What the Bible says about Poor in Spirit
(From Forerunner Commentary)
The word "poor" has a wide variety of meanings and applications in both testaments. The Old Testament uses five different words from the Hebrew language, while the New Testament uses two from Greek. However, these seven are translated into a large number of English words. Besides describing destitution, they appear in contexts indicating oppression, humility, being defenseless, afflicted, in want, needy, weak, thin, low, dependent, and socially inferior.
Of the two Greek words translated "poor" in the New Testament, penes designates the working poor who own little or no property. People in this state possess little in the way of material goods, but they earn what they have through their daily labor. A form of this word, penechros, describes a poor widow who may be receiving a small subsistence from a relative or social agency. Penes is used only once in the entire New Testament (II Corinthians 9:9), and its cognate, penechros, is used only to indicate the poor widow of Luke 21:2.
This, therefore, is not the word used in the beatitude in Matthew 5:3, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Here, "poor" is translated from ptochos, which literally means "to crouch or cower as one helpless." It signifies the beggar, the pauper, one in abject poverty, totally dependent on others for help and destitute of even the necessities of life. In Galatians 4:9, it is translated "beggarly."
At first "poor" simply indicated to be in material need, to be in poverty. Gradually, its usage spread to other areas besides economics to indicate people in weakness, frailty, feebleness, fragility, dependence, subservience, defenselessness, affliction, and distress. The poor were people who recognized their utter helplessness before what life had dealt them. They recognized that nothing within their power solved their weak state, thus they would eagerly reach out to others for assistance in rising out of their situation, as a beggar would.
Eventually, the word took on spiritual overtones because some began to perceive that these afflicted people often had no refuge but God. Thus David, a person we would not consider as defenseless, nonetheless says of himself in a situation where he felt only God could deliver him, "This poor man cried out, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles" (Psalm 34:6).
To grasp how Jesus uses "poor" in this beatitude, we must contemplate the mind of a person who finds himself in poverty. One who recognizes his poverty takes the necessary steps to be poor no longer. He may seek advice on how to resolve his dilemma, get or change jobs, curtail spending to only necessary items, pay off his debts, and/or get rid of financially draining liabilities. In other words, he tries to change his circumstances. God wants His children to have this recognition of poverty regarding true spiritual things, and possess the drive to seek their enrichment from Him.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Beatitudes, Part Two: Poor in Spirit
The Old Testament supplies the background to Jesus' use of "poor." From statements like David's, we realize that when God prophesies regarding Jesus—
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound" (Isaiah 61:1)
—He is not speaking of the economically poor but those who are poor in spiritual qualities or poor in terms of a relationship with Him.
One can be spiritually poor regardless of how much money he possesses. He can be brokenhearted though living in grand houses, driving luxury automobiles, wearing the finest apparel, and circulating in the highest levels of society. Is being captive to sin and Satan or addicted to drugs, fashion, or the vain praise of men restricted by economic boundaries? Neither are godly attributes.
Jesus is not speaking to any clearly demarcated group. Though riches can motivate pride, the economically poor possess pride too. Jesus says the poor are blessed, but neither poverty nor wealth can confer spiritual blessings, though poverty may help to lead a person to humility. Both poverty and wealth can entail great spiritual peril. A poverty-stricken person can become very self-centered because of his desperate need, and a wealthy person can become equally self-centered through his profligacy. Jesus' words cover the whole span of mankind's circumstances because anyone without a right and true relationship with God can fall within His description. "Poor," as Jesus uses it, truly relates to a spiritual quality.
"Poor" does not stand alone; Jesus connects it with "spirit" to clarify His intention. Even as the economically poor are very aware of their need, so also are the poor in spirit. Yet a vast difference lies between this and being financially destitute. Poverty of spirit is a fruit not produced in the natural man, but a work of God's Holy Spirit in the minds of those He has called and is converting, explaining why being poor in spirit can span the whole economic spectrum. It is why an Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, or Joseph of Arimathea, all very wealthy men, can be simultaneously poor in spirit and materially blessed of God.
David referred to himself as a "poor" man, in need of what only God could supply. He perceived himself as destitute of the resources to improve his lot. He saw himself as beyond the help of men, afflicted, crushed, forsaken, desolate, miserable—as helpless spiritually as the poverty stricken are economically. Thus, recognizing his need, he cried out to God, and He heard him.
