TOWARDS OTHERS – BE HUMBLE
TEXT: 1 Peter 5:5 (Good News Bible): "All of
you must put on the apron of humility, to serve one another".
Slaves in Peter’s day used to put on an apron to
protect their tunics, and keep themselves clean and decent while
they were working. The apron was their "badge of office".
Peter says it’s also the "badge of office"
for all Christians. Not clerical vestments, or expensive clothes,
but an apron. The apron of humility.
Perhaps he was thinking of that dramatic moment in
the upper room just before Jesus was crucified. Jesus, "knowing
that he had come from God and was going to God" laid aside
his garments, and put on a servant’s towel. Just a little earlier
Peter and the others had been arguing about which of them would
be the greatest in the kingdom. It’s the old "Hertz and Avis"
debate – who’s number one and number two? That day they’d walked
a fair distance, and their feet were smelly and dirty. Now who
was to be the others’ slave? Perhaps they’d simply taken turns
doing this menial chore in the past, but no-one was in any mood
to do it now. Jesus was the only one willing to deal with dirt
Peters are everywhere today – even in the church.
Human ambition and pride and playing "King on the Mountain"
– who of us is guiltless? Peter’s philosophy once was – "If
you want something in life, grab it".
But something must have happened to him. His epistle
is full of terms like "submit" and "serve",
and, here, "put on the apron of humility".
So there’s hope for us, too. We have the same opportunity
to be changed.
Where do we start? Where Peter did. Remember when
he said "Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord"
(Luke 5:8). Humility, said someone, is nothing else than admitting
our need. Isaiah did that in the temple, when he saw in his vision
an awesome, holy God. Ezekiel had a similar experience: he felt
so humbled before the glory of God he fell on his face. God told
him to "Stand upon your feet" – he had a ministry for
him now. Perhaps the best-known story about humility in the Bible
is Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The religious
man’s prayer was full of his own achievements, whereas the publican
asked God to "abe merciful to me, a sinner".
All spiritual progress is progress in humility. In
his first letter to the Corinthians Paul says he’s "the least
of the apostles" (15:9), but writing later to the Ephesians
he says he’s "less than the least" – not now ofthe apostles,
but "of all God’s people" (3:8). Writing to Timothy
later still, he says that "Christ Jesus came into the world
to save sinners. I am the worst of them …" (1:15).
Let us ask for questions about humility – "what",
"where", "why" and "how"?
(a) WHAT IS HUMILITY?
Humility is "grace", humble presence. "Grace",
says John Macquarrie in his little book "The Humility of
God", "Grace is God’s presence and solidarity with his
creatures in their strivings. So humility isn’t a state or a feeling
it’s rather incarnate action.
Humility is helplessness. When God humbled himself
he entered history by being born into a common peasant family,
in a small frontier province, and grew up in a despised place.
Indeed in Jesus’ family history there’s quite a mixture of people.
He certainly didn’t have "the best of families".
Humility is freedom – freedom from the bondages of
our society and our psychology. Freedom to be who we’re meant
to be, so that others can be set free. Jesus was the freest man
who ever lived, in this sense, but note that he wasn’t free of
suffering, or poverty, or hardship. Jesus was free from sin. And
he was "free for death. People have always wanted to be free
from death, but how rarely are people free for death! Jesus’ freedom
for death is a special case of his … humble availability go
So the God of the Christian faith is great enough
to be humble, and calls us away from our pride and self-sufficiency
and power-grabbing to follow in the steps of Jesus.
Sometimes Christians have to watch out for a special
sort of "pseudo-humility", which is a deadly enemy of
the true thing. It’s not self-depreciation or self-denigration.
Sometimes this is only pride with a different face. For example
certain Christians may in their praying confess themselves to
be weak, sinful and foolish – but they’d be angry and resentful
if you agreed with them!
Humility must not be confused with low self-esteem,
either. Too many in our society have a bad self-image. Humility
helps to correct that, rather than re-inforce it.
C.S. Lewis gets to the heart of it in one of his
Screwtape Letters. Writing to his junior demon, the senior tempter
gives some important advice in the art of deception: "You
must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of humility.
Let him think of it … as a low opinion of his own talents and
character". That ploy has certainly been widely successful!
A.W. Tozer once wrote an article called "Humility
True and False" and concluded: "I have met two classes
of Christians: the proud who imagine they are humble, and the
humble who are afraid they are proud. There should be another
class: the self-forgetful who leave the whole thing in the hands
of Christ, and refuse to waste any time trying to make themselves
good. They will reach the goal far ahead of the rest".
(b) WHERE ARE WE TO BE HUMBLE?
Peter is very specific, and lists five contexts where
humble submission is called for:
(i) We are to submit to civil authorities (2:11-16)
What a place for Peter to start! With the prospect, and perhaps
in the wake, of fierce persecutions by these very authorities,
Peter says there is only one appropriate Christian response. Undoubtedly
there was a lot of resentment against these governors, and against
the Emperor: and a ripe sense of injustice can lead people to
do all sorts of reckless things. But however misguided these authorities
are, says Peter, retaliation isn’t Christian.
