The Exaltation of Humility

Preaching Magazine Matthew, Sermons

Are we who we portray ourselves to be? And does it matter?

In Hamlet: The Tragedy of the Prince of Denmark, the chief counsel to the murderous king, Claudius, tells us his son, Laertes:

This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” 1

“To thine own self be true,” is a rebuke to Laertes who is in disastrous contest for Ophelia. It could be a reproof to all of us.

We know ourselves as we think of ourselves. Others see us differently. One of the goals of personal and spiritual growth is to know who we are, as we are, as we are known, and to make sure there is truth betwixt the two. You know me as a pastor. In a sense, I have worked to have you to know me thusly. I have been educated and credentialed for this community knowledge. Is it for self or for God? And with such a role comes expectations. Perhaps, you say to yourself when you see me, “If he is a pastor he must hold to all those characteristics that Paul speaks of in 1 Timothy 3.” Beyond Biblical expectations, there are social or we might say “cultural” expectations. He is faithful to his word, his wife, his family, and he is devoted to God. Or, your own cultural experience in which Christian minister equals shyster, an Elmer Gantry, and you may think, “He gives used car salesmen and the Bernie Madoffs of the world a bad name.”

Sinclair Lewis published Elmer Gantry (1927) at the height of the roaring twenties, in the midst of Prohibition (18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, 28 October 1919), the former decried and the latter decided by the pious zeal of Midwestern evangelicals. So, Lewis left his native northeastern suburbs for Kansas City. He went to church in Kansas City (he would call the city “Zenith”). He watched preachers. He studied them. He carefully sought out any pontificating tone, any pseudo-pious personalities, and any sign of the slightest inconsistency. The Methodist Episcopal Church South was the largest denomination in the land and very prominent in Kansas City. They would, thus, be the unsuspecting prey in his hunt for hypocrisy.

So, the famous and sometimes infamous author crafted a character based not upon his observations of ministers in Kansas City, but upon his own prejudice against evangelical Christianity. His disdain for pastors is undeniable as you read the last lines of Elmer Gantry. Having been sued for $50,000 by an angry husband of a woman under the spell of Gantry, and with his association with distillers made known, Lewis ends with this scene:

“Oh, my friends!” cried Elmer, “do you believe in my innocence, in the fiendishness of my accusers? Reassure me with a hallelujah!”

The church thundered with the triumphant hallelujah, and in a sacred silence Elmer prayed:

“O Lord, thou hast stooped from thy mighty throne and rescued thy servant from the assault of the mercenaries of Satan! Mostly we thank thee because thus we can go on doing thy work, and thine alone! Not less but more zealously shall we seek utter purity and the prayer-life, and rejoice in freedom from all temptations!”

He turned to include the choir, and for the first time he saw that there was a new singer, a girl with charming ankles and lively eyes, with whom he would certainly have to become well acquainted. But the thought was so swift that it did not interrupt the pæan of his prayer:

“Let me count this day, Lord, as the beginning of a new and more vigorous life, as the beginning of a crusade for complete morality and the domination of the Christian church through all the land. Dear Lord, thy work is but begun! We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!” 2

So, is the truth of Elmer Gantry that the character is flawed, evangelical Christianity is a sham? Or could it not be that the author is flawed? 3

Yet, what about you? How does the public person and the private person that you are mesh? Do they? And why does it matter.

It matters to God. The Lord has condemned hypocrisy. And yet hypocrisy is part of the fallen human condition. As such, hypocrisy carries within it the poison of death.

Matthew 23:1-12 is about the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of Israel. Their dress, their deportment, their teaching, their demand for salutations that curry honor from the people, and even their very presence is a magnificent pretense, offensive God and painfully imprisoning for those who follow them. Sinclair Lewis’ Gantry has nothing on these guys. And yet, there is more. There is something from God for each of us.

It is very appropriate and providential that on the first communion service in this mission church we should come to Matthew 23:1-12. Jesus uses this otherwise tawdry scene to exalt the virtue of humility. The Christian virtue of humility is a virtue most to be desired because it is the opposite of pride. It is one of the sacred gates into the City of Eternal Life.

We must exalt humility. Yet, how so? How do we exercise the demons of self-aggrandizement?

1. Humility is exalted in a life of service for others.

This teaching is established through the negative demonstration of humility in the scribes and Pharisees:

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues” (Matthew 23:1-6).

The obvious self-inflating acts of the religious leaders is at odds with the commands of God against haughtiness.

“Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Proverbs 16:18). “Before destruction the heart of man is haughty, But humility goes before honor” (Proverbs 18:12 NASB).

The opposite of bringing burden upon the backs of others through false piety is to bring blessing and freedom through authenticity and transparency.

We must realize that we do not reach others in our pride, but in our lowliness. Authentic presentation of self is a beautiful and most accessible bridge over which scarred seekers of truth may walk towards healing in Christ.

2. Humility is exalted in affectionate relationships with others.

We all know there is a difference between a “sire” and a “father.” And we might add there is a difference between a “father” and “papa,” or “daddy.”

