Blessed Are the Poor

A common term for persons lacking money is to call them “poor.” Being financially poor generally refers to lacking the essential elements of life: food, shelter, and clothing. Jesus opened His “Sermon on the Mount” using the metaphor of this condition:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matt 5:3)*
*NKJ is used throughout unless otherwise stated.

Understanding the analogy of Jesus is contingent upon being acquainted with economic destitution. Yet Jesus mined deeper ore than mere financial poverty. Jesus added the qualifier “in spirit.” In so doing, Jesus dove from the physical meaning into a spiritual meaning. It is this spiritual meaning that we will consider in this post.

Jesus, the “Son of David,” found the concept of the “poor” used often from the pen of his namesake, King David in the Psalms. King David likewise mined the rich metaphorical meaning in this term. For example, in Psalm 22, he used term “poor” in synonymous parallelism with those who fear the Lord and those who seek Him:

“My praise shall be of You in the great assembly;
I will pay My vows before those who fear Him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
Those who seek Him will praise the Lord.
Let your heart live forever!”
(Psalm 22:25-26)

In Psalm 34, David wrote:

“This poor man cried out, and the Lord heard him,
And saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps all around those who fear Him,
And delivers them.”
(Psalm 34:6-7)

Again, the Psalmist used “those who fear Him” in parallel with “poor man.” This same pattern is often found in the Psalms. In fact, David affirmed his own spiritual destitution:

“But I am poor and needy.” (Psalm 40:17)
“But I am poor and sorrowful.” (Psalm 69:29)
“But I am poor and needy.” (Psalm 70:5)
“For I am poor and needy.” (Psalm 86:1)
“For I am poor and needy.” (Psalm 109:22)

It is likely that it would be a mistake to interpret these uses of “poor” as referring only or primarily to physical poverty, since the context clearly denotes a spiritual need—much as Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount.

So when Jesus spoke of “poor in spirit” in the Sermon on the Mount, he had the antecedent of King David speaking of another kind of lack, that being spiritual destitution. Jesus appears to be saying that those who understand their spiritual poverty are blessed, because they willingly submit to the rule of heaven. Or to put it another way, the key to living with a heavenly focus is to understand our spiritual bankruptcy and to be willing to submit to the rule of heaven in all our thoughts, words, and deeds.

Clearly, the blessing of Jesus was spoken a particular group of people. His blessing was not generalized to all of mankind, but rather to a subgroup of humanity—that is, “the blessed ones.”

The Apostle Paul picked up on the same theme of poverty, but from a different angle. When Paul was explaining the gospel in Romans he underscored that all people are spiritually destitute:

“For there is absolutely no difference: seeing that all have sinned, and are entirely destitute of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:[22]23, 1605 French Geneva, translation mine)

Paul stated that all people are spiritually and morally bankrupt. They all lack anything and everything that they need to achieve the glory of God. They are totally destitute, or to put it another way, totally depraved. Their spiritual bank account before God stands completely empty.

As Paul argued for the spiritual depravity of all mankind in Romans, so Jesus affirmed that the spiritually bankrupt comprised of a certain group of blessed people. So then, was total depravity a spiritual condition of all mankind (as in Paul) or was it only the spiritual condition of a particular group of people (as in Jesus)?

I argue that Jesus and Paul were communicating the same truth from two different perspectives.

Paul used the concept of a spiritually impoverished humanity to show that everyone on earth is a sinner in need of a Savior. Jesus blessed those who recognize that they are impoverished, which was and remains the sign of a receptive heart. For Jesus, it was only those who understood their spiritual destitution that were deemed acceptable for the rule of heaven. Likewise for Paul, although all people were indeed helpless and hopeless, only a special group of people understands and acknowledges their spiritual condition.

“For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Rom 5:6)

So, according to Paul, Christ died for those that had no spiritual strength. And while all men are “without strength,” only a particular group of men actually acknowledge their spiritual poverty. These few cry out to God for mercy:

“O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25)

Following this example, it is only those who cry out to God for deliverance from their spiritual poverty who are heard from heaven. Indeed, these are the ones whose spiritual bank account is filled with the righteousness of Christ. These are the ones who follow the example of Abraham, who believed the Word of God:

“For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’” (Rom 4:3)

This gift of righteousness is then placed in the account of everyone who believes:

“Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” (Rom 4:4-5)

As men and women acknowledge that they are spiritually destitute and look to heaven, they find the only answer for their spiritual debt. Christ shed His blood for those few who would acknowledge their spiritual poverty, look to heaven for help, and cry out to God for mercy through Jesus Christ.

So Christ Himself became the blessing of the blessed ones—the “poor in spirit”—gifting them entrance into the kingdom of heaven!

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matt 5:3)

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