My favorite assignment during my military career was the rich cultural experience I enjoyed during my 4-year liaison officer assignment to Japan. As I studied for this article, I kept thinking how the nijiri-guchi would be a perfect metaphor for Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
To enter a traditional Japanese tea house, every person must bend down and crawl through a small door, the nijiri-guchi, to signify that everyone is equal, regardless of rank or social status. In the same way, the door into the kingdom of heaven requires everyone to become ‘poor in spirit’ through godly repentance.
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? The ‘poor in spirit’ are humble people who know their only hope is in God’s forgiveness. They know they’re guilty, and they approach God with zero claim of personal righteousness. Two Bible stories illustrate it well:
- A ‘sinful’ woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, and dried them with her hair.
- A tax collector who stood far away from God’s temple, and was not even willing to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was striking his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”
In this article I’ll expand on these examples, contrasting them with people ‘the world’ considers to be good and holy. Finally, you’ll learn how to enter the Kingdom of Heaven through the nijiri-guchi door of godly repentance.
What Does it Mean to be ‘Poor in Spirit?’
The Woman Who Washed Jesus’ Feet With Her Hair
The story from Luke 7:33-50 (BSB):
Jesus said, “John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at this glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and of sinners!’ But wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
Then one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him, and He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. When a sinful woman from that town learned that Jesus was dining there, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind Him at His feet weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears and wipe them with her hair. Then she kissed His feet and anointed them with the perfume.
When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, He would know who this is and what kind of woman is touching Him—for she is a sinner!”
But Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, Teacher,” he said.
“Two men were debtors to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay him, he forgave both of them. Which one, then, will love him more?”
“I suppose the one who was forgiven more,” Simon replied.
“You have judged correctly.” Jesus said.
And turning to the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give Me water for My feet, but she wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not greet Me with a kiss, but she has not stopped kissing My feet since I arrived. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed My feet with perfume. Therefore I tell you, because her many sins have been forgiven, she has loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
But those at the table began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
And Jesus told the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Contrasting the Sinful Woman with the Pharisee
Notice that immediately before the story begins, Jesus said, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” So, this ‘sinful woman’ is an example of wisdom’s children.
We’re not told what sins she committed; only that her sinfulness was well-known in by the whole town. We’re also not told how she came to repentance.
We are told that when she learned that Jesus was in town, she brought a jar of costly perfume. Uninvited and obviously unwelcome by the Pharisee homeowner, she wept in repentance, allowing her tears to fall on Jesus’ feet, and then drying them with her hair. Then she kissed His feet and poured the perfume on them.
Notice that Jesus didn’t initially say anything to the woman. Jesus didn’t speak at all until He addressed the hypocrisy of His host, the (self-righteous) Pharisee.
Jesus then used a story of two debtors who had their debts forgiven to illustrate the difference between the Pharisee and the woman. The lesson was that the debtor who was forgiven more appreciated the gift more. The Pharisee thought he was already righteous, so He didn’t think he needed anything from Jesus.
Jesus looked at the woman as He spoke these words to the Pharisee,
“Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give Me water for My feet, but she wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not greet Me with a kiss, but she has not stopped kissing My feet since I arrived. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed My feet with perfume. Therefore I tell you, because her many sins have been forgiven, she has loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”Luke 7:44-47
Only then did Jesus tell her what she had already experienced. Because she was poor in spirit, Jesus declared:
“Your sins are forgiven.”Luke 7:48
The Tax Collector Who Wouldn’t Even Look Up Toward Heaven
The story from Luke 18:9-14 (BSB):
To some who trusted in their own righteousness and viewed others with contempt, Jesus also told this parable:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like the other men—swindlers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and pay tithes of all that I receive.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance, unwilling even to lift up his eyes to heaven. Instead, he beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified.
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Contrasting the Tax Collector with the Pharisee
The Pharisee thought he was righteous because he scrupulously followed his religion, but he was proud.
In contrast, the tax collector was poor in spirit, knowing that his only hope is in God’s forgiveness. He knew he was guilty of sin, and he approached God humbly, with zero claim of personal righteousness. Jesus said, “This man, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified.”
The ‘poor in spirit’ are those who sincerely repent of their sins. Both John the Baptist and Jesus began their ministry with the same message:
“Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”Matthew 3:2, 4:17, Mark 1:15
What is Godly Repentance?
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation without regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.2 Corinthians 7:10
The sinful woman and the tax collector had one thing in common–godly repentance for their sins that led to salvation. I previously defined ‘poor in spirit’ as people who:
- Know their only hope is in God’s forgiveness.
- Know they’re guilty
- Approach God with zero claim of personal righteousness.
Being ‘poor in spirit’ is the result of godly repentance. Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven is open only to the ‘poor in spirit’ who have exercised godly repentance from the heart.
‘But I’m a Good Person’
Do you think you’re a good person? I did too, until I prayed and challenged the Living God to reveal my sins to me.
If you think you’re good enough to make it into heaven, I challenge you to sincerely ask God to reveal how He sees you, and if you’re good enough to make it into heaven on your merits.
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it.Luke 7:13-14
Repentance Requires Humility
Godly repentance requires humility. It requires confessing your failures, weaknesses, sins, and guilt directly to God–not through a human priest. Where pride exists, it will not allow this confession. God hates pride because it’s the enemy of repentance.
Pride, arrogance, the evil way, and the perverted mouth, I hate.Proverbs 8:13
This is the one I will esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at My word.Isaiah 66:2
Conclusion: Enter the Kingdom of Heaven Through the Nijiri-Guchi
To enter the Kingdom of Heaven we must humble ourselves, bending down and entering through the door of godly repentance. The proud, who refuse to bend down, exclude themselves.
Inside God’s kingdom there is no rank or social status among the redeemed. Everyone will enter the Kingdom of God the same way, by humbling themselves and confessing their sins, trusting only in the free gift of the grace of God in the name of Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah).
For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God,Ephesians 2:8
What Do You Think?
Did this article answer all your questions on this topic? Please leave a comment below and tell me:
- Were you satisfied by the information in this article?
- Or, did it leave you wanting more?
Related Questions and Answers
Q: Is there a relationship between being ‘poor in spirit’ and financial poverty?
A: There were a few rich (or at least not poor) disciples of Jesus. Some examples are Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Cornelius, and Lydia from Thyatira. But I think it’s safe to assume that most Christian disciples were not wealthy. Jesus said “It’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” In 1 Cor 1:26, Paul said there weren’t many wise, influential, or of noble birth in the Corinthian congregation. Finally, Mark 12:37 says “The common people heard Him gladly.” So, I’d say rich people can be ‘poor in spirit, but it’s harder for them and there won’t be too many rich people who can humble themselves enough to make it.
Q: Repentance is good, but doesn’t God also require us to live according to His laws?
A: If a person truly repents God’s Spirit will help them to ‘walk in the Spirit’ according to Romans chapter 8 and Romans 12:2. The process of growing in sanctification is life-long, and everyone stumbles along the way. With that said, our salvation is not dependent on keeping God’s laws; it is only dependent on our being ‘poor in spirit,’trusting only in His forgiveness and not our righteousness.