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SM #2: A Kingdom of Beggars

Updated: Feb 18

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

CORE (The heart of the message):

The kingdom of heaven is here and now and open to all. We will be more likely to experience its welcoming presence and healing power when our other sources of security are stripped away.

CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage):

Jesus has been proclaiming the Gospel of “the Kingdom of the Heavens” (4:17, 23). For reasons that will become apparent, I think a good paraphrase is “the kingdom of the heavens here and now” or “the kingdom of heaven on earth”. Either way, Jesus’ kingdom message and healing ministry are attracting large crowds. Then he goes up a mountain and sits down to teach his disciples while the crowds listen in. Now, whether we are part of the crowd or the committed, we all get to experience firsthand the miraculous teaching of Jesus.

Jesus begins his sermon with the Beatitudes (a word that comes from the Latin for Blessings). These are pronouncements of blessing upon people who we would not usually consider blessed. Taken as a whole, the Beatitudes serve to destabilize our dependence on predictable religious norms, and they alert us to the subversive nature of Jesus’ teaching. The Beatitudes help us get ready for a revolution.

If the Sermon on the Mount is a kind of constitution for the kingdom of heaven on earth, the Beatitudes are the preamble that succinctly summarizes the ethos of this kingdom. And according to the Beatitudes, Jesus is turning things upside-down and inside-out and inviting his disciples to envision the inversion and eversion of his new world order. Moses went up a mountain and gave God’s people a Torah of Law, along with severe punishments and sacrifices for breaking those laws. Jesus goes up a mountain and gives us all God’s Torah of Blessing, along with promises of good things to come.

This is not to say that Jesus avoids warnings of consequences and judgement. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26) includes four blessings and four woes of warning. And later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus will warn of judgement and destruction for those who refuse to apply what they learn, like those who build their houses on shifting sand (and for a whole chapter of warnings and woes, see Matthew 23).

But before Jesus commands, he blesses; before he demands, he encourages; and before he sets the standard high, Jesus welcomes everyone who has failed to meet every standard. For the rest of the sermon, whenever we feel overwhelmed by being told hard-to-hear things (like we are in danger of hell if we hate, or we are guilty of adultery if we lust, or we need to love even our enemies, or we won’t be forgiven if we don’t forgive, etc), we may need to return to this first Beatitude and recognize how poor in spirit we truly are and how great is God’s grace.

This Beatitude is the foundation of all that follows. In fact, in some sense, every other Beatitude may be a more specific illustration of what being “poor in spirit” means in this world. And the promise given is a present experience of the kingdom of the heavens. This first promise is specifically repeated in the final Beatitude (vv. 10-12), forming an inclusio.

The kingdom of heaven on earth is our inescapable theme for all the Beatitudes, and indeed the entire Sermon on the Mount.

CONSIDER (Observations about the passage):

Blessed. The Greek word here translated “blessed” (makarios) means something like fortunate or flourishing. It’s like our English word “lucky”, but without the randomness that luck suggests. We could translate it “God has made lucky those who” or “God’s favour is upon those who” or “Flourishing are those who”, but “Blessed” probably still works best. Let’s just remember that the word “blessed” here points to a Blesser behind the blessing. The word carries a connotation of communication, exhortation, declaration, and congratulation. That is, the translation might be more literally “Blessings upon…” or “God blesses”, the way we might say “Bless you” when someone sneezes, but with real power to make the wish a reality. The blessings come from somewhere and Someone. When God himself says "Bless you" a real blessing in all it's power goes out. Jesus is not just a wise sage observing and declaring cosmic principles (e.g., “As I look closely at the world, I see that poor in spirit people tend to have an advantage”). No, not everyone who mourns is comforted and not all merciful people receive mercy. These are not universal truths apart from God’s involvement. Jesus can say these things are true and these people are blessed because Jesus is now the one making this reality happen. Jesus is the king of the kingdom being offered as a blessing. In each case, the blessing is present now, even if there is still a future action hoped for (verses 4-9). The Beatitudes are not just promises of what will happen (e.g., those that mourn will be comforted, the meek will inherit the earth, and the merciful will receive mercy), but a declaration of present blessing right here and right now, even if that blessing will be completed in the future. So, we can say this either way: that our present blessing will be completed in the future, or that our future blessing has already begun in the present. Just like the kingdom of heaven itself – it has already begun even if its completion is still to come. The kingdom is already here and on its way. The fancy theological term for this reality is “inaugurated eschatology”: eschatology refers to future things, like heaven after we die, but this future experience has already been inaugurated or begun in our world here and now. Like the twilight time of the sun’s dawning, there is enough light now to see what’s coming, but there are still shadows on the ground. Jesus is describing what we already see in part, and what we will one day see more of more clearly (see 1 Corinthians 13:12).

