Serve One Another

Matthew 20:20-28; Romans 16

February 16, 2003 | Brian Bill

Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 20:20-28.  We’re going to go through this quickly because I want us to also spend some time in Romans 16.  The setting is about a week before the crucifixion and Jesus and his disciples are walking toward Jerusalem.  As Jesus is preparing them for his bloody death, two of his top men are angling for the best seats in the coming kingdom.  The pictures that emerge here are strikingly similar to the photos in our own spiritual scrapbooks.  

Snapshots of Selfishness

1. We want first place (20-21).

The mother of James and John is trying to get her sons the best spots in Christ’s cabinet in verse 21: “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”  According to the parallel passage in Mark 10, these boys were not just waiting for mom to make her move.   They were positioning themselves all on their own.  If we could see a shot of their faces, they’d be filled with pride and selfishness because they were interested in glory, position and rank.  They wanted to be the closest to Jesus and higher than anyone else.

The basic problem is that James and John underestimated the cost of following Christ and they overestimated their own importance.  Notice that they didn’t ask for work in the coming kingdom (which would have been a nobler request).  Instead, they just wanted a place of honor.  They were banking on their seniority because they had been with Jesus longer than anyone except Peter!  And they probably thought the Kingdom was coming soon so they wanted to get their applications in early.  To use a phrase from the college admissions process, they wanted “early acceptance.”

2. God chooses our place (22-23). 

In verse 22, Jesus told them they didn’t know what they were asking.  It’s been reported that Muhammad Ali was on a plane once when he was the heavyweight champion of the world and the flight attendant asked him to buckle his seat belt.  He looked at her smugly and said, “Superman don’t need no seat-belt.” She quickly answered, “Superman don’t need no airplane either.”

It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t turn the daring disciples down and He doesn’t put them down.  He doesn’t rebuff or rebuke them.  Instead, He just raises the bar.  He then told them that only His Father is in charge of figuring out positions and rewards in verse 23: “…To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.  These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

3. We like to put others in their place (24).

In verse 24 we see that selfishness always results in dissension: “When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.”  To “be indignant” means to “be greatly afflicted.”  They were really ticked off that these brown-nosing brothers were trying to take the top spots and they weren’t going to give them up without a fight.  The attitude of the ten was not any better than that of the two.  The entire dozen had it all backwards.

Competition was unraveling the unity that had been built up over three years and was distorting the reality of what Jesus taught.  When we think only of ourselves, community breaks down and is replaced with division and backbiting.  That’s why one of the best things we can do as a church is to serve one another.  A church that serves together stays together.

4. Servants strive for last place (25-27).

I love what our Savior 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 and then gives a lesson in how differently things are to run in His kingdom.  He doesn’t condemn them but instead uses their bickering as a “teachable moment.”  There is a sharp contrast between the servanthood system of the Savior and the world structure in which they lived: “…You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.”  

Verse 26 begins with a rebuke as Jesus refocuses them: “Not so with you…”  A true believer will not behave 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.”  It was counter-cultural and radical for Jesus to define greatness in terms of servanthood because slaves were considered to be socially inferior.  

If the disciples wanted to be leaders in His kingdom, they first had to become slaves of the Savior

In saying what he did, Jesus offers a complete rejection of the world’s way of doing business.  Instead of slamming people, we serve them.  The Greek word used here refers to a maid or a house servant.  Jesus deliberately chose a very lowly word to impress upon his men that being a servant was a very humbling occupation.  If the disciples wanted to be leaders in His kingdom, they first had to become slaves of the Savior.  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.  

5. Jesus took our place (28). 

Verse 28 summarizes the essence of Christianity: “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.”  It’s a thrilling truth that Jesus is our servant.  The Lord of glory came to serve us so that we might serve one another.  He is both our model and our motivation.  Jesus doesn’t answer the original question asked by the mother of James and John.  Instead he focuses on the process of getting to a place of influence.

The picture that should come to our minds is of Jesus on his knees with his hands gently scrubbing dirt and dust from stinky feet.  Jesus is revealing that servanthood is in fact the responsibility of those who follow Him in 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.”

The final phrase of verse 28 brings us to the very heart of the gospel.  Jesus came for two reasons.  He came to serve and He came to be our sacrifice.  Christ gave “his life a ransom for many.” The word ransom refers to the price paid to redeem a slave or a prisoner.  It speaks of our lost condition and bondage to sin.  God’s divine justice was satisfied and now our punishment can be averted because of what Jesus did for us.

Jesus is looking at His place on the cross, James and John are consumed with being in first place, and the ten want them put in their place.  Because God chooses our place, and since Jesus took our place, let’s lunge for last place as we serve one another.

D.L. Moody once said, “The measure of a man is not how many servants he has, but how many men he serves.”  To be a servant means to give yourself completely to another’s will.  Galatians 5:13: “You, my brothers, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”  This is a remarkable paradox.  We’re free and yet we’re slaves.  Christian freedom is a form of slavery.  Listen carefully.  We’re free in relation to God because Jesus took our place, but we’re slaves in relation to each other.

