Question: Would you please explain the meaning and import of Jesus’ reference to “poor in spirit” in His opening statement of the “Sermon On The Mount” in Matthew 5:3?
Answer: This verse says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their’s is the kingdom of heaven.” We see here that being “poor in spirit” is stated by Jesus Himself as a prime requisite of entering the kingdom of heaven and should therefore be considered worthy of close attention and study.
I will begin the discussion by injecting two other scriptures into it which may help to clarify its meaning. Isaiah 61:1 in describing the mission and ministry of Christ says this: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek;…” The word “meek” here is the key word. Then in the fourth chapter of Luke, verses 16-21 tell that Jesus came to Nazareth and went into the synagogue and there was handed Him the book of Esaias to read and He read this very prophecy of Isaiah 61:1. He read in verse 18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor;…” The word “poor” is the key word here. We see that the same word that is translated “meek” in Isaiah 61:1 is translated “poor” in Luke 4:18, and makes it clear that “poor in spirit” is related to meekness and humility. Jesus could have said, “Blessed are the humble for their’s is the kingdom of heaven” and it would have meant the same thing.
So let us study humility a little because without it one can never enter the kingdom of heaven. The proud in heart can never be saved until they renounce pride and become humble enough to repent and confess their need of God and help from Him. Poor is defined as having little or no resources. That is the condition we must reach before we can approach unto God; poor, bankrupt, no goodness of our own to plead. Some of the words in an old hymn say, “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.” That is the way we must come to God if we are to receive mercy and grace from God. “…God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.” James 4:6. We cannot use any good things we have done as bargaining points with God when we want Him to save us or want any other favor from Him. Actually God Himself hath said in Isaiah 64:6 that “…all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;…” That surely is not much of a bargaining commodity, so let none of us try to use it in seeking God for salvation or any other favor from God. In Isaiah 54:7 we read, “…their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord.” That is the only righteousness God will recognize just that which He has wrought in us. So in order to enter the kingdom of God we must empty ourselves of all our self-righteousness and just throw ourselves entirely on the mercies of God and trust Him to cleanse us from all our righteousness and fill us with His own righteousness.
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus gave us some very clear teaching on this point. He told of two men who went up to the temple to pray a Pharisee and a publican. The Pharisee’s prayer was full of commendatory remarks about himself and what he had done. All the things he said were good, commendable things. All true saints observe those things in their lives, too. There was nothing wrong with the things he did. They were right. But using them as bargaining material with God and commending himself to God on that grounds was not acceptable. On the other hand, the publican standing afar off and feeling so spiritually bankrupt and poverty-stricken, and having absolutely nothing to commend him to the Lord, smote upon his breast in the anguish of his soul and said, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” This prayer has come to be recognized the world around, even today, as “The Sinner’s Prayer.” God accepted that prayer and rejected the Pharisee’s prayer even though he said many good things about himself. Jesus said the publican went down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee. Pharisaical religion (self-righteousness; a formal, external religion and worship) is the plague and curse of modern religion. They are missing the kingdom of God on account of it just as the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 did. It is still true that the humble people possess the kingdom of God.
In John 15:5 Jesus said, “…Without me ye can do nothing.” Oh, let us ever be mindful of this and never boast ourselves or take credit to ourselves even inwardly, where nobody can know, for anything that God has wrought in or through us, but always acknowledge God and give Him all the credit and glory for everything, that we may continue to abide in and possess the kingdom of God.
Again Jesus said in Luke 12:25-26 that we could not, by taking thought, (worrying about it) add one cubit to our stature or turn one hair white or black. He then concluded His thought by saying that if we could not do the things that are least, why worry about the rest? Ah, folks, we will all do well to recognize and confess our insufficiencies and inabilities within ourselves and throw ourselves totally into the hands of God for Holy Ghost enablement for Him to work in us of His own good pleasure. Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Philippians 4:13.) So please, let us not throw up our hands and quit because of a consciousness of our total insufficiencies, but let us throw ourselves totally on God and trust in Him to endow us with His all-sufficient power and strength to enable us to do everything He wants us to do.
We can only be worthy of God’s divine blessings and favors in our lives, and of salvation itself, so long as we keep our faith in the merits of the shed blood of the Son of God and the sacrifice He made in our behalf. It is only through His sacrifice and our faith in it that we have any access to God at all. Let us never forget this for one moment. Let us never think that God owes us anything at all for any service we have rendered or any good thing we have done. As soon as we do this we become unworthy of the least of His favors that very moment.
