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.

Be Not Self-Centered

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:3-4)

Following Jesus involves far more than believing; it involves belonging. Only as we belong to Christ’s Body can we become what He intends us to be. In fact, it is impossible to grow to spiritual maturity by yourself. You must be connected to the other parts of the Body. Being a member of a local church is more than merely having a church to belong to. It’s your way of committing to the work God is doing in the Body.

It was rather difficult at first for me to turn my focus from “me” to others. I know this was due, in large part, to my long history of alcoholism and drug addiction. Alcoholics and addicts are, by their very nature, self-centered. When someone is drinking alcohol or using drugs, they are usually concerned with how they feel, and not about those around them. As a result of this selfish behavior, relationships tend to suffer the most in the addict’s or alcoholic’s life. It was not until I renewed my relationship with Jesus and set my eyes upon Him and the cross that I was able to put the drink down and think of others first. Things were great in the beginning, but I drifted away from a daily conscious contact with God. I started acting outside the will of God. I quickly became self-centered once again. A relapse was waiting for me in the wings.

To be selfish is to be concerned exclusively or excessively with oneself. A person who is selfish will seek or concentrate on his or her own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others. Romans 7:5 tells us that when we are self-centered, sinful passions aroused through the law are at work in all the parts of our body, so that we bare fruit for death. The NIV Bible translates being self-centered as being “in the realm of the flesh.” It is ironic that putting yourself first leads to a destruction of yourself. (See Luke 17:33) If we are focused on ourselves, we cannot love and care for our neighbors. Being self-centered is directly opposed to the clear command that we should not seek our own good, but the good of others. (See 1 Cor. 10:24)

The mindset of “he with the most toys wins” is seen for the fallacy it is. When we deny ourselves, we turn from being self-centered to being God-centered. Self is no longer in charge. God is in charge. Christ rules our hearts. We all have a tendency toward being self-centered. However, though we are still in the flesh, as believers in Christ we have God’s Spirit residing within. (See 1 John 4:13) The question is, which will we allow to have control of our lives, the flesh or the Spirit? Will we manipulate, use and hurt others for our own gain, or will we begin to practice the God kind of love spelled out in 1 Corinthians 13? Love (agape) is patient and kind. It is not jealous or boastful or proud. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Love is a hard thing. Often the focus is on the beautiful, warm aspects of loving another. While that’s all good and true, love has another facet that makes it much more complex. Love means that we set ourselves up, intentionally, to experience the pain that comes when those we choose to love are hurting, or when they hurt us. Good works and good intentions are nice, but many times our love falls far short of the standard expressed in 1 Corinthians 13. Our deepest obedience to God is to love when it is beautiful and good, and to love when it means walking through the dark, messy places with another. This is love the way Jesus defines it. A love that transforms us by its persistent presence. Love can hurt in our lifetime. But from the perspective of eternity, love always wins out. Love is pain’s next-door neighbor. But even in our pain, those who follow Jesus can already taste the sweetness of eternal victory.

When we focus only on ourselves, we have very little empathy, concern, patience or understanding for those who are outside of our circle, and we search for reasons to dismiss, judge and close our hearts to them. Jesus said that in order to follow God, we must become as a servant. We must serve God and serve others, not ourselves. During His time on earth, Jesus told us to do as He does. And what did He do? He set Himself aside and became a servant to all. He fed the hungry. He healed the sick. He forgave the unforgiven. He washed the disciples’ feet. (See John 13:1-17) He loved. He was humble and never took credit for anything, but gave all glory to God. He served the world right up to the point of His death, doing God’s will, and not His own.

We must come to understand that self-centeredness is, at its roots, about being selfish. The issue is not one merely of behavior. Self-centeredness, like all sin, is ultimately a matter of the heart. The only remedy for this type of selfishness is Jesus Christ. In 1 John 4:9-11 (NASB), John wrote, “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” This must not come as a chore, but as a delight, when we realize how God has loved us. The more clearly we see Christ, and God’s amazing grace at work in us through Jesus, the greater is our delight in sacrificing ourselves for the glory of God.

When we operate from a position of self-centeredness, we are unable to appreciate others for who they are. We can’t relate to their circumstances. We don’t believe they have anything we need. We are sorely lacking empathy. Our ego is the wrong size. When we’re driven by selfishness, there is no room in our spirit for God. Not only are we unable to grow spiritually, we are incapable of connecting with other members of the Body of Christ. Nine out of ten churches in America are declining or growing at a pace that is slower than that of their communities. Simply stated, churches are losing ground in their own backyards. Two thirds of those born before 1946 are Christians, but only fifteen percent of millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) are believers.

This me first it’s all about me malaise that has infected all parts of our lives is poisonous to any attempts at living out a vibrant faith. It has had a direct impact on attendance at our churches. Putting ourselves at the center of our existence and at the center of our relationships never satisfies. Self-gratification cannot gratify.  We were not created for this.  The perfect example we have been given to follow is that of Jesus Christ. Denying ourselves, however, is not easy. Thankfully, have the Holy Spirit to guide us. We are under grace as we work out our salvation daily. As stated in Phillipians 2:3-4, we must regard one another as more important than ourselves. It is vital that we look after the interest of others.