In our quest for the marks of mature spirituality and leadership ability, we must not bypass that quality which so completely characterized the life of Jesus Christ, the quality of unselfish servanthood. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) The apostle Paul added to this focus when he wrote, “Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but the interests of others as well” (Phil. 1:4). But then pointing to the Savior as our great example, he quickly added, “You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had.” Paul then followed this exhortation with a strong reminder of the humiliation of Christ (Phil. 2:6ff) who, though being God of very God, emptied himself by taking the form of a slave. There is no question that if we as Christians are going to grow and mature into Christ-like character, we must experience progress in giving of ourselves in ministry to and for others. While we can and should find comfort and encouragement in Christ (Phil. 2:1), when properly grasped, that comfort should propel us into servants of the Savior and one another. Servant living stands opposed to the primary concerns we see today where the focus of our culture and society is more on our own personal happiness and comfort.
The preoccupation with self today is readily seen in slogans like, “be all you can be” or “experience your potential” and in the titles and subtitles of books like The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life; The Total Woman; Joy in Sex, More Joy in Sex, and the list goes on and on. While many of these books may contain biblical truth or genuine help in dealing with certain problems people face as human beings, the message, whether explicit or implicit, suggests the prime goal we should be pursuing is our own comfort and the experience of some form of self-expression rather than growth in the character and quality of the life of the Savior. Simply put, our modern day society, and this includes a great number of Christians, is focused on making satisfaction its goal, indeed, its religion. There is much more concern for self-fulfillment than for pleasing God and truly serving Him and others as seen in the life of Jesus. Typical of today is the enormous number of how-to-books not just for the secular world, but for the Christian community. These are aimed at directing us to more successful relationships, becoming more of a person, realizing one’s potential, experiencing more thrills each day, whipping ourselves into shape, improving our diet, managing our money, and on it goes. Again, while many of these things are important and have their place, it does take the focus off what is truly the heart of Christianity—knowing and loving God, and out of that resource and relationship, living as servants in the power of the Spirit according to the example of Christ.
But what exactly is servanthood? Servanthood is the state, condition, or quality of one who lives as a servant. Further, a servant is first of all one who is under submission to another. For Christians, this means submission to God first, and then submission to one another. Then, as one in submission, a servant is one who seeks to meet the real needs of others or of the person he is serving. To put it another way, servanthood is the condition or state of being a servant to others, of ministry to others rather than the service of self. It means willingly giving of oneself to minister for and to others and to do whatever it takes to accomplish what is best for another.
However, when serving others and their needs, if the underlying motive and goal is some form of self love, like the praise of others for the service rendered, then one’s service is in reality hypocritical. This type of service is really aimed at serving selfish ends—usually in the futile pursuit of personal significance through something like praise, power, or status.
Christ’s plan and that which produces maximum blessing to the world and the church is servanthood. A servant is one who, even when in positions of leadership seeks to lead and influence others through lives given in ministry for the blessing of others and their needs. As the following passages will demonstrate, the Lord Jesus came as a servant with a commitment to serve. Just think, if He had come to be served, our redemption could and would never have taken place. Likewise, our failure to live as servants throws up a huge barrier to effective ministry as representatives of the Lord Jesus.
Components of Servanthood from New Testament Passages
Since servant living was epitomized so completely by the Lord Jesus, we would naturally expect a number of passages to explicitly deal with this issue. While space will not allow an indepth exegesis, it is hoped that the following highlights drawn from several New Testament passages will draw our attention to a few vital principles that describe the spiritually mature quality of living as servants.
MATTHEW 20:20-28 (SEE ALSO MARK 10:35-45)
20:20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling down she asked something from him.20:21 He said to her, “What do you want?” She said, “Permit these two sons of mine to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”20:22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 20:23 He told them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right and left is not mine to give. Rather, it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 20:24 When the other ten heard this, they were angry with the two brothers. 20:25 But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high position use their authority over them. 20:26 It must not be this way among you! But whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant. 20:27And whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 20:28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
A consideration of Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-45 shows us that there are basically two options open for people. Either we will seek to serve ourselves, a choice that nullifies our capacity to live as disciples, or we will learn to live as servants out of a faith relationship with God through Christ. In Matthew 6, the Lord stated it this way, “No one is able to serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. No one is able to serve God and possessions” (Matt. 6:24). When we serve money, we are really serving ourselves and our own desires for what we think money will purchase like significance, power, pleasure, security, or status. Money is not evil and having it is not evil, but if it becomes our master, it controls our values, priorities, and pursuits rather than God, and that is evil (see 1 Tim. 6:8-10).
Christ shows that His organization or organism, the body of Christ, is to function on the basis of service or servant-like ministry to others. Spiritually mature people who experience His life are those who have first of all developed a servant’s heart like that of the Savior. Thus, a true concept of mature Christian leadership means serving one’s followers and teaching them by example to be servants of others.