Another psalm by a thoroughly chastened and humbled David reveals in greater detail his recognition of the spiritual poverty in which he committed his sins. Notice the spiritual things David requested—things only God could supply—to fill his needs in Psalm 51:
Have mercy upon me . . . blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly . . . cleanse me from my sin. . . . Make me to know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop. . . . Make me to hear joy and gladness. . . . Hide Your face from my sins. . . . Create in me a clean heart . . . renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me with Your generous Spirit . . . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness. . . . Open my lips and my mouth shall show forth Your praise. (verses 1-2, 6-12, 14-15)
To be poor in spirit is to acknowledge honestly and with understanding our spiritual poverty—indeed our spiritual bankruptcy—before God. We are sinners and on the strength of our lives deserve nothing but God's judgment. We have nothing to offer, nothing to plead, nothing with which to buy His favor. But upon profession of our faith coupled with repentance, He allows by His grace the blood of Jesus Christ, shed for the sins of the world, to cover our sins, justifying us and providing us with access into His presence.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Beatitudes, Part Two: Poor in Spirit
Arthur W. Pink, in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, writes, "Poverty of spirit may be termed the negative side of faith" (p. 17). Similarly, Charles H. Spurgeon, a Protestant preacher of the nineteenth century, comments, "The way to rise in the kingdom is to sink in ourselves" (The Gospel of the Kingdom, p. 21). It is this realization of our utter unworthiness, a sense of spiritual need and destitution, that drives us to seek Christ to lift it. The economically poor gravitate to where they can have their needs met. Recognizing one's spiritual poverty parallels this, motivating us to seek to have that need supplied through a relationship with God. Poor in spirit, therefore, describes a fundamental trait found in every son of God who earnestly seeks Him.
Jesus says in Matthew 11:29, "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." This is how to cultivate this God-honoring attitude. We must do this because, while merely feeling lowly before God is insufficient, it nevertheless opens the doors to the awesome beneficence only God can give and indeed yearns to give. He says in Isaiah 66:2: "'For all these things [in creation] My hand has made, and all those things exist,' says the LORD. 'But on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word.'"
Poor in spirit is one thing, contrition is another, and humility is yet a third quality. They are all related, but they are not specifically the same attitude. To be contrite is to be sorry or remorseful because of guilt, equating to "Blessed are those who mourn" in Matthew 5:4. Humility is more active than either of the other two, involving consciously choosing submission in obedience. It equates more with "Blessed are the meek" in Matthew 5:5. Poverty of spirit, then, precedes contrition, remorse, humility, and meekness because it is a major factor involved in producing them.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Beatitudes, Part Two: Poor in SpiritRelated Topics: Beatitudes, The | Christ's Meekness | Christ's Yoke | Contrite Spirit | Lowliness | Lowliness of Heart | Lowliness of Mind | Meekness | Meekness of Christ | Obedience | Pink, Arthur W. | Poor in Spirit | Poor of Spirit | Poverty of Spirit | Spiritual Poverty | Submission | Submission to God | Submissive Attitude | Yoke | Yoke, Christ's
Those who possess poverty of spirit are pronounced "blessed." In one sense, they are blessed because they now have a disposition the very opposite of their natural one. This is perhaps a fundamental proof that God has begun working in them by His Spirit to create them in His own image. Poverty of spirit is part of the nature of our Creator, as Jesus affirms in Matthew 11:29.
God makes many promises to those of this disposition:
- "But I am poor and needy; yet the LORD thinks upon me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God" (Psalm 40:17). If God is thinking on someone, he has the attention of the One with greatest power, wisdom and love in all the universe!
- "The humble shall see this and be glad; and you who seek God, your hearts shall live. For the LORD hears the poor, and does not despise His prisoners" (Psalm 69:32-33). One can be glad even in difficult circumstances because God hears the poor and He will deliver.
- "For He will deliver the needy when he cries, the poor also, and him who has no helper. He will spare the poor and needy, and will save the souls of the needy" (Psalm 72:12-13). Beyond deliverance, these verses promise mercy in judgment and perhaps salvation to the poor in spirit. No wonder Jesus calls them blessed!
- Psalm 107:41 is a psalm of thanksgiving: "Yet He sets the poor on high, far from affliction, and makes their families like a flock." God will make sure that in time the poor in spirit will receive exaltation. Their families, too, receive blessings.
- Two psalms reveal the eternal destiny of the poor. Psalm 113:7-8 says, "He raises the poor out of the dust, and lifts the needy out of the ash heap, that He may seat him with princes—with the princes of His people." Psalm 132:13-17 reads, "For the LORD has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His habitation: This is My resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it. I will abundantly bless her provision; I will satisfy her poor with bread. I will also clothe her priests with salvation, and her saints shall shout aloud for joy. There will I make the horn of David grow; I will prepare a lamp for My Anointed." In these psalms salvation and glory are definitely promised—the ultimate in blessing!
