Who are the poor in spirit?

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QUESTION: Jesus taught about the "poor in spirit" in one of his messages found in the book of Matthew. Who are these people? Do they still exist today?

ANSWER: Jesus began to teach about those whose spirit was poor, mentioned in your question, near the beginning of his public ministry. He used this topic as the foundational teaching on which he would not only explain and reveal the full intent of the Old Testament's laws but also as the starting point on how true Christians should think and act in their everyday lives. His discussion on the subject starts what is commonly called the Sermon on the Mount, which is arguably his most famous message.

1. But seeing the multitudes, He went up into the mountain; and when He sat down, His disciples came to Him. 2. And He opened His mouth and taught them, saying, 3. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . ." (Matthew 5:1 - 3, HBFV Bible throughout)

Surprisingly, only the book of Matthew (chapters 5 to 7) writes about the details of his message with the book of Luke (chapter 6) recording only select pieces. The opening sentences of this "sermon" are often called the Beatitudes or "beautiful attitudes" because they talk about the attitudes God highly prizes.

So, what exactly was the Lord discussing? One hint in understanding what Christ was referring to can be found by noticing the word "spirit" in verse 3 above. In the Holy Bible Faithful Version, and most other translations such as the KJV, NKJV, NIV and others, the word does not start with a capital letter. This signifies that the word is understood to not refer to the Holy Spirit, which is what makes someone a Christian (Romans 8:9), but to something else.

The Basic Teachings of Scripture
Comparison of Bible Translations
How can we achieve maturity as believers?

"Spirit" in this verse is referring to a person's frame of mind or their attitude. It is how a person thinks about the world around them and their own personal relationship with the Eternal.  Regarding the meaning of the whole phrase in question, some commentaries state the following in their notes on Matthew 5:3.

"To be poor in spirit is to have a humble opinion of ourselves; to be sensible that we are sinners, and have no righteousness of our own . . ." (Barnes' Notes on the New Testament)

"Poorness of spirit involves (1) Humility, (2) Contentment, (3) Submission, (4) Gratitude" (The Biblical Illustrator)

"Poverty of spirit is the opposite of pride, self-righteousness, and self-conceit; the spirit of the publican rather than of the Pharisee . . ." (A Commentary on the Holy Bible by J.R. Dummelow)

Sermon on the Mountain

As was mentioned in the last comment above, an excellent contrast between the self-exalting arrogance God dislikes (especially among religious people) versus the humble and contrite heart he is looking for is found in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican.

9. And to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others, He also spoke this parable: 10. "Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11. The Pharisee stood and prayed with himself in this manner: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men - extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers - or even as this tax collector . . .'

13. "And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat himself on the chest, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner.' 14. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled; and the one who humbles himself shall be exalted" (Luke 18:10 - 11, 13 - 14)

Those who have this "poor" attitude realize, in the core of their being, their utter need for God and their inability to save themselves. They are keenly aware that they humbly need his help and mercy every moment of every day. One popular worship song that conveys this understanding, found in many church hymnals, is called "I Need Thee Every Hour." It is a beautiful hymn sung with meaning for those who have become aware of their utter dependency on the Eternal to help them make it though life. Those who have this attitude are indeed blessed. Jesus stated they should rejoice and be filled with joy for great is their reward in heaven (Matthew 5:12)! It is a state of mind that all Christians should strive to attain.

The man who is poor in spirit is the man
who has realized that things mean nothing,
and that God means everything.
William Barclay (1907 - 1978)

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