The common name for the first verses of the Sermon on the Mount is The Beatitudes. This comes from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible where these verses start with beati (blessed). The Greek word is makarioi (μακάριοι). According to Kittle (which article flips between using “beatitude” and “macarism” for the “blessed are …” formula), the word started out as a poetic expression of the “blessedness” of the gods, to live in a transcendent life beyond care, labor and death, this also being applied to men who have died and passed to the rewards of the godly. Eventually, the word cheapened somewhat in meaning and was applied to the wealthy who because of their wealth live above the normal worries and cares of people with less. We see a similar range of meaning and usage for the English word “blessed”. In the New Testament, the word “refers overwhelmingly to the distinctive religious joy which accrues to a man from his share in the Salvation of the Kingdom of God.” (Kittle IV, 367) So, the common paraphrase of this word as “happy” is inadequate even though it may have the value of removing the verses from “religious talk” by substituting a more commonly used and understood word for the nebulous “blessed”. Combining the Greek translation of the OT and in the NT, the word is used of God only twice, 1 Timothy 1:11; 6:15. Instead, God is the giver of blessing.
The first of the Beatitudes is Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 5:3) In the Greek language, there are a couple of ways to be poor. First is the man who works hard but because of his situation – his obligations, family, pay – he is just scraping by. Second is the one who is destitute. This is a man so incapable of helping himself that he is reduced to begging. This second is the Greek word used here. There is no claim that the beggar has on anybody. The only hope this man has is the charity of others.
This characteristic is to be found “in spirit”. That is, this is not a reference to the earthly state of poverty. Thus, the NET (one example of many) note reference to “the pious poor” does not seem appropriate. It may be argued that the corresponding verse in Luke 6:20 is talking about earthly poverty, but not Matthew. By using “in spirit”, Jesus is presenting the earthly picture of the beggar as a metaphor for one’s relationship with God.
This is significant as the world does not teach beggardliness as a virtue. It is the pushers who get the blessing of the world. The world teaches to “stake your claim” and be self-sufficient. Beyond that, in the church it is not uncommon to meet people who “humbly” admit to the first definition of poor. They know that it is not their works that get them into heaven yet they wish to note that they do have works, as if it was a shorter trip – less of a sacrifice for Jesus – to get them into the kingdom than for others. Even now that they are in the kingdom, they wish to note that God has fewer of their mess-ups to straighten out compared to others. They, unlike those others, are doing it right (at least as right as can be) for God. Instead, the characteristic here is one of sheer dependence and understanding that even the works we do bring no profit. (Luke 17:10) We are doing only what we are told and these good works we do were prepared for us beforehand (Ephesians 2:10). Poverty in spirit understands that having received, we cannot boast as if we did not receive. (1 Corinthians 4:7)
Looking for Scriptural examples, we’ll start with a negative. We all know of that “lukewarm” church, Laodicea. Jesus explains what he means by “lukewarm” this way, Because you say, “I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing,” but do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, (Revelation 3:17) The church at Laodicea has bypassed Poor in Spirit. While we may want to tsk them, we are, all of us, “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked”. We either know it and live out poverty in Spirit or we do not know and live out a lukewarm life of establishing or boasting about our own righteousness (Romans 10:3) Leaving poverty in Spirit, we abandon the source of true riches, clothing and sight (v 18).
Paul gives us an example of poverty in Spirit in Philippians 4:3-10. He declares that he places no confidence in the flesh (v 3). He says that he has much to be confident in the flesh (vv 4-6) and yet he chooses to declare these things loss (vv 7,8) for the sake of the righteousness which God gives by faith in Christ (vv 9,10).
As in all righteousness, Jesus models Poor in Spirit for us. He is the one who is God, yet he emptied himself (Philippians 2:5-11) and for our sake became poor (2 Corinthians 8:9). While none of us has that choice to make, he modeled poverty in Spirit in other ways as well. Matthew writes that after his Baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1) No self-will from Jesus, there was a life of dependence on the Father. Further, Jesus said, I can do nothing on my own initiative. Just as I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will, but the will of the one who sent me. (John 5:30) Whatever Jesus’ will has to say about a matter it was set aside for dependence on what the Father says about it. Further, Jesus says, The words that I say to you, I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds. (John 14:10) God in flesh did not speak on his own, but depended on the Father for his words. God in flesh did not heal by his own power or authority. Thus the common explanation that the miracles proved Jesus’ deity misses the point. The miracles proved that God was working through Jesus and established that his words came from God.
It is not a coincidence that this is the first Beatitude. It is only when we admit our inadequacy and depend on God’s mercy that we enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The New Birth and it’s accompanying New Creation is the only way these characteristics become part of our lives. Our blessings are in being in the Kingdom, in living life as God designed it to be lived, in finding that God himself lives with us (Isaiah 57:15). One more blessing, though, living out Poor in Spirit, we will find that we will mourn.