Truly blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God! This is an attitude we should fervently seek to pave the way in becoming a whole new man.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Beatitudes, Part Two: Poor in Spirit
People who are economically poor are well aware of their need. It is very likely that, if they pray at all, they pray for money, for prosperity. One does not need to have a revelation from God to see that kind of need. But what should the poor be praying for? They ought to be praying for the desire to work, for the understanding of their responsibility to their families, for the right kind of ambition that will motivate them, for the love that will make them lay down their lives to support their dependents, and for the drive that will energize them to find a job. These are the things God wants us to ask for because they are qualities that He has. By nature, we like to short-circuit the process and pray, "God, give me money. Give me a job." He would rather we ask for these other things, and He is far more likely to respond to us when we do.
The poor in spirit are the best prayers of all. Their title, "poor of spirit" or "poor in spirit," shows that they are people who properly evaluate themselves against God. They see how rich God is in terms of love, generosity, kindness, mercy, wisdom—all the good qualities—and they see how poor they are in comparison. Wanting to be like God, they askHim for the qualities He has. Those are the kinds of prayers God responds to. In contrast, the proud will not be good at praying because they are secure in themselves, unable to see their need.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Prayer and Fervency
"Poor in spirit" does not mean to conduct one's life without vitality, nor does it mean that a person is weak. Would we ever accuse Jesus of being weak? Jesus was the personification of humility. People think of humility as weakness because they are judging carnally by man's spirit, by sight. But the Spirit of God, the faith of God, judges according to things not seen—the Kingdom's standards.
Here is a definition of poor in spirit from a commentary by Emmet Fox on the Sermon on the Mount:
To be poor in spirit means to have emptied yourself of all desire to exercise personal self-will and what is just as important to have renounced all preconceived opinions [prejudices] in the wholehearted search for God. It means to be willing to set aside your present habits of thought, your present views and prejudices, your present way of life, if necessary, to jettison in fact anything and everything that can stand in the way of your finding God.
When Jesus counseled us in Matthew 18:4 that unless we became as little children, we would not even be in the Kingdom of Heaven, He was not holding up a child's innocence or purity as a model. He was not counseling us to become childish but to have a child's unconcern for social status, honor, or anything similar. When we are carnal, pride is such a master that we have little choice but to follow it. It is plowing the way before us. One who is truly poor in spirit, however, can ignore pride and follow God's lead.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Faith (Part Seven)
Being poor in spirit is a far cry from being strapped in one's financial circumstances. Poverty of spirit is a change in a person's heart made by the great God Almighty when He awakens the mind to His reality and begins revealing the greatness of His person and purpose. The individual begins to become aware of his own puny character defiled by vanity and to realize that he is in the presence of brilliant intellect, power, and holiness. What happens to Job, for example, in Job 38-42 is not an ordinary change of mind but on the order of a miraculous divine intervention.
Until God intervenes, Job argues vehemently that he is not a sinner; in fact, he contends that he is a man of purity and good works. What he sees revealed about himself in comparison to God causes him great disgust: Now he realizes that he is a loud-mouthed braggart with a sky-high opinion of himself. It causes him such revulsion that he comes to abhor himself as a fool. In his own eyes barely moments before, he thought of himself as a shining jewel representing God before men. Moments later, he is a burned-out, worthless hunk of junk.
As one who thought highly of himself, he had argued with everyone to defend himself. Now, deflated, he admits, "I uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know." A powerful change had taken place in his attitude toward God and fellow man. He thought he knew everything worthwhile and shouted it to the high heavens, but the reality is that he knows nothing of what is truly important. He is broken.
Poverty of spirit occurs when a person empties himself of all desire to exercise personal self-will, and just as important, renounces all preconceived opinions in a wholehearted search for God. A person who is poor in spirit is willing to set aside his present habits, views, prejudices, and way of life if necessary—to jettison anything and everything that might stand between himself and God. To the mind of one poor of spirit, God, above all, must be pleased.
To be poor in spirit is not to lack courage but to acknowledge spiritual bankruptcy. It is the mind of one who confesses his unworthiness before God and realizes that he is utterly dependent on Him in every facet of life. Job had been a wealthy man accustomed to ordering others about. He depended on no one. He now discovers that he is totally dependent on God for every breath of life, and God must be acknowledged, beginning with his personal relationship with Him and then extending out to the ways he perceived and dealt with other men.