Poor. Jesus begins his sermon on the mountain by addressing people who are in a valley – the spiritually inadequate. Luke’s version just says, “Blessed are the poor” and omits the “in spirit”. Economic poverty may have similarities to spiritual poverty, both having lost their sense of self-sufficiency. The word here translated “poor” (Gk, ptochoi) is the strongest word for poverty available to Matthew. It literally means to be bent over, crouching, or cowering, and was used to refer to beggars. These are not the working peasant class who have jobs but find it hard to pay the bills (there is a different Greek word for the working poor that is not used here). These are the live-on-the-streets-bent-over-beggar poor. (James uses the same word in James 2:1-5.) These poor, the beggarly poor, survive only on the kindness of others. The truly poor in spirit are no different. This beatitude is not a command to become poor in spirit, as though that was code for spiritual humility. Notice the difference: these people are not the humble but the humbled, those who have experienced catastrophe, lost it all, and are at the end of their rope. They are the oppressed, the depressed, and the downcast.

In spirit. The word for “spirit” (Greek, pneuma), also means wind or breath. We might say the poor in spirit have had the wind knocked out of them. Life has given them a gut punch and they are on their knees gasping for air. Jesus gives a promise that when we feel our own failure, when we are drained of spiritual self-sufficiency, then we are ready to see, embrace, and experience the kingdom of heaven here and now, most likely through the kindness of other citizens of heaven close to us. If this isn’t where you are right now, that’s okay. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount may help you get in touch with your spiritual bankruptcy and open you up to your need for God. And in the meantime, you can partner with other brothers and sisters to manifest the kingdom to people who are in this posture of a spiritual beggar.

Theirs is. Present tense. The poor in spirit are already surrounded by and welcomed into the kingdom of the heavens here and now. This is also true of the final Beatitude that declares the present tense of the kingdom of the heavens. Let this settle in: the kingdom of the heavens is happening right here and right now. Note that every other Beatitude promises a present blessing ("blessed are") based on a future promise (e.g., "for they will be"). But the kingdom bookmark Beatitudes are fully and only present tense. So let us open our eyes, look around, and lean in. Beatific (Beatitude-like) relationships with one another are a manifestation of the kingdom of God.

The kingdom. The Greek word for kingdom (Greek, basileia) simply means a nation or society ruled by a king – a monarchy. The character of the king determines the quality of the kingdom. A kingdom is a realm in which the king’s will and way holds sway. This kingdom’s borders are not geographical but relational, wrapping itself around all who follow Jesus as Lord.

Of. The word “of” can mean “originating from” or “that is”. For instance, when Jesus is called “Jesus OF Nazareth” the title means Jesus originating from Nazareth. It doesn’t mean Jesus who is Nazareth. That would be silly. But when we refer to the Kingdom OF Saudi Arabia, we mean the kingdom that is Saudi Arabia – one equals the other. When Jesus speaks about the Kingdom OF the Heavens, he is saying both things. This kingdom IS Heaven, as long as we realize it is the power and presence of heaven on earth. Even more, Jesus is referring to God’s Kingdom originating from heaven and bringing a different way of living into our lives here and now. When Jesus says to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), he isn’t saying his kingdom is far away somewhere, but that his kingdom does not originate from and is not energized by the systems of this world. The Kingdom of Heaven Jesus proclaims is the reality of heaven transforming earth with faith, hope, and love, one relationship at a time.

