Should you be a servant or a master? This is a question many of us must wrestle with. Many have great intentions to do good for others, but the end result is self-exaltation. It is common for those who have great ambition to exalt themselves above others, but is this what Jesus Christ teaches?
The Disciples’ Dispute
The teaching we are about to explore is so important that it is recorded three times. Matthew, Mark, and Luke were inspired to record this event for those who would follow the way of the Lord Jesus Christ. We should not ignore any concept preserved in the word of God. Much more, we definitely must not ignore points of interest that are recorded in multiple locations. When we see repeating themes, we should know there is special emphasis on the topic.
It is recorded for us that the disciples of Jesus Christ debated among themselves who would be the greatest on three separate occasions. Even these godly men who were being taught by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself fell victim to this evil way of thinking. Let’s look at the first incident.
For some, there will appear to be a contradiction between the accounts of this event, but prayerful study will clear up any confusion. Around this time, Jesus explained to His disciples that He was going to be killed (Luke 9:44-45; Mark 9:30-31; Matt. 17:22-23). It is important to study the context of verses to have a full understanding of the recorded events. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus and His disciples were in Galilee. Mark shows us that they travelled to Capernaum and stayed there in a house.
“And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, ‘What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?’” (Mark 9:33).
In this verse, we see Jesus asking His disciples what were they disputing while they were travelling. Luke’s account is the only one that tells when this dispute arose (Luke 9:46). Following the flow of the text, this dispute had to arose after Jesus’ prophecy of His death while they were travelling to Capernaum. Verse 34 of Mark chapter 9 proves this point. When Jesus asked them about their dispute, no one said anything (read verse 34 again).
At this point, it is important to note that the finding of the tax money in the fish’s mouth happen around this time (Matt. 17:24-27). This event about paying taxes took place when they first got to Capernaum according to verse 24. Neither Mark nor Luke records this. Then Matt. 18:1 reads:
“At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’”
According to this verse, this question is raised at the same time as Peter is dealing with the tribute money. I believe that Jesus asks His question after they raised their question for five reasons.
- Luke 9:46 says they argued about which one of them would be the greatest.
- Mark 9:34 says no one responded to Jesus’ question.
- Matt. 18:1 shows that they tried to ask Jesus the question vaguely, not asking directly which one of them will be the greatest.
- Luke 9:47 says Jesus perceived what was in their hearts. He knew they were hiding the true intent of their question, so He asked them about what they disputed by the way. Rather than expose themselves, they kept quiet.
- Often Jesus responds to questions by His disciples, the Pharisees, and others by asking a question. It makes perfect sense that He would address the foolishness of the twelve by responding in this way.
After seeing that none of them would be honest about what they disputed, Jesus gives them an answer no one wants to accept.
Who Is the Greatest?
“And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all. And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them: and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them, Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.” (Mark 9:35-37)
If you desire to be first (primary or the greatest), then you must be last (the least in rank). If you look up the Greek terms for first and last, you will see these terms are discussing position and rank. Jesus told His disciples that greatness in the kingdom of God is related to one’s status or position in this life. In addition, Jesus added that those who wish to be great will be “servants of all.” What does this mean?
The Greek word translated into servant means to run on errands, an attendant i.e. a waiter. Jesus was literally referring to servitude. He declared unto His disciples that those who want to be great should serve others as if they were an attendant or waiter. How many leaders serve the flock in this manner? This is about humbly serving for the benefit of others. Notice what Matthew’s account says:
“Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:4)
Those who desire to be great in the kingdom must humble themselves like a child. If you have children, then you probably understand this analogy Jesus made more deeply than others. Children are generally very humble and quick to serve someone they respect. You can often see children following behind an adult they admire trying to do things for them. This is the picture Jesus was painting for His disciples. Do you see this among those who lead in religious institutions today? Are you like this, quick to serve others?
The leaders of the church headed by Jesus Christ are not meant to be masters benefiting from the servitude of those who are being led. Leaders are meant to serve as if those who are being led are masters. Did you know that the same Greek word translated into servant was also translated into minister and deacon? God is not looking those who would exploit the flock, but He is looking for those who will protect and serve the flock (Read Ezekiel chapter 34 for proof of this point).
What Does It Mean to Minister?
The topic of servitude is so important to the organization of the church of God that Jesus talks about this on other occasions. One occasion occurred when John, James, and their mother came to Jesus with a special request.
“Then came to him the mother of Zebedees children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him. And he said unto her, ‘What wilt thou?’ She saith unto him, ‘Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom.’” (Matt. 20:20-21)
“And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come unto him, saying, Master, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire. And he said unto them, What would ye that I should do for you? They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.” (Mark 10:35-37)
This event is only recorded by Mark and Matthew. Their accounts are not in contradiction to one another. They prove that James, John, and their mother came to ask Jesus could they sit at His right and left in the kingdom of God. This request made the rest of His disciples angry (Mark 10:41; Matt. 20:24). Keep in mind, Jesus already explained to His disciples those who desire to be first must be last. Yet and still, we can see the need for status arise in two men and their mother despite previous teaching. Will you learn the lesson Jesus Christ tried to teach His disciples?
