Words that Make a Difference— TAPEINOO

Not all words are created equal.  Some have more weight and importance, and more theological or ethical freight than others.  This is just as true in Greek as it is in English.  In Phil. 2.8 we find the use of the verb tapeinoo in the middle or reflexive sense talking about something the Son of God did to himself.  We normally translate it— ‘he humbled himself’.   You can look high and low, and you will have a hard time finding ‘humility’  listed among the virtues in the Greco-Roman world’s lists.   Partly this is because it is an honor and shame culture, and so it was a duty for the head of the household to establish the honor of themselves and their families in public.  There were many ways to do this but public bragging in the form of honorific columns, and even boasting on one’s tombstone were common.  There is even a famous treatise by Plutarch on ‘Inoffensive Self-Praise’.     Self-humbling, not so much.  Not a virtue in the Greco-Roman world.  No authors were writing books like John Dickson recent stimulating study entitled Humilitas (Zondervan, 2011).   No humbling oneself is what a slave did, was expected to do,  and I doubt it is an accident that in the Christ hymn in Phil. 2.5-11 we have both the calling of Jesus a slave (doulos) and the reference to self-humbling.   And all of this in a passage which begins— ‘have this mindset in yourself that was also in Christ Jesus….’.     But what sort of humility are we in fact being called to in this passage?

To begin with, Phil. 2.5-11, while it does have to do with attitudes, is not chiefly about the attitude that the Son of God had about himself.   The verb tapeinoo is an action word talking about something the Son did– indeed did before he took on human form.   He ‘humbled himself’.   Now a moments reflection will show that whatever this means, it cannot refer to feelings of low self-worth, or self-degradation.  If there was one person who did not struggle with self-esteem, it was the Son of God, perhaps particularly in his pre-incarnate condition.  Whatever humility means in this text, it doesn’t refer to feelings of low self worth or the like.  Nor does it mean under-estimating nor downplaying one’s ability—- something my grandmother used to call ‘poor-mouthing’  (‘poor little ole me….’).   On the contrary, this passage is about the action of a strong person, stepping down, stripping himself of his divine perks, and taking on not just human form, but the form and simple lifestyle of the slave.    Humility is the posture of a strong person renouncing things that are rightfully his for the sake of others.   In other words, it has to do with self-sacrificial service,  it has nothing to do with berating oneself or  feelings of low self-worth, or even under-estimating oneself or downplaying one’s accomplishments.  None of that.

As the passage goes along we learn something else. The person who humbles himself is doing the opposite of trying to exalt himself.  He is not a self-promoter, if you will.   He allows the kudos and praise and glorifying to come from someone else.  Notice the active and middle verbs in the first half of the Christ hymn, and the passive verbs in the second half— ‘therefore God highly exalted him….and God gave him a name….”   Apparently,  to have the mind of Christ means leaving the exaltation to others.   But not only is Christ called a slave in this passage and said to humble himself in slave-like fashion.  He even submits to ‘become more vile’  and suffers the slave’s most dreaded and extreme punishment— death on a cross.   It was the punishment reserved for rebellious slaves or revolutionaries, and strikingly in this passage we hear nothing about Jesus being like a revolutionary, but everything about his being like a slave.

I’m afraid in the age of endless end zone dances, self-promotion,  self-exaltation and the like this passage is likely to seem like terra incognita  or worse  like really bad advice if you want to ‘win friends and influence people’.  The irony is that it must have sounded as or more offensive in its original context than it does today.  One of the real problems with being overly familiar with a passage like this is we become selectively deaf and blind to its content— we hear just what we want to hear,  and see what we are looking for.    In an age where self-fulfillment and endless seeking of self-satisfaction and personal happiness and other sorts of narcissistic pursuits are seen as normal indeed as encouraged,  taking on the mindset of Christ as exhibited here must seem completely contrary to such aims.   Who really wants to be obedient unto death for an increasingly unpopular cause?

One of the real dangers with modern Christian discussions of humility is that the discussion is overly-spiritualized, and never gets to the point of discussing faithfulness to the faith unto death.  The ultimate humility of Jesus meant his ultimate humiliation on the cross.  Are we prepared to be humiliated for Jesus’ sake.   And what should our attitude be about such things?    This passage helps us see the naked truth of the matter— and to the modern eye,  a naked body on cross will not seem like a virtue.  It will seem like a total loss of common sense and common decency.  Think on these things.

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  • http://johnmeunier.wordpress.com John Meunier

    I’ve always wondered if this were true. John Wesley in one of his sermons on the Sermon on the Mount says that the ancient Greeks and Romans did not even have a word for humility until the Christians came along.

    I have no idea if that is so.

  • http://studycentersonline.org Drew Trotter

    Great stuff, Ben. We cannot be reminded too often of the importance in God’s world of the antonym for the worst of the seven deadly sins: pride.
    And you are right that we cannot comprehend the impact such a shocking statement would have made upon a first century Philippian. More importantly, we cannot begin to approach really understanding what it means for God to humble himself no matter what our era.
    But this kind of humility is what we are called upon to imitate, and it will be an eternal quest. Thankfully, Paul reminds us in the same book that as we seek to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” that it is He Who works in us to will and do of His good pleasure.
    Truly, God help us all.

  • James Mace

    “One of the real dangers with modern Christian discussions of humility is that the discussion is overly-spiritualized, and never gets to the point of discussing faithfulness to the faith unto death.”

    You hit in the end of the article upon the means by which we can accomplish selfless humility, something akin to Jesus’ consuming zeal for His Father’s house.

    Not until we place the glory of God’s Kingdom in primacy of place can we prevent usurpation by selfish pride. Our primary allegiance must be the 1st-2d Great Commandment complex of God and fellow Christians. When that esprit de corps reigns, egocentrism is displaced.

    Yet most still only think individualistically instead of corporately, so true humility (contingent upon solid knowledge of identity of true place within the Kingdom) will not be fully actualized.

  • Bob Srigley

    Many of the Philippians were descendents of the soldiers who fought with Octavius and Antony against Brutus and Cassius. They had been given lands in the area of the battle as reward for their service. Philippi was a Roman colony and in some sense considered itself a bastion of classic Roman virtue, even while the capital descended into degeneracy.
    But they had been exposed; their treatment of Paul, a Roman citizen, had been shameful, while Paul and Silas exhibited classic fortitude even in the context of humility.
    So Paul had earned credibility for his discourse on Jesus’ humbling.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Actually Bob we don’t know how many descendants of Roman soldiers were there. The archaeology suggests they were a minority of the population, and the names we have in Phillippians are mostly not Roman names. But it is certainly true that as a Roman colony city, Roman jurisprudence was the law.