Its not easy becoming slaves to one another when we’re so full of self, is it?  If we’re not vigilant, instead of celebrating servanthood, we can very easily end up substituting selfishness.  Because Jesus freed us from sin, we can break out of our self-oriented mode and experience the fulfillment that comes to those who strengthen their servanthood.  We’re not to use people as if they were things to serve us; we’re to respect them as persons to serve.  As one commentator put it: “We’re not to be one master with a lot of slaves, but to be one poor slave with a lot of masters.”

Snapshots of Servanthood

Please turn to Romans 16.  At first glance this chapter seems to be of little value to us because it contains a long list of names that have long since been forgotten.  Sure, they were important to Paul, but what benefit is there to us?  As we look at some of these individuals, it’s like we’re viewing Paul’s photo album.  These pictures represent ordinary people who have substituted selfishness with servanthood.  These servant snapshots will motivate and mobilize us to deeper devotion and stronger serving.

As we come to the end of what is arguably the most important letter ever written, doesn’t it seem a bit odd that Paul’s theological masterpiece would conclude with greetings to people like Aristobulus and Rufus?  I’d like to suggest some reasons why such lists appear here and elsewhere in the Bible:

  • Relationships and doctrine are important.  In fact, properly understood, theology is always fleshed out in the context of relationships.
  • We are saved to serve.  Interestingly, the Book of Romans goes out of its way to emphasize grace over works.  And yet, in this final chapter we see a list of hard workers.  Grace should always lead to good works.  
  • People mattered to Paul.  Throughout the New Testament, we see Paul functioning as a team member, as a mentor, and as a friend to many.  Amazingly, Paul had these close friendships and had not yet been to Rome! 
  • God cares about people and knows each of us by name.  Isn’t that comforting?  God knows everything about you, including your name, and He still loves you.
  • We should get to know people’s names.  Paul lists 36 names in a chapter of only 27 verses.  One of the best gifts we can give to someone is to learn their name and use it often.  I work at this but mess up each week.  This past Sunday I called someone by the wrong name and she graciously told me I could use that name if I wanted to!  I appreciate the grace and will work harder on this in the future.
  • We must recognize acts of servanthood.  Many of these names have “action captions” that go with them.  Paul loved to commend Christians for what they did in the name of Christ.  In verse 3, Priscilla and Aquila “risked their lives…all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.” I’m glad we could celebrate the student ministry last week and we’re going to give some attention to our small group ministry next Sunday.  Sometimes the best way to recognize servants is by sending them a letter or email or by promoting them in front of others.
  • The church is meant to be diverse.  This list contains names of women and men, singles and married, slaves and officials.  Some are old and some are young.  God’s people have always been spread across different socio-economic levels and come from many varied professions.  As people serve in their area of influence, the entire world will be touched with the gospel message.  That was already taking place as we read in Romans 1:8: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.”
  • Value unity within the community of faith.  Paul was not territorial by any means.  In fact, many of the people he greeted in Rome were from different house churches.  Last Sunday afternoon we used the First Baptist Church to baptize 15 people.  I met someone after the service from First Baptist and thanked her for letting us use her church.  She smiled and said, “Oh, this is not our church, it’s God’s church.”  Right on.
  • When we greet people we’re acknowledging their worth.  Paul uses the word “greet” 17 times in this chapter.  In the Greek, this phrase means to salute someone, or to “enfold in the arms.”  Paul sets a good standard for us here.  We must look for ways to get to know others and then embrace them.  That’s what’s behind the phrase in verse 16: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  Let’s reach out and extend generous greetings to people.  Let’s commend accomplishments and let’s express appropriate affection.  

Instead of listing all of the names in this chapter, I want to focus on three categories in Paul’s servanthood scrapbook.

1. Wonderful women. 

It’s very significant that fully one-third of the greetings listed involve women.  While some have accused Paul of being a chauvinist, he in fact was a champion of women and elevated them more than his culture did.  The two most prominent in this list are Phoebe and Priscilla.  

Scholars believe that it was Phoebe who carried the letter to the Romans from Corinth, where Paul wrote it.  Look at verse 1: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea.”  To “commend” means that Paul is standing beside her, lending his reputation to her.  Phoebe, which means “bright”, is referred to as a sister and a servant.  In verse 2, Paul says that she has been a “great help to many people, including me.”   The word “help” can be translated “patron.”  Some scholars believe that she was a woman of some financial means and used her resources to subsidize Paul’s ministry, much like Lydia did in Acts 16.

Priscilla is mentioned in verse 3 along with her husband Aquila.  In the majority of the times that their names appear together in the New Testament, Priscilla’s name comes first.  It was very unusual for a writer to mention a wife before her husband, so it probably indicates that she was the more gifted of the two.  In verse 6, Paul greets “Mary, who worked very hard for you.”  This phrase means that she worked to the point of fatigue.

