John the Baptist gives us and example to use for a study of humility. The Lord hates pride and loves humility. The Lord loved John. We all need to be more humble than we are, but it needs to be a Biblically-governed humility. It needs to come from within us, from the place where the Holy Spirit resides. Once in a while, we need to be humiliated, but that is not necessarily a long-term good thing. John was a humble man by nature – probably because he was filled with the Holy Spirit.
John is an example of humility. But someone might read parts of this chapter and wonder why I would say such a thing. Does verse 7 sound like a humble man? “When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Some might even quarrel with John’s primary message – “Repent: for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Does an image of this wild man in the wilderness reflect the character of a humble soul? He sounds eccentric, bizarre, and even flashy in a negative sort of way. Conversely, many people can talk the humble talk, whether or not that is the inward truth. Is it possible to be both bold and humble at the same time?
Maybe our problem in regard to John is in our definition of humility.
What is the grace of humility? What is it to be humble?
Parts of humility involve lowliness, meekness, mildness, modesty and submissiveness. Webster says that it is: “Having or showing a consciousness of one’s defects or shortcomings. Not proud or self-assertive; modest. In a low condition, rank or position; unpretentious.” I think that definition is an accurate description of John the Baptist – so far…. “Humble” suggests an unassuming character in which there is absence of pride and self-assertiveness. And “meekness” is a kind of humility which stresses a mildness and patience of disposition which is not easily stirred to anger or resentment. Was John meek, like the Lord Jesus? According to the Greek language, humility is best described as “an absence of pride.” Now these principles may be easy to understand, but do they really apply to this radical prophet of God?
A truly humble person will neither over-rate – nor under-rate – himself. I’m sure that there were many Jews, of every stripe, who said to themselves, or said to John directly when they heard him preach…. “You think that you’re better than the rest of us.” But there was no reason to say that. Just because John told the truth and exhorted men to repent and to prepare for Christ, that doesn’t mean he didn’t realize that he was just as sinful and just as spiritually needy as the very worse Sadducee. John had a work to do, a divine commission, to fulfil which didn’t require him to constantly explain himself. Just as he thought he needed to be baptized by Christ, he knew that he needed to be saved by Christ. As far as John was concerned – most of his hearers needed the Lord’s salvation, and he told them so. Does that mean he was not humble?
We are all aware that there is true humility and there is false humility. What if a few years earlier, out there in the wilderness, the Lord had spoken to John commanding him to carry out this preparatory work, but John’s “humility” forced him to turn down the Lord’s commission? Has there ever been someone who refused to teach a Sunday School class, claiming they weren’t equipped to teach, when in reality they were? Has there ever been someone who refused to serve the Lord in worship – public prayer, music, public Bible-reading or whatever – citing their unfitness, but who were actually quite capable? There have been thousands. Just because there may be others who could also do what you have been asked to do, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. And that declaration of inability, and that facade of “humility,” may actually be the exact opposite – “pride.” Denying the person that you really are, and turning down the call of God, is not humility. What would you call it, if I said that I was too sick to attend the house of God, but on your way home from church you saw me out playing basketball with a bunch of high school kids? What some people call “humility” is the same as a person in perfect health saying that he was sick. Perhaps a synonym for this false humility would be something like “hypochondria.”
Humility is stands opposed to one’s over-rating himself. This is a serpent who rises up when we compare ourselves with other people. I guarantee that as you compare yourself others, you will see people who you might consider inferior, but if you look long enough there will be someone better than yourself. Paul told the Corinthians, “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” You are who you are, and a part of Biblical humility is a simple recognition of that fact. John was a unique man of God, whom the Lord had called and equipped to carry out a special mission. That he recognized his commission and carried it out to the best of his ability, was not an act of pride. Despite his bold nature and that he rubbed people the wrong way, he was still humble.
That verse in II Corinthians reminds us that “humility” and its rival, “pride,” are rooted in relationships.
