Humility in the Bible finds its clearest definition in how Jesus taught his disciples to walk: Knowing our position and choosing to go lower.
The following is adapted from Chapter 3 of The Revolutionary Disciple by Jim Putman and Chad Harrington.
In AD 44, the ruler of ancient Judea, King Herod, delivered a message to the people. He must have knocked it out of the park because after his speech, people said, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man” (Acts 12:22).
What happened next, though, is shocking and gruesome. Scripture tells us, “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:23).
Not so nice.
The king who had received blessings from God didn’t correct the people. Instead, he basked in the glory of his self-perceived importance. As a result, he experienced firsthand what it means to be humbled by God. The early church heard loud and clear:
Don’t be like Herod!
As we look to Jesus for what humility looks like, King Herod’s actions offer a clear example of what humility does not look like. This account leaves no room for doubting what God thinks about the issue of pride. To God, humility is more important than even living another day (at least on this occasion). Thanks be to God he doesn’t strike everyone dead who struggles with pride!
Herod’s demise is a gut check for us all about pride.
God cared so much about our journey toward humility that he was willing for someone to die as an example of what not to do. Even more, he was willing to send his Son to die as well to show us what to do.
Jesus showed us what humble discipleship looks like in life, not just in death, though. His costly example was so revolutionary that it literally changed history.
A Humility Revolution
I (Chad) was encouraged to learn how the life of Jesus changed the world’s view of humility itself.
In his book Humilitas, historian and minister John Dickson recounts from a historical view how Jesus’ example not only led to a new way of life but also to a new way of thinking about humility.
Until that time, Greeks accepted a form of “humility” that meant lowering oneself before someone who is greater than them. But they despised humility as we know it today—lowering oneself for someone of equal or lesser position. Dickson’s historical research team found that Paul’s letter to the Philippians was the first time in Greek and Jewish literature where “humility” was prized as lowering oneself for others of equal or lesser status.
Paul uses Jesus’ humility to write, “In humility consider others better than yourselves,” because Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:3, 8).
From this time on, Western cultures changed from despising to prizing humility, and historians trace this change back to Jesus’ example, as recorded by Paul. Jesus quite literally ushered in a “humility revolution.”1
Clearly, Jesus was a revolutionary.
But was Jesus a revolutionary disciple?
Was Jesus even a disciple at all? How can we call Jesus a disciple when he is the Author and Perfector of our faith, our Great Teacher and Disciple Maker?
Yet as strange as it might sound, Jesus was a disciple. He “became obedient to death” (Philippians 2:8), and “although he was a son, he learned obedience” (Hebrews 5:8).
Disciples learn obedience, thus Jesus was a disciple.
So the Bible describes Jesus not only as a Son but also as a student. He was fully divine, yes, but these passages show that when he became human—he limited himself. In so doing, he had to learn what to say and what to do, and he always gave credit for his actions and words to the Father (John 5:19; 12:49–50).
We don’t pretend to understand how all of this works, but these passages show us that Jesus not only taught us the path of humility but he also walked it. We can be confident that Jesus can reliably help us along the journey.
Learn how to walk humbly in every area of your life by reading The Revolutionary Disciple by the authors of this blog.
Learning Humility from Jesus
As disciples, we have the privilege of learning the humility of Jesus—from Jesus. And it’s more than just learning about his humility; we can actually learn to become humble like Jesus, the humblest person ever to walk the earth. And although we’ll never reach perfection in this life, by his Spirit, we can grow in humility.
Remember that “a disciple is following Jesus, is being changed by Jesus, and is committed to the mission of Jesus.” With that definition in mind, here’s the first part of how we define a humble disciple:
A humble disciple knows who they are before God and chooses to go lower …
Let’s break this part of the definition down before we get to the rest.
A humble disciple knows who they are before God.
When we’re unsure of our identity, we feel the need to create one. We can either create one for ourselves—which leads to pride—or we can receive one from God.
In Ephesians, God gives us a clear identity “in Christ.” In Christ we are adopted by God, a part of his household, citizens of his kingdom, and part of his body (Ephesians 1:5; 2:19; 3:6). We are his “masterpiece” (Ephesians 2:10, NLT).
As we come to understand who we are in Christ, we can live according to who we are in him, not because we need to fill a void.
Self-created identity can drive us to be “the greatest” mom or banker or entrepreneur or pastor or leader or whatever we do—to feel valuable.
Don’t get us wrong, excellence has its place, but when we try to create our identity instead of receiving it from God, we wind up exhausted with something that doesn’t last. We must reject pride in the self-made person. That’s why we emphasize knowing who we are before God, because he alone knows who we really are.
What Humility Is Not
Knowing who we are before God also means we reject false humility, which is when someone appears to be humble but they’re actually proud. Those who tout false humility, even unknowingly, act like less than they are. But they do it so others will tell them how great they are.
