• johned@aibi.ph

Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

I can think of nothing less blessed than spiritual poverty. To be spiritually bankrupt is to have lost everything. Yet Jesus says "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." He is obviously not meaning moral bankruptcy here. He is not saying " blessed are those without values... ", what then does He mean? The original language gives us a clue in that "poor" here is properly rendered "beggarly, destitute... without resources". It is the person who has come to the end of their spiritual tether, who has realized how hopeless our paltry attempts to please God are and feels absolutely destitute and in need of grace. It is a commonplace observation of the Christian life that we receive as much grace as we think we need. Jesus illustrates this very well in another place - in Luke's gospel with the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector.

Luke 18:9-14 (NRSV) He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner! ' 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

The cry "God be merciful to me, a sinner!" that came from deep within the penitent tax-collector was more pleasing to God than all the spiritual achievements of the Pharisee. I find it far easier to be a Pharisee than a penitent, and so I suspect do you. Yet God is only pleased with us when we are poor in spirit - aware deeply within ourselves that we are the creatures and he is our Creator, aware that we have sinned and we need mercy. "Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to thy cross I cling; Naked, come to Thee for dress; Helpless, look to Thee for grace; Foul, I to thy Fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die" wrote Augustus M. Toplady. His hymn may seem quaint and overstated these days but it captures the very essence of this holy destitution.

All our pride is hammered to pieces by this verse in the Sermon on The Mount. The most righteous of us are reduced to naked supplicants. We cannot come before God with our boastful pride, our spiritual knowledge, and the few sins we have left undone. We would be in tatters at the first glimpse of His holiness. We would be utterly undone and flee in terror from the courts of the Lord. The Lord our God is a consuming fire and He will burn up all that His mercy has not touched and His grace restored. There is no-one righteous, no not one. Even those God chooses to bless and appoint to high spiritual offices must acknowledge their poverty before God. This is made very clear in the following little biblical gem about Joshua the high priest from the book of Zechariah (not the Joshua of Jericho , a much later Joshua):

Zechariah 3:1-7 (NRSV) Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. 2 And the LORD said to Satan, "The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?" 3 Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 4 The angel said to those who were standing before him, "Take off his filthy clothes." And to him he said, "See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel." 5 And I said, "Let them put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with the apparel; and the angel of the LORD was standing by. 6 Then the angel of the LORD assured Joshua, saying 7 "Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.

The high priest was the chief spiritual authority in God's chosen nation. And unlike many previous high priests Joshua truly honored God and was chosen by Him. With such qualifications one would assume that he needed little or nothing of God's mercy yet it is abundantly clear that he was desperately in need of it, it is also very clear that God wanted to grant it . God delights in granting mercy to those that know they need it. If Joshua needs God's mercy, how much more you or I? We cannot storm into God on our own merits. Like Joshua we need garments of righteousness to be given to us by God.

Blessed are the poor in spirit... for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. To enter into God's realm, to be part of the kingdom that will oust all other kingdoms is a matter of lowliness not of bombastic pride. There are some nations that are very proud of themselves, their culture and their wealth. Their people say to themselves "Blessed are the Such and Such for we belong to the kingdom of Suchness...". This sort of self-preening pride is the precise opposite of being poor in spirit.

We cannot fill our hearts with the belief that our race or country or creed makes us special or better than others - and still be poor in spirit. It is a contradiction, we cannot feel rich, magnificent and superior and call ourselves humble. What then should the inhabitants of such nations do if they are to enter the kingdom of heaven. They must take on the perspective that their wealth will cry out against them on the day of judgment. They must see that the kingdoms of this world will pass away and eventually only the kingdom of heaven will remain. That their nation will one day be subjugated by the returning Lord Jesus Christ. That all pomp and culture and wealth and learning are just temporary blessings from God -for us to bless others with.

This salutary perspective will make us realize that our materialism and selfishness have put us in very great danger indeed. We have withheld the blessings of God. When that breaks through then surely they will cry out for mercy and become poor in spirit - thus inheriting the kingdom of God.

