Habits of the Heart: A Study of the Spiritual Disciplines – “Service”
By Dr. Jack R. Hodges, Jr.
In this monthly series of articles, I have chosen to survey twelve (one each month) spiritual habits of the heart or spiritual disciplines that we must pursue in our faith journey to maturity in Christ. Richard Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (Harper & Row, 1978), divides these twelve into three categories: Inward disciplines; Outward disciplines; and Corporate disciplines. This month, let’s take a look at the spiritual discipline of “service,” which is the final of four outward disciplines. Keep in mind that an “outward” spiritual discipline seeks to take us from the immediate presence of the Lord and present us as living witnesses of Jesus to the world around us.
Moses, shortly before he handed over leadership to Joshua, addressed the new generation of Israelites who were destined to possess the land of promise. As he began his farewell speech, he reminded them, as he had done so many times before, of what the Lord God both desired and required from His people. In Deuteronomy 10:12, Moses declared, “Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” The prophet Samuel would later repeat this same recipe for humble obedience and committed service, writing in 1 Samuel 12:24, “Only fear the LORD and serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you.”
Many years ago I read Charles Swindoll’s wonderful book on Christian service entitled, Improving Your Serve. What really grabbed my attention was the subtitle: The Art of Unselfish Living. At the heart of the spiritual discipline of service is self-denial. Jesus said (Mark 10:45; also Matt. 20:28) that He did not come to be served but to serve. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Jesus explained that the reason that He was here on earth was to serve and to give. Not to be served or to gain the spotlight or notoriety. He wasn’t interested in fame or success. He didn’t want to draw a crowd to show His eloquence, intelligence, or charisma. He went out looking for those who were lost, alone, and confused to serve them and then offered them something that would save their lives—a personal relationship with God’s Son. Jesus invested His whole self, being, energies, and focus on serving and giving.
It makes absolute sense that God, having offered us redemption and reconciliation and a new relationship with Him in Christ (salvation), would begin to build into us the same quality that was displayed in His Son, Jesus. God’s intent and purpose were to build in us the same character, the same purposes, and the same heart that was in Christ Jesus—we are to serve and to give!
What a stark contrast Jesus’ philosophy of servanthood is with the world’s! Jesus saw the difference just as much as we see it. In fact, His declaration of servanthood came on the heels of responding to a request made by the mother of James and John In Matthew 20:20-28 (also in Mark 10:35-45), Mrs. Zebedee came to Jesus, bowed down before Him and asked what seemed to be a simple request. She said to Him, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left.”
One might note that in Matthew’s account, he specifies that the mother of James and John asked the question; while Mark has it that James and John themselves made the request. Could it have been that James and John put their mother up to it? Or could their mother have seen that her sons, who are referred to as the “sons of thunder,” were afraid to ask Jesus the question directly? Frank Stagg (Broadman Commentary) points out that both Matthew and Mark indicate “that the disciples themselves were responsible for the selfish and benighted request,” for it is clear that Jesus directed His reply to the two disciples. He saw through their smokescreen and He answered them (in verse 21) with biting conviction, “But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to Him, “We are able.”
Jesus immediately responded to the boys, “But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Take a deeper look at Jesus’ last statement, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of man (hwios too anthropoo—υίόσ τοΰ άνθρώπου). Frank Stagg notes that in this verse, which is one of the most important in all of Matthew, Jesus is interpreting his role as “Son of Man” in terms of sacrificial service. Drawing upon the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah (cf. Is. 53), Jesus blended the duel roles; that is, God—to whom dominion, glory, and a universal and everlasting kingdom were given; and man—a lowly form of a servant who would give his life a ransom for many.
Jesus states that He did not come to be served (diakonēthēnai—δίακονηθηναι). That Greek form is in the passive tense, meaning “being acted upon.” It is also significant to note that this particular Greek word is used rather than several other Greek words which were commonly used in that time to convey the idea of servant/servanthood. Paul often used these different Greek words to express different aspects of servanthood. Among then are doulos (δοΰλοσ)—“servant or bondservant;” oiketes (οίκέτησ)—“a house or household servant;” Hupēretēs (ΰπηρέτησ)—“an officer or minister” (i.e., under higher authority); and misthios (μισθίοσ)—“a hired servant.”
Jesus declared, “I came to serve!” I am not a household or a hired servant. I am God who serves! The tense of the Greek word changes to present, active, indicative (diakonēsai—διακονήσαι), indicating a present and continuous action—“I am serving.” The second declaration that follows is the Greek word dounαι (δοΰναι), that is, “I am giving my life a ransom.” The word “ransom” only appears in this verse (and Matthew’s parallel verse) in all of the gospels. A ransom was the price paid for the manumission (release) of a slave.
The Apostle Paul understood the mission of his Lord and Savior. He writes about the theme, motivation, and purpose of the act and discipline of service in Romans 12:1, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” The spiritual discipline and act of service is the free choice of presenting ourselves in obedient, humble, transparent, honest, and genuine service to our Lord Jesus Christ.
We could say that there are three types or kinds of service that are available to the follower of Christ:
- Forced service—I will give and sacrifice because either I have no other choice and/or I will get something out of it.
- Self-righteous service—I will give and sacrifice to satisfy my own self, my own needs, and my own fleshly desires and drives.
- Christ-like service—I will give and sacrifice and offer true service which honors and glorifies the Lord and accomplishes His plans and purposes. Any Christ-like service is motivated by humility, honesty, transparency, and generosity.
Drawing upon Richard Foster’s description of true Christ-like service, we see that genuine Christ-like spiritual service comes from a relationship with our Savior who dwells within. It finds it difficult to distinguish between small or large service (which are one and the same) and rests contented in hiddenness. It does not fear attention but doesn’t seek it either. Divine approval is all that matters. True service is free from the need to achieve results. It delights only in service. Real spiritual service ministers indiscriminately, simply, and faithfully because there is a need. It listens tenderly and patiently before acting. It waits upon the Lord and moves at His prompting. Ultimately, a genuine Christ-like service helps build God’s community of faith, builds relationships, and seeks to honor and glorify God above everything.
Practicing the spiritual discipline of service allows God’s children to shine with the light of Jesus in a world that is hopelessly lost, deeply confused, and perilously alone. In serving God and others, we become Christ’s heart, mind, hands, voice, ears, and feet.
You can read more from Dr. Jack Hodges HERE.
Dr. Jack Hodges is the Senior Pastor at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Morganton, NC. He has served as a pastor, a biblical counselor, and an International Mission Board missionary.