There is a catch in this search to find ourselves. We hope our search leads us to find ourselves on the high end of the bell curve. That we’ll discover we’re a little smarter, a little stronger, a little more talented, a little more respectable than everyone else.
We’re all a little sensitive to things in our past that suggest we don’t come from the best family or have skeletons in our closet. We worry about what image we are presenting in public, and so we dress the part, and drive the car, and live in the house that will communicate the persona that others will admire. We want a job that has prestige, and sometimes we’ll dress up the title to make it sound a little better than it is, like custodial engineer (instead of janitor) or sales associate (cashier) or technical representative (salesman) or professional administrative assistant (secretary).
Imagine how it must have struck the ears of the Corinthians when Paul wrote, “regard us as slaves of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:1). Slaves were as low on the social totem pole as you could go. Nobody aspired to be a slave, nobody respected slaves. The Corinthians certainly didn’t want to point to Paul, an apostle and their minister and say, “Meet my preacher, Paul, he’s a slave.” Yet, in several of Paul’s letters, that’s his preferred address: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus” (cf. Rom. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:1). (The word, translated “servant” is the Greek word “doulos,” the word for slave.)
Of all the things Paul could call himself, of all the lofty titles and job descriptions from which he could have drawn, he called himself a slave. It was his heart, a heart of service. It was inherent in the way he thought about life and ministry. When he was among the Thessalonians he described his ministry as “a mother caring for her little children… working night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone” (1 Thess. 1:7,9). In Corinth, he said, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow…. For we are God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:5-6,9). Among the Ephesians, “I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power” (Eph. 3:7).
There is an incredible humility that is involved. Not a pseudo-humility that bemoans a poor, pitiful me, I’m no better than a slave, but a rational assessment of our place in God’s kingdom. Of Jesus himself, Paul wrote, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:6-7). Humility is not a position of weakness or powerlessness, it is in fact, a realization of the greatest kind of strength.
It was a lesson Paul had to learn the hard way. Paul experienced God’s favor in such a dramatic and powerful way, that it must have begun to affect his own assessment of himself. After having seen revelations too glorious to describe, he relates how God brought him back to reality: To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:7-10)
Strength is not in asserting power, it is in understanding where real power comes from. Servants are not servants because they have played the power game and lost, they are servants because they have checked out of the power game altogether.
After listening to his disciples argue over seats of power in the kingdom, Jesus stops them and explains: You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. (Mark 10:42-44)
Leadership in the kingdom has nothing to do with power. It has everything to do with service. This assessment would sound like absolute nonsense to a person entrenched in the modern day political workings of corporate America. Only as one rises through the levels of power does one achieve greatness. It is a pyramid where the greatest power resides in the few at the top who control the many underneath. They are the recipients of service provided by those beneath them. The goal of those at the bottom is to rise to a level where they themselves serve less and are served more. Success is at the top where the power belongs to those who have achieved the most, and are respected (or feared) by those beneath.
Jesus didn’t just change the rules, he changed the game. One no longer lays claim to power by rising over others, he achieves greatness by serving others. The very highest level of success is no longer held by the person who rules, but by the one who is slave of all. The one who rises the highest is the one who has stooped the lowest.
If you hunger for admiration and appreciation, the life of a servant isn’t for you. Servants often get forgotten in the hustle of those who promote themselves. The old saying is true: “He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted”! Because servanthood and humility are so integrally connected together, the servant rarely receives the praise he might deserve, precisely because he doesn’t seek it for himself.
In the Philippian letter, where Paul describes Christ as “taking the form of a servant,” he precedes that thought by writing, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be that same as that of Christ Jesus…” (Phil 2:3-5)
Paul’s own life illustrated the enormous cost of becoming a servant. In the Philippian letter Paul took inventory of all the accomplishments and achievements of his life before the Damascus Road: If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. (Phil 3:4-6)
As he defended his loyalty before a hostile crowd in Jerusalem he said, I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. (Acts 22:3-5)
In Galatians 1:14, he described a bright future within the power structure of Jewish leadership: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” Paul possessed every qualification for success in the power game. Yet, in Philippians 3, he describes a radical reversal of direction for his life: But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Phil 3:7-9)
Servanthood and humility were not the only options available for a man who had played the power game and lost. They were the intentional choice of a man who recognized where real power resides – in Jesus Christ alone. If Paul/Saul had continued on his well-planned path, he possibly would have been among the most influential and powerful Jews of the first century. Alongside Hillel and Shammai, shoulder to shoulder with Caiaphas and Gamaliel would have been Saul of Tarsus. His might have been the guiding voice of rabbinical Judaism. He could have been the driving force of Pharisaism. But the Damascus Road changed all of that. In one blinding moment of revelation, Paul’s world was turned upside down. Everything he had known and put his confidence in was changed in an instant.
