Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3
Possibly the worst criticism anyone can level at us Christians is to say, “I’ve watched your life and you’re no different than the rest of the world! You’re just as greedy, malicious and full of lust as I am!”
Admittedly, sometimes coming to church is like tossing a pebble into a lake. The pebble gets nice and wet on the outside, but the water never penetrates to the inside. Similarly, it’s easy to come to church and allow the externals of the gospel to wash over our outer lives— how we dress, the cut of our hair, our speech, and so forth. But all the while our inner life remains locked up tightly against any penetration by the gospel. So our conscience, our spirit, our values and our attitudes remain unfazed by truth! And we have a religion of outward show, but it’s not life-changing.
Nowhere is the gospel’s lack of penetration more evident than in the Sermon on the Mount. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer.”
We come now to the Beatitudes of Jesus, the first words of his most famous sermon. There are eight beatitudes in all. The first four deal with one’s relationship with God. The last four deal with one’s relationship with people.
Let’s immerse ourselves in the first of these eight pronouncements of Jesus. Let’s open our inner attitudes to God’s beatitudes and find fulfillment in him.
First, it is imperative that we understand the formula in which Christ presented the Beatitudes. The traditional English Bible translation reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!” But there is no “are” in the Greek original. A better translation is: “O the blessedness of the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!” Thus the first beatitude is not a simple declarative sentence, but an exclamation. It is an exclamatory remark meant to be shouted with excitement! “O THE BLESSEDNESS OF THE POOR IN SPIRIT . . . !”
The word blessed is the word makarios in the Greek. It’s the same word used for the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. Cyprus is known as “the Happy Island.” It had it all in Christ’s day. The saying was that a person need not go beyond its coastline to find joy. So a fair translation of the first beatitude might be: “O the happiness of the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!”
To us moderns happiness means feeling fine. “The wife and I are getting along. The kids are behaving. My investments hit 12 percent last year. And it looks like I’ll get that promotion at work!” Do you see how we base our happiness on our circumstances? The trouble with such happiness is that it is so fragile. Why, 90 percent of my life can be going just fine, but 10 percent going poorly can destroy my mood.’
This is not the sort of happiness Christ is talking about. The Lord’s blessedness or happiness is not what you feel, but what is. Not what is temporary, but what is eternal. Not what you think of our circumstances, but what God thinks.
The Hebrew word for blessed has a word picture behind it— that of a kneeling camel. The idea is that a camel kneels so it can be loaded with silks, spices, treasure and such, then gets up and joins a caravan taking its cargo to distant lands.
This is the picture in Psalm 68:19. “Blessed be the Lord who daily loadeth (or blesses) us with benefits.”
So the idea is that a camel is made to be “a ship of the desert.” To be blessed, then, is to be like a camel, to be doing that which God put us here to do.
Now, back to the first beatitude. “O the blessedness, of the happy islanders, O the loaded camels carrying treasure, O those happily fulfilled of God . . .” Thus our happiness in God is not a feeling but an abiding fulfillment, not what we think of our circumstances, but what God thinks.
That is the formula in which Jesus presented his beatitudes. Now, this: the first fulfilling attitude.
Poor in Spirit
“O the blessedness of the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!”
Do you remember that the first four beatitudes have to do with one’s relationship with God? Thus, having an attitude of spiritual poverty is the first principle Christ urges upon his disciples.
This has confused many Christians. Is Christ glorifying poverty? Yes, he is. But it is not physical poverty— lack of food and shelter. Rather, it is spiritual poverty— “poorness in spirit” that Christ is singling out.
In the Greek, “poor in spirit” means abject poverty, without resources, literally beaten to your knees— being so poor one can only look to God for solace. Thus a literal translation of the first beatitude reads, “O the happiness of the person who realized his complete spiritual poverty and puts all his trust in God, for his is the kingdom of heaven.”
In Luke 18:9 (and following), Jesus told the parable of two men who went into the temple to pray. The first man was rich, proud, and self-righteous. He was a Pharisee. He stood in the most prominent place in the temple and preened like a peacock! Jesus said he “prayed thus with himself.” He was not talking to God, but indulging in a kind of inner dialogue of self-congratulation. “I thank thee, Lord of heaven, that I am not like other men— adulterers, liars and thieves. I pray five times a day, fast and tithe.”
The second man, a socially despised tax collector, hid in the shadows of the temple. He wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven! Rather he beat his breast and anguished in prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
I like to say the first man had one eye on himself, one eye on his neighbor, and no eye on God. The second man, however, had one eye on himself, and one eye on God. And in comparing his character with the nature of God, he came away feeling poor and humble.
Jesus said the poor man went down to his house “justified,” while the proud man went away “unjustified.”
We’ve a saying here in North Carolina– “high and dry.” And it translates into this spiritual truth: high in ego, dry spiritually; high in pride, low with God; high in self, shriveled and dry in spirit and soul.’
Do you want an example of this? Revelation 3:17 (and following) describes the church at Laodicia as very wealthy in education, material things and social status, but very impoverished in the things of the Spirit. “You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.” There you have it. High and dry. The more self-righteous we are, the less God-conscious we are.
One way we can tell we’re growing spiritually is when we get more Calvinistic. By that I mean when we have a higher view of God and a lower view of self; a higher sense of God’s sovereignty; a lower sense of one’s own plans. God’s glory becomes everything. My own glory becomes marginal. I become more concerned with being faithful than with being fruitful. Or, in short, I become convinced of my own utter poverty and yet become aware of God’s incredible riches.
As the hymn writer puts it, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.”
Jesus is saying that the disciples’ relationship with God begins with a realization that there isn’t one. And it continues from there with an ever deepening understanding that only God is great. I am nothing. God is rich. I am poor.
It is helpful to study the apostle Paul here. When we first meet him in Scripture he is a religious Pharisee strutting and preening himself in public, crowing self-righteously. Then he meets Jesus and quickly becomes singularly unimpressed with himself, while becoming overwhelmed with God’s glory.
In A.D. 58, he writes, “Paul an apostle– not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:1).
In A.D. 63 he writes, “The saying is sure, and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the chief of sinners. Note Paul did not say “I was the chief of sinners.” Poor in spirit, Paul says, “I am the chief of sinners.”
The closer we get to God the more amazing his grace is. The more we realize all he is, the more we recognize all we are not. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling!” Oh, Lord, it all depends on you!
Perhaps there is one of you reading this who has not known such truth. You have tried to establish your relationship with God by your own works. You’ve become devoutly religious. In the observance of rules you think you will earn your way back to God. Now you think you are better than others. Yet really on the inside you are tired, hard and joyless.
You have one eye on yourself, one eye on your neighbor and no eye on God. And you are unjustified.
Good news! “O the blessedness of those who realize their complete spiritual poverty with God, theirs is the kingdom of God!”
Perhaps today you would look into the splendor of God and find your own raggedness. And kneeling like a camel, you’d ask God to load you with his rich grace.
Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.