Chapter 4 – The Poverty of Christ

“You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” 2 Cor. 8:9.

“Through his poverty”: what does that mean? That He dispossessed Himself of all heavenly and earthly possessions that the riches of earth and heaven might be ours? That He so took our place, as in our stead to walk in the path of earthly poverty, that we in comfort and ease might enjoy the heavenly riches he has won for us? Or has that “through his poverty” a deeper meaning, and does it imply that His poverty is the very path or passage that He opened up through which all must go who would fully enter into His riches? Does it mean that, just as He needed in poverty of spirit and body to die to the world that He might open for us the way to the heavenly treasures, so we need to walk in His footsteps, and can only through His poverty working in us, through fellowship with His poverty, come to the perfect enjoyment of the riches He came to bring? In other words, is the poverty of Jesus something for Him alone, or something in which his disciples are to share?

There is scarce a trait in the life and character of Christ in which we do not look to Him as an example — what are the lessons His Holy Poverty has to teach? Is the right to possess and enjoy the riches of earth as it is now everywhere practiced in the Church part of what Christ has secured for us? Or, is it possible that the lack of faith in the beauty and blessedness of the poor life of Christ Jesus is part of the cause of our spiritual poverty; our lack of Christ’s poverty the cause of our lack of His riches? Is there not a needs-be that we not only think of the one side, “for your sakes he became poor”; but as much of the other, “For His sake I suffer the loss of all things?”

In seeking an answer to these questions, we must first turn and gaze upon our blessed Lord, if maybe the Holy Spirit will unfold somewhat of the glory of this His blessed attribute. Unless our heart be fixed upon our Lord in patient and prayerful contemplation, and we wait for the Holy Spirit to give us His illumination, we may indeed have our thoughts about this Divine poverty, but we cannot really behold its glory, or have its power and blessing enter our life. May God give us understanding!

Why Christ had to become poor. We must first of all see what the reason — the needs-be — was of this earthly poverty of Christ. He might have lived on earth possessed of riches, and dispensing them with wise and liberal hand. He might have come in the enjoyment of a moderate competency, just enough to keep Him from the dependence and homelessness which was His lot. In either case He might have taught His people of all ages such precious and much-needed lessons as to the right use of the things of this world. What a sermon His life would have been on the far-reaching words: “They that buy as though they possessed not.” But no, there was a Divine necessity that His life must be one of entire poverty. In seeking for the explanation, we shall find two classes of reasons. There are those which have reference to us and His work for us as our Savior. There are others which are more closely connected with His own personal life as man, and the work the Father wrought in Him, as He perfected Him through suffering.

Of the reasons referring to His work, the principal ones are easily named. Christ’s poverty is part of His entire and deep humiliation, a proof of His perfect humility — His willingness to descend to the very lowest depths of human misery, and to share to the full in all the consequences of sin. The poor have in all ages been despised, while the rich have been sought and honored: Christ came to be the despised and neglected of men in this, too.

Christ’s poverty has ever been counted one of the proofs of His love.

Love delights in giving, perfect love in giving all. The poverty of Christ is one of the expressions of that self-sacrificing love which held back nothing, and seeks to win us for itself by the most absolute self-abnegation on our behalf. Christ’s poverty is His fitness for sympathizing and helping us in all the trials that come to us from our relation to this world and its goods. The majority of mankind has to struggle with poverty. The majority of God’s saints have been a poor and afflicted people. The poverty of Christ has been to tens of thousands the assurance that He could feel for them; that, even as with Him, earthly need was to be the occasion for heavenly help, the school for a life of faith, and the experience of God’s faithfulness the path to heavenly riches.

Christ’s poverty is the weapon and the proof of His complete victory over the world. As our Redeemer, He proved by His poverty that His kingdom is not of this world, that as little as He feared its threats or its death could He be tempted to seek help from its wealth or strength.

But these reasons are more external and official; the deeper spiritual significance of Christ’s poverty will be disclosed as we regard it as part of His training as the Son of Man, and His exhibition of what the true life of man is to be.

Christ’s poverty was part of that suffering through which He learned obedience and was perfected by God as our High Priest. To human nature poverty must ever be a trial. We were made to be kings and possessors of all things. To have nothing costs suffering.

