“Blessed are the poor in spirit, because the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” The verse is idiomatic, and the meaning is, “Blessed are those who are humble, for the future Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”
“Blessed.” This verse is the first of what is called “The Beatitudes.” The word “beatitudes” means “supreme blessedness or happiness, perfect bliss,” so theologians named the first nine verses in the Sermon on the Mount, “The Beatitudes” because they each start with the phrase, “Blessed are.” The pattern Christ used of putting the word “blessed” first for emphasis is the same pattern God used in Deuteronomy 28:3-6. Starting a sentence in the same way over and over is the figure of speech anaphora, and it is done for emphasis.a In Deuteronomy 28, God wanted Israel to know and clearly understand that if they would obey Him they would be blessed, and here in Matthew, Jesus Christ wanted people to know that if they were humble and obeyed God they would be blessed. Being humble and obedient to God is not just a good thing to do, people who make an effort to live godly lives will be abundantly blessed.
[See figure of speech “anaphora.”]
The Beatitudes primarily refer to the hope, the future Kingdom on earth, not this life. Although some aspects of them can sometimes apply to this life, the promises of Beatitudes will only be fully fulfilled in Christ’s Millennial Kingdom when he reigns as king over the earth.
Jesus knew the value of having a clear and living hope, as opposed to a hazy or even false hope, so he spent the opening part of his first major teaching recorded in the Word of God—the Sermon on the Mount—rebuilding the Hope for Israel. Most Christians do not know that everything Jesus said in the Beatitudes, which is the opening of the Sermon on the Mount, relates primarily to the future hope. Also, most Christians do not know that what he taught was not “new revelation.” It had already been stated in the Old Testament but had been almost forgotten by his time.
Sadly, most Christians today believe that the Beatitudes refer to this life. For example, under “Beatitudes” in the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, the following definition is provided:
Beatitudes. The term is used to designate the condition of individuals or groups who are faithful or righteous and who may therefore expect to enjoy the favor of God. Such blessings were expected to be realized in this life…”b
It is a distortion of the text to interpret the Beatitudes as referring to this life. Although there are certain aspects that do apply today, such as a pure-hearted person seeing God more clearly than someone with an impure heart, the primary emphasis of the Beatitudes is on the future. Students of the Bible must understand the difference between “interpretation” and “application.” “Interpretation” is what the verse is actually saying—what it means. “Application” is how a person can apply the verse or an insinuation from the verse in his own life. Some people may say that they are “blessed” by God because they are “poor in spirit” (i.e., humble) and refer to Matthew 5:3. However, that is not the primary meaning of the verse, even though a person may apply it to their life. A more accurate application (and interpretation) of his idea would come from his using 1 Peter 5:5.
How can “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” be accurately applied to this life when many people who mourn die without ever being comforted? Or, how can “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” be applied to this life? Many meek people never own land and most never “inherit” any land at all. These blessings relate to the future, and Christ was simply teaching what the prophets of long ago had taught. He was rebuilding the walls of doctrine that had been torn down by years of unbelief.
Some Christians try to apply the Beatitudes to this life by spiritualizing them, i.e., by making them something other than a strictly literal reading would say. For example, The NIBCNT expounds on the phrase “the meek shall inherit the earth” by saying that greedy, aggressive people are not able to enjoy what they have in this life, but the meek “have the capacity to enjoy in life all those things that provide genuine and lasting satisfaction.”c The first and most obvious problem with this interpretation is that it does not deal with what the verse actually says. There is a world of difference between “inheriting the earth” and “enjoying what one has.” It is safe to assume that if Christ had wanted to communicate to his audience that only meek people can enjoy what they have, he would have said just that.
A second problem with the idea that the verse refers to enjoying things now is that such an interpretation does not provide the comfort and hope that many people need. Many of those in Christ’s audience were poor, hungry, sick, had lost children or relatives to premature death, and were terribly oppressed by the Romans and even their fellow Jews who had rulership over them. They owned little and life was very difficult. Would it really have comforted them if what Christ said had meant, “Don’t worry, those greedy people cannot really enjoy all the wealth they have, but you can enjoy what you have”? It would not have comforted them any more than it would comfort people who are poor, sick, and oppressed today. But having hope that things in the future will be better than they are now can be very comforting and encouraging. Furthermore, experience teaches that hope in a wonderful future is more important to people who are having difficulties in life than to those who are having an easy life. William Shakespeare, a brilliant writer and keen observer of human life, wrote, “The miserable have no other medicine, but only hope,” and the Beatitudes provide a wonderful hope for the future.
