Becoming A Servant

Matthew 20:20-28; John 13:1-17

April 14, 2002 | Brian Bill

What do you call a chicken crossing the road?

  • Poultry in motion.

What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t work?

  • A stick.

What do you call four bullfighters in quicksand?

  • Quatro sinko.

Where do you find a dog with no legs?

  • Right where you left him.

What do you call cheese that isn’t yours?

  • Nacho cheese.

What do you call a man who falls into an upholstery machine?

  • Fully recovered.

What do you call a Christian who isn’t serving?

  • A contradiction.
In order to improve our serve we must seek the Savior and follow the model of the Master

This morning we’re beginning a new series called, “Improving Your Serve.”  I’m making an assumption that while this church is saturated with servants, each of us can ratchet up our servanthood quotient.  As we’ll discover in our text today, our default setting is selfishness, not other-centeredness.  In order to improve our serve we must seek the Savior and follow the model of the Master.

Let me summarize our six strategic IMPACT statements.  If someone asks you to describe the values and mission of this churchyou can tell them that we are seeking to fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission by:

  • Instructing in God’s Word
  • Mobilizing for ministry
  • Praying with faith
  • Adoring God in worship
  • Caring for one another
  • Telling others the gospel

4 Ways to Become a Servant

Please turn in your Bible to Matthew 20.  We’re going to walk through this passage in order to learn four ways to become better servants.   Let’s set the context.  In the first part of chapter 20, Jesus told a parable about some laborers who were hired to work in a vineyard.  The landowner decided to pay everyone the same wage, regardless of how long they worked in the fields.  Those who were hired first started to complain because they didn’t think it was fair.  Jesus concluded his teaching by saying in verse 16: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Verse 19 tells us that as Jesus was headed to Jerusalem to face suffering and death, He took the disciples aside and told them that He would be “mocked and flogged and crucified.  On the third day He will be raised to life.”  

As we come to our text today, we’ll see that we’re really a lot like those first followers.  

1. Check your motives. 

When we look at verses 20-21, we see that our motives can get all mixed up.  In contrast to this announcement from the suffering servant we read that the mother of James and John came to Jesus with her sons, “and kneeling down, asked a favor of Him.”  This mother’s name was Salome, who was likely the aunt of Jesus.  When we compare this account with Mark’s version, James and John are eager to have their mom go to bat for them.  Maybe they knew that they’d have a better chance with Jesus if she made the request for them.

The phrase “kneeling down” is an act of homage or reverence.  Some translations use the word “worship.”  Salome is following a very common protocol.  First, she respects and honors Jesus and then asks a favor of Him.  She begins with a general request and then is ready with her answer when Jesus asks, “What is it you want?”  She responds by saying, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”  

Now, before we get too tough on Salome, Jesus did say in Matthew 19:28 that “at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”  She got that part right but her methods were clouded because her motives were mixed up.  While it’s perfectly understandable that a mother would want the best for her boys, she passed right over Matthew 19:30: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” and Matthew 20:16: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Warren Wiersbe comments, “Jesus spoke about a cross, but they were interested in a crown.” 

It’s really easy for our motives to get out of whack.  James and John were interested in glory, position and rank.  They wanted to be the closest to Jesus and they wanted to be higher than anyone else.  And their mother desired the best for them.  The name “Salome” means clothing or clothed.  And clothing, like motives, can be good or bad.  Our clothes can be used to protect and shield or they can conceal or hide.  She came in worship but she also secretly wanted something.  She bowed but also begged.  She knelt down and asked a favor.  All three of them wanted their will done in their way.

If we want to improve our serve, we must first learn to check our motives.  Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to have pure motivation?  My motives are often misaligned, even when I try to keep them straight.  I can remember the few times I helped out in the Family Life Center.  I sincerely wanted to lend a hand but I also wanted people to know I was helping.  My telling you this morning probably has an element of mixed motives in it.  Even though I’m confessing my duplicity, my motive in telling you is probably to make you think better of me than I really am.  

As best we can, we really need to get our reason for serving straightened out.  It is the Lord God we serve.  Don’t serve to impress others or to try to gain favor with God.  Even the Apostle Paul struggled with this in 1 Corinthians 4:4-5: “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.  It is the Lord who judges me.  Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes.  He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.  At that time each will receive his praise from God.”

