LCN Article
Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

May / June 2017

Peter G. Nathan

Shortly, we will be observing the Festival of Pentecost. Let’s examine a subject today that relates to our keeping of that Festival in a way that is pleasing to our Father in heaven.

Matthew and Luke record for us a section of the teaching of Jesus known as the Beatitudes. Let’s consider the first of those statements in relation to Pentecost:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).

When we read this verse, many focus on the term poor, and in doing so it is natural to think of physical poverty. Poverty and the plight of the poor are discussed at length throughout the Bible, especially about the way in which those who have an abundance of this world’s goods treat them. But Jesus Christ is not addressing this sort of poverty, nor is He talking about “God’s poor” as certain religious groups like to style themselves. This verse has been used incorrectly to justify lives given to poverty and extreme self-denial as a form of righteousness.

The disciples themselves did not come from affluent backgrounds, but would not have been considered among the poor of that day. Grinding poverty was a reality of that society. The Jews were in servitude to the Romans, and “tax farming”—government collection of taxes through private individuals—was a tool of those who sought political influence with the Romans. Jewish society suffered as a result, with many poor impoverished people. Add to that the frequent famines that ravaged the land. We should not minimize those aspects of that time, just as so much poverty exists in our modern world. But despite poverty—then and now—it is not this state of poverty that Jesus was addressing. It is not “poor” in terms of the physical needs of life.

It is being poor in spirit. As we approach the day of Pentecost, on which God’s Spirit descended upon the first-century Church, such a statement might seem an odd one. The Spirit of God given on Pentecost to the disciples is not the only “spirit” in existence. Rather than referring to being “poor” in the Holy Spirit, Jesus was addressing the state of the human spirit—that power that differentiates us from the rest of creation (1 Corinthians 2:11–12).

Being poor in spirit enables us to be made rich in a specific manner.

As the first of the Beatitudes, this sets the stage for everything to follow. If we can understand this properly, then we can understand Jesus Christ’s message.

This concept of being “poor in spirit” is not found in other writings of the Greek-speaking world. But it is found in other Jewish writings from that time. It does appear in the writings discovered at Qumran, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. This term appears in two different forms of documents, one of which was a hymn that may well have been sung in the temple. So those listening to Jesus, if they were alert to the temple services and the ideas expressed within their society, would have recognized this statement and the fact that it was used as being the opposite of an ungodly trait. For in the documents from Qumran, being poor in spirit was considered alongside another condition: having a hard heart. So the disciples and others listening would be aware that Jesus was clearly talking about a spiritual condition.

Jesus is speaking about being poor in terms of our own spirit, not the Spirit of God. That is not a difficult aspect for us to understand. The challenge for each of us is to apply that in our personal lives—because the natural state of humanity is to be right in our own eyes. The book of Proverbs is full of instruction to the self-wise individual:

Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and depart from evil (Proverbs 3:7).

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise (Proverbs 12:15).

Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the hearts (Proverbs 21:2).

Contrast this with the attitude conveyed by Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. Where is the house that you will build Me? And where is the place of My rest? For all those things My hand has made, and all those things exist,” says the Lord. “But on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:1–2).

“Poor” is related to the human spirit here and its response to the word of God. Yet it is instructive to appreciate the term itself and its usage within Scripture. The term “poor” that is used by Isaiah “connotes some kind of disability or distress… It describes a man who has no property and who has thus to earn his bread by serving others” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 6, p. 647). Such a person could have been “wrongfully impoverished or dispossessed” (ibid., p. 888). “In the Law, the same ‘poor’ circumstances described by Isaiah referred to a person with no inheritance, or to one who had been wrongfully impoverished. Such an individual was protected by the Eternal through provisions in His Law” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, p. 683, electronic ed.).

How do we see ourselves? As rich in this world’s goods, or impoverished because the god of this world has polluted every aspect of the environment in which we live? That pollution is not just physical but includes the spiritual environment in which humanity suffers and is impoverished by his evil ways. If we see the world as our Father and His Son see it, we realize that humanity has been shortchanged. We have no inheritance here!

David uses the same expression in one of his Psalms. The context of the Psalm can only be guessed at. Perhaps this was written during the time he was being pursued by Saul, who was seeking to take his life. Or it may have been a later time in his reign. It was a time of distress. It was a time in which David clearly understood the transitory nature of the physical and the need for the Kingdom of God.

Let all those who seek You rejoice and be glad in You; and let those who love Your salvation say continually, “Let God be magnified!” But I am poor and needy; make haste to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay (Psalm 70:4).

Even a king or perhaps a future king had to recognize his poverty and the futility of what exists in the here and now.

What about us? Are we poor in spirit? Or do we value our opinion or ideas over the word of God? What motivates us? Each of us probably has some area in our life where we think we know best. If we don’t see that, then we may not be reflecting on our life in the way in which we should. Notice the instruction to the church of Laodicea. Does it reflect a “poor spirit”?

Because you say, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing”—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see (Revelation 3:17–18).

Let’s consider these elements regarding the Holy Day we are about to celebrate so that we have them clearly in our minds, as we appear before our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.

