Theological Implications of the Humility of God

I have spent the last month discussing the topic of God’s humility. I have argued that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are equally and magnificently humble. Through viewing a variety of texts, exploring trinitarian doctrine, and drawing from a number of resources I have worked to show that humility is intrinsic to the Father as well as Son and Spirit.

In this post I want to spend a few moments teasing out the implications of a God who is humble. What does it matter that God is humble? How does it change how we think, live, and operate?

  • Humility is a Trinitarian attribute and dynamic. This means that humility occurs in community as it is fundamentally about engaging others. Humility does not occur in a vacuum, it is birthed in interaction with other individuals.
  • Humility as a Trinitarian reality implies that this attribute can be explored from two angles. First, we can look at the oneness of God and search out divine humility. Second, we can look at the diversity in God as we think about humility. Each of the Triune persons is characterized by humility and riches await us if we would search this out.
  • If God is humble then it follows that all he does will be informed by and marked with his humility. In other words, we will be able to discern humility in creation, revelation, historical engagement with Israel and the nations, the incarnation, cross, ascension, sending of the Spirit, birthing of the church, second coming, and establishment of the new earth. We will hear humility in his words where we have not heard it before. We will see it in his activity where we have not recognized it before.
  • The coming rule and reign of God will be a humble theocracy. Kings are not often characterized by lowliness and passion for service to others. The Triune God is quite the opposite. Yahweh is a humble sovereign, a sacrificing deity, an outward looking God. What a refreshing reality awaits those who will live under his kingship. Greg Haslam is right, “At the root of all present-day oppressive dictatorships, divided or monochrome societies, devaluation of certain individuals and the inability to cultivate loving community, is a denial of the Trinity.”
  • Visions of a humble God invoke repentance and worship. Beholding a God who gets on his knees to wash his creature’s feet must move us. Sacrifice and service from the Creator has a way of shattering hardness in our hearts and stirring us to song. The more we view God’s humility the more we will be moved.
  • Human beings are made in the image of a humble God. It follows that humility is a mark of genuine humanity. We are called to humility because we are called to reflect God. The saving humility of God manifest in Christ and the Spirit is the means to making this a reality.
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Christmas Theology: Baby Boy and Humble Father

Jesus is true God and true man. As such, he reveals authentic humanity and authentic deity. Want to know about man? Go to Jesus. Want to know about God? Go to Jesus. The multi-faceted mission of Jesus included this crucial revelatory dimension. He came to explain God.

In Jesus God comes walking, speaking, touching, teaching, serving, dying, and rising. The wonderful collision of creature and Creator, this is the Christ event. What you see in Christ’s character is fundamentally true of God the Father. This is rich Christmas theology. A crucial chapter in God’s autobiography is written at the birth of Jesus. The title could very well be “The Humble God.”

In this post we discuss the connection of Christ’s humility to the Father’s humble nature. I believe we will find the old adage “like father like son” true of God.

The Son’s Revelation of the Humble Father

There are a number of texts we could look at to begin this discussion. I have chosen a brilliant passage from the book of Hebrews. The author clearly holds a high christology.

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).

The language is magnificent. Paul Ellingworth in his NIGCT commentary states, “In the present verse, ‘exact imprint of his nature’ (χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ) reinforces ‘radiance of glory’ (ἀπαύγασμα τῆς δόξης) in describing the essential unity and exact resemblance between God and his Son…In the present verse, God’s ‘nature’ (ὑπόστασις) is his essential being, ‘the reality of God.'”

The Son is a true representation of the Father as he shares an identical nature with him. It follows that the character/nature of the Son is always consistent with the Father. The second text comes from the book of Matthew.

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27, cf Lk 10:22).

The Son holds exclusive knowledge of and access to the Father. It is grace that grant others that access and knowledge. The mission of the Son aims to make both a reality in the lives of sinful man. The text continues with an invitation to God and a revelation of his character. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-29).”