The New Testament is against anarchy, and for civil
order. Jesus said "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and to God the things that are God’s" (Matt. 22:21). Paul
was certain that governors were sent by God (Rom. 13:1-7), and
urges Christians to pray for them (1 Tim. 2:2).
The message seems to be: we live as citizens of the
state, so we accept the relevant privileges and responsibilities
of that citizenship. Perhaps, however, as Barclay points out in
his commentary on 1 Peter, we need to modify our response in a
democracy, where the keynote may be co-operation rather than subjection.
But let us note that Peter says we have a higher
obligation than that to the state. Our submision is "for
the sake of the Lord". Sometimes, when there is a conflict
in renderings to Caesar and to God, we must put God first (see
eg, Acts 4:19; 5:29). Sometimes, yes, we will fulfil our highest
loyalties in what is called "civil disobedience", where
obeying both God and the state cannot happen in a particular circumstance.
(ii) Servants are to submit to masters (2:18-25)
Peter’s "Charter of Christian citizenship" extends to
the place where we work. He’s now answering the question: "What
is the duty of a converted slave?" Now that he is "free
in Christ" is he also free of obligations to his earthly
master? No, Peter says, on the contrary: he’s now a Christian
slave, and he’ll be more conscientious than he was before! They
are not called to be revolutionary rebels, but now that they work
also for a "higher master", they’ll delight in doing
an honest day’s work. However humble our tasks may be, they are
being done for the glory of God (Col. 3:17, 1 Cor. 10:31).
If, after we’ve done our best, what is to be our
attitude then? Peter gives a magnificant answer: we are to remember
the insults and suffering of Jesus the servant. He has left us
a humble example, that we should follow in his steps (2:21).
After all, in any situation in our lives, we cannot
learn to be good masters until we have been good servants; we
can’t be good leaders until we’ve been good followers. Great achievements
for God are won the hard way. The great pianist Paderewski summed
up a life of unremitting effort in this remark: "Before I
was a master, I was a slave".
(iii) We are to be submissive in our homes (3:1-7)
This is a controversial passage, and must be put into its first
century context. Undoubtedly Peter is anticipating the question:
"OK, you’ve counselled submission to civil and vocational
authorities, but now that I’ve become a Christian, what’s to be
my attitude to my pagan husband?" More space is given in
Peter’s address to wives than to husbands, for two reasons, perhaps.
First, he’s underlining women’s dignity and worth, from a Christian
point of view. Then, probably more women became Christians than
men (as is the case in most parts of the world today), so it was
a greater problem for them.
J.B. Phillips translates verse one: "Wives,
adapt yourselves to your husbands". I like that. Women, in
my pastoral experience, seem to be more adaptable than men. They
are more likely to have a significant role in making their marriages
But notice that Christian wives’ behaviour is for
the sake of the gospel. The higher commendation is for service
to Christ rather than submission to her husband. One of the great
examples of this attitude in ancient history was Monica, the mother
of Augustine. In his fmous book of "Confessions", Augustine
spoke to God about his mother’s relationship to her pagan husband:
"Preaching thee to him by her character, whereby thou didst
make her beautiful to her husband, reverently lovable and wonderful".
But notice the instruction to husbands. Peter was
a married man, so he spoke from some experience. Husbands are
to be understanding, chivalrous, remembering that his wife is
a co-heir of spiritual blessings, and also his behaviour towards
her will determine whether his prayers are answered!
Every married person knows that "humility"
is a very real component of any successful marriage. Saying "I’m
sorry" is an act of humility. Anticipating your partner’s
needs is an act of humiility. Correcting behaviours in love is
an act of courageous humility. A Christian man who wanted to be
more humble said "When my wife’s not around, the Lord has
to do it in other ways!"
(iv) We are to "respect everyone" (2:17),
"love one another earnestly (4:8) – all are to put on the
apron of humility, serving one another (5:5).
Honouring every person is a high, holy – and humble
– calling! It means recollecting that every person is made in
God’s image and mustn’t be treated as a "thing". This
is as relevant in a welfare state, as it was in first century
Roman society, where there were 60 million slaves.
The proud, sinful – non-christian approach to others
is to exploit them for our own self-aggrandisement. Peter counsels
rather a voluntary subordination of oneself to others, putting
their interests and well-being above one’s own, preferring to
give rather than receive (see also Eph. 5:21, Rom. 12:10, Phil.
(v) Nowhere is this attitude of humble submission
to others more appropriate than in the church. So we devote the
final two questions – "why?" and "how?" –
to a closer study of 1 Peter 5:1-6.
(c) WHY ARE WE TO BE HUMBLE?
In this section Peter is addressing the question
of authority and submission in the church. Perhaps – we can’t
be sure – the young people had problems with their elders. This
isn’t an ancient problem, is it?
Peter first addresses the leaders, saying three positive
and two negative things about their approach to their ministry.
First, positively, he tells them to shepherd their
flock "willingly" (not accepting nomination for office
reluctantly!), eagerly ("from a real desire to serve"
5:2), and in an exemplary fashion (they are actually "modelling"
Christian behaviour before others).
