Sermon preached on Matthew 5:3 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/19/2014 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Blessed are the Poor in Spirit”
We continue our sermon series through the Sermon on the Mount today. We are now digging into a verse by verse analysis of the Beatitudes. Remember the Beatitudes is the first section in this sermon. And so today we are studying verse 3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Let me start then with just a few words on the blessedness held out for those who are this poor in spirit. The blessedness is that theirs is the kingdom of heaven. I won’t spend as much time on that today, because that is what we’ve been talking about the last two weeks in detail. We’ve been talking about how this whole sermon is interested in the kingdom of heaven. It’s talking about how someone can gain entrance into this kingdom. The point is we should be realizing that this is what it should be all about. We want this kingdom to be our kingdom. We want citizenship and ownership of this kingdom. Well, we’ve been talking about the last two weeks that Jesus is challenging his audience on how someone finds themselves belonging to this kingdom. It’s not by some mere Jewish birthright. Nor do even the current Jewish religious leaders have any guarantee of entrance into this kingdom. So then, Jesus begins by describing the type of people who do belong to this kingdom. You are blessed if you do, of course. That’s the point of the beatitudes. You are blessed if you are a part of the Messiah’s kingdom of heaven.
So then, Jesus begins by saying that if you are poor in spirit, that is good, because to you belongs the kingdom of heaven. What does Jesus mean by this? What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Let me give a simple answer first. Then I’ll explain further. A very simple answer is that to be poor in spirit is usually understood as sort of idiom for humility. To be poor in spirit means you are humble spiritually speaking. That’s the simple answer, but let me continue to explain now. To help explain this, let me start with the word for “poor.” When we say “poor” we usually think monetarily. But in Greek that’s not the only way it’s used. In fact in English it’s not always used that way either. For example, if we think of someone who just had some very sad thing happen to him, we might say, “Oh that poor soul.” And so this word for poor can have some range of meaning that’s not just about financial or material poverty. And so in Greek, the word for poor, more generally, is about someone’s low estate. It especially has a beggarly sense. It’s form is similar to the word in Greek for bowing down or crouching timidly. So when you think of someone physically poor, you begin to think of some beggar bowing or cowering down and asking for a handout, and all their impoverished state that goes along with that. And so this Greek word for poor, if you disconnect it from the physical poverty, then you have the notion of being in some low estate, beggarly, afflicted, and bowing in great need.
And so of course this beatitude does disconnect the word “poor” here from the physical. It says blessed are the poor in spirit. So, apply this idea of “poor” to the spiritual side of things. Think of someone who spiritually speaking is in a beggarly state. One that is afflicted and low and bowing down for help, in terms of their spirit. A spirit that says, “I have nothing, so will you help me?” That’s starting to describe what it means to be poor in spirit. Again, the word humility is a very simple summary. And yet, Jesus does use the language poor in spirit, and not the word for humility, so the color and nuance of this phrase is obviously important to Jesus.
Let me give some other passages to help us further meditate on this humility described with the words poor in spirit. Let’s begin with two quotes from Isaiah. Isaiah 57:15 says that God dwells with him who has a contrite and humble spirit. Isaiah 66:2 says that God looks to the one who is poor and of a contrite spirit. Those get at similar ideas. It shows God’s attention to the humble of spirit.
Or listed to Proverbs 16:19 — it connects the ideas of poverty and riches with humility and pride. Proverbs 16:19 says, “It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.” In other words it’s better to be poor and humble than it is to be rich and proud. And so there’s often this generalization, but of course it is only a generalization — that humility tends to go along with physical poverty, and pride tends to goes along with physical wealth.
We know from other places that simply being poor monetarily is not going to yield you the kingdom of heaven; nor does having monetary wealth necessarily prevent you from entering the kingdom. Sometimes in our earthly poverty, it causes us to realize more our need for God. Sometimes in our earthly riches, it can cause us to forget our need for God. But those are generalizations, not absolutes.
But by observing those generalizations, hopefully it helps us then when we think about being poor in spirit. There’s something deeper here, something more significant here, that dealing with earthly poverty. It’s not talking about being poor in material things. It’s poor in spirit. Poor in soul. And this is not just a perception. It’s not just that you perceive you are poor in spirit, that you think you are, but that you actually are poor in spirit. And on the other hand, it’s not just someone outwardly presenting themselves as being poor in spirit, while not really believing that about themselves. But actually being poor in spirit. In other words, this is talking about real genuine humility. That someone is spiritually-speaking humble because that really is their state, and they actually do recognize it. An examples of something like this is like when God called Moses to free the people from Egypt. In Exodus 3:11, Moses says to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” I love God’s response. God doesn’t disagree with Moses. God simply replies to Moses saying, “But I will be with you.” In other words, it’s like God is telling Moses that he is absolutely right. Moses isn’t anyone! Moses isn’t anyone to free the people from their bondage. That would be impossible for Moses. But what’s impossible for Moses is possible for God. And that’s why God would send Moses to Pharaoh. Because God would work through Moses to bring about what only God do. But Moses rightly acknowledged from the start he couldn’t do it. We could say that that was poor in spirit of Moses. In other words, that was a genuine humility of Moses that was quite accurate.
