When we hear the phrase “poor in spirit,” our minds quickly go to the teachings of Jesus Christ found in Matthew 5, often referred to as the Beatitudes. Verse 3 reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3 Matthew 5:3Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
American King James Version×).
Although the word beatitude comes from the Latin word, beatus, meaning blessed, we often think of the saying in this section of scripture as “beautiful attitudes,” a good and positive attitude that a follower of Jesus Christ should have. Clearly, being poor in spirit is a good thing because Jesus says those who are will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. So what then does it mean to be poor in spirit?
Depending on who you ask, you might receive a variety of answers. Some would say that it means to be downtrodden and suffering, or someone who has been taken advantage of by others for financial, political or some other sort of personal gain. Others might consider it as more of an attitude, someone who genuinely grieves at the evil and hurt we see in the world around us. These seem like reasonable answers, but what does being poor in spirit really mean?
To understand this or any scripture, we need to know who said it, when it was said, what was the environment they were saying it in, and what would it have meant to those who heard it. In short, we need context. Matthew 4:23-25 Matthew 4:23-25  And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.
 And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought to him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatic, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them.
 And there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan.
American King James Version×tells us that Christ had been traveling throughout the region, teaching in the synagogues or Jewish temples. In Matthew 5:1-2 Matthew 5:1-2  And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came to him:  And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
American King James Version×, He goes up to a mountain to teach.
Remember at this point in time, there was no “New Testament.” This is key to understanding the context of what Christ goes on to say in the rest of the beatitudes. What Jesus would use as His reference material as He sat down to teach would, by and large, be the writings of the prophets and the law, or what we commonly refer to as the Old Testament today. This gives some insight into where we should look to define this phrase, poor in spirit. If you have a Bible that contains references you may even notice it contains references to the Old Testament.
Once such reference is found in Proverbs 16:18-19 Proverbs 16:18-19  Pride goes before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
 Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.
American King James Version×, where it says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Better to be of a humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.” This points to an attitude of humility that we as Christians should bear. In addition, it points to the lustful pursuit of earthly riches, or “spoil,” as a pitfall that leads to destruction. While having material wealth is not a sin, this scripture reminds us that a desire to be rich is often associated with pride—the opposite of the humility we as Christians should seek.
Another reference can be found in Isaiah 66:1-2 Isaiah 66:1-2  Thus said the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that you build to me? and where is the place of my rest?
 For all those things has my hand made, and all those things have been, said the LORD: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at my word.
American King James Version×: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool. Could you build Me a temple as good as that? Could you build Me such a resting place? My hands have made both heaven and earth; they and everything in them are Mine. I, the Lord, have spoken! I will bless those who have humble and contrite hearts, who tremble at My word’” (New Living Translation).
God asks a rhetorical question here: “What is it that man can build for Me that I don’t already have?” He points out that He doesn’t want any sort of physical monuments, rather, He looks for those with humble and contrite hearts. King David, after his sin with Bathsheba, recognized this concept as well. Psalms 51:16-17 Psalms 51:16-17  For you desire not sacrifice; else would I give it: you delight not in burnt offering.
 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
American King James Version×reads, “You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God” (New Living Translation).
Through an examination of these scriptures, we can come to a clear understanding of what Jesus Christ was teaching in Matthew 5, which applies to all of us today. No earthly sacrifice of money or material goods will help us inherit His kingdom. To be poor in spirit means to be humble, acknowledging our sins before God and recognizing that we need His mercy!