What Does It Mean to Be Poor in Spirit?

The Lord Jesus began His teaching commonly known as the “sermon on the mount” with a wonderful blessing: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens” (Matthew 5:3). Surely we all desire such a blessing! So then we need to ask ourselves, What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”?

Does this mean we realize we’re worthless, miserable sinners who need a Savior? Is this a word only for people who haven’t yet received salvation? If we continue to read Jesus’ words further on, we can see that He spoke this whole section in Matthew to those who believe in Him. For example, in verse 10 Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” And in verses 13-14 He says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world.” It is the believers who are the salt of the earth and the light of the world and who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. So according to these verses and others, all the blessings spoken of here are for the believers!

Perhaps we think that to be poor in spirit means our spiritual condition is bad, or we have nothing spiritually valuable in us. But Jesus says that a person who is poor in spirit is blessed. So how could we be blessed for something so negative? Actually, to be poor in spirit is wonderfully positive and incredibly beneficial to our Christian lives, as we’ll see in this post.

Poor “in spirit”

To understand what it means to be poor in spirit, we first have to know what this “spirit” is. We can see that “spirit” in Matthew 5:3 is not capitalized as it would have been if it referred to the Holy Spirit. Instead, this word refers specifically to part of a person’s inner being. We can even see in verse 8 that the phrase “pure in heart” parallels “poor in spirit,” and the heart is clearly another inward part of our being.

The “spirit” the Lord refers to here is our human spirit, our deepest part. God created us with a body to contact the physical world, a soul to contact the psychological world, and a spirit to contact and receive God, who is Spirit.

So what does “poor in spirit” mean?

Because the Lord Jesus says “poor in spirit,” clearly He is not saying we’re blessed if we’re poor in material possessions. No, this verse speaks of spiritual things. But what does it mean to be poor in this way, and why is it a blessing?

Poor—emptied and unloaded

In the Recovery Version of the New Testament, note 2 on Matthew 5:3 says,

“To be poor in spirit is not only to be humble but also to be emptied in our spirit, not holding on to the old things of the old dispensation but unloaded to receive the new things, the things of the kingdom of the heavens.”

This note helps us to see that to be poor in spirit means to be emptied, unloaded in our spirit. It means to not hold on to old things, but to be unloaded so we can receive new things.

We can see a counterexample to being poor in spirit in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus Christ—God incarnate—came as the Savior to usher in the New Testament age. But the Pharisees, experts in the law of God and the things of the Old Testament, opposed Him. The law and the Old Testament things had been given by God, and previously God dealt with mankind according to these things. But through incarnation, God moved on. Now God’s way in the New Testament is His Son, Jesus Christ. The Pharisees, however, were filled and loaded with the old things, making them unable to receive Christ the Savior. In fact they opposed Him, thinking they were serving God, and eventually had Him crucified.

The condition of the Pharisees is not just a story for us. It was recorded in the New Testament for our benefit and can be very applicable to us Christians today.

The Pharisees, though they wanted to serve God, attempted to serve God apart from God’s present speaking, apart from Christ. We may become like that. Perhaps yesterday the Lord spoke to us in a particular way, or we had a particular experience of Him. We enjoyed this experience so much, and it supplied us all day. So we try to replicate that experience. But each day is a new day! Rather than trying to have yesterday’s experience today, we need to come to the Lord Jesus afresh every day to experience His ever-new speaking. As Paul says in Philippians 3:13-14,

“Brothers, I do not account of myself to have laid hold; but one thing I do: Forgetting the things which are behind and stretching forward to the things which are before, I pursue toward the goal for the prize to which God in Christ Jesus has called me upward.”

It’s not only negative things which can hold us back in our walk with Christ; even yesterday’s positive experiences of Him can preoccupy us and cause us to forget to “stretch forward” and “pursue” Him every day. This is why we need to be unloaded, emptied, “poor” in our spirit—so we can receive something new from the Lord all the time.

Every morning we can pray, “Lord Jesus, unload me. Empty me. Cause me to let go of the old things to receive the new experiences of Yourself that You have for me today!”

Poor—desperate for more

To be poor in spirit also means we’re never satisfied with our condition. We never think, “I have arrived! I’ve gained everything I need to gain from the Lord.” As we see in the verses above, even the apostle Paul, who knew the Lord to a great extent, did not consider himself to have arrived. Paul was always pursuing Christ, yearning to know Him more.