A mother approached the Lord, probably at the request of her sons, and sought a position of status for them. Why? Foolishly thinking that such status would give them happiness and significance, they wanted positions of authority, praise, and power. Our Lord’s answer showed that first of all they had been wrongly influenced by the attitudes of the world (vs. 25). Rather than thinking with the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5; 1 Cor. 2:16b) as His disciples should think, they were thinking like an unregenerate world. Thus, if they were to serve as His disciples, their thinking and orientation needed drastic transformation (see Rom. 12:1-8).
Naturally, the model for mature spirituality and leadership and all Christian living is the Lord Jesus. It is instructive to note that in this context of serving, He spoke of Himself as the Son of Man. This was a favorite designation of Himself (one used some 90 times) and a Messianic title based on Daniel 7:13-14. As such, it linked Him to the earth and to His mission, but it also stressed His pre-eminence, dignity, and authority (see Luke 6:5; John 6:62). The contrast between who He was, the Son of Man, and what He did, humble Himself, is stressed by the word “even” as given in Mark 10:45, “for even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve…” This Messianic title draws our attention to His awesome humility as one who, though God of very God and Messiah Himself, came in order to serve and to give his life a ransom. In other words, He came to serve in order to set men free to be the people God had created them to be.
Since in this passage the Lord was correcting the thinking of His disciples, this clearly illustrates how we need to spend time with Him in His Word that we might allow His life and the teaching of Scripture to transform our thinking and thus our sources of trust, aspirations, and actions.
When the other disciples got wind of the request of the two, they became indignant and a certain degree of division occurred among the disciples. This shows how longing and striving for position, power, and praise quickly ruins relationships in the body of Christ and creates disunity and division. Servant living does the opposite.
Principle: the purpose of serving others is to set them free to love and serve God, not to make them our servants or to serve our wants or needs. We are all responsible to serve one another, but never in order to be served or to satisfy our immature cravings.
23:11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 23:12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Greatness in God’s kingdom is never to be found in position or power or in the praise and opinions of men, but in servant-like service to others.
We see again that one of the greatest hindrances to service or servant living is the desire for some form of exaltation—position, praise, prestige, and power. Those who take the secular route so typical of the world and who exalt themselves will eventually be humbled. They will not only eventually lose the very status they seek, but if they are believers, they will also lose rewards in the kingdom.
Following the statement of verses 11-12, the Lord began to pronounce woes on the Pharisees who typically longed for status and praise. These woes illustrate some of the consequences when men fail to live as servants.
22:24 A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 22:25 So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ 22:26 But it must not be like that with you! Instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. 22:27 For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
22:28 “You are the ones who have remained with me in my trials. 22:29 Thus I grant to you a kingdom, just as my Father granted to me, 22:30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
The setting here is that of the Passover and the institution of the Lord’s Supper, both of which spoke of Christ in His person and work as the suffering servant who would die for our sin. This scene presents a graphic picture of how preoccupation with self-centered interests (position, praise, and acceptance by others) ruins our capacity to even properly worship and relate to the person and work of the Savior. Because they were seeking their happiness and significance by trying to manage their own affairs they were blinded to what He was seeking to teach them and to what His life meant to them.
Servant living will be rewarded in the future. One of the hindrances to servant living is man’s impatience and his desire to be served now! Therefore, one of the keys to effective service is faith and constant orientation with the weight of eternity (2 Cor. 4:15-18). When we seek our reward now through the praise of men as did the Pharisees, we lose the power of God on our lives and ministries and we lose rewards in the future (cf. Matt. 6:1-4). But why do we do that? In unbelief, we turn from resting in God’s wisdom to our own foolishness through which we seek to handle life by our own plans or machinations.
JOHN 13:1-5 AND 12-17
13:1 Just before the Passover feast, Jesus knew that his time had come to depart from this world to the Father. He had loved his own who were in the world, and now he loved them to the very end. 13:2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, that he should betray Jesus. 13:3 Jesus, because he knew that the Father had handed things over to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 13:4 got up from the meal, removed his outer clothes, took a towel and tied it around himself. 13:5 He poured water into the washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel he had wrapped around himself. . .
13:12 So when Jesus had washed their feet and put his outer clothing back on, he took his place at the table again and said to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? 13:13You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and do so correctly, for that is what I am. 13:14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet. 13:15 For I have given you an example: you should do just as I have done for you. 13:16 I tell you the solemn truth, the slave is not greater than his master, nor is the one who is sent as a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 13:17 If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
Perhaps no passage illustrates the source and nature of the heart of a servant more than John 13. Here, in the upper room on the night before His crucifixion the Lord Jesus dramatically drove home the issue and nature of what it means to be a servant. Imagine the scene. All had been prepared for this last meal with the disciples with the exception of one thing. According to the custom of the day a servant, with a basin of water and towel in hand, would wash the feet of the guests who had walked down the dirty, dusty roads of Palestine. But who would take the position of this servant and perform the task? I can just see the disciples looking around expecting someone else to do this, but never for a moment considering it himself. Then out of the blue, as a perfect picture and lesson of servanthood, the Lord Jesus rose to the task, laid aside His outer garment, put a towel around his waist, took water in a basin and began washing the feet of the disciples, all of which was a fitting analogy of yielding His privileges and assuming the role of a slave.