For the first time in his life, Job fully understands that without God, he could do nothing of value toward an eternal relationship with Him (John 15:5). Poverty of spirit is foundational to everything that proceeds from a person's relationship with God from that point forward. It is indispensible to continuing and growing the relationship, otherwise the ego becomes a major hindrance.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Job, Self-Righteousness, and Humility
We can gauge how important the quality of humility is to our relationship with God by considering the setting of this statement. It appears in the Sermon on the Mount, three whole chapters in which Jesus lays out before His followers the foundational teaching that, if followed, will work to produce a good relationship with God. The foundation of the foundation, we might say, is the Beatitudes, and the very first quality He presents, implying its prime necessity, is poverty of spirit.
Poverty of spirit is the diametric opposite of the haughty, competitive, self-assertive, self-sufficient arrogance of pride that says, "This is the way I see it." Being poor in spirit has absolutely nothing to do with being hard up in one's circumstances—in fact, it has nothing to do with the physical realm. It is a fundamental part of the spiritual realm, of which God and the purity of His attitudes, character, and truths are the central elements.
"Poor in spirit" is poverty as compared to God's qualities. It is poverty in terms of Holy Spirit. It is to be destitute in regard to the fruit and power of God's Holy Spirit of which we all desperately need. This attitude is the product of self-evaluation in which a person, comparing his own spiritual qualities to God's, finds himself utterly impoverished of any virtue of value to eternal life. Not only that, he finds himself utterly unable, powerless, to help himself to become like God.
Thus, a person who is poor of spirit clearly sees and appreciates his dependence on God both physically and spiritually. Humility is a fruit of the realization of his complete dependence. He is nothing in his own eyes and knows that his proper place is face down in the dust before God.
The apostle John writes in I John 5:4-5, "For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God." The honest recognition of need, the desire to glorify God, and the practice of overcoming leads a called-out one to live by faith.
Jesus Christ is the One that God has assigned to oversee and empower us. He is the Helper and Advocate (I John 2:1) who goes alongside, enabling us to be created in His image. From Him, we draw spiritual strength, and He gives grace to the humble.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Living by Faith and Humility
We should recognize that, when Jesus presents meekness in Matthew 5:5 as a highly desirable quality, He prefaces it with "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (verse 3) and "Blessed are those who mourn" (verse 4). He places it within a context that contains qualities that are similar to meekness. Alexander MacLaren writes in his comments on verse 5, "[Meekness] is the conduct and disposition towards God and man which follows from the inward experience described in the two former Beatitudes, which had relation only to ourselves" (Expositions of Holy Scriptures, vol. 6, "St. Matthew," p. 130). In other words, meekness is the active fruit of the other two, but whereas being poor in spirit and mourning are both internal in operation, meekness is both internal and external in its execution in one's life. Though this is not a complete description, it lays a good foundation.
Godly meekness is impossible unless we first learn a just and lowly estimate of ourselves. We must become poor in spirit. We do this by coming before God in deep penitence and with a clear knowledge of the vast difference between ourselves and what He is and what He means us to be. Paul says in Romans 12:3, "For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith." While pride destroys self and others, humility serves and builds.
Mourning springs from a sense of sin, from a tender conscience, from a broken heart. It is a godly sorrow over our rebellion against God and hostility to His will. It is the agonizing realization that it was not just sin in general but our own sins that nailed Christ to the stake. Notice that Matthew 5:4 is in the present tense, meaning that mourning is not confined to our initial repentance—it is a continuous experience. The Christian has much to mourn. If his conscience is kept tender by an ever-deepening discovery of human nature's depravity, his sins—both of omission and commission—are a sense of daily grief. Paul writes in Romans 8:23, "[W]e ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body." He adds in Romans 7:24, "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"
At the same time, this does not mean a Christian lives his life with a hang-dog expression and attitude, or that he lives his life feeling that he is a dirtbag or sleazeball who is still mucking around in a moral septic tank. A Christian is also forgiven, cleansed, and justified by the blood of Jesus Christ. He has access to God the Father, is the apple of His eye and has an awesome hope before him. He has the Holy Spirit in him. He is a child of the great Creator and looks forward to being resurrected and inheriting God's Kingdom. Christ died for him, and this creation exists for his perfection. A Christian has many reasons to feel a sense of exultation for what has been provided for him. An awareness of sin—as long as it is not allowed to become obsessive—will help him continue in a humble frame of mind by keeping pride in check, tempering his judgments, and allowing him to accept the events of life in a spirit that produces great contentment.