He could have fought it. After all, think how much he gave up. A lesser man might have dug in his heels and refused to change. How could you ask a man to give up everything? But he did. When Jesus called the disciples from their lives as fishermen, Luke writes, “So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11). And even though their lives were radically different than what they had been used to, none of them came close to giving up all that Paul gave up to follow Jesus. Paul cast it all on the garbage heap for the one surpassing goal of knowing Jesus Christ, and becoming like him in every way.
It was a simple request. Some Greeks had traveled to Jerusalem for Passover. They were Diaspora Jews – Jews who lived far away from Jerusalem, but whose hearts had never left. Every year when they celebrated the Passover in their homes far away, they would conclude with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” This was the year. They had made this once in a lifetime pilgrimage to celebrate this important feast in the “home” of their hearts. While in Jerusalem, they had heard of this man who had healed the sick, who changed water into wine. They had witnessed his arrival in Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to the shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” They were intrigued by this man who claimed to be the Son of God, and they wanted to see for themselves. So they sought him out, and found one of his disciples, Philip, and asked, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” (John 12:21)
Perhaps they were just curious and a simple audience with Jesus would have satisfied their curiosity. But when Philip tells Andrew, and Andrew tells Jesus, Jesus’ response says there was something more to the request. Perhaps he saw beneath the question to the longing of their hearts, not just to see him, but to truly understand what it would take to see him. His answer leads them (and us) down a path to understanding what it really means to see Jesus: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.” (John 12:23-26)
It begins with an understanding of Jesus’ purpose in coming. If one came to Jesus assuming that he was about power and adoration and success, then you would be tragically disappointed. When Jesus sensed the crowds meant to make him king by force, he immediately withdrew from them. When he saw that the crowds were following him just for the spectacle, he turned and told them that unless they were willing to die they couldn’t be his disciples. When the crowds demanded a miracle to confirm his identity, he told them they must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life, and “from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).
Even among his closest followers, there was a misunderstanding about what following him was going to demand. In Mark 10, James and John come with a request, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (Mark 10:37). They thought being with Jesus was going to bring them glory and honor and power. They wanted to get their bid in for the best seats in the house so they could be in on this power. (Don’t think the other disciples didn’t have eyes on those seats as well – Jesus had to break up an argument between them all over who was the greatest and deserved the honor.)
Jesus lets them know that following him would not lead to seats of honor, but to their own deaths. He then reframes their understanding of his purpose with a discussion of power: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45).
His purpose was not to pursue and wield power, but to be a servant. And in fact, his greatest act of service would be in giving his life as a ransom for many. His purpose was not to reign from an earthly throne but to die on a cross. And whoever would be great would embrace that same purpose.
And here in this passage in John 12, something about the arrival of the Greeks signals that the hour has come. And while he describes it as the hour for him to be glorified, this glory is not in ascending a throne, but as a grain of wheat being planted and dying. And though he is referring to his own crucifixion and death, he then turns it into a teaching moment about discipleship: “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” A disciple’s life is not focused on attaching himself to things of this world, or its values. In a letter he would write later, John would flesh out this thought: Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17).
It is the choice between temporal and eternal. If one chooses the first, he negates the second; if he chooses the second, he transcends the first. But the two are incompatible with one another. You cannot keep a grip on both the things of this world and the will of God. As Jesus goes on in John 12, he frames this discipleship in terms of servanthood: “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.” Following and serving are inseparable. In fact, to be with Jesus and to be honored by the Father, one must be a servant. The answer to the request of the Greeks to see Jesus is in his call to become a servant.
If you would see Jesus, you must be a servant. If you would be with Jesus, you must be a servant. If you would be glorified with Jesus, you must be a servant. Service is the key to following Jesus. It is the entrance requirement to his inner circle. And service, in the vocabulary of Jesus, is defined as the willingness to lay down your life and be a sacrifice for others.
If you want to see Jesus, you’re going to have to go looking where he is most likely to be found. Just like his response to his parents when they came looking for him after a frantic search for the lost twelve year old and finding him in the Temple, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Where else would you expect to find him, but in service to others? If you go looking for Jesus, start the search in service. And as you get involved in serving others, and laying down your life for others, you will find him working alongside you, and you will experience the joy, not only of seeing him, but truly being with him.
And if you want your search for yourself to end alongside Jesus, you need to be following in his footsteps, the footsteps of a servant.