WHERE A TEXT APPEARS IN SCRIPTURE IS ALL IMPORTANT. The location often teaches pastors and their congregations big lessons. For example, The Sermon on the Mount contains Jesus’ first recorded teaching, and the first sentence is this simple declaration. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
Why does Jesus start with poverty of spirit? Readers of the Old Testament expected “blessed are those who delight in God’s law” (Psalm 1:2). Today’s Christian expects “blessed are the loving.” However, Jesus starts with “poverty of spirit” to remind his hearers that Isaiah 66:2 is still applicable. “This is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” Its placement tells us that God’s Old Testament expectations have not changed. [i]
But there is a second reason this Beatitude is first. Poverty of spirit is the essential foundation for the nine that follow. They all build upon and require spiritual poverty, or humility.
If this is true, then poverty of spirit is still the main virtue God seeks. It is the fundamental foundation of godliness, and that is why commending poverty of spirit is the first beatitude. It also follows that poverty of spirit is the first virtue pastoral leaders should model and emphasize. The growing presence of spiritual poverty in himself and those he leads is prima facie proof that the Holy Spirit is working through his ministry.
The “poverty” God blesses is not material. King David was immensely wealthy, yet he modeled what it means to be “poor and needy” (Psalm 40:17, 70:5, 74:21, 86:1, 109:22). No, poverty of spirit is spiritual poverty. In the words of theologian, Leon Morris—
The poor in spirit, in the sense of this beatitude, are those who recognize that they are completely and utterly destitute in the realm of the spirit. They recognize their lack of spiritual resources and therefore their complete dependence on God …Commentary on Matthew, Pg. 95
The leader poor in spirit has transferred all of his confidence from self to God. He is convinced that he can accomplish nothing unless God allows or empowers it. He is persuaded that Jesus upholds the universe by his word of power (Hebrew 1:3), and that by that same word he holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). He believes that his past, present, and future are “from him, and through him, and to him” (Romans 11:36), and that he has no right or power of autonomous existence. Instead, his dependence upon God is infinite and all encompassing. King David sums up poverty of spirit with seven words. “I have no good apart from you” (Psalm 16:2). Here are five fruits that flow from a ministry moving in this direction.
The pastor and congregation poor in spirit is increasingly free from PBA, (performance-based acceptance). Because God’s standard is perfection (Matthew 5:48), the poor in spirit know they can never measure up. Therefore, they daily surrender to grace. They no longer measure their relationship with God by their performance, but rather by God’s free gift of unearnable love. In addition, they are totally dependent upon God to maintain that relationship with him. This means that, despite their sins and weaknesses, they look to the future with great hope in God their Sustainer.
Poverty of Spirit leads inescapably to the second beatitude. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Profoundly aware of their personal inadequacies and sins, and feeling God’s hatred for sin in themselves and those around them, this pastor and congregation constantly mourn for sin. But, this mourning is not depressing. Rather, it is mingled with the joyful knowledge of God’s amazing grace for the unworthy.
Then the third beatitude progresses to, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Growing meekness is a third fruit of spiritual poverty.
What is meekness? It is the ability to endure trials and obstacles, not with grumbling or complaining, but with joy and equanimity. Because of their felt dependence on God, the poor in spirit don’t react to troubles or surprises with chafing, complaining, or anger. Instead, they faithfully persist in calm, joyful, obedience, totally trusting in God.
We are surprised to read that the meek inherit the earth. In our mind meekness is weakness. But Jesus, the meekest man that ever lived, wasn’t passive, and he wasn’t weak. In fact, he was so strong that he was able to conquer through the weakness of death. Because he was “obedient unto death” (Philippians 2:8), God has given him “all power and authority” (Matthew 28:18).
It is counter intuitive that meekness is the precedent for great spiritual authority and power. But, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones insisted that—
Meekness is compatible with great strength. Meekness is compatible with great authority and power…The martyrs were meek, but they were never weak; strong men, yet meek men. God forbid that we should ever confuse this noble quality, one of the noblest of all the qualities, with something merely animal or physical or natural.The Beatitudes, pg 56
Yes, poverty of spirit leads to meekness, and meekness to authority. Are you and your congregation growing in meekness? Is it even a priority?