When faced with this mother’s mixed up motives, Jesus asks a question to reveal what she was thinking: “What is it you want?”   A truthful answer to this same question can help you and I in our serving as well.  “What is it you want?”  “Why are you doing this?”  “Who are you serving?”  “Who do you want to impress?”

2. Expect difficulty. 

After Salome boldly makes her request, Jesus responds rather bluntly: “You don’t know what you are asking.  Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”  Jesus is really saying, “You don’t have a clue what you’re asking.”  The word “cup” was a symbol of suffering or affliction.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed in Matthew 26:39: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will.” In John 18:11, Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword away!  Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” 

Interestingly, both James and John answer this pointed question with complete confidence by saying, “We can.”  I think they were a little too eager in their response.   Jesus reinforces this when he says in verse 23: “You will indeed drink from my cup…”  They wanted glory but Jesus tells them to get ready for some grief.

While we don’t always know in advance how much we’re going to suffer, we do know that if we’re serious about following Christ and serving Him wholeheartedly, we will face difficulty.  Philippians 1:29: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”  James didn’t suffer long but he lost his life as the first of the twelve to be martyred (Acts 12:2).  John lived to be about 95 but his life was filled with difficulty, culminating with his banishment to the island of Patmos.  Revelation 1:9: “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”

Friend, if you’re serious about serving, then get ready to suffer.  You might be taken home early like James was or you may battle a long time like John did.  To “drink of the cup” has reference not only to suffering, but refers to remaining faithful to the end.  This phrase was understood to mean to drain the entire cup until it was emptied.  While you can’t beat kingdom service, it will not always be easy.  If you’re serving in a ministry right now, chances are that you’ve already experienced some difficulty.  If you haven’t yet, you will.  We’ve done a disservice by promising that the Christian life will be trouble-free and by promoting ministry as simple and a piece of cake.  It will cost you to serve Christ!  Are you willing to pay the price?  

Ministry is often a struggle but it is worth it!  If you sense yourself wanting to pull back or find yourself wondering if your ministry matters, allow the words of 1 Corinthians 15:58 to encourage you: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

3. Put others first. 

After checking our motives and expecting difficulty, the third route to becoming a servant is to put others first.  In case you’re wondering how the other ten felt when they saw that James and John were trying to grab the power positions, look at verse 24: “When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.”  

This word “indignant” means, “to be greatly afflicted.”  They were really mad that these two were using a relative of Jesus to get special treatment and they weren’t going to give up the top spots without a fight.  They weren’t appalled by the brothers’ lack of understanding of true servanthood; they were mad that these two got to Jesus first.  The spiritual attitude of the ten was not any better than that of the two.  Have you ever noticed how easy it is to be angry at the sin we see in others, while we indulge in the same ones ourselves?  Why is it that we condemn in others what we excuse in our own lives?

When we think only of ourselves, community breaks down and unity is replaced with division and backbiting

Here we see that selfishness always results in dissension.  When we think only of ourselves, community breaks down and unity is replaced with division and backbiting.  That’s why one of the best things we can do as a church is to serve together.  A church that serves together stays together.

I love what Jesus does next in the first part of verse 25: “Jesus called them together…”  That’s exactly what needs to happen when there is tension and strife.  We need to come together.  When Jesus calls them to Himself He does so with tenderness and familiarity.  Later on, when looking out over Jerusalem, Jesus said in Matthew 23:37: “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”  Jesus is gathering his children together, holding them close like a hen under her wings.  I picture Him calling a huddle and saying something like this, “Guys, please come here.  Let’s form a tight circle.  Get a little closer so you can hear what I’m about to say.” 

He knows their default systems are set on selfishness and so he calls them together.  He doesn’t take the two brothers aside and blast away, nor does he slam the ten for being indignant.  He brings them back to community and then gives them a lesson in how differently things are to run in His kingdom.  There is a sharp contrast between the servanthood philosophy of the Savior and the world system in which they lived: “…You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.”  The world’s way teaches that we should spend all our energy to get to the top and then when we get there we can boss others around.  

The disciples knew the Gentile model of authority very well.  History was filled with tyrannical kings and brutal provincial agents who showed little regard for the Jewish people.  When Jesus reminded them that seeking power was a “Gentile” or “pagan” practice, He was in essence telling them they should not operate this way.  Rabbis often used Gentile illustrations as negative examples.

