Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

44. The Beatitudes - The Poor in Spirit (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20, 24)*

The last word of the Book of the Old Covenant is the word “curse”. Jesus began his appeal to Israel with the command: “Repent!” He began the formal instruction of his disciples with: “Blessed” - but then proceeded to pronounce this blessedness upon a set of excellences which the world despises. There are eight of them, not because this exhausts the life of fine spiritual qualities which he esteems (for these are only samples of the kind of virtues which he desires more than sacrifice) but because eight is the beginning of a new seven, it is the number of the New Creation.

The first blessedness, and the key to all the others, is to be “poor in spirit”. This should not be taken to mean a craven gutlessness, but a true sense of proportion towards life’s problems and towards anything achieved through one’s own abilities or endeavours. It signifies not a complete lack of confidence in self but a complete lack of satisfaction with self. And with this must necessarily go an utter dependence on God, a positive even more difficult to achieve than the negative just enunciated. Laodicea, spiritually rich and increased in the goods of godliness and in need of nothing, thou knowest not that thou art wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked-because thou knowest not how to be poor in spirit. Then spend all your fine resources to buy of Me...!

“Poor and Needy”

The two facets of this virtue are set side by side in many a place in the Book of Psalms: “I am poor and needy: yet the Lord thinketh upon me: thou art my help and my deliverer; make no tarrying, O my God” (40:17 and 70:5). “But I am poor and sorrowful: let thy salvation, O God, set me up on high” (69:29). “Bow down thine ear, O Lord, hear me: for I am poor and needy” (86:1). “Do thou for me, O God the Lord, for thy name’s sake... for I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me” (109:21, 22).

Here is the first lesson one has to learn in the school of Christ-that all which a man has by inheritance or which he has acquired by his own effort is worth little or nothing before God. Birth into a particular nation or segment of society, colour of skin, inherited brains, sweetness of disposition, capacity for hard work, superior education or technical qualifications, social status, personal elegance or charm, nimble wit or brilliant memory, high sense of duty or exceptional patience of spirit-none of these, except in so far that they have been nurtured in a man by the grace of Christ, are of any consequence whatever. Anything whatever which allows of self-esteem is fit only for the Lord’s rag-bag.

But he who learns to be truly poor in spirit has the kingdom of heaven also, and he who has the kingdom has all the rest that Christ can offer.


Abraham, seeing no way through the impasse, leaned hard on God. “My son, God will provide himself a lamb”, he said, not knowing what he said-but he learned within the hour, and also had the promise, on oath of God, of a heavenly kingdom.

Moses showed to the destitute of spirit how to be poor in spirit when he cried: “Stand still, and see the glory of God.”

Joshua, made leader of the most turbulent people in all the world, and quaking in his sandals at the responsibilities laid upon him, was bidden a dozen times over: “Fear not, be strong and of a good courage.” He had to learn the lesson for himself and teach it to the people also.

Barak, honest humble fellow, confessed his lack of bravery to a woman: “If thou wilt go with me, then I will go. But if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go.” Only the providence of God could bring success in the risky project he was putting his hand to.

Gideon desperately craved the deliverance of his people, but there was no preening of himself because the angel of the Lord came to him of all people: “Oh my lord, wherewith shall / save Israel? Behold, my family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” and this poor spirit wrought an epoch-making “day of Midian” foreshadowing Messiah’s greater victory.

“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief”, was the piteous cry of a man out of whom bitter afflication and sorely-taxed emotions had wrung the last dregs of self-reliance.

“Sir, come down ere my child die”, was the pathetic imperative of a man of worldly consequence, now ground small by the mills of God’s gracious tribulation.

“Poor and of a contrite spirit, and that trembleth at My word”-this was what God asked for through His prophet (Is. 66:2). Here in a phrase is all that Scripture has to say on this blessedness to which no man aspires with his whole soul.