Let me give you another example. Take Gideon in Judges 6. There God told Gideon to go and save Israel from the Midianites. Listen to Gideon’s response: “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” Guess what God’s response was? Basically the same thing God had told Moses. God replied to Gideon, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.” And so Gideon’s initial response was right. We could say that was poor in spirit of Gideon. This was a genuine humility of Gideon that was quite accurate.
Let me make sure we understand. Being poor in spirit is not being a coward. Being poor in spirit is not a lack of boldness or courage. Being poor in spirit is to rightly understand your abilities before God. And so when you put those abilities with regard to entering the kingdom of God, someone who is poor in spirit realizes that they can’t enter the kingdom of God on their own. It’s realizing that as much as Moses and Gideon didn’t have the power to save Israel on their own strength, neither do we have the power to save ourselves on our own strength. In a sermon all about coming into the kingdom of heaven, we are told at the very start that the person who belongs to the kingdom is the one who realizes they don’t deserve to be there.
Let me give you a New Testament example. Take the Apostle Paul and what he says in Philippians 3. There he recounts all the reasons why he, more than others, might have had some confidence in himself in terms of his standing before God. He remembers all his standing according to the flesh. He talked about his circumcision, and his Israelite and Benjamite standing. He talked about his zeal for the law and righteousness as a faithful Pharisee. But what does he say about all that? Rubbish. Dung. He says, that what things were gain to him, these he has counted loss for Christ. This was poor in spirit of Paul. This was some genuine humility of Paul and it was a true assessment of his state. He realized that there was nothing he could do to measure up to God’s standards. It’s like what Jesus will say later in this sermon — that our righteousness needs to be better than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Paul came to realize that and so it meant he had to look for a righteousness outside of himself. He had to come to realize that he needed the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. That’s the only way to be a part of Christ’s kingdom. It is to come to the point when you realize you don’t deserve to be there. Where you deserve to be is hell. What you have earned and accomplished in your own strength is the eternal wrath of God. Only when we truly realize that and then flee to Christ for salvation from our sins, can we enter into his kingdom. But we will never come to Christ if our pride says we don’t need a savior. We will never come to Christ until we have first been changed by the Holy Spirit into being poor in Spirit. We need to truly know our spiritual bankruptness apart from Christ coming into our lives.
By way of contrast, let me provide a warning of a few things that are the opposite of being poor in spirit. This is important to note, because it’s easy to be deceived. Generally speaking, the opposite of being poor in spirit is putting pride in things other than Christ to save you. It’s putting pride in thinking you have found a savior outside of the faith that turns to Christ to save us. Let me give you a few examples. Moral living is one obvious one. You think you can live a pretty good life, where the good outweighs the bad, and then God will let you into his kingdom. That’s the opposite of being poor in spirit, and that will send you to hell — not striving to live morally, but striving to live morally as a way to earn a right standing before God, also known as moralism. Another one is what you might call mere sacramentalism. I’ll try to be careful here. I don’t want to speak against the good benefits God gives us through a right use of the sacraments. But if you think you find your salvation from the mere physical going through the motions of the sacraments. Or say because you go to church and give a tithe, and help out at the church BBQ, if you think that is what saves you, then you are wrong. In other words, if you think outward religious observance is what saves you and if you think doing those religious acts is why God will have to let you into his kingdom, then you are sadly mistaken. That’s the opposite of being poor in spirit, and that will send you to hell. Or let me mention one more: trust in your theological knowledge. I’ll try to be careful here too. But if we look at all the theology we know from the Bible, and look around at others who bear the name of Christ, and think you are saved because you know the Bible’s doctrines so much better than them, then you are wrong. No one is saved because they have a really good handle mentally on how all the teachings in the Bible fit together. I’ve met pagan professors at college that sure can explain to you various doctrines taught in the Bible very well. But that won’t save them. It won’t save anyone.
You see to be poor in spirit is to start by acknowledging that even the good things you might begin to do in your life, that none of them will help you in any way to be able to earn entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Because none of them will allow you to measure up to the standards of 5:48, “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” I mentioned moral living, sacraments, religious worship, and doctrine. Those all are good things in and of themselves. If you are a Christian, you should try to live a moral, righteous, life, with all your heart. You should be faithful to attend church and participate in the ordinances God’s given the church. You should be really passionate to learn the doctrines of God’s Word. But for these things to be of any lasting value, you must approach them with a poverty of spirit. You must approach them in the humility that says none of these things will save me. That’s impossible. You need God in Christ to save you. Because he can do the impossible. If we are truly poor in spirit, then we will come to Christ. If we are not truly poor in spirit, we will not come to Christ.
