Living Out Poor in Spirit

Life_in_Tension_web“So when they had come together, they asked him, Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? He said to them, It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The tension that we feel within ourselves as Christians arises when we live out Jesus’ teaching. Honoring the “poor in spirit” in a world that honors the powerful, the rich and the famous puts us at odds with our natural selves. Why should I be humble in a world that rewards the proud? Who wants to be “a doormat” for those around us who are already looking for places to wipe their feet?

Jesus brought new meaning to the idea of the kingdom of God. He and John the Baptist both taught: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 3:2; 4:17 ESV) But John focused on judgment while Jesus emphasized forgiveness. Being forgiven by God, he permitted us then to forgive others (Matt 6:14-15). By emulating Jesus and accepting the Holy Spirit into our lives, we take on kingdom values. In our own sanctification, the kingdom of God breaks into our world. It is not, however, fully realized in us. It is only fully realized until Christ’s return [1]. The kingdom of God is already here, but not yet fully realized (Ladd 1991, 57-69).

Jesus’ disciples did not get it. When they asked the risen Christ—“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)—they are looking for Jesus to overthrow Roman rule and to re-establish the Jewish kingdom of David. This was the mandate of a kingly messiah, as one might interpret Psalm 2.

It is interesting that the kingdom focus is on sharing the Gospel and establishing a Godly community, not the modern preoccupation with love and freedom [2]. The double love command—love neighbor, love God (Matt 22: 36-40)—does not even appear in the Beatitudes. Jesus’ preeminent act of love was a sacrificial life-style that took him to the cross.  A humble person exhibits love and permits freedom (for the other ) through sacrificial living and dying [3].  Absent humility, love and freedom elevate self, not community.  Although the Apostle John speaks the most about love [4], it is the Apostle Paul who defines it.  He writes:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:4-7 ESV)

Interestingly, Paul uses the word love, but describes what it means to be humble in loving one’s neighbor.  The heart of agape love is humility.

Behind Matthew 5:3, the focus  on Isaiah 61:1 on bringing good news to the desperately poor is a critical departure for those focused on other things. What is the good news? God through Jesus Christ has redeemed us from bondage to sin. In our spiritual poverty, we are saved from the despair of life without meaning, from the obsession with ourselves, and from the addiction to useless things—especially a self-centered, sinful life.  Instead, life is given new meaning. Sin and death do not have the final word. We are free in to live within the boundaries of God’s love for us.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question is interesting—”It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7) Jesus refers to two types of time distinguished in Greek, translated here as times (chronos) and seasons (kairos). Chronos time is time measured by a wristwatch or calendar while kairos time thought of as a crisis or decision moment [4].  When God breaks into our lives, it is a kairos moment.

A fitting example of a kairos moment comes in the next versus: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV) In other words, the kingdom of God will come upon you through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit and in the act of evangelism. Whenever God enters our lives, we experience a crisis. The moment that you become a Christian, the kingdom of God is manifested and it is manifested in the act of evangelism.

The simplest act of evangelism imaginable is to be humble when everyone else is proud.


[1] Guelich (1982, 262) writes: “This tension between the Kingdom present and the Kingdom future, between the fulfillment and consummation of God’s promise of salvation for human history, applies not only to history but to the experience of the individual.”

[2] Guelich (1982, 413) writes:  “The conducted demanded represents neither a radicalizing of the Mosaic Law nor the streamlining of the complex Mosaic Law by use of the love commandments but a call for conduct that corresponds to the new relationship that God now offers to his own as seen in the coming of the Kingdom…Discipleship involved more than a legalistic obedience to the Law of Moses or even the “law” of Jesus; it also involved a totally different attitude and focus of one’s life in terms of Jesus Messiah and what he came to accomplish.”

[3] Jesus appears much less interested in political freedom than freedom from sin—hence, the need for the atonement of the cross. In fact, the path to freedom comes through discipleship (John 8:31-36).

[4] For example, Matthew uses the word, love, 11 times, Mark 5 times, Luke 13 times, and John 49 times.

[5] Chronos (BDAG 7991(1), χρόνος) is translated as: “an indefinite period of time during which some activity or event takes place, time, period of time.” Kairos (BDAD 3857(3), καιρός) is translated as: “a period characterized by some aspect of special crisis, time.”


Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Ladd, George Eldon. 1991. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

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