In verse 12, we’re introduced to three other women who were fully devoted to Christ and His cause: “Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord.  Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord.” Paul must have written this verse with a smile on his face because Tryphena and Tryphosa were likely twin sisters, whose names meant “dainty” and “delicate.”  Some commentators suggest that they were women from the upper class aristocracy.  While they may not have had to work for their livelihood, they laid themselves out for the kingdom.  In verse 13, we see a picture of the mother of Rufus, who had been like a mother to Paul.  

My dear sisters in Christ, you are valuable in the kingdom of God!  You are not second-class citizens.  Thank you for working hard.  Thank you for using your influence to make an impact.  We salute you this morning and applaud your contributions.  Men, let’s stand and give them a hand.

2. Single-minded singles. 

Along with Phoebe in verse 1, this list contains a number of people who are single.  While we’re not certain if Epenetus in verse 5 was single or not, Paul mentions him as the very first convert in the province of Asia.  Can you remember the first person you led to the Lord?  Paul would never forget this young man.

In verse 14, we read: “Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brothers with them.” These men all had Greek names and were probably businessmen living in Rome.  They shared the same apartment and likely used their residence as a meeting place for one of the house churches.  In verse 15, we see another singles’ group: “Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them.”

If you are single, you are not somehow inferior or incomplete.  Please forgive us as a church for putting pressure on you to find a spouse.  Jesus was single.  Mary, Martha and Lazarus were single.  And Paul himself was single.  We need to do a better job of celebrating singleness in the church today.  

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul argues that since the time is short, we should strive for single-minded service.  In verse 32, he says: “I would like you to be free from concern.  An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs-how he can please the Lord.”  In verse 34, he writes that an unmarried woman can “be devoted to the Lord in body and spirit.”

3. Courageous couples. 

While Paul shines the spotlight on singles, he greatly benefited from the ministry of some courageous couples.  According to verse 3, Priscilla and Aquila were “fellow workers in Christ Jesus.”  In verse 4, Paul is indebted to them because “they risked their lives for me.”  The Book of Acts tells us that they were tentmakers who were discipled by Paul for about two years.  After Paul poured his life into them, they mentored a brilliant scholar named Apollos, helping him come to a full understanding of his faith.

Another courageous couple is mentioned in verse 7: “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me.  They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”  These relatives of Paul were willing to go to prison with him because they were sold-out servants.  They had come to Christ before Paul did and had no doubt spent countless hours praying for their relative to embrace the Redeemer.  I wonder what Paul thought of these family members before he became a Christian?  When we’re first introduced to him in Acts, he was killing Christians.  Some of you have been the first to come to Christ in your family and you’re praying for your relatives.  Don’t give up!  Keep interceding, serving, and witnessing.

You have been brought together to serve side-by-side, not just for your own enjoyment but also for the benefit of others

Let me say something to those of you who are married.  God has brought you together, not just so you can give cards to each other on Valentine’s Day (which I hope you did), but also so that you can minister in tandem.  Adam and Eve were not to just mirror God’s image, or mutually complement each other, or even to just multiply, they had some work to do.  God told them in Genesis 2:15 to work the garden and take care of it.  You have been brought together to serve side-by-side, not just for your own enjoyment but also for the benefit of others. 

Someone has said that there is no higher level of human sharing than that between a man and a woman, united in love and marriage, fulfilling an assignment that’s been handed them by God.

Did you know that today has been designated as Covenant Marriage Sunday?  This movement’s goal is to have 50,000 congregations around the world corporately affirm marriage as a covenant relationship.  I’d like every married couple here this morning to consider making this vow: 

“Believing that marriage is a covenant intended by God to be a lifelong fruitful relationship between a man and a woman, we vow to God, each other, our families, and our community to remain steadfast in unconditional love, reconciliation, and sexual purity, while purposefully growing in our covenant marriage relationship.”  

If you’re ready and willing to make this public commitment, will you please stand with me as we recite this together?

Whether you are a woman or a man, a student or a senior, single or married, God wants you to be a sold-out servant.  I hope you find some encouragement from these snapshots of servanthood and that you will be vigilant about not slipping into selfishness.  

God is still taking pictures today.  When the camera zooms in on you, will it be a snapshot of selfishness or one of servanthood? 

Action Steps

Let me leave you with four steps to servanthood.

1. View yourself like a slave.

Here are some good questions to ask:

  • How do you respond when no one acknowledges what you did?
  • How do you react when others take your service for granted?
  • How do you feel when someone criticizes something you did for them?
  • What if the service you’re being asked to do is something inconvenient or unpleasant?

2. Treat others as your master.

3. Get to know people and remember their names. 

4. Look for ways to meet their needs.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?