September 11, 2016.
This weekend I had the opportunity to plan a men’s retreat with a couple of my good friends from church. We decided on the theme of “Service” or being a servant, and there was a particular lesson that I wanted to teach about serving one another in the church. I will admit that in many ways I was preaching to the choir, as the church I attend here is full of servant minded Christians, but I think it’s always good to think on the topic of being a servant. Today I would like to share what I went over on the retreat.
“Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.”
I know this would seem to be a very strange passage on which to open a discussion about servanthood. However, I think Barnabas displays an often overlooked example of what a servant looks like. I will be referencing him as we go along, giving passages that I think are representative of Barnabas’ servant-like heart.
Before we talk about Barnabas, though, we should first look to our ultimate example of servanthood as it was displayed in our Lord.
“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet,you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
This is a rather well known seen during the last supper where we find Jesus, the Master and Teacher, washing his own disciple’s feet. Throughout his ministry, his disciples had continually fought over who among them was the greatest, or who should take the best spots, or even who should get the privilege of sitting at the right or left hand side of Jesus in his kingdom. They had no problem with the idea of strong leadership, or at least the idea of what this leadership should look like as the world would see it. However, in their arguing, they had missed the whole point that Jesus tried to teach them over and over. Leadership is not about holding the highest positions of honor, or exercising power over others. If they were to lead in the kingdom, they were to lead as Jesus did- through service to one another.
As the disciples entered the upper room to eat the Passover, no one grabbed the basin of water at the door to wash his own feet, much less any of the other disciples standing around them. Washing feet was a servant’s job, and each of them were peers in relation to one another. What is perhaps even more telling is that not one of them even grabbed the basin to wash the feet of Jesus, their Teacher. It would seem that their pride had remained even to this day, though rebuked time and again by Jesus. It was time for an object lesson- one they would remember. Jesus washed their feet to teach them a lesson. If anyone would be great in the kingdom of heaven, he must become a servant to all (cf. Mt 20:25-28, Mk 9:35).
Before the disciples could become leaders in the church, they were told, “Follow me.” Jesus did not instantly set them up as leaders, but rather implored them to be followers first (and continually, even in their subsequent leadership). Many times does Jesus make the point that the first will be last and the last first. Just as they were hard to understand, I think we sometimes fall into the same mindset today.
Using the examples of Jesus and Barnabas (and others along the way), let’s look at three different concepts that I think we should contemplate and master if we are to be the true servant that Jesus calls us to be.
1. To serve like Christ, we must humble ourselves like Christ.
Especially at men’s retreats/conferences/lessons, we tend to hear a lot about leadership. There are all kinds of thoughts and ideas, pieces of wisdom and techniques of good, practical leadership out there. Whereas we do need good leadership in the church, I think we often overemphasize leadership and pass over what I call “followhship.” Perhaps we undersell it to the point where following leaders is almost looked down upon. Even our culture tells us not to be followers, but to break out of the mold and be a leader. We place a high value on this characteristic.
However, every leader must have followers. You could be the best leader that this world has ever seen, but if no one follows you, then the point is mute. I think this might be the most important, if not the most difficult, parts of servanthood. To serve, we must humble ourselves.
I opened with the passage in Acts where Paul and Barnabas are preaching in the city of Lystra on a missionary journey that they were called to do by the Spirit. Think with me for a minute of what it must have been like to travel with (or to be associated with for that matter) Paul the apostle. Paul was kind of a rock star in the early church. Sure, there were things that happened to keep him humble, but for those around him, I suspect there was always at least a little sense of awe for what the man did. Here, there is an interesting phrase that I think gives a lot of insight into the relationship that Paul and Barnabas had.
“And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.”
“Because he was the chief speaker.” It would seem that Barnabas was playing second fiddle to Paul, at least in this situation, if not on the entire missionary journey. Here, their audience makes that point abundantly clear, differentiating between the two with different names of Greek gods for each. Notice how Barnabas reacts in this situation. He could have gotten mad or defensive, standing up for his rightful place beside, not below, Paul. He could have turned to Paul and said, “hey now, don’t you forget that I am the reason that the churches even accepted you in the first place!” (We will talk about this in the next point). But instead, both he and Paul turn to the crowd and immediately try to teach the crowd that they were not gods, but rather men, mere men, just like their audience. Barnabas wasn’t concerned with his position in the eyes of men. He was concerned about their souls.
We get no indication that Barnabas ever felt slighted because he had to live in Paul’s shadow. In fact, I would say that Barnabas played that role superbly, submitting to Paul (as we are all supposed to submit to one another, Eph. 5:21) and helping him along the way. Good leaders have good followers, and they could get nowhere without the help of those who lift them up. For this to happen, someone must actually be the follower.
I am reminded here of several passages that talk about the body of Christ and how we each have our own individual talents and roles to play (Rom. 12:3-8, I Cor. 12, Eph. 4:15-16, etc.). Not all of us need to be preachers, teachers or even leaders. There is great work found in serving leaders, and helping those who will then in turn be strong leaders in the kingdom. There is nothing shameful about following (note here, this does not mean doing nothing- to the contrary, being a helper can involve a great deal of work). Further, even those who are called to be leaders should not expect to be leaders at all times. We should always allow room for others to step up so that we can serve them by helping them out. A sure way to struggle with pride is to constantly be the leader on every project. Rather, we should share the responsibility of leadership and serve one another (cf. I Pet. 4:10-11).
2. To serve like Christ, we must sacrifice for and encourage one another.
The first time we are introduced to Barnabas in the New Testament is very telling about his character. Actually, the man’s name isn’t even Barnabas- its Joseph. We will see that he got the name that we know him by due to his character of service.