In I Peter 5:5-7 Peter said this, “Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.” Again in Philippians 2:5 we read, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” The following verses tell of His condescension and humility in emptying Himself of the position, glory and honor He had with the Father in heaven, and condescending to come down to this world of human beings and taking our likeness upon Him and becoming obedient to His Father’s will, even to death. Folks, this is great condescension, beyond our comprehension to fathom. But we read in verses 9-11 how God highly exalted Him and gave Him a name which is above every name.
Now to sum up a little to this point: In I Peter 5:5-7, Peter is giving instructions to ministers, pastors, overseers, elders young and old and exhorting them to be humble, submissive and subject one to another. Ah, brethren, we are to set the pace and furnish an example to the saints of what we teach them. If we teach them humility, be humble ourselves. Let us teach them by example as well as by precept and instruct them to behave themselves among themselves and get along among themselves just like they see us behaving and getting along among ourselves. The Church of God cannot operate smoothly and function properly outside of this perimeter.
There is a certain prescribed kind of humility saints are to have. A genuine lowliness of mind and humility of heart is to characterize the life and behavior of the saints not a voluntary or “put on” humility which is very distasteful to a genuinely humble person. It is Christ’s humility we are to be clothed with. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 2:5. This is a lowly mind. (Philippians 2:8.) In Romans 13:14 we are instructed to put on Christ. That is, be clothed with His divine virtue of humility, from which all other graces flow.
But let us make no mistake about it; we are to walk in Christ after the same manner in which we received Him. (Colossians 2:6.) The kingdom of God belongs to humble and lowly people. If, in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must become poor and stripped of our resources and drop all our claims to any mercies or favors from God and just recognize ourselves as undone and “Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to thy cross I cling,” we must surely maintain our citizenship in the kingdom of God by the same means. So it can still be said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their’s is the kingdom of heaven,” whether we are just entering in or remaining in. We remain in the kingdom of God by the same means by which we enter the kingdom of God.
Since it is Christ’s humility we are to be clothed with, it must manifest itself in the same way in us that it did with Him. In His humility He made Himself of no reputation. (Philippians 2:7.) Another translation says, “He emptied Himself.” Then it must work the same way in us. We must empty ourselves of all self-interest, self-promotion, self-advancement, all self-seeking, (I Corinthians 10:24; Philippians 2:4), self-planning, etc. As we empty out self, we will be more filled with God. In John 3:30, John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Oh, what a great truth this is. Christ cannot increase in us until we decrease in our own self life. Christ can only expand in us to the extent we make room for Him. There is an old hymn which I have seen but have never heard. It contains four verses, and those four verses tell the whole story step by step. The first verse says, “All of self and none of God.” The second verse says, “Some of self and some of God.” The third verse says, “Less of self and more of God.” The fourth verse says, “None of self and all of God.” Ah, folks, there you have it; an emptying out of self and a filling up with God; we decrease and God increases in our lives.
Jesus humbled Himself and became obedient. (Philippians 2:8.) Genuine humility involves obedience. God’s Word establishes a clear chain of obedience. This begins in the home. Wives are to be obedient unto their own husbands. (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5; I Peter 3:1, etc.) Children are to be obedient to their parents. (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20.) Parents should also teach their children a broader scope of obedience beyond the home; their teachers in school and anyone else who has authority over children and the management of children by reason of the position he holds or the office he occupies which has to do with children. Everybody husbands, wives, parents, children, teachers, etc. is instructed to obey the laws and ordinances of men and be law-abiding citizens. In the spiritual realm, saints are instructed to obey their pastors who are in charge and exercise oversight and watch for their souls and spiritual welfare. (Hebrews 13:7, 17.) It also teaches ministers of the gospel, including pastors, overseers, elders and all classifications and callings, to be subject one to another. (I Peter 5:5.)
Right along with this instruction, Peter admonished all of them to be clothed with humility (I Peter 5:5) and to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God. (Verse 6.) God’s plan and arrangement for the Church to operate by cannot possibly function smoothly and effectively without humility on the part of everyone connected with it. God knew all of this, so He set it up to function and be well-lubricated with humility and all of its outflowing graces and virtues. He certainly will not long allow anyone who gets lifted up with pride and personal ambition to be detained in the kingdom of God. So again, the final conclusion is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit [humble]: for their’s is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3.