This is an interesting way for Jesus to begin the Sermon on the Mount. What does He mean by “poor in spirit”? I struggled with this verse for a long time. To me, “poor in spirit” would mean someone who lacks faith, or love for the Lord. That is clearly not what Jesus is saying here, though.
When Jesus says, “poor in spirit” here, He is actually talking about someone with a humble spirit. At this particular time in Christian history, the Pharisees and religious officials were regarded as holy. They were proud of their piety and their supposed ability to perfectly keep all of God’s laws. This is the battle that Jesus fought throughout His entire ministry. He was constantly battling the pride and arrogance of the chief priests and church officials. So when Jesus says, “poor in spirit”, He is actually attacking the pride and arrogance of everyone who thinks that they can get to Heaven by keeping the Law. No human can keep the Law perfectly. We are all born into sin; and the “wages of sin is death.”
It takes a humble spirit to accept that there is nothing that we, as sinners, can do to earn or deserve salvation. Our sinful pride wants to believe that there is something that we can do to earn Heaven; but even accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior is not our own doing, our own decision. It is only by God’s grace and the Holy Spirit that we can accept Jesus as our Savior. On our own, we can not make that decision. All that we can do, on our own, is reject Jesus. Our sin separates us from God so there is nothing that we can do, on our own, to reconnect to God. It is totally God’s doing. He reconnects to us. It takes humility to accept this truth.
There are many churches today that teach the exact opposite. They teach people that they need to do things to earn forgiveness for their sins. We can’t earn forgiveness of our sins through such things as: acts of contrition, giving more money to the church, keeping track of how many people we have gotten to accept Jesus as their Savior, saying Hail Mary’s, or being a “good” person. None of us, on our own, are good people. We are all evil, disgusting sinners without the Holy Spirit working within us. It is only through the washing of Christ’s blood are our sins forgiven. It is only through His resurrection that we can look forward to being in Heaven one day.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-10