The Heavens. The biblical word for “heaven” or “the heavens” (Greek, ouranos) has multiple layered meaning. It can refer to a post-mortem paradise where God dwells, but it is also the standard word for space (the starry heavens), the sky where birds fly, and the air all around us. Our idea of a celestial sky palace where God sits on his throne, as well as our concept of space, sky, air, atmosphere – it’s all ouranos. In fact, what most English translations fail to capture is that whenever Jesus speaks of “the kingdom of heaven” the word ouranos is always in the plural – the kingdom of the heavens. So, whenever we hear Jesus speak of the kingdom of (the) heaven(s) we should think of the Kingdom of God all around us, originating from the realm of God but existing and expressing itself in, through, and to our lives. When God’s voice speaks “out of the heavens” in the Bible (e.g., Matthew 4:17; Acts 11:9), it is not a booming and distant voice shouting from beyond the clouds; it is an intimate and gentle voice, whispering from right beside us. This also explains why, when the apostle Paul wants to say he had a vision of post-mortem Paradise, he calls it “the third heaven” to be clear to his first-century audience (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). God is not watching us from a distance, but is very present with us, all around us. God is our spiritual atmosphere, as the apostle Paul affirms saying: “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We literally live in love. God is everywhere, and God’s kingdom manifests whenever we align our loyalty to him so his will and his way hold sway in our lives.

CONFESSION (Personal reflection):

I confess that for most of my life I have been spiritually rich, privileged, and secure, and during those years these Beatitudes seemed more like poetic niceties than real resonant and relevant truths. They were, in a word, boring. I always skipped ahead in the Sermon on the Mount to the more academically interesting and ethically challenging stuff starting around 5:17 and onward.

More recently, the Beatitudes have become a life-preserver for me. My circumstances have changed, and now I know that I need grace more than ever. I have surprised myself with my own sin, woken up to my own inadequacy, and I am reading the Bible differently. I think I am seeing what has been there all along, but now with less distraction and more raw clarity. And what do is see? Grace upon grace (John 1:16).

I feel like a spiritual toddler taking my first baby steps with Jesus. God, through these Beatitudes, is feeding me the grace I need in small bite-sized “open up, here comes the choo choo” style. Now when I read, and meditate, and sit with this text, I can be moved to tears or to laughter as fresh waves of God's goodness wash over me.

I resonate with the Sons of Korah (which sounds like the perfect name for a heavy metal band), who were descendents of a Jewish leader who rebelled without repentance during the time of Moses (Numbers 16). God redeemed rather than rejected the bloodline of Korah (the prophet Samuel, for instance, comes from this lineage) and, by the time of David, they had become worship leaders for Israel and were even used by God to write some of the most beautiful Psalms in the Bible. What a redemption story! Our past never needs to determine our future. The Sons of Korah were well aware of the sin in their history, which made them poor in spirit and grateful for grace.

I feel a close connection with every word of Psalm 42. At one point, in the context of thinking about God's unconditional, loyal love (hesed; see verse 8), they write:

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. ~ The Sons of Korah (Psalm 42:7)
"The Great Wave off Kanagawa" is a woodblock print by Japanese artist Hokusai, created in 1831

I get this. God's agape has been meeting me when I hang out in text of the Beatitudes like never before, washing over me and speaking to the deepest parts of my soul.

The circumstance of this Beatitude means more to me than ever: being poor in spirit. In Luke’s version, Jesus uses the second person pronoun, saying “Blessed are YOU who are poor, for YOURS is the kingdom of God.” Jesus is not just pronouncing general kingdom principles, but being deeply personal. When I read the Beatitudes now, I picture Jesus speaking slowly, gently, and making eye contact with individuals around him, people who don’t feel blessed by life, including me. And I feel hope.

Also, the promise of this Beatitude means more to me than ever: the kingdom of heaven on earth. My experience of the kingdom of the heavens right here and right now has been life-saving and life-giving. God is meeting me through fellow kingdom citizens surrounding me and giving me a taste of the eternal and abundant life through their unconditional agape love. Whether they are giving me rebuke, correction, or encouragement in my walk with Jesus, I feel it all as God's grace. It really feels like a foretaste of heaven. And I am so grateful.

Beyond the hope and gratitude I feel, my own experience of this Beatitude makes me want to share the Good News of Jesus with other hurting, poor in spirit people. I want to be a peacemaker who invites others into reconciled relationship with God and one another. But that's another Beatitude.

COMMENTARY (Thoughts about meaning and application):

The Beatitudes are the Overture to Jesus’ Sermon Symphony. I think they are the most significant words ever spoken; their simplicity is deceptive. There is gold under this ground. ~ Frederick Dale Bruner (The Christbook)

Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on. ~ Paul Simon

The God we learn about in Jesus' teaching is the same God of Exodus who hears the cries of his people and sees their misery (Exodus 2:23-25). The Father of Jesus knows the pain and the difficulty of his poor in spirit people (Exodus 2:23).

