Christianity 201

November 30, 2021

Humility as Demonstrated by Jesus

As I’ve stated previously, several years ago I set out to memorize the “kenosis” passage of Philippians 2, also sometimes referred to as “The Philippian Hymn.” I’ve also written several of my own paraphrases of it. It’s a passage that I highly value, just as I highly value humility and people who demonstrate humility. But first, some words from John’s gospel.

 

John 13:3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him… 12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.

In most of our Bibles the passage above has a subheading such as “Jesus washes His disciples’ feet.” This is true as far as it goes, but I think “Jesus demonstrates humility” would make a better focus. We often use this passage to talk about “servant leadership” and many have suggested that in addition to the cross, the towel and the basin should be the symbol that represents Christianity.

However, I feel that it’s so easy to miss the full impact of verse 3:

  • Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God (NIV)
  • Because Jesus knew that the Father had handed all things over to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God (NET)
  • The Father had put everything in Jesus’ control. Jesus knew that. He also knew that he had come from God and was going back to God. (God’s Word)

What a contrast between that set-up and the action that follows. It’s like a symphony that is building in a giant crescendo, and just as it reaches the penultimate note of the scale and you wait for that grand chord that resolves everything, the orchestra suddenly is silent, and you’re left with just the sound of a single violin or piccolo:

  • he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet

I say all that as a setup for some verses I’ve covered here many times:

Phil 2:3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

The progression is rather simple in verses 7 and 8

  • took the nature of a servant
  • entered into the human condition
  • was obedient even to experiencing human death
  • and a death of the worst kind at that

If you look at the study we did on this in May, 2017, you’ll notice I switched the order of the first two clauses in these verses. Surely, God enters humanity first — that’s the point of incarnation, the season we are about to celebrate — and then does so as someone whose birth lineage is controversial, whose occupation is that of a carpenter’s son, and whose short career as a rabbi is marked by things like foot washing. Right?

But then I started thinking about it, and recognized that the humility of Christ begins prior to the incarnation. Before the moment when “he left the splendor of Glory,” he has already taken on the role of a servant inasmuch as the incarnate Christ is submitted to the Father.

Although doctrinally the Father and Son are co-equal, and equally divine, in the incarnation we see passages such as:

John 5:19 Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.’

and

Matthew 24:36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

not to mention the passage where Jesus prays at Gethsemane Garden for the Father to introduce a Plan B that won’t involve the torment of crucifixion.

In other words, the humility of Jesus extends even so far as humbling himself before the Father, the One with whom he co-created the universe.

That’s submission. That’s humility.

In a devotional from June, 2019, writer Keith Giles notes that it won’t be long (in the book of Acts) until the disciples decide to off-load some of their more menial responsibilities to a second tier of leaders. He writes,

Instead of remembering this essential lesson from Jesus, the Apostles in Acts are seen coming to the conclusion that they are too important to wait tables and feed widows and orphans. Instead, they decide to elect some lowly people to do this menial task so that they can devote themselves to the Gospel – forgetting that, to Jesus, this serving of the widows and orphans; waiting tables; WAS the Gospel in vivid, vibrant 3-D…

But then Keith goes on to point out that the martyrdom of Stephen would have had a humbling effect on the disciples.

…I can’t help but feel that it’s the Holy Spirit’s attempt to remind those Apostles what their mission is really all about. See, up to that point, we read that Peter had become a local celebrity and that his fame had spread through the land; that even those who were pagans would lay their sick out on the street whenever the Apostles walked by in hopes that their shadows might heal them.

But then came Stephen. Not an Apostle. Not one who walked with Jesus for three years. Not one whose feet had been washed in that room by Jesus. Not one who was too proud and important to wash feet. But one who was humble, willing to serve, and even willing to die – with joy – for the Lord Jesus he loved so much.

…As I was preparing this, I was also listening to a sermon by Andy Stanley on pride, which is of course humility’s opposite. Nebuchadnezzar learns this the hard way and basically says that you either are humble or you get humbled.

Daniel 4:37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

In my personal life and ministry I do encounter people who are arrogant, and I also find myself having to guard against arrogance and pride. God help me and all of us to develop a spirit of humility without having to be humbled. God help us to learn from Christ’s humility that is not only symbolized by a towel and basin, but by submission to God the Father’s will.