Some people call this “inferior pride.”
We have inferior pride when we focus on ourselves in a negative way. Someone like this obsesses with who they’re not rather than who they are in Christ. People who don’t know their true identity either say, “Nobody needs me,” or “Everyone needs me.” They’re two sides of the same coin, equal symptoms of the same sickness.
Humility in the Bible Is Knowing Our Identity
When we embrace the humility of Christ, however, we know exactly who we are before God—nothing more and nothing less.
We see a beautiful example of this in John 13, when Jesus took off his outer garment, filled a bowl with water, and washed his disciples’ feet.
Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. (John 13:3–4)
Jesus knew who he was—his great power, his final destination, and his amazing origin—and that’s why he served.
The word “so” in this passage connects his identity with his actions. His power, his past, and his future were from the Father, so he served.
Make sure you get this because it’s truly astounding and runs so contrary to our human thinking:
Jesus’ humility came from a clear and accurate knowledge of who he was before God.
Jesus knew he was equal with God; he knew he had all the power in the world; and he knew he was secure in God. He didn’t deny any of that. These were all part of his identity. In fact, he could set aside the rights of his high position because he had fully embraced his identity before the Father.
But that was Jesus, you might think. I can’t be as sure of who I am and be humble like he was.
Yet Jesus calls us to be confident in what he’s done for us, and as a result we can become humble like him.
Paul reiterates this:
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself [who] … didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. (Philippians 2:5–6, MSG)
Jesus knew his identity in the Godhead, and from that place of security he was able to lay down his rights. We are not divine like Jesus, but the principle here applies to us: the more secure we are in our true identity, the more we can lay down our rights like Jesus did.
We often feel threatened when someone challenges our identity, though. In some sense, we think we have to prove to ourselves and to others that we are valuable.
Humble Ultimate Fighters?
In one of my men’s groups, I (Jim) have two Ultimate fighters. They have fought and won championships in the brutal sport of UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). Every so often, people will recognize them in public and mouth off or get in their faces.
In each case, they just smile and walk away. I love when someone asks why they don’t respond. They just say, “I don’t have anything to prove—I know who I am and what I could do.”
These guys are firmly aware of their identity and capabilities. Jesus was that way but even more so, and we should aim to be secure like him.
A humble person accepts that God has created them anew in Christ Jesus. They know deeply that they were knit together in their mother’s womb for a purpose, marred because of sin, and remade in Christ. We like the saying, “A humble person doesn’t think less of themselves but thinks of themselves less often.”
We’d add that when humble people do think of themselves, they seek to see themselves through the eyes of God—which is their true identity.
A humble disciple chooses to go lower.
Scripture tells us, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Jesus didn’t wait until we moved toward him; he took the first step. I (Jim) mentioned in The Revolutionary Disciple that God convicted me to take the first step in reconciling with the elders at my church when we had an unresolved conflict. This conviction came through a man—my friend in India—who was led by the Holy Spirit.
He saw my pride and pointed me to Jesus.
The Holy Spirit confirmed his words in my heart as well. A humble disciple does not wait for the other person to do the right thing but proactively chooses the humble path regardless. They are the first to ask forgiveness, the first to serve, the first to surrender, the first to listen, the first to … whatever love looks like in a given moment. They are the first to show it.
Our entire lives are to be characterized by being proactive and going first with humility because Jesus “first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
In John 13, Jesus “went lower” by washing his disciples’ feet. Normally, a teacher like him would not wash feet, but he decided to take a step down from his high position and take a servant’s posture. Even his incarnation was an act of humility because he chose to take the stairs from heaven down to earth.
Jesus chose to go lower because that’s what humility does.
That’s why we define a humble disciple as someone who “knows who they are before God and chooses to go lower.”
Walking humbly is a choice.
When someone has no authority, it’s not a true sacrifice. They may have “humble circumstances,” but given the opportunity to take something for themselves, they would.
Until humility is a choice, it’s not true humility.
Jesus proactively took the lowest place on earth when he “humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8). The cross was a public place of shame and mockery.
As if death in human flesh wasn’t humble enough, Jesus experienced the most humiliating death possible. At every turn he could have escaped, but he proactively chose death. Because of this choice, we can make the same revolutionary decision to carry our crosses.
Going lower takes the form of simple actions, such as taking the last seat at the table, the last place in line, and the least desirable portion.
I (Chad) think of how Mother Teresa made a habit of always taking the worst pair of shoes when a new load of used shoes arrived at her poor community in Calcutta. The world says a person like that is weak, but Christ tells a different story. Choosing to go lower is for the strong, not the weak.
This blog explains the first half of Putman and Harrington’s biblical definition of humility. Read the rest of their definition—the practical part—in Chapter 4 of The Revolutionary Disciple, which is on sale here.