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The Beatitudes: The Beggarly In Spirit

The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) contains the highest ideals of God. Its ethical stances are uncompromising and stringent. The underlying premise of his sermon is this:


“Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt. 5.48).


Sometimes the word “perfect” means mature. However, in this case, the “heavenly father” is not merely mature (while still flawed). Rather, he is perfect in maturity. In other words, the sermon is a call to be like God.


Of course, man can never perfectly adhere to these ideals (Rm. 3.23; Jm. 3.2). To think God will only accept us if we sinlessly master every precept is misguided. Jesus never says that.


But it is equally wrong-headed to water down the Lord’s instructions. Consider a few examples of this:


(1) Some suggest Jesus did not mean for the sermon to be construed literally. While figures of speech are indeed sprinkled throughout the sermon — for example, the metaphor of Christians as “salt” and “light” (Mt. 5.13-14) — the sermon is not spoken in poetic form, which employs figurative language as a matter of course. On the contrary, the sermon is conveyed in legal-historical prose. It is matter-of-fact. To dismiss its literal language is to bury your head in the sand.


(2) Others believe Jesus only intended the sermon to serve as a good model to be applied when convenient or agreeable (per situation ethics), but not as precepts to be followed as a permanent way of life.

(3) Still others argue Jesus meant for the sermon to be followed by his disciples only. Allegedly, it is not for the people of the world.


(4) Nor is it accurate to think the sermon only applied to the age of Law, whereas now we are in an era of grace.


All these attempts to wriggle out of the high demands the sermon makes miss the point entirely. Philip Yancey ably summarized the matter:

“Jesus did not proclaim the Sermon on the Mount so that we would, Tolstoy-like, furrow our brows in despair over our failure to achieve perfection. He gave it to impart to us God’s Ideal toward which we should never stop striving, but also to show that none of us will ever reach that Ideal. The Sermon on the Mount forces us to recognize the great distance between God and us, and any attempt to reduce that distance by somehow moderating its demands misses the point altogether…. Thunderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace” (Yancey, p. 144).

In short, the sermon on the mount does not demand sinless perfection to go to heaven — we need his grace for that. It does, however, insist we adopt these sacred ethics as a permanent way of life to the best of our ability — to strive for moral perfection. It shows us the demands God makes for us to be his disciples — how we should think, feel, and behave to be worthy of his kingdom. As Jesus put it:


“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them (present tense—as a fixed practice, AP) will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Mt. 7.24).


The Beatitudes

The sermon begins with a series of beatitudes — characteristics that enrich and bless the lives of those who possess them (Mt. 5.3-12).


“Beatitude” comes from the Latin beati, which means “happy” because “rich” or “wealthy.” The Greek word for “blessed” (makarios) conveys the same meaning.


In that light, the Beatitudes contain a bit of irony. Ordinarily, the types of people Jesus mentions — those who are “poor,” those who “mourn,” etc. — are looked upon as unfortunate. Yet, Jesus says these are the fortunate ones. Happy, rich, and wealthy are the poor! The irony of the beatitudes is designed to make the lesson more memorable.


However, instead of concentrating upon material blessedness, Jesus is speaking of a happiness that comes from being divinely benefited due to spiritual conditions (cf. Jn. 16.22).


Intriguingly, the Greek text contains no verbs in these beatitudes until verse eleven. Likely, this was meant to replicate the Aramaic (which Jesus spoke) way of expressing an exclamation rather than a simple statement. Instead of rendering the passage as “Blessed are”, it is more accurate to elide the verb, giving us something like: Blessings (or congratulations) to the poor in spirit!


Finally, each beatitude includes two sections:


(1) A condition or characteristic that God favors;


(2) The reward for such.


Let’s explore the first beatitude:


“Congratulations to the beggarly in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens” (Mt. 5.3)!


The Condition: Beggarliness In Spirit

What does it mean to be “poor” or “beggarly” “in spirit?”


There are different words for poverty in Greek.


A penes (poor man) was a working man who was neither affluent nor destitute. He was a man with a job who could provide for his needs, but not much more. That is not the word Jesus employs here.


On the other hand, a ptochos (beggar) lived in abject poverty. He owned nothing. The term signifies “one who slinks and crouches” — “to cower down or hide oneself for fear” (Thayer, p. 557). This is the type of poverty that sends one to the knees begging for help. For example, Lazarus was a “a beggar” (ptochos) who desperately wanted to eat the “crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table” (Lk. 16.20-22).


This word describes the type of destitution that realizes divine intervention is the only means of salvation left (cf. Ps. 34.6 [33.7, LXX]; 40.17 [39.18, LXX]; 69.29 [68.30, LXX]). Thus, Jesus congratulates those who recognize they are so helpless they have to put their whole trust in God.


However, Jesus is not congratulating the materially destitute. Indeed, there is nothing blessed about slums and hunger (cf. Prov. 30.8-9). Rather, he commends the “beggarly in spirit.” He describes those who have made themselves nothing and have made God everything.


William Barclay characterized the “beggarly in spirit” in this manner:

“He will become completely detached from things…and he will become completely attached to God, for he will know that God alone can bring him help, and hope, and strength” (Barclay, pp. 86-87).

Theodore Monod memorably expressed the essence of what it means to be “beggarly in spirit:”

“Higher than the highest heaven, Deeper than the deepest sea, Lord, Thy love at last has conquered: ‘None of self, and all of Thee’.”

