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4. Blessed are the poor in spirit
Having spoken of the general notion of blessedness, I come next to consider the subjects of this blessedness, and these our Saviour has deciphered to be the poor in spirit, the mourners, etc. But before I touch upon these, I shall attempt a little preface or paraphrase upon this sermon of the beatitudes.
1 Observe the divinity in this sermon, which goes beyond all philosophy. The philosophers use to say that one contrary expels another; but here one contrary begets another. Poverty is wont to expel riches, but here poverty begets riches, for how rich are they that have a kingdom! Mourning is wont to expel joy, but here mourning begets joy: ‘they shall be comforted’. Water is wont to quench the flame but the water of tears kindles the flame of joy. Persecution is wont to expel happiness, but here it makes happy: ‘Blessed are they that are persecuted’. These are the sacred paradoxes in our Saviour’s sermon.
2 Observe how Christ’s doctrine and the opinion of carnal men differ. They think, ‘Blessed are the rich.’ The world would count him blessed who could have Midas, wish, that all he touched might be turned into gold. But Christ says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. The world thinks, Blessed are they on the pinnacle; but Christ pronounces them blessed who are in the valley. Christ’s reckonings and the world’s do not agree.
3 Observe the nature of true religion. Poverty leads the van, and persecution brings up the rear. Every true saint (says Luther) is heir to the cross! Some there are who would be thought religious, displaying Christ’s colours by a glorious profession, but to be ‘poor in spirit’ and ‘persecuted’, they cannot take down this bitter pill. They would wear Christ’s jewels, but waive his cross. These are strangers to religion.
4 Observe the certain connection between grace and its reward. They who are ‘poor in spirit’ shall have the ‘kingdom of God’. They are as sure to go to heaven, as if they were in heaven already. Our Saviour would encourage men to religion by sweetening commands with promises. He ties duty and reward together. As in the body the veins carry the blood, and the arteries the spirits, so one part of these verses carries duty, and the other part carries reward. As that scholar of Apelles painted Helena richly drawn in costly and glorious apparel, hung all over with orient pearl, and precious stones; so our Lord Christ, having set down several qualifications of a Christian, ‘poor in spirit’, ‘pure in heart’, etc.’ draws these heavenly virtues in their fair colours of blessedness, and sets the magnificent crown of reward upon them, that by this brilliance, he might the more set forth their unparalleled beauty, and entice holy love.
5 Observe hence the concatenation of the graces: poor in spirit, meek, merciful, etc. Where there is one grace there is all. As they say of the cardinal virtues that they are strung together, so we may say of the graces of the spirit, they are linked and chained together. He that has poverty of spirit is a mourner. He that is a mourner is meek. He that is meek is merciful, etc. The Spirit of God plants in the heart an habit of all the graces. The new creature has all the parts and lineaments, as in the body there is a composition of all the elements and a mixture of all the humours. The graces of the Spirit are like a row of pearls which hang together upon the string of religion and serve to adorn Christ’s bride. This I note, to show you a difference between a hypocrite and a true child of God. The hypocrite flatters himself with a pretence of grace, but in the meantime he does not have an habit of all the graces. He does not have poverty of spirit, nor purity of heart, whereas a child of God has all the graces in his heart, at least radically though not gradually. These things being premised, I come in particular to those heavenly dispositions of soul to which Christ has affixed blessedness. And the first is Poverty of Spirit: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’.
Chrysostom and Theophylact are of opinion that this was the first sermon that ever Christ made, therefore it may challenge our best attention. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. Our Lord Christ being to raise an high and stately fabric of blessedness, lays the foundation of it low, in poverty of spirit. But all poverty is not blessed. I shall use a fourfold distinction.
1 I distinguish between ‘poor in estate’, and ‘poor in spirit’. There are the Devil’s poor, poor and wicked, whose clothes are not more torn than their conscience. There are some whose poverty is their sin, who through improvidence or excess have brought themselves to want. These may be poor in estate but not poor in spirit.
2 I distinguish between ’spiritually poor’ and ‘poor in spirit’. He who is without grace is spiritually poor, but he is not poor in spirit; he does not know his own beggary. ‘Thou knowest not that thou art poor’ (Revelation 3:17). He is in the worst sense poor who has no sense of his poverty.
