Who are the poor in spirit in Matthew 5:3?

Last updated on June 29, 2022


In Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus preaches the famous Sermon on the Mount. It is within these chapters that we come to understand the core teachings of Jesus. In chapter 5, Jesus gives us a declarative list of blessings, often referred to as the Beatitudes. Matthew 5:3 is perhaps one of the most frequently quoted verses among the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This statement seems simple enough, but what exactly does it mean to be “poor in spirit?” And why does Jesus call them blessed?

Poor in spirit

Some would argue that physical or financial poverty is what Jesus is referring to here. If that were the case, why would He not simply say “blessed are the poor”? Jesus is obviously referring to a spiritual poverty of some kind by using the phrase “poor in spirit.” Not only that, Jesus asserts that the kingdom of heaven belongs to these spiritually impoverished and destitute. In other words, Jesus is explaining how someone can inherit the riches of heaven. But first, they must understand their spiritual condition. The Bible makes clear that we are all sinners, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The prophet Isaiah said that our good deeds are as filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). We are completely helpless to save ourselves and pull ourselves out of our spiritual situation.


Those who understand the nature and severity of their sin will come humbly before Jesus, not with a self-righteous attitude. The poor in spirit are those who know that Jesus Christ is their only hope in life and in death. They have nothing good to offer, no righteousness of their own to bring. They are in desperate need of a Savior. Jesus Christ of Nazareth is that Savior; He is our only hope. Because of Him, they are blessed. This is nicely expressed in the translation of Matthew 5:3 by the Easy-to-Read Version: “Great blessings belong to those who know they are spiritually in need. God’s kingdom belongs to them.”

Enter the kingdom of God

If you are a born-again Christian, then at some point in time you recognized that you were spiritually bankrupt. Every person who has entered into the kingdom of God has done so as one who is poor in spirit, not rich.

Matthew 19:16-26 tells us how a rich man came to Jesus with the question how he could receive eternal life. This story can teach us important lessons on spiritual poverty and wealth.

“He [Jesus] said to him, ‘…If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’
He said to him, ‘Which ones?’
And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
The young man said to him, ‘All these I have kept. What do I still lack?’
Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’
When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.“
(Matthew 19:17-22)

After this conversation, Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.“(Matthew 19:23-24) Was Jesus merely referring to that man’s bank account or was He pointing to a greater issue in the man’s life? Remember that the man had told Jesus that he had kept all of the commandments from his youth (Matthew 19:20) – he thought he was physically and spiritually rich. Until he was willing to let go of his money and his pride, he would not be able to enter the kingdom of God.

And you?

What about you? Which category do you fall into? Have you experienced the blessing of becoming poor in spirit? Or are you still clinging to your own spiritual wealth thinking that somehow you can earn your own salvation? Let me encourage you to lay your sins and burdens down at the foot of the cross today. Perhaps you also need to sell all of your possessions like Jesus told the rich young ruler so that you can inherit a greater treasure—Christ, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).

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