Well, as we think about these beatitudes, something I want us to realize is that Christ himself has kept them all. When we approach these beatitudes and begin to wonder how we can ever measure up to them, then a starting point is to realize that Christ himself first shows us what it truly means to be like these things mentioned in the beatitudes. We see this even at the start with the idea of being poor in Spirit.
Now let me begin by saying that false humility isn’t any good. And if you are God, it would be a lie to act more humble than is keeping with reality. And so when we start talking about humility and God, we realize those aren’t things we would talk about together. God in his glory is not poor in spirit. He’s grand and glorious and exalted in spirit. His name is over all, for he created all things and upholds all things. How then can we talk about Jesus as poor in spirit, if we acknowledge that he is God come in the flesh?
Well, it’s that last part that clues us in. We don’t talk about Jesus as being poor in spirit with regard to his divinity. We talk about it with regard to his humanity. Just like it wasn’t his divine nature that died on the cross, but his human nature. So it’s his humanity that lived out this poorness of spirit. So take then for example, what Philippians 2 says about Jesus. It says that though he was in the form of God, talking about his divinity, he made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man. In other words, in his divine glory and opposite the state of humility, he does a great act of condescension to become human. That’s the incarnation. That’s really the beginning of his entering into this state of being poor in spirit. And then it goes on there in Philippians 2 to say that Jesus, having been found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. You see, it would seem funny to me to think about Jesus as being poor in spirit if he never became incarnate; if he remained only God the Son in his eternal heavenly glory. But in becoming man he showed forth this poorness of spirit by going to the cross.
Now even then we have to be careful, because his humility still is not quite in the same way as ours. You see, his state as a human was just like ours with one exception — he was without sin, Hebrews 4:15. He did live perfectly righteous. He can enter the kingdom of heaven by his own merit. In that regard, he need not be humble. In fact it would be false humility for him to act like he hadn’t earned heaven. Similarly, that’s why he can rightly declare victory at the cross when he shouts out, “It is finished!” And yet, all that being true, we still find ways as the God-man that he shows forth genuine humility on earth. For example, twice in John 5, Jesus says how he can do nothing of his own — but looks to the Father. Or in John 14:10, he says that he doesn’t speak on his own authority, but on the father’s. This is of course touching on a great mystery — the way the one person Jesus Christ has both a divine nature and a human nature. In his divine nature, he is the glorious and exalted God. In his human nature, he can do nothing of his own. And generally, that’s how he operated as the God-man Messiah, showing us what it means to be poor in spirit.
And yet Philippians 2 goes on to talk about how this God-man is exalted in his humility. That having humbled himself this way, in going to the cross, this God-man is exalted to the highest place. He is lifted out of this poverty of spirit and put in the most exalted place. That he would the king of this kingdom of heaven, having earned it so wonderfully.
Of course, this is where it should all come back to us. How can we be poor in Spirit like this? It will only be through the Spirit of Christ coming inside you. He who has already lived out this poorness of spirit, can come inside you and make you poor in Spirit. He can come inside you and circumcise your hearts and soften your hearts. He can give you a new heart. One that is humble. It’s as Jesus offers in Matthew 11:29, he says to us, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” This Jesus who is poor in spirit is also the one is exalted above all. And that is who we become when we he comes into our hearts. As he renews our hearts, he makes us poor in spirit. But at the same time he also lifts us up, and speaks blessing to us, that ours is the kingdom of heaven.
Trinity Presbyterian Church, if you listened carefully, you might have noticed that I basically said that someone becomes poor in spirit by the work of Christ’s Spirit inside you. That can trouble people because people want something they can do. Well, let me say if you are feeling like that, then maybe you need to be more poor in spirit! Have some humility to see that it’s about what God does, not what you do!
And yet, I do leave you with this. Yes, on the one hand the Spirit is like the wind, it blows where it wishes. We can’t control the Spirit. On the other hand, we know the Spirit works through his word. And so we can see that God has given us his word to grow us in humility. Three passages of Scriptures especially come to mind right away for me as I think about this. Three parts of Scripture especially seem to commonly grow this humility in people. The first that comes to mind is the law. Read the moral law of God. The law is said to drive us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. The second, is this Sermon on the Mount. That’s because it emphasizes so strongly the demands of God’s law upon us; and not just in some superficial way. That again drives us to Christ. And then the third passage is the teachings of the cross. That Christ had to experience hell in our place. That he had to cry out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” That he had to pray beforehand to the Father, that if it were possible, if there was any other way, let the cup pass from him. But that’s just it. It wasn’t possible. There wasn’t another way. We couldn’t save ourselves, so that was the only way. The need for the cross reminds us to be poor in Spirit.
This is what it’s all about. We can’t own heaven by our own ability. But Christ was able. In Christ, we own heaven. In the humble recognition that you need Christ to save you, we own heaven. Then the kingdom of heaven is ours. Praise be to God who have saved us so marvelously! Amen.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.