These qualities are produced when, with God's help, we rightly measure ourselves against the right standards—God and His law—rather than each other, and discover how much we owe to God's merciful grace. Anyone thus convicted and then forgiven and cleansed by Christ's blood is in the position to produce godly meekness.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fruit of the Spirit: Meekness
Meekness, a tolerant, yielding spirit, represents having the right of way but not insisting on it. Jesus Christ sets the tone of this approach in His discussion with the sons of Zebedee and the other disciples. Many have looked upon meekness, lowliness of spirit, or the willingness to yield, with suspicion and perhaps even loathing. Meekness—or its common perception—may seem too much like weakness, wimpiness, or timidity.
Some have taken Matthew 7:29 out of context to sanction a pompous, brittle, authoritarian approach, stating Jesus "taught . . . as one who had authority, and not as the scribes." Such people assume that this gives license to higher decibels and dogmatic manhandling of the audience, but they seriously misunderstand its intended meaning. Jesus could speak with authority because He possessed an unlimited reservoir of experience. He personified the Word of God, while the scribes and Pharisees could only quibble about the bits and pieces they had studied. Even though Jesus spoke with authority, the Gospels show His manner to be peaceable and yielding in most situations.
David F. Maas
Servant Leadership: Practical MeeknessRelated Topics: Humility | Lowliness | Lowliness of Heart | Lowliness of Mind | Lowliness of Spirit | Meekness | Meekness of Christ | Meekness, Practical | Peace | Peace Maker | Peace Making | Poor in Spirit | Poor of Spirit | Practicality of Meekness | Servant Leadership | Timidity | Yieldedness | Yielding to God | Yielding to God's Will
The word "poor" does not necessarily mean that a person is in absolute, abject poverty. It can mean only that the person is weak or powerless. Jesus says He is going to free them from poverty or weakness. If we look at this in a spiritual sense, it applies to every one of us. We all have been spiritually powerless.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part 2)
The publican's is the language of the poor in spirit. We do not belong anywhere except alongside the publican, crying out with downcast eyes, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" John Calvin, the sixteenth-century theologian whose teachings form the basis of Reformed Protestantism, wrote, "He only who is reduced to nothing in himself, and relies on the mercy of God is poor in spirit" (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, p. 261).
Notice how Jesus brought out that the underlying attitude of the Pharisee was reliance in self. He boasted before God of all his "excellent" qualities and works, things he evidently thought would earn him God's respect. His vanity about these things then motivated him to regard others as less than himself. So we see that self-exaltation is the opposite of poor in spirit.
Poor in spirit is contrary to that haughty, self-assertive, and self-sufficient disposition that the world so much admires and praises. It is the reverse of an independent and defiant attitude that refuses to bow to God—that determines to brave things out against His will like Pharaoh, who said, "Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice . . .?" (Exodus 5:2). A person who is poor in spirit realizes that he is nothing, has nothing, can do nothing—and needs everything, as Jesus said in John 15:5, "Without Me you can do nothing."
In his commentary, The Sermon on the Mount, Emmett Fox provides a practical description of what "poor in spirit" means:
To be poor in spirit means to have emptied yourself of all desire to exercise personal self-will, and, what is just as important, to have renounced all preconceived opinions in the whole-hearted search for God. It means to be willing to set aside your present habits of thought, your present views and prejudices, your present way of life if necessary; to jettison, in fact, anything and everything that can stand in the way of your finding God. (p. 22)
Poverty of spirit blooms as God reveals Himself to us and we become aware of His incredible holiness and towering mercy in even calling us to be forgiven and invited to be in His Family—to be like Him! This understanding awakens us to the painful discovery that all our righteousness truly is like filthy rags by comparison (Isaiah 64:6); our best performances are unacceptable. It brings us down to the dust before God. This realization corresponds to the Prodigal Son's experience in Luke 15:14 when "he began to be in want." Soon thereafter, Jesus says, he "came to himself" (verse 17), beginning the humbling journey back to his father, repentance, and acceptance.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Beatitudes, Part Two: Poor in Spirit
The Pharisee's prayer manifests his mindset (II Peter 2:3). People like him trust in their own works to gain salvation and eternal life, not trusting in Jesus Christ for them. They do not really think they need His sacrifice or help because they think they are good enough in themselves. So, they toot their own horns, making sure God knows how righteous they are. While kneeling before Him, they tell Him all the good things they are always doing, and believe that He is impressed. They act as if God owes them salvation because of their good works.