Hence, the “beggarly in spirit” are not merely those who are humble. Many non-Christians are humble, but they haven’t turned to God for help. They haven’t made themselves nothing and God everything.


Rather, the phrase has to do with being subservient to God — crouching to him; on your knees seeking him; giving yourself entirely to him. Thus, all who are “beggarly in spirit” are humble, but not all who are humble are “beggarly in spirit.”


Indeed, God is seeking those who recognize their spiritual poverty and are desperate for him. He wants us to “seek” him (zeteo—to search by inquiry), to “grope for him” (pselaphao—to mentally grasp for signs of him) and “find him” (Acts 17.27).


In short, congratulations to those who spiritually beg for God!


The Reward: The Kingdom of the Heavens

With what shall spiritual beggars be rewarded? Jesus says:


“Theirs is the kingdom of the heavens” (Mt. 5.3).


The present tense is arresting. He does not extend this reward as a promise for the future (i.e., theirs shall be the kingdom). Rather, in some sense, it is theirs now. This can mean either one of two things:


  1. It may suggest that those who have subordinated themselves to God are now citizens of God’s present kingdom, enjoying all the privileges and responsibilities that accompany such citizenship (cf. Phil. 3.20).

  2. Sometimes the present tense

“may be used to describe a future event, though…it typically adds the connotations of immediacy and certainty” (Wallace, p. 535).

The Present Kingdom

First, there is a sense in which God’s kingdom has always been in existence.


For example, a thousand years before Christ, Solomon sat on the “throne of the Lord” (1 Chron. 29.23).


The sons of Korah sang that “God is the king of all the earth…God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne” (Ps. 47.7-8; cf. Ps. 22.28).


In his model prayer, Jesus said to the Father: “Yours is the kingdom” (Mt. 6.13). He also noted that during the ministry of John the immerser, “tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God” (Mt. 21.31). Hence, the kingdom of God existed in some form during Jesus’ sermon on the mount.


But the kingdom of God has different phases. During the ministry of Christ, the messianic phase of “the kingdom of heaven” was not yet present; Jesus said it was still “at hand” (Mt. 3.2; 4.17; 10.7). That phase of the kingdom had its “beginning” on the day of Pentecost (Acts 11.15; cf. Acts 2.1-47). This is evident based on the following:


  1. The messianic kingdom began after Christ’s ascension (cf. Dan. 7.13-14; Acts 1.9-11; Lk. 19.11ff);

  2. It began “with power” (Mk. 9.1);

  3. The power came when the Spirit came, “not many days” after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1.8, 5); and

  4. The Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, about ten days later (Acts 2.1-4; 1.3; cf. Acts 2.47).


Hence, the messianic kingdom began on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus' resurrection. Consequently, Christians are those who have been “delivered…from the power of darkness” and have been “conveyed into the kingdom of the Son of his love” (Col. 1.13). His kingdom is a present reality (cf. Heb. 12.28; Rev. 1.9; 1 Tim. 6.15; Lk 19.11-27), and we can be a part of it, provided we become “beggarly in spirit.”


But the kingdom has not yet entered its consummated stage — or the heavenly phase. In that sense, the kingdom still has a future aspect (cf. 2 Pt. 2.11; Acts 14.22; 2 Tim. 4.18). This leads us to the second possible meaning of “theirs is the kingdom.


The Future Kingdom

Perhaps Jesus is using the present tense with a futuristic slant.


On one hand, the futuristic aspect of the present tense may

“describe an event that is wholly subsequent to the time of speaking, although as if it were present” (Wallace, p. 536).

Perhaps by employing the present tense Jesus wants to convey the certainty of the promise of heaven — an entirely future reality — to those who submit to God.


On the other hand, the futuristic aspect could be mostly (but not wholly) futuristic — an ingressive-future. Wallace explains:

“The present tense may describe an event begun in the present time, but completed in the future” (ibid., p. 537).

This is much “rarer than the wholly futuristic present” (ibid.).


Still, there is a sense in which the kingdom was already in existence while Jesus spoke his sermon. But it was — and still is — only partially arrived. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to think Jesus means that spiritual beggars have the privilege of being a part of God’s kingdom both now and in the hereafter.


This promise likely confounded the crowds with its paradox. The destitute have neither money nor power. It would be shocking — in any earthly society — to give a beggar the kingdom. The world tends to prize those who have supreme confidence in themselves. People tend to gravitate to those with big egos — people with power, influence, or wealth. Yet, God gives the kingdom to those who have learned to remove confidence in themselves and have humbly, desperately, completely placed their trust in him (cf. 1 Cor. 1.31; Jer. 9.23-24).


Conclusion

The “beggarly in spirit” are those who have made themselves nothing and have placed their total trust in God. Indeed, the inhabitants of God’s heavenly kingdom are those who obey God (Mt. 7.21) — who love him completely with a rich faith (Jm. 2.5).


Hence, Jesus is sending congratulations to those who have made a total commitment to God, because the reward for such a decision is to become a citizen in his heavenly kingdom — both here and hereafter — with all the benefits that come with such a high honor.


 
Resources
Barclay, William. The Gospel of Matthew: Vol. 1. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958.

Thayer, J. H.  Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.  New York: American Book Company, 1889.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

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