The Servant of All

Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be great in God’s kingdom, let him be the servant of all.” He didn’t just say this once. This phrase about greatness coming through service is repeated three times in Mark twice in Matthew and once in Luke. Even with cross referencing, it’s clear that the apostles heard this from Jesus multiple times.

In Mark 9 this statement comes after the disciples had been arguing over who among them would be the greatest. They don’t want to answer Jesus when he calls them out, asking, “So what were you guys discussing so heatedly on the road as we traveled.” Red faced, they glance at each other, then down at their dust-covered toes, saying nothing. And then Jesus, who knows what the discussion was about, says, “Guys, listen! Anyone who is going to have prominence among you, will first be a servant among you.”

Later in Matthew this same statement comes after Zebedee’s wife lobbies for her two sons—James and John—to have positions of prominence on the right and left hand of Jesus in his kingdom.  Jesus is so gentle in his redirection of this woman and her sons. But the other disciples are incensed! What makes those sons of Zebedee think they deserve the position of right and left seats in the kingdom, anymore than any of the other disciples. Suddenly resumes and pedigrees are being pulled out and compared all around. But Jesus defuses the whole thing  with a similar statement as the one in Mark 9. “Guys, remember, its the servant among you who will be great in God’s kingdom.”  Here though, he adds a poignant clincher. “I’m not asking you to be any different than me. I came to serve, not to be served. I came to sacrifice myself for others—giving my very life as ransom.”

Over the Easter week end, I was reminded again, of  the horrible ridicule, torment, and suffering Jesus experienced as he followed through with this promise. The Jewish leaders and priests reviled him while he hung on the cross, crying out, “Look at that wretch! He saved others; but he cannot save himself.” And suddenly what they said rang with a new truth for me. He could not save himself from that hour of suffering, the rejection of a holy God, and the forsakenness of death, and still save us from all those things. What they said is exactly what Jesus had already told his disciples, “I’m here to lose myself, for the sake of saving others.” His appointed hour on the cross was the ultimate act of service, and without it, he could not save others. Jesus chose it—to be the servant of all for greatness in God’s kingdom. (See Hebrews 12:2 and Phil 2:5-10). He followed through on his word.  Before his death, the words he said in Matthew were a rebuke. Afterward, they were a revelation. Before they were given as an example. After, they become empowerment.

Being the servant of all is impossible, until we are empowered by the life of Jesus, given his heart for the nations, his eyes for the lost, his spirit within, crying “Abba Father.” We cannot bargain, manipulate or maneuver our way into His kingdom. We come through the gate of His service, his suffering, his ransom payment.  And once we do, we are empowered to live in exactly the same way. Greatness in God’s kingdom is a reality now, borne in every act of service empowered by the Spirit of the living Christ within.

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