“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, ‘Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.’” (Matt. 20:25-28)
Jesus explains to His disciples that the need to exercise authority over others is not the way of God’s people. This is what those who are not instructed in God’s law do, but it is not to be so among those who will live God’s way. Then He goes on to explain, if you want to be great, you must minister. This is the same Greek word translated into servant in Mark 9:35. The message is the same. If you want to be great, serve others. Preeminence is not determined by how much you can receive of others, but it is defined by how much you give of yourself.
Jesus amplifies this teaching in verse 27. Looking at the Greek, we can see that the word servant in verse 27 is different from servant in Mark 9:35. The word Jesus uses actually means slave. A slave is a devoted servant, one in subjection to another. The apostle Paul used this same Greek word when describing his relationship to God the Father and Jesus Christ (Rom.1:1; Titus 1:1). Jesus explains being a leader requires the attitude of a devoted servant or a slave. This type of attitude is not natural to those who want to be leaders. This is evident by the countless scandals of political and religious leaders recorded throughout human history.
A minister is someone who serves the church through teaching, supplication, encouragement, and more. The leadership roles in the church of God were not designed after the organization of men. These roles were designed for the benefit of others not those fulfilling those positions.
“And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:” (Eph. 4:11-13)
The previously quoted verses show that the positions in the church are centered on this concept of service towards others, but many organizations do not operate in this fashion. Be sure to research the key words in the Greek language for a full understanding of Paul’s teaching. It is exactly what Jesus Christ taught. It is not the 2 Olive Trees intention to insult any institution; however, it is necessary to point out inconsistencies in common church practices while encouraging our readers to follow what Jesus taught. And Jesus taught that those who desire to be great now or in the kingdom must be servants to all. Even Jesus said that He came to minister (Matt. 20:28). It is Jesus’ example we are to follow not the example of ungodly men.
A Lesson in Servitude
First, let’s explore an awesome example of servitude by a sinner.
“And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, ‘This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.’” (Luke 7:37-39)
This woman, a sinner, came to Jesus and washed His feet with tears in an astonishing act of humility. She understood who Jesus was and decided to serve Him in a way the host of the meal did not (verses 44-46). (Be certain to read verses 40-43 for context and understanding.) Jesus identified that her actions were evidence of the great faith she possessed (verses 47-50). This woman really knew what it meant to be a servant. Imagine wiping your own tears off the feet of someone else with your hair. It takes a person with the attitude of a devoted servant or a slave to do such a thing! This act was recorded for us so that we may learn from it.
It is important to note that this act of servitude was repeated by the Lord Jesus Christ at His last Passover on earth. He used the opportunity to reinforce what He had been teaching His disciples about leadership and servitude.
“Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God;He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself.After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.” (John 13:3-5)
The Creator, in a fleshly body, humbled Himself to serve His disciples to prove a very important point that most of us don’t fully comprehend. It is vitally important that we understand, accept, and act on this lesson. Now read what Jesus explained about this:
“So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.” (John 13:12-16)
Jesus played the role of a servant so His disciples could learn to do so as well. Remember Jesus told them that He came to minister which meant to serve. Jesus’ whole life was a service to God the Father and to humanity. He sacrificed His life to free mankind from sin. He further showed His commitment to serving others by washing the feet of His disciples. Keep in mind that Jesus was and is the Word (John 1:1-4). As God, He had no obligation to serve mankind, yet He did this to show us the way of proper leadership. In fact, both Jesus and the Father have committed countless acts of servitude to their creation. God expects us to be like He is, serving one another for the benefit of others.
So, ask yourself: Am I greater than He is? Do I serve others? Am I giving of myself as Jesus Christ did? These are questions that we all must ask ourselves. These questions should be of urgent importance to those who want to be great leaders. Jesus says the leaders in His church must not be like the leaders of the unbelieving world. These leaders must be servants to others.
Being a leader requires this level of humility. True leaders aren’t leaders just to benefit from those who are “under” them. They exist in position of authority to serve people. If you want to be great, you must maintain this attitude. This is not the way of the world, but it is the way of God!
Lastly, keep in mind what the apostle James said:
“My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.” (James 3:1)
The word condemnation means judgement. James lets us know that those who are in leadership positions will receive greater judgment. Because of their responsibility to be an example and serve others, leaders are judged by God more harshly when they violate His way. If you want to be a leader, you should keep this in mind. And remember, you can be great without having a title. It is the attitude of a servant that will make you great in the kingdom of God!!!