God is our Master and we are His servants: that is one of the ways in which our relationship with Him is described in Scripture. As God’s servants we are to live out our relationship with Him by giving ourselves in service to Him and to His people.

A Challenging Call

This call to service is a challenging one. It would be challenging enough if the service we were called to was as a butler or housemaid in Victorian England, with its long hours, hard work and low pay. But our call is more challenging than that. It is to be a servant in the Roman Empire of the first century. It is to be a servant in the New Testament sense of the word.

In the New Testament two words are used to refer to the believers as servants of God. The first word, doulos, means a bond-slave. A bond-slave was someone who was not simply employed by his master, but owned by him. As far as the law was concerned a bond-slave was not a person but a piece of property. He was obliged to do whatever his master commanded, and could be treated virtually as his master wished. He was entitled to neither reward nor thanks for doing his duty, and could be punished unmercifully if he failed.

The second word, diakonos, was used of a particular kind of slave—originally, one who served food at his master’s table. With time the word came to be used of any slave who attended to the needs of the household.

In applying this language to believers, the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostles were not suggesting that God was like the typically cruel and thoughtless master, or that they were to be like the typically resentful and eye-serving slave. The language is used to indicate the extent of their obligation and the nature of their work. As a doulos a believer is obliged to give God total submission; as a diakonos, a believer is to serve Him by attending to the needs of His household.

“Whosoever will be great among you”

As they approached Jerusalem, Jesus warned the twelve yet again that at Jerusalem he would suffer and rise again the third day (Mark 10:35–45). Despite having spent three and a half years with Jesus as he taught them by word and deed, the disciples again missed the point. At the mention of rising the third day, perhaps expecting that the Kingdom would be immediately established, James and John promptly requested for themselves the two positions of greatest honour in the Kingdom (10:37). The other disciples, perhaps shocked at how close they had come to missing out on these opportunities themselves, were outraged (10:41). Jesus, no doubt disappointed by the selfish ambition of James and John, and the indignant envy of the other disciples, proceeded to teach the disciples about the nature of true greatness.

Jesus drew the attention of the disciples to the way that power is gained and exercised in the world: “Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them” (10:42). The Greek words translated “exercise lordship” and “exercise authority” speak of an arrogant and aggressive use of power. The most obvious examples were the Roman emperors, who selfishly exploited their subjects and brutally crushed any who opposed their will. While the disciples did not have the same opportunities to exploit and oppress others, and, even if they did, would have considered themselves above such excesses, their ambition and envy revealed that they were driven by the same selfish desires as their Roman overlords.

This was not how things were to be among the disciples of Christ. The world had been turned upside down by sin, and things had to be turned right way up again: “But whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all” (10:43–44). Jesus was not explaining how the disciples could acquire positions of power by more subtle means. Instead, he was describing what true greatness consists in, and urging them to pursue that kind of greatness. As far as Jesus is concerned, true greatness consists of living in submission to God by attending to the needs of God’s household.

Inspiration for Service

As he confronted the disciples with this challenging call the Lord also presented them with the most powerful inspiration—his own life given in total submission to God as he attended to the needs of God’s household: “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

In the scheme of Mark’s gospel these words are not only the basis of Jesus’ call to the disciples, but a statement of the Lord’s mission—“the Son of Man came” for this very purpose—and a caption over Mark’s portrait of the Lord as the Servant of God. In his gospel, Mark presents Jesus as the Servant of God. This statement comes at the end of the first half of Mark’s gospel (Mark 1–10), throughout which Jesus as the Servant of God had ministered to the people in preaching and healing; and almost at the beginning of the second half of his gospel (Mark 11–16), in which Jesus is going to give his life as a “ransom for many”, in his death upon the cross.

Jesus is called the “Son of man” not as a title of lowliness, but of exaltation. He is called the “Son of man” not because he was a mortal, sin-prone human being like us (although he was), but because he was the second Adam who would succeed where Adam had failed, who would have the dominion that Adam forfeited, who would fulfil the purpose for which God created Adam in the beginning (Gen 1:26–28). Because of his victory, “there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom” (Dan 7:13–14). If this is how the great Son of man lives, then this is how those who would share in his dominion must also live.

