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Our family recently visited the beautiful and imposing Field Museum in Chicago. Its neoclassical edifice dominates the landscape. You can approach it from many different angles, but there is only one entrance. You might feel near to it, yet, depending on where you are in relation to the entrance, there is a good chance you are quite far from entering and seeing the treasures within.
The Beatitudes present the beautiful structure of the character of Christ. There is no entry into knowing and appropriating His riches without first passing through His blessing of those who are poor in spirit. If the fourth beatitude—“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied”—is the center of the building, this beatitude is the entrance. We must enter empty so that we can be filled.
Spiritually empty is what it means to be “poor in spirit.” We often get tripped up on the word “poor” because we so quickly associate it with material lack. But in Scripture, including in the Old Testament, poor does not necessarily mean physical poverty. It is often a technical term for those who realize that, at bottom, they need God for everything physical and spiritual. This is what Isaiah meant when he proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Isa. 61:1).
This background makes clear that it is the Messiah who will supply the needs of the “poor.” Simeon said of Jesus Christ in Luke 2:34, “This child is set for the fall and rising again of many.” What comes before rising again? A fall—death. What did Jesus say? “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Because of our natural spiritual poverty, there must be a death of self if we are ever going to be filled with Christ.
This beatitude is not promoting a false humility, the insincere humility of Dickens’ Uriah Heep, who frequently said how “’umble” a person he was. That is a humility that draws attention to itself and so is not humility at all. Nor does this beatitude require a suppression of our personalities. We do not have to go out of this world or change our names to become “poor in spirit.”
Being poor in spirit is about God giving us a proper attitude toward ourselves and toward Him. We need to see ourselves as carrying a debt of sin and, consequently, as bankrupt before God. Knowing this about ourselves, we cry for mercy to the only One who can wipe out our debt and be our supply in our bankruptcy—we cry out to God.
This stands in contrast to so much of what we see. The spirit of our age tells us to “express” ourselves and “believe” in ourselves. We are about self-reliance, self-sufficiency, self-confidence, and so on. The countercultural truths of the Beatitudes say, “Empty self so that God can come in.” When we are full of self, we miss the blessing of God’s presence. If we are always full of self, we are not even Christian.
We never outgrow this first beatitude. It is the basis upon which we ascend to the others. If we outgrow it, we outgrow our Christianity. Jesus told the people of the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:17–18 that they say they are rich, have prospered, and need nothing. He tells them they are “poor” and, therefore, they should buy from Him gold refined by fire so that they might be rich, that is, rich in Him.
The fundamental posture of this beatitude is found in the tax collector in Luke 18:9–14. The Pharisee in this parable trusted in himself and his works before God. In contrast, the tax collector said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The promise follows: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” If we are going to enter the kingdom of heaven and be satisfied there in Christ, we must first be “poor in spirit.”