Blessed are the Poor in Spirit – Matthew 5:3

Pastor Scott L. Harris
March 15, 1992

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
Matthew 5:3


It would seem that mankind has always been after that positive emotional state that we term “happiness.” So much has this been a drive of mankind, the authors of our own country’s Declaration of Independence wrote that the “pursuit of happiness” was one of three “certain inalienable Rights” endowed to mankind by their “Creator.” Of course you will not find anywhere in Scripture that God has granted to us the inalienable right to pursue happiness. God’s interest is our holiness, not our happiness. And even in terms of positive emotions, His desire for us is blessedness, not happiness, which is so fleeting in nature. This demonstrates once again the difference between the writings of mere men and the revelation of God. While we are grateful for all that the founding fathers of this country did, we must always remember that the success they did have was do to the fact that they reflected certain Biblical principles. However, there writings are not God-breathed as is Scripture, therefore they fall short of His standards and His purpose for life. As those committed to Christ and God’s Word, we uphold the Bible as our supreme authority in all. It is our guide in understanding what life is about and what we are to do.

Webster defines “happy” as: 1. favored by luck or fortune: fortunate 2. notable, well adapted or fitting : felicitous 3 a. enjoying well-being and contentment: joyous b. expressing or suggestive of happiness : pleasant c. glad, pleased d. having or marked by an atmosphere of good fellowship:


Notice that except for one of the sub-definitions, happiness is dependent upon circumstances. Good “luck” and “fortunate” are words that speak of chance and fate dealing out good circumstances. Happiness is present when circumstances are according to what one desires – prosperity, comfort and ease of life, health, tasty food and being with friends. But what happens with happiness when those things are not around? What about when the party is over? The friends have gone home, the food is all gone, and there is a mess to clean up? What about when prosperity ends, a job is lost, health declines, and people turn against you? Can happiness be found then?

Do you see the fleeting nature of happiness? Happiness in itself is not a sin, but the pursuit of it certainly can lead to sin. Why? Scripture says that there is pleasure in sin, but only for a season. Sin can bring happiness, but only temporarily. Hebrews 11:25 says of Moses that he chose “rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for season.” Proverbs 9:17 tells us that “stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.” Again, enjoyment arising from sinful actions. And what is the end result of such pursuit of sinful pleasures, Proverbs 21:17, “He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man . . .” In the parable of the seeds in Luke 8 we find that the seed that fell among the thorns was choked out with cares and riches and pleasures of this life. The pursuit of happiness is sinful whenever it is done at the expense of loving God, which is why Paul warned Timothy of men who were “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4).

Does all this mean that God is the great cosmic kill-joy and that He gains some twisted sense of satisfaction in making our lives miserable and seeing us without happiness and pleasure? May it never be! Certainly not! One of the things that is stressed in this whole section of Scripture we call the beatitudes is that God does desire us to have pleasure and enjoyment, but He wants that pleasure and enjoyment to be tied to that which is not temporal and fleeting. God wants our “happiness” to be based on that which will continue to bring joy and not result in tragedy. Because the world’s pursuit of happiness is upon the temporal, the fleeting, and/or things not based in God, that happiness will always end up resulting in disappointment, anguish and pain. God’s desire for us is “blessedness,” not “happiness.”

Blessedness is beyond happiness because it is not dependent upon circumstance, but upon the mind set of the person. The Greek word translated in our text as “blessed” was originally used solely to describe the state of the gods because they were unaffected by the afflictions assailing mankind such as poverty, disease, weakness, misfortune and death. Later the word was used in connection with people in wishing them the supreme in happiness. Supreme because that kind of happiness was dependent upon an inward contentedness that is not affected by circumstances. We might get the sense of this when we say someone was in a blissful state as opposed to just a happy state. There is more permanence, more contentment, and more quality in being blessed than in being “happy.” The world has its own idea of what brings happiness. God marks off the characteristics mentioned here in the Beatitudes as what brings true blessedness.

Lets compare God’s blessedness verses the world’s happiness.

God’s Blessedness vs. the World’s Happiness

*Blessed are the poor in spirit, they inherit the kingdom of heaven

    Happy are the proud, they gain their own kingdom

*Blessed are those who mourn, they are comforted

    Happy are the Celebrating, they will laugh

*Blessed are the meek, they inherit the earth

    Happy are the assertive/mighty, they will take over the earth

*Blessed are those hunger & thirst after righteousness, they will be satisfied

    Happy are those hunger & thirst after mammon, they will get success

*Blessed are the merciful, they will receive mercy

    Happy are the vengeful, no one will dare cross them

*Blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God

    Happy are the sly/cunning, they shall gain profit

*Blessed are the peacemakers, they are called the Sons of God

    Happy are the trouble-makers, they will have other do their bidding

*Blessed are those persecuted, theirs is the kingdom of heaven

    Happy are the persecutors, they will get respect

This morning we are going to examine the first of these statements concerning God’s blessing. But before we do lets quickly review the context for the statement being made.

