The Learned Humility of Paul

Sociological studies of the early Christian church indicate that the vast majority of Christians during the first three centuries belonged to the lower echelons of society, or at least did not fit well in the higher ranks. We know from the Gospels that Jesus spent most of His time with poor, ill, and despised people. Paul, who belonged to a higher class than most of the earliest disciples and church leaders, does say that the majority of Christians in Corinth were ignorant, powerless, and of obscure birth. He spoke of them in this manner not from a lofty position or attitude; rather, he wanted to point out the lack of social and cultural connections of common Christians in the first century.

Paul was aware that these “lesser” individuals placed a great deal of hope in the vision that Jesus would bring to the earth a Kingdom that would supplant the present Roman order—a New Jerusalem where God would wipe away the tears of those who were suffering under the social order of the Empire. Certainly, worship was one point at which Christians of all social standing could have a common experience as brothers.

“I am a Jew, from Tarsus.”

Paul was born and spent his earliest years in the Diaspora, the dispersion of the Jews outside the borders of the Holy Land. As a Pharisee, Paul was a Jew From Tarsus in Cilicia—a citizen of no ordinary city (see Acts 21:39, NIV). Tarsus was a city of half-a-million citizens on the southeastern coast of Turkey (ancient Asia Minor). In addition to being near an abundantly flowing river, a great international highway, connecting the west coast of Asia Minor to Syria-Palestine and points east, ran through Tarsus. It was the most important city of Cilicia, which brought the influence of many cultures and languages. It was an important educational center in the ancient world.

A large part of the prosperity of Tarsus was partially based on the manufacture of a material woven from goat hair and known as cilicium—the name given to the province. Cilicium was used mainly in the manufacture of tents. Although Paul has been identified as a tent maker before turning to religious study and leadership, it is more likely he was a leathermaker. At some point before he was born, Paul’s family became Roman citizens. This likely occurred during the lifetime of his grandfather or great-grandfather. McRay (2003) notes in Paul: His Life and Teaching, posits that Paul’s ancestors may well have provided Mark Antony or Julius Caesar with tents for the Roman army, a service that might have been rewarded by a grant of citizenship.

In any event, it is clear that Paul’s father was a Roman citizen because Paul was “born a citizen” (see Acts 22:27-28). Luke affirms that Paul was not only a Roman citizen but also a citizen of Tarsus (see Acts 21:39). We know Paul used his Roman citizenship to his advantage on three occasions. The first of these was in Philippi where he and Silas were imprisoned unjustly (see Acts 16:37). He initially allowed himself to be beaten without revealing his citizenship, which would have prevented it, we do not know. I would suggest it had something to do with Paul’s humility as a servant of Jesus Christ. The second incident was in Jerusalem after the completion of his third missionary journey (see Acts 22:25-29). As Paul was about to undergo public whipping, he made his citizenship known, thus avoiding the beating. The final occasion when Paul asserted his citizenship was at Caesarea, when he stood before Festus stopped his extradition to stand before the Jews in Jerusalem.

Of greater importance than his Roman citizenship was Paul’s Jewish heritage. He mentions in Romans 11:1 and Philippians 3:5 that he was from the tribe of Benjamin. The tribes of Benjamin and Judah remained faithful to God after the death of Solomon, when other tribes broke away and began worshiping idols. King Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin; this was considered a matter of pride. Paul remained humble following his conversion on the Road to Damascus. He called himself a “Hebrew born of Hebrews” (see Philippians 3:5). However, he was emphasizing the fact that he was Hebrew in the sense that he was a Jew who maintained the traditional Hebrew culture rather than being puffed up by his immersion in Diaspora Hellenization. Rather, he remained loyal to the Jewish faith and to being a servant of Jesus Christ rather than “modernized” by Greco-Roman culture. In other words, he remained a Jew rather than “made Greek.”

