Unlike the three great virtues, to the greatest of which, love, the Apostle Paul devotes one of the finest passages he ever wrote (1. Corinthians 13), humility takes a somewhat humble place in the Scriptures. This is as it should be; for the very last course open to humility is to advertise itself or boast of its excellence. Indeed, any sort of boast of humility, however indirect, is self-contradictory. The one who declares "I am humble," in that fact by itself denies the truth of the assertion. The Lord Jesus could truthfully claim to be meek and humble in heart, for He was; but the difference between Him and any of us is so vast as to make any such claim by any of us both presumptuous and absurd. Even to assert, "I try to be humble" comes pretty close to self-contradiction; because humility springs from what one is in oneself, not from what one would like to appear to be. The furthest we can go along that line with any sort of reasonable safety or even decency is to say, "I try to behave with humility," for to want so to behave is an indication of a desire for humility; and to desire it truly is half way to attaining it.
As we shall see presently, however, we can desire a humility which is essentially false and leads straight to the worst sort of spiritual pride; as it is directed by the will and so becomes a contrived thing. Its origin, self-will, by its very nature puts self first, so that it is self-centred and not Christcentred. This false humility is like the wood-worm or the white ant which bores timber away unseen till, undermined, it collapses under the slightest extra stress. It is behind the movements which unceasingly erode the Scriptures and all published attempts to understand them. Of the fiesh, through and through, it is the deadliest enemy of everything that is spiritual. We even find it among ourselves, in those who in guise of humility, destroy Paul's Evangel.
The corresponding adjective, proud, huperEPhanos, occurs in the remaining five passages and, of these, three occur in the same context as their contrasting word, tapeinos, humble. These are Luke 1:51, 52; James 4:6; 1. Peter 5:5.
The first is in that sublime song of Miriam, usually called the Magnificat:
"He does mightily with His arm
He scatters (men) proud in their hearts' comprehension
He pulls down potentates from thrones
And exalts humble ones."
The other two are similar to one another in substance but very different in context. Of these the first forms the core of the epistle directly written to "the twelve tribes—those in the dispersion" (James 1:1). All along, the outstanding characteristic of the dispersed children of Israel has been their consistent effort to win the friendship of the world. James asks:
"Or are you supposing that the Scripture is saying, emptily,
toward envy is eagerly longing the Spirit that dwells in us?"
His reply is:
"Yet greater grace He is giving. Wherefore He is saying
'God against proud ones is setting Himself, yet to humble
ones He is giving grace.' Be subject, then, to God; yet with-
stand the Slanderer, and he will be fleeing from you."
This very obscure passage has always been a problem to expositors. To my mind, the best explanation is that which I have tried to indicate in the rendering above. James is asking his fellow Jews whether they actually believe that God's Word favours their envy of the Gentiles and, by implication, the pride that lies behind it. Such pride has always been an outstanding characteristic of theirs, and the fault which, all along, has caused God to set Himself against them.
The third is addressed to a different company. James writes to the whole of the twelve tribes in the dispersion, but Peter to chosen (or elect) expatriates of dispersion within a limited area. Thus James can address himself to apostate Jews, and does; but Peter to those who are God's elect. This point is reinforced by the opening blessing after the two introductory verses, which at the start is curiously like the opening blessing of Ephesians. This has often been observed, but seldom understood, largely because dispensational preconceptions have clouded the issue. Yet if we read both of them without injecting any foregone conclusions, we can hardly avoid realizing that the likeness is deliberate, and is intended to instruct us as well as those to whom the epistle was primarily written. Only when we appreciate the resemblance can we take proper note of the contrast to which the C.V. Note exclusively draws our attention.
The Apostle Peter, leader of the Twelve, is here addressing God's elect from among his own people. Later, he closes his second Epistle by a strong suggestion, if not an appeal, to them to listen to Paul; and those who were called by God to do so doubtless did. Whether there were any in his day who declined to do so, but went on to live and die in Israel's expectation as he did, we are not told, and therefore do not know. Yet the elect expatriates of dispersion in days to come after the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17 certainly will hear his message and receive it with joy and bear fruit unto life by it.
