Blessed Are The Humble: The Beatitudes (part 4)
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
“Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is a tone poem by German composer Richard Strauss, who has been described as a successor of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. Strauss conducted its first performance on 27 November 1896 in Frankfurt, Germany.
The initial fanfare, titled “Sunrise”, was made famous after its use in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey —if you have both seen and enjoyed that movie, then you are my kind of nerd! Bazinga!
“Thus Spoke Zarathustra” was inspired by a philosophical novel, of the same name, written by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in four volumes between 1883 and 1885. Each of the nine sections of Strauss’ composition are named after selected chapters of Nietzsche’s novel.
The protagonist of the novel is a loose representation of Zoroaster, understood to be the spiritual founder of Zoroastrianism.
Much of the book consists of discourses by Zarathustra on a wide variety of subjects, most of which end with the refrain, “Thus spoke Zarathustra”. The novel deals with Nietzsche’s most famous ideas about the death of God, the will to power and eternal recurrence.
The idea from the novel most relevant to my reflections today is that of the Übermensch.
After the death of God, the Übermensch is a goal humanity can set for itself. All human life would derive meaning from how we advance a new generation of human beings. Thus, Übermensch refers to an “overman”, a superior human, who is creative and strong enough to master the whole spectrum of human potential, who is bold and assertive enough to dominate and rule over those around him.
Nietzsche’s philosophy describing and advancing the idea of the Übermensch then became a justification for anyone who believes him or herself to be supernaturally endowed with skills, beauty, wisdom, celebrity or resources beyond that of a normal person. Such endowments then justify the elites of society lording over and subduing everyone else.
Karl Marx built his socialist revolution on, and Michel Foucault developed his Postmodernism from, Nietzsche’s ideas. Many modern critical theories have evolved Nietzsche’s ideas even further.
The most egregious example of the application of the Übermensch ideal is Nazi Germany’s instigation of World War II, which had much to do with Hitler’s convictions about advancing an Übermensch, the Aryan master race.
If you believe you are better than anyone, or everyone, because of some endowment of skills, beauty, wisdom, celebrity, resources, or whatever; if you believe it is your solemn duty, your divine right, to be better than ‘normal’ people; that it is your responsibility to rule over others; then, you will feel justified in acting any way you do because it advances your *cough, cough* … sorry, I meant to say it advances the potential and purpose of the human race.
Can you sense the supreme arrogance in that line of thinking? Yet, if you are schooled in the thinking of Nietzsche —and all of us are, whether we know it or not, for modern Western culture is influenced by Nietzsche in many ways— then you will have no problem at all with this idea, for it serves you well.
For such people, the beatitude I am focusing on today is balderdash, nonsense, a jumble of words.
Yet all of us think more highly of ourselves than we ought to, at least sometimes, and more often than we care to admit (cf. Rom 12:3). Maybe we should carefully consider Jesus’ wisdom, for our own sake and for the sake of the whole human race.
What Is Humility?
The third beatitude of Jesus, according to The Gospel of Matthew, is
Blessed are the humble, for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
As we have already seen, the Beatitudes are easy to misinterpret if one is only looking for confirmation of already existing beliefs or looking for consolation due to emotional needs.
For many, humility is not a virtue to be sought but to be avoided. Such people understand “humility” is patience or resignation; it is unselfishness, a spirit of self-denial; others understand humility is gentleness, a spirit of non-retaliation, of bearing afflictions quietly, who don’t trust their own power.
For such people, one of those qualities, on its own, in certain situations, sometimes, could be considered virtuous, even commendable. One or more of them together? The world will chew up such a person and spit them out!
What did Jesus mean, then, when he said humility makes a person fortunate, commendable and worthy of honour?
In The Gospel of Matthew, the word translated as “humble” is used to characterise the reversal of this-worldly ideas of kingship, authority and power.
The “humble” are those who are “poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3), but seen from a different perspective.
The humble ARE the people of God; yet, because of that identity, they are oppressed. Nevertheless, they remain committed to renouncing earthly power.
To be humble is to be insignificant, lowly, and the underlying term may even be rendered “powerless”. These people possess no power because they do not need it. They rest their hope entirely on God. Instead of trying to overpower others, they serve him. They have found a new way of being in this fallen world.