3 I distinguish between ‘poor-spirited’ and ‘poor in spirit’. They are said to be poor-spirited who have mean, base spirits, who act below themselves. As they are men; such are those misers, who having great estates, yet can hardly afford themselves bread; who live sneakingly, and are ready to wish their own throats cut, because they are forced to spend something in satisfying nature’s demands. This Solomon calls an evil under the sun. ‘There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, a man to whom God has given riches, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof’ (Ecclesiastes 6:2). Religion makes no man a niggard. Though it teaches prudence, yet not sordidness.
Then there are those who act below themselves as they are Christians, while they sinfully comply and prostitute themselves to the humours of others; a base kind of metal that will take any stamp. They will for a piece of silver part with the jewel of a good conscience. They will be of the state religion. They will dance to the devil’s pipe, if their superior commands them. These are poor-spirited but not poor in spirit.
4 I distinguish between poor in an evangelical sense and poor in a popish sense. The papists give a wrong gloss upon the text. By ‘poor in spirit’, they understand those who, renouncing their estates, vow a voluntary poverty, living retiredly in their monasteries. But Christ never meant these. He does not pronounce them blessed who make themselves poor, leaving their estates and callings, but such as are evangelically poor.
Well then, what are we to understand by ‘poor in spirit’? The Greek word for ‘poor’ is not only taken in a strict sense for those who live upon alms, but in a more large sense, for those who are destitute as well of inward as outward comfort. ‘Poor in spirit, then signifies those who are brought to the sense of their sins, and seeing no goodness in themselves, despair in themselves and sue wholly to the mercy of God in Christ. Poverty of spirit is a kind of self-annihilation. Such an expression I find in Calvin. The poor in spirit (says he) are they who see nothing in themselves, but fly to mercy for sanctuary. Such an one was the publican: ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’ (Luke 18:13). Of this temper was St Paul: ‘That I may be found in Christ, not having mine own righteousness’ (Philippians 3:9). These are the poor which are invited as guests to wisdom’s banquet (Proverbs 7:3, 4).
Here several questions may be propounded.
(i) Why does Christ here begin with poverty of spirit? Why is this put in the forefront? I answer, Christ does it to show that poverty of spirit is the very basis and foundation of all the other graces that follow. You may as well expect fruit to grow without a root, as the other graces without this. Till a man be poor in spirit, he cannot mourn. Poverty of spirit is like the fire under the still, which makes the water drop from the eyes. When a man sees his own defects and deformities and looks upon himself as undone, then he mourns after Christ. ‘The springs run in the valleys’ (Psalm 104:10). When the heart becomes a valley and lies low by poverty of spirit, now the springs of holy mourning run there. Till a man be poor in spirit, he cannot ‘hunger and thirst after righteousness’. He must first be sensible of want before he can hunger. Therefore Christ begins with poverty of spirit because this ushers in all the rest.
(ii) The second question is, what is the difference between poverty of spirit and humility? These are so alike that they have been taken one for the other. Chrysostom, by ‘poverty of spirit’, understands humility. Yet I think there is some difference. They differ as the cause and the effect. Tertullian says, none are poor in spirit but the humble. He seems to make humility the cause of poverty of spirit. I rather think poverty of spirit is the cause of humility, for when a man sees his want of Christ, and how he lives on the alms of free grace, this makes him humble. He that is sensible of his own vacuity and indigence, hangs his head in humility with the violet. Humility is the sweet spice that grows from poverty of spirit.
(iii) What is the difference between poverty of spirit and self-denial? I answer, in some things they agree, in some things they differ. In some things they agree; for the poor in spirit is an absolute self-denier. He renounces all opinion of himself. He acknowledges his dependence upon Christ and free grace. But in some things they differ. The self-denier parts with the world for Christ, the poor in spirit parts with himself for Christ, i.e. his own righteousness. The poor in spirit sees himself nothing without Christ; the self-denier will leave himself nothing for Christ. And thus I have shown what poverty of spirit is.
