What is the meaning of the beatitude in Matthew 5:3 regarding the poor in spirit? This article offers an explanation and application.

Source: The Banner of Truth (NRC), 1989. 6 pages.

The Beatitudes: The Biblical Pattern of Christian Experience Beatitude #1: The Poor in Spirit

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3

In our introductory article, I sought to convey to you that the Beatitudes, and particularly the first seven Beatitudes, provide us with God's precise and profound description of His people as well as their experience. Since these characteristics proceeded from the very lips of God, in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, we may know with absolute certainty that this description of the citizens of God's kingdom, of true Christians, is a perfect, a complete, a sequential, a cumulative, a balanced, a God-focused, as well as a trustworthy description. In other words, in these seven Beatitudes Christ provides us with the premier touchstone for Christian experience which will enable us, as no other passage of Scripture, to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit Chris­tian experience, between that experience which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit's saving work and that experience which is of our own making.

With that perspective let us now focus on the first of these seven Beati­tudes in which Christ pronounces the spiritually poor to be supremely happy, and simultaneously identifies them as citizens of His Kingdom. Considering that the Beatitudes are recorded in a sequential and cumulative order, it must at once be evident that it is both noteworthy and significant that Christ presents poverty of spirit as the first experiential characteristic of His people. For this means that the experience of poverty of Spirit is the initial and foundational experience of God's children and therefore the fundamental mark of the Holy Spirit's saving work. Wherever and whenever God glorifies His saving work in the hearts of fallen sinners, the experiential recognition of this poverty of Spirit will always be the initial evidence that God indeed has begun a good work in the heart of a fallen son or daughter of Adam. The rationale for this conclusion will become evident as we examine the terminology Christ uses in this first Beatitude.

Definition of the terms "poor" and "spirit"🔗

In Greek there are two words which we translate as "poor.'' The first of these is the word "penichros," which refers to the state of poverty in a general sense. However, the second word "ptochos" refers to poverty in the absolute sense of the word. It is used to describe people who are conspicuously poor, who are utterly bereft of all material possessions, and who are at the same time power­less to change their condition. In other words, it refers to a beggar who in the most literal sense of the word does not have a penny to his name, and who completely lacks the resources to deliver himself from his state of poverty. It is therefore of fundamental importance that Christ uses this latter word, the word "ptochos," when He speaks of the "poor in spirit."The Beatitudes: The Biblical Pattern of Christian Experience

What is of significance, however, for this Beatitude as well as those that follow, is that Christ identifies this poverty as spiritual poverty. In other words, Christ is not referring to the poor men and women of this world who are destitute of temporal goods. Such is the mistaken notion of those who promote the gospel as a social gospel and who are very keen on using both the Beatitudes and the entire Sermon on the Mount for that purpose. However, Christ, in giving a description of the citizens of His king­dom, as well as articulating the constitution of that kingdom, establishes from the very outset that His kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, a kingdom which is not of this world (John 18:36), a kingdom of which He testified in response to the demand of the Pharisees when the kingdom of God should come, that, "the kingdom of God cometh not with observation: … for behold the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20, 21). For this reason He adds the word "pneuma," which in Scripture refers both to the Holy Spirit as well as (which is the case here) to the spiritual, inner dimension of man.

Christ, therefore, here identifies as citizens of His kingdom men and women who are experientially conscious of the absolute poverty of the spiritual, inner dimension of their existence, who are conscious of the fact that spiritually they are utterly destitute, as well as powerless and helpless to bring about a change in this condition. Christ calls such sinners blessed, which means negatively that without this experiential consciousness of our spiritual bankruptcy, we will never experience true blessedness or happiness, nor may we consider ourselves citizens of God's kingdom.

Parenthetically, I wish to state here that the word "blessed" which Christ uses to introduce each Beatitude, refers not to a happiness which is related to and is the result of external circumstan­ces and/or events, but to a happiness which proceeds from within, which clearly is in harmony with the spiritual meaning of each Beatitude. A more thorough explanation of this word will be given, the Lord willing, upon conclusion of our consideration of each individual Beatitude.

The reason for Christ's selection of the recognition of spiritual poverty as the initial and foundational mark of the true Christian and his experience, will become evident when we examine this Beatitude within the context of the entire Word of God.

This Beatitude examined within the context of Scripture🔗

Since God's great objective in redeeming fallen sinners is the restoration of what we have ruined in our deep fall, we must of necessity go to Paradise in order to gain a proper understanding of this Beatitude. To state it differently, the beginning of the Beatitudes leads us to the very beginning of the Word of God, to the very beginning of human existence.

