Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 5:3 ESV]
We are not just physical beings. We are also spiritual beings. God is spiritual and we were created by Him, in His image, for relationship. “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” [Genesis 1:26 ESV] Both words, “image” and “likeness“, mean resemblance though the former suggests the outline while the latter refers to quality. God does not need Man for companionship. He wants Man for relationship. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” [Genesis 1:27]
He did not create Man to live for only a short period and then cease to exist. In the middle of the Garden of Eden He placed the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil [see Genesis 2:29, 16-17, 3:22]. All of the trees He created were beautiful and good for food [See genesis 2:9]. Though He forbade the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil then separated Man from the Garden so they would not eat from the Tree of Life after they rebelled the fact He placed the trees in the Garden suggests He wanted man to eat from both at some time. His time not their time.
Though we have a beginning of life we will continue to exist for eternity. However, because of the rebellion and the corruption of sin we are faced with a dilemma. Do we exist in His presence or outside of His presence? Christ’s sacrifice extends to us the grace to exist in His presence. Those who do not receive His grace are separated from Him. It is this first “beatitude” which builds on the foundation of Christ’s sacrifice and gives the direction of our eternal existence.
Even though we do not see the spiritual world, or realm, it is just as real as the physical world about us. It is the eternal environment of God and other spiritual beings, all created by God. Heaven is not a safe place for those corrupted by sin. Because God is sinless and demands sinless perfection He expels those corrupted by sin from His presence. Paul calls those who inhabit the spiritual realm “angels” and “rulers” and “powers.” “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 ESV] Many of these spiritual beings have rebelled against God, actively seeking to undermine His authority. Many more have not rebelled against Him, actively supporting His purposes. Theologically, none of these beings were created in the image of God. Just because a being is spiritual does not mean it shares the image of God. They may have many of the characteristics of the image of God because He created them, stamping them with His eternal signature. They do not have the ability for intimacy with God given Man because of how we were created.
Yet, Man was created in the image of God. Part of this image, not shared with the rest of physical creation, is likeness of spirit. Man, everyone who has ever lived, has a spirit which reflects God’s, with which we were originally intended to have a complete, intimate relationship with our Creator. This was the original intention. Any relationship we could have had with God was severed and the image of God in us was corrupted but not dissolved with the introduction of sin. Sin began in the spiritual realm and reached out corrupting all it touched in the physical. Adam, in his will, another element of the image of God in man, could have fought against the temptation to sin, but did not.
Read the first three chapters of Genesis and you will see God giving His ultimate creation the tools needed to have an intimate relationship with the eternal, spiritual God. You will also see Adam listening to a talking snake. Perhaps other animals spoke, also. It is not that a snake spoke but the words uttered which should have alerted Adam to the evil he faced.
What, then, does it mean to be “poor in spirit?” “Spirit” may have many different meanings including the rational self and the ability to think, feel and decide (all elements of the image of God). “Spirit” may also mean that which eternally lives or dies, beings who inhabit the spiritual realm whether good or evil, or the essence of man when separated from the physical. Some equate the soul with the spirit of man. Others will say the “spirit” referred to speaks only to the motivation or intent of the person and has nothing to do with the continuing existence of the person after physical death. Jesus uses the word “spirit” to define the person in their entirety, past, present and future, rational, emotional, willful, physical and eternal.
Where I work I am surrounded by physically, mentally, emotionally and financially poor people. They are the financially unfortunate, the lazy and the mentally unstable. Many live on the street, curled around cement pillars, huddled into doorways and camped along the river. Others find temporary respite in overflowing homeless shelters. Some want to live on the street deluded into thinking and feeling comfortable in low existence, while others are completely unaware, lost in their delusions. By the end of the month many have sold or used up their medications, making them dangerous to themselves and all around. These people beg for hand-outs while receiving government hand-outs, existing without producing. They are the poor of the poor. Not everyone I encounter fits this description. Many do.
When Jesus says “poor in Spirit” what does he mean by “poor?” He uses a word which means utterly “helpless”, completely “destitute” of everything even remotely acknowledged as valuable, unable or “powerless to accomplish” anything. Someone who is “poor” in this sense is someone completely dependent upon another for anything and everything necessary to sustain life. Everything. Food and cloths, shelter and bedding, medicines. They have nothing they can call their own. They have no purpose, no direction, no responsibility. They simply exist. In effect, they are a burden upon society.
Being poor is not a sin. Most of the people in the world are poor. They do not have the same level of wealth as found in the “Western” world. Nor does the attitude toward wealth define poverty of spirit, though attitude and associated actions will show evidence of the thinking of the heart. Most of the world’s population live, and for all history, have lived surviving hand to mouth. In this country few starve to death, though many go hungry. Most of the transients I see are well-fed. They have everything they need and are content in their condition. I have more than I need and am not content. They don’t know how poor they are while I don’t know how rich I am. I use the word “know” as an activity of the mind. Discontentment with physical wealth is distracting, producing a desire to have more and control what one has. Contentment in poverty is debilitating, robbing the individual of the desire to move forward and not stagnate. Both attitudes evidence the depths of sin. Being poor, or rich, or comfortable, is not sinful. Forgetting God, whether through contentment with the status quo or discontentment with the level of wealth, is sin. Both wealth and poverty are an excuse to hide from the truth of sin.
When Jesus was anointed by a sinful woman His disciples complained of the waste. She saw herself as poor and willingly wasted her riches on Him. Her immediate contentment was not in losing wealth, not in providing for the poor but in worshipping God.
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.”
But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” [Matthew 26:6-13 ESV]
We are commanded by Jesus to never forget this woman’s act of worship.
There is a difference between physical poverty and spiritual poverty. Yet, we cannot understand spiritual poverty without comprehending physical poverty. God uses the physical world as an image or reflection of a spiritual reality. For instance, physical marriage between a husband and wife reflects the spiritual reality of marriage between Christ and his Church. This is an intellectual pursuit, using part of the image of God in man, the intellect, to understand or grasp the incomprehensible of the spiritual. So, physical poverty is a type of spiritual poverty. Many think since they have adequate wealth and goods they need not contemplate their spiritual condition. Physical poverty has nothing to do with spiritual poverty.
Someone who is “poor in spirit” recognizes the image of God they possess is corrupted, while God is not, and they are completely sinful, while God is not. They may have a realization of the consequences of sin but it is the truth of sin which convinces them of their spiritual poverty. It is the reality of sin, especially with regard to self, emanating outward to those around and finally to the world in which they live which convicts them. This recognition includes Gods perfect, justified hatred for sin yet eternal love for those who sin.