I want to shift our focus a bit to the second half of this verse, because we will never bother being lowly and poor in spirit if its just a platitude. If the kingdom of heaven is just a state of mind, then let's all join the positive-thinkers with their boundless self-confidence and positive mental attitudes. The kingdom of heaven has got to be something much more than earthly happiness and boundless optimism. We cannot have true faith or holiness or "saintliness" without the resurrection. And it is very much a fact that it requires a death to get a resurrection.

The entrance to the kingdom of heaven is a dark grave, carved out of a large rock, in a stony hill. It is the place of utter hopelessness. The sealed tomb, the final burial, the desolation that comes as we walk away and say "All is lost, I have nothing now, but I still trust God". At that very moment you have become poor in spirit and truly yours will be the kingdom of heaven. Out of that grave will spring a resurrection that you hardly knew of and never believed in. It won't require your faith - God does resurrections, not disciples. In the end you will marvel at what God has done. I hope the following verse from a poem by Dorothy Stevens touches you as it has touched me:

Thank you Lord!
When powerful forces wrench a soul;
When sore heart's praise comes haltingly,
That shattered lives can be made whole
If handed to you willingly.
Then every stumbling "Thank you, Lord!"
Will lift, expand, proclaim your word.

Blessed are the poor in spirit for "theirs is the kingdom of heaven". This seems to be rather an intangible benefit - open to the criticism of 'pie in the sky when you die". This is because we have misunderstood and misrepresented the "kingdom of heaven". The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are the same. The kingdom of heaven is just the Jesus way of saying "the kingdom that is not of the kingdoms of this world and which operates by entirely different principles to the kingdoms of this world, it is the kingdom from above, the kingdom of heaven, not the kingdom from below."

In the kingdom of heaven mustard seed sized beginnings produce great results, in the kingdom of heaven people see what is unseen and leaders serve those that follow them. In the kingdom of heaven angels care for the righteous and punish the wicked, it is altogether just. In the kingdom of heaven God rejoices in the presence of the holy angels over one sinner who repents. It is a place of wholeness and peace and joy. It is not "pie in the sky when you die" at all. It is here and now, what every Christian truly wants out of life, in their deepest being, in the hearts and minds of all who truly believe.

The kingdom of heaven is compared to leaven mixed through a large lump of dough in one parable. (Mt 13:33) The kingdom of heaven interpenetrates this present world - it is found in all nations, among people speaking varied languages, and at all levels of society. The kingdom of heaven has no earthly headquarters, no United Nations of the gospel. It is at its most powerful when it is mixed evenly throughout this world. Like leaven in the bread it is equally powerful everywhere - because the power is in its life. It has a "biological power" a transforming power that comes from the power of living things to transform and overcome the environment around them. The kingdom of heaven is full of the life of heaven. It is full of glory and grace. It causes the world to rise and be transformed, it is the true beneficial change agent for the world.

This living, breathing, borderless kingdom is the kingdom of Christ and of Christians. It is the kingdom that comes to all who want God's grace because they need it. The kingdoms of this world, with all their cruelty and injustice are the playgrounds of the less-than-meek. They say in themselves "Blessed am I in my pride for mine are the kingdoms of this world." Throughout the Old Testament there is a condition of heart that brought devastating ruin on all who held it and it is articulated in the phrase "I am, and there is none besides me". Proud, self-sufficient and puffed up in spirit. It was the phrase God threw back at them, the thought that caused Him to destroy them.

Isaiah 47:10-11 (NRSV) You felt secure in your wickedness; you said, "No one sees me." Your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, "I am, and there is no one besides me." 11 But evil shall come upon you, which you cannot charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, which you will not be able to ward off; and ruin shall come on you suddenly, of which you know nothing.

The summary fact is this, that unless you are poor in spirit - you will have no kingdom at all.

This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at johned@aibi.ph.