Blessed are the Poor in Spirit - Matthew 5:3

 by D Martyn Lloyd-Jones

We come now to a consideration of the first of the Beatitudes, `Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.' As I have already indicated in our last study, it is not surprising that this is the first, because it is obviously, as I think we shall see, the key to all that follows. There is, beyond any question, a very definite order in these Beatitudes. Our Lord does not place them in their respective positions haphazardly or accidentally; there is what we may describe as a spiritual logical sequence to be found here. This, of necessity, is the one which must come at the beginning for the good reason that there is no entry into the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, apart from it. There is no-one in the kingdom of God who is not poor in spirit. It is the fundamental characteristic of the Christian and of the citizen of the kingdom of heaven, and all the other characteristics are in a sense the result of this one. As we go on to expound it, we shall see that it really means an emptying, while the others are a manifestation of a fullness. We cannot be filled until we are first empty. You cannot fill with new wine a vessel which is partly filled already with old wine, until the old wine has been poured out. This, then, is one of those statements which remind us that there has to be a kind of emptying before there can be a filling. There are always these two sides to the gospel; there is a pulling down and a raising up. You remember the words of the ancient Simeon concerning our Lord and Saviour when he held Him as an Infant in his arms. He said, `this child is set for the fall and rising again of many.' The fall comes before the rising again. It is an essential part of the gospel that conviction must always precede conversion; the gospel of Christ condemns before it releases. Now that is obviously something which is fundamental. If you prefer me to put it in a more theological and doctrinal form, I would say that there is no more perfect statement of the doctrine of justification by faith only than this Beatitude: `Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs (and theirs only) is the kingdom of heaven.' Very well then, this is the foundation of everything else.

But not only that. It is obviously, therefore, a very searching test for every one of us, not only as we face ourselves, but especially as we come to face the whole message of the Sermon on the Mount. You see, it at once condemns every idea of the Sermon on the Mount which thinks of it in terms of something that you and I can do ourselves, something that you and I can carry out. It negatives that at the very beginning. That is where it is such an obvious condemnation of all those views which we considered earlier, which think of it as being a new law, or in terms of bringing in a kingdom amongst men. We do not hear so much of that talk now, but it still lingers and it was very popular in the early part of this century. Men talked about `bringing in the kingdom', and always used as their text the Sermon on the Mount. They thought of the Sermon as something that can be applied. You have to preach it and then men immediately proceed to put it into practice. But this view is not only dangerous, it is an utter denial of the Sermon itself, which starts with this fundamental proposition about being `poor in spirit'. The Sermon on the Mount, in other words, comes to us and says, `There is the mountain that you have to scale, the heights you have to climb; and the first thing you must realize, as you look at that mountain which you are told you must ascend, is that you cannot do it, that you are utterly incapable in and of yourself, and that any attempt to do it in your own strength is proof positive that you have not understood it.' It condemns at the very outset the view which regards it as a programme for man to put into operation immediately, just as he is.

Before we go on to deal with it from what we might call a more spiritual standpoint, there is one matter concerning the rendering of this verse which has to be considered. There are those who tell us that it should read `Blessed in spirit are the poor'. They seem to derive a certain amount of justification for that from the parallel passage in Luke vi. 2o, where you will read, `Blessed be ye poor' without any mention of `poor in spirit'. So they would regard it as a commendation of poverty. But surely that must be entirely wrong. The Bible nowhere teaches that poverty as such is a good thing. The poor man is no nearer to the kingdom of heaven than the rich man, speaking of them as natural men. There is no merit or advantage in being poor. Poverty does not guarantee spirituality. Clearly, therefore, the passage cannot mean that. And if you take the whole paragraph in Luke vi, I think it becomes perfectly clear that our Lord was even there speaking of `poor' as meaning `not being possessed by the worldly spirit', poor in the sense, if you like, that you do not rely upon riches. That is the thing that is condemned, this reliance on riches as such. And obviously there are many poor people who rely upon riches exactly as many rich people do. They say, `If only I had so-and-so', and they are jealous of those who have it. Now if they are in that condition they are not blessed. So it cannot be poverty as such.