John Nolland in his commentary on Matthew makes some insightful observations. “Matthew 11:25–27 has dealt with both the revealing and the concealing activity of the Father and the Son. Where the failure of response in vv. 20–24 corresponds to the concealing activity, the fresh invitation in vv. 28–30 is probably intended to correspond to the revealing activity.” When Jesus is talking about his humble heart he is revealing the Father’s heart as well. He is doing exactly what he said he came to do in the previous verses.

Nolland goes on to discuss the significance of humility in this revelatory statement. “Moderation and other-centredness fit the context in Mt. 11:29. Matthew’s interest in Jesus as gentle (πραΰς) is reflected in his use in a fulfillment citation in Mt. 21:4–5 of Zc. 9:9 with its identification of the coming king as gentle (πραΰς). Matthew does not use humility (ταπεινός) elsewhere. The word normally designates a person who is in or has been reduced to a lowly position. But like gentle (πραΰς), it also has an ethical use. An ethical use is signalled here by the addition of τῇ καρδίᾳ (‘in heart’), which performs much the same role as τῷ πνεύματι (‘in spirit’) in Mt. 5:3. The one who is ταπεινός τῇ καρδία is unassuming and demonstrates humility.”

Nolland’s discussion on the original languages is important as this verse explicitly ties humility to the character of Christ. Theologically the text is significant as it draws an exegetical and contextual link between the Son’s humility and the Father’s character.

I end this post with a quote by Athan Smith. Note particularly the language of the Triune God entering human existence through the mediation of the Son. In the Son we do indeed see the Trinity.

“There and then, before creation, it was decided that the Son would cross every chasm between God and humanity and establish a real and abiding relationship—union. He was predestined to be the mediator, the one in and through whom the very life of the Triune God would enter human existence and human existence would be lifted up to share in the Trinitarian life. The gospel is the good news that this stunning plan of the Triune God has now become eternal fact in Jesus Christ. In his incarnate life, death, resurrection and ascension, he laid hold of the human race, took us down in his death, recreated us in his resurrection, and lifted us up into the embrace of the Father in his ascension.”

The Father’s Humility in the Ascension

Humility is magnetic. We are all drawn to people who consistently honor others and draw little attention to self. This magnetism increases with power. In other words, people in positions of authority who engage with humility are especially drawing. Why? Because they have influence and an ability to use their authority in other ways. I experience this on a personal level every day. I have some of the most humble leaders imaginable in my place of work. Their use of authority is a breath of fresh air.

Consider the difference between humble and proud people in these positions: landlord, boss, CEO, judge, mayor, governor, president. Humility is all the more compelling when experienced in those who have greatest influence. Now consider this, the most powerful and influential being in the universe is also the most humble. Humility marks everything he does.

We have observed the way the Father honors the Son in eternity past, in creation, in the incarnation, and at the cross. In this post we take it a step further to the ascension. In this event, will see compelling humility yet again.

The Father’s Humility in the Ascension

The Father’s pleasure in the Son marks the beginning and end of his earthly ministry. At his baptism the Father’s audible voice is heard: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). When he has accomplished his saving task the Father is greatly pleased. 

“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 2:9-11).

“Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33).

In these texts the language of exaltation is taken up to describe what happens in the ascension and the seating of Jesus at the right hand of the Father. The physical rising into heaven is a tangible expression of the Father exalting the Son. He is literally and figuratively lifted up. It is the Father’s passion that “all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father” (Jn 5:22).

The Father’s Humility at the Cross

The cross is the pinnacle of humility (Phil 2:5-11). We know that event displays the heart and character of Christ, but what about the Father? Is there humility displayed in his role in Calvary? I believe so.

The Father’s Humility at the Cross

When we discuss the Trinity and the cross we must tread lightly. All too often the three persons are polarized and misrepresented. Caricatures of a stern distant father and an unwilling Son abound. The truth, the Triune God suffers at the cross. All three persons experience suffering. All three persons demonstrate sacrifice and humility.

Jurgen Moltmann captures the unique suffering and humility of the Father in the cross of his Son.

“The Son suffers dying, the Father suffers the death of his Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son. The Fatherlessness of the Son is matched by the Sonlessness of the Father, and if God has constituted himself as the Father of Jesus Christ, then he also suffers the death of his Fatherhood in the death of the Son.”

