Humility was one of the four aspects that characterized the apostle PaulÕs life and ministry (Acts 20:19,20). It is also to be one of the characteristics of the believers in Christ Jesus in their dealings with one another (Eph.4:2). Peter writes: ÒBe clothed with humility: for God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humbleÓ (1 Pet.5:5).
In the Old Testament
In order to understand the New Testament teaching on humility, it is needful to know the Old Testament teaching with reference to humility. In 2 Chronicles 7:14 the Lord says: ÒIf My people, who are called by My Name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.Ó At various points in 2 Chronicles humility is the criterion by which the rule of the successive kings is judged.
Throughout the Old Testament there is the promise of the Lord that he remembers the poor, the needy, the lowly, those who are bowed down. The Lord even assures, for instance in Zephaniah 3:12, that He Himself raises up and keeps such people alive, even though everything seems to be against them. They humbly bow before Him, have high expectations from Him and are truly beggars who live by the mercies of the Lord. The boundaries between the natural and the spiritual element in this regard are not always equally clear. But there is a rich promise of the Lord for them. He shall stand at their right hand (Ps.109:31): ÒThe needy shall not always be forgotten: the expectation of the poor shall not perish for everÓ (Ps.9:18).
Thus the Old Testament characterizes the people of the Lord as poor, needy, lowly and bowed down, but as having their expectation from the Lord.
In the New Testament
In the New Testament we hear Jesus inviting precisely the weary and the burdened to come to Him and learn from Him, for He is Òlowly (or humble) in heartÓ (Matt.11:29). He repeatedly underscores that the one who humbles himself is the one who shall be exalted (Matt.23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14). When at one time the disciples asked Jesus, ÒWho is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?Ó He called a little child to come to Him, put him in the midst of them, and said, ÒVerily I say to you, Except you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. WhoeverÉshall humble himself as this little child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heavenÓ (Matt.18:1-4). In response to the disagreement among His disciples as to who would sit where in the coming kingdom, Jesus told them that he who would be first, or great, must be a servant (Mk. 10:35-44). He underlined these words by referring to the very purpose of His coming: ÒFor the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto (= be served), but to minister (= serve), and to give His life a ransom for manyÓ (Mk.10:45).
To Clothe Oneself With Humility
Those who have learned to know GodÕs compassion in Christ must Òbe clothed with humilityÓ (1 Pet.5:5). Through the Gospel of Jesus Christ humility has become a uniquely Christian virtue. Apart from the Gospel there is no humility. The word Peter uses for Òto clothe oneselfÓ is a very remarkable word. It describes putting on a garment which was tied over another with a knot, for example a slaveÕs apron. It may well be that when Peter wrote these words, he was reminded of Òthe upper room, where Peter saw Jesus gird Himself in this way and stoop to wash His disciplesÕ feet and heard Jesus remind them Òof their status as ÔslavesÕ and Ômen sent.ÕÓ Jesus had clothed Himself with humility. Peter never forgot that, moreover, Jesus had made abundantly clear that they were Ònot to stand on their dignity or think too highly of themselves.Ó The exhortation here is not merely Òto feel humble,Ó but Òto give humility expression in serving othersÉÓ
Humility is more than speaking humbly and in the meantime having many excuses when we are asked to serve. Humility is also more than making a humble gesture but remaining unchanged and being terribly critical of everything and everyone. Humility is our clothing.
However, when the Lord calls us to clothe ourselves with Òhumility,Ó we do need to remember that the ChristianÕs clothing does not consist merely of Ôexternals.Õ That even goes for the clothes we wear each day. When I need a new suit, I appreciate it if my wife comes with me and helps me make a selection. Why? CanÕt the staff in the menÕs clothing store help me? Indeed, they can and do, but only to an extent, because he knows me only to an extent. My wife knows me much better. I usually try on several suits and then choose the one of which my wife says (and I agree): ÔI like it. It looks like you!Õ So it is with true humility. It expresses what is inside.
Humility is therefore Ònot a mere ornament of a Christian. It is an essential part of the new creature. It is a contradiction to be a sanctified man, or a true Christian, and not be humble.
The Example of Christ
Actually I should say: ÒChristian humility looks like Christ.Ó After all, when speaking about humility, the New Testament points to Christ. ÒLet this mind be in you, which was also in Christ JesusÓ (Phil.2:5). He was ready to lay down His heavenly glory and divine majesty, become man and enter death and damnation for His own. Therefore: Òin lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of othersÓ (Phil.2:3b,4). The biblical Òdemand for humilityÓ clearly is Òto create in us Christlike character.Ó
The Practice of Humility in our Daily Life
We Òcannot be saved unless we become humble.Ó The Ògateway to salvation does not lie open unless we have laid aside all pride and taken upon ourselves perfect humility.Ó Humility Òis the hallmark of the child of God.Ó It Òmeans having a poor opinion of yourself, and of your powers and faculties.Ó It Òis the opposite of the worldly spirit which urges man to trust in himself, and to believe in himself.Ó It Òis the opposite of what is found in the so-called man of the worldÓ with all his Òaggressiveness and self-advertisement and ambition and all the brazenness of lifeÉÓ When God by His Spirit renews us, He teaches us to be aware of our weaknesses and Ònot to think ofÉ(ourselves) more highly thanÉ(we) ought to think; but to think soberlyÓ (= with sober judgment) (Rom.12:3). He also teaches us to recognize that all our gifts and talents come from God and are to be used for and in His service.
