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  • Writer's pictureRobert Phillips

The Beatitudes: Poor In Spirit

When Jesus began his ministry of preaching and teaching, one of the goals of His ministry was to begin to change the perception from obedience to God being merely a physical issue, to being a heart--or gut--issue. Jeremiah 31:31-34 reinforces Jesus' teaching on this idea. From this, we learn that the remedy for legalism isn’t liberalism. The remedy for legalism is actually spiritualism. The only way to defeat legalism in the church is to recognize that the sanctification process of becoming more like Jesus begins on the inside and works it’s way out, rather than starting with the outside and working it’s way in.

Being Who We Are

When my son is struggling with wanting to quit at something, I have gotten into the practice of saying to him, "Phillips's don't quit!" It's my way of reminding him who he is and where he comes from. The Sermon on the Mount is really about what we are, not what we are meant to be! Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has said, "We are not meant to control our Christianity; our Christianity is meant to control us”(Lloyd-Jones, 82). The question that comes from this is, does your life “out you” as a believer in Christ? Does how you live reveal who you are in Him? John Stott conveys this idea perfectly: “No comment could be more hurtful to the Christian than the words ‘But you are no different from anybody else’”(Stott, 1).

Recognizing Our Need

In Matthew 5:3 we read, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (ESV) What does the word “blessed” really mean? The Biblical concept of being blessed is the concept of receiving what would make one rejoice, or experience happiness. When we ask God to “bless” our food, we are actually asking God to make us happy with it. What we really need to see is that the idea of being blessed in these “beatitudes” (a Latin word meaning "to be happy") is the idea of appreciating life more. These are attitudes that will help us get what God intends for us out of life. These are the deeper joys the world cannot offer.

What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? “Spirit” is the greek word "pneuma" and is the generic understanding of the part of our existence that connects and communicates with God. It encompasses our soul, heart, mind and strength. “Poor” is “ptochos” from two greek words: "ptoeo" which means "to be terrified in fear" and "pipto" which means "to fall down". This word “poor” gives us the idea of someone who knows they have nothing of value in their spirit (pneuma) and are terrified about it. This is that spiritual emptiness or depression that must happen before we will reach out to Jesus for salvation.

The loose change in your car rattles around for no purpose with little value, until you need a $1.62 for a coffee at your local gas station. Now that change means something! The need drives the value. We don’t value what we don’t think we need. You will not value who God is if you are completely satisfied with who or what you are. It’s why Jesus said that wealthy people struggle to come into the spiritual kingdom! He said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Matt. 19). Jesus said with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. This means that one of God’s miracles is to either remove anything that would make us self-satisfied or remove self-satisfaction itself! Is that something you pray for? You will not find satisfaction in Christ until you no longer look for satisfaction within yourself.

You will not find satisfaction in Christ until you no longer look for satisfaction within yourself.

Holding On To Kingdom Theology

In order for believers to be blessed in being poor, we must recognize how needy we are for God’s salvation in our spirit. If we do not, we will never understand the joyous truth of God’s kingdom. In terms of evangelism, we say it this way: you can never be saved until you realize you are lost! Like cancer, sin is ravaging our lives. Just like someone who learns of their cancer and must seek help for healing, when God reveals to us our sinful condition and need, we are truly blessed because now we can begin actually living life with spiritual purpose, knowing our eternal destiny is secure!

We have to hold on to kingdom theology. If the Kingdom of Heaven is a spiritual kingdom, then that affects how we approach the earthly kingdom. The result of living for a spiritual kingdom will be physical evidence of our spiritual belief system. Jesus modeled this truth. He made his life about honoring God the Father and serving other people. What we see in Jesus’ ministry is that the physical part of ministry was only ever about getting to the heart of people, because repentance begins in the heart.

1 Corinthians 1:18–19 says, "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart'.” These verses are so apropos to where we are in society today. Our educators, influencers and politicians aren’t promoting the beatitudes that we are going to learn about in Jesus’ sermon because these beatitudes and ways of approaching life aren’t guaranteed to make people wealthy and culturally successful. However, Jesus says they are guaranteed to bring an inner joy because they are born of something deeper than mere temporary happiness. It’s not just secularism that promotes this false happiness. There are professing believers trying to influence us to make our whole lives about fiscal responsibility or health and fitness. Those aren’t bad things, but they also aren’t the main thing. God isn’t going to look at me some day and say "well done" because I balanced my checkbook and stayed out of debt. Nor is He going to praise my body mass index and level of cholesterol. He is going to look at me and say “how did you honor me and love people?” My stewardship of finances and body is wrapped up in that creed, which means sometimes I might actually suffer financially and physically so that others might now more of God and His love.

1 Corinthians 1 continues in verse 20-25 drawing a contrast between the wisdom of the world (which is foolishness) and the foolishness of the Gospel (which is true wisdom). I can’t tell you how many times I have been called a fool for throwing caution to the wind and pursuing God in radical decisions made on principles of right and wrong, and not settling for mediocrity. I would expect that from unbelievers, but the reality is that some of our most painful critiques in life will come from idolatrous believers who don’t realize they are actually worshiping man-made ideals rather a God who doesn’t fit into man-made ideals.

Boasting In The Lord

I love the final verses of 1 Corinthians 1, which say:

"For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord'.” (ESV) When I die and a service is held in memory of me, the only thing I’m going to have on offer for praise is Jesus. I pray there are just three questions being asked and answered at my funeral:

  • What did he say about Jesus?

  • Did his life reflect what he said about Jesus?

  • Was it real enough in his life that his kids and grandkids still believe it?

The entirety of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount begins with the recognition that I have nothing within me that could satisfy God's standard of righteousness, and I don't even possess anything inside of me that will bring me internal happiness or satisfaction. I am deeply "poor" in spirit. When I was in England, I heard the word "poorly" used for someone who wasn't feeling well and battling illness. We are "poorly" in and of ourselves, but Jesus is the remedy for our condition. Jesus is the only hope we have for spiritual health and healing, so that we can dwell in the presence of God in perfect standing and welcomed before His throne of grace.

“These beatitudes are soul searching because they tell us, in effect, that, as we live our ordinary lives, we are declaring all the time exactly what we are. That is what makes this matter so serious. By the way we react we manifest our spirit; and it is the spirit that proclaims the man in terms of Christianity.” -Martin Lloyd Jones


Carson, D. A. (2018). Jesus’ sermon on the Mount and his confrontation with the world: A study of matthew 5-10. Baker Books.

Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (1976). Studies in the sermon on the Mount: One-volume edition. Wm.B.Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Stott, J. (2020). Beatitudes: Developing spiritual character. INTERVARSITY Press.

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