When a person understands that the subject of the Beatitudes is primarily the future life and not this current life, the Beatitudes become easy to understand, profound in their meaning, and powerful in their impact. Christ, the master teacher, garnered truth from the Old Testament and taught it, and as long as the Beatitudes are taken literally and applied to his future Kingdom, what is taught is simple and clear. The Beatitudes are recorded in both Matthew and Luke. There are significant differences between the two Gospels, so both should be examined carefully. In Matthew, Jesus was teaching to a crowd (Matt. 5:1), some of whom were his disciples, but many were not. Not everyone in the crowd was a believer. Since he was teaching from a mountainside, the teaching is called, “The Sermon on the Mount.” In Luke, Christ was teaching on a plain (Luke 6:17) and although a crowd was listening, he spoke specifically to his disciples (Luke 6:20). Each of the Beatitudes should be studied in light of the Old Testament verses that teach the same basic truth.
“poor in spirit.” This is a Semitic idiom and is an idiomatic way of saying “humble in their attitude.” To fully understand the idiom, we must examine both “poor” and “spirit.” The Greek word “poor” is ptochos (#4434 πτωχός), and it means poor in wealth, but can refer to being “poor” in other ways. For example, the people Christ addresses in Revelation 3:17 are technically wealthy in material goods, yet Jesus says: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” In this verse, “poor” refers to being poor in godliness and in the treasure that will be bestowed at the Judgment. Similarly, the word “poor” can refer to being poor or humble in one’s attitude. This is reflected in Isaiah 66:2, which mentions the person to whom God will pay attention: “but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.” This verse mentions a “poor and contrite spirit” but many versions correctly understand that the word “poor” refers to “humble,” and translate it that way (ESV; HCSB; NASB, NIV, NRSV). Kenneth Bailey does a good job in showing from the Old Testament, the Qumran texts, and even early Christian sources, that “poor” was used idiomatically for “humble.”d
The word “spirit” is translated from the Greek word pneuma (#4151 πνεῦμα), which has many meanings. Furthermore, when pneuma is translated “spirit,” it can refer to many different things, including God (John 4:24); Jesus (2 Cor. 3:17); angels (Heb. 1:14); and demons (Matt. 10:1). It can also refer to “attitude,” which it does here. Other places it refers to attitude are Matthew 26:41 and Mark 14:38, when Peter and the other disciples were sleepy and Jesus told them, “The spirit [attitude] is willing, but the body is weak.” It is also “attitude” in Acts 18:25 when Apollos was called, “fervent in the spirit” (KJV), meaning that he had a fervent attitude, which is why the NRSV translates the phrase, “he spoke with burning enthusiasm.” Interestingly, English also uses “spirit” as “attitude.” For example, we speak of a person being “in good spirits,” or a school having good “school spirit.”
The “spirit” in Matthew 5:3 cannot refer to the gift of holy spirit, because before the day of Pentecost, holy spirit was only upon a select few people, not upon the crowds Jesus was speaking to. Also, before the Day of Pentecost God gave His holy spirit to whom He wanted and in the measure He wanted, so there was no way anyone could have been “poor” in holy spirit.
[For more about the uses of pneuma (spirit) see Appendix 6, “Usages of ‘Spirit’”, and also Graeser, Lynn, and Schoenheit, The Gift of Holy Spirit: The Power to be like Christ, Appendix B.]
It is important for us to understand that Jesus opened the Sermon on the Mount by teaching that those who were humble in their attitude were blessed. This was not a new teaching but was an important teaching in the Old Testament as well. Being humble is the door to God’s further blessings. 1 Peter 5:5 says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” When we are humble we hear the voice of God and obey it. When we are not humble we do not get the blessings God would have poured out to us. In the context of Matthew 5:5, which is the coming Kingdom of Heaven, those who are humble will obey God and thus receive everlasting life in the Kingdom, so they are blessed. References in the Old Testament that humble people would be blessed include Psalm 149:4; Isaiah 29:19; 66:2; and Zephaniah 3:12.
“the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” The Kingdom of heaven was still in the future, but Christ was saying that people who are “poor in spirit,” that is, humble in their attitude, were the kind of people who were going to be in the kingdom when it came (cp. Luke 17:20).
[For more on the future Kingdom of Christ on earth, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.”]