I wish to suggest some practical guidelines as follows.
(i) In relation to God.
Humility is Òthe cultivated lowliness of a sinful creature who is always in the presence of a great and holy God, and can only live before him through being constantly pardoned.Ó According to the Puritan, John Owen, there Òare two things that are suited to humble the souls of menÉ(i) a due consideration of GodÉin his greatness, glory, holiness, power, majesty, and authorityÓ and (ii) Òof ourselves, in our mean, abject, and sinful condition.Ó
We must learn Òto bow down before a sovereign Saviour who really saves, and to praise him for a redeeming deathÉÓ Indeed, Òwe have not seen the full meaningÓ of His redeeming death Òtill we have seen itÉas the centre of the gospel, flanked on the one hand by total inability and unconditional election, and on the other by irresistible grace and final preservation.Ó The Òfull meaningÓ of ChristÕs redeeming death is evident only when it is proclaimed in the light of these four truths. Christ died to save helpless sinners upon whom God had set his free saving love. ChristÕs death ensured the calling and the keepingÑthe present and final salvationÑof all whose sins he bore.Ó
(ii) In relationship to our neighbour.
True humility involves acknowledging the dignity of others. In true humility no person is Ôbeneath our feet.Õ We turn the spotlight away from ourselves to others. We stop insisting on getting all the attention. We do not arrange the conversation so that we will be at the centre. In the life of faith true humility involves dying to our pride and our stubbornness (being unbending) in all sorts of relationships. Then we are afraid to ÒbullyÓ others with ÒpiousÓ words. No, then we are not a Òpush-overÓ but rather, we are wearing the servant dress of Jesus, ready to wash someone elseÕs feet.
(iii) In the church services.
Dr. John J. Timmerman wrote some years ago: ÒChurch services are unique lessons in humility and faith. Not a single person deserves to be there; every single one is there by grace. There the distinctions outside the service, whether in intellectual prowess, wealth, beauty, or charm, are flattened into need. We are very poor in church; yet because of events in a garden, on a cross and at a tombÉwe worship a God so great that he can hear millions of prayers at once and number the hairs of our heads.Ó In church Biblical preaching has Òthree avowed aimsÑto humble the sinner, to exalt the Saviour, and to promote holinessÉÓ
(iv) In our afflictions
In the great world around us and in the small world of our home and family we encounter many afflictions and trials which we do not understand and which can bring upon us such darkness that we do not see God leading us. What then? Then we believe and confess in Article 13 of our Belgic Confession of Faith that we should not curiously inquire into what God does, but rather Òwith the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God, which are hid from us.Ó
(v) In the ministry
As pastors and teachers we are to conduct our work in the ministry Òwith great humility.Ó We should remember that ÒGod who thrust out a proud angel, will not tolerate a proud preacher, either.Ó In teaching others, we should not act as if we had reached the top and all the others have to sit at our feet. We Òneed also to be open to learn from any that can teach us.Ó Particularly when it comes to humility, we are to be Òexemplary toÉ(our) flocks and brethren.Ó After all, the Lord calls us to Òteach the great lesson of Éhumility to our people,Ó to Òstudy humility, preach it, as well as possess and practice it.Ó
1.With reference to Rehoboam see 2 Chronicles 12:6,7,12; with reference to Hezekiah see 32:26; and with reference to Manasseh see 33:12.
2.In a recent interview in Christianity Today Dr. John Stott put it like this: ÒIn the Old Testament there is a fundamental association between material and spiritual poverty. Often you are not sure what is meant by Ôthe poorÕ. But they tend to be those who are materially poor and who on account of that poverty need to put their trust in God with a greater strength than if they were rich and so self-dependant.Ó (January 8, 1996)
3.We may also translate: Òclothe yourselves with humility.Ó
4.It is remarkable that in the ÔGreekÕ world of Paul and PeterÕs days ÔlowlinessÕ was looked on as Òshameful, to be avoided and overcome by act and thought.Ó Gordon D. Fee, PaulÕs Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 188.
5.Alan M. Stibbs, The First Epistle General of Peter, Tyndale Bible Commentaries, 169.
7.Leon Morris, Commentary on the Gospel of John, The New International commentary on the New Testament, 621.
8.Alan M. Stibbs, The First Epistle General of Peter, Tyndale Bible Commentaries, 169.
9.True humility Òis an unfeigned submission of our heart, stricken down in earnest with an awareness of its own misery and want,Ó John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III, 12, vi.
10.Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor: A Pattern for Personal Growth and Ministry, 50.
11.J.I Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, 31.
12.Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor: A Pattern for Personal Growth and Ministry, 51.
13.John Calvin, Institutes, III, 12, vi.
14.Dr. D.M. Lloyd-Jones, with reference to Ephesians 4:2, Christian Unity: An Exposition of Ephesians, 41.
15.J.I Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, 331.
19. Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor: A Pattern for Personal Growth and Ministry, 18.