A rarely explored dimension of the cross, this perspective opens a window into the humility of God the Father. In the giving of his beloved Son the Father is saying, “I am meek and humble in heart.” Humility is outward looking self-sacrificial love. If the Father’s gift of Christ is not an expression of humility, I don’t know what is.

I will end this post with a great quote by Jurgen Schulz. I believe he is correct in his assessment of the centrality of the cross in displaying the heart of God. Though he doesn’t use the language of humility he is touching the concept.

“The Triune God who lives in the Eternal Dance of glory, goodness and grace. The God of Calvary love. The God Christ came to reveal.There is one way of knowing what He is really like—look at Jesus. Look at the cross. Only the Son knows the Father, and those to whom the Son makes Him known.He is a God who lays down his life for others. That is what actually goes on inside the Trinity! Self-sacrificing love. One author described Him as a Supreme Being of ‘fathomless unselfishness.’ The cross was not an accident. It is what this Triune Community is all about. It is what the Bible means when it says, “God is love.” What an amazing Deity He turns out to be!”

The Father’s Humility in Sending the Son and Spirit

A humble God sounds strange to many ears. This evening I was reading Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Copan said this about the novelty of a humble God.

“Many Christians have the false impression that something resembling divine humility appears occasionally in the Bible–for example, in the incarnation of Christ–but that humility isn’t an enduring divine quality. Upon closer inspection, God–yes even in the Old Testament–is characteristically humble. The ‘high and exalted one’ dwells with the contrite and lowly of spirit’ (Is 57:15). Psalm 113:5-6 affirms a God who stoops to look upon us. In God’s interaction with Israel, we see an other-centered, patient endurance despite Israel’s rebellion, grumbling, and idolatry. The New Testament expands on this theme of divine humility; it does not invent it.”

Copan is spot on. God is characteristically humble in both testaments for his nature is consistent in all his activity. The New Testament is indeed an expansion rather than a starting point for understanding the humility of God. Stooping low is no foreign posture for the biblical deity.

In the last few posts we have established the equality of the three divine persons along with the economic ordering of the divine life. We have seen the humility of God in his eternal relations with Son and Spirit along with his lowliness in sharing the glory of world making. We turn now to his humility in sending both Son and Spirit in the work of salvation.

The Father’s Humility in Sending the Son and Spirit

Humility at heart is outward looking. It looks beyond self to another. It sacrifices for the sake of neighbor. It is gracious, self-forgetting, and loving. This is the heart of the Father in the plan of redemption. It is also the Father’s posture toward Son and Spirit in the execution of his saving vision.

Pericherosis is a rich theological concept that will aid in understanding the humility of God’s sending activity. It is best defined as mutual indwelling (Jn 14:11). Rich Vincent gives a helpful description.

“Within the divine life there abides an eternal relationship of self-giving, mutual, and shared love. Father, Son, and Spirit deeply and intimately know one another. There is no fear, shame, or insecurity in their knowledge of one another. Father and Son dwell in a face-to-face relationship with the Spirit as the bond of love that unites them. This relationship is so profoundly complete and pure that there is no other way to describe it than that they are in one another [perichoresis]. This free, full, and overflowing love is the central quality of the home-life of God.”

Jurgen Schulz further describes the fulness of life in this intimate community.

“The Triune God lives in an incomparable celebration of eternal joy. The Father, Son and Spirit have a rich and overflowing life with or without us… The Father lives for the Son and the Son lives for the Father, and they share all things together in the Spirit. Not self centered, but other centered. Totally other centered—because that is the essential meaning of ‘God is love.’ And this is what ‘Trinity’ is all about.”

God’s communal life sets the context for his creative and redemptive activity. Son and Spirit are sent forth out of this place of interdependence and loyal love. We discern humility from two different angles when considering this framework.