We see the opposite of this in the church in Laodicea. In Revelation 3:14-22, the Lord Jesus rebukes them:

“Because you say, I am wealthy and have become rich and have need of nothing, and do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” (v. 17)

The Laodiceans thought they were spiritually rich and in need of nothing. But in the Lord’s view their condition was pitiful. Because they thought they had everything, they stopped coming to the Lord. They stopped seeking Him, were satisfied with what they had, and consequently became lukewarm. They might not have been sinful, but the Lord was not happy. This is why He told them, “Be zealous therefore and repent” (v. 19).

May we not become lukewarm! Instead, let’s follow the pattern of the apostle Paul, who was never self-satisfied and sought every day for new experiences of Christ in his spirit. We can pray, “Lord, save me from being lukewarm. Give me a seeking spirit to pursue You every day. Don’t let me be complacent with what I have!”

Poor—spiritually hungry

To be poor in spirit is to be spiritually hungry. In Luke 1:53, Mary the mother of Jesus says, “The hungry He has filled with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.” If we want the “good things,” then we need to be hungry. But if we come to the Lord full, or “rich,” He will not be able to give us anything.

In Matthew 13, the Lord Jesus quotes a striking portion from the Old Testament and applies it to many of the people who listened to Him:

“In hearing you shall hear and by no means understand, and seeing you shall see and by no means perceive. For the heart of this people has become fat, and with their ears they have heard heavily, and their eyes they have closed, lest they perceive with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart, and they turn around, and I will heal them.” (vv. 14-15)

This shows us a great danger. We can become so spiritually “full” that we no longer have any “appetite,” any ability to receive what Jesus is speaking to us. We could even hear His words and not really “hear” or “see” or “understand” them. We have a heart “grown fat.” Thinking, “I already know that,” prevents us from hearing, seeing, perceiving what the Lord Jesus would really speak to us at any given moment.

For example, when we come to God’s Word with the thought that we already know what it says, how can the Lord speak something fresh from it to us? We may know the black and white letters of the Word, but what is the Lord speaking to us in that Word? We will not hear or see or perceive. So we must pray, “Lord Jesus, save me; don’t let my heart grow fat. Don’t let me think I know and miss out on You. Grant me a hunger for Your Word and for Your fresh speaking!”

Poor—like a little child

To be poor in spirit is also to be like a little child. Little children are simple and cannot do anything on their own. When we are poor in spirit, we acknowledge that we have nothing, we know nothing, and we can do nothing. When we come to the Lord Jesus and to His Word, we don’t come with our brilliant intellect, our high spirituality, or our excellent ability. Instead, we come open to Him, acknowledging our need for Him, and ready to receive His speaking and His supply.

In Matthew 11, the Lord Jesus had preached the gospel in the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, but they had rejected Him. Then in verses 25-26 He said, “I extol You, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for thus it has been well-pleasing in Your sight.”

These verses show that the Father hides things from certain ones. Whether the Father would reveal things to us or hide them from us depends on the kind of person we are. If we consider ourselves “the wise and intelligent,” we may read the Bible, yet see nothing. But if we come to the Word as “infants,” acknowledging that in ourselves we are nothing, the Father will bless us and reveal things in His Word to us. We can pray, “Father, make me the kind of person You can reveal the things in Your Word to. Never let me consider myself the ‘wise and intelligent.’ Lord, show me my real condition so I would come to Your Word poor in spirit.”

For theirs is the kingdom of the heavens

This kingdom of the heavens is mentioned as the reward of those who are poor in spirit. What does this mean? Is it only for the future? If we are poor in spirit, do we have to wait our entire lives to enjoy the reward?

The kingdom of the heavens is not just something for us to enjoy someday. Rather, this blessing is for us to enjoy today! This verse does not say, “For theirs will be the kingdom of the heavens.” It says, “For theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.” By coming to the Lord Jesus and to His Word poor in spirit, we will be blessed because we will enjoy and participate in the kingdom of the heavens today!

A wonderful way to respond to a verse like Matthew 5:3 is to pray it back to the Lord, asking Him to carry this word out in us. If we would ask Christ to make us genuinely poor in spirit, surely He will gladly work this out in us!

If you’d like to read more about being poor in spirit and the kingdom of the heavens, we recommend chapter 13, “The Decree of the Kingdom’s Constitution (1),” in Life-Study of Matthew, by Witness Lee. You can find the book to read for free in this alphabetical listing of the publisher’s online library.

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