“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) form the first part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). “Beatitude” is derived from the Latin “beatus” meaning “blessed.”
The word “blessed” (makarios) is defined to mean, “blessed, happy” (Thayer); “blessed, fortunate, happy usually in the sense of privileged recipient of divine favor” (BAG). Some suggest that there is a distinction to be made between “blessed” and “happy.” Franklin Camp remarks “while the blessed are happy, I do not believe that this is the Bible use of the word. The word means God-approved” (Editors Garland Elkins and Thomas Warren, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 88, Spiritual Sword Lectureship). Guy Woods says that the word “describes one who is in a state of blessing, sometimes declared to be a happy one. However, our English word ‘happy’ is an inadequate term to denote the state of blessedness which the original word describes. Blessedness is a condition resulting from a state of inner peace; whereas happiness (derived from hap, chance) is dependent on external circumstances” (Woods, A Commentary on the Epistle of James, p. 52). However, the word does seem at times to be referring to happiness (Acts 26:2; 1 Corinthians 7:40). I have no difficulty in using the word “happy” for “blessed,” as long as it is understood that such does not in this context depend upon external circumstances. One can “rejoice and be exceedingly glad” despite persecution (Matthew 5:10-12).
Blessed are the poor in spirit. The word “poor” (ptochos) was actually used of the poorest of the poor. Thayer says of the original word, “In classical Greek from Homer down, reduced to beggary, begging, mendicant, asking alms…. Poor, needy… lacking in anything” (p. 557). Thayer distinguishes between two Greek words for the poor saying, “the penes may be so poor that he earns his bread by daily labor; the ptochos that he only obtains his living by begging” (Thayer, p. 500). This word is used of Lazarus (translated “beggar,” Luke 16:20, 22). V.P. Black points out, “Poverty does not consist altogether in having few possessions. A man does not feel poor until he realizes his need, or even his desire for the things he cannot (does not, B.H.) have… The indian, who roamed the country in the long ago, had very little and yet he was not poor. He had all he wanted or needed” (Editors Garland Elkins and Thomas Warren, p. 17). It is not the physically or materially poor who are in view here (though, those physically or materially poor may be spiritually blessed cf. Luke 16:19-31; James 2:1-5; Revelation 2:8-9). It is the poor “in spirit,” who are in view. V.P. Black suggests “To be really poor in spirit is to be destitute of the things the spirit needs and to realize that need” (Editors Garland Elkins and Thomas Warren, p. 17).
Those who will be blessed not only need salvation, they realize that need. Some do not realize their true spiritual condition. Jesus said to some Pharisees, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say ‘we see.’ Therefore, your sin remains” (John 9:41). Jesus said of the church at Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’ – and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). Oliver Greene, commented, “The ‘poor in spirit’ speaks of those who discover their own utter poverty, spiritually speaking, and take their places as paupers before God. Then, when they receive the gift of God, they become rich!” (Greene, The Gospel According to Matthew, Vol. 1, p. 299). Roland Leavell commented “The poor in spirit are those who feel their abject poverty of spiritual resources, so that their utter dependence is upon God. The reign of the heavenly King begins in the heart when one acknowledges his own helplessness and his complete dependence is upon the power from above” (Leavell, Studies in Matthew: The King and The Kingdom, p. 37). The blessed depend upon God. They realize that without His mercy they are nothing.
The poor in Spirit are certainly not self-righteous. Jesus told this parable, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself… ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14). The tax collector is an example of the poor in spirit.
Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The phrase “kingdom of heaven” in context seems to refer to reward in heaven. Consider: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven… Rejoice and be exceedingly glad for great is your reward in heaven…” (Matthew 5:10, 12). It has been said that the only ones who will get to heaven are those who realize that they do not deserve it.
Consider the words of the following song: “Not the labor of my hands Can fulfill the law’s demands; Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears for ever flow, All for sin could not atone, Thou must save and Thou alone/ Nothing in my hand I bring: Simply to Thy cross I cling; Naked, come to Thee for dress; Helpless look to Thee for grace; Vile, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die” (Rock of Ages by A.M. Toplady).