A fourth fruit of spiritual poverty is growing self-suspicion. Because the poor in spirit feel their personal bankruptcy and mourn for their sin, they are suspicious of themselves. When conflict with a spouse occurs, defensiveness is not the immediate reaction. Instead, they suspect themselves. Those growing in spiritual poverty ask “How have I made this situation worse? Have I miscommunicated? Where have I acted with selfishness or insensitivity?” In other words, those poor in spirit are quick to take the log out of their own eye before they remove the speck from their brother’s (Matthew 7:1-5).
This doesn’t mean that they accept inappropriate blame. Sometimes the other party is wrong, and when that is the case, they talk about it. Rather, self-suspicion is a posture that hesitates to rush to its own defense. It is reluctant to assume personal innocence.
Where does this reluctance come from? The poor in spirit see Christ suffering on the cross. They realize that it should be them not him. The cross reminds them of what they deserve. It is God’s way of suppressing my instinctual impulse for self-justification. The cross is why this leader is quick to suspect self and even quicker to show mercy to others.
Strength from Weakness
The fifth fruit of spiritual poverty is spiritual strength—the kind that proceeds from weakness. The poor in spirit do not minister from strength. They minister from weakness. They really believe Jesus’ words, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” They also believe that God delights to express his strength through weakness (2 Corinthians 12:8-10). Therefore, they boast of their weaknesses, not their strengths.
To the leader who has discovered his weakness, all ministry is supernatural. He lives in total dependence upon God’s spiritual power, not his strengths. He is convinced that the solution to every human problem is a change of heart. He also knows the one thing he is powerless to do is change a human heart. Therefore, the Christian poor in Spirit lives in daily total dependence upon the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.
The Surprising Goal
Many consider Jonathan Edwards to be North America’s greatest Christian thinker. In Edwards’ view poverty of spirit was the end of all of God’s dealings with us. It is where he is taking every Christian leader. It is where he is taking every Believer. (Tragically, very few today would agree). Using humility as a synonym, he wrote that—
Humility is a great and most essential thing in true religion. The whole frame of the gospel, and everything appertaining to the new covenant, and all God’s dispensations towards fallen man, are calculated to bring to pass this effect [humility or poverty of spirit] in the hearts of men.Religious Affections
Then Edwards concluded with this solemn warning…
They that are destitute of [spiritual poverty], have no true religion, whatever profession they may make, and how high so ever their religious affections may be.Ibid, Religious Affections
Edwards believed that poverty of spirit is the main thing that God is after. Jesus agreed. He concluded this beatitude by implying that pastors and their congregations won’t get into heaven without it. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs if the kingdom of heaven. Why is poverty of spirit the key to heaven? It is simple. Everyone in heaven is already perfected in this virtue. Therefore, you wouldn’t be happy there without it.
What would be the effect of spiritual poverty? It would surprise most people. For example, everyone in heaven will be convinced that they really deserve to be in hell. By contrast, hell is the place where richness of spirit is perfected. Those in hell will be totally convinced that God is unjust, that they really deserve to be in heaven.
Poverty of spirit will never be perfected in anyone living in our time-space world. However, when Christ returns “We will be like him because we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). All pride, defensiveness, anger, fretting, and grumbling will be gone. The blinders of sin will be removed. We will see ultimate reality. We will be freed from PBA, our poverty of spirit will be perfected, we will mourn for sin, we will enjoy meekness, and our strength will be perfected in our weakness. We will be equipped for heaven, and that is our abiding hope.
In conclusion, where are you leading those you serve? What are you modeling? What are you producing—spiritual richness or spiritual poverty? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
[i] Paul confirms this when he writes that the purpose of Old Testament law was to increase Israel’s spiritual poverty (Romans 3:20, 5:20, 7:11-13). It was to bring them to their knees in utter despair of self and dependence upon God’s grace and mercy.