Who are the "poor in spirit"?
Jesus begins the famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) with what is known as the “Beatitudes.” The word “Beatitude” comes from the Latin Vulgate Beatus meaning: happy, blessed, or fortunate. Warren Wiersbe calls them the “Be (happy) attitudes,” which is a fitting definition since Jesus is speaking of the types of attitudes we should have throughout the entire sermon.
It is not by accident that Jesus uses the first beatitude to address the common deficiency among all people even though many may deny it – “poor in spirit.” What does that mean? Many people mistakenly believe that Jesus is focusing on “poor” people (those who have no wealth and/or those in poverty) who will “inherit” the richness of the kingdom of heaven. While Jesus does say later in the sermon to lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven… (6:20-21), this is no way is in reference to the “wealth” of heaven, but rather addresses the attitudes one has in his heart as the signifying factor of his relationship to God and the kingdom.
The poor in spirit are those who realize they are spiritually bankrupt before God. The Living Bible refers to them as “humble,” while the Message states it appropriately this way, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God…”
So who are the “rich” in spirit if we should so contrast? It would be those who think they have all of God they need. It would be those who pride themselves on their knowledge and experiences with God. As it is with the rest of the Sermon, Jesus contrasts those who honestly declare their need before God with those who think they have all of God they need.
This is the very reason why Jesus opens the sermon with this very meaningful and telling truth. Until we recognize our emptiness spiritually, we cannot be spiritually filled. A simple truth, yet it is horribly misconstrued.
For example… there will be millions of churchgoers in church on Sundays. How many of those attending churches understand their “spiritually bankrupt” condition with God? How many of those attendees come for instruction, for worship, for fellowship, for salvation, for ministry? Do all come with a desire to have their “spirit” filled or their minds filled?
American Express had a slogan many years ago which said, “American Express, don’t leave home without it.” Perhaps we could learn something from that slogan by adapting it to say, “The Holy Spirit, you can’t leave earth without Him.” Nothing unholy gets to heaven. While we do believe that Jesus has given us the “robe of righteousness” (holiness) by His death, He also states through His servant Paul, that me must continue to exercise this “putting on” the new self or new life. How does one do this? By declaring spiritually bankruptcy. John the Baptist said it best this way, “He (Jesus) must increase, I must decrease (John 3:30). What would happen to all the church attendees who would have this attitude?
Jesus knew the big problem was that even though ALL are spiritually poor, only SOME recognize it. He started the sermon with a bang. Unless you recognize your spiritual poverty, the rest I have to say will be misunderstood.
“Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)