"This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand." (Mark 1:15) So Jesus began his public ministry. And using the gift of hindsight, we can see how dramatic and revolutionary this proclamation was.
Looking back through the lens of the cross and resurrection, we know that Jesus’ announcement of the “kingdom of God” really had changed everything.
But how did the people of Jesus’ time hear these words? Did they really consider his message of the kingdom new and exciting?
In some ways, we would have to say no. In fact, we could imagine many Galileans shrugging their shoulders when they heard that a carpenter’s son from Nazareth was making the rounds, announcing that the time had come for God to fulfill his promises. Messianic preachers were common around this time. There were the Essenes—a semi-monastic group who lived along the Dead Sea in anticipation of final judgment of the righteous. There were the Zealots—small pockets of Jewish nationalists who were plotting the overthrow of the Roman Empire so that Israel could return to its glory days. And there were of course the Pharisees—not quite messianic, but still an influential group who saw the ancient traditions of Judaism as the key to preserving Israel as God’s chosen people. So what difference could this one rabbi possibly make?
But Jesus did make a difference. He didn’t just talk about a new kingdom. He healed the sick, cast out demons, even raised the dead. He did more than just expound on God’s mercy; he gave people an experience of it—an experience so intense that sinners found the strength to change their lives. Women who had turned to prostitution rediscovered their dignity and value. Corrupt tax officials gave back money they had stolen. Everyday people were finding new joy and hope in the way of life Jesus was showing them. A new kingdom really was at hand!
A Kingdom Rejected and Accepted. From his earliest days of ministry, Jesus stirred up controversy and division. Some even tried to kill him (Luke 4:23-30). Religious leaders were scandalized by the way that he healed people on the Sabbath and claimed to forgive sins (Mark 2:1-12; John 5:1-16). Even the high priest, who oversaw all of Israel’s prayers and sacrifices, thought it would be a good thing if Jesus were killed (John 11:49-52).
How this must have hurt Jesus! Here he was, longing to pour blessing after blessing on his people, but so many had closed their hearts. At one point, he gave voice to this by lamenting: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling!” (Luke 13:34).
On the other hand, Jesus rejoiced even more in those who did accept him: “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike” (Luke 10:21). For the most part, it was the humble and lowly, the “childlike” who accepted him. It was the fishermen and tax gatherers, the widows and housewives, the poor and the marginalized who were open to receiving his message and the blessings that came with it.
Of course, material poverty wasn’t necessary to become a disciple. A few Pharisees, like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, were open to Jesus’ message. And some wealthy folks like Jairus, the synagogue leader, and the women from Galilee who offered Jesus financial support, were also deeply touched. Some, like Mary Magdalene and Joanna, whose husband worked for King Herod, even left their homes to follow him. Jesus welcomed anyone, rich or poor, who had the humility to follow him and accept his message. He blessed anyone who was poor in spirit.
Spiritual Poverty. This bit of history tells us that some were hardened and indifferent to Jesus while others were more open and willing to accept him. More importantly, it can help us understand why Jesus called the poor in spirit “blessed” and said that the kingdom of heaven belonged to them.
First, it helps us see that being poor in spirit doesn’t necessarily mean being materially poor, it means being interiorly poor. It means being humble enough to know that we don’t have all the resources we need to live a godly life in this world. Being poor in spirit means accepting God’s direction and guidance because we know that our own wisdom is insufficient. It means not rejecting God or being indifferent to him.
Think, for instance, about Peter’s words after he heard Jesus teach about the bread of life. Jesus asked if this teaching was too hard for him to embrace. And Peter replied: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
It was probably pretty hard for Peter to understand what Jesus meant about eating his body and drinking his blood. But rather than harden his heart and reject something that sounded illogical, he stayed with Jesus. He held on to his faith because he knew that the alternative was to strike out on his own, without Jesus. Peter was poor enough in spirit to know that he needed Jesus.
Think, too, about Mary’s response to the angel when he invited her to become the Mother of God. “I am the handmaid of the Lord,” she said. “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). If anyone deserved to be treated like a queen, it was Mary, the pure and sinless one. But she considered herself nothing more than a “handmaid,” a servant waiting on her God, ready to do whatever he asked of her.
Immense Blessings. Second, when we look at Jesus’ followers we can see that the blessings given to the poor in spirit are not necessarily material blessings. They are the interior blessings that come from being close to God and open to his Spirit. These blessings came in the form of inner peace as they knew that God loved them, immense joy over finding something as valuable as a pearl of great price, and a sense of freedom and release over the experience of God’s mercy. Disciples of Jesus were blessed with confidence in God’s love (Romans 8:38-39). They were blessed with gifts like healing, wisdom, and discernment (1 Corinthians 12:8-10). They were blessed with a joyful desire to share the good news with the people around them (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8).
Following Jesus wasn’t a path to easy riches or a comfortable life. Most often, when people put their faith in Jesus, their lives became more demanding. The apostles, for instance, had to find a way to balance the challenges of earning a living and raising a family with the demands of building the church (1 Corinthians 9:1-22). Many of the disciples had to face misunderstanding and persecution. Some even lost their lives. But the blessings they received were so great that they were able to count it all a joy (James 1:2-3).
All these blessings, and so many more, came to the people because they had become poor in spirit. Their lives demonstrated one of the greatest paradoxes of the Christian life: Jesus loves to fill the hungry with good things, but he sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:53). It’s not that he doesn’t love the rich as much as the poor. It’s that those who are already filled have no more room in their hearts for him and his blessings.
“Come to Me.” The New Testament is filled with stories about people who were indifferent to Jesus or even hated him. It is filled with examples of people who were not poor in spirit; people who had no room in their hearts for his message of salvation. Is it any different today? Some people are so caught up in the world that questions about life and death have no meaning for them. Others are so consumed with a sense of self-importance or self-sufficiency that the thought of surrendering to Jesus is downright offensive. And still others have so exhausted themselves with work—or play—that they have no time to examine their hearts and get in touch with their deep need for the Lord. But through it all, Jesus still wants us to become poor in spirit so that he can fill us with his treasures.
We don’t have to give away our homes, our clothes, or all our money. Jesus wants our hearts, not our wealth. He wants us to become dependent on him, little children who trust their heavenly Father and try to please him in their thoughts and words. He promises, too, that everyone who humbles himself will be exalted. It’s a promise that can be fulfilled today, not in some far-off, heavenly future. Even now, this very day, Jesus is ready to “bring glad tidings to the poor” (Luke 4:18). He calls out to us: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). And he promises: “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him’” (John 7:37-38). So, let’s choose to be poor in spirit; let’s humble ourselves before God; let’s come to Jesus and receive his kingdom—today!