Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Call to Humility (1 Peter 5:5-7)

There is a quality often found in humanity that was once identified by Aristotle as the crown of virtues. The great philosopher said that this characteristic was inseparable from nobility and goodness of character. Centuries later, Nietzsche said that this quality was part of a past set of master morals which had been lost and replaced by a lower, slave-type of morality. In his estimation, unless humanity could recover this lost trait, mankind would remain forever in a state of servitude. Yet when we turn to the Bible, we find this same quality called a sin and spoken of with intense severity. This sin is called a thing that God hates, a quality found in evil men, a thing that precedes personal destruction, even the very sin that transformed an exalted angel into the very devil himself. And the devil has used this sin to bring about the downfall of countless men and women throughout human history. This quality so highly praised by history’s secular philosophers and so roundly condemned by Scripture is, of course, pride. In our text today, we read that God is opposed to the proud.

Of course, the opposite of pride is humility. Throughout the pages of the Bible, humility is championed as a crowning virtue of a holy life. While today, humility is a cherished quality even among some who have no regard for the Bible, it has not always been this way. In the writings of the ancient Graeco-Roman world, humility was rarely even mentioned, and when it was, it was almost always in a negative light. In some writings it is considered to be a mark of an evil and unworthy person. It was widely considered to be a characteristic of weakness and cowardice, appropriate only for slaves. It would have been shameful for a free citizen of the Roman Empire to be considered humble. Christians were among the first people in the history of the world to champion humility as a virtue, and the high esteem that many have for humility in our world today can be said to be a result of Christian influence. In a sense, true humility is a uniquely Christian virtue.

Yet, humility, though essential in the Christian life, does not come naturally to any of us. As sinful people, we are consistently prone to fall into the error of pride. Throughout life, we find our feet on a slippery slope that will spiral us into this deadly sin if we are not constantly on guard against it. The great Puritan pastor Richard Baxter once received a letter filled with words of praise. Baxter understood the great temptation that pride perpetually posed, and responded to this letter by saying, “I have the remainders of pride in me; how dare you blow up the sparks of it?” Pride is so native to us, and humility so foreign, that the Scriptures have to continually echo warnings against pride and commands to be humble. And God, who so opposes our pride, actually enables us for humility through the work of His grace in our lives as we allow the Holy Spirit to cultivate godly character within us. As Peter says here, quoting from Proverbs 3:34, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” He actively works against the proud and actively works to prevent His people from becoming proud. But once His people determine to embrace humility, He grants to them the grace to make it possible.

The Apostle Paul provides us with a great example of this from his own life in 2 Corinthians 12. There he said that a “thorn in the flesh” had come into his life in order to prevent him from “exalting himself.” We do not know what this “thorn” was, but we know that Paul calls it a messenger of Satan that tormented him. But he says he prayed three times for this thorn to be removed, and the Lord’s answer to him was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” We can draw from this that God was willing to allow His servant to suffer great hardship in order to keep him humble, but God would also supply His servant with the grace necessary to endure the hardship and demonstrate the humility.

Now, in our text today, we find a call for Christians to be a humble people. This humility is to be demonstrated in two different directions, if you will. First, there is a call to humility within the church, and second a call to humility before the Lord. Let’s take a closer look at this call to humility that God requires, and which God’s grace enables us to have in our lives.

I. Christians are called to be humble toward one another in the church (v5)

Our society is not too much different from that of the first century in some respects. Like that day, so in our own, it is common, and often expected that a person will assert himself or herself to rise above others and grasp for power and prestige, popularity and prosperity. The one who does not do that will not advance far in our society, and will at times be looked down upon or pitied by others. And certainly there are right ways to be ambitious, but most often our sinful nature prompts us to pursue ambition in a prideful way. Now, what happens when this kind of prideful ambition is found within the church? Members begin to look down their noses at their fellow members, they begin to lobby for power and prominence, they use others for their own ends and agendas. And God only knows how many churches have been destroyed by this kind of pride, but typically when a church is facing internal conflict, pride can be found at the root of it. This is why humility is so vital for the health of a church.

Peter says here that the younger men are to be subject to their elders. While it is a good general principle for younger generations to show respect for the older generations, that general truth is not what Peter is talking about here. A few verses before, he defined what an elder is in this context. An elder, as we discussed last week, is another word for a pastor. It speaks to a pastor’s spiritual maturity and qualifications for church leadership. Therefore, when he speaks of younger men, he may not have in view a person’s age at all, but rather he may be speaking to those who are younger in their standing in the church, or to those who lack spiritual maturity. We find throughout the New Testament a call for the church to submit to its leaders who are gifted by the Spirit to guide them according the the Word of God, and this could be one further echo of that call.