Christ’s human nature was not, as the Docetae taught, a mere appearance or show. There never was one so really, so intensely, a man as Christ Jesus: “true man of true man.” Poverty implies dependence on others; it means contempt and shame; it often brings want and suffering; it always lacks the means and power of earth. Our blessed Lord felt all this as man. And it was part of that suffering through which the Father worked out His will in His Son, and the Son proved His submission to the Father, and His absolute trust in Him.

Christ’s poverty was part of His school of faith, in which He Himself first learned, and then taught men, that life is more than meat, and that man lives “not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” In His own life He had to prove that God and the riches of heaven can more than satisfy a man who has nothing on earth; that trust in God for the earthly life is not vain; that one only needs as much as it pleases God to give. In His person we have witness to the power which comes with the preaching of the Kingdom of Heaven when the Preacher Himself is the evidence of its sufficiency.

Christ’s poverty was one of the marks of His entire separation from the world, the proof that He was of another world and another spirit. As it was with the fruit good for food and pleasant to the eye, sin entered the world, so the great power of the world over men is in the cares and possessions and enjoyments of this life. Christ came to conquer the world and cast out its prince, to win the world back to God. He did so by refusing every temptation to accept its gifts or seek its aid. Of this protest against the worldly spirit, its self-pleasing and its trust in the visible, the poverty of Christ was one of the chief elements. He overcame the world first in the temptations by which its prince sought to ensnare Himself, then and through that in its power over us. The poverty of Christ was thus no mere accident or external circumstance. It was an essential element of His holy, perfect life; one great secret of this power to conquer and to save; His path to the Glory of God.

The Poverty of Christ’s Disciples.

We want to know what our share in this poverty of Christ is to be, whether and how far we are to follow His example. Let us study what Christ taught His disciples. When he said to them, “Follow Me,” “Come after Me, I will make you fishers of men,” He called them to share with Him in His poor and homeless life, in His state of entire dependence upon the care of God and the kindness of men. He more than once used strong expressions about forsaking all, renouncing all, losing all. And that they understood His call so is manifest from their forsaking nets and customs, and saying, through Peter, “We have forsaken all and followed You.” The call of Christ to come after Him is often applied as if it was the call to repentance and salvation. This is by no means the case. The principles the call involves have their universal application; but, to expound and enforce them in truth, it is of great consequence first to understand the meaning of the call in its original intention. Christ separated for Himself a band of men who were to live with Him in closest fellowship, in entire conformity to His life, under his immediate training. These three conditions were indispensable for their receiving the Holy Spirit, for being true witnesses to Him and the life which He had lived and would impart to men. With them, as with Him, the surrender of all property and the acceptance of a state of poverty was manifestly a condition and a means without which the full possession of the heavenly riches in such power as to convince men of their worth could not come.

With Paul the case appears to have been very little different. Without any express command we know of, the Spirit of his Master so possessed him, and made the eternal world so real and glorious to him, that its expulsive power made every thought of property or position disappear. He learnt to give utterance, as no one else ever could do, to what must have been our Blessed Lord’s inmost life in the words he uses of himself: “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing all things.” And in his wonderful life, as in his writings, he proves what weight it gives to the testimony concerning eternal things when the witness can appeal to his own experience of the infinite satisfaction which the unseen riches can give. In Paul, as in Christ, poverty was the natural consequence of an all-consuming passion, and made him a channel through whom the Invisible Power could flow full and free.

The poverty of Christ in His Church.

The history of the church tells us a sad story of the increase of wealth and worldly power, and the proportionate loss of the heavenly gift with which she had been entrusted, and which could alone bless the nations. The contrast to the Apostolic state is set in the clearest light by a story that is told of one of the Popes. When Thomas Aquinas first visited Rome, and expressed his amazement at all the wealth he saw, the Pope said, “We can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” “No, indeed;” was the answer, “nor can we say, ‘What I have, that give I you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.’” The earthly poverty and the heavenly power had been closely allied, with the one the other had gone. Through successive ages the conviction ever came that it was only by a return to poverty that the bonds of earth beneath would be broken and the blessing from above brought back. And many a vain attempt was made to secure to poverty a place in the preaching and practice of the church such as it had been in Pentecostal days. At times, the earnest efforts of holy men met with temporary success, soon to give way again to the terrible power of the great enemy — the world.