I have had to emphasize this point because most of the Roman Catholic commentators and their imitators in Anglicanism are very fond of interpreting this statement in that sense. They regard it as scriptural authority for the assumption of voluntary poverty. Their patron saint is Francis of Assisi and they regard him and his type as those who alone conform to the statement of this Beatitude. They say that it refers to those who have deliberately made themselves poor, and turned their backs upon wealth. You will find that the late Bishop Gore in his book on the Sermon on the Mount definitely teaches that. It is the characteristic `Catholic' interpretation of this particular statement. But obviously, for the reasons I have been deducing, that is to do violence to Scripture.

What our Lord is concerned about here is the spirit; it is poverty of spirit. In other words, it is ultimately a man's attitude towards himself. That is the thing that matters, not whether he is wealthy or poor. Now here we have a perfect illustration of one of those general principles that we laid down earlier when we said that these Beatitudes indicate more clearly than anything else in Scripture the utter and essential difference between the natural man and the Christian. We saw that there is a clear-cut division between these two kingdoms-the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world, the Christian man and the natural-a complete, absolute distinction and division. Now there is perhaps no statement that underlines and emphasizes that difference more than this `Blessed are the poor in spirit'. Let me show you the contrast. This is something which is not only not admired by the world; it is despised by it. You will never find a greater antithesis to the worldly spirit and outlook than that which you find in this verse. What emphasis the world places on its belief in self-reliance, self-confidence and self-expression! Look at its literature. If you want to get on in this world, it says, believe in yourself. That idea is absolutely controlling the life of men at the present time. Indeed I would say it is controlling the whole of life outside the Christian message. What, for instance, is the essence of good salesmanship according to modern ideas? It is giving the impression of confidence and assurance. If you want to impress your customer that is the way you must do it. The same idea is put into practice in every realm. If you want to succeed in a profession, the great thing is to give the impression that you are a success, so you suggest that you are more successful than you actually are, and people say, `That is the man to go to'. That is the whole principle on which life is run at the present time-express yourself, believe in yourself, realize the powers that are innate in yourself and let the whole world see and know them. Self-confidence, assurance, self-reliance. And it is in terms of that fundamental belief that men think they can bring in the kingdom; it is the whole basis of the fatal assumption that by Acts of Parliament alone you can produce a perfect society. Everywhere we see displayed this tragic confidence in the power of education and knowledge as such to save men, to transform them and make them into decent human beings.

Now in this verse we are confronted by something which is in utter and absolute contrast to that, and it is tragic to see how people view this kind of statement. Let me quote the criticism which a man offered a few years ago on that famous hymn of Charles Wesley, `Jesu, Lover of my soul'. You will remember the verse in which Wesley says:

Just and holy is Thy name, I am all unrighteousness; Vile and full of sin I am, Thou art full of truth and grace.

This he ridiculed and asked, `What man desiring a post or job would dream of going to an employer and saying to him, "Vile and full of sin I am"? Ridiculous!' And he said it, alas, in the name of what he regards as Christianity. You see what a complete misunderstanding of this first Beatitude that reveals. As I am going to show you, we are not looking at men confronting one another, but we are looking at men face to face with God. And if one feels anything in the presence of God save an utter poverty of spirit, it ultimately means that you have never faced Him. That is the meaning of this Beatitude.

But neither is this Beatitude popular in the Church today. It was this I had in mind earlier when I regretted the amazing and obvious contrast between so much that is true of the Church now and that which was true in past ages, especially in the Puritan era. There is nothing so unchristian in the Church today as this foolish talk about `personality'. Have you noticed it-this tendency to talk about the `personality' of speakers and to use such phrases as `What a wonderful personality that man has'? Incidentally, it is tragic to observe the way in which those who speak thus seem to define personality. It is generally something purely fleshly and carnal, and a matter of physical appearance.