But there is some relevance here especially for younger generations of church members as well. Younger Christians are often more resistant to being led by someone else, more headstrong, more determined to do things their own way. Macarthur says that it is “obvious that they generally tend to be the most aggressive and headstrong members of any group.” I can remember when I began to grow in the Lord, I became very critical of my pastor and my church because I felt that they didn’t do things the right way, which could be translated as “the way I wanted them done.” I had no sensitivity to the need to make changes slowly, the need to minister to people with a variety of needs and interests, the need to preserve and honor some important traditions. And this is a common pitfall that young Christians who are beginning to grow in their faith fall into. Some of you students have a desire to go on to seminary, and when you do, sometime during your first semester or so, you will know enough Greek, enough Systematic Theology or Philosophy, or enough Church Administration principles to be dangerous! The knowledge that will be imparted to you in the classroom is valuable, but also volatile if it is not tempered with humility. So, while all believers must have a humble attitude toward those who lead them in the church, younger believers in particular must beware of a prideful zeal that would undermine the unity of the fellowship. Humility would place us at the feet of those we would otherwise criticize, that we might learn from them how to proceed in the right direction with the right attitude, rather than rupturing the fellowship over matters that in time will prove to be of lesser importance.

But then notice that Peter turns the focus from the humility that needs to be expressed toward church leaders to the humility that needs to pervade every relationship within the church fellowship. He says, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” This command is issued to all believers, pastors, leaders, deacons, teachers, new believers -- all members alike. The idea of “clothing yourselves” has to do with tying something on, such as an apron worn by servants. Humility is to be our garment, our covering. Surely all of us give at least some thought to how we will dress when we gather with the church. Some would insist that they are not dressed for church until they have put on their tie, or their certain shoes or specific kind of dress. Those preferences vary from place to place and generation to generation, but one garment is always a necessity when believers gather together -- humility. Paul says in Romans 12 that no Christian should think more highly of himself than he ought to think, but to think so as to have sound judgment. He says that rather, Christians should give preference to one another in honor. This means that the humble Christian will look upon his brother or sister in the faith as someone who to serve, someone to sacrifice for, someone who is more deserving of honor than oneself. How would church fellowship be transformed if we began to look at each other through these eyes? What kind of revival would erupt in our congregation and others if believers began to clothe themselves with humility?

The really ironic thing is that not only do we often fail to wear the covering of humility, we actually do the opposite. When we come together, we often put on airs that portray ourselves as something of significance and importance, as people who have no problems or needs, as people who are stronger, better, and more holy than we really are. And sometimes we can pull it off and fool some folks, but never as many as we think, and certainly we can never fool God. Why do we do this? Pride! Too insecure to admit weakness; too afraid to admit our needs; too ashamed to confess our sins, and so like Adam and Eve, we stitch together the fig-leaf garments of false pride to cover our true condition. But have we not heard? Do we not know? Peter says here that God is opposed to the proud. In all of our efforts to dress up and look godly, we are actually walking in defiance of God, and lining ourselves up under His active opposition. But if we would abandon pride, we would find that God gives us the grace we need to be humble, and this humility would cover us like a garment. No church would ever be the same where this kind of mentality began to take root.

II. Christians are called to be humble before the Lord (vv6-7)

In 1792, England sent George Macartney to China in hopes of having him installed as the first British ambassador there. It was explained to Macartney that when he entered the throne room of the emperor, he must “kowtow,” that is, kneel three times, and each time he knelt, he must bow three times with his head touching the floor. This manner of approach was the customary way that one would approach a deity, and the Chinese considered their Emperor to be a god. Macartney explained that he would only do this if a Chinese official would do the same before a picture of King George. This was refused, but Macartney was granted audience with the emperor anyway. When he entered, he bent his knee as he would have done before his own king, but Macartney was not allowed to become the ambassador. Some time later England tried again, this time sending William Amherst to the Chinese Emperor. When Amherst entered, he refused to kowtow or even to kneel, and for this he was called a rude man who did not know how to behave, and he was sent back to England. Thus, early efforts for the British to have an embassy in China were frustrated in part because of British pride and the refusal of the British to show the kind of humility that was required in the Imperial throne room. Now, whether or not the Chinese Emperor was worthy of such humiliation in his presence is beyond the scope of our discussion. Our question is rather, how should we come before the throne of the King of Kings? And the answer is quite obvious: we must be humble. There is no room for pride when we come before Him.

Peter says here that in light of the fact that God is opposed to the proud and gives grace to the humble, we must humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God. To approach God with any measure of pride in ourselves is the epitome of arrogance. To be humble under His mighty hand recognizes God’s complete sovereignty. The very fact that I am alive is something attributable to His grace alone. That I might approach Him at all is something that I do not deserve. In our sinful condition, if God were to grant us what we deserve, we would be cut off from Him to perish forever in hell. And every day that a human being wakes up and finds himself or herself not in hell is a day to give God thanks for His mercy and His grace. But God, in His sovereign grace, has even given us the offer of redemption; the opportunity to be reconciled to Him by having our sins forgiven and being made righteous by faith in Jesus Christ who died bearing the penalty of our sins and rose from the dead in victory. No one will come before this sovereign God boasting of his or her own accomplishments and insisting on rights!

