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“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5:3


Some months ago Karen and I decided to visit the Art Institute in Chicago.  It is a vast and marvelous place with so much to see. When we saw how large it was, I said to Karen in characteristic fashion: “We need a plan.”

We had about four hours, and so we worked out a route that would make it possible for us to see the whole place in the time available, assuming that we didn’t stop for too long in any of the rooms.

I found a brochure with a map of the various floors, put together a plan, and then said, “Let’s see the Art Institute!” And we did. It was a marvelous day.  And having completed the tour, I felt pretty good about what we had done.

A few weeks later, a real-life artist came to stay in our home. She asked us about the Art Institute.  “Oh yes,” I said, “we’ve been there.”

“What did you see?” she asked.

“Oh, we saw everything,” I said.

“Oh no,” she said. “That’s not the way to do it.” It was obvious that she was not impressed. “When I go to an art gallery, I go to see three or four things, and I spend time with them.”

I felt rather foolish.  In our race to see everything in the Art Institute, there was a profound sense in which we had seen nothing.

The artist’s question is a good one when it comes to the Bible. You’ve been reading the Bible – that’s great! What have you seen?  It’s possible to race through the halls of Scripture, to come near to life transforming truths, and yet to walk past them and remain unaffected, to view everything and yet to see nothing.

There are eight beatitudes. So we could race through this series and be done before Thanksgiving. But as these truths have worked their way into my own life, I realized that the Beatitudes are a place where we need to stop for a longer time.

The artist visiting the Institute, stops beside a masterpiece, and looks and looks at it until its beauty passes through her eyes and makes a lasting impression on her soul.  Over the next weeks, we’re going to look at these words of Jesus until they press themselves on us, so that they will stay with us and impart the blessing that they carry to us.

The plan is to spend two weeks on each of these Beatitudes. In the first week, we will listen to the voice of Jesus, so that we can understand what He is saying to us and see the life that He is calling us to. Then, in the week that follows, we’ll ask: “How can we move in this direction?”

God’s blessing rests on the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). First, I need to know what that means. What does this look like? And once I’ve see what this is, then I need to know how to pursue it. How can I cultivate humility? How can I wage war against pride?

Please turn with me to Matthew 5:3

The Calling

“Blessed are the poor in spirit… ” Matthew 5:3

What is Christ calling us to here? What does it mean to be poor in spirit?

Poor means that you don’t have much. Poor in spirit means that you realize what you lack. You know that you don’t have what it takes. You have nothing to offer. What does that look like in real life?

Suppose that the most gifted player on your high school football team is a Christian and is walking according to Jesus’ words. Does this mean when he turns up for training, he is supposed to tell the coach, “I don’t really have anything to offer the team. Maybe you should pick someone else?”

A Christian goes for a job interview, and at the end, the prospective employer asks the classic question, “So tell me, why should we give you this job?” Should the Christian say, “I don’t know if you should. I’m sure you can find a dozen people who will do much better than me.”

Is that what it means to be poor in spirit? If it is, then I suppose we should do it. You’ll be glad to know that it does not mean this. What does it mean to be poor in spirit? What does that look like in real life?

Poor in spirit means that you recognize your poverty before God

Jesus is not speaking here about men and women in relation to each other.  He is describing what a person feels when he or she is face-to-face with God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!

Poor in spirit is the first mark of a person who genuinely walks with God. You may be a multi-talented superstar in sports, or a high flyer and mega-successful in business. You may be a mega-mother, a brilliant musician, a technical guru, or a political genius. But if you have truly met with God, you will know that before Him you have nothing to offer.

That’s what one of the most talented people who ever lived before the time of Jesus discovered. He was a preacher who was known and no doubt celebrated for his marvelous ministry – the silver-tongued prophet! If he was around today, people would book into conferences to hear him speak.  Millions would follow his oracles on Twitter.

Here is the testimony of this gifted and godly preacher:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up and his robe filled the temple. The seraphim called out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” The foundations shook. The house was filled with smoke. And I said, “Woe is me! For I am lost…”  Isaiah 6:1-4

If Isaiah the prophet is lost, what does that mean for the rest of us? You see what Isaiah is saying: “The world sees my gifts and my talents, but before this sovereign, holy, awesome God, I have nothing to offer.”

