Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 3:8a “Unto me, who am less than the least. . .”
The idea swelling up in Paul was so intense that he had to vent it by bursting the bounds of syntax. “Less than the least” is an impossibility. None can be lower than the lowest; in such a case one becomes the lowest. Paul strained vocabulary to express his strong sense of humility. “To speak himself as little as could be, he speaks himself less than could be” (Henry).
No words in correct vernacular could adequately express his thoughts. Since language was failing him, Paul decided to violate it. He stepped beyond the accepted boundary and created an impossible concept. “Less than the least” translates a Greek word Paul evidently coined. Beginning with a superlative meaning “least,” Paul added a comparative ending, thus producing “leaster.” This was not proper, technical syntax, but spoke “a grammar of the heart and of the soul that all of us understand” (Criswell).
High self-regard is rare in preeminent saints. The heaviest stalks of wheat, and limbs most heavily laden with fruit, bend lowest. Empty cans clatter and jostle on water’s surface, but the fuller the vessel, the deeper it sinks. As one rises spiritually, the less satisfied one is with self. The closer we approach light, the more easily we see dirt. Whom God advances, He humbles and makes low in their eyes. Abraham confessed, “I am but dust and ashes” (GN 18:27); Job, “I am vile” (40:4); David, “I was shapen in iniquity” (PS 51:5); Ezra, “I blush to lift up my face” (9:6); Isaiah, “I am undone. . .a man of unclean lips” (6:5); Peter, “I am a sinful man” (LK 5:8).
To this list of the self-styled lowly, Paul adds his name. He was, in his own eyes, small as could be, “leaster.” This was no mere sentimentality or false modesty. His confession was neither hypocritical pretension, feigned humility, nor a flight of flowery rhetoric. Rather, this was the sincere opinion of a man who held a proper and profound view of God’s grace.
When Paul had to, he could speak very boldly, yea almost brashly, of his ministry. He was quick to persuade people of his ministry’s validity, but defended himself only to the extent necessary to convince men of his apostolic authority. Paul exalted his office, but humbled himself, never confusing the glory of the treasure with the commonness of the earthen vessel.
His ongoing pilgrimage in evaluating himself is an interesting study. Late in his ministry he wrote three self-appraisals worthy of comparison. About 57 A.D., he wrote to the Corinthians, “I am the least of the apostles” (1 C 15:9). Some three years later he penned our text, lowering his position to “less than the least of all saints.” About 63 A.D., he lowered his self opinion even more, saying he was the chief of sinners (1 TM 1:15).
Years of walking with the Savior humbled Paul. He truly came to see that underneath his ministry, his revelations, his calling, his mission, was a man who deserved none of these things. Beneath all the trimmings, Paul recognized “leaster” as a true assessment of himself.
Christians generally recognize humility as a virtue, but I fear we are often guilty of displaying a modesty which is not genuine. Remember, for every God-given virtue, Satan has a counterfeit. For love, there is lust; for fellowship, carousing; for marriage, cohabitation; for godly sorrow which leads to repentance, there is satanic sorrow which leads to despair; etc.
One form of counterfeit humility is cowardice in disguise. It results in a silenced witness. Paul was unworthy, but did not let his unworthiness keep him from telling of Christ. We are all required to talk the Gospel.
Another false humility is one which airs itself in order to be noticed and admired, to call attention to itself. “Some people angle for praise with the bait of humility” (Jay, in B.I.). Constantly do a critique of your motives.
Avoid counterfeit humility, but do cultivate the true. In striving to be as godly as the godliest, do not overlook striving to be as humble as the humblest. Few aspects of Christian living are as important as developing a true spirit of humility. How vital is humility to a Christian? Important enough for God, in essence, to force it on Paul. The tasks and revelations given to the Apostle were enough to turn anyone’s head. Thus, God gave Paul “a thorn in the flesh” (2 C 12:7) to keep him humble. We are not sure what this affliction exactly was–maybe poor eye-sight (GL 4:14)–but whatever it was, Paul could not escape it. He could raise the dead, heal the sick, and perform other miracles, but one thing he could not do–get rid of his thorn in the flesh. He knew this was God’s way of keeping him humble.
