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"Blessed are the poor in spirit"...What does it mean to be poor in spirit?

Staff Member
This is a great passage that is usually misunderstood and misinterpreted. I decided to share some little bible studies in this subject while listening to an Andy Stanley sermon on the subject.

Below portion from GotQuestions

In the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). What exactly does it mean to be poor in spirit, and why does being poor in spirit result in the kingdom of heaven? Why is “poor in spirit” something God wants us to be? Why would God want us to be “poor” at anything?

Some propose that Jesus is speaking of financial poverty, that He is advocating being poor so that riches and possession don’t come between us and God. While it is true that Jesus elsewhere warned against seeking riches (Matthew 6:24), that does not seem to be Jesus’ point in Matthew 5:3. Jesus is speaking of being “poor in spirit”; i.e., being “spiritually poor.” In the beatitudes, Jesus is concerned with spiritual realities, not material possessions. What, then, does it mean to be spiritually poor?

To be poor in spirit is to recognize your utter spiritual bankruptcy before God. It is understanding that you have absolutely nothing of worth to offer God. Being poor in spirit is admitting that, because of your sin, you are completely destitute spiritually and can do nothing to deliver yourself from your dire situation. Jesus is saying that, no matter your status in life, you must recognize your spiritual poverty before you can come to God in faith to receive the salvation He offers.

Why and how does being poor in spirit result in the kingdom of heaven? While the phrase can be broad in meaning, “kingdom of heaven” essentially refers to salvation. The kingdom of heaven is both eternity in heaven with God after death (Romans 6:23) and the eternal quality of life with God before death (John 10:10). God offers us salvation as a gift, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, the full payment for sin’s penalty. Before we can receive this gift, we must understand that we cannot make ourselves worthy of it. Salvation is by grace through faith, not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9). We must recognize our sinfulness before we can understand our need for a Savior. We must admit our spiritual poverty before we can receive the spiritual riches God offers (Ephesians 1:3). We must, in short, be “poor in spirit.”

When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” He is declaring that, before we can enter God’s kingdom, we must recognize the utter worthlessness of our own spiritual currency and the inability of our own works to save us.


Even a well-known passage, when explored and dissected, can provide us with a new perspective.

From InTouch

The Roman Colosseum was a wonder of ancient engineering. In this massive structure, as many as 55,000 spectators attended gladiatorial contests, mock sea battles, animal hunts, and dramatic presentations. How such spectacles were created wouldn’t have been obvious to the average observer, who didn’t know the building’s design but saw only what took place on the immense arena floor. It all would have been impossible without the hypogeum—the “underground.” This vast network of passageways, cells, and ramps beneath the arena housed the wild animals, props, and army of slaves necessary to create the sights and sounds enjoyed by the Roman populace.

Sometimes, the best way to understand an object or concept—whether it’s grand like the Colosseum or as diminutive as a butterfly’s wing—is to step back and explore it as a whole. At the same time, studying at close range to see how the intricate parts work together can also yield much fruit. That is certainly true of the Beatitudes found in Matthew’s Gospel. To understand what’s really being said through this list of blessings introducing the Sermon on the Mount, we must look to the structure.

A Wide-Angle Lens

At the end of chapter four, Matthew tells us that Jesus was “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness” (Matt. 4:23). In 9:35, the same phrase is repeated. But this repetition is no mere case of lazy writing. Rather, Matthew’s summary statements are like bookends that help his readers know how to understand the chapters in between.

The Sermon on the Mount offers an example of the teaching mentioned in Matthew 4 and 9, and the miracles of chapters 8 and 9 give a glimpse into Jesus’ healing ministry. The healing accounts declare loudly that God’s coming kingdom will have no brokenness, oppression, sadness, or loss. And the Beatitudes’ ethics are a proclamation of God’s kingdom—of how things should and will be because it is already breaking into our world.

A Microscope

Each of the beatitudes has two parts—a pronouncement of blessing and a reason for that blessing. But notice that the first and last reasons are the same: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3, 10). By opening and closing the list this way, Jesus is telling His disciples that all of these blessings, from the first to the last, are of the kingdom. Mourning, gentleness, and peacemaking, for example, are blessed ways of life only if God’s kingdom is indeed coming. So, too, Jesus’ promises have weight only in a kingdom where He reigns.

