Sermon on the Mount – Poor in Spirit and Those Who Mourn

Matthew 5:3-6

The beatitudes are broken up, like a lot of things in the Bible, into you relating to God and then you relating to people. The first four – the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – are how we relate to God.  The second clause is how He relates back to us – theirs is the kingdom, will be comforted, shall inherit the earth, will be filled. We will hit two of these this week and the other two next week.


What does it mean to be poor in spirit? The best descriptor I can across was ‘spiritual bankruptcy’. However the focus isn’t necessarily on ‘poor’ in the sense that you aren’t very good at being spiritual, it is more in realizing that you are ‘bankrupt’. It is how Isaiah feels before the thrown of God when he says ‘woe to me, I am a man of unclean lips’. That is what knowing you are poor in spirit sounds like.

What about the opposite, what is rich in spirit? First of all, you can’t be rich, because of our fallen nature. We are too sinful to be rich in spirit, which is why Paul says I keep doing what I don’t want to do. Basically, I know I shouldn’t sin, but I just keep on sinning anyway. Self-righteousness is what happens when you think you are rich. That is the message to the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:17 – For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

I have this quote in my notes, but forgot to attribute it, I think it was Martyn Lloyd-Jones, that you must empty yourself before you can be fill by God. Being poor in spirit means you realize what you have isn’t worth much, especially compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ, so you are willing to give that up and look to God for fulfilment.


Who are those that mourn? Reading through the commentaries and studies on this, there didn’t seem to be much in the way on consensus. There were four main ideas of what we are mourning, but the support for each seemed fairly well spread out. Those who mourn may be mourning:

  1. Their own sin
  2. The humiliation/destruction of Israel
  3. Their persecution
  4. A broken and sinful world

I am least inclined to agree with number 3, for one, it is early enough on in Christ’s ministry, that there are not any ‘Christians’ yet, and so it would have to mean some future persecution that those who are beginning to follow would have to be aware of now. Mostly, though, I don’t think it fits in this section of the beatitudes. Persecution is discussed, but it comes later; and working in the framework of the first four beatitudes being about our reaction to God, persecution doesn’t fit.

I’m also less inclined to go with number two, but mostly because it is difficult to understand (for today). DA Carson makes the argument that the mourning is the current low position of Israel and the coming destruction of the temple. As Matthew is the most Jewish focused of the Gospels, this seems to make sense. He points to the weeping remnant that mourns and that there is an eschatological hope for future comfort. This is pretty clean academically, but I struggle with the focus being so narrow. There aren’t any more first century Jews around. I’m two thousand years later, living on the other side of the world. Doesn’t mean it is the wrong interpretation, but it moves it from a broader point about life, to a specific time and place; which I’m not convinced fits in the Sermon.

Number four is related to this, in a way, but is still able to have a more broad meaning. It carries the same eschatological sense, but can be applied for today and for any Christian throughout the world. We can look around and mourn the sinfulness and brokenness of this world, but be comforted by the fact that Christ will come again. That is the ‘will be comforted’ part, that the world will be restored in the new Earth after his coming. This interpretation is probably the easiest to fit and understand, and I think is the best way to go.

Relatedly, but without the future earth and kingdom restoration connotations, is mourning our own sin. The comfort then is less about restoration, but more individualized, with the comfort being deliverance from God’s penalty. So, we mourn our own sinfulness, but we will be comforted because the penalty has been paid for us and we do not incur the wrath of God.

That is it for this week, check back next Monday for my thoughts on the Meek and Those Who Hunger & Thirst for Righteousness.

Commentaries used in this series:
Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary)
The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7 : Christian Counter-Culture)
Studies in the Sermon on the Mount
Matthew (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)
The Expositor’s Bible commentary : Matthew, Mark, Luke, with the New international version of the Holy Bible (Expositor’s Bible commentary, Vol.8)
Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries)
New Bible Commentary