A Christ Teaching on Humility: the Greatest Virtue
In this bible study, we discuss Christ’s teaching on humility through three interactions: first, an interaction with his disciples, when he presented a child as an exemplification of humility and declared that “whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” [Matthew 18:4, NKJV]; second, an interaction with fellow guests at a dinner, where he explained that people should refrain from assigning themselves to seats of honor, to avoid potential demotion by the host, for “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” [Luke 14:11, NKJV]; and third, an interaction with his disciples and a large audience during the Sermon on the Mount.
Humility conveys a message that a person is available and willing to provide or accept assistance as needed. It sets up an environment for fulfilling God’s purpose of mutual provider-receiver relationships among people, whereby every person is potentially a provider sometimes and receiver at other times. Humility conveys a person as predisposed to appreciate other people as potential providers of human service and willing to perform services to benefit others. Therefore, a person’s humility conveys Godliness to others and motivates them to do the same. God creates every person to be humble, expects and rewards humility, but punishes haughtiness.
Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven
GLORY OF GOD Christ gave a teaching on humility during an interaction with his disciples, when they sought clarification from him regarding relationships in heaven.
Three of the disciples, Peter, James, and John, had recently witnessed his transfiguration: when “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” [Matthew 17:2] and they saw Moses and Elijah talking with him. The disciples were overshadowed by a bright cloud, from which they heard a voice that said to them: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” [Matthew 17:5]. He later commanded them to “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead” [Matthew 17:9]. They held him in high esteem because of this experience and the display of Godly power that they witnessed of him several times.
UNEXPECTED HUMILITY Imagine the disciples’ surprise later when the same Jesus submitted to local authorities by paying tax. The disciples had come to Capernaum with Jesus after the transfiguration experience and the local authorities asked Peter to tell Jesus to pay the temple tax. The disciples probably expected him to shrug off the demand and proceed. Instead, he instructed Peter as follows [Matthew 17:27]: “…lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.”
CHILDLIKE HUMILITY Thereafter, the disciples asked him [Matthew 18:1]: “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” To answer, Jesus called a little child to their midst and told the disciples that “whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” [Matthew 18:4]. He recognized their confusion about his humility and the greatness they know of him. To clarify, he informed them and us that humility is the greatest virtue and presented a child to personify humility.
Humble will be Exalted but Haughty Humbled
In another incident, Christ gave a teaching on humility in the house of a prominent Pharisee. He was there to have a meal. When he noticed that the other guests had chosen seats of honor by themselves, he advised them to refrain from assigning themselves to a place of honor in a public gathering.
If you choose a place of honor for yourself, then the host could later ask you to yield the position to someone more deserving of such honor. In contrast, if you choose a lowly place, the host could later elevate you to a higher position, thereby honoring you in the presence of the other guests. He used the occasion to teach a general principle of humility that those that humble themselves will be exalted whereas those that exalt themselves will be humbled. A person humbles himself or herself by recognizing other people as greater or higher placed in one or more considerations.
Beatitude on Humility
Christ also taught humility through the third Beatitude: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” [Matthew 5:5]. As we discussed in a previous bible study at This_Link, this Beatitude declares the value of humility toward God and toward other people.
HUMILITY TOWARD GOD is a recognition that human effort alone is inadequate to accomplish God’s purpose. God creates every person to represent him among other living and non-living inhabitants of the earth, as a conveyor of the image of God and a channel for God’s compassion in every human interaction. Humility toward God implies submitting to him while applying human effort in order to receive and utilize his intervention and follow his guidance and direction.
HUMILITY TOWARD OTHER PEOPLE is the recognition that every person is God’s provider assistant and has the capacity to make specialized contributions toward providing for human needs. You motivate others to make their contributions if your attitude conveys a promise of appreciation for who they are and willingness to make your own contributions as needed. Therefore, every person owes humility to others in consideration of their capacity and readiness to make contributions and accept other people’s input as needed.
HUMAN INTERDEPENDENCE Apostle Paul described this aspect of human interdependence in his famous teaching of “One Body Many Parts” [1 Corinthians 12:12–31].
He explained that each person has the capacity to provide certain services more effectively than others but is dependent on other people for several services. To illustrate with the human body, he explained the eye is a key to the seeing function of the body but is unable to hear or touch or walk around by itself, i.e., unable to perform other functions that combine to make the eye’s seeing function useful. Therefore, the eye owes humility to every other body part just like every body part owes humility to the eye. Similarly, a person owes humility to other people and the other people owe humility to him/her because each of them has the capacity to be a more effective provider of one or more services needed by others. God created us this way and expects us to be humble in order to accomplish his purpose.
PROMISE OF GOODNESS Humility implies presenting yourself to others with a promise of goodness. That is, your over-all attitude (actions and words) conveys to the others a promise of appreciation of who they are and what they do and a willingness and readiness to make your own contributions as needed. A promise of goodness is conveyed by politeness, attentiveness, responsiveness, peacefulness, truthfulness, and other qualities that contribute to people perceiving a person as available and willing to provide or accept assistance as needed. The manifestation of a promise of goodness could vary with different situations. For example, it could manifest more as a promise of appreciation when one is seeking a service from others; or as a promise of obedience when one interacts with higher authority.
PROMISE OF APPRECIATION is needed when requesting goods or services from other people. The others will be more motivated to provide for a person’s need if his/her attitude conveys a promise to appreciate receiving the goods or services and to do his/her part when needed. A promise of appreciation is conveyed through over-all attitude, i.e., actions and words.
PROMISE OF OBEDIENCE is needed when a person interacts with higher authority, and especially in proposing a choice to the authority. A promise of obedience conveys a message that the person will obey, even if his/her proposal is not accepted. The promise is conveyed through over-all attitude, i.e., actions and words.
EMULATING HUMILITY OF A CHILD Christ presented a child to his disciples and declared that each of us should emulate the humility of a child.
The attitude of a child typically conveys innocence, frankness, and trust. A child typically looks up to people, sees every person as a potential provider, and conveys an appreciating and obedient heart. The attitude of a child presents an embodiment of humility: the humility that God created in each of us. Apostle Paul, in a message on humility, urged us to “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” [Philippians 2:3]. In a similar message, Apostle Peter urged us to be submissive to one another and clothe ourselves in humility, because “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” [1 Peter 5:5]. God creates every person to be humble. Humility motivates Godliness and steers people toward God’s purpose.
Summary of What We Learned
We learned Christ’s teaching on humility through interactions with his disciples, with fellow guests at a dinner, and with a large audience during the Sermon on the Mount. He urges us to emulate the humility of a child by presenting an attitude that conveys a promise of goodness to others in every human interaction. Humility motivates people to be good to others, thereby representing God in every situation by conveying the image of God and being a channel for God’s compassion. God rewards the humble but punishes the haughty. He creates every person with childlike humility.