Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). In these words, the very first of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Son of God makes an impossible promise: if you acknowledge that you have nothing, you will gain everything.
To be poor goes against the grain of the human heart. We do not naturally want to show our poverty. If at all possible, we dress ourselves up, even if only for a time. The cost of others’ seeing our distress is too great for almost any of us to bear. The pride and self-preserving instinct of the human heart strives at all costs to avoid looking weak and penniless.
How remarkable, then, that the nature of Christian faith is admitting weakness. The God who calls us to repentance calls us simultaneously to lowliness. We have learned to preserve and present ourselves, but the compassionate Christ looks weary sinners in the face and leads us to drop the charade. All inflated reputations crumble before God; all burnished brands blow away with the wind. When we come face-to-face with the living God, we recognize that we are poor, and that we have a tremendous need that we cannot satiate.
But the bad news stops here. When the Lord brings us low, He also lifts us up. We gain the “kingdom of heaven,” a phrase so grand that it sounds preposterous. Many of us have trouble receiving a sweater without some misgiving; how on earth can we be expected to possess the heavenly kingdom? We naturally fight against the truth of how bad we are, on the one end, and how good God is, on the other. In these few words, Jesus frames both realities, putting the accent on the gift of heaven.
The key to understanding this exalted promise is in the person who makes it. Long before He spells out what His cruciform death will mean for sinners, Jesus was teaching the doctrine of exchange. The sinner gives God only their sin; God gives the sinner all things in Christ. All the privileges and rights and delights of heavenly life are ours. Like a long-awaited heir, the sinner who trusts Christ inherits a kingdom.
Strange as it may be, our hearts will struggle to hold this holy water. We will forget it. We will disbelieve it. We will wander in our affections, seeking to build earthly kingdoms on our own terms. The way out of such sin and sorrow is precisely the way into heaven: it is to confess our poverty of spirit.
If we feel lowly as believers, we should not fight this sense. We are the people made glad by news of our weakness. We do not need to keep up appearances as our unsaved neighbors must. We have no delusions of grandeur. We can work profitably in the Lord’s vineyard, but even if our efforts are richly blessed, we build no new kingdom. We inherit one. There is nothing lacking in it. In the economy of God, all the repentant sinner gets is everything.