Verse 26 begins with a rebuke as Jesus reframes their understanding: “Not so with you…”  A Christ-follower must not operate this way.  The meaning here is: “It shall not be,” or “It must not be.”  In the family of God there is only one category of people: servants.  Notice the rest of this verse and verse 27: “…Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”  This was a counter-cultural and radical teaching for Jesus to define greatness in terms of servanthood because slaves were considered to be socially inferior.  Even the few masters who believed that slaves were theoretical equals would not go as far as Jesus did when He inverted the role of master and servant.  

If the disciples wanted to be leaders in His kingdom, they first had to become servants.  What is a servant?  It’s someone whose heart is intent upon, and whose will is bound to, the will and wishes of another.  If I am your servant, then what you say goes.  You have the last word.  

One of the best biblical images of this single-minded resolve to put others first is found in Psalm 123:2: “As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God.”  When the master moves his finger in command, the servant simply obeys.  A true servant is one who has learned to subdue the defiant autonomy of self and to subject the will to the wishes of another.  What God says goes.  When God says, “Jump,” we should say, “How high?”

Here’s the principle: If we want to become truly great then we must give up personal rights and serve others.  We need to be repeatedly reminded that our central ambition should be to minister to people, not to be admired by them.

Have you ever noticed how a conversation with Jesus usually doesn’t turn out the way we thought it would before it began?  We have so many things that need to be changed in our lives because we’re more wowed by the world than most of us care to admit.  

God’s ways are very different than our ways.  Here are a few contrasts just from the Book of Matthew:

  • To gain your life, you must lose it (Matthew 16:25)
  • To experience eternal life, you must have the faith of a child (Matthew 18:3)
  • To receive, you must first give (Matthew 19:21)
  • To be great, you must be a servant (Matthew 20:26)

4. Follow the example of Jesus. 

Jesus does not just shake up our self-centered motives and tell us to expect difficulties.  He also challenges us to put others first.  And, in case we’re wondering how to do this, He offers Himself as the perfect role model.  Look at verse 28: “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  This verse has been rightly regarded as one of the most precious of Christ’s sayings.  Jesus is both our example and our motivation.

He wasn’t focused on keeping His position and getting more.  In fact, according to Philippians 2:3-7, Jesus left His throne in order to serve us: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”  He served the needs of others and then demonstrated the ultimate act of servanthood when He gave His life as payment for our sins, so that we can be set free.  The true standard of greatness is the Savior’s pattern of self-sacrifice.

Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, who died recently, once appeared on the cover of their annual report dressed in a knee-length work apron holding a mop and a plastic bucket.  Here’s how he described that picture: “I got my M.B.A. long before my G.E.D.  At Wendy’s M.B.A. does not mean Master of Business Administration.  It means Mop Bucket Attitude.”  Dave Thomas got his M.B.A. from following the model of the Master.

Bucket Theology

Friend, do you have a bucket theology?  Do you remember what Pilate did when he had a chance to acquit Jesus?  He called for a bucket and washed his hands of the whole thing.  Matthew 27:24: “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’” But Jesus, the night before His death, called for a bucket and proceeded to wash the dirty and dusty feet of His disciples.  It all comes down to bucket theology.  Which one will you use?

Pilate’s paradigm is alive and well today.  He knew what he should have done but he took the easy way out.  He passed on to others the responsibility that should have been his.  Many people today pass the buck and wash their hands clean of everything they can.  

Maybe it’s because we think Somebody Else will do it.

There’s a clever young guy named Somebody Else,

There’s nothing this guy can’t do.

He is busy from morning till way late at night,

Just substituting for you.

You’re asked to do this or you’re asked to do that

And what is your reply?

Get Somebody Else to do that job,

He’ll do it much better than I.

So much to do in this weary old world

So much and workers so few,

And Somebody Else, all weary and worn,

Is still substituting for you.

Far too many have been content to let Somebody Else do the work.  The problem with this is that there aren’t that many Somebody Elses out there.  And those there are have grown weary and tired.  Pilate’s bucket is the wrong choice.  It leads to death and destruction.  But there is another choice.

