“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” Mark 10:42−44
Jesus’ astonishing words come right after James and John request to have the highest and best seats in Jesus’ kingdom. They believed Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and that he would soon be ushering in his Kingdom (despite their dullness, they did get a couple of things right), and they wanted front row seats when the action started. The rest of disciples take exception to this, of course, but not because they thought James and John were wrong. Considering they had just been arguing over who was the greatest (Mark 9:33−34), they were probably upset that they had not thought to ask Jesus for these seats as well.
It is clear from this discussion between Jesus and his disciples that the first-century view of greatness was not unlike our own culture’s view of greatness; both then and now, one’s “greatness” is measured by how he is served and by how much others can do for him. Jesus, however, turns this false notion of greatness on its head.
Instead of telling them not to seek greatness, Jesus redefines what it means to be great.
Instead of telling them not to pursue the highest and best seat in the Kingdom, Jesus lets them know where that seat is.
Jesus tells us how to obtain greatness in his Kingdom, and it runs completely contrary to our worldly understanding of greatness. If a man wants to be great in God’s eyes, then he must become a servant.
Characteristics of Service
So what does it look like for a man to be a servant? Here are a couple of characteristics of service a man must cultivate.
1. Service Is a Mentality
External displays of service alone are insufficient for the high calling of a servant. A man who outwardly serves yet inwardly despises either the service he is performing or the person whom he is serving ultimately dishonors the Lord. A man’s heart must correspond with his deeds. Service is a mentality.
Take a look at these verses:
“Whatever you do, work from your soul as unto the Lord and not for men . . . you are serving the Lord Christ.” – Colossians 3:23−24b
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” – 1 Corinthians 10:31
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.” – Philippians 2:5−7a (emphasis added)
God is concerned not only about your actions but also about the motivation behind them. All our actions must be oriented towards God’s glory, which is manifested in our love for Him and for our neighbor.
Ultimately, the mindset of service is marked by preference for the other person. Paul sums this up really well: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” – Philippians 2:3−4
Greatness is best seen when a man desires the glory of God and of his brother over his own.
2. Service Is a Discipline
The term “servant” in Mark 10:44 is the same word for “deacon” in the New Testament, which, according to Acts 6, describes those in the church charged with overseeing the more common, everyday activities of the church. The term “slave” in the same passage refers to a bondservant with household and administrative responsibilities for their master. Neither of these terms is inherently glamorous. Both involve performing practical, everyday tasks.
What this means is that the common man has with every common act of service an opportunity for greatness. Sweeping the floor, cleaning the bathrooms, taking out the trash, and washing the dishes are all activities that, when done with the right heart and motivation, are beautiful acts of worship whose fragrance reaches the heavens.
I must admit that, at times, it is the small, seemingly insignificant activities that wear me down because I see no immediate reward in the work. But this is exactly why service must be a discipline. Jesus calls a man to be a servant, which implies a lifestyle and not merely his actions. Therefore, in order to maintain such a lifestyle, we must always be reminding ourselves and each other why we serve and the great reward that awaits us for every act of service done in the name of Christ.
3. Some Categories of Service
The various opportunities to serve are too numerous to try to list out in one article, but here are a few categories to think through.
PRAYER: The best act of service you could ever provide for your brother is to pray for him. Prayer is probably the most overlooked ministry, yet it is the most powerful. What better service and gift could you give your brother than to go before the King on his behalf and ask the God of the universe to do wonders in and through his life?
EVERYDAY ACTS OF SERVICE: The small and seemingly insignificant acts of kindness are always significant, for they bless God and bless our neighbor. There are numerous ways you can use your time, abilities, and energy to help someone during your everyday activities. Whether it is cutting the grass for your neighbor or washing the dishes for your wife, the opportunity to serve is always there.
PROCLAMATION OF THE GOSPEL: The proclamation of the Gospel is a ministry every man needs to perform and receive. Men must speak the truth of the Gospel into each others’ lives in times of celebration or in times of suffering. We bear each others’ burdens not only physically but also spiritually.
This is just a start, but if a man continually cultivates a mentality of service, then there will be no activity, no matter how small, that cannot be turned into a beautiful sacrificial act of love towards God and his neighbor.
An Example of Greatness
One of my favorite stories in church history is about a pope in the sixth century named Gregory the Great. Gregory was the first monk ever to become a pope. He lived to serve the poor of Rome and Constantinople. He was eventually elected pope, largely because of the widespread respect for his great administrative skills (although it took some convincing—he was literally forced into the position). Even though he held the most elevated position within the church at the time, he refused any grandiose titles. Instead, he preferred to be called “The Servant to the Servants of the Most High.” He lived to serve others. It wasn’t until after he died that he was referred to as “Gregory the Great,” a title which he likely would have refused during his lifetime.
Sadly, I believe most of our examples of greatness are not men who display service and humility. We are always looking at the men who have the biggest churches, the most Twitter followers, and the greatest amount of success in the eyes of the world. All around us, however, there are examples of true greatness, servants who constantly and daily put others before themselves, and it is this type of greatness we should be seeking and encouraging. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right in his assessment: “The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren.”1
This call to greatness through service is counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and counter-self. When we seek a worldly, finite, selfish kind of greatness, we demonstrate that we don’t really believe in Jesus’ standard of greatness. If we want to move upward in Jesus’ kingdom, then we must move downward to serve others, to “wash their feet” as Jesus did. Jesus not only taught greatness through service, but he also modeled it, for he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). If we want to be great like Jesus, then we must believe in him and follow his example.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 109.
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