Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount with eight statements that we call the Beatitudes, from the Latin word for “Blessed.” Although some translators used the word “Happy,” that doesn’t do justice to the Greek word makarios. It means divine joy. The Latin word for it is beatitude which is where we get our title for verses 3-12, The Beatitudes. The word itself doesn’t even apply to human emotions. It’s a statement of how God views people who live a certain way. The root idea of blessed is “approved by God.” Max Lucado catches the idea beautifully in his book on the Beatitudes called The Applause of Heaven.
God applauds the poor in spirit.
He cheers the mourners.
He favors the meek.
He smiles upon the hungry.
He honors the merciful.
He welcomes the pure in heart.
He claps for the peacemakers.
He rises to greet the persecuted.
If we want God’s approval more than anything in the world, then these words have the power to change us dramatically. That’s what the Beatitudes are all about. They show us what a disciple looks like and they tell us how we can have the applause of heaven.
When you read, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” maybe you aren’t immediately certain what Jesus means. The words themselves are not difficult. We know what the word “poor” means and we know what “spirit” means. But what does it mean to be “poor in spirit”?
Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to say what it doesn’t mean. It’s not a reference to actual poverty. Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the poor,” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” which is something else entirely.
We may also say that being “poor in spirit” does not refer to shyness or false humility, which is faked humility as a way to draw attention to itself.
So what does “poor in spirit” mean? There are two main Greek words for “poor.” One means you have just enough to get by and the other means you have nothing at all. It’s the difference between being down to your last dollar and being flat broke.
To be poor in spirit is to recognize your true condition before God. I have heard it said this means to recognize your spiritual bankruptcy in the eyes of God. The first time we need to be poor in spirit is as an unbeliever. We recognize we are dead in our sin. We acknowledge we have nothing but God who sent His son to die for us so that we might be born again spiritually. God always responds to the poor in spirit. We take on the attitude of being destitute spiritually and we beg for His grace and mercy He comes and He answers.
Thinking bad about yourself is not poor in spirit or saying I know I am a sinner is not necessarily being poor in spirit. What do you mean? Look at Peter and Judas. On the night Jesus was arrested they both miserably failed the Lord. One denied and one betrayed. Both sinned. They both wept bitterly over their failures. They are disgusted with themselves. They are ashamed but they handle it entirely different. Judas killed himself. He decided not to trust God with his sin. Peter on the other hand returned to Jesus to be forgiven.
Paul explains in Colossians 2:6 (HCSB)
6 Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, • walk in Him,
How did you receive him? By being poor in spirit and trusting in His grace. I want to know God and I want to please Him. How do I do it? By being poor in spirit.
Proud people will never understand this principle and will therefore never receive the promised blessing. Luke 18 offers a vivid illustration of what it means to be poor in spirit. Jesus said that one day two men came to the temple to pray. One man, a self-righteous Pharisee, feeling good about himself, prayed like this: “Lord, I’m so glad I’m not like the other people who pray to you. I don’t commit adultery, I don’t murder people, and I don’t break the law. I fast twice a week and I give a tithe of all I have. Lord, you’re really lucky to have me on your side.” But the other man felt so bad about himself that he wouldn’t even come near or look up to heaven. Feeling the heavy weight of his sin, he cried out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Two men in the temple, both men prayed. Whose prayer did God hear? The religious Pharisee? Oh no, because he wasn’t praying, he was giving God his resume. Jesus said that God heard the other man’s prayer because his words came from a broken heart. Then Jesus gave the moral of the story: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled (See Luke 18:9-14).
One man was rich with pride, the other poor in spirit. One man thought highly of himself, the other felt his shortcomings. One man impressed with his own accomplishments, the other depressed by his sin. One man boasted, the other man begged. One man recommended himself to God, the other man pleaded for God’s mercy.
One man was saved, the other lost. Only it wasn’t the “good” man who was saved. He ended up lost. And the “bad” man? He ended up saved.
That simple truth explains the end of the first Beatitude: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Heaven belongs to the poor in spirit. Because they don’t deserve it, God gives it to them as a gift.
He wants those who see their failure and inability to run to him for help. To the spiritually bankrupt, Jesus opens the door of the kingdom and says, “Come right in. This place was made for you.”