There were various reasons for this failure. One was that men understood not that in Christianity it is not an external act or state that can profit, but only the spirit that animates. The words of Christ were forgotten: “The Kingdom of God is within you;” and men expected from poverty what only the Spirit of Christ, revealing itself in poverty, could accomplish. Men sought to make a law of it, to bind under its rules and gather into its brotherhoods, souls that had no inner calling or capacity for such imitation of Christ. The church sought to invest poverty with the mantle of a peculiar holiness, and by its doctrine of Counsels of Perfection to offer a reward for this higher perfection. She taught that, while what was commanded in the Gospel was the duty of all, there were certain acts or modes of living which were left to the choice of the disciple. They were not of binding obligation; to follow these counsels was more than simple obedience, a work of supererogation which therefore had special merit. Out of this grew the doctrine of the power the church has to dispense this surplus merit of the saints to those who were lacking. And, in some cases, poverty became only a new source of self-righteousness, entering into covenant with wealth, and casting its dark and deadly shadow over those it promised to save.

At the time of the Reformation, poverty had become so desecrated as a part of the great system of evil it had to combat, that, in casting out those errors, it cast out a part of the truth with them. Since that time it is as if our Protestant theology has never ventured to enquire what the place and the meaning and the power is which Christ and the Apostle really gave poverty in their teaching and practice. And even in our days, when God is still raising up not a few witnesses to the blessedness of giving up all to trust in Him, and of possessing nothing that one may possess him the more fully, the church can hardly be said to have found the right expression for its faith in the spirit of Christ’s poverty, as a power that is still to be counted as one of the gifts He bestows on some members of His church. It will be found that there is no small difficulty in trying to formulate the teaching of Scripture so as to meet the views of Evangelical believers.

The poverty of Christ in our days.

I have spoken above of the errors connected with the teaching of the Counsels of Perfection. And yet there was a measure of truth in that teaching, too. The error was to say that the highest conformity to Christ was not a matter of duty, but of option. Scripture says, “To him that knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin.”

Wherever God’s will is known, it must be obeyed. The mistake would have been avoided if attention had been paid to the difference of knowledge or spiritual insight by which our apprehensions of duty are affected. There is a diversity of gift and capacity, of spiritual receptivity and growth, of calling and grace, which makes a difference, not in the obligation of each to seek the most complete inner conformity to Christ, but in the possibility of externally manifesting that conformity in such ways as were seen in Christ.

During the three years of His public career, Christ gave Himself and His whole time to direct work for God. He did not labor for His livelihood. He chose for Himself disciples who would follow Him in this, forsaking all for direct work in the service of the Kingdom. For admission to this inner circle of Christ’s chosen ones, Christ demanded what He did not from those who only came seeking salvation. They were to share with Him in the work and the glory of the new Kingdom; they must share with Him in the poverty that owns nothing for this world.

From what has been said above it is clear that no law can be laid down. It is not a question of law, but of liberty. But we must understand that word “liberty” aright. Too often Christian liberty is spoken of as our freedom from too great restraint in sacrificing our own will, or the enjoyment of the world. Its real meaning is the very opposite. True love asks to be as free as possible from self and the world to bring its all to God. Instead of the question, “How far am I, as a Christian, free still to do this or the other?” The truly free spirit asks, “How far am I free to follow Christ to the uttermost! Does the freedom with which Christ has made me free really give us the liberty, in a love, which longs for the closest possible likeness and union with Him — still to forsake all and follow Him! Among the gifts and calling he still dispenses to His church will there not be some whom by His spirit He still draws in this particular, too, to bear and show forth His image? Do we not need as much as when He and His apostles were upon earth, men and women to give concrete and practical evidence that the man who literally gives up all of earthly possession because he sets his heart upon the treasure in heaven, can count upon God to provide for the things of earth?