But, and this is still more serious, this attitude is generally based upon a confusion between self-confidence, selfassurance and self-expression on the one hand, and true personality on the other. Indeed, I have noticed at times a tendency even to fail to appreciate what is regarded by the Bible as the greatest virtue of all, namely, humility. I have heard people on a Committee discuss a certain candidate and say, `Yes, very good; but he is rather lacking in personality,' when my opinion of that particular candidate was that he was humble. There is a tendency rather to exalt a certain aggressiveness and self-assurance, and to justify a man's making use of himself and his own personality and trying to put it forward, or as the horrible phrase has it, `to put it across'. The advertisements that are being increasingly used in connection with Christian work proclaim this tendency very loudly. You read the old records of the activities of God's greatest workers, the great evangelists and others, and you observe how self-effacing they were. But, today, we are experiencing something that is almost a complete reversal of this. Advertisements and photographs' are being put into the foreground.

v What does it mean? `We preach not ourselves,' says Paul, `but Christ Jesus the Lord.' When he went to Corinth, he tells us, he went `in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling'. He did not step onto the platform with confidence and assurance and ease, and give the impression of a great personality. Rather, the people said of him, `His appearance is weak and his speech contemptible.' How far we tend to wander from the truth and the pattern of the Scriptures. Alas! How the Church is allowing the world and its methods to influence and control her outlook and life. To be `poor in spirit' is not as popular even in the Church as it once was and always should be. Christian people must re-think these matters. Let us not take things on their face value; let us above all avoid being captivated by this worldly psychology; and let us realize from the outset that we are in the realm of a kingdom which is unlike everything that belongs to this `present evil world'.

Let us come more positively to this subject, however. What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Once more let me give you certain negatives. To be `poor in spirit' does not mean that we should be diffident or nervous, nor does it mean that we should be retiring, weak or lacking in courage. There are certain people, it is true, who, reacting against this self-assertion which the world and the Church foolishly describe as `personality', think that it does mean just that. We have all met those naturally unobtrusive people who, far from pushing themselves forward, always stand in the background. They are born like that and may even be naturally weak, retiring and lacking in a sense of courage. We emphasized earlier the fact that none of the things which are indicated in the Beatitudes are natural qualities. To be `poor in spirit', therefore, does not mean that you are born like that. Let us get rid of that idea once and for ever.

Neither does it mean that we are to become what I can best describe as imitators of Uriah Heep. Many, again, have mistaken being `poor in spirit' for that. I remember once having to go to preach at a certain town. When I arrived on the Saturday evening, a man met me at the station and immediately asked for my bag, indeed he almost took it from my hand by force. Then he talked to me like this. `I am a deacon in the church where you are preaching tomorrow', he said, and then added, `You know, I am a mere nobody, a very unimportant man, really. I do not count; I am not a great man in the Church; I am just one of those men who carry the bag for the minister.' He was anxious that I should know what a humble man he was, how `poor in spirit'. Yet by his anxiety to make it known he was denying the very thing he was trying to establish. Uriah Heep-the man who thus, as it were, glories in his poverty of spirit and thereby proves he is not humble. It is an affectation of something which he obviously does not feel. This is a danger which confronts many people, though not as much today as once it did. There was a time when it was the curse of the Church, and affected men's very appearance and even their gait! It did great harm to the cause of Christ, and the moderns have reacted violently against it, and in some cases have obviously gone to the other extreme. I am far from being a defender of clerical dress; but if I had to defend either it or the attire of a man who deliberately goes out of his way to avoid giving the impression that he is a minister, I should undoubtedly defend clerical dress. I heard a man describing a minister of religion the other day and he seemed to be greatly impressed by the fact that the minister did not look like one. `He does not look like a preacher,' he said. `He looks like a prosperous man of affairs.' I am not interested in men's personal appearance, but I am suggesting that a man of God should not look like a `prosperous man of affairs', and he certainly should not go out of his way to give that impression. That but shows that he has far too great a concern about himself and the impression he is making. No, no; we are not to be concerned about these things ; we are to be concerned about the spirit. The man who is truly `poor in spirit' need not worry so much about his personal appearance and the impression he makes; he will always give the right impression.

