It is widely recognized that the teaching found in Matthew 5 is some of the earliest, recorded teaching offered by Jesus. We refer to this as the Sermon on the Mount, though it does not resemble a three-point sermon of the sort taught in Bible school. The opening portion (up to verse 12) has been labeled the Beatitudes, which is a label given to it based on a Latin word meaning “happiness.” This is a snapshot of the type of person God can bless. It is not about “happiness” as our contemporary Western minds would tend to define it.
Matthew 5:1-3 “When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'”
Jesus begins His teaching by emphasizing characteristics of an inner disposition one must have if God is to bless them. Previously we considered that His teaching was intended to speak to and further prepare the Jewish community (Mt.15:24). They had largely “strayed” from usefulness to God as part of a plan He had been unfolding. Consider the fact that they were an extension of the initial words spoken to Abram, “…I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Ge.12:2-3). As Jesus addressed the descendants of Abram, He spoke of what type of person God can bless.
He begins with the phrase, “Poor in spirit.” Jesus focuses on characteristics of the inner person because the Jews had developed a religious system that focused on external elements void of a proper internal foundation. Jesus is attempting to rebuild the foundation so God can bless them, and they can be a blessing instead of the barrier they had become. Though He states that God can bless those who are “poor in spirit,” He did not explain how one becomes such a person. It’s also interesting, as far as we can tell from the text we have, that Jesus did not take 30 minutes to expound upon each point in this teaching. A significant reason for this is that He is not teaching anything new and is speaking of things that they should have understood.
“For though the LORD is exalted, yet He regards the lowly, but the haughty He knows from afar” (Ps.138:6).
Understanding that Jesus is addressing a people who have become arrogant and largely insensitive on the spiritual level, to be “poor in spirit” is to have a deep realization (in the core of your being, not just an intellectual acknowledgement) of our insufficient spiritual state before the Holy One of Israel.
We see his effort to make this point in a different way with the following teaching.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk.18:10-14)
To be “poor in spirit” would be contrary to religious pride, a common characteristic of the Jewish people during the earthly ministry of Jesus. We, too, can get caught up in personal, congregational or denominational pride.
It is only the truly humble of whom it can be said, “theirs is the kingdom of God.”
The kingdom of God is the theme of much of the teaching of Jesus and must continue to be our focus if we are to avoid turning Christianity of the church into something God does not recognize, much the way the Jewish people did with things pertaining to their heritage and status.
“Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mk.1:14-15).
“The idea of the kingdom, therefore, occupied a primary place in His (Jesus) thoughts and plans, and may justly be regarded as the dominant note of His teaching.”
“…for Jesus the kingdom was a comprehensive idea. Its growth should be a great historic process, marked, however, by special epochs… The kingdom was both present and future. In its beginning it was really present; the ‘blade’ had appeared; but the development of the ‘ear’ and especially of ‘the full corn in the ear’ was yet future.
“…the idea that the kingdom is a gift, a supernatural boon to men, was the predominate (idea). But this does not exclude the element of human effort or achievement in the realization of the ends of the kingdom. God’s kingdom comes in and through the doing, by men, of the will of God on earth (Mt.6:10). Every gift of God imposes a task…” G. B. Stevens