The Beatitudes reveal an order to God’s work of grace, which transforms a sinner’s soul. According to pastor and author Arthur W. Pink,
First, there is poverty of spirit: a sense of my insufficiency and nothingness. Next, there is mourning over my lost condition and sorrowing over the awfulness of my sins against God. Following this, in order of spiritual experience, is humbleness of soul. (Arthur W. Pink)
After recognising our poverty of spirit, we mourn our sin, then we recognise and accept our powerlessness before God. That is the humility of which Jesus spoke.
Humility in the Bible
How is the word translated as “humble” in the Beatitudes used elsewhere is the Bible?
Moses was a very humble man, more so than anyone on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)
In the twelfth chapter of The Book of Numbers, Miriam and Aaron revealed their craving for honour. This exposed the deficiencies of their character, in contrast to Moses.
In various places, lowliness and humility are linked, such as in Eph 4:2, where the apostle Paul encouraged his readers to live their Christian lifestyle:
with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, (Ephesians 4:2)
and also Mt 11:29:
Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:29)
Lest you think this is even more reason to avoid humility, a psalmist extoled the virtues of the humble (Ps 25:9), believing God leads and teaches such as these:
He leads the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. (Psalm 25:9)
Jesus made his ‘triumphal entry’ into Jerusalem in humility (Mt 21:5):
Tell Daughter Zion, “See, your King is coming to you, gentle, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Matthew 21:5)
The apostle Paul taught humility is a defence against temptation (Gal 6:1):
Brothers and sisters, if someone is overtaken in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual, restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so that you also won’t be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)
Throughout the Bible, humility IS a virtue. It might run counter to the values of our fallen world, which have shaped and influenced our impressionable natures to seek self-reliance and power, yet the outcomes of the sinful human condition lead us to yearn and beg for a better way.
Jesus showed us a better way and invites us to follow the Way of Love, described in the Sermon On The Mount, a way which begins with adopting the wisdom of the Beatitudes (Eph 5:1-2; 1 Pet 2:21).
Why We Resist Humility
Even before Nietzsche described the death of God and promoted the Übermensch, humans resisted humility because it is only through exerting our power that we can enforce our will on others and control the narrative around our identity and place in this world.
In other words, we are all sinners desiring to be justified by what we do. Like Adam and Eve, we all manufacture for ourselves a covering to hide our shame (Gen 3:7). Every one of us walks in the way of Cain, who sought to find acceptance with God on the basis of an offering produced by his own labour (Gen 4:3).
We each desire to gain standing before God from our personal merits. We wish to purchase salvation by our good deeds. We seek to be rewarded our place in heaven through our own doing.
According to Pink,
God’s way of salvation is too humbling to suit the carnal mind, for it removes all ground for boasting. It is therefore unacceptable to the proud heart of the unregenerate. (Arthur W. Pink)
The good news that salvation is solely a matter of Divine mercy, that eternal life is only for those who come empty-handed to the cross and receive it as a charity, a gift, is offensive to the self-righteousness in all of us.
Salvation is only good news to the poor in spirit, who mourns over his wretched condition. Mercy is music to her ears. God’s free gift of eternal life suits his poverty-stricken condition. Grace, the sovereign favour of God to those who deserve only hell, is just what she feels she MUST have!
The humble no longer have any thought of justifying themselves in their own eyes. All arrogant and self-righteous objections against God’s benevolence are finally silenced. The humble are glad to identify themselves as beggars and bow in the dust before God.
As an example, let us consider Naaman, who was the commander of an ancient, pagan king (2 Kgs 5). He was famous for being a valiant warrior, but suffered a skin disease.
A servant in his household was an Israelite and recommended Naaman seek out the prophet Elisha for cure.
Then Elisha sent him a messenger, who said, “Go wash seven times in the Jordan and your skin will be restored and you will be clean.” (2 Kings 5:10)
At first, Naaman rebelled against the way instructions were sent to him by the prophet and the simplicity of those instructions, for they seemed like an humilition was expected of him. When Naaman finally bowed in humility, and obeyed the instructions, he was healed of his affliction.
Naaman expected some extravagant measure to justify the pain caused by his affliction. Instead, the cure merely required a humble action AND this great man’s humility.
A sinner must recognise and own his worthlessness, for only then will he or she receive the favour of God. Such a one both hears and receives the beatitude: “Blessed are the humble.”
