All of us can point to times that we have been moved by a speech. When I watch and listen to Kenneth Branaugh deliver the St. Crispin speech as King Henry to his troops, I’m ready to join the battle. I want to be with that happy few, that band of brothers. And when Aragorn says that this is not the day to forsake our friends but the day to fight, I am ready to charge with him. You have your favorites, I’m sure. Speeches which stir your soul as they lift your vision as to who you are, what you belong to, the cause for which you fight or serve. And if the speaker knows how to deliver, then the words have all the greater impact.
I hope the Ephesus church had such a reader. The Apostle Paul’s letters were read to churches. It is difficult to think of a more exhilarating, motivating speech than the first three chapters of Ephesians. The rehearsal of blessing after blessing, of glory and of power, of love that cannot be measured, then closing with that magnificent doxology: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, accord to t power at work within us, to him be glory in the church & Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever & ever. Amen.”
And then, the letter shifts gears. Now, in light of the power and the glory and the love of God in Christ, the Apostle Paul urges his listeners to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
Imagine the anticipation. “Yes, Paul, yes! We are ready to go forth. Tell us what to do.” And they then hear the words: “…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
That’s it? Be humble? Be gentle? Be Patient? That’s the best Paul can come up with? It’s like being a soldier heeding the call to fight for his country, and as he is about to leave his mother takes him aside and says, “Now be nice to the other soldiers and mind your manners. Be respectful of your officers. And watch out for other boys who would get you in trouble.”
If I were writing this letter (and I’m sure you want to know what I would do), I would have gone straight to what Paul wrote in chapter 6 beginning with verse 10: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Now we’re talking! We are going to fight against cosmic powers. How cool is that!
Why does Paul start out the way he does? Maybe, like the great Coach John Wooden of UCLA, whose first lesson to his players was how to put on their socks and ties their shoes, he thinks he needs to start with the basics before moving to the battle. Or maybe, how we live is the battle itself. Keep that in mind as we look at these verses.
The first thing the Apostle Paul tells us about living a worthy manner is that it involves humility, indeed, “all humility.” The Greek term he uses might actually be one he himself made up – tapeinophrosyne. It is a compound word made up of two other words – tapeinos, which refers to lowliness, and phren, which refers to the heart or mind. And so the Greek compound defines humility for us – it is a heart or mind that thinks lowly of itself.
I say “made up” because there are no other found references to the word in Greek literature until it appears in the New Testament, where it appears seven times, five of them by Paul in Philippians and Colossians, besides this letter. Turn with me over to Colossians 3:12-13. Note the similarity to our own passage: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another…”
What is odd about its occurrence here is that the same word is used negatively in the previous chapter twice, and, indeed, is translated with a different English word: (verse 18) “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind”; (verse 23) “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
The word translated “asceticism” is the exact Greek word we are considering as “humility.” Other translations have “false humility” or “voluntary humility.” Some commentators think the reference in Colossians 2 is to fasting. Whatever the exact English translation should be, it is evident that what makes the difference between the humility of 3:12 and of 2:18 and 23 has to do with the object and aim of the practicing such humility. In the Colossians 2 passage, the practitioner of humility is caught up in a religious practice aimed at winning points for his subservient behavior. He is like the Pharisees spoken of by Jesus who make a show of their supposedly humble religiosity. And so they pray on street corners to be heard; they make a show of giving alms to the poor; they not only fast but give a haggard appearance to make clear that they are fasting. They are jumping through all the hoops of religion to win God’s approval, and, for that matter, man’s approval.
But the real humility to be practiced is the humility Christians are to demonstrate before others, in particular before other Christians. It is the passage in Philippians that is most helpful in understanding what this humility is about.
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
James Boice gets to the point: “It is refusing to insist on our rights and actually putting our neighbor’s interests before our own.” It is this attitude of counting the interests of others as greater than one’s own that carries Christian humility beyond the common understanding and acceptance of humility. As mentioned earlier, this Greek term we have been looking at comes from the root word of tapeinos and is the term mostly being translated “humble” in the New Testament and the Greek version of the Old Testament. You will find tapeinos in Greek literature, but not positively. If you read a Greek philosopher and he is speaking positively of humility, the Greek term is likely the same word used next in our text for “gentleness.” He has, then, in mind a sense of having a fair-minded view of oneself. It is good not to think too highly of oneself, but Greek thought did not consider it a virtue to think lowly of oneself either.
But that is where New Testament language takes us. We are not merely to be fair-minded; not merely to avoid being puffed up; we are to “count others more significant” than ourselves. And it leads to scandalous behavior such as turning the other cheek, giving up our jacket when our coat is also taken, going the extra distance of helping someone who has already taken advantage of us. It involves nursing and paying for the care of a stranger who has no claim on us. It includes kneeling down and washing the dirty feet of those who are under your authority. It means being known as a slave of all. It means being like Jesus:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:3-8).
Such humility, and only such humility, is worthy of the calling that we have received. Only such humility will enable us to carry out what we are told further to be and do. For with humility, we are to possess gentleness. The image that comes to my mind that captures the essence of this word is that of a large dog playing with my small dog Calvin. Calvin will bark and essentially harass the larger dog, who either ignores him or else joins in the play and seems to attack Calvin. But he will harness his strength and allow Calvin to play fight back. And yet, if the dog feels threatened by another large dog, he will stand his ground. Gentleness, then, is not about acting weak or subservient, but rather keeping strength or authority in check to do what is best for others. The gentle person does not feel the need to throw his weight around, but rather to use whatever ability he has for the good of others.