But there’s something else that distinguishes the first and last beatitudes from the rest. While the others are all future tense—“they shall be comforted . . . they shall inherit the earth . . . they shall be satisfied” (vv. 4-6, emphasis added)—the first and last beatitudes are in the present tense. They read, “Theirs isthe kingdom of God” (vv. 3-10, emphasis added). Here, Jesus is saying something that is hinted at throughout the Gospels: God’s kingdom is already here, and it also hasn’t yet arrived. (See Matt. 12:28; Luke 11:2.) That’s why He can proclaim the blessing here and now while also speaking about the blessings of a future kingdom. It’s the reason why those who mourn, those who make peace, and those who face persecution are blessed: The kingdom of heaven has begun to invade earth. Yet there is still a time for mourning, a need for peacemaking, and the threat of persecution because the kingdom has not yet come in its fullness.

A Panoramic Shot

Finally, to truly understand the impact of the Beatitudes, as well as the entire Sermon on the Mount, we must look to the beginning and the end of the scene. Doing so allows us to view two extreme ends simultaneously and gain a new perspective.

The scene opens with Jesus sitting down on a mountainside to instruct His disciples (Matt. 5:1-2). A parallel account makes it clear that the teaching is directed toward the 12 (Luke 6:20); however, it is “the crowds [who are] amazed at [Jesus’] teaching” (7:28). It seems that as the Lord taught His followers, those on the fringes were listening in and marveling at what they heard. As we have already seen, the kingdom of God described by Jesus is both already here and not yet come. Jesus taught His disciples, those “already here.” But it is those “not yet come”—the crowds—who are most impacted by His words.

This is the nature of the kingdom. As we who love Jesus live in its light, we may look strange to observers. But those who live out the Beatitudes and the ethics of Jesus’ sermon—those who are merciful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and those who are pure in heart—speak hope to a world in desperate need of it. It’s the challenge and the promise of these short, powerful statements of Jesus, words that have the power to change the course of history.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Just as those who are materially poor have little to offer monetarily, people who are poor in spirit stand before God with open hands, wholly dependent upon Him.

These are the ones with nothing to recommend them but their own spiritual rags, and yet God has given them His abundant kingdom. In truth, we are all spiritually naked, without even those rags to call our own. But for everyone who recognizes his great need, Jesus declares God’s overwhelming provision both here and in eternity.

Lived Out

Kate was given a little orange Bible while walking through the midway of the Kentucky State Fair. And it was with her the next day, buried among packs of cigarettes, keys, and wads of small bills, when she went to work at a dingy strip club. She transferred it from purse to purse, even as she continued the daily disgrace of being objectified, pimped, and humiliated. She didn’t know any other life. But she read that Bible and wondered if Jesus could ever forgive the things she had done.

This is what it means to be poor in spirit. Those who can be described in this way recognize their need and long for redemption.

Almost 20 years passed. And then Jesus walked into her strip club.

Not Jesus in shining glory, but Jesus in an ordinary, friendly face. To be precise, in the person of a handful of missionary ladies who began visiting backstage on a regular basis. Not long after that, Kate put her trust in Jesus and left the club. Now she works to help get other ladies out, too.

You see, it isn’t about our circumstances; it’s about our hearts. It’s about having been softened enough by the hardships of life and the grace of God to know how desperate we are. It’s about knowing that there’s no difference between “us” and “them,” that someone on the streets or behind bars or working as an exotic dancer is no more and no less in need of God’s mercy than we are. It means knowing that in our “wealth,” we are still poor and sharing the grace we’ve received.

—Mike Cosper
Wow thank you for that first explanation describing us as being totally spiritually worthless. That is ultimate humility. That was a great explanation. I think the Beatitudes are what we must live by to enter Heaven and Jesus is the only answer.
Agree with what the article says about coming to God in spiritual poverty, but I don't think this what Jesus had in mind when giving the beatitudes.

The people who heard the original sermon on the mount were the crowds of ordinary powerless people, not those considered the spiritual elite, such as the pharisees. It was a radical message: the kingdom of heaven is for the ordinary folk.

Are you poor, downtrodden and broken? You're the kind of person Jesus came for.

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