The words thus opened present us with this truth: that Christians must be poor in spirit; or thus, poverty of spirit is the jewel which Christians must wear. As the best creature was made out of nothing, namely, light; so when a man sees himself nothing, out of this nothing God makes a most beautiful creature. It is God’s usual method to make a man poor in spirit, and then fill him with the graces of the Spirit. As we deal with a watch, we take it first to pieces, and then set all the wheels and pins in order, so the Lord first takes a man all to pieces, shows him his undone condition, and then sets him in frame.
The reasons are:
1 Till we are poor in spirit we are not capable of receiving grace. He who is swollen with an opinion of self-excellency and self-sufficiency, is not fit for Christ. He is full already. If the hand be full of pebbles, it cannot receive gold. The glass is first emptied before you pour in wine. God first empties a man of himself, before he pours in the precious wine of his grace. None but the poor in spirit are within Christ’s commission. ‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted’ (Isaiah 61:1), that is, such as are broken in the sense of their unworthiness.
2. Till we are poor in spirit, Christ is never precious. Before we see our own wants, we never see Christ’s worth. Poverty of spirit is salt and seasoning, the sauce which makes Christ relish sweet to the soul. Mercy is most welcome to the poor in spirit. He who sees himself clad in filthy rags (Zechariah 3:4,5), what will he give for change of raiment, the righteousness of Christ! What will he give to have the fair mitre of salvation set upon his head! When a man sees himself almost wounded to death, how precious will the balm of Christ’s blood be to him! When he sees himself deep in arrears with God, and is so far from paying the debt that he cannot sum up the debt, how glad would he be of a surety! ‘The pearl of price’ is only precious to the poor in spirit. He that wants bread and is ready to starve, will have it whatever it cost. He will lay his garment to pledge; bread he must have or he is undone. So to him that is poor in spirit, that sees his want of Christ, how precious is a Saviour! Christ is Christ and grace is grace to him! He will do anything for the bread of life. Therefore will God have the soul thus qualified, to raise the price of his market, to enhance the value and estimate of the Lord Jesus.
3 Till we are poor in spirit we cannot go to heaven. ‘Theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. This tunes and prepares us for heaven. By nature a man is big with self-confidence, and the gate of heaven is so strait that he cannot enter. Now poverty of spirit lessens the soul; it pares off its superfluity, and now he is fit to enter in at the ’strait gate’. The great cable cannot go through the eye of the needle, but let it be untwisted and made into small threads, and then it may. Poverty of spirit untwists the great cable. It makes a man little in his own eyes and now an entrance shall be made unto him, ‘richly into the everlasting Kingdom’ (2 Peter 1:11). Through this temple of poverty, we must go into the temple of glory.
It shows wherein a Christian’s riches consist, namely in poverty of spirit. Some think if they can fill their bags with gold, then they are rich. But they who are poor in spirit are the rich men. They are rich in poverty. This poverty entitles them to a kingdom. How poor are they that think themselves rich! How rich are they that see themselves poor! I call it the ‘jewel of poverty’. There are some paradoxes in religion that the world cannot understand; for a man to become a fool that he may be wise (1 Corinthians 3:18); to save his life by losing it (Matthew 16:25); and by being poor to be rich. Reason laughs at it, but ‘Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom’. Then this poverty is to be striven for more than all riches. Under these rags is hid cloth of gold. Out of this carcass comes honey.