We can easily see, then, the connection to the next traits we are to possess: with patience, bearing with one another in love. It takes patience and forbearance to be gentle, or is it vice versa? Gentleness is needed for patience? Whatever the case, patience and forbearance take the word “but” out of our vocabulary. That is a very important word to us to defend our impatience and lack of tolerance. “But if you knew how annoying he is.” “But she did it first!” “I would, but you don’t understand how I have been wronged.”
The very pretext for these traits is that there is something or someone to be patient towards. I don’t have to bear with someone who is easy to get along with. I don’t have to be patient with a person who does what I want him to do. God is not going to pat me on the head for my ability to respond well to others who walk in a manner worthy of his calling.
And to add to the challenge, we are to be patient and bear with each other “in love.” I can exercise patience when not caught off guard. I’m fairly good at bearing up with the quirks of others. It is the “in love” part that trips me up (well, also the humility part). Patiently enduring the annoying traits of others builds up my sense of superiority. But to be patient in love and humility means I actually have to care about others; I actually have to regard their interests as greater than my own. I actually have to love them, even to the point of being thankful for the opportunity to show loving patience. I actually have to see such opportunity to practice patience in humility and gentleness and love as opportunity to walk in a manner worthy of my great calling.
And then the final admonition: eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. This is what the Apostle Paul has been leading up to, and one could say, what the whole epistle is about – unity. We can see hints of it in chapter 1 in what is said about Christ: “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (v. 10); “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (v. 22). It is very clear in chapter 2 where Paul speaks of the wall of hostility being broken down between Jew and Gentile in Christ: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (vs. 14-16).
The remaining verses up through verse 16 in our chapter are about unity – the importance of it, what it is founded upon, how we are to achieve it, what it is to do for us. How eager should we be to maintain unity? Consider what Jesus prayed for in his final recorded prayer to God the Father:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:20-23).
Do you catch Jesus’ logic? The world will take notice of Jesus according to the unity – the oneness – we demonstrate. And as was pointed out in chapter 2, besides reconciling man to God, the cross was intended to reconcile man to man. How can we bear witness to such work if we cannot demonstrate it in the church? Unity matters. And the way to unity is first to be eager for it, and then to exercise humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance in love.
Well, how do you measure up? If these verses present the traits of walking in a manner worthy of your calling, do you feel like you are walking the walk – with all humility and gentleness; with patience and bearing with another in love; eager to maintain the unity of the faith in the bond of peace? I trust I am not the only one who feels pretty small, when I measure myself to these standards.
So what do we do? How do we measure up at least a little bit higher? How do we walk in the worthy manner, even if with a limp?
1) For one thing, you can reflect again on the worthy calling, as we did studying verse 1. That is what Olympic athletes do. What gets them out of bed early and training over and over again? They remember what they are aiming for – to compete in the greatest sports event. We have a more arduous journey to make but certainly a more glorious calling. That is what kept the Apostle Paul going – he was willing to go through the struggles of his earthly calling to achieve his heavenly reward. And it is what motivated Jesus. As Hebrews 12:1-2 exhorts us: “…let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame…” The walk of faith is too arduous if we do not lift our eyes to the glory of our calling.
2) Also understand that this walking in a worthy manner is the great battle given us. To live in such a way that the very nature of how we treat others achieves unity and builds the faith of our brothers and sisters and bears witness to the power of the gospel – that is the great achievement to which we are called. That is what Satan is battling against. That is what his war is about. He wants to make us personal embarrassments to God. And if we make what we consider to be great achievements to be remembered for, that is okay with him, as long as we leave individuals broken and embittered along the way. Churches may grow as large as they want, as long as they are filled with in-fighting, gossip, and vanity. How we live – how we treat others, especially within the body of Christ – that is the battle given to us; that is our calling.
3) Another thing to understand is that the first trait – humility – is the key to obtaining the others. Consider what you gain through humility. If you are humble, you don’t feel threatened, and so you are able to exercise gentleness. Through humility, you are not encumbered with pride that keeps you from being patient with others. Because of humility you understand that you are as messed up as anyone else, and so out of sympathy you bear with the faults of others. In humility you desire unity more than getting your way.
But then, how do we attain humility? Remember what our Lord has done for us. In humility, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) to save us. And who were we? “We were still sinners”; “we were enemies” of God (Romans 5:8, 10). That is when Christ humbled himself to save us. That is why he humbled himself. Though he was our Lord, he became our slave to give his life as a ransom for us (Mark 10:44-45).
Listen to Isaiah’s eloquent rendering of Christ’s humble service for us:
“He was wounded for our transgressions;
He was crushed for our iniquities;
Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
And with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned every one to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6).
And lest we think that God saved us because of what he saw in us, consider Paul’s words to the believers in Corinth, who did think they were something for God to be proud of:
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
We were nobodies, and we remain nobodies without him. There is nothing we possessed that attracted God to us, and there is nothing we possess now that God cannot do without.
Yet, though we still sin, though we still fail to walk in a manner worthy of our calling, nevertheless, our Lord Jesus Christ continues to intercede for us (Romans 8:34); nevertheless he continues to serve as our sympathetic High Priest, so that each time we stumble in the walk, we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16). Nevertheless, he has sent us his Holy Spirit to dwell within us and renew us. Nevertheless he loves us.
We can know such mercy to walk in a worthy manner, if we are humble enough to receive such grace
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