Let's Study the Beatitudes! Part 2, The Poor

There’s a bright thread of connection between the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the way the sermon on the mount begins. The tree stood as a perpetual sign for Adam and Eve to rely upon and walk submitted under God’s word. God declared all that was good or not good and they, as His creatures and image bearers were to trust Him. Of course, that didn’t pan out and we’ve all, since Adam, placed more weight on our own perspectives and words than we have in God and His word. Utterly foolish. William Henley’s Invictus declares that we’ve become the “captain of our own fate”, when in reality we’ve become conquered (victa) by own fallen self-reliance. Utterly foolish because the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God and a true fear of God is essentially a radical reliance upon Him.

  Our world today, like Cain and Lamech before us, is intoxicated in self-reliance and self-sufficiency. We pronounce blessings upon the rich and able, the well-to-do and confident, for theirs is the power of influence and the world’s applause. But Jesus, picking up a rather well-defined Biblical theme, starts off his famous sermon with a still more ancient promise - “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). The idea of being poor, that is, materially destitute, is not a foreign concept. We understand poverty. And poor people are, more often than not, quite dependent upon others for any well-being. A beggar begs because he needs help from someone who has more than him. John Stott recognizes that within the Scriptures “gradually, because the needy had no refuge but God, poverty came to have spiritual overtones and to be identified with humble dependence on God.”[1]  Hence Psalm 34:5-6, “Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.”[2]

This poverty of spirit then stands opposite the foolishness of self-reliance precisely because it is an attitude which constantly looks to God. It is the wisdom of that excellent prayer found in Proverbs 30:8-9. “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” Being poor in spirit is being someone who knows that you have nothing, spiritually, to offer and therefore you stand completely dependent upon God – upon his grace, his mercy, his provision, and effort. Being poor in spirit is accepting that you are spiritually needy.[3]

To be sure, Christians are, by definition, poor in spirit. We are people who have come to Christ in complete reliance upon him because we have come to acknowledge our own spiritual neediness. This is why Jesus promises that the poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of heaven; there is salvation only in a needy and clingy reliance upon Jesus and Jesus alone. All self-sufficiency must be abandoned. But if I could apply this truth one step further: why do we then join churches (or attempt to lead churches) as if we weren’t still entirely dependent upon Jesus?

We all know that the plural form of the word Christian is a church. The church, the local church, is nothing more than the gathering together of poor-in-spirit people. So shouldn’t the church reflect such lowliness of spirit? What would that look like? I’ll give just two possible answers.

First, it would look like a church which values gathered prayer and prayer meetings more than flashy programs that attract the outside world. When Christians gather to do nothing but pray for an hour or more, that time spent is a congregational confession of utter dependence and neediness. They are asking and pleading, dare I say begging, for God to do what they know they can’t do themselves.

Second, it would like a church that hungers to hear from God more than from the world or even from a particular pastor. Utter dependency upon the word of God is supremely valued knowing that what God says is entirely enough to guide and nourish the church. Self-sufficiency (the currency of unbelief) is given up for the sufficiency of God’s word (the life-giving bread of true belief). The church confesses with the Psalmist, “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” (Psalm 119:25).

This is where we see a direct connection between that ancient Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and Jesus’s first point in his Mountain-side sermon. Adam and Eve were created to live utterly dependent upon God and his word, daily gathering together to listen to Him and to commune with him. They failed. They considered themselves over and above God and his word, tempted to have some degree of self-sufficiency, knowing good and evil themselves! But in Christ we are called to abandon all of that foolishness. James Montgomery Boice says it best when he writes that we must “look to God as you see Him reflected in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. There you will learn true humility, a true sense of need, and the result will be beneficial.”[4] And as the church does this more and more, looking to God in Christ, so too I pray we find an increasingly needy and humble church in world drunk on self-sufficiency.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, (Inter-Varsity Press, 1978), 38.

[2] See also Isaiah 57:15 and 66:2 (cf. D.A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World (Baker Books, 1987), 17-18.

[3] R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom (Crossway Books, 2001), 19.

[4] James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5-7 (Baker Books, 1972), 24.


Stephen Unthank