“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The Beatitudes, from the sermon on the mount, are some of the most popular passages in the New Testament. Not only do they introduce the whole sermon on the mount, perhaps Jesus’ most famous sermon, but they also have deep meaning in themselves. Each sentence applies deeply to our lives, offering wisdom and grace for every Christian. If you want to learn more about the beatitudes in general, check out the introduction.
The title, The Beatitudes, is the first word of the Latin translation of this passage. “Beatitude” comes from the Latin word that means, “Blessed.” They truly do bring us blessing when we study them. This series will look at the blessings that Jesus gives us through the beatitudes. We will also look at some illustrations, symbols from stained glass windows, to help guide our exploration.
To understand this beatitude, we need to know what each phrase means. We use the word, “blessing,” to refer to just about anything that’s good. Parents call their children a blessing, at least most of the time. When a friend is healed, we call it a blessing.
When Jesus uses the word, however, he talks about salvation. Blessing is eternal life, which Jesus gives them by his death and resurrection. Matthew 11:2-6 describes Jesus’ mission, “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
It’s a fulfillment of what Isaiah predicted in chapter 61:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
The blessing that Jesus brings, then, is a fulfillment of God’s promises in all of scripture. When Jesus brings blessing, he brings all of God’s kingdom.
Next comes “the poor in spirit.” It means, “spiritually poor.” They’re not filled with spiritual riches. They don’t have an extensive spiritual resume. They are the weakest, the saddest, the most broken.
Paul talks about what it took to be spiritually rich among the Jews in Philippians 3. He writes, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
Paul has an impressive spiritual resume. He was born to the chosen people of Israel of the tribe of Benjamin, meaning that he can trace his lineage back to Benjamin, son of Jacob. His parents followed Moses’ command to circumcise their children on the eighth day after birth. Ever since then, he did his best to follow God’s law, offering sacrifices for sin and obeying the commandments. He even went so far as to persecute Jews who turned from following Moses to following Jesus. The scribes, the pharisees, and all the religious leaders would have had the same resume.
Sometimes we also point to our own spiritual resume. Occasionally, people will talk about it with their pastor, usually when they want him to do something. It goes something like this: My parents were founding members of this church, and I have been here my whole life. I volunteer in the board of outreach, and I give to the church. That’s why you should (fill in the blank). I know pastors for whom the pastoral office goes back generation, and they can name all the men who were pastors in their family. That’s a powerful spiritual resume.
But a powerful spiritual resume means nothing. Paul reflects on his spiritual resume again in Philippians 3, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
His resume, and ours, is worth nothing, because it means nothing to God. God doesn’t care how many people were pastors in our family history. He doesn’t care whether you have a Ph. D. in theology. He doesn’t care whether you give 99.99 percent of your income. It’s all worth nothing.
Sin is the only thing on our resume. The crimson stain of sin blots out any accomplishes we might have. It floods over our spiritual ink, and stains the paper. Every thought, even the most noble ones, are tainted, so nothing we have can be pure.
That means we’re all spiritually poor, even if we don’t know it. That was the problem with Paul before he became a Christian. He didn’t know he was spiritually poor. He only thought he was strong, strong enough to stand before God on his obedience to the law.
Jesus says that the spiritually poor receive the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, the normal translation doesn’t help us understand what St. Matthew is writing. A better translation would be something like, “the reign of heaven.”
Kingdom typically refers to a place. Normal kingdoms have rulers and borders, but the Kingdom of God is different. The Kingdom of God is more like God’s kingly activity in the world. He forms a kingdom of people rather than places, and he does it through Jesus Christ. God breaks into the world to bring salvation to his people and judgement against his enemies.
They had heard the prophets talk about the kingdom of God. Isaiah writes:
“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence!”
The prophets were waiting for God to come down from heaven to save them and to destroy their enemies.
Jesus brings the reign of God to his people by his death and resurrection. The stained glass window that goes with this beatitude shows a shepherd’s staff and an altar for burning an offering. Jesus’ death is the sacrifice that covers up our terrible spiritual resume and turns in his own holiness instead.
The Old Testament uses sacrifice in the same way throughout the life of Israel. When God gathered his people into his kingdom, he knew that they would be spiritually poor. He set up the sacrificial system so their spiritual poverty wouldn’t matter. It would be covered with the purity that sacrifice brought. But those sacrifices were imperfect. They needed to happen over and over again.
Jesus’ sacrifice, however, is eternal. His death on the cross is the eternal sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world. That sacrifice gives the reign of God to the spiritually poor.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Jesus gives salvation and eternal life, to people who are spiritually poor. When they are broken by their sin and call on God for help, Christ gives it to them.
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