The Sermon on the Mount (Part 3)
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This verse is much deeper and much earlier than the practice of humility in the Christian life. Remember the focus of Jesus’ early messages; He came to earth to usher in the kingdom of heaven. And in this first Beatitude, He has something to say about who is going to be in that kingdom with Him.
Who does the kingdom of heaven belong to? At first glance it appears that it is those with a humble attitude. Are we somehow differentiating between classes of Christians? Those with a humble attitude and those without humility. Because we know the rest of the story, we know that all believers – humble or not – belong in the kingdom.
That is why I believe Christ is talking in this verse about an attitude that is a precursor to salvation. When laying the foundation for a new path to salvation to an audience of self-righteous old covenant types, Christ first has to emphasize a recognition of the need for His salvation. Part of “repent and believe the gospel” is recognizing your need. Compare our opening verse to the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee from Luke chapter 18.
“And Jesus also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other’ “ (Luke 18:10-14).
Again, we often hear this passage preached as a need for humility in the Christian life. But I believe this parable is reaching much further back, prior to our belief in the gospel message. It is talking about our initial recognition of our need for Jesus’ salvation. Look at the opening verse, Luke 18:10. Jesus is aiming this story at “people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” The parable is clearly directed at the lost, those who refuse Jesus’s offer of salvation and instead rely on their own self-righteous behavior.
If you have believed the gospel, then you and I already have the kingdom of heaven. Somewhere along the way we already expressed our “poor in spirit”, rejecting our pride in our own self-effort to save us, and throwing ourselves on the mercy of Jesus. The tax collector in Luke 18 was very aware that he needed God’s mercy. He had no pretense of self-righteousness about him. There is no mention in the story that Jesus is the answer to his need. Because we know the rest of the gospel story, we DO KNOW that only faith in Christ can save us. And the kingdom of heaven, based on your belief and Christ’s finished work, is already yours.
“Poor in spirit” is not a character trait to strive for, to seek to obtain, something to grow into. “Poor in spirit” is who you were when you recognized your need for Jesus’ rescue from your sin. And resident of the kingdom of heaven is who you are! Jesus is focusing our gaze forward. “A day is coming when My explanation of belief, faith, and salvation will be complete. And when that happens, those who recognize the impossibility of saving themselves through self-righteous action, will see their need, believe the gospel, and find themselves happily in the kingdom of heaven.”