For salvation is offered to the humble:
For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation. (Psalm 149:4)
Jesus announced his public ministry by quoting:
The Spirit of the Lord God is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners (Isaiah 61:1)
The apostle Paul taught humility undergirds the fruit of the Spirit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things. (Galatians 5:22–23)
In contrast to the fallen values of the world, humility is not weakness! For in the middle of his torture, when Jesus was struck by a soldier, he did not just ‘take it’, but challenged him:
“If I have spoken wrongly,” Jesus answered him, “give evidence about the wrong; but if rightly, why do you hit me?” (John 18:23)
Similarly, after the apostle Paul and co-worker Silas were tortured then released from prison, they refused to budge, as it was described by Luke:
When daylight came, the chief magistrates sent the police to say, “Release those men.” The jailer reported these words to Paul: “The magistrates have sent orders for you to be released. So come out now and go in peace.” But Paul said to them, “They beat us in public without a trial, although we are Roman citizens, and threw us in jail. And now are they going to send us away secretly? Certainly not! On the contrary, let them come themselves and escort us out.” (Acts 16:35–37)
No one would question the apostle’s humility and he certainly proved he was not weak through the trials he experienced for the sake of the good news about Jesus!
Humility is not merely a virtue one can take or leave. It is a requirement for salvation!
A sinner must recognise one’s need, mourn over one’s sin and acknowledge one’s powerlessness to save him or herself.
Yet, leaning on the grace and mercy of God makes one fortunate; we are to be commended and honoured for taking this stance. Bowing to God’s way of salvation is not a sign of weakness but opens us up to the free, full and forever life promised by Jesus to his friends.
The Benefits of Humility
Blessed are the humble, for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
If you accept humility is not a sign of weakness, you may still not be convinced. “Are there are any other benefits?” you might be wondering.
Scholars tell us verse 5 is a rephrasing of Ps 37:11:
But the humble will inherit the land and will enjoy abundant prosperity. (Psalm 37:11; cf. Ps 37:9, 16)
When Jesus declared, “the humble will inherit the earth”, the verb translated as “inherit” carries the more general meaning of “to receive as one’s possession” or “to share in”.
It is also worth remembering we only gain an inheritance when someone dies. We do not inherit something after we ourselves have died. So who is it that has died and left someone else his possessions? In the context of the Beatitudes, it is Jesus who will die. This beatitude, as with all of them, comes with a promise, for the humble alone.
To understand why it is the humble who will inherit the earth, consider that, in The Book of Genesis, chapter 11 (Gen 11:1-9), we read the story of the tower of Babel. The people of that ancient city determined to make a name for themselves by building a grand tower. Their new technology in brick-making enabled them to assert their dominance throughout the land.
So from there the Lord scattered them throughout the earth, and they stopped building the city. (Genesis 11:8)
The Lord intervened to prevent their arrogance from reaching its full expression.
In chapter 12, the Lord presented himself to Abram and made him a promise:
I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing … and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:2–3)
The Lord’s promise to Abram was to make his name great, not for his own sake, nor only for his family and descendants, but for the sake of all the people on earth. This promise included a land Abram and Sarai and their descendants would call their own.
All that was required of Abram was to humble himself and obey.
The promise of possessing the land was originally limited to the land of Canaan (see Gen 17:8) but then was extended to include the entire earth, over which God would someday rule.
Verse 3 promises the kingdom of heaven and verse 5 promises inheritance of the land. According to biblical scholars Barclay Newman and Philip Stine:
Both of these ideas existed side by side in Israel’s expectation for the future. The God of heaven has given earth to mankind as a place for their existence. But the time would come when God’s people would enjoy the benefits of heaven and the joys of a redeemed earth. (Newman and Stine)
We find expression of this hope in The First Letter of Peter:
But based on his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:13)
The poor in spirit, those who mourn over sin, those who humble themselves before God, will inherit the “new earth, where righteousness dwells”, when God’s eternal purpose is realised finally and fully.
Blessed are the humble, for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
The blessing promised to Abram and his descendants, and those who place their faith in Jesus, is both a present and future blessing. Therefore the humble are those who have the greatest enjoyment of the good things of the present life.
Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure with turmoil. (Proverbs 15:16)
Delivered from a greedy and grasping spirit, they are content with such things as they have.
Despite its detractors, humilty before God is an experience of life that resonates with those who yearn for a better way of life, who hope for deliverance from the sin and fallenness that confuses and creates chaos.
What does this humility look like? We have a recent example in the revival at Asbury University.
