Word Study #33 — Worthy/Unworthy

I suspect that people who are accustomed to liturgical “confessions” in which they are obliged to refer to themselves as “unworthy sinners” will be amazed to discover that the term “unworthy” (anaxios) appears only four times in the entire New Testament! It is a tragic reality that both hymnody and theological pronouncements, under the guise of “appropriate humility” (see W.S.#14), have bamboozled unsuspecting believers into continually wallowing in their imagined “unworthiness” instead of rejoicing and growing in the gracious provision of our Lord, who has (Col.1:12) “qualified us (KJV “made us meet) to share in the inheritance of his people, in the light!”

Who is really “unworthy”? In Ac.13:46, Paul and Barnabas, as they left the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, warned the authorities that in rejecting the message of Jesus, they had “judged themselves to be unworthy of eternal life.” Later, Paul wrote to the folks in Corinth (I Cor.6:2), amazed that they considered themselves “unworthy” to settle their own disputes, but rather used civil courts; and later warned them (11:27,29) to evaluate their “worthiness” to share in the observance of communion, in which admonition he listed (1) divisions, centered upon people and their ideas, (2)lack of concern for the poor members of the group, and (3) failure to “discern the Body” (see Chapter 7 of Citizens of the Kingdom)and their relatedness to it, as disqualifying a person from participation.
That’s ALL, folks. Those are the only references.

Nevertheless, a great deal is said about “worthiness”, and it is true that some references indicate its perceived lack: we should also examine those. The concept is expressed in two “families” of words: axios (adj.)/axioo(verb)/axios(adv.), and hikanos (adj.)/hikanoo(verb). In classical usage, they are somewhat similar.
Axios may refer to a price or monetary value, as well as to a person’s character. It often carries the idea of being deserving of reward or honor, or even retribution.
Hikanos, occasionally translated “worthy” (5 x out of 38), more frequently expresses ideas of competence or sufficiency (of quantity or ability), or appropriateness.
Axios was also used in a courtroom setting, where Pilate (Lk.23:15), Lysias (Ac.23:29) and Paul (Ac.25:11) all declare that nothing “deserving of death” has been proven.
Jesus spoke of workers “deserving” their wages (Mt.10:10, Lk.10:17), and Jewish elders told Jesus that a centurion “deserved” his attention (Lk.7:4), although the man himself maintained that he did not (7:7) and elsewhere (Mt.8:8 and Lk.7:6), hikanos is chosen in that same situation.
Axios also describes persons of similar status, as in John the Baptist’s oft-quoted statement about his “not being worthy” to untie Jesus’ sandals. This may be what has triggered the “humility competition” in many churches, but John was simply making the point that he, personally, did not have the status of the promised Messiah. Some versions of that quote also use hikanos. In the parable of the prodigal, the son who had wasted his inheritance rightly admitted his “unworthiness”, but note that the father did not leave him there.

“Deserving,” of course, works both ways. Heb.10:29 warns that disregarding Jesus “deserves” greater severity than disregarding Moses, having already established (3:3) that Jesus “deserves” the greater glory. And Jesus himself warns prospective disciples that to be “worthy” of him requires that one give him absolute priority over all other affections (Mt.10:37).
The rest of that statement (Mt.10:38) has been grossly abused. The phrase, “taking up one’s cross” has become so ubiquitous, that practically any unavoidable difficulty, aggravation, or inconvenience is likely to be piously labeled, “just the cross I have to bear.”

The cross, for Jesus, was NOT an unavoidable inconvenience! Neither was it a case of submission to illness, natural disaster, or insurmountable evil! Jesus was speaking sober truth when he said he could have called upon all the hosts of heaven to rescue him! He CHOSE not to do so, in order to ransom the people of his Kingdom from the domain of death and fear (Heb.2:14-15), by his triumph over both! Cross-bearing entails voluntarily suffering completely undeserved and avoidable injustice for the sake of the Kingdom of Jesus! (This topic definitely “deserves” its own separate study, but it is integral to this one, since Jesus includes “cross-bearing” as a criterion of “worthiness” for his followers.) Ac.5:41, where the verb form occurs with an intensifying prefix, is an early example of disciples making this connection. See also II Thes.1:5. The writer to the Hebrews notes (11:38) that the world was not worthy of the disciples whom it persecuted and killed.

If “worthiness” was really entirely out of reach, we would hardly have so many admonitions to behave in a manner “worthy of the Lord” (Col.1:10), “worthy of his calling” (Eph.4:1), or “worthy of God’s calling into his Kingdom” (I Thes.2:12). Some of the characteristics listed as part of that “worthiness” are (Col.) bearing fruit, and growing in acquaintance with Jesus; (Eph.) avoiding status-tripping, and displaying generosity, gentleness, and mutual care and concern.
John the Baptist had also admonished his listeners to “bear fruit worthy of [appropriate for] a changed life (Mt.3:8). Perhaps the difference is clarified by the use of both words together, in Col.1:10 and 12. As noted above, in v.10, Paul instructs his readers to live worthily (axios), and then reminds them (v.12) that the Father has enabled (hikanoo) them to do so.

It might be prudent for us to take a lesson from the three uses of axios in Revelation 5. We are told, in answer to the question in v.2, “Who is worthy (axios) to open the book?”, that “no one in heaven or on earth, or below the earth” was able to do so. But in v.9, the Lamb is acclaimed as “worthy to take the book and to open its seals.” We are not told the content of the book – although many folks have undertaken to pontificate about it – only that the opening of its seals results in horrific judgments upon the earth, and finally in everyone around the throne breaking out in praises to the Lamb (v.12).
The lesson? That the province of God’s people is NOT to pass – and certainly not to exact – judgments upon the world – or each other!– but to occupy ourselves with exuberant praises to the Lamb, who is “worthy (axios) to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!!!”

It would be most appropriate (hikanos) for the people of God to leave behind their programmed protestations of unworthiness (anaxios), and concentrate their attention upon worthily (axios) representing their Lord and King in his world! The Lord has made you/us worthy to be citizens of his Kingdom, a part of his very own Body! Let’s quit contradicting his Word, and get on with the business of living its truth!

2 Responses to Word Study #33 — Worthy/Unworthy

  1. Dan Martin says:

    Actually, Mom, I think the usual protestations of “unworthiness” come from other sources than the John the B. quote you mention. One is the very centurion you refer to who, in Matt. 8:8, states “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” A personalized variation of this statement is in the Catholic (and I presume others’) liturgy to this day. But as you quite rightly pointed out in your last post on “power,” the context of the Matt. 8 passage quite clearly focuses on the source and nature of Jesus’ (and others’) authority, and what the centurion was saying in v.8 simply leads into v.9 and following, demonstrating both the centurion’s recognition of Jesus’ authority, and his comprehension of the limitations of his own. It is this recognition that Jesus commends as great faith in v.10.

    The other source of the “unworthiness” obsession, of course, is the Total Depravity doctrine of John Calvin, and its various progeny in contemporary theology including the ubiquitous Four Laws. The twisted doctrine in which “Salvation” is contingent upon acknowledging one’s own utter worthlessness is not “good news” at all, but it has become central to most presentations of “the Gospel,” as I lamented a few weeks ago.

  2. ruthpmartin says:

    A very good point. I will be dealing with that sort of thing more in the next two postings.

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