June 17, 2019

The Early Church Moment Where Fear Overtook Love

Keith Giles was formerly a licensed and ordained minister who walked away from organized church 11 years ago, to start a home fellowship that gave away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. He is the author of several books, including Jesus Unbound: How the Bible Keeps Us From Hearing the Word of God; and the best-seller, Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb. Today, He and his wife live in Meridian, Idaho, awaiting their next adventure. Click the title below to read this at his Patheos blog and check out other articles.

Great Love or Great Fear?

It’s one of the weirdest things in the book of Acts. One minute you’re reading about how love filled the community of Christ; how everyone shared what they had in common with people who only days before were total strangers; selling land and property to buy food for their hungry brothers and sisters in Christ, meeting daily in homes, breaking bread together; they “ate together with glad and sincere hearts,” and devoted themselves to the fellowship of the Saints and the Way of Christ,….and then…

Well, then we read the very next chapter about how two people are struck down dead for not giving as much money to the community as they said they were giving, and then we read this:

Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events…(and) no one else dared join them…” [Acts 5:11-13]

So, in just one chapter, the early Christian community went from being filled with great love to being seized with great fear.

What is it that we’ve learned about fear and love? They cancel one another out.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” [1 John 4:18]

Sadly, just at the moment when the love of Christ had broken through the darkness; when the light of Christ had filled their hearts and opened their fists to share all that they had with one another, when the unconditional love of Christ had just started to blossom in their hearts, this great fear seized them and crushed the flow of unity and trust.

Now, people were afraid – both within the Body of Christ, and outside the Church. Love was not the driving force. Fear was.

Maybe it was this flash of fear that cast out the perfect love of Christ and prevented the Apostles from remembering what Jesus had told them the night he was betrayed; when he took off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and knelt down to wash their feet, exactly as a slave would have done.

Maybe it was momentary lapse of love the kept them from recalling the words of Jesus as he asked them,

“Do you know what I have done for you? I am your Teacher and your Lord, and yet I knelt down to wash your feet. I have set you an example that you should was one another’s feet.”

Instead of remembering this essential lesson from Jesus, the Apostles in Acts are seen coming to the conclusion that they are too important to wait tables and feed widows and orphans. Instead, they decide to elect some lowly people to do this menial task so that they can devote themselves to the Gospel – forgetting that, to Jesus, this serving of the widows and orphans; waiting tables; WAS the Gospel in vivid, vibrant 3-D.

I think this is why one of those lowly servants they selected to wait tables – a job the Apostles were too important to keep doing – is suddenly filled with the Spirit of God and anointed by the Holy Spirit to speak powerfully to preach the Gospel – even greater than the Apostles themselves. We read that whenever engaged with those who opposed the Gospel of Christ, …they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke,” [Acts 6:10] and that when he is taken before the Sanhedrin on charges of blasphemy, “they saw that his face was like the face of an angel” [v.15]

And then Stephen gives one of the most moving [and one of the longest] testimonies of Christ to the Jewish leaders and onlookers, and at the end of it, he is martyred for his witness and stoned to death. Yet even as he is dying, he forgives his murders – just as Jesus had done – and his eyes are opened to see Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father.

It’s a glorious and troubling testimony, and yet I can’t help but feel that it’s the Holy Spirit’s attempt to remind those Apostles what their mission is really all about. See, up to that point, we read that Peter had become a local celebrity and that his fame had spread through the land; that even those who were pagans would lay their sick out on the street whenever the Apostles walked by in hopes that their shadows might heal them.

But then came Stephen. Not an Apostle. Not one who walked with Jesus for three years. Not one whose feet had been washed in that room by Jesus. Not one who was too proud and important to wash feet. But one who was humble, willing to serve, and even willing to die – with joy – for the Lord Jesus he loved so much.

Stephen is not only the first martyr of the Church, he’s not one of the Twelve. He’s no one. And yet, that seems to be the point: God loves to do extraordinary things through ordinary people.

Love – not fear – is what drives us.

Humility – not fame – is where our true strength is found.

Service to one another, and to those in need around us IS the ministry of the Word of God, who is Christ.