This attitude shows how little they understand of the true holiness of God and the lowliness of our spiritual state. While on earth, Jesus worked more easily with tax collectors and sinners than with the Pharisees, though the latter were more dedicated to adhering strictly to the letter of the law. The Pharisees, knowing they were more righteous, made sure others knew it. In their self-delusion and self-righteousness, they could learn little from Christ.
The Pharisee, considering others as nothing, treats them accordingly. It is typical of human nature to elevate itself while putting down others, and some believe that this is the only way to elevate themselves above their peers. Isaiah writes about such people: ". . . who say, 'Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am holier than you!' These are smoke in [God's] nostrils, a fire that burns all the day" (Isaiah 65:5).
The Pharisee compares his own flaws, not with God's infinite perfections, but with the imagined greater flaws of others. His pride has made him bankrupt of genuine compassion and concern (James 2:13). He presumptuously errs in his prayer in that it is neither his duty nor his right as a sinner to point out another's sins. In trusting in Christ for righteousness, our inadequacies and guilt are revealed, and we become willing to admit that others may be much better than we are.
Martin G. Collins
Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax CollectorRelated Topics: Comparing Ourselves Among Ourselves | Comparing Ourselves to Christ | Comparing Ourselves to Others | Comparing self to others | Holiness | Humility | Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican | Pharisee and Publican | Pharisees | Poor in Spirit | Prayer | Pride | Publican | Self Exaltation | Self Righteousness | Self Worship
The Greek and Hebrew definitions of the words translated as "joy" and its synonyms are virtually the same as their English counterparts, except for one whose specific definition is not "joy" but "blessed." This word, the Greek makarios, reveals much about some of the major sources of biblical joy. It frequently appears as the first word in the well-known Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, as in Matthew 5:3: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Strong's defines this word as "supremely blessed; by extension fortunate, well off, blessed, happy." The King James version translates it as "happy" five times. In a marginal reference, E.W. Bullinger in the Companion Bible says the word means "happy," and J.B. Phillips translates it as such in his New Testament in Modern English.
Spiros Zodhiates' Complete Word Study Dictionary (p. 937) gives a more comprehensive definition:
Blessed, possessing the favor of God, that state of being marked by fullness from God. It indicates the state of the believer in Christ, . . . said of one who becomes a partaker of God's nature through faith in Christ. The believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit because of Christ and as a result should be fully satisfied no matter the circumstances. Makarios differs from the word "happy" in that the person is happy who has good luck (from the root hap meaning luck as a favorable circumstance). To be makarios, blessed, is equivalent to having God's kingdom within one's heart. Aristotle contrasts makarios to endees, the needy one. Makarios is the one who is in the world yet independent of the world. His satisfaction comes from God and not from favorable circumstances.
The Amplified Bible translates Matthew 5:3 as:
Blessed (happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous—with life-joy and satisfaction in God's favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions) are the poor in spirit (the humble, who rate themselves insignificant), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Verse 5 reads, "Blessed (happy, blithesome, joyous, spiritually prosperous) . . ." and verse 9, "Blessed (enjoying enviable happiness, spiritually prosperous). . . ."
It appears that for us to experience biblical joy, the fruit of God's Spirit, we need godly inner qualities that we do not possess by nature. As with love—the love that springs from us by nature that is but a pale reflection of God's love—so also is it with joy. Until we come to the point where by faith we are supremely confident of God's presence in our life—of His providence toward us in the past, present, and future—we will not experience the enduring fullness of satisfaction God wants us to have.
A Christian's joy can be just as short-lived as anyone's in the world if we are seeking it for itself as the world does. Biblical joy is a fruit, a byproduct, an additional blessing, not the end in itself. It flows into and grows within the person whose life and energies are not focused merely on being "joyful." The lives of those in this world who are so zealously chasing after it prove this point. If they are still chasing it, they must not yet have it. God's Word also substantiates this.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fruit of the Spirit: Joy
Paul demonstrates the proper attitude to have: He was content whether poor or prosperous, whether weak or strong, whether people loved him or hated him. It is not easy to do sometimes, but he says, "Whatever state I'm in, I'm going to be content because, when I have Christ in me, I can do anything that He wants me to do. So I can't think about those other things. I have to be content with what God has given."
A person's condition or his position does not need to matter a whit as long as Christ is working through him.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
If it is God's will that we be saved and grow in the grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ, why is it so hard? If God is working with us, should this not be easy? Our first response to this is very likely, "Well, I guess it's just that I am so evil"; "It must be human nature"; or "I'm so bad God must not be hearing my prayers." Some get so weary with the difficulty that they say, "God will just have to take me as I am."
All these justifications may indeed be factors, but they are not precisely correct because most of us have some besetting sin or sins that we fail miserably to overcome time after time. Why, if it is God's will, do we not overcome them more easily?