Humility is important to God for it forces His people to depend on Him. Humility is not merely an ornament, but a necessity. Where humility is lacking, all else is lacking. When humility abounds, multiplied blessings spring up. Where God gives grace to be humble, He gives all other graces.
Humility also makes us living, breathing examples of the message of grace we proclaim. Paul was an effective preacher of grace because he was an ultimate illustration of it. Proud lips can not witness well. Our humility embodies what we say. Our confession of being unworthy magnifies God’s grace. Our admission of weakness exalts God’s power.
The relentless pursuit of humility may as much as any other quest sum up the essence of Christian living. When asked what is the first step in religion, Martin Luther replied, “Humility.” Asked what is the second step, he repeated, “Humility.” Asked of the third step, he said again, “Humility.” Seek humility. Begin by realizing its importance–right doing grows out of right thinking–then set yourself to the task of acquiring humility.
Eph. 3:8b “. . .of all saints,. . .”
Paul was not naive. He realized his personal godliness exceeded that of many believers. The well-traveled Apostle knew how sinful and contrary Christians could be. Nevertheless, he esteemed “all the saints.”
When contemplating his fellow believers, three things seemed ever present in Paul’s mind. First, he chose to concentrate more on his own sins than on others’. We see best what we choose to focus on most.
Second, though God forgave Paul for his years in persecuting believers, Paul seemed never able to recover from it fully. He always regretted what he had done, and felt a debt to the people he had formerly grieved.
Third, he realized believers were “saints,” set apart by God as recipients of His special favor. It is in vogue to defame the Church and downplay its significance. Polls say less than one-fourth of the people in our country deem the Church as relevant and significant to the needs of society. I will have no part in this derision. I point out flaws in church members, and challenge them to better conduct, but at the same time I devote my life to the Church and her only tangible expression, the local church. I am honored to labor for Christ the bridegroom, and for the Church His bride.
No local congregation can claim perfection, but in the long run, no group will be more effective than the churches. They are faulty, but consist of God’s elect. The regenerate are the true aristocracy. The sanctified are the true nobility. The Church has spots and flaws, but is glorious within. She is beautiful in God’s eyes, and thus must ever be the same in ours. If you do not find saints in churches, you will not find them anywhere else.
Eph. 3:8c “. . .is this grace given,. . .”
Paul was humbled by knowing all he ever did was a “grace,” an undeserved assignment from God. He realized everything in his ministry was “given.” All is undeserved, all is received–no personal worthiness, no inherent claim of proficiency. Apart from “grace given,” Paul knew he was nothing in himself. He held nothing which he had not received.
Paul considered the call, the grace, the gifts, the things originating outside himself, as so wonderful that he himself shrank into nothingness. God was everything, Paul was nothing. Our greatness as believers lies not in us, but in our Master who seeks to live and manifest Himself through us.
Toscanini is deemed one of history’s most capable orchestral conductors and interpreters of music. The secret of his interpretive success was succinctly revealed when, to an orchestra preparing to play one of Beethoven’s symphonies, he said, “Gentlemen, I am nothing; you are nothing; Beethoven is everything.” Toscanini knew his duty was not to draw attention to himself or his orchestra. Their duty was to obliterate themselves and let the audience experience Beethoven through them. This is what we believers are to do regarding Christ who lives in us. Our lives should echo the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (JN 3:30).
However high faith rises in the superstructure, it must lay its foundation deep in the soil of self-abasement. We ought to know this, for we all began our Christian walk with an appreciation for humility. Salvation, the greatest blessing we ever received, came to us all via the valley of humility. Our day of conviction was a day of self-annihilation. One chief characteristic we for sure displayed at conversion: we were humble!
This attitude must continue to prevail throughout our Christian life. All of us should have almost felt violated by Paul’s claim to be “less than the least.” We should have immediately felt he had pushed us out of the place we thought had been reserved for us. I trust we would all urge Paul to move up, for surely none of us would dare to take a place above him.
Do you share Paul’s humility? Preaching on this text, Spurgeon exclaimed, “I sympathize with him in his wonder at electing love! My heart cries, ‘Why me, O Lord, why me?'” A man asked Joseph Parker, “Why did Jesus choose Judas the betrayer as one of the twelve?” The famous preacher replied, “I am not able to answer, but the great mystery to me is not why He chose Judas, but why should the Lord have chosen me.”