In Genesis 2:7 God's Word records for us that sacred and profound moment when it pleased Jehovah, the Creator of heaven and earth, to create the crown jewel of His creation, namely His image-bearer Adam. This momentous event is described as follows, "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

As we know, God created Adam in a manner which was distinctly different from the rest of creation. Instead of bringing Adam into existence by means of a verbal command as He did with the rest of creation, He chose instead to personally craft Adam's body from the dust of the ground. Why this significant difference? The reason for this difference is directly related to the purpose for which God created Adam. It was God's eternal good pleasure to create man to be the bearer of His image and to be the temple of His Spirit. It was the eternal desire of a triune God to exist in covenant relationship, in intimate, spir­itual fellowship with His image-bearer, and therefore it pleased Him to make Adam the very dwelling-place of His Spirit. Therefore, when God crafted Adam's body from the dust of the earth, He was in the most literal sense of the word building a temple for Himself. As was true for both the tabernacle and the temple which God filled with His divine presence upon completion, in like manner God filled Adam with His divine presence when He completed the formation of His body. This is the profound dimension of Genesis 2:7, for when Jehovah breathed the breath of life into Adam, God breathed His Spirit into Adam, and he became a living soul, i.e., he became the temple of the Holy Ghost.

The Beatitudes: The Biblical Pattern of Christian ExperienceThe indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit was therefore Adam's, and in him, man's unspeakable wealth before the fall. In Adam we had God Himself as our portion, as it pleased the magnificent God of the universe, whom the very heavens cannot contain, to dwell in him by His Spirit. Human words therefore utterly fail as we attempt to describe the unspeakable and unsearchable riches we had before we fell.

However, human words are equally inadequate to describe what we lost in the willful, wretched fall of our covenant head Adam. For we did not merely lose our residence in the Garden of Eden, our happiness, as well as everlasting life; indeed, we lost all that, but all of this was merely the consequence of the ultimate loss, namely the unspeakable loss of the indwelling presence of our Creator! Therefore, in our fall we did not lose just something; no, we lost everything; we lost God! In that one wretched moment from being rich in the absolute sense of the word, we became poor in the absolute sense of the word. From that wretched moment on, Adam – and we in him – was with­out God and without hope in the world. This, my dear reader, is the very essence of our fallenness, is the very essence of our spiritual poverty, is the dreadful result of the breach of our covenant relationship with God, namely the absence of the Spirit of God. From magnificent temples of the Holy Ghost, adorned with the image of a triune God, we became the wretched synagogues of Satan; from living souls we became souls dead in trespasses and sins. All our misery as sinners is a direct result of this tragic reality.

The Experiential Dimension of this Beatitude🔗

Now it is this reality, namely, that as sinners we are without God and without hope in the world due to our tragic fall in Paradise, with which the Holy Spirit in His convicting and discovering work confronts the elect sinner, and of which He makes him conscious. It is the experiential consciousness of this reality which is the essential beginning of the Holy Spirit's saving work in the hearts of fallen sinners. Christ – and in Him God – teaches us in the Beatitudes that all spiritual life begins with the painful realization that we miss God, His favor, His communion, His fellowship, and that we are therefore wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. What an astonishing wonder it truly is when sinners come to this recognition as a result of the regenerating and applying work of the Holy Spirit, for, by nature, man (also the religious professor!) believes that he is rich, increased with goods, and in need of nothing (Rev. 3:17). What a divine wonder it is when Psalm 40:17 becomes a heartfelt, experiential reality in our life, namely that The Beatitudes: The Biblical Pattern of Christian Experience"I am poor and needy;" when by the penetrating and convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit we become painfully aware of our total spiritual bankruptcy before God!

However, in stressing the absolute necessity of this foundational experience of spiritual poverty, it is at the same time of the greatest importance that we view this experience in the lives of God's children in its proper perspective, namely the perspective which Christ gives us in the Beatitudes. When the Spirit of God makes a sinner conscious of his spiritual poverty, He does so for a very specific purpose. The great objective of the Holy Spirit's saving operation in the heart of an elect sinner is to restore that sinner to a right relationship with God again, to restore the covenant breach of Paradise, to renew in him the image of God, to make him a temple of the Holy Ghost again, or in short, to make fallen sinners a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:18).