The sin need not be easily recognizable by others, as Paul writes to Timothy that "some men's sins are clearly evident" (I Timothy 5:24). It can be a hidden sin, though we are well aware of it, know it is evil, and feel constant guilt and self-condemnation because of our weakness before it.
It can be a sin of omission and not a sin of commission, in which one is directly guilty of bringing loss or pain upon another. Perhaps the failing concerns acts of kindness or mercy that we have frequently and consistently failed to do to relieve another's burden, but we know of it and are convicted of its seriousness.
This is the key to understanding why spiritual growth is so hard. Consider one's original conversion. Why did this even occur? Romans 2:4 says, "Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance." This happened only because God was revealing Himself and making us conscious of factors of life we had never before felt with that force. It moved us to repent and throw ourselves on His mercy. In reality, it was the only option He held open to us because we felt powerless to go in any other direction. Can we overcome death? The key is our awareness of powerlessness as the first essential element to spiritual growth.
In II Corinthians 12:10, Paul makes this point. "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong." In chapter 13:4, he adds emphasis to this by saying, "For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you." Just as a prerequisite to conversion is recognizing and acknowledging our utter failure in the face of sin and death, so also is a deep consciousness of our frailty required in the face of overcoming and growth in following God's way and glorifying Him.
Without this overriding sense of dependence, we will never turn to God in the first place. Without this sense of need, we will not continuously turn to Him because our passivity in this will declare that in reality, like the Laodiceans, we think we need nothing and are sufficient unto ourselves. We will be like the confident Peter, who, boasting that unlike others he would never desert Christ, immediately fell flat on his face in spiritual failure. The secret of growth in Christian character largely lies in realizing our powerlessness and acknowledging it before God.
Perhaps John 15:5 will now have more meaning. Jesus says, "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing." It does not mean that without Him we could never design an automobile or send a rocket to the moon. It means that we could produce nothing of a true, godly, spiritual nature within the calling of God that truly glorifies Him.
Just in case we think He is saying more than He really means, think about the following commands. Jesus says in Matthew 5:44, "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you." He adds in Matthew 6:31, "Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?'" If these are challenging, try I Corinthians 15:34: "Awake to righteousness, and do not sin; for some do not have the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame."
We have a long way to go. It is time to stop playing church—realizing that judgment is now on us—and turn to God with all our heart. He promises that, if we do this, He will hear from heaven and respond. We must constantly keep in mind that God is the Potter with the power to mold and shape as He wills. As the clay, our job is to yield, realizing even the power to submit comes from Him.
To understand this from an even broader perspective, we must consider how mankind has acted in its relationship with God beginning with Adam and Eve. They said, "God, stay out of our lives. We don't need you. We will do this ourselves." Therefore, rather than choosing from the Tree of Life, they chose from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. All mankind has copied this approach down to the Laodiceans, who say they are rich and increased with goods and need nothing. It will continue even to those who will curse and blaspheme God during the final plagues in the Day of the Lord (Revelation 16:21).
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Sovereignty of God and Human Responsibility: Part Eleven
Humility has its basis in an honest and realistic comparison of us with God. To compare ourselves with other people always allows us a great deal of wiggle room because we can always find flaws in other people's character. But these rationalizations are not really honest because our goal is not to be in the image of other people or them to be in our image. Our goal is to be in the image of God, and therefore the comparison must be with Him.
When we do that—and we do it honestly—we always come out on the short end of the stick. We are woefully poor (poor of spirit) of any value, any quality or characteristic one might even begin to imagine. We fall so far short of His holiness that it knocks the props right out from under any idea we might have to take pride in what we are.
If we are striving to be like Him, to walk in His steps, to be in His image, this comparison gives us a much more realistic foundation to work from in relating both to Him and to fellow man. It is a wonderful attitude adjuster and regulator of relationships.
Humility tends to be the flipside of faith, because where the confident—the faithful, the trusting—will push themselves forward, the humble has a tendency to hesitate. It is a matter of restraint.
In the humble, there is a consciousness of emptiness, of potential weakness, of helplessness, of worthlessness. However, we should never get the idea that the humble are weak. Paradoxically, they are among the strongest of all people on earth! It all depends on one's perspective. In God's perspective, these people are strong, while from a human perspective, it depends on whom they want to impress.
