Spiritual Discipline Series
This year, Expository Files will features 12 articles on Spiritual Disciplines For Every Christian. Our writers will convey to us from the Bible, the simple disciplines that need our attention, to please God and be effective, disciplined people.
The Discipline of Serving
Over the last six years the television show Downton Abbey gave viewers a close look at a bygone era. It was a view of British life and history that many people, especially Americans, know little about. The show (that did not always represent godliness and righteousness, by any means) detailed the lives of an aristocratic family and their servants. The Grantham family lived in a huge manor house on a huge estate. It all required the care of numerous servants to keep everything in order and running properly. The television show cleverly wove together the lives of those who were upstairs (the rich family) and those downstairs (the servants).
It would be impossible to endorse everything about Downton Abbey. It was quite the “soap opera” at times, and overly dramatic nearly all of the time. What stood out, however, to this writer was the care and pride the servants took in serving. The butlers, house maids, valets and cooks in the Grantham household spoke with pride about being “in service” and saw their work as meaningful and honorable. They were glad to serve.
Focus on that last sentence: glad to serve. What is the common attitude toward serving in America? Serving is something we pay others to do for us. We do not want to serve and certainly are not glad to do so. We do not see serving as honorable. Instead many of us may see it as beneath us. Some relegate service to the realm of the uneducated or unskilled. Such attitudes have made it difficult for some service companies - like maid and cleaning services - to hire enough employees. We don’t want to serve, even if we will be paid to do so.
In contrast, the New Testament never views serving “beneath us.” Instead the idea of being glad to serve is embodied in Jesus Christ. He announces His mission in those terms: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This may not be the verse that defeats today’s militant atheism but think about it: if a person had contrived the story of Jesus wouldn’t the story be how the Christ was served by everyone? That tale would have Jesus being waited on, driven about in a fine chariot, with His followers fanning Him and waiting on his every need. He would be served. A humanly devised Jesus would never be a servant.
Yet the very “upside down” nature of Jesus’ mission proves it could only be from God. No one would make up a story like this. God comes and serves us? God is glad to serve, not be served? The humility and care and love that this demonstrates must be our model for learning the discipline of service today. There are many examples of Jesus serving in the Gospels but perhaps no passage can teach us what it means to have the heart of a servant, to be glad to serve, like John 13. There Jesus serves in an incredible way that helps us develop the biblical attitude toward serving.
The setting is the Last Supper. It is the final chance for Jesus to teach His disciples before the crucifixion. Jesus does not have the luxury of time in this setting. The Lord’s Supper needs to be instituted and Jesus needs to discuss a number of crucial subjects before heading to the Garden to pray. Do not forget that Jesus knows Judas is heading to Gethsemane as well. Thus, Jesus is under real time pressure at the Supper because if Jesus stays too long here then He will not get to pray before Judas arrives with the soldiers to arrest Him.
Despite the shortage of time Jesus still elects to use a considerable amount of time in an act of service. Washing twelve men’s feet is a big job. Yet Jesus thought this was time well spent. He saw this as an important teaching moment for His disciples (see vv. 13-17). Like us, they needed to learn the essence of serving. They needed to learn to be glad to serve. Usually a slave would do the lowly and menial task of foot washing. Yet no slave had done so for this dinner. Everyone is reclining at table with stinky feet. Jesus seizes the moment to teach, not by telling, but by doing.
“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (verses 3-5).
The first truth that Jesus demonstrates is that serving means doing what is needed. Jesus does not say “We need some foot washing but that isn’t really my gift, so I will let someone else do this.” Foot washing was needed and so foot washing is what Jesus did.
Perhaps what we need to gain here is that many service opportunities do not require special training, knowledge, skills or talents. Jesus didn’t have a PhD in foot washing! Trying is often the beginning point. Everyone stares at the problem. Everyone talks about the problem. However, if the problem requires someone to serve often there is plenty of looking at the problem and talking about the problem without anyone taking on the problem. This is particularly true if what is needed is a “dirty job.” Many menial tasks - services that when rendered are usually greatly needed - just want for someone to do them. We need to start. We need to do it. We need to serve.