With these examples contrast Jacob before he became Israel. He was a better man than any of his adversaries. He had more godliness than Esau, more cleverness than Laban, greater strength of character than Isaac, more cunning than Rebekah, better judgement of affairs than his sons-all these qualities, and more, were his. And he knew it, and through many years gloried in it. But then he came to Jabbok, and all this tough self-dependence, which the world prizes highly as one of the finest of fine virtues, drained out of him, and for the rest of his life he limped ungainly on, leaning thankfully on the angel of the Lord who redeemed him from all evil, and most of all from the evil in himself. It was this-and not that-which gave him title to the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus poor in spirit

Where in Jesus is this high Christian virtue? With him it was normal to speak with authority, and to face all situations in tranquil confidence, but it was not confidence in himself. “I can of mine own self do nothing.” And how he underlined this truth when on his knees in Gethsemane! Poor in spirit-utterly outpoured!

He is King of the kingdom of heaven.

The Blessing of Poverty

In Luke there is no qualifying phrase. “Blessed are the poor.” Thus in its first declaration this “Manifesto of the King” turns the world’s assessment of real good upside down. For men esteem wealth as one of the highest blessings of life. Not so, says Jesus. He does not curse the well-off, but he pities them: “Woe unto you that are rich”. You poor people, what a load of temptation you carry through life!

But you who are financially poor are really best off. Not that all poor people are necessarily blessed by being chronically hard-up-for the simple reason that nearly all who suffer poverty covet money instead of contentment. But if Jesus is to be believed (and in this respect practically everybody thinks that he didn’t know what he was talking about!), being poor means opportunities for faith and dependence on God such as the rich have to find in other ways.

In moments of real honesty even the prosperous man will acknowledge the truth of this. But there is comfort in his next thought that after all he isn’t really rich. A man has to have twice as much as he now has before he considers himself in that category. Thus, always, human nature holds at arm’s length the challenge of Christ: “The Lord is talking to the other man, not tome”.

The Reward

It is specially noteworthy that this first beatitude and also the last are unlike the rest in expressing an identical reward (if that is what it is) in the present tense: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” All the rest say “shall”.

At different times there has been a good deal of fuss amongst believers about what has been called “belief in present possession of eternal life” -- an unnecessary concern generated largely by an unwillingness to let the Bible interpret itself.

Here, palpably, “theirs is the kingdom” is almost meaningless as long as “kingdom” is restricted to the Messianic Age. Nor will it do to cope with the difficulty which that present tense offers by a glib out-of-context quoting of “calling those things which be not as though they were”, for there is then the immediate question: Why should that principle come in here and not in “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”?

It is simpler to recognize that there is a sense in which the kingdom can be seen as not wholly future. Ancient Israel was already “a kingdom of priests and an holy nation” when the covenant was made at Sinai, even though the Promised Land was not yet theirs. So a similar use of language is surely not inappropriate regarding the New Israel. Not a few of the parables use similar phrasing (e.g.

13:24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47; 20:1; 22:2; 25:1). Serious error comes in, of course, when men blithely assert that the Kingdom is here and now, and not in the future.

Notes: Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20, 24

  1. Eight the number of the New Creation. The day of the Lord’s resurrection, and of his appearing to his disciples (Jn. 20:26). Eight persons in the ark. Eight gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:28). Zacharias belonged to the eighth order of priests. The number of the Lamb is 888. But why Rev. 21:8?
  2. Jacob is not the only man who learned the hard way. Abraham dissembling in Egypt (Gen. 12:13), David brilliantly playing the lunatic to save his own skin (1 Sam. 21:13; Ps. 34:6), Hezekiah preening himself on a fine political alliance and then with stark sense suddenly circling back into spiritual sanity (ls. 39)-all of these were God’s great men. There is much comfort in such examples.
  3. “The kingdom of heaven” in Mt. 8:11; 11:11; 13:11 is “the kingdom of God” in gospel parallels,
  4. Luke’s four Blessings and four woes (not curses!) have their counterpart in Dt. 28:3-6, 16-19 on a different level. But the word “woe” means woe.
  5. “Ye have received” (Lk. 6:24). As in Mt. 6:2, 5, 16, Lk. 16:25 the past tense is very emphatic. Most of Ps.49 is on this sorry theme.
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