“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” —Matthew 5:3
The reign of God in Scripture is expressed in the language of monarchy. God doesn’t rule by referendum; His commandments are not suggestions. He gives royal decrees, and He has elevated His Son to the position of King of kings and Lord of lords. The consummate form of government in this universe is a monarchy, for God has anointed His Prince to be our King. His Prince has the authority to bestow inheritance, membership, and ownership in that kingdom to whomsoever He chooses.
Notice that in the very first Beatitude, Jesus declares a promise regarding God’s kingdom. The promise is that the kingdom of heaven will be given to those whom Jesus defined as “poor in spirit.”
Immediately, a question arises. The gospel of Luke contains a sermon similar to the Sermon on the Mount. It is found in Luke 6, and it’s sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain. In Luke’s version, Jesus says simply, “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), omitting “in spirit.” He also delivers a series of woes, including “Woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6:24). Luke’s account contrasts “the poor” with those who, because they find their sufficiency in their wealth, are in grave danger of missing the kingdom of God. The question is, why is the qualifying phrase “in spirit” present in Matthew’s account?
The point is not to exclude material poverty from this Beatitude. Rather, Matthew wanted his readers to understand that material poverty does not exhaust the meaning of this text. Those who are poor in terms of material possessions may be poor in spirit as well, but those who are wealthy may also be poor in spirit. There may also be deeply impoverished people who are bitter, covetous, or angry with God and are anything but poor in spirit. So we have to be careful not to make a direct identification between material poverty and spiritual poverty. The point is that Jesus is making a promise to those who are not rich in their own conceits but who find their sufficiency and satisfaction in God.
Jesus was addressing an issue that was anything but abstract to the people of His day. He spoke to those who were impoverished by the world’s standards—some because of oppression by a foreign government, some because they had forsaken the enticements of this world to follow Him. Perhaps He had in mind the lament of the psalmist who wondered why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer (Ps. 73). As the Wisdom Literature tells us, we live in a topsy-turvy world, where some set their hearts on power, wealth, and material things, stopping at nothing to gain an advantage over others.
Jesus taught that this topsy-turvy world will be set right in the kingdom of God. He promised that His Father noticed their plight. For Jesus Himself was lowly, and He promised those who would forsake the riches of this world and seek the face of God that His Father would deliver them. To them is given the kingdom of heaven.
R. C. Sproul, How Can I Be Blessed?, First edition., vol. 24, The Crucial Questions Series (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust: A Division of Ligonier Ministries, 2016), 9–12.