Jesus has already had a significant ministry both in Judea in the south and in the area of Galilee in the north where this sermon takes place. Jesus has been teaching the people with authority. He has performed many miracles. He has raised the animosity of the religious leaders because He does not follow their man made traditions and He has publicly rebuked them. (See: A Light Shining in the Darkness) All the people are wondering if this is really the Messiah. If so, will He start the kingdom? How can I be part of that kingdom?

Jesus will answer their questions by demonstrating the true nature of the kingdom of heaven. The sermons theme is found in Matthew 5:20 – your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes & Pharisees. True righteousness is a matter of the heart – not a matter of outward compliance to a list of man made rules and regulations. Faith is placed in a gracious God and not on one’s own ability to keep a self imposed standard.

Jesus begins the sermon with a description of the characteristics that demonstrate true righteousness. Notice that each of the beatitudes is presented as a statement of fact, “Blessed are… Blessed are…Blessed are…”, and not as a conditional phrase, “If you do ? you shall be blessed.” The beatitudes do not describe the requirements of how to get in the kingdom, i.e. be this way and you get in, they describe the characteristics of someone who has true righteousness and therefore enjoys the blessings that come with true righteousness.

Being that we as Christians are members of Christ’s kingdom, (“For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” – Colossians 1:13. Also, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” – Philippians 3:20), then the characteristics described in the Beatitudes should also be the marks of the true Christian and we should be enjoying the blessings described. In fact, the beatitudes are the distinguishing characteristics between those who are truly Christians and those who are not.

Some have countered that all of these characteristics refer to a natural tendency. They say, I know people who are not Christians, yet they are humble, they want to do “right,” they seem to be gentle and meek, they even try to make peace with other people. It is just a matter of their temperament. In fact, I can not be like all the things described here, because I am Irish, German, ??? , I just naturally have a temper, it’s genetic. In answer to this:

1. You may have a natural temperament that makes some of these characteristics a bit more of a struggle, but all of them are entirely possible and expected of the Christian.

2. You may have a natural temperament that makes some of these things seemingly easier for you, but you may be well deceived about what these characteristics really are: because only the true Christian can live these out. All others will fall miserably short, as we shall see as we examine each one. God expects every Christian to be marked by these characteristics – all of them. In fact we will see that each one in a sense demands the others.

Lets then start with this foundational first beatitude by examining the nature of it, then looking at the necessity of it, and finally, exploring the blessing associated with it.

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


The first thing to note is that this blessing is for those that are “poor in spirit.” Roman Catholic commentators as well as Anglican commentators following the Roman Catholic tradition have ignored the word “spirit” in this verse and instead stressed a similar passage in Luke 6:20 in which Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of Heaven.” They have used this to promote the idea that the poor have greater blessing than the rich and thereby elevate their vows of poverty. Such an interpretation destroys the proper method of Biblical hermeneutics (the method of studying Scripture to understand it and bring out its meaning). Explicit/specific passages always explain those that are not. In this case, Matthew 5:3 should govern the interpretation of Luke 6:20, not the other way around.

The tragedy of this mis-interpretation is that it misses the whole point of what Jesus was saying, goes the opposite direction and loses the blessing that is being spoken about. The only advantage a poor person may have over a rich person is that usually he can more easily see his need for outside help. It is usually easier for a poor person to swallow their pride and humbly seek assistance from an outside source. The rich are much more vulnerable to rely upon themselves and their own resources. The idea that this is talking about being poor materially allows one to take pride in being poor, and it is the pride that Jesus is speaking against.

The word poor here is a very strong word. It would actually be better translated “impoverished,” or destitute.” The term does not mean simply poor, but begging poor. For example, it is used in Luke 16:20 to describe the “beggar” Lazarus. It is the condition in which a person has no resources in himself and must seek outside assistance. The sense is seen in Luke 21:1-4 as well. In verse one we note that Jesus in the temple and sees the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. In verse two He sees a “poor” woman come and put in two small copper coins (2 lepta = 1/32 of a days wages). The word “poor” (peincran) here describes a person who must earn his living because he has no property. In verse 3 & 4, Jesus comments to his disciples concerning this woman. She has now put in her two small copper coins and Jesus calls her a “poor” widow who has surpassed all the rich people because “she, out of her poverty, put in all that she had to live on.” The word for poor here (ptwch) is the same as in Matthew 5:3 “Poor” in spirit meaning “destitute” with no resources left.

