“Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
Dear believers in Christ, forgiven of God.
God exalts, lifts up, the humble. What better example than a baby? You can’t get much more humble than a tiny little baby - so completely helpless, defenseless, and vulnerable. What can a baby do to protect itself? What list of accomplishments can it pull out and show off to others? We’ve all been there.
Yet, God graciously lifts up the humble. Although born and conceived in sin, He gives them grace and forgiveness. He lifts them up, by Baptism. He joins water and Word to exalt that tiny defenseless child, into the Kingdom of God.
And so God has lifted you up too, believers in Christ, by baptizing you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. He’s lifted you up by giving you His Word and Spirit, and the true saving faith.
By grace, you have that true saving faith, that relies not on works, but on Jesus Christ alone. All other ground is sinking sand.
Without true faith in Christ, there really is only one other alternative: faith in human achievement. “Look at what I can do for you God. Look at how impressive I am. Look at how much better I am than others.”
And so Jesus taught those who trusted in themselves, a parable. Two men went to the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee, the other a publican. We know the story very well.
The Pharisee is proud. The tax collector is humble. The Pharisee is much like those who will say to Christ on the last day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? and in Thy name have cast out devils? and in Thy name done many wonderful works?”
Again, “Lord, look at what all I can do for you.” And he doesn’t mention one single thing about the grace of God, including salvation by grace alone, through faith alone.
But of course, he could always seem to find someone who looked less godly than he did, and so he thought that gave him a good report with God. When he did thank God, it wasn’t to glorify Him, but rather, to bolster himself, calling attention to how he was greater than other men, the unjust, the extortioners, the adulterers and even this tax collector who stood afar off. Of course he was afar off. He should be, since he was so much lower than an upright, respectable, law-abiding Phariseee.
Believers in Christ, we are in constant danger of thinking like the Pharisee, because for the most part, by Grace, we haven’t engaged in those more destructive sins like murder, adultery, extortion. It’s a constant temptation to get to thinking we’re better than others. So we too need to review this parable for the strengthening of our faith. The Pharisee did not go home justified, because he came to God with his own righteousness. And Scripture says, Our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. And "by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified."
“Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased [made low]; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
Yet the type of lowliness and humbleness to which Jesus refers is not at all what the world thinks. The wisdom of the world thinks humbleness is an athlete who wins a trophy, and then proceeds to give credit to his teamates, or an Oscar winner, who instead of boasting, thanks his grandmother, and gives her the credit.
The humbleness of which Jesus speaks is spiritual. It’s that attitude of the heart, found in Paul’s confession: “I am the chief of sinners.” It’s the attitude of the publican in the temple, who knew he was a sinner, undeserving of God’s favor, and felt shame because of his sins. So, “Standing afar off, he would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’”
Jesus says that the tax collector “went down to his house justified rather than the other.” He was justified before God, yet, not because of anything he had done. He knew he hadn’t done anything to earn heaven, which is why he couldn’t even seem to look up toward God. He couldn’t even stand out in the open, but stood afar off. He felt guilt because of his sins. But he also knew that Jesus did everything needful to save him, and so he said, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Like the thief on the cross, he gave up on his own righteousness, and turned to Christ alone for salvation. Whoever believes in Christ will not perish, but have everlasting life.
Notice how he did not compare himself to others. He wasn’t even thinking of how he measured up to anyone else. Because that’s not the standard of true righteousness. We can always find someone who looks less godly than we do. But that doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to salvation. So he compared himself to God, to His holiness, and said in his heart: “I’ve come short of the glory of God.”
And there is absolutely nothing we can do to make up for even one of our sins, let alone just the fact that we are sinners. So, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” And that’s exactly what God does with sinners. He has mercy on them. This is His specialty we might say, having mercy. Jesus came with all the power of God, yet He used that power to heal, and to comfort. He binds the brokenhearted, and heals our wounds, both physically and spiritually.
Jesus came with all the power of God dwelling in Him bodily, yet, He “made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
And now He gives grace to the humble, to those who are troubled by their sins. “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted…Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”
So humbling ourselves isn’t at all about showing everyone how humble we are, giving credit to someone else when we’re in the spotlight. It’s about confessing our sins. It’s about singling ourselves out as the ultimate, chief of sinners, and praying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” And it’s about believing that God does have mercy on us, not because we earned it, but rather, “we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son.”
And so, the tax collector, in humbleness, went home justified before God. Justified means God Himself has declared us to be completely and totally right with Him. All is forgiven. All is forgotten. “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us.”
What’s interesting is that the tax collector was worse, a worse sinner than the Pharisee, outwardly. Yet he received God's favor because he came trusting not in himself, but in Christ. Paul writes, "To him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." And again he says, "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law."
Let us conclude with the words of Mary, the words of a lowly servant girl, yet lifted up by God’s grace. Who was she in comparison to an upright Pharisee, or a hard working scribe? What kind of list of accomplishments could she pull out and brag to others about? She was a lowly servant girl. Yet, God exalts the lowly. “He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden…His mercy is on them that fear Him…He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.”
May God continue to lift you up, believers in Christ. As we continue to confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Most of all He exalts us by forgiving us, by granting to us the gift of eternal life by grace, through faith.