Blessed are the poor in spirit

Society today is full of people who are downcast and lonely. General anxiety about surviving in a world full of spiraling costs, the threat of war and corrupt politicians makes it difficult for so many ordinary people to face the reality of daily life.  When we are so downcast and discouraged, is there anywhere we can turn to in order to feel valued again?  And do Christianity and the Bible have any wisdom and encouragement to offer?

Jesus talks to the downcast

The poor, the downhearted and the marginalised have been present in every society throughout human history.  They were there when Jesus walked in Galilee 2,000 years ago.  In fact Jesus directly addressed those who are “poor in spirit” and he called them “blessed”.  The words come in a very famous section at the start of what has been known as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:2-12

These verses are known as the Beatitudes – so called because they are a series of blessings, (that’s what beatitude means), towards people who have these different qualities or life circumstances.  Neither of these words are common today, not even “blessing”, so what Jesus is saying is sometimes obscure.  The basic meaning of the word “blessing” is that of being happy, but to have blessings pronounced on you is to say that you will be fulfilled and flourishing.  As New Testament scholar Craig Keener explains,  ““It will be well with” may convey the point better than “blessed” or “happy.” In this context Jesus’ beatitudes mean that it will ultimately be well with those who seek first God’s kingdom” [1].

So when Jesus pronounces that the “poor in spirit” are blessed, he means that they will thrive, prosper and have a positive outcome.  And this raises all sorts of questions!  How can Jesus say that people who are downcast, who mourn and who suffer ridicule and persecution are also those who will be fulfilled and who prosper?  What’s going on?

The “poor in spirit” in the days of Jesus

Before we can work out what this might mean for us today, we need to back up and think about the context in which Jesus was pronouncing these words.  The Jewish provinces of Galilee and Judea were under Roman occupation.  In fact the Jewish people had been under the rulership of foreign rulers for hundreds of years since the Babylonian army had destroyed Jerusalem in circa 587 BC.  The years of oppression had resulted in a society that was both poor financially and poor in spirit.  If any generation of people were downcast, this was it.  Particularly those on the edges of society.

In times of acute oppression from any kind of ruler or government, it’s commonplace to see seeds of discontent emerge and grow into revolutions.  It was no different in the days of Jesus.  Many had come claiming to be the saviour of Israel to lead an army to drive out the Roman invaders and restore the Kingdom to Israel[2].  It would “go well with” the revolutionaries, so they thought, “Blessed are the insurrectionists!”  Yet each violent resistance movement was quashed, until finally, in AD70, Jerusalem itself was again destroyed, crushing the latest and most virulent rebellion against the Roman occupation.

Preaching God’s kingdom to the poor in spirit

Jesus was different.  He was preaching the return of God’s kingdom, (see our podcast episode 24 “Discover Jesus in Matthew (4) The Kingdom of Heaven” for a discussion about this), but not through violent uprising.  In fact, he was teaching the very opposite when he pronounced a blessing on “the peacemakers”, (Matthew 5:9).  How is it that the oppressed and the mourners can be blessed when they are also peaceable and “meek” (Matthew 5:5)?

Well, this is how the rest of the sermon on the mount is structured.  After pronouncing the beatitudes, Jesus tells the collection of people who are poor in spirit, downcast, meek and persecuted that they are useful to the earth.  He uses two metaphors; salt and light.  These people are the salt of the earth and the light of the world and they must be useful.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 5:14-16

So there is something about the way these people act that will benefit the world.  That means they will bring light to the society around them, influencing them to respond favourably to God.  They will enact change in the world, a revolution of sorts, by the way they behave.

And what follows is a series of challenging issues of morality and ethics that Jesus teaches, which explains how this all works practically.  Jesus wanted his followers to be a light to the world by not retaliating or fighting back.  He wanted his followers to be a light to the world by helping their enemies – including the occupying Roman force – and being compassionate to all people.  He wants his followers to instigate and live out a revolution of behaviour.  Have a read of Matthew 5-7 some time and think carefully about how direct and challenging this guidance would have been to a first century Jew living under Roman dominion.

Blessings for the downcast today?

Now, this is all very well, but how does this help us today?  And if we follow the same principles that Jesus was teaching his followers hundreds of years ago, how will that relieve us from the stress and strain of life?  How is this a solution to loneliness?  How can this be a way to be “blessed”?  How can “it go well” with us by living meekly and humbly in a large and often cruel world?