Jesus begins his teaching with pure grace. The Beatitudes are pure blessings. They are not requirements, commands, or demands; that is, they are not a spiritual “to do” or “how to” list. We should not read them as though they say: “If you do X, then you will be rewarded with Y.” There is no pressure to perform here. There are no imperatives, aside from the instruction to "rejoice and be glad" at the end of the final blessing. The Beatitudes describe the kind of people who are already blessed, in spite of or maybe because of their condition.

We can read the Beatitudes as God's invitation to participate with his Spirit's work in our lives. Like the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, the Beatitudes say "this is what God's Spirit wants to do in you" rather than "this is what you have to do if you want God's Spirit." Once we know the kind of work God is doing inside our hearts, we can recognize his nudges and work with, rather than against, his Spirit. This too is grace.

If you do a Bible word search, you will never find the word “grace” on the lips of Jesus, and yet, he teaches about it all the time. In parables like the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-27), the Generous Master (Matthew 20:1-16), and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), God wipes away debt, gives us more than we could earn, ignores offenses, and hosts a celebration when we come home, minus any finger-wagging I-told-you-so’s or hoop-jumping to-do lists.

To the challenge “Tell me you’re all about grace without telling me you’re all about grace”, Jesus gives us the Beatitudes.

This reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee was rich in spirit and the tax collector poor in spirit, and it was the tax collector who received God’s blessing.

Again to quote Frederick Dale Bruner, a contemporary Reformed biblical theologian:

Jesus sides with those who fail and who feel this failure. Thus the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount are full of grace. … It is those who feel their sin with hurt and penitence who are the really righteous, and it is those who are sure they are righteous and need no repentance who are the real sinners. ~ Frederick Dale Bruner (The Christbook, A Commentary on Matthew)

Like the first step of the AA Twelve Step program, we begin by admitting we are powerless. This admission opens us up to the second step: coming to believe that there is a Power outside ourselves who can restore us. The poor in spirit are ready to receive since we are done with any illusion of our own self-sufficiency.

In a very real sense, the poor in spirit are those who recognize what is true of all of us. Self-perception is what this Beatitude is all about. Like the lukewarm believers in Revelation 3, to whom Jesus says...

You say, “I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing.” But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. So take my advice and buy gold from me refined by fire so you can become rich! Buy from me white clothing so you can be clothed and your shameful nakedness will not be exposed, and buy eye salve to put on your eyes so you can see! ~ JESUS (Revelation 3:17-18)

Also think about Isaiah's reaction when he saw God's glory filling the Temple. He cried out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty" (Isaiah 6:5). God doesn't give Isaiah a pep talk and tell him to think better of himself. But neither does God join in the criticism. Instead, God does something about it - he cleanses Isaiah from all his sin and guilt. Isaiah is poor in spirit, and so he is blessed.

The same is true for Peter, who quickly confesses his sinfulness once he realizes who Jesus really is. For all of his blustery impulsivity, Peter is poor in spirit. And so he is blessed by Jesus with the mission of fishing for people (Luke 5:1-11).

So, maybe there is something we can do in partnership with this first Beatitude. We can open our eyes and admit what is already true – we are not spiritually self-sufficient. We don’t have to become poor in spirit because, if we have eyes to see it, we already are poor in spirit. We need God, we need Jesus, we need the kingdom.

Jesus makes the same point using a different analogy when he says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of the heavens” (Matthew 18:3). Children are not self-sufficient. Like the beggarly poor, children rely on the kindness of others to survive. So, some of us may need to convert, to change our thinking to become like little children. Others of us have already been made that way by life’s circumstances.

If we are having trouble acknowledging or embracing our own poverty of spirit, let's not fret. As we keep reading through the Sermon on the Mount, God can use it to help us convert and become like a little child, devoid of any religious or moral self-sufficiency. Reading on we will encounter our own guilt of murder (when we hate) and adultery (when we lust) and pride (when we pray or donate to be seen) and idolatry (when we hoard wealth) and lack of faith (when we worry) and judgementalism (when we ignore the splinter in our own eye) and self-condemning blindness (when we rely on our own spiritual power and performance to save us). Then, when our eyes are opened to our own poverty of spirit, we can remember that the kingdom of the heavens is being offered to us as a gift of grace.