And as our text in Matthew 5:3 says, this poverty is one of spirit. The nature of this Beatitude describes the person who recognizes that in himself, he is completely destitute. He has nothing to offer and no hope in any thing he has or in anything he can do. His only hope is that there would be a kind benefactor that would be gracious to him and supply his need – with even the recognition then that there is nothing he can do to warrant the benefactor’s graciousness. The person must resort to begging for mercy. There is no room for pride for a person in this state.

That is the description of the spiritual state of those that are truly righteous. They realize their utter spiritual bankruptcy. They know beyond a shadow of a doubt that no good thing dwells in them. They understand that there is absolutely nothing they can do to earn their way to heaven. They can do nothing to establish a relationship with God except according to God’s mercy and even then only on God’s terms. They comprehend the fact that they have no basis upon which to make bargains with God. They come to Him on His terms or not at all. They have no spiritual merit and they can earn no spiritual reward. This demands complete humility and nothing less. Pride is gone, self assurance is gone, and they come to God empty-handed. This is the nature of those that are truly righteous. It describes the person’s attitude toward himself. This is what is meant by being “poor in spirit.”

But take warning, the person who makes a show or who takes glory in his “humility” – his supposed “poverty of spirit,” proves that he is, in fact, not humble and he is not “poor in spirit.” This can not be something that is just a show or an act to behave like a spiritual beggar, it is the recognition of what he really is – with result being true humility.

And surprising enough, Jesus is not bringing any new teaching in this. We find this call in Isaiah 57:15 where the Lord says, “I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit, in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” In Isaiah 66:2 the Lord says, “For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being declares the LORD. But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.”

We also have example after example of men who were “poor in spirit.” We find it in Moses who felt deeply unworthy and inadequate for the task given to Him. This spirit is in Isaiah when in a vision he sees God in heaven and cries out, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips.” We see it in David who questioned, “Lord, who am I that thou shouldest come to me?” Peter expresses the spirit as well when after seeing one of Jesus’ miracles says to him, “depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” And we even see it in Jesus who in John 14:10 says, “I can do nothing, I am utterly dependent upon Him (the Father).”

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes this poverty of spirit this way, “It [poor in spirit] means a complete absence of pride, a complete absence of self-assurance and of self-reliance. It means a consciousness that we are nothing in the presence of God. It is nothing, then, that we can produce; it is nothing that we can do in ourselves. It is just this tremendous awareness of our utter nothingness as we come face to face with God.”


The necessity of being “poor in spirit” is absolute because you can not enter into the kingdom of heaven without it! Our text puts it plainly, the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit.

Look at Luke 19:9-14. Here Jesus give a parable to those, “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” The Pharisee prays in verses 11,12 and really does nothing more than boast on his self-proclaimed righteousness. Then the tax-gatherer (a very despised person in Jewish society) prays in complete humility. Jesus says in verse 14 that it was the tax-gatherer that was justified – not the Pharisee. What a danger this is to the fundamental church because it is so easy to set our own standards of righteousness and then puff ourselves up because we keep those standards better than others. What is demanded from us instead is the humility of the tax-gatherer. Psalm 51 (David’s confession of sin) makes it very clear that are to come to God with a “broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart.”

Proverbs 16:5 says that, “Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord.” Until man’s pride is subjugated he can not come to Christ because He can not recognize that Christ died in His place. Pride keeps a man from acknowledging the truth of Scripture that “all have sinned and are falling short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), that “there is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10), and that “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” before Him (Isaiah 64:6).

“Were self is exalted, Christ is not. Where self is king, Christ is not”. Where self is displayed, Christ is not. “Until the proud in spirit become the poor in spirit, they can not receive the King nor inherit His kingdom.” (Quotes from MacArthur)


It is the poor in spirit that receive the blessing of being in the kingdom of God with all of that kingdoms blessings included. If you are in the kingdom then that means you are under the King’s jurisdiction – you are under His power and protection. He takes responsibility for you and will care for you and equip you for service. He creates in you what you can not do yourself and empowers you to do what you can not.

The prophet Isaiah was a man of unclean lips, but the Lord sent the Seraph who cleansed him with a coal from the altar of God and removed his iniquity. Proud Peter was afraid of a little servant girl at the trial of Jesus, but humble Peter stood before all to preach the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ without compromise. The proud man rejects salvation by grace through faith in order to try to earn it himself, and will end up in hell. The humble man accepts the gracious gift of God of being justified and cleansed from sin by the substitutionary death of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he enters God’s kingdom.

Are you poor in spirit? How do you feel about yourself as you think of yourself in terms of your relationship with God – of being in His presence? As you live your life, what do you say about yourself, think about yourself – what do you pray for? What are your biggest concerns in life? The pursuit of happiness? Self fulfillment? Wanting others to think well of you? Or what God thinks of you? He is looking for those of lowly and contrite hearts.