Jesus probes deeper into our hearts with this instruction:

“And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren” (Matthew 23:7,8).4

The religious leaders further inflated themselves on the lowliness of others. They demanded and expected others to recognize their worth based on their titles. In each case, Jesus is using hyperbole to extract the vile bacteria of moldy superciliousness. Rabbi, Father, Instructor are not forbidden to be used in relationships. But to use them to authoritatively “put others in their place”—a lower place that yourself—is disgusting and sinful. It makes you big as it makes others small.

When I am asked if this prohibits calling a pastor “Father,” I reply that “We must never assume a title that we do not truly live, whether Teacher or Father. The Scriptures are teaching a primary relationship in the Church should be pastor as father to the flock, based on loving relationship, not upon authority.”

We must be careful in our interpretation of the passage. Jesus is not restricting what He later requires. He calls us to go and teach. Paul says that Jesus gave “teachers” to the Church (1 Cor. 12:28). The word “doctor” means teacher. Indeed, a medical doctor or a professor is but a “teacher” of his or her area of credentialing. The early church referred to those who studied at great lengths and were tested in their teaching of the Bible as “doctors of the Church;” that is, “teachers.” And the Bible is replete with the instance of “father” being applied to patriarchal figures in Israel, but also in the New Testament. The late John R.W. Stott, the name attached to that magnificent life of a man—the Anglican minister from All Souls, London—wrote about the matter of “father.” In his book that I continue to use to train pastors, Stott demonstrates with a host of Scriptures how Jesus is not here saying that he shouldn’t call his appointed father, Joseph, for instance, by the name “father.” Nor does this deny Paul from being called “father” to the Corinthians, or to Timothy, or Peter (1 Peter 5:13), or to John to the congregations he addresses (1 John 2:1; 2:13-14). What is prohibited is abusive authority rather than real relationship5

What is encouraged is filial affection, not self-inflating titles.

It might be worth our time to pause and ask, “I am called Mother. Yet, am I a mother in Christ to younger women? Am I a mother to the needy, and provide of my plenty to meet their want? Do I nurse the poor and broken as I am called by my own children?” I must ask, “Is Dr. Milton a loving teacher to dear and well-loved students in Jesus Christ or is he a self-aggrandizing religious hypocrite? Does he, indeed, seek to bring healing or does he require honor for honor’s sake?” In short, let each of us ask ourselves, “Is there a gap between what we are called and who we are?”

3. Humility is exalted in personal sacrifice for all.

Jesus says call no one “Master.” In the ESV, καθηγητής (kathēgētēs6 is translated, “Instructor.” It is the New American Standard, that most fastidious of English translations, that calls this Greek word, “Leader.” The King James “Master” and the NASB “Leader” seems most appropriate for this word which only appears in Matthew 23:10. Again, be careful to recognize the use of hyperbole. At the same time, be careful to recognize that leadership is established in relationship not tyrannical authoritarianism.

The Lord, then, says to us about this matter of master or leadership:

“’But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.’” 7

Jesus is speaking of true leadership. True leadership, Christ-like leadership is always, first and foremost, servanthood.

I remember when I was out in the woods, on patrol with a unit at Fort Dix. Our small combat team met up with others. In that leafless, frigid winter evening, we were delighted to see a warm fire, and Army cooks preparing meals for us. A line formed with great eagerness. One of my fellow Chaplains, with no military service before this time, rushed to get in line. He was quickly escorted out by a superior Infantry officer. The Infantry officer let him have it. “Chaplain, I respect you as a ‘man of the cloth’ and all of that, but United States Army officers do not eat before enlisted men. You have dishonored the officer corps by being in that line before every last man has had the opportunity to get that soup. In the Army, the man who is at the last seeks to honor others who do the grunt work. Never forget! Officers eat last!” No, mercifully, I was not that Chaplain who got chewed-out. I could have easily been “that guy!” But I had prior service that saved my hide and, thus, knew the code of conduct for “who eats first” in the Army.

“Who is first? Who is last?” The answer is in the exaltation of humility. This is precisely what Jesus is teaching in these “seven woes against the Scribes and Pharisees.” 8

True leadership is servanthood. How is your leadership with your family? With your work? With your community? With God? Do you lead so that you can be called leader? Or lead so that others may find life? Is your life a sacrifice for the sake of love? Only personal sacrifice leads to life for others and yourself.

We must not exalt self-exaltation. We must exalt humility. How? Through servanthood, loving relationships, and personal sacrifice.