The application to our own serving is clear: we must not make excuses, “pass the buck,” or wait on others to serve if what is needed is something we do not want to do. Instead we need to discipline ourselves to be where we are needed and do what is needed. Even if that job is menial, lowly, or (and this is important) anonymous, service means doing what is needed. Size up the situation and then attack the problem. Serve! That is what Jesus did in John 13.
“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me. Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.’ For He knew who was to betray him; that was why He said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’” (verses 6-11).
In the process of teaching this great lesson on serving Peter completely misses the point of what Jesus is doing. His protests, and then acceptance, show how badly he misunderstood the service being done. That helps us realize serving is often misunderstood but we must serve anyway.
The one who is serving may find their motives questioned. What has been done and how it was done may be criticized. Someone is sure to say it could have been done better by others or that there was a better way it ought to have been done. As Jesus’ service was misunderstood, so today people may not “get it.” People often don’t understand true service.
If we are to serve we need to be ready for this. Envy and jealousy may appear. Hard words and hard feelings may be expressed. Yet the servant continues on, just as Jesus did because serving is not a means to get people to think better of the servant. Serving is about glorifying God. When the servant is too busy polling the public to see if what he does will be applauded the spirit of true service is lost. Hypocrisy will be just around the corner, along with Pharisaism, when the servant becomes concerned with others’ opinions of his serving (see Matthew 6:1-4; Luke 18:11-12).
Jesus was misunderstood, and those who would follow His example should prepare for the same fate, and serve anyway!
“You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
The act of service concluded, it was time for the lesson to be driven home. Jesus now explains what He did in terms of what they must do and issues the command to serve. Note that well. Serving is a command of Jesus the Christ.
Jesus says His disciples will serve others. It is not optional. Jesus demands and commands it. The command to serve (“you also ought to wash one another’s feet .... you should also do just as I have done to you”) is as binding as the commands about the Lord’s Supper, baptism, church discipline, isn’t it?
Please notice the command is to serve others. This is a common theme in Jesus’ teaching (see Matthew 25:31ff; Mark 10:42ff). It is easy to miss it here. Jesus does not say “Serve me! Wash my feet!” We would be glad to wash Jesus’ feet. Instead Jesus says “I washed your feet and now ... you need to wash each other’s feet.” Serving others is the command of Jesus Christ.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (verses 16-17).
Jesus completes His teaching on serving by telling His disciples serving is the way of Christ. That is what He means with “a servant is not greater than his master” and “a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him.” Jesus is saying that as He served so His disciples must serve. That is what the Master did and so that is what His followers must do. Jesus has taught this before (see Mark 9:41; Luke 10:25ff) but surely this example, directly before them, must have made a deep impression. They saw Jesus serve. Jesus was not just talk. They saw an act of incredible, humble service. They saw Jesus do what others would not.
Of course, what Jesus did at the Last Supper only sets the stage for the ultimate service to come. In only a few hours Jesus will “serve and give His life as a ransom for many” at Calvary. Instead of being served once again Jesus is serving. The cross stands as the consummate illustration of how the way of Christ is found in serving others. The Master serves and so the disciple imitates his Master and serves too.
The more we look to Jesus the more we see the need to serve others. Yet, as we may reluctantly realize, that is not something that comes easily and naturally for us. What can we do to submit to the discipline of serving? When we obey the Lord it builds character into our lives and strengthens us in continuing to do the Lord’s will. How does that work with serving? These practical questions are where we turn our attention now.
First, when we serve we identify with Jesus Christ. In many ways the disciple can never be like Jesus. He is the divine Son of God. He, and He alone, can forgive sins. Jesus walked on water, raised the dead, and did other incredible signs and wonders. Of greatest importance, Jesus died for our sins. The disciple today can do none of these things. What then does John mean when he writes “whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked” (1 John 2:6). “Walking in the same way He walked” refers to the course of life, the manner of living, the underlying philosophy that Jesus manifested and lived every day. That is summarized in the idea of serving. Indeed, Jesus forgave sins and did miracles and died for us because He was and is our servant (Mark 10:45). Thus when we serve others we are, in a very real way, acting as Jesus acted. We are being like Jesus. We are walking as He walked. The disciple can say to himself “I am imitating Christ. I am building Christ into my life and character because I am serving.”