Is not, amid the universal confession of worldliness in the church and the Christian life, just this the protest that is needed against the so subtle but mighty claim that the world makes upon us? In connection with every church and mission and work of philanthropy the question is asked, “How is it that in Christian countries hundreds of millions are spent on luxuries, with scarce single millions for God’s work? Calculations are made as to what could be done if all Christians were only to be moderately liberal. I fear all such argument avails little.

Help must come from a different direction.

It was of the innermost circle that He had gathered around Himself that Christ asked a poverty as absolute as His own. It is in the innermost circle of God’s children, among those who make the highest profession of insight into the riches of grace and their entire surrender to it, that we must find the witnesses that His Spirit can still inspire and strengthen to bear His poverty. He has done it, and is doing it. In many a missionary and Salvation Army officer, in many a humble unknown worker, His Spirit is working out this trait of His blessed likeness. In the days we are looking for of deeper revival among God’s children He will do it still more abundantly.

Blessed are all they who wait for him, to receive His teaching, to know His mind, and show forth His holy likeness. It is as the first, the inner, circle proves the power of His presence, that the second and the third will feel the influence. Men of moderate means, who may feel no calling to the poor life, will come under the constraining power of the example and feel compelled to sacrifice far more of comfort and enjoyment in Christ’s service than they ever did before. And the rich will have their attention attracted to the danger signals God has set along their path. (Luke 18:25, Matt. 6:19, 21, 1 Tim. 6: 9, 10, 16). And will, by these examples, if they may not themselves share in Christ’s poverty, at least be helped to set their hearts more intensely upon the treasure in heaven — the being rich in faith, rich in good works, rich toward God — and themselves heirs of God, heirs of the riches of grace, and the riches of glory.

Christ’s poverty and the riches it brings.

“That you through His poverty might become rich.” His POVERTY not only as an object of our faith, but as a matter of experience and fellowship is the passage through which the fullest entrance is gained into his riches. Let us present together some of the aspects we have already pointed out of the blessedness Christ’s poverty and its voluntary fellowship brings.

What an aid to the spiritual life. It helps to throw the soul on God and the unseen; to realize the absoluteness of His presence and care in the least things of daily life; and is to make trust in God the actual moving spring of every temporal as well as spiritual interest. And because it is not possible to claim God’s interposition for every day’s food, if a man is not consciously walking in tender and full obedience, it links the soul to God’s will and way by the closest of ties. The hourly needs of the body, which are so often our greatest hindrance, become wonderful helps in lifting our entire life into communion with God, and in bringing God down into everything. It elevates the spirit above the temporal, and teaches us in every state always to be content, always to rejoice and to praise.

What a protest against the spirit of this world. There is nothing the Christian life suffers more from than the subtle and indescribable worldliness that comes from the cares or the possessions of this life. Through it the God of this world exercises his hidden but terrible power. This is the Delilah in whose lap the God-separated Nazarite becomes impotent and sleeps. To awaken and shake out of this sleep more than preaching is needed, more than the ordinary Christian liberality, which quite comports with the full enjoyment of all that abundance can supply: there is needed the demonstration of the Spirit and of power that God enables men, and makes it to them an indescribable blessedness, like their Lord, to give up everything of the earth that they may more fully possess, and prove, and proclaim the sufficiency of the heavenly riches and the satisfaction they give. The protest against the spirit of this world will become the mightiest proclamation of the kingdom of heaven, the self-evidencing revelation of how heaven can even now take possession.

What entrance it will give into the image and likeness of Jesus. We adore our Lord in the form of a servant, and worship Him in it as the most perfect possible manifestation of a Godlike Humility and Love. His poverty was an integral and essential part of that form of a servant in which He dwelt. In all ages the love of some has given them no rest in the desire to attain the closest possible conformity to the blessed Lord. In Him the outer and inner were in such living harmony that the connection was not accidental; the one was the only perfect and fit expression of the other. In the body of Christ there are great diversities of gifts; the whole body is not eye, or ear, or tongue. So there are some who have the calling and gift to manifest this trait of His image, and for the sake of their brethren and the world, keep alive the memory of this too much neglected part of the ever blessed Incarnation. Blessed they Whom his Holy Spirit makes the representatives of this His wondrous grace that, though He was rich, He became poor.