To such, chiefly, is his appeal in 1. Peter 5:5:
"Likewise, younger ones, be subject to the elder ones; yet all
with one-another wear the slave's apron of humility; seeing
that God is resisting the proud, yet is giving grace to the humble.
Be humbled, then, under the mighty hand of God, that He may
be exalting you in season, tossing your entire worry on Him,
seeing that He is caring concerning you."
Very necessary is this exhortation to the converted Jew, whether in Peter's day or in days to come, after our departure; but it is a mistake to suppose that it has no relevance to some of us in this present period. It is quite true that Phil. 4:7 goes further with regard to worry, in that it points out that nothing should be allowed to worry us; but we must remember that the Prison Epistles are the highest class in the school of reigning grace; whereas those to whom Peter wrote had only recently emerged from the bonds of Judaism as it was in their day and will remain until all Israel shall be saved. There are plenty in Christendom who are in bondage to what is even worse than Judaism: the false system which claims to have supplanted it permanently. They start, in practise, from something which appears to them pretty close to the position of those who listened to Peter's ministry and first read his epistles; and false teachers have persuaded them to imagine that they are a "New Israel" and puffed them up accordingly. So for them, the urgent call to humility is very much to the point. For us, who should all have advanced to the standard of the Prison Epistles, it indeed ought not to be; but, alas, far too often is.
Of the other two occurrences of huperEPhanos, proud; the first is in Rom. 1:30, in Paul's list of those condemned by God, and the second in Paul's prophecy of what men will be in the perilous periods of the last days.
What stands out from all these references to pride is that it is not so much a sin by itself as one always amoilg a number of sins. And this is borne out by general experience. For a man to take pride in his appearance so that he will not appear in public dirty or shabby, for a woman to take pride in her house being neat and clean, for any people to take pride in their work being done to the best of their ability or to be too proud to do anything mean or petty—all these are forms of pride which are wholly commendable. Pride becomes sinful and one of the worst of sins when it is the antithesis of humility. Those forms of decent pride just enumerated are essentially humble; for they mean either putting the happiness and convenience of others first, or putting duty and honour and decency first, in fact, putting self last. Perhaps such things should not be named as "pride"; but they are in common speech, and I think the instinct that brings this about is probably a sound one. Certainly, the bad pride never occurs alone in the references to the word in the Greek Scriptures, but in close association with other bad things and always in open flouting of the notion of humility.
The next is Rom. 12:16: "not regarding that which is high, but by the humble letting yourselves be led along." The verb here is in the Middle Voice and so has to be contrasted with its Passive Voice form in 2. Peter 3:17, hence the leparture from the C.V. rendering. Next 2. Cor. 7:6: "But He Who consoles the humble, God, consoles us by the presence of Titus." In 2. Cor. 10:1 Paul asserts that as to personal appearance he is humble among his readers. Lastly, James 1:9 glorifies the humble brother and the rich in his humiliation, This is in line with what we have already seen in the epistle.
In Eph. 4:1, 2 the Apostle Paul begins to draw out the practical side of the Secret that he has just revealed. The first requirement for those who would walk worthily of this calling with which they were called is to do so "with all humility and meekness." Then, and only then, comes "patience" and "bearing with one another in love" and the great sevenfold unity. In amplifying this, Paul points out that when Christ ascended on high He had first descended. What follows in Philippians and Colossians is an amplification of this theme, some supplementary revelations which would have awkward digressions if set out at the start; but when he reaches the end of them (Col. 3:12), Paul comes back again to the essential virtues in this context: humility and meekness.
The references in Philippians are occupied with the implications of the descent of Christ. In Phil. 2:3 the saint is
exhorted to be "in humility deeming one another superior to one's self." Then Paul points to Christ Jesus thus (2:5-8):
"For let this disposition be in you which is in Christ Jesus.
also; Who, being all along in God's form, deems not the being
equal to God a thing to be snatched at; but empties Himself,
taking slave's form, coming to be in likeness of men; and being
found in fashion as men, He humbles Himself, becoming
obedient unto death, even death of the cross! Wherefore, also,
God highly exalts Him. . . ."
