A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:3. 1) The poor in spirit.
It has already been mentioned that the Old Testament supplies the necessary background against which to interpret this beatitude. At first to be ‘poor’ meant to be in literal, material need. But gradually, because the needy had no refuge but God (Zeph. 3:12), ‘poverty’ came to have spiritual overtones and to be identified with humble dependence on God. Thus the psalmist designated himself ‘this poor man’ who cried out to God in his need, ‘and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles’. (Ps.34:6) The ‘poor man’ in the Old Testament is one who is both afflicted and unable to save himself, and who therefore looks to God for salvation, while recognizing that he has no claim upon him. This kind of spiritual poverty is specially commended in Isaiah. It is ‘the poor and needy’, who ‘seek water and there is none, and heir tongue is parched with thirst’, for whom God promises to ‘open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys’, and to ‘make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water, (Is.41:17, 18). The ‘poor’ are also described as people with ‘a contrite and humble spirit’; to them God looks and with them (though he is ‘the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy’) he is pleased to dwell. (Is.57;15; 66:1, 2). It is to such that the Lord’s anointed would proclaim good tidings of salvation, a prophecy which Jesus consciously fulfilled in the Nazareth synagogue: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. (Is.61:1; Lk. 4:18; cf.Mt.11:5). Further, the rich tended to compromise with surrounding heathenism; it was the poor who remained faithful to God. So wealth and worldliness, poverty and godliness went together.
Thus, to be ‘poor in spirit’ is to acknowledge our spiritual poverty, indeed our spiritual bankruptcy, before God. For we are sinners, under the holy wrath of God, and deserving nothing but the judgement of God. We have nothing to offer, nothing to plead, nothing with which to buy the favour of heaven.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless come to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
This is the language of the poor in spirit. We do not belong anywhere except alongside the publican in Jesus’ parable, crying out with downcast eyes, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’. As Calvin wrote: ‘He only who is reduced to nothing in himself, and relies on the mercy of God, is *poor in spirit*.’
To such, and only to such, the kingdom of God is given. For God’s rule which brings salvation is a gift as absolutely free as it is utterly undeserved. It has to be received with the dependent humility of a little child. Thus, right at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contradicted all human judgments and all nationalistic expectations of the kingdom of God. The kingdom is given to the poor, not the rich; the feeble, not the mighty; to little children humble enough to accept it, not to soldiers who boast that they can obtain it in their own prowess. In our Lord’s own day it was not the Pharisees who entered the kingdom, who thought they were rich, so rich in merit that they thanked God for their attainments; nor the Zealots who dreamed of establishing the kingdom by the blood and sword; but publicans and prostitutes, the rejects of human society who knew they were so poor they could offer nothing and could achieve nothing. All they could do was to cry to God for mercy; and he heard their cry.
Perhaps the best later example of the same truth is the nominal church of Loadicea to whom John was directed to send a letter from the glorified Christ. He quoted their complacent words, and added his own assessment of them: ‘You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.’ (Rev.3:17). This visible church, for all its Christian profession, was not truly Christian at all. Self-satisfied and superficial, it was composed (according to Jesus) of blind and naked beggars. But the tragedy was they would not admit it. They were rich, not poor, in spirit.
Still today the indispensable condition of receiving the kingdom of God is to acknowledge our spiritual poverty. God still sends the rich away empty (Lk.1:53). As C.H.Spurgeon expressed it, ‘The way to rise in the Kingdom is to sink in ourselves.’
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:4. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.