Living Out Poor in Spirit

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101So 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)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The First Beatitude—Honored are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven—pairs humility in tension with power. Humility makes room in our lives for God but pride pushes God out. 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.

Ladd (1991, 57–69) sees the kingdom of God as already here, but not yet fully realized.

Kingdom of Heaven

The obliqueness of the First Beatitude arises because the phrase, kingdom of heaven, is a circumlocution (a round-about way of describing) for the name of God. In Jewish tradition, the covenant name of God (YHWH) is holy and can only be properly used in the context of public worship; in other contexts, other words—such as kingdom of heaven, LORD, or, simply, the Name—are substituted out of respect for the holiness of God’s name. With these substitutions, the First Beatitude might accordingly be rewritten: honored are the humble, for God will come into their life.

Understanding the First Beatitude sheds light on another distinctive teaching of Jesus. Jesus and John the Baptist both taught—“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 3:2; 4:17)—but John focused on judgment while Jesus focused on forgiveness. Because forgiveness leaves space for God’s judgment and humility makes forgiveness easier, both forgiveness and humility work to make room for God in our lives (Matt 6:14–15).

Humility in the Old Testament

Humility signals that God is welcome in our lives, as the life of Abraham illustrates. Abraham was clearly hospitable, a kind of humility (Gen 18:2–5), and God blesses him: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3) God’s blessing is clearly meant to be shared—Abraham is blessed to be a blessing to others. God blesses Abraham with His presence, with sharing His plans for the future (Gen 18), and with offering His provision and protection in spite of Abraham’s obvious duplicity (Gen 20). 

The importance of humility is most clearly stated in God’s response to King Solomon’s prayer dedicating the first temple in Jerusalem:

if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chr 7:14)

Here we see that humility is a precondition for God’s presence, forgiveness, and healing.

Space for God

Pride, the opposite of humility, may also be an occasion for God’ to enter our lives, as is revealed in Jesus’ response to the disciples’ impertinent question in Acts 1:6-8,cited above.

In his response, Jesus tells the disciples that they cannot usurp God’s sovereign authority and then, like a good leader, refocuses their attention on the mission. In his explanation of the mission, Jesus refers to the two types of time, translated here as times (χρόνος; “chronos”) and seasons (καιρός; “kairos”). Chronos time is time measured by a wristwatch (or calendar) that might be thought of as is a season of waiting on the Lord. Kairos time is a moment of divine revelation, a crisis for us when everything changes.

When we humble ourselves, we invite God to enter our lives, which can be a time of blessing, forgiveness or healing. When we do not, God acts sovereignly to accomplish his plans, with or without us.


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: Eerdman.

Living Out Poor in Spirit

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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