This famous passage has been a main battle-ground of modernistic theologians for many years past, particularly as regards the supposed "limitations of the human nature" of Christ and their relation to His "divine nature." The circumstance that neither of these phrases in inverted commas appears in Scripture is apparently the merest trifle to these contestants! The idea of many has been that in the "kenosis" or "emptying" of Christ, He divested Himself of certain of His divine attributes. The validity of this depends on the precise meaning of ekenOsen, he empties: whether it implies that He empties Himself of something. However, not only is the general opinion of scholars against that implication, but, as a matter of fact, the passage says nothing whatever to that effect; so if He did empty Himself of something, what it was must be (and is) deduced from considerations other than the actual words of the passage, except for the following three points, which give no aid to the modernist theories.
"Taking slave's form" certainly means that He became as a slave, so we can declare that He emptied Himself of part, at least, of His freedom. "Coming to be in men's likeness" must mean that in some respects He came to be as ordinary men are, and so does "being found in fashion as men." The only other occurrence of the word schEma, fashion, figure, is in 1. Cor. 7:31. It is the form prevailing at any time. This is a complex and difficult subject. For our present purpose the main point is that His humbling Himself involved becoming "obedient unto death, even death of the cross." If, and only if, we can reach that degree of humility, can we truly be described as humble.
Paul closes what he has to say in this epistle about humility thus (4:11, 12):
"Not that according to want am I speaking; for I learned, in
what (circumstance) I am, to be content. I am aware what it is
to be humbled, and I am aware what it is
to be superabounding, also.
This is the only passage where the verbs "to be humble" and "to superabound" occur together, and it is followed in v. 13 by the nearest thing to a boast possible in the circumstances: "I am strong for all things in the One Who is invigorating me—Christ." Here is the truly godly pride resting secure on the truly humble pride in strength that springs from utter dependence on His might, utter submission to His will. It is in that spirit that Paul would have us face the ups and downs of life. If we can learn humility thus and, as Paul also did, become obedient even unto death, we shall in that respect come to be like Christ. We shall be in the fullest Sense awaiting as Saviour Him Who will transfigure the body of our humiliation, conformed to the body of His glory (Phil. 3:21).
The word tapeinOsis, humiliation, occurs in three other passages, which do not specially concern us here; Luke 1:48; Acts 8:33; James 1:10.
We pass on to Col. 2:18-23, another passage that presents considerable problems to the translator.
I suggest tentatively:
"Now let no one be arbitrating against you; in humility
willing, and ritual of the angels; intruding in what he has not
seen; becoming vainly puffed up by the mind of the fiesh of
his; and not holding the Head: out of Whom the entire body,
through the assimilation and ligaments receiving supply and
oneness, is growing the growth of God. If, then, ye died
together with Christ from the elements of the world; why, as
living in a world, are ye submitting to decrees. . . in accord with
the directions and teachings of men? Which sort of things,
indeed, are an expression having a show of wisdom in will-
ritual and (will-) humility and asceticism of body—not of any
value towards surfeiting of the fiesh."
This and the previous passage (in Philippians) are both very difficult to translate, and this fact should in itself help us to learn to be humble before God's Word and admit our limitations as well as those of the men who went before us; for the variations between the extant readings are a standing reproach.
The word thrEskeia is generally rendered worship; but as it means the form rather than the essence of worship, I prefer to follow the C.V. with ritual.
It is hard to see, also, the force of willing or wishing, except that there may have been by design a special emphasis on will, as also in v. 23. Richard Bentley (1662-1742) suggested that for thelOn, wishing, we should read thelgOn, bewitching. This, however, must be taken as only a clever guess. The essential point is that an artificial humility is in view here.