PAUL, A PHARISEE

Paul was likely born around the time of the birth of Jesus. We know this because he is described as “a young man” in Acts 7:58 at the time of the death of Stephen and shortly before his conversion. Most chronologies of Paul date his birth just prior to that of Jesus, at the same time, or shortly thereafter. Paul is said to have been a member of the Sanhedrin when Stephen was martyred. Accordingly, he would have met the minimum age requirement for membership in that religious body. The Talmud notes the minimum age as forty for ordination of a rabbi. Paul, as we know, was a rabbi who learned at the feet of Gamaliel in Jerusalem.

Traditionally, Paul would have learned to recite the Shema. From the age of five, he would have begun memorizing at least parts of the Hallel—the portion of the Psalms used at the Feast of Passover. When he was about six, he would have been sent to synagogue to learn reading and writing. At that time, the only textbook was the Scriptures, which the Jews believed contained everything one needed to know about the world, whether in the realm of science, religion, or law. Paul had a bar mitzvah or its ancient counterpart at age twelve or thirteen. He was now qualified to be one of the minyan of ten required to constitute a synagogue and made him accountable as an adult for violation of the Law of Moses. At age fifteen, Paul began studying the oral traditions that were later codified in the Talmud.

PAUL’S HUMILITY

Interestingly, Paul’s opponents at Corinth referred to his bodily presence as “weak” (see 2 Corinthians 10:10). The Greek word used here (asthenês) often means “weak,” “feeble,” or “without strength,” but can also mean “sickly,” referring mainly to bodily disability. Paul uses this same Greek word in Galatians 4:13 when he reminds the Galatians that it was because of a “weakness of the flesh” that he first preached to them. He is also quick to point out to the Galatians that “…you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me” (4:15). Paul may have chosen this particular imagery because there was actually something wrong with his eyesight. This gives some credibility to the idea that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a physical disability.

And he saw Paul coming, a man of little stature, thin-haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining and nose somewhat hooked, full of grace: for sometimes he appeared like a man, and sometimes he had the face of an angel.—2 Timothy 4:19

In Romans 1:1, we read, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (NIV). Paul was noted for describing his converted life as the opportunity to live out, to incarnate, to speak, Christ into the lives of those he was called to reach. He arrived at this position or station in life with no regard for his life as a Roman citizen, a rabbi, a Pharisee who learned at the feet of the famed Gamaliel. He considered himself no more than a servant of Christ. He seeks to promote this very attitude in his ministry to the Gentiles. This is so different from our highly individualistic culture today. In America, competition is much more the norm, rather than cooperation. Everyone seems to feel compelled to stand out from the rest, to be different. This is unfortunately true even in the Christian church.

Paul indicates that he was from Tarsus, which we’ve learned was a city of importance. It was cosmopolitan in antiquity, and, as a melting pot, it was “the place” where the exchange of many diverse ideas commonly took place. Hellenization was alive and well in Tarsus. That Paul was exposed to views that arose beyond the borders of his own home town is something we can take virtually for granted. It is likely that Paul’s thinking was shaped to some degree by his great mentor Gamaliel. We know that Paul was immersed academically in the content of the Old Testament from a young age, as well as in the writings of the rabbinic scholars of his day. But to interpret Paul solely on the grounds of the teachings of the rabbinic scholars of antiquity would be to negate critical factors of influence in the development of Paul’s thought. It would seem to belie his humility.

Paul himself claims Jesus as the key influence in shaping his thought—not Gamaliel or the rabbinic scholars of antiquity. Obviously, when Paul writes his letters, he does not identify himself by saying, “Paul, a bond servant or slave of Gamaliel.” Instead, he says, “Paul, a bond slave of Jesus Christ.” It is the teaching of Jesus Christ—who revealed His perspective and His own mind to Paul—that stands as the very rock of the foundation for Paul’s theology. This is what makes Romans 6, 7, and 8 (the very crux of Christian doctrine) so powerful and so important. His words in these three chapters of Romans has absolutely nothing to do with Paul, or his rabbinical education, or the influence of a great teacher like Gamaliel. Moreover, Paul does not mention his Jewish heritage, or his bloodline (from the tribe of Benjamin) as qualifications for his ministry to the Gentiles.