I am always in awe when I meet a Drill Instructor in the U.S. Army. You can always tell if they have been those courageous, but stalwart if not seemingly difficult souls who shape young recruits into Soldiers. They have a patch that they will wear on their Army uniform for the rest of their careers and their lives. The patch says, “This We’ll Defend.” That is it. “This We Will Defend.” 9

What is it they will defend? The Constitution of the United States and the code of honor that was entrusted to them as training NCOs of young people who will fight and perhaps die for that Constitution and the People who live under it. That is the exaltation of humility. But there is a greater exaltation of humility still.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the living legacy of humility. Our blessed Savior is humility exemplified and humility exalted. Yet, for us, He must be humility received. For we read in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians those unforgettable words,

“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 emptied himself, by 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. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11 ESV).10

And we cannot have Him unless we receive Him as He comes to us. He comes on a cross, in servanthood, in a filial affectionate relationship, and in the supreme act of personal sacrifice. He is the Sacrifice for mankind who would have him. Only by faith shall you taste and see the humility of our God. Only by the indwelling faith of the humble Jesus shall you know such humility.

We who are sinners saved by grace may never be haughty for our Lord is the God of the universe who came to us not in a mansion but a manger, not with centurions guarding, but shepherds and cattle and sheep standing by, not on satin pillows, but with no place to lay His sweet head, not on a throne, but on a cross, not with an edict to follow, but with a cry of forgiveness upon us, and the enfolding love of the Holy Spirit. Thus, we are saved. Thus, we present Him to others. Thus, do we come to His Table that, once again, humility and love and grace is exalted in bread and the cup.

See Your Savior by faith who called to the Father for you:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” 11

Oh, love of all loves conceived! Oh, perfect Sacrifice! O my God and my Savior! Only Thou art our Rabbi, Master, Father, and Friend! Will you now say in your heart, “Only receive me that I may touch just the hem of Thy garment and I will be healed.” 12

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Let us Pray:

HOLY, holy, holy Lord God Almighty, we worship Thee with reverence and humility, as the high and lofty One who inhabiteth eternity. May we feel our own nothingness and unworthiness in thy presence, and be enabled to realize all the grace and compassion of Thy character, as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We adore thee, that, though guilty and sinful, we are welcomed by thine own invitation to the footstool of thy throne. O help us to obey Thy gracious call, and to draw near to Thee with hearts deeply affected with a sense of Thy goodness. O impart to us the Spirit of grace and of supplication, that we may pray in faith, and that the affections of our hearts may be drawn forth towards Thee in all the ardor of devout supplication and praise. May we have that fixedness of mind in thy worship, which will enable us to banish the world and its concerns, and will prepare us to receive such answers of peace as Thou mayest think fit to impart. May we watch as well as pray, that when Thou givest us the desire of our hearts, we may be enabled to trace and to acknowledge Thy hand. Make us grateful for past mercies, while we look up to Thee for future bestowments; and while we plead and believe thy promise, help us to confide in Thy gracious care. Though the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and our Savior we do pray. Amen. 13


Hendriksen, William and Simon Kistemaker. New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953.

Lewis, S. Elmer Gantry. New American Library, 1980.

Morison, John. Family Prayers for Every Morning and Evening Throughout the Year. Additional Prayers for Special Occasions. Second Edition. 1837.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, Act 1, Scene 3, Lines-82-84. At London: Printed for John Smethwicke and are to be sold at his shoppe in Saint Dunston’s Churchyard in Fleetstreet, under the Diall, 1611.

1 William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, Act 1, Scene 3, Lines-82-84 (At London: Printed for John Smethwicke and are to be sold at his shoppe in Saint Dunston’s Churchyard in Fleetstreet, under the Diall, 1611).
2 From Chapter Thirty-three in S. Lewis, Elmer Gantry (New American Library, 1980).
3 For further insight into the prodigal life of this author see Lewis, Sinclair, Speer Morgan, and William Holtz. “Fragments from a Marriage: Letters of Sinclair Lewis to Grace Hegger Lewis.” The Missouri Review 11, no. 1 (1988): 71-98. doi:10.1353/mis.1988.0004.
The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), Mt 23:7–8.
Concerning this, we must acknowledge the difficulty of those sitting in “Moses’ seat”. Is it an actual seat within the Temple? We would agree with those commentators who hold that Jesus is condemning the fact that the Jewish religious leaders have access to read the Torah, but not the people. This is a Luther-Like (more proper, Luther was Christ-like) reformation of true religion. But probably the best solution is that Matthew 23:2–3 acknowledges the social fact that the scribes and the Pharisees control access to Torah. That is, in a world in which most people did not have any books at all, knowledge of the Bible had to come from those who read it in the synagogues. See, e.g., Dale C. Allison, “Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 137.
James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mt 23:11–12.
8 See, e.g., “The Seven Woes” used by William Hendriksen to describe Matthew 23:1-39 in William Hendriksen and Simon Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953), 818.
9 “The Secretary of the Army approved the design as the official emblem to represent the Army on 29 January 1974.” See Department of the Army Emblem. Accessed November 04, 2017.
10 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Philippians 2:5–11.
11 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Lk 23:33–34.
12 “And, behold, a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment: 21 For she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole” (The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), Mt 9:20–21).
13 John Morison, Family Prayers for Every Morning and Evening Throughout the Year. Additional Prayers for Special Occasions. Second Edition (1837), 477.