First of all, it’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t anywhere promise that hardship and difficulty is removed.  But he does address this to some extent in Matthew 6.

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Matthew 6:31-34

Earlier in this chapter, Jesus has just counseled his followers to avoid devoting part of their lives and energy to wealth, whilst trying to also follow him.  That would be anxiety inducing!  The stress and strain of looking after your income and assets, attempting to grow them and wanting to gain better status or self-sufficiency – that’s all done away with if we realise that life is instead about being a good example to society and being a light to this world in the little day-to-day realities of life, (not to mention the prospect of a future when God’s “kingdom” is fully realised in the world – more on that below).

You see, with a shift in perspectives and priorities, there is a peace of mind that can help to alleviate anxiety.  When we’re concerned about the state of the world and the terrible things that happen, and feel helpless to do anything about it, we can spiral into despair.  But when we realise that little by little the practical things in our lives can be small beacons of light to the world, we gain a sense of peace that we’re a small but important part of the picture.

Blessed are the poor in spirit who find peace together

Being part of this community of people who are all trying to live as revolutionary lights is in itself a “blessing”.  Jesus elsewhere described those who listened to his teaching as his family, (Mark 3:34-35), and this is exactly what it became.  The churches that emerged from the movement of Jesus’ followers were close-knit communities of people from all backgrounds, races and social hierarchies, and who all helped and supported each other.  One of the most prominent preachers in the New Testament is the apostle Paul, who wrote about “the peace of God” that can “guard your hearts and your minds” (Philippians 4:6-7).  He went on to describe his own peace of mind.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:11-13

This is a man who was downcast, persecuted, troubled and poor in spirit on many occasion, (just read 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 if you want evidence of that), yet he can describe his mental state as being “content”.  It’s no coincidence that this comes directly within a paragraph about the joy of receiving support from the Christians in Philippi, an expression of the close-knit family community that had come to love and help him, (Philippians 4:14-18).

Blessings for today…and tomorrow

Finally, are the “blessings” only for the present? Is Jesus only interested in helping the downcast find peace of mind in their lives right now?

As you’ve probably already picked up, there is another layer to all of this. According to Jesus, the meek will “inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). His followers are to pray that God’s kingdom “comes” (Matthew 6:10) and there is an underlying assumption that God’s kingdom is something we are seeking (Matthew 6:33).  So, although it’s possible to take hold of the blessings in the here and now, by being a small beacon of light in society, there’s a final reckoning for the world in which all injustice and cruelty and evil is finally eradicated. The prospect of this gives a Christian even more reason to experience peace of mind, trusting and relying on God to bring this final expression of his kingdom to fruition in the world.

Jesus brings hope to the downcast

So, in a difficult world and a downcast society, can Christianity offer anything to help?  Does knowing Jesus help to bring some peace of mind?

By the grace of God, we think so.

Further resources

To find out more, we have many resources to help you understand the Bible more and to help you come to know Jesus.

  • We spoke to Professor Anna Whittaker, from Stirling University, about stress and anxiety and particularly how it relates to a Christian. She also discussed how Jesus would have experiences the same stresses and strains of life that we experience, which is an encouraging and humbling thing to think about. That was in episode 32: “Stress and Anxiety – Learning from Jesus”.
  • We’ve also covered the gospel of Matthew in more detail through a six part series. We touched on the sermon on the mount briefly, but if you’d like to put this article into a little more context, this is the series for you, starting with episode 16: “Discover Jesus in Matthew (1) First things first”.
  • Guest Jeremy Pearce led us through a series of practical reflections on how to get to know Jesus as a person and how that can help change us and develop us. That’s episode 37: “How can we know Jesus?”

Feel free to contact us and let us know if you’d like us to find local churches and communities near you who would be able to help you in your journey of faith.

[1] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI;  Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 165–166

[2] N.T. Wright and Michael Bird provide a summary of the revolutionary movements. They confirm that these “groups, no doubt with considerable social and organizational diversity, shared to some extent a background of socio-economic deprivation, and, most importantly, a common stock of theological symbols and ideas that drove them to armed rebellion.” (N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird, The New Testament in its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (London, U.K.: SPCK, 2019), 123)