The essence of Christian faith is not that we serve Christ but that He served us. In Matthew 20, the mother of James and John came to Jesus, requesting that her sons be allowed to sit at His side in the kingdom—one on His right, the other on His left. So Jesus turned and asked a question of them: “Are you willing to do what it takes to do that?” Both of them readily, rashly took up the challenge: “You know it!” Then Jesus said, “Oh, you’re going to pay the price, all right. But that honor is not Mine to give.”
At this point, the other disciples become indignant toward these other two. We would probably have been indignant too, right? “Why is your mom here, bro? You’re a grown man.” In reality, they were indignant not because James and John asked their mommy to request power and authority, but because they hadn’t taken the chance to ask the favor for themselves.
So Jesus responded by telling them to huddle up:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25–28 ESV)
Jesus was doing much more than simply giving out a moral command as a philosopher or a teacher offering a better way to live. He was giving the disciples the essence of the gospel: the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, to give His life as a ransom for many. Jesus was saying, “I am here to serve you through My death.”
Jesus doesn’t need anything. He is self-sufficient. He doesn’t need advice, doesn’t need gas money, doesn’t need your help paying His bills, fixing His house, or making a difficult decision. Yet this all-sufficient, all-knowing, completely holy God stepped out of heaven to serve us through His atoning, sacrificial death.
Jesus was saying that His followers are to serve others not because it’s the right thing to do, not because we’d feel guilty if we didn’t, not because somebody else suggested it, and not because “causes” are the vogue thing of the day. We serve because Jesus has served us. His service should melt our hearts and cause us to serve others out of sheer gratitude to Him. That’s the appropriate response to His loving service of us.
Churches centered on Jesus continually remind their people of this.
As humans, we struggle deeply with receiving unconditional love. We want to know why someone loves us and what we’ve done to deserve it. Unconditional love frustrates our desire to earn and accomplish. It challenges our pride. Sure, we like being loved, but we also like knowing we’ve proved ourselves worthy of it.
When your girlfriend in tenth grade told you she loved you, you wanted to know why. Was it the cool rims on your truck? The nice way you treated her? Or was it just your overall awesomeness that made her feel so strongly toward you? You had to know what it was so you could continue to do it or be it. If your father told you he was proud of you, you wanted to know what you’d done to earn his favor.
If we’re not careful, serving can become a way we try to earn the love we’ve already received from God, to “pay Jesus back” for His generous grace. While churches preaching the grace of God would never suggest that serving or volunteering contributes anything to a person’s salvation, a subtle tendency among us leads us to believe that serving is a way to stay “in good” with God. Therefore, unless serving is continually and unapologetically connected to the gospel, it can become a burden, a manipulator, a guilt reliever, or a backhanded method we employ to just keep serving ourselves.