A Brief Theology of Serving

 Our sanctuary was particularly beautiful this past Sunday afternoon.

Our sanctuary was particularly beautiful this past Sunday afternoon.

A Serving Community (Mark 10)

As deacons, we want to ground everything that we do in service to Jesus and the church body out of what Jesus has done for us both personally and collectively. The following isn’t intended to introduce anything particularly “new” to you but rather this is a short piece honing in on a couple of common temptations we face as deacons. This is also a simple reminder of the ground upon which all Christian discipleship is founded, namely, the cross of Jesus. This is particularly important for those who focus so closely on the serving the church as deacons. 


Serving Does Not Justify Sin

Paul admonished the Galatian church "to not grow weary in doing good" (Gal. 6:9). Lots of things can happen when we grow weary. One is the fact that we easily lose sight of what the gospel is all about and begin thinking about our relationship to God and serving others in ways that reflect more of the culture of this world rather than the Kingdom of God. As leaders, we have to consistently remind ourselves of the fact that as we serve, we do so not out of mere obligation but out of God’s grace and empowered by His Spirit, for His glory. It can sometimes become easy to see our good works of serving God and others as some sort of currency to spend on justifying private sins. The thinking goes, "I did all of these good things for God and others. I taught Sunday School so if I overindulge in ______ area, that’s perfectly OK.” Or "I get to church early to set up and serve in hospitality, and because I sacrifice a bit, my bad attitude at home later is justified.”

When we fall into this type of temptation, it reveals we’ve lost our way and have mistaken our relationship with God as a contract rather than a covenant. When it comes to sin, God is no sucker. There is no bartering, no schmoozing, and certainly no “5-good-works-entitles-me-to-1-private-sin" idea in Scripture. Serving the church does not earn currency to spend on future sins nor does our serving atone for past sins. Jesus paid it all–past, present, and future. Our serving is born out of gratitude for this reality. 



Jesus: The Key to Joy in Serving Others

Another temptation that we can often face is to remember these moments of sacrificially serving to turn then and wrongly judge others who "aren't pulling their weight around here.” Recall Martha’s condemnation of Mary for sitting at Jesus’ feet while Martha worked frantically around the house. Martha was concerned about good things. Washing the dishes, tending to the cleanliness of the home, and making guests feel comfortable are all good things. She was aiming towards hospitality. However, Mary had chosen the greatest thing, to sit at Jesus’ feet and get to the dishes later. That was Mary’s choice and it “would not be taken from her” according to Jesus (Luke 10:42). When our eyes are fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:1-3) rather than keeping score with others, we’ll actually enjoy serving because it is in serving that we sense the nearness of our Savior.  

Even Jesus' disciples had incredibly misinformed views of what it meant to be a servant. In fact, it wasn't even on their radar. Mark 10:35-45 is one of the more famous passages in the gospels for several reasons. In the conversation between Jesus and the Sons of Thunder, James, and John, we get a clear picture of how Jesus thinks of the relationship between power and acts of humble service. He punctuates his point by saying that his sacrificial death (“ransom”) was going to be an act of service and was intended to mold the hearts and give shape to those who would come after him as obedient disciples. Mark records,

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But 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 slave of all. 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 10:35-45).  


The brother’s request to be seated in a place of future eschatological glory is met with a question by Jesus regarding “baptism” and “the cup.” What does Jesus mean by “the cup,” exactly? "The cup" is one way the Old Testament repeatedly speaks of the “wrath of God” (Jer. 25:15-17; 49:12; 51:7; Ps. 75:8; Zech. 12:2-3; Lam. 4:21; Hab. 2:16). In the apocalypse, John also references “the cup” as in direct relation to the wrath of God (Rev. 14:10; 18:16). The disciples clearly do not understand the metaphor and answer Jesus, “We are able” (Mark 10:39). Jesus then instructs the disciples, teaching them that greatness in the community of God is not accomplished through lording authority over others as the pagan Gentiles were notorious. Instead, greatness is measured in terms of service to others. 


Did God Strike a Deal with the Devil?

The use of the word ransom here has been the subject of much debate and oftentimes been used to speak inaccurately about the meaning of the death of Christ. To whom was this price, this ransom, paid? Did God actually strike a deal with the Devil? Origen, in the 3rd century, popularized the idea that the ransom was paid to Satan. Jeffery Russell summarizes Origen’s thoughts succinctly. 

“In order to rescue us from Satan’s power without violating justice, God was obliged to pay the Devil a ransom. The only ransom the Devil would accept was a perfect man, so when God offered him, Christ, he seized him eagerly, and in turn handed him over to vicious humans to torment and kill him. Death and the Devil exulted in their triumph, but only for a flicker of a moment, for the ransom was a trick. Since Christ was God, the Devil could not hold him, and since Christ was without sin, it was a violation of justice to try to hold him, a violation that annulled Satan’s claim to keep the rest of us in bondage. The slate wiped clean, meant that we were free. Satan had been duped, gulled, cheated, and made a fool of.”
— Jeffery Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), 140.


Origen's theory, however, is greatly flawed. James Edwards responds to this theory by exposing the flaws therein and sustains the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. Satan…

...is not mentioned in v. 45, nor even in Mark’s passion account. Satan was last mentioned in 8:33, and there he attempts to avert Jesus from suffering and death! The death of the Son of Man on behalf of “the many” is a sacrifice to obedience to God’s will, a full expression of his love, and full satisfaction of God’s justice.
— Edwards, Mark, 328. William Lane writes in his commentary, “The Son of Man takes the place of the many and there happens to him what would have happened to them.” Lane, Mark, 384; italics in original. See also Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach, 67-73 for details surrounding Jesus’ death in the dark, the cry of dereliction, and the prediction of his own suffering and death, thus emphasizing the ransom paid to God is indeed a penal substitution.


The Way “It Is"

Thus, Jesus anchors his penalty-bearing sacrifice in the context of teaching the disciples about true servanthood. Edwards hones in on the Greek text of verses 43-44 and offers profound insight as he demonstrates the way “it is” in the Kingdom of God. He writes,

the best textual evidence suggests that is it the presence of the verb “to be” (Gk. estin), not the future (Gk. estai), that is, “’It is not the way among you,’” as opposed to “’It shall not be this way among you.’” V.43a is thus not an admonition to behave in a certain way as much as a description of the way things actually already are in the kingdom of God, and even among disciples of the kingdom. Thus, to fail in being a servant is not simply to fall short of an ideal condition but to stand outside of an existing condition that corresponds to the kingdom of God.
— Edwards, Mark, 325.

So catch that! The serving community that Jesus establishes is not merely a moral population with a virtuous ethic attached to it. Instead, love is made manifest with the acts of service that flow out of the community who rightly understand their position within the Kingdom of God.  The juxtaposition to the Romans in the text is also significant. “In the Greek world “service,” was the opposite of happiness, as Plato says: “How can one be happy when he has to serve someone?” Jesus has effectively introduced his upside-down kingdom through his sacrificial serving nature and actions (See Evans, Mark, 119).  


At Redemption, we want to stay mindful that our acts of service from lugging televisions upstairs for kids ministry in the rain, to setting up signs around the lake, to hosting Life Groups, to practicing music and leading in corporate worship on Sunday, to making sure that audio, visual, and the podcast is up and running smoothly, to website, and on and on... we are not following in the way of Plato. We are following Jesus in his upside-down kingdom where the first seek to go last. 


A constant prayer of mine this year for myself, is simply "God, help me to be the best foot-washer in the room today. Please help me identify needs and serve joyfully. In my moments of weakness or frustration, help me to stay mindful of Jesus who loves me and has served me, giving me eternal life."