It is very clear from Scripture, however, that this restoration can only be accomplished in the wondrous Person of the Lord Jesus Christ and on the basis of His mediatorial work. He is the Restorer of the breach, and in Him alone God and sinners can be reconciled. In Him alone, God can again become the portion of sons and daughters of Adam; in Him alone, sinners again can be the temples of the Spirit of a triune God. Therefore, in all in whom He is savingly at work, the Holy Spirit has as His specific objective, by means of His emptying and discovering ministry, to make room for the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work, or to use the language of the Beatitudes, to cause sinners to hunger and thirst after Him and His perfect righteousness.

This is why the experience of our spiritual poverty is so essential unto salvation, for that experience alone will cause sinners to yearn after God, as well as the restoration of a right relationship with Him in the Son of His eternal good pleasure. In other words, by causing our spiritual poverty to become an experi­ential reality, the Holy Spirit prepares the sinner's heart for the unsearchable riches of the Lord Jesus Christ; He empties the sinner in order that He might fill him with the unspeakable love of God as it is revealed in Christ Jesus.

How clearly this essential relationship between the experience of spiritual poverty and the exercise of faith is taught in various passages of Scripture. Let me quote some of them here: "The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich: He bringeth low, and lifteth up" (1 Sam. 2:7); "The expectation of the poor shall not perish forever" (Ps. 9:18); "Thou hast prepared of Thy goodness for the poor" (Ps. 68:10); "I will satisfy her poor with bread (i.e. with Christ who is the Bread of Life!)" (Ps. 132:15); "The poor have the gospel preached to them" (Matt. 11:5); "The poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel (= Christ!)" (Isaiah 29:19).

These texts pointedly confirm and emphasize that God makes His people poor for a purpose, namely, to make them rich in Christ, or as Matthew Henry states it, "This poverty of Spirit is a gracious disposition of soul, by which we are emptied of self, in order to our being filled with Jesus Christ." Thus, the poor in spirit inevitably will become those who do hunger and thirst after righteousness, and who in the moment of God's good pleasure shall be filled with Christ, as He is God's complete and perfect provision for completely poor, bankrupt, and helpless sinners.

Poverty of Spirit: A Continual and Repetitive Experience🔗

In conclusion I wish to yet call your attention to a significant reality concealed in the words of the text. In the original Greek text, as well as in the English text, Christ expresses Himself here in the present tense. In the Greek language this has significant implications, however, as the Greek used tenses primarily to express action rather than time. In Greek, the present tense always expresses continual and/or repetitive action. This fundamental principle of Greek grammar is of the greatest importance in relation to our study of the Beatitudes, as Christ uses the present tense in every one of them. The use of the present tense conveys, therefore, that the experiences of God's children defined in the Beatitudes are a continual and repetitive reality in the life of the true Christian.

Particularly, this means that the experience and consciousness of spiritual poverty is a life-long reality for God's people. During their entire lifetime, God's Spirit causes the Christian to be painfully aware of his spiritual bankruptcy, of the fact that "in me dwelleth no good thing," which caused Paul, a very exercised child of God, to weep, "O, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:18, 24).

However, this ever-increasing experiential knowledge of spiritual poverty inevitably leads to an ever-increasing experiential knowledge of Christ. This is always the objective of the Holy Spirit's discovering ministry, whose delight it is to take of Christ and to show Him and His benefits unto His people (see John 16:13-15). In view of the Beatitudes we may say that the Holy Spirit prepares the hearts of His people for a renewed exercise of faith by giving them a deeper knowledge of their spiritual poverty. The more it pleases God's Spirit to uncover the abominations of their hearts, the more God's children will hunger and thirst for the unsearchable riches of Christ which He reveals to them.The Beatitudes: The Biblical Pattern of Christian Experience

How blessed, therefore, are the poor in spirit! How clear it now becomes why we read in Zephaniah 3:12, "I will also leave in the midst of thee an afflic­ted and poor people, and they shall trust in the Name of the Lord." May God grant that there may be many such spiritual beggars among us, who, by the effectual and irresistible operation of God's Spirit, have learned as poor beggars to trust in the Name of the Lord; whose only hope and expectation is in that blessed and only Name of Jesus Christ and in His righteousness. Such sinners, who in the words of Thomas Watson "wear the jewel of poverty of spirit." God declares to be the citizens of His kingdom. To such poor sinners, Christ speaks these comforting words, "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32).

Therefore, blessed are they and they alone who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God!

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