Christ is revealed in us when we are like Christ: Humble, loving, compassionate and willing to wait tables in obscurity for the rest of our lives without ever seeking, or needing, any other recognition from anyone.

This challenges me. It makes me pause and rethink my own life, and my own mindset.

Sometimes we have to take a few steps backwards to move forward.

 

July 2, 2018

The Enemy Targets Spiritual Play-Makers

The website Dust Off the Bible has been running a detailed series of posts on Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Specifically these include:

 

Acts Devotional Commentary [Acts 6:8-15] Stephen Seized

Acts 6:8-15

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. 10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.

11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”

12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.


Reflections & Commentary


The seizing of Saint Stephen is a story that Luke tells with enough detail that one needs to read slowly through the passage, as to not miss an important facet of the story.

The first detail that Luke provides is that Stephen was not just another ordinary member of the Christian community. He was known throughout the people.

“a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people”

So, the Jewish leaders were not picking people indiscriminately to harass. They were looking to take out the play makers. Like dealing with the disciples, they assume that taking out the leaders of a movement will help dissolve it. This tactic thus far has not proven to be effective. Why they think it will work still, even after they’ve seen it fail, is difficult to know.

Luke’s second area of detail is about the people who rose up to complain about Stephen. Luke refers to them as “members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen“. Who exactly was Luke referring to? Were these Roman slaves that were now free? Were they Jews who believed in hedonism? Were they prisoners set free? Luke gives a little help to answering this question in the next sentence; “Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia“. These Freedmen were part of the North African and Western Asian Jewish diaspora. The people named by Luke are two different synagogues, as they are thousands of miles apart, yet they both contained Jewish Freedmen. The diasporic Freedmen existed in both synagogues, as they were the natural product of the diaspora.

Philo speaks of these Jews as former slaved brought into Rome who lived near the Tiber River.

How then did he look upon the great division of Rome which is on the other side of the river Tiber, which he was well aware was occupied and inhabited by the Jews? And they were mostly Roman citizens, having been emancipated; for, having been brought as captives into Italy, they were manumitted by those who had bought them for slaves, without ever having been compelled to alter any of their hereditary or national observances. (156) Therefore, he knew that they had synagogues, and that they were in the habit of visiting them, and most especially on the sacred sabbath days, when they publicly cultivate their national philosophy. He knew also that they were in the habit of contributing sacred sums of money from their first fruits and sending them to Jerusalem by the hands of those who were to conduct the sacrifices. (157) But he never removed them from Rome, nor did he ever deprive them of their rights as Roman citizens, because he had a regard for Judaea…. (Philo, Legato ad Gaium 13:155-156)

These Jews were likely part of the Jewish expulsion from Rome that took place under Tiberius, in 19 CE. Tacitus describes them as being “tainted with superstition” which was a reference to their religion. They were expelled to Sardinia.

There was a debate too about expelling the Egyptian and Jewish worship, and a resolution of the Senate was passed that four thousand of the freedmen class who were infected with those superstitions and were of military age should be transported to the island of Sardinia, to quell the brigandage of the place, a cheap sacrifice should they die from the pestilential climate. The rest were to quit Italy, unless before a certain day they repudiated their impious rites. (Tacitus 2.85)

The Island of Sardinia was west of Italy, nowhere near near Northern Africa or Western Asia. So were the Freedmen of this island the same as the Freedmen that rose up against Stephen? It’s quite possible that Luke is referring to 3 groups of people, or that the Freedmen from Sardinia migrated after being expelled to the island. Some of the Jews were also later expelled from Rome who were partly made up of Freedmen. Where they ended up in the diaspora is hard to know except that it appears that some ended up in Northern Africa and South West Asia (Turkey).

But why would these Freedmen start a quarrel with Stephen? I think the answer is more obvious than it might first appear. They were already enslaved by Rome. They wanted no beef with the leaders that had set them free. The preaching of Jesus in any location near the Jewish Freedmen would have set off alarm bells, and aroused fear that another Roman crackdown was coming. So, they did what anyone would do in that situation; they took Stephen to the Sanhedrin for court.

However, Stephen uses his platform (despite it being in captivity) to preach the gospel (yet again) to the men in the Sanhedrin council. A gospel they surely are tired of hearing about.