Then, negatively, he warns of two ever-present dangers
in any kind of leadership over others – in the church or out of
it. The first is "money-hunger" ("shameful gain"
is a literal reading of the Greek expression), and the second
is "power-hunger" (power can corrupt even in spiritual
Why should leaders shepherd their flock humbly? Peter
gives four reasons here:
(i) Christ’s sufferings (5:1). As Paul says in his
great "kenotic hymn" in Phil. 2, the basic rationale
for Christian humility is the example of our Lord. Peter says
he actually witnessed Christ’s sufferings: it made an indelible
impression on this self-reliant and arrogant man. It transformed
his independent pride into a serving humility. Christina Rosetti
has a beautiful prayer, asking the "Lord of Calvary"
to clothe us with humility:
"Give me the lowest place; not that I dare Ask
for the lowest place, but Thou hast died That I might live and
share Thy glory by Thy side.
Give me the lowest place; or if for me That lowest
place too high, make one more low Where I may sit and see, My
God and love Thee so."
(ii) Your glory’s coming later ("so don’t jump
the gun’"!) Peter says (5:1) we’ll be sharing in the glory
to be revealed, and that the reward of a "glorious crown"
awaits those tho serve humbly and well (5:4). As the Shorter Catechism
puts it, the "chief end of man is to glorify God", not
ourselves. "Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord" says
Paul (1 Cor. 1:26, 31).
If the saints have taught us anything on this subject,
it’s that humility is a necessary consequence of really seeking
God. "The saint learns that the more humility he has, the
more of God he will have also … The more humility the less pride.
The less pride, the more of God. The vision of God begets humility
in the soul, and the more humility the clearer one’s eyes become
to see him as he is" (Sangster, "The Pure in Heart"
(iii) It’s God’s flock, not yours. You sometimes
hear pastors or church leaders talking about "my church",
"my people". Peter says rather that the church is a
flock given by God to its shepherds for their care and nurture.
The New Testament is full of the idea of humble servanthood.
We are to "put on the apron of humility" as Christ did.
He has left us an example, so that we might follow in his steps.
There’s a deeply moving story about Samuel Logan
Brengle, an American Methodist pastor. In 1848 William Booth’s
Salvation Army was enlisting men from all over the world, and
Brengle felt called to cross the Atlantic and offer his services.
A successful minister in a fine church, he gave up everything
in obedience to this call. At first, the General accepted him
grudgingly and reluctantly. "You’ve been your own boss for
too long," he said. To "instil humility" into him,
Booth set Brengle to work cleaning the boots of other trainees.
Brengle said to himself, "Have I followed my own fancy across
the Atlantic in order to black boots?" (He had once dreamed
of being a bishop. He had given up so much!). Then, as in a vision,
he saw his Lord bending over the feet of rough, unlettered fishermen
– and washing their feet. "Lord," he whispered, "You
washed their feet; I will black their boots".
There’s an Asian proverb, "The taller the bamboo
grows, the lower it bends". The higher a person is in grace,
the lower he’ll be willing to stoop to serve others. The lower
he’ll be in his own self-esteem.
(iv) God resists the proud, but shows favour to the
humble (5:5). James (4:6) also quotes this text from Proverbs
(3:34): "(The Lord) has no use for conceited people, but
shows favour to those who are humble". The proud person has
God for his adversary (see Num. 22:22 ff)! The humble person is
a friend of God. An Indian said to Stanley Jones "I used
to believe in idols. Now I don’t believe in God at all. But I
am coming around to believe that I myself am God." He gave
up idols and made one of himself! That’s the essence of pride,
and the antithesis of humility.
Finally, and very briefly, the fourth question about
(d) HOW ARE WE TO BE HUMBLE?
Peter’s answer, as we have seen, is that humility
is expressed in our submitting to, shepherding, and serving one
We learn humility by first "seeing God".
But further lessons involve practice, as well as theory. Humility
is not just contemplating God, although it begins there. Humility
is not just a meek attitude within one’s spirit, although that
is needed too. Like so many other things in life, you learn by
The two contemporary "saints" who exemplify
"doing humility" better than any others are probably
Mother Theresa and Helder Camara. Camara says in one of his books,
"When I am about to go out and face a huge audience which
is applauding me and cheering me, I turn to Christ and say to
him simply, "Lord this is your triumphal entry into Jerusalem!
I am just the little donkey you are riding on."
When your service is not recognised, remember Christ.
He was despised and rejected by his contemporaries. If this is
the way the Master trod, shall not the servant tread it still?
When you are tempted to be proudly self-contained,
ask, "Who has a need that I can meet, right now?"
When you are tempted to congratulate yourself for
all your giftedness or goodness, remember that your gifts and
your goodness come from God, and be humble.
"Man, that his fellows may his glory see, Builds
a mighty tower; God stoops to earth, and in humility Fashions
Man, in his pride, views with complacency Riches
on riches piled; God, in his love, shedding his majesty, Becomes
Great towers shall fall, and riches come to naught,
Man’s pride to dust be razed, While through eternities beyond
all thought God shall be praised."
Let us pray (in the words of Thomas Merton); "Lord,
give us humility in which alone is rest, and deliver us from pride
which is the heaviest of burdens".