First, the Son and Spirit are sent into a war zone. Their coming is a tremendous act of humility. Suffering for both was inevitable. Stepping back we must realize that this is God sending and God coming. God sends God. The sending of Son and Spirit is God humbly giving himself! Perichoresis means that God is in the Son and Spirit as they are sent. We must know that it was costly to the Father to send. Pain and sacrifice is shared by the Triune community in the work of redemption.

Second, note the humility of the Father in sharing the awesome task of redemption. In creation, the Father shared the honor of shaping the world. In salvation, the Father humbly invites Son and Spirit to play key roles in his greatest work yet. The honor due God the Savior is an honor for Father, Son, and Spirit. It is humility that gladly shares this glory.

The Father’s Humility in Creation

In the last post we discussed the humility of God the Father before creation. Today we turn to his humility in the act of creation.

The Father’s Humility in Creation

We have established the perfect equality of the three persons. It is also important to touch on distinction within the Trinity, historically called taxis. Bruce Ware gives us some helpful categories for understanding distinctions in the Godhead.

“For Trinitarian doctrine, distinction of personhood is as necessary to maintain as unity or equality of essence is also to maintain….It is clear that two categories seem to encompass the heart of their distinctiveness: relationship and role. Each is distinct in relationship within the Godhead such that each is who he is in part defined by the distinctive relationship each has with the others. The very identity of the first person of the Trinity is seen in and through his relationship as the Father of the Son. Likewise the very identity of the second person of the Trinity is seen precisely through and not apart from his being the Son of the Father. That the Spirit is subject to both Father and Son seems, then, to make it clear that his relationship is as one under the authority of the Father and the Son. Relationship, then, is a central category for understanding what distinguishes the three persons from each other.”

Colin Gunton further discusses the Father’s relational authority over the Son and Spirit.

“The priority of the Father is not ontological but economic. Such talk of the divine economy has indeed implications for what we may say about the being of God eternally, and would seem to suggest a subordination of taxis—of ordering within the divine life—but not one of deity or regard. It is as truly divine to be the obedient self-giving Son as it is to be the Father who sends and the Spirit who renews and perfects. Only by virtue of the particularity and relatedness of all three is God God.”

We are now positioned to discuss God’s humility toward the Son and Spirit in creation. Scripture designates the Father as the one holding supreme authority. He is identified as the architect of creation. Yet, it is precisely in creation where we glimpse this King’s humility.

He empowers the Son to speak the divine fiat that brings all things into existence (Jn 1:3). He tasks the Spirit with the honor of enlivening creation through the spoken word of the Son (Gen 1:2, Ps 33:6). The Father shared the glory of bringing all things into existence. He did not keep this to himself. In the New Testament the Father gladly takes the back seat along with the Spirit as they spotlight the Son as the Creator (Jn 1:3, 1 Cor 8:6, Col 1:16-17, Heb 1:2).

The Father’s Humility In Eternity Past

In the previous post we began a series on the humility of God the Father. We spent time establishing that Father, Son, and Spirit are perfectly equal in essence and character. Humility therefore marks the Father as much as it does the Son and Spirit. We turn our attention in this post to the Triune relationship before the world was created.

The Father’s Humility before Creation

The interaction of the Trinity pre-exists creation and has always been characterized by humility. John gives us a glimpse of this…”And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). This is a unique window into Trinitarian interaction.

The sharing of glory and honor predates the world. The Father has always been passionate about exalting his Son. The way the Father interacts with the Son in his incarnate state is reflective of how he has always treated him. In theological terms the economic Trinity cannot be separated from the immanent Trinity.

When Scripture says that God is jealous for his glory we must remember that we are talking about a Triune God (Is 48:9-11). Diving glory happens in community. The Father, Son, and Spirit are equally passionate about extolling one another. God is indeed passionate for his glory. The Father is adamant that the Son be lifted high. The Son is deeply concerned that the Father be honored. The Spirit refuses to shine the light on himself, he wants Christ to be seen.

When viewed through this lens God’s glory becomes a brilliant display of humility. Glory happens precisely when one selflessly lifts another. In the divine economy I would go as far as saying that God’s glory is his humility. Tim Keller helps further capture this outward looking posture of the Trinity.

“Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.”