon one could probably imagine. The characteristics that are described in the Sermon on the Mount are not characteristics anyone in the world would believe would make you successful, joyful, or blessed.
The Kingdom of Heaven
Let us start our study with the result of being poor in spirit. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are poor in spirit. The kingdom of heaven is an expression that is only found in Matthew’s gospel and used extensively throughout Matthew’s gospel. The kingdom of heaven pulls together the entire hope of Israel’s story for the Messianic Age: a king (Messiah), the land, the holy people, and the redemptive power that will create holiness and peace. It is a phrase that represents the fullness of God’s blessings. The kingdom looms large in Daniel’s prophecy. Only in Daniel does the kingdom of God intersect with the Son of Man. This is important and interesting because the kingdom was Jesus’ primary theme in his teachings and “Son of Man” was his most common self-designation. The kingdom of heaven cannot be oversimplified to say these are the people who go to heaven. The language of this sentence argues against this interpretation. Jesus did not say that “theirs will be the kingdom of heaven.” Rather, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” These are the ones who have the kingdom of heaven now. Jesus speaks in the present tense. Saying the kingdom of heaven is merely heaven misses the bigger picture. The kingdom of heaven represents that there is a king, Jesus, who rules over all nations and peoples, destroying the enemies and judging the wicked. Those who are in this kingdom enjoy the benefits as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, receiving the designation as children of God in relationship with the Father because they have been redeemed.
The Poor In Spirit
If you were asked to describe the first characteristic of belonging in God’s kingdom, what characteristic would you think about? Perhaps we would think of holiness or sinlessness. Perhaps we would think of the need for perfect righteousness or obedience. But as we noted at the beginning of the lesson, Jesus’ sermon about who is in the kingdom is countercultural. But not only is it counterculture and counter-intuitive to the world, it is also countercultural to the thinking of the teachers and religious leaders of Israel in Jesus’ day. Jesus begins by declaring that it is the poor in spirit who belong to the kingdom of heaven. What does it mean to be poor in spirit?
To be poor in spirit is to recognize and understand our spiritual poverty before God. To know we do not have any resources within ourselves and therefore look to God for help and depend on him. To be poor is spirit is to stand without pretense before God, stripped of all self-sufficiency, self-security, and self-righteousness. I want to take to a few moments to look at the examples that Jesus gave to show what poor in spirit looks like. With these pictures we will have a better understanding of this characteristic and what it will look like in our lives in practice.
The parable of lost things in Luke 15 shows this contrast of what it looks like to be poor in spirit and what it looks like to not be poor in spirit. The parable concerning the older son begins in Luke 15:11 where Jesus first describes the attitude of the younger son, who we often call the prodigal son. Listen to what this younger son says: Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me. (Luke 15:12 ESV)
When the younger son comes to his senses and returns to the Father, listen to what he says: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants. (Luke 15:18–19 ESV)
Poor in spirit is the person who says I have sinned against the Lord and am not worthy to be your son or belong in your kingdom. The opposite of being poor in spirit is the person who stands before God and tells God to give what I deserve, as if God owes something to us.
Turn to Luke 18 and we will see another contrast that reveals what poverty in spirit looks like.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14 ESV)
Why was the sinner justified? Was he justified because he had done righteous deeds? No. Was he justified because he was perfect? No. If you were to ask the average person in Israel who was justified they would readily answer that it is the Pharisee because he was not as bad as the tax collector. Look how good the Pharisee is! He did not do all these bad things and he did all kinds of righteous deeds like fasting twice a week and giving tithes of all he receives. But Jesus says that it is the tax collector who is justified. Why? He is justified because he is poor in spirit. He will not lift his eyes to heaven and all he can say is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He understands his spiritual destitution. He is stripped of all self-security, self-sufficiency, and self-righteousness.
This was the problem with the church in Laodecia that Jesus identifies as their sin. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. (Revelation 3:17 ESV)
They did not see their spiritual condition before God. They did not recognize their spiritual poverty and therefore were lukewarm and were going to be vomited out of his mouth.
The first principle of the kingdom of heaven is that you cannot enter the kingdom. We are beggars before God. Kingdom citizens beg; they do not brag. Jesus said it this way in John 15.
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5 ESV)
Listen to Jesus in John 9: Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains. (John 9:39–41 ESV)
All of these are pictures to show us what it means to be poor in spirit. This is the attitude that is required to belong to the kingdom of heaven. Depending on ourselves is at odds with this kingdom. God wants people who know they are spiritual needy. God wants people to see that their personal goodness is not enough to measure up to God’s standards. This is one of the problems with the world today. They all think they are good people and therefore do not need God. You know that you need God when you see that you are not good but are spiritually needy and destitute. In fact, this is the necessary first step in order to become a true believer and follower of Jesus. You have to know that you are deep in sin and cannot do anything to save yourself but beg for the mercy of God.
Only the poor in spirit want to live in God’s kingdom because they know that they have nothing and are nothing apart from Jesus. Without poverty of spirit, we can endure only one ruler: Me! We will fight to the death to preserve our sovereign rule over our kingdom of one. We will continue to believe that what we want matters. We will continue to do what we think is best and live how we want to live and not allow Jesus to rule over us. Being poor in spirit is the only way we will allow Jesus to rule over our lives.
This is why Isaiah prophesied about the coming of the righteous king and who he was going to deliver. The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound. (Isaiah 61:1 ESV) You have to know who you are so that you can be set free by Jesus. Jesus brought the good news to the poor and brokenhearted.
Why does modern Christianity reject self-emptying? Jesus emptied himself, according to Philippians 2 and we are to have the same mind that is in Christ Jesus. Can you imagine a best selling Christian book being called, “How To Be Nothing” or “The Blessing of Being a Nobody?” Being poor in spirit is recognizing that we have nothing to give God. The beautiful song that we sing, number 557 in our songbooks, “Rock of Ages” utters these very words that I hope come from deep in our hearts. Listen to the second and third verses:
“Not the labor of my hands, Can fulfill the law’s demands; Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears forever flow, All for sin could not atone, Thou must save and Thou alone.”
“Nothing in my hand I bring: Simply to Thy cross I cling; Naked, come to Thee for dress; Helpless, look to Thee for grace; Vile, I to the fountain fly, Wash me, Savior, or I die.”
Only the grace of gospel and the comprehension of our great sin and lack righteousness can bring us to poverty of spirit. We must hear the words of the scriptures that only God is good (Luke 18:19), that no one is righteous or does good (Romans 3:10-12), and to understand that it is not in us to direct our steps (Jeremiah 10:23). There is no grace for us until we are poor in spirit. It is not until we are poor in spirit that we can see how glorious Christ is or understand his riches toward us! We must grasp our deadness and blindness due to sin to see the life that is available in Christ.
The last shall be first (Matthew 19:30). We must stand without pretense before God, stripped of all self-sufficiency, self-security, and self-righteousness begging for the mercy of God. The mark of Christianity is not sinlessness, for the apostle John says that such a person who thinks they are such are deceiving themselves. The mark of Christianity is a growing awareness of our sinfulness. God be merciful to me, the sinner!