This is Paul’s very point in his famous Philippians 2 passage on Jesus “emptying Himself, by taking the form of a servant ... He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (verses 7-8). Paul wrote that because there were some at Philippi who were struggling with having a servant’s heart. There was a lack of humility. They were not following the way of Christ. That is seen in the verses that precede Paul’s great description of Jesus: “Do nothing from selfish ambition 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). The trouble at Philippi was that they did not want to be servants. If you cannot serve, you cannot be a disciple, Paul says. Why? Because the essence of being a disciple is to be like Christ, and the essence of Christ is serving.
Here is the beginning of the discipline of serving. It is easy to say “I want to be like Jesus.” The way that happens is for the Christian to serve others. As we gird ourselves with a towel and wash feet we realize we are becoming like our Master.
Secondly, the more we serve the more selfless we become. A huge barrier to service is selfishness. Why do we refuse to serve? Why do we want people to serve us? The answer is simple: we are self-centered. We put ourselves first. Getting out of self and serving others changes this equation. We serve a little and realize “I can do this!” and “I could do even more.” We continue to serve and begin to see even more ways to serve. Service draws us in because as we get outside of self we see how many needs there are, and sadly how few servants there are. Further, as we act selflessly we may surprise ourselves. We did not imagine that we would ever wash dirty feet. Once we have gone ahead and done it we see that we can do it, and the next time we see dirty feet we don’t even think anything of it. We just serve. Then we see some very dirty feet and we may pause for a moment with “I don’t know...” But then we push ahead. “I’ve washed a lot of dirty feet. I can handle this” and we serve. Every act of service chips away at self. Every act of service helps us develop more of the servant’s heart we need. Every act of service makes us just that much more like Jesus Christ, which means every act of service sets us up and strengthens us to do even more serving.
Thirdly, serving builds gratitude. Paul tells us “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The world says this is not true. Our culture wants to think it is always better to have servants than it is to be a servant. The true servant knows better. As the servant gives of himself he receives far more than he ever gives -- in his spirit and heart. For example, serving opens us up to see how blessed we are. When one has gone to a downtown area and served homeless people who have nearly nothing suddenly we see how rich we are. New channels of gratitude appear. That old home that we tire of suddenly looks like a palace after we have served those who have no home at all. The plain meal that does not seem very fancy looks like it is fit for a king’s banquet when we serve those who gladly line up for soup and a baloney sandwich. Service makes us glad for what we have. Even more, service makes us glad for our position and station from which we can serve. Here is someone in the hospital with a terrible disease. We can go and serve by visiting and cheering the patient up. Then, as the servant leaves the hospital he is more thankful than ever for his own good health and that by it he can help others less fortunate. Perhaps most importantly serving gets us out of measuring life by things and possessions (which easily rob us of joy and gratitude because it is so easy to compare ourselves to others with more) and focuses us on matters of heart and character. We are involved in others instead of just trying to serve self. There is a deep sense of satisfaction in one’s spirit from this kind of living that becomes a deep attraction to do more and serve more so as to know this contentment even more. Is it any wonder that a servant like Paul could contemplate the end of life with calm? Paul tells Timothy “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8). Paul has served so freely and his life is full to overflowing with contentment, even when he is in a wretched place like prison. Gratefulness fills his heart and soul. Such can never come from selfish people who demand everyone wait upon them. The servant receives so much from giving!
All of this is to say, if one is not serving he or she must start, and start at once. Every disciple of Christ will be surprised what happens when he or she serves. If one does so from a pure heart, without motives of trying to impress others (see Matthew 6:5ff) or to cause people to be indebted to us so we can collect a favor one day (see Proverbs 19:17) serving pays and pays extraordinarily well. It pays inwardly as we are drawn to Christ, as we are imitating Christ, and as we become more selfless. It leads to experiencing the joy and gratitude that can only come from living like Christ.
The servants in Downton Abbey did not seem to know much of the way of our Lord. Yet even still, without knowing it, they found the blessings of being “in service.” How much more awaits the faithful disciple who will give himself freely in His name to offer “a cup of cold water?” So Jesus says “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
By Mark Roberts
Editor of Pressing On Magazine
From Expository Files 23.5; May 2016