ARE YOU HUMBLE?

Woman and Cross in a Field.jpg

Are you modest? Are you sure? To fit the mold, you’d need to be meek and totally lacking in pride. You must be unassuming, humble, lacking in vanity. In other words, you’d have to hold a low view of your own importance. I’ve heard it said that if you think you have humility—if you’re convinced that you’re humble—then you might not be. Etymology of the word is of Latin origin, humilis. Paul would have used the Greek word which is equivalent to the English humble or modest. Certainly, humility is an important character quality in the Christian life. Although most of us know this, we also likely know that humility is one of the most difficult qualities to develop and consistently live out in our Christian walk.

We have a tendency as Americans to be envious, competitive, self-absorbed, prideful, and decidedly self-motivated. Much of this comes from today’s pluralistic, humanistic, morally relevant culture. Social media has taken this drive and given it a worldwide stage on which we can cultivate a meme we want to be known by. I’m guilty of trying to script my every move and explain my moral shortcomings in a light that hopefully makes me look less guilty of pride than I am. I truly have no human comprehension about humility. As a thirteen-year-old new Christian, I was hopeful that I would be used by God in a great way because, after all, wasn’t I great? I fell away from the Gospel shortly after high school graduation. The minute I discovered marijuana and Miller Genuine Draft, I lost all concept of selflessness, empathy, love, friendship, forgiveness, and putting others first. I became the most selfish, self-centered person I knew.

Highlighter Concepts from Luke.jpgAlthough this may sound like something you haven’t done since Sunday School, the Holy Spirit is ready to speak to us when we dive into God’s Word. There is so much we can glean from how Jesus taught and acted in the Gospels that can help us to cultivate humility. Pay attention to how He lived out his humanity in a humble way, even though He was fully God. The Gospel of Luke is rich with things we can learn and apply to our own lives—from studying how Jesus interacted with people and what and how he taught them. Jesus came not only to take on the sins of the world; He came to provide us with an example of how we should interact with others. He was God Himself, yet He described Himself as a servant. He said in John 13:15, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” He washed the disciples’ feet! (John 13:5-9). First John 2:6 says, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (NIV).

It is important to note that humility and submission go hand-in-hand. This is precisely why humility did not come easily to me. I was inspired and motivated as a new Christian in my teens, but when my family “fell away” from the church, I began to get my validation from other sources. I began to doubt the existence of God in my third semester of college when I started studying psychology and philosophy. God became a “magical being” (and just one of many “religious” roads to paradise) rather than the Creator and Sustainer of the world. The road back was blocked by active addiction and ego. The further I got from God, the more carnal I became. When we cater to our flesh—when we give in to our mind, will, and emotions—we cannot hear the voice of God. We cannot see  what we need to see. It’s like the line from Strawberry Fields. McCartney and Lennon wanted us to understand this critical precept: “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.”

I couldn’t help but wonder who is the most humble man in the Bible? According to Numbers 12:3 says, “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (NIV). Paul is one of the most humble people in the New Testament. Something even he does not take credit for. He wrote in Philippians 3:3-7, “…though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (NIV).

10 Identifying Characteristics of a Humble Christian

  • Trust in the sovereignty of God
  • Thankfulness and Gratitude
  • In awe of God’s goodness and grace
  • Able to rejoice with others
  • Preference of seeing unity with others through salvation
  • No longer “wise in their own eyes”
  • Easily forgiving others because of what God has forgiven of them
  • Possessing a “teachable” spirit
  • Focused on building others up
  • Possessing the heart of a servant
There is nothing that will put you in your place, nothing that will correct your distorted view of yourself, nothing that will yank you out of your functional arrogance, or nothing that will take the winds out of the sails of your self-righteousness like standing, without defense, before the awesome glory of God.—Paul David Tripp

References

McRay, J. (2003). Paul: His Life and Teaching. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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