The Christians to whom Peter was writing were undergoing extreme hardship. They were the objects of hatred, slander, and persecution. Could they come before the Lord with any sort of claim that He had been unfair to them or had given them something worse than they deserved? By no means. They were not in hell, and hell is what they, and we, deserve. So the call to be humble under God’s mighty hand is a call to recognize God’s sovereign hand, and to accept the circumstances in which we find ourselves, no matter how difficult. God could have prevented them; God could change them, and in time He may yet. But we are not to assume that God needs our counsel or advice on how we think things ought to go. We must approach Him humbly knowing that if He has choreographed our circumstances, even if they be unpleasant, then He will supply the grace to endure them for His own sake.

But notice also that the call to be humble before the Lord also recognizes God’s faithfulness. Should we find ourselves in a state of suffering for Christ, as Peter’s readers did, or surrounded by difficulties that press down on us from all sides, we must return to the promises that God has made to His children. Those who are His by faith in Jesus Christ have been promised that He will never leave us nor forsake us; that He will provide for us; and that ultimately when this life is over, He will raise us up to eternal life. So, in this life, though it is often filled with the hardships of a world broken by sin, we can embrace our position and find contentment in our circumstances knowing that God has not forgotten or revoked any of His promises. We can humble ourselves under His mighty hand in full confidence that if we are to be exalted beyond these things, He will be the one to do it, and He won’t need our help. It will happen “at the proper time.” We do not know when that time will be, but God does. For some, it may be a season in life; things may be difficult today, but tomorrow things may change, and God will raise you up from the difficulties of life. Or it may be next week, or next month, or next year, or sometime in the distant future. But for others, it may not be in this life at all. The “proper time” may be when God calls you home to glory through the door of death, and even that death may be unpleasant. Peter’s audience included many who did not know but that the next day their lives may be required of them simply because they followed Jesus. Yet the promise is still true for them and for us: if we humble ourselves before God, He will exalt us at the proper time. We do not need to exalt ourselves, but rather to wait patiently, humbly, on the Lord to do what He intends to do both in us and through us. And when He has completed that work, in this life or in the life to come, He will exalt us to a height that we cannot imagine, and which we certainly do not deserve, if we have pledged ourselves to Him by faith in Jesus.

And Peter says that this humility before the Lord recognizes, in addition to God’s sovereignty and His faithfulness, also His goodness. As we humble ourselves under His mighty hand, we are invited to “cast all of our anxiety on Him.” The word that Peter uses here for “cast” is a word that means “to throw something on something or someone else.” It is used in Luke 19:35 to describe how the people threw their coats on the back of the colt that Jesus would ride into Jerusalem. Are you loaded down with anxiety? You are welcomed here to throw it upon the Lord, that He might bear it. Do not say, “God will not give me more than I can bear.” God will regularly give you more than you can bear, in order to teach you to give it to Him. God will not give you more than HE can bear, and He invites you to cast it upon Him. To go on trying to bear those burdens yourself is prideful and arrogant. You cannot handle it, no matter how strong you think you are. You must humble yourself and say to the Lord, “I need help!” If you don’t, you risk the opposition of God, who opposes the proud, and you forfeit the grace that He gives to those who are humble to admit their weakness. The Greek word here for “anxiety” is the same word used in the parable of the sower, where Jesus says that the “worry” of the world, among other things, can choke out the Word of God from our lives. So we are left stumbling under a load that we cannot bear, starving for lack of nourishment on the very bread of life that would strengthen us. Why be so proud to bear it alone? God is good! He cares for you! And because He cares for you, He says that you can cast all of that anxiety upon Him. How do you do that? You do it in prayer, as Paul says in Philippians 4, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” As the old hymn says, “Oh what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear, all because do not carry everything to God in prayer.”

Humility. It was not highly regarded in ancient societies. It is not highly regarded in our own. But we who have been purchased by the mercy of God through the blood of Jesus Christ are not citizens of this society. We have become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and a mark of that citizenship is humility. It is a humility that considers one another of more importance than ourselves, and leads us into serving each other. It is a humility that recognizes God’s sovereignty, God’s faithfulness, and God’s goodness. God calls us to this kind of humility; and it is contrary to every prideful fiber in our being; but His grace makes it possible within us if we abandon and embrace humility as our way of life. The challenge from this word strikes us all today. How do we view one another within the church? How do we approach the throne of God? Perhaps the Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart today about your attitude toward another Christian, or your prideful estimation of yourself; or perhaps He is speaking to you about your prayer life, your worship habits, your beliefs and heart-attitude toward Him? Let humility be our clothing as we respond to God’s word prayerfully today.

Others perhaps would recognize that they have never truly come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. Understand that He died for your sins, including your pride and every sinful manifestation of it. And He has defeated your sin and all of its penalty through His resurrection from the dead, and offers to cover you in His perfect righteousness if you will turn to Him by faith. This means that you have to abandon the pride of thinking that you can be good enough or do good enough to make yourself right with God, and in humility recognize that you are hopeless apart from Jesus. May God’s grace empower you to make that decision today if you never have.

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