Isaiah had been in ministry for some time when this happened, but when God came near to him like this, it brought him to a completely different view of himself.

Have you come close enough to God to see that, at your best, however much you may be celebrated for your gifts and talents by others, you are bankrupt before Him? Or could it be that God is at such a distance from you that His glory has barely made an impression on your life.

Pride can only live in the soul of a person who is far from God

Pride puts its foot on the gas pedal to get as far from God as possible, because it cannot exist in His presence, as Satan himself found out, before the beginning of time.

When God’s presence came down in the Old Testament, smoke filled the temple. Have you ever been inside a building filled with smoke? Have you ever been in a burning building?

The smoke of God’s presence is suffocating to pride. Pride staggers from the soul, coughing and spluttering, when God draws near. That’s what happened to Isaiah, and it marked him for life. He became poor in spirit.

To be poor in spirit is the first mark of a person who lives near to God.

Whatever your position in the world…
you are in an entirely different position before God

The gifted football player has talent to offer to his team. He will be celebrated at school. He will be offered scholarships for college. But when he stands before God, if he has any knowledge of God at all, he knows that he has nothing to offer, except his need.

The gifted graduate has a talent to offer her company. She will graduate cum laude or better. She will be fast-tracked for promotion. She will draw the company of other gifted people. She’ll be a hub, a center of influence.  But before God, she knows that she has nothing to offer.

You have something to offer your family, your company, your friends, and your team, but if you walk with God, you will identify with the apostle Paul when he asks “What do you have that you did not receive?” How do you have these gifts? Where did they come from? Since all that you have was given by God, what can you ever offer to Him?

The Blessing

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3

Jesus says, “The poor in spirit are blessed!” This is where the blessing of God begins. To be poor in spirit is the gateway to blessing that leads to all the others. Without this, no other blessings are within your reach.

Did you notice, Jesus speaks about heaven in the present tense? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Heaven is future, isn’t it? We might expect Him to say, “for theirs will be the kingdom of heaven,” but that’s not what He says.

It’s all the more striking, because all the other Beatitudes speak about future blessings: Those who mourn shall be comforted, the meek shall inherit the earth, and those who hunger for righteousness shall be satisfied.

But when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” He is talking about a taste of heaven now! Life in this world is a long way from heaven, so in what way can I have a genuine taste of heaven now? This week?

What comes to your mind when you think about heaven? Streets of gold?  We don’t have that now! Redeemed people made perfect? We don’t have that now! The lion lying with the lamb, the nations waging war no more, and every tear wiped from our eyes? We don’t have any of that now.  What taste of heaven do the poor in spirit have now?

Thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place, [that’s heaven]
but also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit.”
Isaiah 57:15

That is staggering! God inhabits heaven – high and lifted up. But now God wants us to know that He also lives with the person who has a lowly spirit. Heaven is to live with God, and the poor in spirit get a taste of it, because God comes to live with them!

If you want to move beyond a vague, religious belief in which God lives at a distance from you, if you want a felt awareness of God’s presence in your life, this is where you must begin. God dwells with the person who is poor in spirit. Heaven is in the humble before the humble are in heaven.

There is a wonderful blessing here today for the person who is feeling overwhelmed by a challenge. You have been saying to yourself, “I don’t have what it takes for this.” You don’t know how you’re going to move forward from here.

You know that what God has called you to is beyond the range of your ability. The circumstances of your life have brought you to a place where you’re poor in spirit, and Christ says, “I won’t just come near to you in a service and then leave you this week. I will dwell with you.”

There is blessing here today for the person who feels overwhelmed by temptation. The temptations that come to you seem so powerful. They overwhelm you. They are too much for you. You feel defeated. You don’t know what to do. These temptations have brought you to a place where you are poor in spirit, and Christ says “I will dwell with you.”

There is blessing here today for the person who knows you have messed up. Your sin has found you out. The enemy of your soul told you that there would be no harm in it. Now he is telling you that there is no hope because of it.

But if your failure should lead you to humility before God, if your sin should lead you to become poor in spirit, Christ will come and dwell with you. God can use the sin that would have brought you down to hell to help you find the path to heaven. That’s His grace.

Being Poor in Spirit Will Impact Your Life in Four Ways

  1. People who are poor in spirit give up the idea that God owes them

As God’s creature, we have a duty to Him. But it’s so easy, especially in our culture, to forget this and slide into the idea that God is the one who has a duty to us.

