Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
When the time for Jesus to begin His earthly ministry, he was baptized by John. John protested, “But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 4:14-15).”
Jesus then went into the wilderness, where He fasted for 40 days, was tempted by the devil (4:1-11), and emerged victorious.
Having prepared Himself this way ceremonially and spiritually, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (4:17).” The Kingdom of Heaven was always central to Jesus’ preaching.
He next called His disciples (4:18-22) and taught them, too, about the Kingdom. His first extended teaching in Matthew 5-7 is called the Sermon on the Mount. It is not a plea for repentance to the undecided, but is instruction about what Kingdom living looks like to those who have been called by Jesus to be His disciples. The crowds were present (v. 1), and Jesus is always speaking to those who will listen, but as He sat on the Mount to teach, His intended audience was the disciples He had just called. His teaching still applies to the church today. If we would follow Jesus, we need to be aware that we are submitting to the King of the Kingdom of Heaven. And the Sermon on the Mount tells us what Kingdom living looks like.
But the Kingdom of Heaven is upside-down from what we might expect. In establishing His Kingdom, Jesus does not choose the bravest, the best-looking or the most intelligent. Although we know that Jesus is passionate about spiritual issues, He does not call the most righteous, either. According to Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the “poor in spirit.” In other words, our entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven comes through our utter lack of qualification!
Many look at the phrase “poor in spirit” and think of material wealth, which the poor do not have. To be poor in spirit, then, would describe someone whose spirit, mind or psyche reflected that poverty. But the emphasis here is actually on what’s spiritual, and to be spiritually poor, is to have no spiritual capital, no righteousness, no holiness, none of the currency of a spiritual kingdom with which to bargain. The poor in spirit have nothing to offer God that they might enter His kingdom. Because of our sins, we cannot show Him our good deeds or right motives, for all of them are tainted and corrupt. Instead we come to Him with empty hands and broken hearts and admit that we are spiritually bankrupt, destitute, impoverished. We owe an infinite debt of sin that we can never repay.
When we come to God with such a confession, He does not turn us away, but welcomes us. “Yes, my child,” He says. “Now you understand.” The debt of sin must still be repaid, but Christ paid the penalty for us in His sacrificial death on the cross. It is only by His substituting Himself for us, our sin for His righteousness, that we are able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. So we are, in the end, blessed to be poor, for by God’s grace the Kingdom of Heaven is ours.