How does a person become “poor in spirit?” Not by looking at yourself and trying to do things through self-effort. If you want to be poor in spirit you need to get your eyes off yourself and onto God. Read His Word and seek Him with all your heart. That leads to poverty in spirit. Why?

As you read through the Bible you will be confronted with God’s holy law. And if you are not saved and thereby under God’s grace, then you are still under His law and will be judged accordingly. Even a cursory examination of the 10 Commandments brings utter condemnation. Do you love God with all your heart, soul and strength? Does your love for your for your wife and children seem as hatred in comparison? Do you use God’s name or make reference to Him only with the uttermost respect possible? If you do not then you take His name in vain and are a blasphemer. Is there anything that is more important to you than your relationship with your Creator? If so, the thing that stands between you and God is an idol. Have you ever lied? It does not matter how big or small. A lie is a lie and if you have then you are a liar and Revelation 21:8 says that “all liars, their part [will be] in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death. If you have stolen anything (and God makes no distinction between petty theft and grand larceny), you’re are a thief and 1 Corinthians 6:10 tells us that thieves along with the covetous, drunkards, and revilers shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

The Bible is described as being like a two edged sword able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). It exposes us for what we really are – wretched sinners who have transgressed God’s laws and greatly offended him. We have nothing to offer, nothing to bargain with. The more we understand the Bible, the greater our awareness of our utter sinfulness and need for His forgiveness. This produces poverty of spirit, for our only recourse is to come to Him in complete humility begging for His mercy. Praise Him that His promise is that while He resists the proud, He gives grace to the humble.

And as you seek after God with all your heart the more you will be confronted with the purity of His holiness, and the closer you come to the light of righteousness, the more your own filthiness will be seen. A sheep that looks clean and white against a green pasture will suddenly look pretty filthy when standing in that same pasture after a new fallen snow. The Christian should become more humble through the years of their walking with God, not proud. The closer walk with Him exposes things in their lives that they did not even consider sinful when they were first saved such as wretched sins of attitude and inner thought life that are often kept hidden from other people. These keep us humble, poor in Spirit, before the Lord because we know that our continued existence and ability to serve Him is also based on the Lord’s continued longsuffering patience, grace and mercy to us.

If you want to be poor in spirit, go to the Scriptures and seek the Lord with all your heart. Then ask God just as David did, to “create in you a clean heart and renew a steadfast spirit within you.” God is gracious and He will answer that prayer – not because of anything you have done, but because of His goodness. Which in itself is a relief because now it is dependent upon a loving and dependable God, and not the fickleness of man’s heart.

Let me quickly mention one other direct application of this Beatitude before we conclude our study this morning. Arising out of Psychology, and now running rampant through evangelical Christianity, is the concept of having a positive self-esteem. A lack of self-esteem is supposed to be a major source of behavioral, relational, and emotional problems. Robert Schuller, a key proponent of this idea, has even gone so far as to redefine sin as “any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem,” and the new birth to mean, “we must be changed from a negative to a positive self-image.” No wonder he has also written, “Once a person believes he is an ‘unworthy sinner,’ it is doubtful if he can really honestly accept the saving grace God offers in Jesus Christ.” Others have twisted Jesus’ commandment that we are to love our neighbors as our selves into a command that we are to love ourselves. Nothing could be farther from the meaning of that Scripture and nothing could be in greater contrast with that than this first beatitude of being poor in spirit.

Scripture is clear and emphatic on the point that man does not have a problem with loving himself enough (high self-esteem). He has a problem with loving himself too much! All through Scriptures the assumption is that man loves himself. Jesus uses that as part of His argument as to the high degree we need to love our neighbors, and Paul uses it in Ephesians 5:28 as to the high degree the husband is to love the wife. Paul even goes on to say in verse 29 that “no one ever hated his own flesh.”

Scripture’s commands to us are consistent. We are to humble ourselves (1 Peter 5:6), to “not think more highly of [yourself] than [you] out to think” (Romans 12:3), to “let each of you regard one another as more important than himself” (Philippians 2:4). Paul even went on to warn Timothy (2 Timothy 3:1-2) “that in the last days difficult times will come, for men will be lovers of self.”

I have never met anyone that really hated themselves. That includes the fellow that called me every couple of months because he wanted to talk about how much he claimed to hate himself. In reality that man was as selfish as anyone I have every met and he was only concerned about looking out for himself.

Beware of self-esteem advocates because whether it is high (boasting pride) or low (self-abasing pride), to be concerned about it is to be wrapped up in self and that is sin. Scripture directs us to be God centered and concerned about others.

1 Peter 5:5 and James 4:6,10 say the same thing, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time.”

In giving up their own kingdom, the poor in spirit enter into God’s kingdom.

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