What a power then this poverty of Christ becomes to make others rich. It is through His poverty we become rich. His poverty in His people brings the same blessing. In the church, many who do not feel the calling, or who in God’s providence are not allowed to follow their desire for it, will be stirred and strengthened by the sight. When some witness testifies to the blessedness of entire conformity, others who are not called to this path will feel urged, in the midst of the property they possess and retain, to seek for as near an approach in spirit as is allowed them. Christian giving will not only be more liberal in amount, but more liberal in spirit, in the readiness and cheerfulness in the forethought and the actual self-sacrifice by which it will be animated.

Through their poverty, too, through Christ’s poverty in them, many shall be made rich. Just as a specialist devotes himself to some limited branch of (say) medical science, and all profit by the exclusiveness of his researches, so through these, too, who love and live in and make manifest the poverty of our Lord, the church becomes all the richer. Through them the poverty of Christ gets a place in many hearts where it was not known, and it is seen how this was part of His overcoming the world, and how it may be a part of our victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.

Christ’s poverty and our duty.

I have said that all have not the same calling. How are we to know what our calling is? We may so easily allow ignorance or prejudice, self-indulgence or worldliness, human wisdom or unbelief to sway us, to keep us from the simplicity of the perfect heart, and to blind us to the full light of God’s perfect will. Let us see where the position is in which perfect safety will be found, and where we may confidently count upon the Divine guidance and approval.

A fortnight ago I stood by the bedside of a dying servant of God, Rev. Geo. Ferguson, the principal of our Mission Institute. He told me how he had been meditating on a text that had come in the course of his preparation for his Mission class: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they will be as white as snow.” As he thought, it was as if one said to him, “White as snow, do you know what that is?” His answer was, “No, Lord, You only know, I do not.” And then the question came, “White as snow, can you attain that? — can you make yourself that?” “No, Lord, I cannot; but You can.” And, again, he was asked, “Are you willing that I should do it?” “Yes, Lord, by Your grace I am willing. You should do all You can.”

The three questions just suggest what our duty is. The heavenly poverty of Jesus Christ — do you know what it is? What it is in Him, in his disciples and in Paul, in His saints in later days? What it would be in you? Let the answer be, “No, Lord, You know.” This is what we need first and most of all. If God were to open our eyes to see the spiritual glory of our Lord in His poverty, in His entire renunciation of everything of worldly comfort or self-pleasing; if we saw the Divine glory of which it is the expression; if we knew how infinitely beautiful it was to all the holy angels, how infinitely well-pleasing to the Father, we should then only in some little degree be able to say whether it was something we ought to desire and imitate. If we saw the heavenliness and the measure of the likeness to our Lord it would bring into our life, we should say, “I have spoken of what I knew not — Oh, that God would show me His glory in this too: ‘for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might be rich’!” Before you judge of it, pray by the Holy Spirit to know it.

Then comes the second question. “Can you attain it? Can you, in the likeness of Jesus, give up everything in the world for God and your fellow men, and find your joy in the heavenly riches and the blessedness of dependence upon God alone?” “No, Lord, I cannot; but You can work.” Come and gaze upon the Son of God and worship as you think. It was God that made Him what He was, and that God can, by His mighty power, work in me His Divine likeness. Ask God to reveal by His Spirit, what the poverty of Jesus is, and then to work in you as much of it as you can bear. Be sure of this, the deeper your entrance into His poverty, the richer you are.

And if the last question comes to search the heart — “Are you willing for it?” — then, surely, your answer will be ready: “By Your grace, I am!” You may see no way out of all the complications of your life. You may dread bringing upon yourself sacrifices and trials you could not bear. Be not afraid: you surely cannot fear giving yourself up to God’s perfect love to work out His perfect will. For all He really means you to do He will most surely give light and strength. The Throne of Riches and Honor and Glory to which the Lamb has been exalted is surely proof enough that there is no surer way for us to riches and honor than through His poverty. The soul that in simplicity yields to the leading of her Lord will find that the fellowship of His suffering brings even here the fellowship of His glory:

“Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might be rich.”