By Johnstocker

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

The first beatitude is the foundation on which all the others are built. It is about the poor in spirit, that is, those who recognise their spiritual need. They are the people who know they have nothing to offer God, that neither wealth, nor knowledge, nor family, nor nationality, nor natural temperament and personality are anything before the Lord. We might translate the first words as: “O the bliss of those who know themselves to be spiritually inadequate!”

The Greek word used here for “poor” means destitute, like a beggar. In a spiritual context, such poverty creates total dependence on God – and here is where total joy is found.

Poverty, inadequacy and destitution all sound very unattractive in the world’s eyes. This should not surprise us. It could be said that poverty of spirit marks the dividing line between those who follow Christ and those who do not. “There is no more perfect statement of the doctrine of justification by faith only” than the first beatitude, says Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, explaining that this beatitude must come at the beginning of the list because

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.

This beatitude is nothing to do with material wealth or lack of it. Elsewhere Jesus teaches that we should not be attached to material possessions. Yet a rich person can be poor in spirit – Abraham and Job are examples – and a poor person can have a proud and self-sufficient spirit, cutting them off from God.

Jesus’s first hearers may have understood this distinction better than modern readers of the Sermon on the Mount. To be poor and without any resources, therefore powerless, therefore needing to trust completely in God are concepts all included in the Hebrew/Aramaic words for “poor”. Poverty, humility and helplessness were all wrapped up together. Someone who had nothing could only look to God for help.

The promise made to those who are poor in spirit, that is, to all Christians, is the kingdom of heaven. The same promise is repeated in the last beatitude, with a range of other promises between.

The kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God as it is also called in the New Testament) is the reign of God in the hearts and lives of His people. The Kingdom of God is a Divine society where God’s will is done perfectly, as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). Its citizens know that they are empty and have nothing; they can only trust and obey the King.

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo is the International Director of Barnabas Fund and the Executive Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.