A while back I was asked to share some thoughts on 1 Peter 5:5 for a study series for my church. Here’s the video, and below is an edited transcript. I’ve made some substantial edits and additions, so the words below have a fair amount not in the video.
First Peter 5:5 (ESV) says:
Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
What’s translated here as “humility,” or “humble yourselves” in the following verse, is a Greek word that means “low-lying.” It was used derisively by the Greeks and the Romans. To be accused of being humble was very negative because both those groups were proud people.
And we as Americans, as well as citizens of nations around the planet, are certainly proud people! We see this in sports, in politics, and sometimes even in preaching styles. Sadly, there are people who get up in their churches and on their television programs and posture and wear their prominent jewelry or flashy clothes and seemingly try to draw attention to themselves.
We see this sometimes with athletes, with some of the self-glorifying celebrations and the intimidation of their opponents. We see it sometimes in business people and musicians and actors and writers and for sure in politics. It’s rampant. (Of course there are truly humble pastors, athletes, musicians, business people, and politicians. I know a number of them, so this isn’t a generalization, just a recognition that the pride problem is widespread.)
These kinds of things were normal to the Greeks and Romans, and are normal in America, but they’re not to be normal to the church, the body of Christ. We’re to see with God’s perspective, and He regards humility as something beautiful. Christ is our ultimate example of humility, as we see in John 13, when He washed the feet of His disciples.
“God opposes the proud,” this text says. That’s a word used for battle, and to oppose means to be at war with. Do you really want to be at war with God? No! Be at war with Satan. Sometimes for a great cause, you’ll be at war with people, even though you love them and pray for their conversion. But you and I never, ever want to be at war with God. That's a war we can never win! What could be more foolish than to pit yourself against God? Whatever God says He opposes is exactly what we should not be doing. So it’s not just wrong to be proud—it’s just plain stupid.
“But he gives grace to the humble.” What could you want more than God’s grace? Our Christian lives begin with grace and we are saved by grace, but we are also sanctified by grace and will be glorified by grace. We need grace today, every bit as much as the first day we came to faith in Christ. “He gives grace to the humble.” Want more grace from God? Then here’s the formula: humble yourself. Or do you want God to fight you, go to war against you, and defeat and humiliate you? Then go ahead and be proud. It’s that simple.
“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another.” Notice it says all of you. There are no exceptions to this. No pastor or elder or leader inside or outside the church can get away with pride and arrogance. And notice it says, “Clothe yourselves with humility.” Not “let yourself be clothed.” This is not Downton Abbey, where there’s a lady’s maid to dress the women, and a butler to dress the men. You have to put on your own clothes. God calls us to be servants, and no one dresses the servant!
This is active, not passive. We’re not to sit around and wait for God, or anyone else, to clothe us with humility. We actually have to clothe ourselves. You’ve probably noticed your clothes don’t magically appear on you each day. You have to go to the effort to select them and put them on. Likewise, humility doesn’t come naturally. We need to practice it by serving others, genuinely caring about them, and respecting them and listening to them and putting them, not us, first.
Again, I think the “all of you” is significant in this verse because there are no exceptions. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). If Jesus, the Creator and Master, came to serve, shouldn’t we follow His example?
Humility isn’t pretending that we’re unworthy so we’ll look good, or because we’re proud of being humble. Humility is truly realizing we are unworthy—and yet God has called us, loved us, sent His Son to the cross for us, and empowered us to live a life of service. True leaders are servants. That’s why Peter tells elders and pastors they must be “eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).
We might consider it a compliment to be called a servant. Someone might say, “You’re a real servant!” and we’ll wear that as a badge of honor. But how do we feel when we’re actually treated as servants? That’s the real test of our humility. Don’t serve others so you can be praised for being a servant. Serve others from a humble heart, realizing it is an honor to serve, as Jesus did. Nothing is more fulfilling than following His example. The true servant of God is one who follows the command “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (Romans 12:3).
So do you want God to think highly of you? Do you want Him to say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant”? I certainly do. Isaiah 66:2 tells us how: “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.”
One of the great needs of our time, I think, is doctrinal humility, where we don’t attempt to reinvent the Christian faith, thinking our new interpretations of Scripture (especially those that just happen to conform to the changing values of our culture) are better that those of the supposedly ignorant people who preceded us in church history.
Some people say today, “Jesus talked about hell, and I get that, but I just don’t think a God of love could send people to an eternal hell.” So they’re tempted to start revising and airbrushing God’s message, and trying to make the gospel appear more positive in our culture. But it doesn’t work, and it’s not loving because when we love people, we will warn them and tell them the truth. We’re to do it in humility, but we are to warn them, not adjust God’s message.
The prodigal son left in pride, and returned in humility. What did his father do? He did what God the Father does for us: he wrapped his arms around him in grace. God opposes the proud, and we see that in the older brother, who’s proud of his virtues. But God gives grace to the humble and that’s what the father did for the prodigal son when he repented.
So remember, it’s not only wrong to oppose God by being proud—it’s utterly foolish. It will never work out well for us. John Flavel, the great English Puritan of the 1600s, said, “They that know God will be humble; they that know themselves cannot be proud.” A. W. Tozer, one of my favorite writers, said, “God being Who and What He is, and we being who and what we are, the only thinkable relation between us is one of full lordship on His part and complete submission on ours.”
First Peter 5:6 says, “Humble yourself therefore under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” God has a time when He will lift us up, but if we go through our lives trying to lift up and exalt ourselves, it will not only fail, but it will also rob us of the opportunity for God to elevate us and others to speak well of us. Those things will only happen if we’ve avoided promoting ourselves out of pride, and served Jesus and others in true humility.
As usual, Charles Spurgeon said it well: “Many people have often been humbled, and yet they have not become humble. …The most hopeful way of avoiding humbling affliction is to humble yourself. Be humble that you may not be humbled.”
For more on this subject, see Randy’s devotional Beautiful and Scandalous: How God's Grace Changes Everything..
These daily meditations with Scriptures and inspirational quotes will enable you to grasp more fully the grace God has lavished on us and give you a bigger view of God’s love for those who are His.
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Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.