SOTM: Matthew 5:1-4 (Poor in spirit; Those who mourn)

The SOTM begins with the Beatitudes. Contrary to much teaching, the word is from the Latin for “blessed,” not a contraction of “be attitude.”

And the Beatitudes are not commands. This is not a list of rules to live by. Rather, exactly as it appears at first reading, it’s a listing of people who should consider themselves blessed by God at the coming of the Kingdom.

The Kingdom is about to arrive! If you are poor in spirit, celebrate, because the Kingdom will bring you blessings!

Part of the confusion comes from the word translated “blessed” — makarios. Gingrich’s Greek lexicon defines it as “privileged recipient of divine favor.”

[Makarios] is used in pagan Greek literature to describe the state of happiness and well-being such as the gods enjoy. In the NT it is given a strong spiritual content, as revealed in the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:3–11) and elsewhere (Lk. 1:45; Jn. 20:29; Acts 20:35; Jas. 1:12). The word seems also to contain a congratulatory element, as a note in Weymouth’s New Testament suggests: ‘People who are blessed may outwardly be much to be pitied, but from the higher and therefore truer standpoint they are to be envied, congratulated, and imitated.’

D. R. W. Wood and I. Howard Marshall, New Bible Dictionary, 1996.

In other words, Jesus is not announcing present happiness but a blessed life once the Kingdom has arrived in its fullness at the end of time — a blessing that, like the blessed state of the Greek gods, cannot be taken away by mankind. This promise cannot be touched by the Romans, Herod, tax collectors, or even thieves.

The Kingdom long promised is not only arriving, but it’s defining a new class of winners and losers. And the winners are the very people that society considers its losers.

McKnight suggests that the Beatitudes may be divided into three groups of three.

Thus, three on the humility of the poor (“poor in spirit,” “mourn,” “meek”), three on those who pursue justice (“hunger and thirst . . . ,” “merciful,” “pure in heart”), and three on those who create peace (“peacemakers,” “persecuted . . . ,” “insult you . . .”). Thus, the three central moral themes of the Beatitudes are humility (of the poor), justice, and peace.

Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 37-38.

(Mat 5:3-5 ESV) 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

The three promises: the kingdom of heaven, comfort, inheriting the earth, take us from the kingdom that is now dawning to the realization of the kingdom in full. The poor in spirit are promised the kingdom — not just the church but the blessings that come with being among the saved and within the new covenant community.

Why not just say “heaven” or “the afterlife with Jesus”? Well, because the kingdom is also about being included in the many prophetic promises given regarding the kingdom. In fact, we’d see church very differently if we’d read the prophets more and realized that all these promises speak to the church.

This is how Isaiah describes the kingdom, which we call “the church” —

(Isa 61:1-11 ESV) The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion — to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.

It’s easy to see  “poor in spirit” and “those who mourn” in this passage. Plainly, Jesus is claiming this prophecy to be coming true.

We usually end our reading at v. 3 — just enough to say that prophecy is fulfilled. But we ignore what the prophecy promises for the poor in spirit and mourning —

4 They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. 5 Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks; foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers; 6 but you shall be called the priests of the LORD; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God; you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their glory you shall boast. 7 Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy.

Much of this sounds very earthly and unspiritual. But to the poor living at the time of Isaiah, this is a description of heaven. Obviously, we have to read this as highly figurative. Nonetheless, we see some elements of what provides “everlasting joy” (v. 7): “you shall be called the priests of the LORD; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God.” What greater blessing could there be than to serve God as a priest or minister?

8 For I the LORD love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring the LORD has blessed.

God also promises justice and protection against thieves. He promises a new “everlasting covenant.” And that the blessedness of his people will be obvious to those who don’t know God.

10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.

The result of God’s blessings will be praise for God among all the nations. God will bless the poor and the mourning in such an obvious way that the world will recognize the hand of God in their joy.

Does this sound like the church? Well, some of it does.

Now suppose that the church conducted itself as the church in Jerusalem did as described at the end of Acts 2. Would this describe the church?

Something is missing.

“Poor in spirit”

Both McKnight and Harris define “poor in spirit” as the anawim (or anayim).

In the Hebrew tradition, “the meek” (‘anawim) are virtually synonymous with “the oppressed”; the term is generally descriptive of a social condition (lack of power) rather than a virtue. In Greco-Roman literature, however, “meekness” is comparable to humility and is often listed as a virtue of slaves and others who do not try to rise above their station. Most references to “the meek” in the Hebrew Bible should be understood in the former sense. In Isa. 11:4, the meek are equated with “the poor,” and in 29:19 they are equated with “the neediest people” of the earth. Thus, the promise in Ps. 37:11 that “the meek shall inherit the earth” should be read as a reversal of social conditions, rather than as a reward for an appealing attitude. When God’s will is done, the meek (i.e., the oppressed of the earth) will get what they had coming to them all along (an inheritance, not a reward); they will receive their share of the promised land, of which they had been unjustly deprived.

Mark Allan Powell, Ed., The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated), 2011.