In John 13:4-5 we see that Jesus and His disciples are sharing the Passover meal together when Jesus “got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”  Peter didn’t like that Jesus, as the guest of honor, was doing this.  Have you ever stopped and wondered why Peter was so upset that Jesus was washing their smelly feet?  It was because Peter knew it wasn’t His responsibility.  Washing feet was the job of the lowest of all slaves.  This was unheard of!  Jesus was their teacher.  If anything, they should be washing His feet!

Roads in Jerusalem were covered with a thick layer of dust.  When it rained, they turned to liquid slush.  It was the custom for the host to provide a slave at the door of his home to wash the feet of dinner guests as they arrived.  The servant would kneel with a bucket of water and a towel and scrub off the manure and mud from foul feet.  If a home could not afford a slave, one of the early arriving guests was to take upon himself the role of the house servant and wash feet.  It’s interesting that none of the disciples had volunteered for the job!  Chuck Swindoll writes, “The room was filled with proud hearts and dirty feet.  The disciples were willing to fight for a throne, but not a towel.”  (Improving Your Serve, Page 164).

Listen.  Jesus is revealing that servanthood is in fact the responsibility of those who follow Him.  John 13:14-15: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  Does this mean that foot washing is supposed to be a church ordinance today?  I don’t have time to go into this now but I do want to say that this is a reenactment of heaven emptying itself for the sake of earth.  At the very minimum Jesus is showing us that if the Son of God could humble Himself and serve, then we must do the same.  

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.  And we must do likewise.  Like the disciples, we are often filled with a worldly spirit of criticism and competition as we try to position ourselves in the best light and maneuver things for our own gain.  We desperately need this lesson in humility.

Obedience means personal involvement.  We can’t serve from a distance but must get close enough to get our hands dirty.  If we’re going to serve like Christ served, then we must learn to see others as He sees them.  In John 13:17, Jesus tells us that if we do these things, we will be blessed.  In the final analysis, happiness comes from doing the things that a servant does – managing our motives, getting ready for difficulties, putting others first, and following the example of Christ.

Peter never forgot this image of Jesus taking off His outer garments and replacing them with a towel to do the work of a slave.  These outer garments represented His position as the great I AM, the King of King and Lord of Lords, but He willingly laid them aside in order to serve.  This greatly impacted Peter when He wrote in 1 Peter 5:5: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”  D.L. Moody once said, “We may easily be too big for God to use, but never too small.”  Proud Peter had learned his lesson.

Pilate uses his bucket to avoid his rightful responsibility.  Jesus used His bucket to take on responsibility which most would say was not His in the first place.  If we call ourselves Christ followers then we shouldn’t be looking for ways to wash our hands but instead we should be getting them dirty.

What Are You Waiting For?

After lightning struck on old shed, a farmer was relieved because now he didn’t have to tear it down.  The rain cleaned off his car and that saved him from having to wash it.  When asked what he was doing now, he replied, “I’m waiting for an earthquake to shake the potatoes out of the ground.”

If we want to become servants, we can’t just wait for something to happen.  Jesus said we’re blessed when we do something.  Let me give you four action steps.

  1. Serve whenever you can.
  2. Serve wherever you can.
  3. Serve whoever is in need.
  4. Be willing to do whatever it takes.

Next week we’ll focus on how God has uniquely gifted each one of us so that we can serve in ways that are a perfect match for who we are.

I want to close with some helpful words from Richard Foster in his book called, “The Celebration of Discipline.”

Self-righteous service comes through human effort.  True service comes from the whispered promptings of Christ.

Self-righteous service is impressed with the big deal.  True service finds it almost impossible to distinguish the small from the large.

Self-righteous service requires external rewards.  True service rests in hiddenness.

Self-righteous service picks and chooses whom to serve.  True service is indiscriminate in its ministry.

Self-righteous service is affected by moods and whims.  True service ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need.

Self-righteous service is temporary.  True service is a lifestyle.

Self-righteous service fractures community.  True service builds community.  

Letters from the close of the 18th Century often ended with this standard description of service: “I am, with due respect, your obedient, humble servant.”  But over time this closing shriveled into a mere formality: “Sincerely yours.”  

Friends, let’s close this service and live our lives as obedient and humble servants.  Don’t be a contradiction.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?