Humility at Asbury University
Asbury University is located in Wilmore, Kentucky (USA) and consists of two schools: Asbury College and Asbury Theological Seminary. As a Christian institute of higher learning, students are required to attend chapel services. Of course, those enrolled at the seminary will be more enthusiastic about attending chapel services than those attending the college.
The chapel service on Wednesday, 8 February (2023), was quite ordinary. Zach Meerkreebs was scheduled as chapel speaker. By his own admittance, he was not prepared because he is lazy. After the service, Meerkreebs did not feel great about his message. In fact, he felt as if he had bombed. He texted to his wife, “Latest stinker. I’ll be home soon.”
Meerkreebs spoke to the current teaching series titled “Love in Action”. Speaking on Romans 12, he opened by saying,
That’s the star: God’s word, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit moving in our midst. That’s what we’re hoping … I hope you guys forget me, but [that] anything from the Holy Spirit and God’s word would find fertile ground in your hearts and produce fruit.
Among his reflections, Meerkreebs stated,
“I pray that this sits on you guys like an itchy sweater, and you gotta itch; you gotta take care of it. Become the love of God by experiencing the love of God.”
To close his sermon, Meerkreebs prayed, “Holy Spirit, if you spoke to anyone … would you produce fruit in this room, in these souls, in these minds and these hearts?”
“Do a new thing in our midst”, Meerkreebs prayed. “Revive us by your love.”
That’s it. Nothing especially eloquent. Poorly prepared, this preacher spoke without arrogance, from his heart, with humility, and expected his words to fall flat. He invited them to prayer and purpose. As the chapel service came to a close, around 18 students remained in the chapel, responding with confession and worship. The longer the students stayed, the more other students began to join them.
As a result, Meerkreebs sparked a two weeks-long spiritual awakening filled with prayer, singing, and repentance, which attracted national attention and sparked hope in the hearts of Christians around the world.
On any other day, these students would have been like the Pharisee of Jesus’ parable: self-assured, arrogant, self-righteous. In this case, the Holy Spirit scratched an itch these students felt, allowing themselves to become like the Tax Collector. Encouraged by those simple words and ill-prepared delivery, these students recognised they were actually poor in spirit, they mourned their sin and humbled themselves before God.
In humbling themselves before God they opened their hearts and minds and spirits to experience the love of God, to receive the promises of God, to participate in the eternal purpose of God. The memory of the unique experience that was the Asbury Revival will stay with those young people for the rest on their lives.
For those of us who have had similar experiences, the presence of the Lord is hard to forget. For myself, I called out to God in a dark field across from my home and I felt spoken to. The memory of that, and other similar moments, has carried me through many doubts and trials and temptations.
Placing one’s faith in Jesus leads to living a Christian lifestyle. Yet placing one’s faith in Jesus is not merely a matter of assenting to a set of doctrines. Instead, placing one’s faith in Jesus starts with recognising you are poor in spirit, recognising your need and that you have nothing that can fix your separation from God. Placing your faith in Jesus then mourns your sin, its causes and effects, the damage caused to yourself and others. Placing your faith in Jesus then involves accepting your powerlessness willingly.
Those who bow to God’s way of salvation are those who have the greatest enjoyment of the good things of this present life and have hope for the future.
To the arrogant and self-righteous, humility seems like it would be a painful experience of admitting weaknes; yet, those who mourn their sin know there is no better way than the promise of salvation. Being reconciled with God meets our yearning. The promises of God give us reason to hope, beyond anything we could ever believe possible or achieve on our own.
Are you too big to see it, or lowly enough, to be grateful for the gift of the promises of God? I invite you to humble yourself and surrender.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from The Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN, USA: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017).
Barclay Moon Newman and Philip C. Stine, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, UBS Handbook Series (New York, NY, USA: United Bible Societies, 1992), pg 110.
Arthur Walkington Pink, The Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer (Bellingham, WA, USA: Logos Bible Software, 2005), pg 25.
See also Ex 3:11; Heb 11:24-26.
See Mt 19:29; 25:34; 1 Cor 6:9–10; 15:50; Gal 5:21; Heb 1:14.
Newman and Stine, ibid.
Dale Chamberlain, “Asbury Chapel Speaker Thought He ‘Totally Whiffed’ Sermon; 2 Weeks Later, Christians Around the Nation Are Still Responding to It”, Church Leaders, 20-Feb-2023, https://replug.link/7580bcc0 (accessed 23-Feb-2023).