The word ‘beatitude’ roughly means ‘blessing.’ Jesus starts His sermon with a list of attributes that characterize those who are blessed – who receive God’s approval. Said another way, He lists the attributes of those for whom this sermon is intended. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ manifesto explaining how to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the beatitudes are a description of what that citizen looks like. In a word, what He describes is someone who is radically different. He pronounces blessings on character traits that in most cases the world loathes. He effectively says, “Let me blow up all your assumptions about what’s important and esteemed in this life.” By blessing the opposite of what the world admires, He sets the tone for the rest of the sermon wherein He will repeatedly instruct us to live according to Kingdom values instead of the world’s.
What’s exciting about studying the beatitudes is that it’s really a picture of a Christian in eight statements. This is what it means to look like Christ. Paul told us in Rom 8:28 that all things work together for good and in 8:29 he said that ‘good’ is defined as becoming conformed to the image of the Son. This is what that looks like. Being conformed to the image of God’s Son includes being poor in spirit, mourning over sin, hungering for righteousness, etc., and is blessed by God. In these eight statements we get a synopsis of what our lives should look like when we deny ourselves and take up our cross and become a disciple of our Redeemer.
That said, it’s easy to study these and gain a better understanding of them and then become discouraged over the impossibly high standard they set. The more we understand the beatitudes, the more obvious it becomes that we stand no chance of measuring up to them. That’s why it’s so important – and encouraging – that Jesus starts with these two beatitudes. By doing so, He makes it clear that not only are we helpless on our own, but we need to realize we’re helpless so we don’t try to live up to this in our own strength. We’ll explore this more below, but we shouldn’t be discouraged by the beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount; we should instead be motivated like never before to live in the power of the Spirit.
It is important to understand that the Beatitudes do not describe eight different people. They are eight qualities that are to be characteristic of every citizen of the Kingdom. Followers of Christ do not get to pick and choose which to pursue and which to leave alone (just as is true of the Fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5). Along the same lines, the blessings that correspond to each attribute are not exclusive (notice that the first and last beatitude carry the same blessing), but instead highlight the attribute. That the meek will inherit the earth shows how radically different God’s perspective of the meek is compared to the world’s, but it doesn’t mean that certain followers of Christ will inherit the earth while others won’t. Lastly, as is true with so many promises in the Bible, each blessing is partially experienced in this life and completely received in the next.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
The first beatitude is the basis for all the others (similar to the Ten Commandments where the first commandment is the basis for the other nine). We won’t be meek, merciful, hungering for righteousness, etc., unless we are first poor in spirit.
To be poor in spirit is to fully understand that we are spiritually bankrupt. We have nothing to bring to God, nothing that justifies our place in His presence. We are completely reliant on Him, not ourselves.
To be poor in spirit is to fully appreciate our redemption. We won’t come to God without understanding our sinfulness and we won’t continue to live on and live out the gospel without continually seeing our lives through the lens of our sin.
To be poor in spirit is to have a passionate desire for God. When we appreciate our fallibility and weakness it drives us to Him and drives us to know Him more and more.
To be poor in spirit is to be devoted to prayer. If I can’t rely on myself, I must rely on prayer to live. If I feel no urgency to pray, I apparently have little understanding of my spiritual lack. Part of spiritual maturity is developing an ever-growing fear of myself. The more I grow, the more fearful of me I become, which produces an increasingly desperate dependence on prayer. [A lack of prayer represents a lack of desperation. A lack of desperation represents a lack of understanding reality.]
It is when you watch Jesus 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 self-assurance 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. ( Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount; 40)
By starting with this beatitude, Jesus effectively strikes a tone for the whole sermon. If His followers are first to be poor in spirit, then they will realize they are completely incapable of living up to what He is about to explain. To be a citizen of the Kingdom, we first have to understand our helplessness and unworthiness and how that affects our ability to incorporate the very character qualities the kingdom demands. Without God we can’t enter the Kingdom and without God we can’t live as a citizen of it. We must live in the power of the Spirit, not in the power of our own strength (Gal 5:16-17/Matt 7:7-8/I Jn 5:14-15). We can’t but He CAN.
The poor in spirit inherit the kingdom of heaven because understanding our need is fundamental to approaching God. If we have no need for the King, we have no place in the Kingdom. Only the poor in spirit will ultimately be in God’s presence.
For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, “I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite. Isaiah 57:15
To be poor in spirit does not mean that we continually trumpet our shortcomings or fill our conversation with self-deprecations or refuse to accept praise or thanks. This extreme can come from pride just as much as can self-righteousness (in both cases the focus is on us).
To be poor in spirit is to understand how rich we are in Him – to have a full appreciation for our justification. It is the same concept as Paul’s words in II Cor 12:10 – “…for when I am weak, then I am strong.” It is only when I stop trying to live in my own strength that I enjoy the unlimited strength of God. So it is with my righteousness. When I fully grasp my sinfulness I fully grasp – as much as is possible in this life – the righteousness that is mine in Christ. I cannot experience the full richness of living in God’s presence – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – without understanding the depth of my sin and the extent of my dependence on Him.
The world looks at something like this and thinks it’s crazy – why focus on my shortcomings?? Why demean myself? The answer is that until I recognize my sinfulness I have no need to seek God. And if I don’t seek God, I won’t know Him and joyfully walk with Him and enjoy Him. And if I don’t know God, why am I here? What’s the point of life?
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. 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. 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. ( Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount; 41-42)
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted
That we should mourn sounds very strange. Why is it good to be sad? Is mourning supposed to characterize our lives? What about joy?
Mourning refers to our reaction to our own sin and to sin in the world.
Mourning grows out of being poor in spirit. I acknowledge I’m a sinner, which causes me to grieve over my sin.
Mourning comes from fully appreciating how awful sin is, how awful its hold in our lives is, how awful it makes the world around us, and how pervasive its ramifications are. It is pity and fatigue and sorrow over a deceived world rushing headlong into hell, and disgust at how easily we are entangled in the same lies. It is crying out with Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24).
Mourning carries with it a sense of looking at sin as God does. We truly hate it. We hate it for what it is and what it does. We hate it simply because it’s sin. We hate it because it breaks fellowship with our Father in heaven. This in turn affects our confession and repentance. We don’t simply hate the consequences of our sin or the guilt it brings about; we hate the sin itself and the offense it is to the God who redeemed us.
This is NOT a command to walk around glumly and always sad. It is instead an admonition to look at sin appropriately and assign our redemption the gravity it deserves. God gave His Son to destroy sin’s power – that means we cannot take lightly its existence and activity in the world and in our lives. We can’t honestly look at the cross and then take a lackadaisical approach to sin. Look at the cross! That’s the price of sin! That’s what it took to defeat it!
Understanding the awfulness of sin allows us to fully appreciate and luxuriate in God’s salvation. We are TRULY comforted because we understand the full consequences of what we are saved from. We DO NOT serve sin anymore. We are not enslaved to it. We are instead victors in Christ over it. We are COMFORTED.
Those who do not understand the magnitude of sin will not mourn and will not find comfort.
The ultimate comfort will come in the next life when we spend eternity with our Savior in a world where only righteousness exists.
It is when we look at sin and ourselves in the light of these two beatitudes that we begin to understand and incorporate the truths of the Sermon on the Mount. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, it’s only after I fully grasp my sinfulness and the awfulness of that sin that I truly live a life of contentment and joy.