Then again, to be `poor in spirit' is not a matter of the suppression of personality. This also is very important. There are those who would agree with all we have been saying but who would then interpret being `poor in spirit' in that way and would urge the necessity for a man to repress his true personality. This is a great subject which can best be illustrated here by taking one example. The type of thing we are considering is seen in the story of Lawrence of Arabia. You will remember that in his attempt to efface himself and to suppress his own personality he went to the extent of even changing his name and becoming `Aircraftman Shaw' just an ordinary man in the Royal Air Force. You recall how he met his death tragically in a bicycle accident, and how he was hailed as a wonderful example of humility and self-abnegation. Now to be poor in spirit does not mean that you have to do that sort of thing. It does not mean that you have to change your name and falsely crucify yourself or assume another character and personality in life. That is utterly unscriptural and quite unchristian. That kind of behaviour often impresses the world, and even impresses Christians also, for they regard it as wonderfully humble. You will find that there is always this subtle temptation to think that the only man who is truly `poor in spirit' is the man who makes a great sacrifice, or, after the manner of the monks, retires out of life and its difficulties and responsibilities. But that is not the biblical way. You do not have to go out of life in order to be `poor in spirit'; you do not have to change your name. No; it is something in the realm of your spirit.

We can go one step further and say that to be `poor in spirit' is not even to be humble in the sense in which we speak of the humility of great scholars. Generally speaking, the truly great thinker is a humble man. It is `a little learning' that `is a dangerous thing'. Now to be `poor in spirit' does not mean that, because that humility is produced by an awareness of the vastness of knowledge and is not of necessity a true humility of spirit in the scriptural sense.

If those are the negatives then what is the positive aspect of being `poor in spirit'? I think the best way to answer that question is to put it in terms of Scripture. It is what Isaiah said (1vii. 15) : `For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.' That is the quality of spirit, and you have endless illustrations of it in the Old Testament. It was the spirit of a man like Gideon, for instance, who, when the Lord sent an angel to him to tell him the great thing he was to do, said, `No, no, this is impossible; I belong to the lowest tribe and to the lowest family in the tribe.' That was not Uriah Heep, it was a man who really believed what he said and who shrank from the very thought of greatness and honour, and thought it was incredible. It was the spirit of Moses, who felt deeply unworthy of the task that was laid upon him and was conscious of his insufficiency and inadequacy. You find it in David, when he said, `Lord, who am I that thou shouldst come to me?' The thing was incredible to him; he was astonished by it. You get it in Isaiah in exactly the same way. Having had a vision, he said, `I am a man of unclean lips'. That is to be `poor in spirit', and it can be seen right through the Old Testament.

But let us look at it in the New Testament. You see it perfectly, for instance, in a man like the apostle Peter who was naturally aggressive, self-assertive, and self-confident-a typical modern man of the world, brimful of this confidence and believing in himself. But look at him when he truly sees the Lord. He says, `Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, 0 Lord.' Look at him afterwards as he pays his tribute to the apostle Paul, in 2 Peter iii. 15, i6. But observe that he never ceases to be a bold man; he does not become nervous and diffident. No, he does not change in that way. The essential personality remains; and yet he is `poor in spirit' at the same time. Or look at it as you see it in the apostle Paul. Here was a man, again with great powers, and obviously, as a natural man, fully aware of them. But in reading his Epistles you will find that the fight he had to wage to the end of his life was the fight against pride. That is why he kept on using the word `boasting'. Any man gifted with powers is generally aware of them; he knows he can do things, and Paul knew this. He has told us in that great third chapter of the Epistle to the Philippians about his confidence in the flesh. If it is a question of competition, he seems to say, he fears no-one; and then he gives us a list of the things of which he can boast. But having once seen the risen Lord on the road to Damascus all that became `loss', and this man, possessed of such tremendous powers, appeared in Corinth, as I have already reminded you, `in weakness and fear and much trembling'. That is the position right through, and as he goes on with the task of evangelism, he asks, `Who is sufficient for these things?' If any man had a right to feel `sufficient' it was Paul. Yet he felt insufficient because he was `poor in spirit'.

But, of course, we see this most of all as we look at the life of our Lord Himself. He became a Man, He took upon Him `the likeness of sinful flesh'. Though He was equal with God He did not clutch at the prerogatives of His Godhead. He decided that while He was here on earth He would live as a man, though He was still God. And this was the result. He said, `I can do nothing of myself.' It is the God-Man speaking. `I can do nothing of myself.' He said also, `The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works' (Jn. xiv. io). `I can do nothing, I am utterly dependent upon Him.' That is it. And look at His prayer life. It is as you watch Him praying, and realize the hours He spent in prayer, that you see His poverty of spirit and His reliance upon God.

