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.