Example of Israel

The children of Israel were brought before the Eternal at Mount Sinai, on what is understood to be the Day of Pentecost. Some 50 days prior they had been in Egypt and had seen the hand of the Eternal upon the Egyptians, and had witnessed the miraculous intervention provided to free them from captivity. They had seen the plagues; they had witnessed the Passover; had passed through the waters of the Red Sea while the army of Egypt was drowned. They had been led by fire and cloud, then were given water from a rock, and manna to eat—literally a daily miracle. They camped at Mount Sinai in preparation for the Festival, where we find Moses in communication with the Eternal. Moses records the event and the Lord’s offer to Israel:

And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the Lord commanded him. Then all the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” So Moses brought back the words of the people to the Lord (Exodus 19:3–8).

The scene described the book of Exodus is a wonderful scenario, to be sure. When we look at the the picture of the same scene as it is described in the book of Deuteronomy, however, a new but important detail emerges.

So it was, when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, that you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders. And you said: “Surely the Lord our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice from the midst of the fire. We have seen this day that God speaks with man; yet he still lives. Now therefore, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God anymore, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh who has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? You go near and hear all that the Lord our God may say, and tell us all that the Lord our God says to you, and we will hear and do it.” Then the Lord heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me: “I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever! Go and say to them, ‘Return to your tents.’ But as for you, stand here by Me, and I will speak to you all the commandments, the statutes, and the judgments which you shall teach them, that they may observe them in the land which I am giving them to possess” (Deuteronomy 5:23–31).

We see similar considerations of the state of the hearts of the children of Israel addressed in the book of Hebrews:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’”Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God (Hebrews 3:7–12).

Man on mountain topHow many times does the condition of the heart appear in this section? We must be mindful of the fact that the opposite of being poor in spirit is having a hard heart—the same sad commentary made by God on the spiritual state of Israel. And in the next chapter of Hebrews, we are told why the heart is so important.

Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:11–12).

They never entered the Promised Land because they had the wrong heart. To express it in terms of Matthew 5, they weren’t poor in spirit. They were self-willed and self-centered in their lives—only concerned about their own physical needs. Of all the adults who left Egypt, only Caleb and Joshua were able to inherit the promise, because they were of a different spirit (Numbers 14:24; 32:12).

If we consider that day of Pentecost in 31 ad, we find this statement recorded as the response to the sermon given by Peter to the listening throng: “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37).

Note the contrast between their forebears, whose hearts were hardened and likened to stone, and these people listening to Peter, who had responsive hearts that could feel and respond. It demonstrates a fundamental difference. So, a condition of those responding to Peter on the Day of Pentecost was being poor in spirit.

Jeremiah was inspired to write about the changes that were to take place, whereby the Law of God could be placed within the heart, a process that began with several thousand during the events of that momentous day of Pentecost in 31ad (Acts 2:41).

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more (Jeremiah 31:31–34).

The Covenant with the Law of God was not to be merely external any longer; it was to be internal, written on the heart instead of on tablets of stone as it had been at Sinai. That required something other than a hard heart. It required that the individual be poor in spirit.

The promise provided by Jesus in the Beatitude for those who are poor in spirit is the Kingdom of God. Recall the comments we noted earlier about the use of the term “poor” in Isaiah and throughout God’s law, saying that indicates one who “has no property… a man with no inheritance… one wrongfully impoverished.” These conditions applied perfectly to the children of Israel in Egypt. They were offered a possession—a promised inheritance. Exodus 19:6 sets out the very nature of that inheritance. They were offered the privilege of being a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, something intrinsically greater than just land itself. As we’ve already read, they didn’t inherit at all. We are offered a great inheritance, so much greater than physical property. This Beatitude promises that we are offered an inheritance in the Kingdom of God, referred to in Matthew’s record of Christ’s words as the “Kingdom of Heaven.”

Jesus Christ an Example

The Gospels portray the example of Jesus Christ as one who did not seek His own will but that of His Father (Matthew 6:10; 12:50; 26:42; John 6:38–40; 7:17; Hebrews 10:7–10; Philippians 2:5–11). His life conveys to us what it meant to be truly poor in spirit.

To be poor in spirit as He was implies that we desire to be rich in the Spirit of God. At Pentecost, that gift was given to those who saw themselves for what they really were: sinners who needed repentance, forgiveness, and the Spirit of God to guide their paths. They saw themselves in need of a cardiac transplant, as it were, just as Jeremiah and Ezekiel had prophesied (Jeremiah 31:31–34; Ezekiel 36:26–27).

Returning to the Beatitudes as set out in Matthew’s Gospel, one translation conveys the intent well. The New Century Version states: “They are blessed who realize their spiritual poverty, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (Matthew 5:3).

Our place in the Kingdom of God—our inheritance—is dependent upon our receiving and using the Holy Spirit that has been so freely given to us. That demands that we empty ourselves, in a picture of what Jesus Christ did before us (Philippians 2:7, ASV), emptying ourselves of our own wants, comprehending our “spiritual poverty,” and focusing our lives on the ways of our Father—seeking His goals, intentions, behavior and standards. This is the starting point of our relationship with the Beatitudes that follow.