That, then, is what is meant by being `poor in spirit'. It means a complete absence of pride, a complete absence of selfassurance and of self-reliance. It means a consciousness that we are nothing in the presence of God. It is nothing, then, that we can produce; it is nothing that we can do in ourselves. It is just this tremendous awareness of our utter nothingness as we come face to face with God. That is to be `poor in spirit'. Let me put it as strongly as I can, and I do so on the basis of the teaching of the Bible. It means this, that if we are truly Christian we shall not rely upon our natural birth. We shall not rely upon the fact that we belong to certain families; we shall not boast that we belong to certain nations or nationalities. We shall not build upon our natural temperament. We shall not believe in and rely upon our natural position in life, or any powers that may have been given to us. We shall not rely upon money or any wealth we may have. The thing about which we shall boast will not be the education we have received, or the particular school or college to which we may have been. No, all that is what Paul came to regard as `dung', and a hindrance to this greater thing because it tended to master and control him. We shall not rely upon any gifts like that of natural `personality', or intelligence or general or special ability. We shall not rely upon our own morality and conduct and good behaviour. We shall not bank to the slightest extent on the life we have lived or are trying to live. No; we shall regard all that as Paul regarded it. That is `poverty of spirit'. There must be a complete deliverance from and absence of all that. I say again, it is to feel that we are nothing, and that we have nothing, and that we look to God in utter submission to Him and in utter dependence upon Him and His grace and mercy. It is, I say, to experience to some extent what Isaiah experienced when, having seen the vision, he said, `Woe is me ! ... I am a man of unclean lips'-that is `poverty of spirit'. As we find ourselves in competition with other men in this world we say, `I am a match for them'. Well, that is all right in that realm, if you like. But when a man has some conception of God, he of necessity feels `as one dead', as did the apostle John on the Isle of Patmos, and we must feel like that in the presence of God. Any natural spirit that is in us goes out, because it is not only exposed in its smallness and weakness, but its sinfulness and foulness become apparent at the same time.

Let us then ask ourselves these questions. Am I like that, am I poor in spirit? How do I really feel about myself as I think of myself in terms of God, and in the presence of God? And as I live my life, what are the things I am saying, what are the things I am praying about, what are the things I like to think of with regard to myself? What a poor thing it is, this boasting of the things that are accidental and for which I am not responsible, this boasting of things that are artificial and that will count as nothing at the great day when we stand in the presence of God. This poor self! That hymn of Lavater's puts it perfectly: `Make this poor self grow less and less', and `O Jesus Christ, grow Thou in me.'

How does one therefore become `poor in spirit'? The answer is that you do not look at yourself or begin by trying to do things to yourself. That was the whole error of monasticism. Those poor men in their desire to do this said, `I must go out of society, I must scarify my flesh and suffer hardship, I must mutilate my body.' No, no, the more you do that the more conscious will you be of yourself, and the less `poor in spirit'. The way to become poor in spirit is to look at God. Read this Book about Him, read His law, look at what He expects from us, contemplate standing before Him. It is also to look at the Lord Jesus Christ and to view Him as we see Him in the Gospels. The more we do that the more we shall understand the reaction of the apostles when, looking at Him and something He had just done, they said, `Lord, increase our faith.' Their faith, they felt, was nothing. They felt it was so weak and so poor. `Lord, increase our faith. We thought we had something because we had cast out devils and preached Thy word, but now we feel we have nothing; increase our faith.' Look at Him; and the more we look at Him, the more hopeless shall we feel by ourselves, and in and of ourselves, and the more shall we become `poor in spirit'. Look at Him, keep looking at Him. Look at the saints, look at the men who have been most filled with the Spirit and used. But above all, look again at Him, and then you will have nothing to do to yourself. It will be done. You cannot truly look at Him without feeling your absolute poverty, and emptiness. Then you say to Him,

Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling.

Empty, hopeless, naked, vile. But He is the all-sufficient One-

Yea, all I need, in Thee to find, 0 Lamb of God, I come.


From Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by D. Martyn Lloyd Jones

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