“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
The apostles gave Joseph the name Barnabas because of his sacrifice and encouragement, as displayed in his inaugural story in the New Testament. Sacrificing for one another played a vital role in the early church, especially when it first began. These people who had given themselves to the Lord had to depend on one another for their own lives. We see the sacrifice, and the encouragement from this sacrifice, that many christians made during this time period by giving up their own lands or houses to make sure that there was none amongst them who had any need.
To serve as Christ would have us to serve, we must be willing to sacrifice for one another. Sometimes we focus on this story to make it clear that the christians weren’t obligated here to sell all that they had, or that when they did sell it, the money was still theirs (i.e. we point out that it wasn’t communism). Though there is some truth in these observations, I think we focus on it so much that we miss the whole picture. Sure, they weren’t obligated to do this. But that’s the very point. They weren’t obligated- but they did it any way. And they did it by their own will.
When is the last time that we truly made a physical sacrifice for our brother or sister in Christ? When have we ever sold anything of ours so that we could have the money to help our spiritual family? (Note here that the sacrifices needed in Acts two imply that they weren’t small things- people had to sell a lot to make sure no one was in need.) Is it really reasonable that we would never be called to make such sacrifices?
Maybe this isn’t your problem, however. Maybe you do give money or physical things to the needs of the family of God. Sometimes that’s the easiest thing. But there are things that are even more valuable than money that might be harder to part with. I know for me, my time is much more valuable than my money, at least in a general sense. It’s much easier for me to give money to help something than it is to actually sacrifice my time to personally help someone. But I think this is a calling just as well, and one that’s probably more important. Giving up physical possessions, though it can be a very good thing, can easily be very impersonal and maybe not even the highest need of people. We need to broaden our definition of sacrifice to include non-monetary items as well (in this way, even if you are unable to contribute financially, you can still give something that may even be more important).
Our ultimate example displayed sacrifice perfectly on the cross.
3. To serve like Christ, we must love with the love of Christ.
“And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this:‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
This passage is a very well known passage. Sometimes, however, when a passage is well known, it tends to lose its meaning with us. To serve like Christ, we must love one another with the love that Christ has for us. The two greatest commandments both involved the same uniting component: love. This love is something that is hard to fake. We can go through the motions of helping one another. We can say the right things to make it seem like we are humbling ourselves before each other. However, to love like the bible tells us to love goes beyond the world’s definition of love, and it is this love that we cannot compromise, downplay or overlook if we want to truly serve one another in Christ.
I see this love displayed in Barnabas in the story of his and Paul’s sharp disagreement:
“And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”
We often emphasize in this story that this is an example of a difference of opinion and that no one was right or wrong in the situation. Whereas I don’t think there is any moral wrong done here, I actually do think someone was right and someone was wrong (at least about John Mark). Paul didn’t want to take him because he had turn back during their previous missionary journey. Barnabas, on the other hand, was more than willing to give John Mark a second chance (ironically, he had done the same for Paul when Paul got a second chance from God). I think this shows the love that Barnabas has for John Mark. He was looking out for his spiritual well being, and wanted to see him grow. It seems that John Mark was eventually reconciled to Paul (see II Tim. 4:11), indicating to me that Barnabas was right.
That’s not to say, however, that Paul didn’t display the love of Christ. Far from it. If you read through his letters, the love that he has for the churches readily pops off the pages. He deeply cared for these people, and implored them to do the same:
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”
No christian is an island. We cannot make it on our own. We weren’t designed to do so. In the garden when God made Adam, He said that it was not good for man to be alone. Whereas this certainly has relevance to the marriage relationship, I think the statement is much broader than that. We are designed to be with one another. The love of God, and the word of God, needs to be understood in community.
I make this point because I believe to truly serve one another, we must genuinely love one another. We must have relationships with each other that go beyond the “Hi, how ya doing? Fine. Great!” We cannot serve the needs of people completely without loving them.
What Paul told the Corinthian church in his first letter has been very powerful to me:
“When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!”
(I Corinthians 6:1-8)
Did you catch what happened here? Paul begins by scolding the church for not taking care of their problems in house, but then goes on to say that they shouldn’t even be having these problems, as they should rather suffer wrong at the hand of a brother than cause a problem. That’s love. We should rather be wronged than cause a division. That’s hard.
It’s hard to talk about biblical love without talking about what Paul later writes in I Corinthians 13. I’ll try to keep it short here. Read the passage. Note that everything is meaningless or vain if there isn’t love behind it. Then look at the characteristics of love: patient, kind, doesn’t envy or boast, not arrogant or rude, does not insist on its own way, etc. Now ask yourself: “Do I display everyone one of these characteristics towards my brethren?” If our answer to this question is “No,” can we really say that we have biblical love? It doesn’t matter how beautiful a passage is if we don’t apply it to our lives.
In conclusion, let’s look at a passage that shows how our ultimate example, Jesus, displayed all three of these characteristics as he served us.
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
(Philippians 2:1-11, emp. mine)
We want to serve the brotherhood like Jesus served us. To do this, we must humble ourselves, sacrifice for one another and love one another with the love of Christ. May we ever strive towards His example.
Suggested Reading: John 15, 17, Romans 12, I Corinthians 13.
Let love be genuine.
- How hard is humility for you? Why?
- What does humility look like in practice?
- What do you personally sacrifice for the people of God?
- How/who do you encourage?
- Does your love fit Paul’s definition of love in I Corinthians 13? Why or why not?
- Do you have deep relationships with your fellow christians? Why or why not?