If blessed are the poor in spirit, then by the rule of contraries, cursed are the proud in spirit (Proverbs 16:5). There is a generation of men who commit idolatry with themselves; no such idol as self! They admire their own parts, moralities, self-righteousness; and upon this stock graft the hope of their salvation. There are many too good to go to heaven. They have commodities enough of their own growth, and they scorn to live upon the borrow, or to be beholden to Christ. These bladders the Devil has blown up with pride, and they are swelled in their own conceit; but it is like the swelling of a dropsy man whose bigness is his disease. Thus it was with that proud justiciary: ‘The Pharisee stood and prayed, God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican; I fast twice in the week, I give tithes ...’ (Luke 18:11). Here was a man setting up the topsail of pride; but the publican, who was poor in spirit, stood afar off and would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ This man carried away the garland. ‘I tell you’ (says Christ) ‘this man went down to his house justified rather than the other’. St Paul, before his conversion, thought himself in a very good condition, ‘touching the law, blameless’ (Philippians 3:6). He thought to have built a tower of his own righteousness, the top whereof should have reached to heaven; but, at last, God showed him there was a crack in the foundation, and then he gets into the ‘rock of ages’. ‘That I may be found in him’ (Philippians 3:9). There is not a more dangerous precipice than self-righteousness. This was Laodicea’s temper: ‘Because thou sayest I am rich and I have need of nothing . . .’ (Revelation 3:17). She thought she wanted nothing when indeed she had nothing. How many does this damn! We see some ships that have escaped the rocks, yet are cast away upon the sands; so some who have escaped the rocks of gross sins, yet are cast away upon the sands of self-righteousness; and how hard is it to convince such men of their danger! They will not believe but that they may be helped out of their dungeon with these rotten rags. They cannot be persuaded their case is so bad as others would make it. Christ tells them they are blind, but they are like Seneca’s maid, who was born blind, but she would not believe it. The house, says she, is dark, but I am not blind. Christ tells them they are naked, and offers his white robe to cover them, but they are of a different persuasion; and because they are blind, they cannot see themselves naked. How many have perished by being their own saviours! O that this might drive the proud sinner out of himself! A man never comes to himself till he comes out of himself. And no man can come out, till first Christ comes in.
If poverty of spirit be so necessary, how shall I know that I am poor in spirit? By the blessed effects of this poverty, which are:
1 He that is poor in spirit is weaned from himself. ‘My soul is even as a weaned child’ (Psalm 131:2). It is hard for a man to be weaned from himself. The vine catches hold of everything that is near, to stay itself upon. There is some bough or other a man would be catching hold of to rest upon. How hard is it to be brought quite off himself! The poor in spirit are divorced from themselves; they see they must go to hell without Christ. ‘My soul is even as a weaned child’.
2 He that is poor in spirit is a Christ-admirer. He has high thoughts of Christ. He sees himself naked and flies to Christ that in his garments he may obtain the blessing. He sees himself wounded, and as the wounded deer runs to the water, so he thirsts for Christ’s blood, the water of life. Lord, says he, give me Christ or I die. Conscience is turned into a fiery serpent and has stung him; now all the world for a brazen serpent! He sees himself in a state of death; and how precious is one leaf of the tree of life, which is both for food and medicine! The poor in spirit sees all his riches lie in Christ, ‘wisdom, righteousness, sanctification . . ’. In every exigency he flies to this magazine and storehouse. He adores the all-fullness in Christ.
They say of the oil in Rheims, though they are continually almost spending it, yet it never wastes. And such is Christ’s blood; it can never be emptied. He that is poor in spirit has recourse still to this fountain. He sets an high value and appreciation upon Christ. He hides himself in Christ’s wounds. He bathes himself in his blood. He wraps himself in his robe. He sees a spiritual dearth and famine at home, but he makes out to Christ. ‘Show me the Lord (says he) and it sufficeth’.
3 He that is poor in spirit is ever complaining of his spiritual estate. He is much like a poor man who is ever telling you of his wants; he has nothing to help himself with; he is ready to starve. So it is with him that is poor in spirit. He is ever complaining of his wants, saying, I want a broken heart, a thankful heart. He makes himself the most indigent creature. Though he dares not deny the work of grace (which were a bearing false witness again the Spirit), yet he mourns he has no more grace. This is the difference between an hypocrite and a child of God. The hypocrite is ever telling what he has. A child of God complains of what he lacks. The one is glad he is so good, the other grieves he is so bad. The poor in spirit goes from ordinance to ordinance for a supply of his wants; he would fain have his stock increased. Try by this if you are poor in spirit. While others complain they want children, or they want estates, do you complain you want grace? This is a good sign. ‘There is that maketh himself poor yet hath great riches’ (Proverbs 13:7). Some beggars have died rich. The poor in spirit, who have lain all their lives at the gate of mercy and have lived upon the alms of free grace, have died rich in faith, heirs to a kingdom.