[As an aside: Also notice how wide and inclusive God’s grace goes in the Beatitudes. Although Jesus is addressing his disciples, he doesn’t tell them these blessings are only for his disciples. With one exception – the final beatitude about persecution that Jesus directs toward his disciples – the people blessed here are not sub-categories of Christians but groups of humans. In other words, Jesus does not say “Blessed are the Christians who are poor in spirit”; no, he pronounces blessing on anyone who is poor in spirit or seeks righteousness or is meek or merciful. Jesus is talking about candidates for his kingdom. These are universal promises, and we cannot get in the way of God’s grace going where God wants. This wideness of God’s mercy fits together with Jesus’ teaching later in Matthew about the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46; also see John 5:28-29). In that story, Jesus describes a judgement day where he will reach beyond the community of Christians to people who either serve him or refuse to serve him by their actions without knowing it. The sheep and the goats are not subcategories of Christians (neither the sheep nor the goats have ever heard the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, for instance). And here in the Beatitudes we find the same truth revealed. God’s grace is huge and his kingdom is inclusive.]

So, are you wondering if you are poor in spirit enough? Don’t worry. You don’t have to manufacture it. The time may come when your circumstances change and you hit rock bottom or feel your strength fading away, and when that happens remember this Beatitude. Jesus will be waiting for you and you will be surrounded by his kingdom.

Have your identity markers been removed? Status, wealth, relationships, appearance, ability? Does it feel like a kind of death? Good. Let the old you die so the new you, a fully engaged citizen of Heaven on Earth, can emerge.

This Beatitude may explain why many people experience more of God during times of significant transition, crisis, or upheaval: when we transition from youth to adulthood, lose a job or loved one, when the hopes and dreams and identity markers we have clung to are fading.

Sometimes older people seem more tuned into the frequency of heaven as the things of earth grow strangely dim. From the outside, we may judge older people who become more faith-oriented as needing a religious crutch as they become more feeble in mind and body. But in reality, these older people are becoming increasingly poor in spirit. Their life-long identity markers are shifting. They may be losing some of the status, wealth, relationships, appearance, and ability that was the source of their esteem for much of their lives. Now they are more open to the kingdom that has always been theirs.

Friends, growing old is hard and we lose so much. Our careers end, wealth fades, loved ones may die, our appearance shifts, our health struggles, our abilities weaken, and our overall sense of status and esteem may diminish. And yet here is precisely where Jesus is eagerly awaiting to be with us in greater measure. In our weakness we become open to the strength of Jesus (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).

Some of us will experience this poverty of spirit long before growing old. Strength, status, or esteem are already diminished by some circumstance in our bodies or minds or relationships that make us and keep us poor in spirit. Jesus invites us to see this as our advantage and open our eyes to his presence. Ours is the kingdom of the heavens here and now.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me. ~ John Newton

CONTEMPLATE (Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic):

Psalm 42; Isaiah 42:1-4; 6:1-8; 61:1-3; 66:2; Matthew 9:12-13; 11:25-30; 12:7, 20; 18:1-5; 19:13-15; Luke 5:1-11; 6:20; 18:9-14; 1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10; James 1:19-20; 2:1-5; Revelation 3:14-22

CONVERSATION (Talk together, learn together, grow together):

  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this passage?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this passage?

  3. What identity-markers or sources of security in your life might distract you from or blind you to your own spiritual poverty?

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?

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I read this and feel the grace-filled welcome of Jesus, the gentle Lord who sees our need, our pain, our sin and calls us to His heart to be forgiven and loved. There is a challenge here to live out a deep understanding of that to which we are called but there is also the answer of deep peace embedded in the healing words. I am resting in this. Stress just melts away. Thanks Brux. What a gift!


Dave Fretz
Dave Fretz
Mar 27, 2023

So fantastic. This is so encouraging to me. 🙏🏻


My mind and heart are pondering the questions you have posed to me. I look forward to talking, learning and growing together.


Feb 08, 2023

This is the best explanation of "poor in spirit" that I have heard! Few Bible teachers "mine" it and certainly never entertain the thought that there are so many of us who are "poor in spirit" because of the "slings and arrows" of daily living! In spite of the blessing, I think many see it in an almost pejorative sense; that is, poor in spirit is somehow related to a LACKING of holiness (spirit=holiness). I am probably not very clear, but thank you, Boo! I see myself very much in this, and I am grateful for the encouragement it gives! You are truly a blessing to the poor in spirit!

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I have heard the Beatitudes all of my life, but have never before heard or read such a fantastic explanation! I never really understood what poor in spirit meant much less thought it applied to me in that way. I am so glad you are addressing the Beatitudes and I look forward to more of your posts.

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