I think that the attempt to render aggelos consistently by messenger is not sound. This rendering of the word should be
confined to human messengers, as in such passages as Matt. 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:24, 27; 9:52. In those like
Acts 23:8, 9; Rom. 8:38; 1. Cor. 4:9; 6:3; 11:10; 13:1, angel is obviously intended, and messenger is not only
pedantic but verging on the absurd. Another point in v. 18 is, that the evidence for including not is at least as good as that
for excluding it. None of the attempts to avoid it, except that by Bowes, make very good sense. What, for instance, is
the meaning in the C.V. of "wanting. . . to parade what he has seen"; how does embateuOn, a present participle, become
to parade (an infinitive)? Rotherham avoids such straining of the Greek construction thus, "upon what things he has
seen insisting," but his meaning is not very clear. "Insisting" might mean "standing upon" or "taking his stand
upon" (R.V. margin and New World Version).
Bowes, without not, does much better with:
"Let no one of purpose defraud you of your prize, delighting in
humility and the worship of angels, insisting on things which he
has seen, vainly puffed up by the mind of his fiesh."
I fear we must suspend judgment on this point and wait for further light.
In this verse, also, my rendering "by the mind of the flesh of his" is far too literal for a proper translation; and it is designed solely to point out that Paul is speaking of the mind of the flesh, and that fleshly or carnal is not a correct translation, still less a concordant one. Read: "his flesh."
In v. 23 I have followed Lightfoot by rendering hatina by which sort of things and by carrying the prefix ethelo- (will-) over to "humility" as well. The point here as before is that this sort of willed ritual and willed humility are not the genuine article, so to speak, but artificial products designed by these ascetics to serve their own ends. These deliberate contrivances are set over against true faith, which itself springs only from true humility. We see that sort of ritual in the churches which have deliberately gone over to the Babylonian worship with its rites and ceremonies, its virgin goddess and its crowds of lesser quasiangelic personages set up as "saints." With it go the most elaborate speculations about matters which Scripture does not reveal. A book of this school lies before me as I write. It claims to be about the Incarnation; but so much of it comes from creeds and speculations extraneous to Scripture that what is derived from Scripture itself assumes so distorted a form as to be unrecognizable. All this is of the mind of the flesh; and so, as Paul here tells us, it puffs up its author till his writing reeks with a sense of superiority over what he plainly regards as the poor benighted Protestants. For holding the Head he has substituted a mass of ideas from the heads of himself and people of his type. These teachings of men surely have a wonderful show of wisdom; but the real wisdom of God's Word has eluded their authors.
The last part of v. 23 has been the subject of much controversy. I prefer to render it and read it quite literally; for I believe that the difficulties come from failure to appreciate what asceticism of body is. Throughout the ages some people have made it their chief interest in life to try to overcome the desires of the flesh by swamping them, surfeiting it with long hours of prayers and ceremonies on a fixed basis of ritual, certain strict diets, even self-tortures and flagellations by others. The idea is that if the flesh is surfeited with these things it will lie low and enable the spirit to assert itself and grow into great sanctity. This is a most dangerous and wicked error. The Apostle Paul asserts that these things are of no value toward their declared aim. Even if they seem to succeed in overcoming the body, the price paid is the worst of the sins of the flesh, pride, and the worst form of it, spiritual pride.
The Apostle Paul proved that law-works are worthless as the way to righteousness; but there was at least this to be said for the law-works he considered in Romans and Galatians—they did at least imply recognition of the righteousness of the standards of the Law of God. By the time Paul came to write Colossians, another sort of law-works had begun to establish itself, based on the ancient paganism of Babylon; and even the merest lip-service to the true Law was less to be condemned than deliberate service of the false.
In this passage alone is humility condemned, because it is false humility here and part of that counterfeit of real Christianity which already was supplanting the true, and in these present days has almost entirely supplanted it. These things matter, and matter intensely; yet for all the regard paid to them by the majority of Christians they might be utterly devoid of importance. It is very saddening to find how few people really care for truth, even to the extent that such things as these are realized for their extreme importance to themselves. Only as we hold the Head, place Christ Jesus our Lord absolutely first in our hearts and minds, can we escape pollution from the counterfeit and grow up in the true humility.
R. B. WITHERS Last updated 22.10.2005