4 He that is poor in spirit is lowly in heart. Rich men are commonly proud and scornful, but the poor are submissive. The poor in spirit roll themselves in the dust in the sense of their unworthiness. ‘I abhor myself in dust’ (Job 42:6). He who is poor in spirit looks at another’s excellencies and his own infirmities. He denies not only his sins but his duties. The more grace he has, the more humble he is, because he now sees himself a greater debtor to God. If he can do any duty, he acknowledges it is Christ’s strength more than his own (Philippians 4:13). As the ship gets to the haven more by the benefit of the wind than the sail, so when a Christian makes any swift progress, it is more by the wind of God’s Spirit than the sail of his own endeavour. The poor in spirit, when he acts most like a saint, confesses himself ‘the chief of sinners’. He blushes more at the defect of his graces than others do at the excess of their sins. He dares not say he has prayed or wept. He lives, yet not he, but Christ lives in him (Galatians 2:20). He labours, yet not he, but the grace of God (1 Corinthians 15:10).
5 He who is poor in spirit is much in prayer. He sees how short he is of the standard of holiness, therefore begs for more grace; Lord, more faith, more conformity to Christ. A poor man is ever begging. You may know by this one that is poor in spirit. He is ever begging for a spiritual alms. He knocks at heaven-gate; he sends up sighs; he pours out tears; he will not away from the gate till he have his dole. God loves a modest boldness in prayer; such shall not be non-suited.
6 The poor in spirit is content to take Christ upon his own terms. The proud sinner will article and indent with Christ. He will have Christ and his pleasure, Christ and his covetousness. But he that is poor in spirit sees himself lost without Christ, and he is willing to have him upon his own terms, a Prince as well as a Saviour: ‘Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3:8). A castle that has long been besieged and is ready to be taken will deliver up on any terms to save their lives. He whose heart has been a garrison for the devil, and has held out long in opposition against Christ, when once God has brought him to poverty of spirit, and he sees himself damned without Christ, let God propound what articles he will, he will readily subscribe to them. ‘Lord, what wilt thou have me to do’ (Acts 9:6). He that is poor in spirit will do anything that he may have Christ. He will behead his beloved sin. He will, with Peter, cast himself upon the water to come to Christ.
7 He that is poor in spirit is an exalter of free grace. None so magnify mercy as the poor in spirit. The poor are very thankful. When Paul had tasted mercy, how thankfully does he adore free grace! ‘The grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant’ (1 Timothy 1:14). It was super-exuberant. He sets the crown of his salvation upon the head of free grace. As a man that is condemned and has a pardon sent him, how greatly he proclaims the goodness and clemency of his prince! So St Paul displays free grace in its orient colours. He interlines all his epistles with free grace. As a vessel that has been perfumed makes the wine taste of it, so St Paul, who was a vessel perfumed with mercy, makes all his epistles to taste of this perfume of free grace. They who are poor in spirit, bless God for the least crumb that falls from the table of free grace. Labour for poverty of spirit. Christ begins with this, and we must begin here if ever we be saved. Poverty of spirit is the foundation stone on which God lays the superstructure of glory.
There are four things may persuade Christians to be poor in spirit.
1 This poverty is your riches. You may have the world’s riches, and yet be poor. You cannot have this poverty without being made rich. Poverty of spirit entitles you to all Christ’s riches.
2 This poverty is your nobility. God looks upon you as persons of honour. He that is vile in his own eyes is precious in God’s eyes. The way to rise is to fall. God esteems the valley highest.
3 Poverty of spirit sweetly quiets the soul. When a man is brought off from himself to rest on Christ, what a blessed calm is in the heart! I am poor but ‘my God shall supply all my need’ (Philippians 4:19). I am unworthy but Christ is worthy. I am indigent, Christ is infinite. ‘Lead me to the rock that is higher than I’ (Psalm 61:2). A man is safe upon a rock. When the soul goes out of itself and centres upon the rock, Christ, now it is firmly settled upon its basis. This is the way to comfort. You will be wounded in spirit till you come to be poor in spirit.
4 Poverty of spirit paves a causeway for blessedness. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ Are you poor in spirit? You are blessed persons. Happy for you that ever you were born! If you ask, Wherein does this blessedness appear? read the next words, ‘Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’.
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