And here is the key to John’s humility. Biblical humility is to see ourselves as God sees us. And it’s to behave properly in the light of that knowledge. When Charles Evans Hughes went to Washington, he arrived as a new Supreme Court Justice. That man was a Baptist, the son of a pastor, and so he presented himself for membership before one of the Baptist churches in the District of Columbia. It was the custom of that church to have all incoming members come forward by invitation as the pastor called their names. On the day that Hughes joined, the first person called to front was a Chinese man named Ah Sing. He went forward and stood on the left side down below the pulpit. The next person called forward, stood on the right side of the preacher. Then about a dozen others were called forward, and they all deliberately stood on the right. Finally, and very dramatically, the family of Charles Evans Hughes was invited forward. Hughes deliberately went left to the left side and stood outside of Mr. Ah Sing. Hughes knew that despite his position in Washington, he was only a sinner saved by grace. Spiritually speaking, he and the Chinese immigrant were equals before Christ.
Humility involves an understanding of who we are before the Lord. I read an account of Muhammad Ali, while he was heavy-weight boxing champion of the world. As he was sitting down in first class on a big Boeing plane, the Stewardess reminded him to buckle up his seat belt. He said, as only the former Casius Clay ever could, “Supaman don’t need no seat belt.” Quick as flash the stewardess replied, “Supaman don’t need no airplane, neither.”
John knew that he was no superman. Over and over again he referred to his spiritual relationship to Christ. John 1 – “John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me….” And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No. He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose.”
Can you imagine how tempting it might have been for John to mention that he and Jesus were cousins? Perhaps he didn’t realize that fact; perhaps his parents died before they passed that information on. Who knows. But if he was aware of that relationship, he never mentioned it as far as the scriptures are concerned. Humility flows out of a comparison with the Lord – in His deity and our sinful humanity. And unlike us, Christ is the only person who don’t need no airplane. Micah 6:8 – “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
Think about the importance of this humility.
There are people who call themselves “Jehovah’s Witnesses” – but we know they are not. When someone comes to my door calling himself a “Jehovah’s Witness,” he doesn’t get past the threshold. That is my personal standard – “Whatever you are selling, I am not buying.” Is my standard unreasonable? He might think so; but I don’t, and I have that right as far as my own house is concerned. The Lord has even more right than I have to determine what is right and what is wrong.
And He has determined that without humility no man will ever be acceptable with Him. Humility is a part of the required attire, before there is any admittance into the presence of God. That makes humility far more important than most people like to rank it. “Though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly: but the proud he knoweth afar off.” “The LORD lifteth up the meek: he casteth the wicked down to the ground.” “Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” Obviously, humility has a role to play in the attitude of a repentant sinner. This is a part of how John prepared a people for the Lord. “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.”
Humility has a key roll to play when it comes to prayer. God “resisteth (the prayers) of the proud, (but) giveth grace to the humble.” “When he maketh inquisition for blood, he remembereth them: he forgetteth not the cry of the humble.” “LORD, thou hast heard the desire of the humble.”
“Can a non-humble person be properly thankful?” As long as there is a hint of pride or self importance involved in anything, can that person be truly thankful? Was the man who said, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are … even as this publican” – Was he properly thankful to God? “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful…”
Like John, the Apostle Paul served the Lord, “with all humility of mind.” And why? I Corinthians 1 – “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence.” If John had been full of himself rather than of the Lord, would his ministry have been effective? Can you name any large birds that can sing well? Turkey? Guinea fowl? Chicken? Ostrich? The bigger we get in our own eyes, the less worthy our praise will be before God.
The undeniable fact is that we are commanded to be humble. “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.” I can’t say that John needed to hear the command to be humble. He was a man filled with the Spirit of God. Without God directly saying so, it seems to me that humility is a part of the fruit of the Spirit.
What are the characteristics of Godly humility? It begins with the correct relationship to the Lord. Then it continues as a proper relationship to others – “If that person was given the same grace as I have been given, he’d probably be a better man than I am.” Humility ascribes all that we are to divine grace. It disclaims any personal righteousness. It displays a willingness to be taught. And it manifests itself in a willingness to serve.
Despite what some people might see in John, I see a genuinely humble man.