I well recall a meeting I participated in between the elders of my church and our African-American members. We  had a frank discussion about what it was like to be a minority member of a congregation, the subtle hints of continued racism, the failure of the whites to be sensitive to their differing circumstances and points of view. Some of these Christians were in poverty. Some were better off. All were poor in spirit. They all knew what it means to be poor and continued to have a passion for those in need. And they’d all suffered discrimination and oppression.  And yet they were among the most spiritually mature, gracious, and generous of any of the groups we met with. Why? Because those who know physical poverty and oppression know the importance of clinging to spiritual blessings. Rather than being embittered by the challenges of a difficult life, they’d allowed God to shape their hearts, knowing that far greater blessing await those who can see beyond the horizons of this world.

Blessed are the poor in the spirit. Blessed are those that mourn.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to SOTM: Matthew 5:1-4 (Poor in spirit; Those who mourn)

  1. laymond says:

    Isaiah has done more to help me understand Jesus than all the modern day teachers combined.
    And Jesus has taught me to believe in Isaiah.

  2. R.J. says:

    The Anawim did not contrast the rich per say. But proud, self-sufficient people who trusted in their own wealth and power rather then God.

  3. Dwight says:

    I think the whole of the beatitudes needs to be taken in the context of who Jesus is talking to….lower Jews…oppressed by Rome and oppressed by the Jewish leaders. Jesus wasn’t telling them tht they needed to be these characteristics, but that those that had those characteristics would receive blessings. Jesus was offering hope to the down trodden. In this and at other points Jesus points out that the less you have the more you appreciate those that give you something worthwhile. They understood need.And value. And Jesus associated with them and traveled in thier circles. He knew thier needs. They knew Him as a giver and a servant who offered help.

  4. Mark says:

    Laymond, I agree with you. A complete study of Isaiah would reveal a lot about Jesus and that would be a good thing.

  5. Stubbs says:

    With the goal to be more like Jesus, the parallel with Moses and the blessing, these passages come to mind:
    Being like Jesus: Philippians 2: 1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
    Moses parallel: Numbers 12:3 Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.
    The blessing: James 4:10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
    I think in addition to the oppressed Jesus is speaking to all of us with himself as the perfect example of meekness and humility and the blessing of being lifted up.
    Reminds me of the hymn “None of Self and All of Thee”.
    Thanks Jay for this series and for the blessing of the scriptures speaking to us.

  6. Monty says:

    “Jesus was offering hope to the down trodden”……………And the good news is preached to the poor.

  7. Dwight says:

    Yes, Jesus had a grass root ministry going on. He helped the helpless. The Jewish leaders thought they were at the top of the heap and didn’t need help, so His message went to those who did. In reality all needed Christ even though only one group would generally recieve it and accept it because they percieved its value and Christ compassion and wiilingness towards them.

  8. R.J. says:

    “Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks; foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers; 6 but you shall be called the priests of the LORD; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God; you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their glory you shall boast. 7 Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy”.

    If this is speaking of the redeemed in the new heavens and the new Earth after the unrighteous perish, then who are the Nations in this prophesy? In other words, who are They? Could there be more people that inherit eternal life(by faith) then we previously thought?

  9. Dwight says:

    Isaiah 61. Isaiah appears to be prophesying about the taking of Israel into captivity and/or the release of Israel as well and then possibly the revealing of Jesus in vs.11. The problem with Isaiah is placement, without the scriptures themselves giving placement. Sometimes they in the NT referred back to the prophecies in Isaiah, but without this it is hard to tell where much of the prophecy falls, but speculations can be made and speculations can be wrong.

    Through what we know in the NT by Jesus who said, “I am the way the truth and the life, no man come to the father but through me.” to indicate that Jesus is the way, but this verse is also non-specific in who would go the way, so it must be those who follow Jesus, despite nationalitic ties. “The Jews first and then the Gentiles”, which covered all possible people who could gain Christ. If there are more people than all people, then I don’t know who this would be.

  10. Jay Guin says:

    RJ asked,

    who are the Nations in this prophesy?

    Consider —

    (Rev 22:1-2 ESV) Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

    taken from

    (Eze 47:12 ESV) 12 And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”

    And it helps to start reading at Eze 47:1 as he paints a picture of water flowing from Jerusalem to all the nations.

    I take it as a prophecy that the Gentiles enter the kingdom, and the kingdom serves to heal the nations — with “heal” referring to salvation (as in Isa 52-53).

    NT Wright, in Surprised by Hope, speculates as to who the “nations” would be after Jesus returns, but we aren’t given much to go on. I see nothing of universalism here. Rather, part of what the Second Coming accomplishes is a destruction of territorial boundaries and the unification of the nations — those who survive the fire that purges the unredeemed. Then the entire world becomes Eden with God walking among his people — all healed and united by the waters flowing from the throne of God.

  11. Jay Guin says:

    All,

    Thanks for your insightful comments. Some have been quite profound — and nothing thrills me more than the readers finding points to make that I missed.

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