Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3).
Of all the Beatitudes, the first may be the most counterintuitive. Shouldn’t we strive to be rich in spirit? Surely Jesus wouldn’t want us to go around being “Debbie Downers,” would he?
To understand Jesus’ meaning, we need to consider the Old Testament background. While Scripture can describe poverty in solely economic terms, the prophets frequently linked economic poverty with spiritual lowliness. “The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the LORD will answer them” (Is. 41:17, NIV). In this case, the “poor and needy” are those who are desperate for God’s intervention. Likewise, God says through Isaiah, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Is. 57:15, NIV). It is the nature of the Lord God Almighty, the high and holy One, to redeem those who are distraught and downtrodden.
There is nothing about material poverty that guarantees God’s blessing. Yet Jesus does warn us that material wealth can breed a kind of self-sufficiency, which in turn can lead us to doubt the absolute necessity of God’s grace (Matt. 19:23-26). Consequently, the spiritually poor—like the materially poor—are desperate and dependent. These are the qualities Jesus is commending.
God gives his Kingdom to those who wholeheartedly and unreservedly confess their spiritual bankruptcy before him. The poor in spirit are those who acknowledge they can offer absolutely nothing to earn God’s favor. The poor in spirit are those who know they are sinners fully deserving of God’s holy wrath.
Contrast what Jesus commends in the Beatitudes with what he condemns in the church of Laodicea: “You say, ‘I am rich, and I have acquired wealth and do not need anything.’ But you do not know you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. I advise you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you might become rich” (Rev. 3:17-18a). Everything in our sinful human nature finds desperation and dependency revolting. We want to be satisfied and independent. We want just enough help from God to live safely and comfortably.
Yet the reward of such striving eventually proves to be fool’s gold. Real wealth is only found by surrendering to the One who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). To receive his riches is blessed indeed.
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind
Sight, riches, healing of the mind
Yea, all I need, in Thee to find
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!