Humility is so important that God gave Paul some help to make sure that he would stay humble (II Corinthians 12:6-10). Yet, if we would evaluate that, from the time of Jesus on, no one was more spiritually powerful than Paul. It all depends on one's perspective. Who is the humble person being compared with? In comparison with other men, Paul did not appear very strong, but when God looked at him, He liked what He saw—a powerful, effective servant of God.
This is so important because humility's dominant thrust is its willingness to submit to God and to what is right and true. Some, of course, would submit willingly to death if it would glorify God. Our level of humility, therefore, pretty much sets the tone of our relationship with Him and with others. In both cases, that is, with God and man, the humble esteem the other better than themselves. This quality will guard the unity of the spirit (Ephesians 4:3).
Humility or lowliness goes hand-in-glove with meekness. Meekness is a rather complex subject requiring many items to describe it accurately. However, it contains an evident element of restraint. The meek are kind, gentle, and sensitive to others needs. They are thoughtful, agreeable people. They are not aggressive, assertive, insistent, or argumentative. They are easily approached and easy to get along with. Again, we should not be mistaken: The meek are not weak. Certainly, we would not classify Jesus and Moses as being weak, but meek they were. They were firm and uncompromising regarding following truth, but they did not feel constrained to overwhelm those who were aligned against them.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Unity (Part 8): Ephesians 4 (E)
Jesus Christ tells the Philadelphians that they have only a little strength, a little power (dunamis). They have a small, effective capability for wonderful works and mighty deeds, a limited ability to get things done. If they are dynamic, it is only on a small scale. This has some implications about the letter to Philadelphia that we may not have considered before.
There are at least four applications or audiences to the Letters to the Seven Churches: They are written to 1) seven literal, first-century churches in Asia Minor; 2) seven end-time churches; 3) seven historical church eras; and/or 4) individuals Christians. In each letter, Christ gives the admonition, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). The seven letters can represent attitudes or conditions as well as organizational units and periods. Looking through the lens of the fourth application gives the letter to Philadelphia meaning regardless of the era or corporate organization one may be part of.
Christ's statement that the Philadelphian has only a little strength is not necessarily a criticism. The overall tenor of the letter is extremely positive. However, He is giving a statement of fact: Philadelphians have only a small effective capability for miraculous work, a little physical or spiritual aptitude, a small measure of effectiveness. Dunamis is not entirely lacking, but it is present in only a small amount.
The Philadelphian, by this accounting, will probably not be the one healing people when his shadow passes by, or the one moving mountains. Nor will He be prophesying of future events or speaking in unfamiliar languages. He may not have great speaking ability or a dynamic personality. This is not to say that power and effectiveness are entirely lacking, just that the Philadelphian will probably not have the same dramatic outworking we observe in other biblical figures.
Why is this dunamis lacking? From the rest of the letter to Philadelphia, it does not appear that the lack of dunamis is because of a great failing or negligence in duties to God. On the contrary, the letter is a commendation because of faithfulness. Perhaps part of the reason, seen in one of Jesus' parables, is that not much natural ability is there for God to enhance. Perhaps also, mighty deeds are lacking because there is no need for such works to be done. Remember, if God has ordained that something be done, He will give the power for it to be accomplished. If He has not given that power, it is because it is His will that a thing not be accomplished.
The Parable of the Talents adds to the picture:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. (Matthew 25:14-15)
The word ability in verse 15 is also dunamis. These verses affirm that 1) talents are given by God, and 2) apparently the bestowing of talents depends somewhat on the effective capability the person already possesses. Along the same lines, it is interesting to note that Christ Himself was limited in the works—dunamis—He could perform because of the unbelief in some areas (Matthew 13:58; Mark 6:5-6)!
The two faithful servants double what is given to them. The amounts are not as important as the growth. Both give Christ a 100% increase on what He bestowed on them. The unfaithful servant produces nothing at all.
In this example, we can see the Philadelphian as the servant who receives only two talents rather than five. He does not have the same natural ability. However, even though he may have fewer responsibilities, or the scope of what he controls is much smaller, he is just as faithful as the servant who receives more. The Philadelphian may have only a little ability, but with that ability he is able to keep God's word and not deny His name (Revelation 3:8). His power enables him to keep God's command to persevere (verse 10).
We have been given a measure of dunamis. If we have God's Spirit, we have ability, talent, effectiveness, and strength in some measure, in some area. It does not matter how much is given, or in what area our strength resides, but that we remain faithful in what God has given to us and that we make use of the power we have to further God's purpose.
David C. Grabbe
They did not even see their need because, in their pride, they were far from poor in spirit. They felt secure in what they were. They were not asking God to fill them with love, goodness, generosity, kindness, wisdom, and faith.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Prayer and Fervency