First, we should note that the source of Jesus’ actions lay in His knowledge and security of who He was and where He was going (vss. 1-3). Jesus was completely aware of His sovereign authority, His origin, and coming destiny as He submitted and depended by faith in what the Father was doing (cf. vv. 1, 18). Thus, in that confidence, He voluntarily took the place of a slave and washed the feet of His disciples. His thinking and action contrasts sharply with the self-seeking insecurity of the disciples, none of whom were willing to pick up the towel and take the place of a servant (cf. Matt. 20:20-24; Mark 9:33-34; Luke 22:24-30).
Christ’s security, His love, and His confidence in the Father and future allowed the Lord Jesus to assume the position of a servant, an amazing example of condescension (vss. 4-6). This attitude, faith, and action portrayed His entire ministry on earth (cf. Phil. 2:5-8) and provides us with the perfect example of what He wants to do in our lives. But this also demonstrates how servant living is accomplished in us—through faith and understanding of who we are in Christ and by confidence in the eternal glories of the future. After Jesus finished washing the feet of the disciples, He returned to His place and made this very pointed application:
John 13:12-15 So when Jesus had washed their feet and put his outer clothing back on, he took his place at the table again and said to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? 13You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and do so correctly, for that is what I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example: you should do just as I have done for you.
Having pointed to His actions as an example for them, Christ then drove home an inescapable lesson, here defined as a “solemn truth.” If He, their master and the One they worshipped, assumed the role of a servant to minister to others, then certainly they must likewise take the towel of servanthood as a minister to others rather than seek to elevate themselves. Ironically, and contrary to the thinking of the world, true blessing comes in serving others.
16 I tell you the solemn truth, the slave is not greater than his master, nor is the one who is sent as a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
2:1 If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort provided by love, any fellowship in the Spirit, any affection or mercy, 2:2 complete my joy and be of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in spirit, and having one purpose. 2:3 Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. 2:4 Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but the interests of others as well. 2:5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 2:6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped, 2:7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 2:8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross!
This classic passage on the humiliation of Christ (verses 5-8) is here set forth as the supreme example for unselfish servant living for Christians. The apostle presents the Lord Jesus as One who, in his supreme superiority, manifests what is the model for all Christians; it points us to the humility needed to live as servants of others. Though existing in the form of God with all the rights and prerogatives of deity, Christ Jesus emptied Himself by taking on the form of a slave, by becoming true humanity. Christ veiled His deity and voluntarily laid aside the right to use and manifest His divine prerogatives in submission to the Father. In doing this, He humbled Himself that He might die even the death of the cross.
But the focus we dare not miss is Paul’s statement in verse 1 and the implications drawn from this. The main verb of the passage is “complete my joy.” Seeing men and women come to Christ in faith gives joy, but as one devoted to seeing believers mature into Christ-like living (see Col. 1:28; Eph. 4:13), nothing could give Paul greater joy (vs. 2) than to see believers live unselfishly serving one another with the mature mind of Christ (vss. 2-5). But before the apostle says “complete my joy,” he begins by getting the Philippians to think through what was theirs in Christ by the work of God. Literally, the text begins with four “if” clauses. He wrote, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, if any comfort by love, if any fellowship in the Spirit, if any affection and mercy…” In Greek, these are first class conditional clauses, which, for the sake of argument or for a response from the reader, assumes the statement to be true. It is what can be called the response condition. Paul was not questioning the reality of these blessings in Christ. Rather, he used the first class condition as a kind of rhetorical device to get the reader to think through the issue and respond properly. The point is there is encouragement, comfort by love, and fellowship in the ministry and power of the Spirit, and the result—compassion and mercy that all believers should have for others.45 But we must never turn such blessings into merely personal comfort. The goal and result must be servant living, living as expressed especially in verses 3-5:
2:3 Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. 2:4 Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but the interests of others as well. 2:5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had.
The fundamental issue in living as servants, as those committed to meeting the needs of others, is a deep down humility that is willing to pick up the servant’s towel regardless of one’s status or station in life. No matter what one’s station or condition in life, whether king or peasant, slave or free, rich or poor, strong or weak, brilliant or slow of mind, nobleman or common, etc., in Christ God calls all Christians to live as servants serving others with the Lord Jesus as the perfect example of One who, though God of very God, took upon Himself “the form of a servant.”
… When Jesus Christ came into the world, it was not to come into a wealthy man’s home where all material things might be His. The home was characterized by poverty. He did not come into a royal home so that He might be respected as heir apparent even though He has the right to rule this earth. He was not born in Caesar’s home so that in due course He might follow His father to the throne. His station in life was that of a servant. A servant is characterized not so much as a person to be despised, but as someone without rights; a servant submits himself to the will of his master. What Paul emphasizes is that, when Jesus Christ came into the world, He came as One who had no rights of His own. The One who had all the rights that belonged to the eternal Son of God gave up the exercise of these rights; He came into the world as a servant who has no rights but is subject to the authority of another.46
The real test of whether we are truly maturing and learning to become a Christ-like servant is how we act when people treat us like one. I see so much suffering in the church and amongest leadership. Let’s read the word and become more intimate with His character as it relates to how He endured to complete the “Finished work” of our Father.