Question: "What does it mean to be poor in spirit?"
Answer: 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.