We get the idea that we can write God’s job description for Him. We can tell God what to do and give Him our 10 commandments of what we expect from Him.

You expect God to provide certain blessings for your family, a level of income and of health that will support your chosen lifestyle, an insulation from the sufferings experienced by others in this world… And woe to God if He does not meet our expectations!

Do you see how pride lies at the root of that? Pride says, “I gave Him something. He owes me something bigger and better than what I got back.” Pride always leads to disappointment, bitterness and resentment towards God. It kills His blessing. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven!

The person who is poor in spirit says, “What do I have that I did not receive? I owe God everything and I can give Him nothing. God owes me nothing and He has given me everything.

  1. People who are poor in spirit are not afraid to ask

Folks who are aware of what they have, find it difficult to ask. But the person who is poor in spirit is never afraid to ask of God. Thomas Watson says this well:

“The poor are always begging.” [1]

He who is poor in spirit will be much in prayer. Is that you? Or do you feel that you have what it takes? People who know of their own need have an active prayer life. And when they pray they ask! Is there anything in your experience that resembles what could be called an active prayer life?

Jesus told a story about two men who prayed: One was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector, a man who was known for his many sins. Both of them prayed, and yet there was a vast difference between their prayers.

The Pharisee prayed about himself: “I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers…” (Luke 18:11). Look at his prayer and the striking thing about it is that this man comes to God and he never asks for a thing! Why? Because he is miles away from poor in spirit. He feels no need to ask. What was the last thing you asked from God?

The tax collector stood at a distance. He didn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but said “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said this man, and not the other, went home blessed, justified, forgiven, at peace with God (Luke 18:13-14). Why? Because blessed are the poor in spirit.

  1. People who are poor in spirit are in a position to receive

People who feel they have something to offer God are always coming to Him with their hands full: “Lord, this is what I want to offer you. This is what I want to tell you that I’ve done for you.” As long as your hands are full you’re not in a position to receive.

You can’t receive gold if your hand is full of pebbles. [2]

You can’t cling to the cross of Jesus, when your hands are full. Only those who come to God empty-handed, aware of their own need, can cling to the cross. That’s why the old hymn says:

Nothing in my hands I bring,
simply to your cross I cling. [3]

When you know you have nothing to offer God, you’re in a position to receive everything He offers. That’s why the blessing of God rests on the poor in spirit. Heaven is theirs because their hands are open to receive it!

  1. People who are poor in spirit boast in the cross

Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ… Galatians 6:14

The more a man or a woman sees in him or herself, the less they will see in Christ. The more he sees in Christ, the less he will see in himself. That’s why at the center of our worship, we want to set our minds and our hearts and our affections on Jesus Christ.

I will not boast in anything, no gifts or power or wisdom.
But I will boast in Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection.
Why should I gain from His reward, I cannot give an answer.
But this I know with all my heart; His wounds have paid my ransom. [4]

Here’s the difference between a hypocrite and a genuine child of God, between the fake and the true believer: People who are far from God make much of themselves. People who live near to God make much of Christ. People far from God are always talking about what they’re doing for Him. People near to God make much of what He’s doing for them.

The Christian quarterback does not make much of himself. He makes much of the Christ who made Him and who redeemed him. The same is true for the high flyer in business, the brilliant musician, the technical guru, the political genius, and the mega-mother. If you walk closely with God, you will make much of Jesus Christ.

That was Isaiah’s story: He saw the emptiness of his own position before God and he said, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Do you know what happened next? There was an angel of God who took a coal from the altar, the place of sacrifice, and touched his lips. Then God said, “Your guilt is taken away, your sin is atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7).

Through the same lips that were touched with the atonement from the altar, the Spirit of God poured out the greatest and most glorious anticipation of the cross:

He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.  Isaiah 53:5

God spoke these words through the man who knew his own need, a man who was poor in spirit. People who are poor in spirit make much of the cross. O Lord, make me one of these people!


[1] Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes, p. 38, Wildeside, 2010

[2] Ibid., p. 34

[3] Augustus Toplady, from the hymn: Rock of Ages, 1776

[4] Stuart Townend, from the song: How Deep the Father’s Love, Kingsway Music, 2002


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