The Lord faithfully and compassionately ministered to the needs of all he met throughout his ministry and his life. On one occasion news came to Jesus and the twelve of the death of John the Baptist, their loyal friend and faithful brother (Mark 6:29–34). Jesus and the twelve had been working ceaselessly for some time when the news arrived. Worn down by their exertions, and now by their grief, Jesus determined that he and the disciples should withdraw to the wilderness to rest. But they were seen leaving by ship; and when they arrived at their destination a great crowd was waiting for them. Jesus could have simply turned about and sailed away. He could have explained the situation to the crowd and asked them to leave. Instead he was “moved with compassion… because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things”, until “the day was far spent”. When the disciples would have sent the crowd away, Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes, and he and the disciples fed more than five thousand people.

“By this we know love”

After a life of service of this sort, the Lord “gave his life [Gk, ‘soul’] as a ransom for many”. A ransom was the payment made to buy a slave his freedom. As the servant of God, Jesus performed the ultimate act of obedience, the ultimate attendance to the needs of others, the giving of his life so that all could be freed from slavery to sin and death. In these words Jesus alluded to the prophecy of the Suffering Servant: “Thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin . . . by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many” (Isa 53:10–11). In Isaiah it is God who makes the Servant’s life an offering for sin: but here in Mark, Jesus makes explicit what is implied in Isaiah—that the Servant willingly gives his life in obedience to his Father’s will.

A slave might, out of fear of punishment, do everything short of giving his life for his master and his master’s household. But no man, slave or free, would give his life for anyone except out of love; and even then it would be an extraordinary thing. As the Servant of God, the Lord Jesus Christ gave his life in obedience to the will of his Master, to secure the release of his Master’s household from slavery to sin and death. He did so both because his Master was his Father whom he loved: “I love the Father; and as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do” (John 14:31)—and also because he loved his Father’s children and wanted to save them: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (15:13).

The Lord calls us as his disciples to give our lives in total submission to God by attending to the needs of God’s household, motivated by a love inspired in us by our gratitude for what he himself has done, God’s Son giving his life for us.

Many years later the apostle John—the same man who had selfishly sought a position of authority and privilege above the other disciples, and perhaps even reflecting on that incident—wrote, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16 rsv). It is only to the extent that we appreciate what God has done for us in Christ, and what Christ has done for us in his life and death, that we will be motivated to serve the needs of the household of God as we ought.

What are the Needs?

If we are to serve the needs of God’s household as the Lord is calling us to, then we must identify what needs the household has and which of these we can serve. In the first instance the household of God is the local ecclesia of which we are members, and our brothers and sisters who are also members of that ecclesia. Our ecclesia has needs that must be attended to—attending meetings, teaching Sunday School, organising preaching activities, teaching the ecclesia, organising the youth group, and more. If we are to follow the footsteps of the Son of man, we will undertake these duties enthusiastically and perform them to the best of our ability.

Similarly, the individual members of our ecclesia have needs that must be attended to. There is the single brother or sister who goes home to an empty house every night. There is the teenager who feels that no one understands her. There are the young parents who are uncertain about how best to handle child-raising issues they have not confronted before. There is the older couple who feel they no longer have anything useful to contribute. All the members of our ecclesia need to know that we love them, appreciate them and care for them.

We may be able to meet these needs directly and immediately because we understand the situation and have the resources to assist. Or we may have the resources, but need first of all to cultivate a relationship that we have neglected. We may not have the resources to meet a specific need; but we can—and must—actively show love and care for each of our brothers and sisters no matter who we are and what resources we may have, by building our relationships with them, meeting their needs where we are able, and praying for them always.

Beyond our local ecclesia, there is the worldwide ecclesia of God, whose welfare we can serve by our prayers, by our financial contributions where this is required, by caring for those who pass our way, and by building up that part of the worldwide ecclesia where we live.

The Mark of True Greatness

The mark of true greatness has and always will be living in submission to God by attending to the needs of God’s household. When the Son of man comes in his glory, and the sheep are separated from the goats, the question he asks will be, What did you do to attend to the needs of my household? What did you do to meet the needs of the least of my brethren? To those who have followed his example of loving service, the words of praise and acceptance will be spoken: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world… Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me” (Matthew 25:34–40).