The Paradoxical Greatness of Christ-like Humility and Servanthood

Introduction: A Case for Christian Character

Christian character is not exactly a hot topic in the world today – especially the Christ-like qualities of meekness, humility, and servanthood. In the kingdom of God character is of vital importance. It is one of the things in which God is most interested, for the character of his people is God’s own character as he has revealed it in the Lord Jesus Christ, and he wants every one of his people to bear it proudly. 

We Christians can often neglect the importance God places on our character. We can become more concerned with living a “good life” or “getting by.” We often fall into the trap of looking at the world around us and deciding that “I’m not as bad as she is” or “I never do that sort of thing,” and think that, in comparison to the world, we’re doing pretty well. 

Living the Christian life is a far more glorious call than this. In fact it is the most challenging, inspiring and difficult task on earth. For God’s intention is to restore us fully to his image and likeness to make us “in his image,” to make us “perfect.” This has implications. It means that we must be concerned with more than believing the right things and obeying certain commands. We must also be the right kind of thing – from the inside out. As a result, although we all have quite different personalities, capabilities, gifts and talents certain qualities of character should typify all Christians because the character they reflect is God’s.

The New Testa­ment lays out some specific instructions about Christian character. It frequently recommends a number of qualities to which we should aspire. Among them are such godly virtues as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, reliability, meekness, self-control, compassion, zeal, forbear­ance, and perseverance.

It is not at all easy to grow into God’s character and to become increasingly like’ Jesus Christ acting and responding as he would. But that is the goal that lies before us if we will pursue it. The temptation is always to resist, stopping short of all that God intends to do in us. His process of re­forming us is often uncomfortable and at times quite painful. It’s easy for us to settle for less. Our justification might go something like this: “Well, there are some pretty sizable discrepancies between Jesus’ character and mine, but my faults and character defects aren’t that major, and besides, nobody’s perfect. Sure, I can get pretty grouchy and irritable at times, and that streak of selfishness and lack of generosity doesn’t show any signs of going away. And I’ve got to learn to control my tongue better, because it gets me into trouble at times. But, that’s the way I am, and I’ve learned to accept myself and be content.”

But should we be so easily contented? More of our faults and defects can change than we might imagine if we will cooperate with God’s grace at work in us. He has a great and splendid plan for us and is not likely to settle for less, provided that we don’t. The holiness of our characters is a high priority for him. If we will allow it, he will never cease working to bring us to perfection. C. S. Lewis has aptly described God’s work of building our characters this way:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But pres­ently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a differ­ent house from the one you thought of: throw­ing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making court­ yards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Him­self.

Growing fully into the character of God, into his image and likeness, is a lifelong project. In fact, it will never be completed on this side of the grave. But God’s upward call will lead us daily into a richer and better life, into becoming more like his Son Jesus, true children of our Father in heaven.[1]

Christ-like Servanthood

As C. S. Lewis noted earlier, building Christian character bears some similarities to building a house. A crucial principle of building is to begin with a solid foundation. The rooms on the first floor can only be properly constructed if they rest securely on the house’s well-laid foundation. Simi­larly, the qualities of meekness and zeal must be firmly established on the broader base of Christian servant hood a fundamental Christian quality of which they are important facets-if they are to develop and come to full maturity in us. 

The teaching of Jesus on servanthood may seem strange to us, coming as it does from across two thousand years of history. To better understand it, we will examine it from three angles:

  1. Jesus teaching on the kingdom of heaven
  2. Jesus teaching on being like a child
  3. Jesus teaching on being like a servant

Part 1: Jesus’ Teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven

Jesus said that whoever humbled himself like a child would be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Let us look at the context in which he made this statement.

The appointed time was drawing near. Aware of the events to come, Jesus had been earnestly in­structing his disciples in the secrets of the kingdom of God. Soon he would be leaving Galilee for the last time, heading for Jerusalem and the trials awaiting him there. His disciples were huddled together, vigorously discussing a matter of vital concern to them all. Unable to resolve the issue among themselves, they brought it to Jesus. At that time the disciples came to Jesus, say­ing, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”.

(Matthew 18:1-4)

At first glance, it might appear from the dis­ciples’ question that they were eagerly turning their minds to lofty and distant thoughts of the future life, contemplating the heavenly existence of the age to come. Not so. Their question was very practical. It had immediate bearing on all their lives. To understand why this is so, we must take a closer look at the meaning of their question.


An Earthly Kingdom

First of all, their question concerned the “king­dom of heaven.” Most of us reading these lines would tend to think immediately of that place outside of space and time where God dwells in all his splendour and glory, seated upon his royal throne, surrounded by all his heavenly host. To the disciples in the Gospel of Matthew who were asking this question, however, this phrase meant something quite different. It referred to that same reality which in the gospels of Mark and Luke is filled “the kingdom of God.” Understanding what that phrase (“the kingdom of heaven”/”the kingdom of God”) meant to the Jewish people of Jesus’ day will make clear the real question that lay behind the disciples’ query.

For the meaning of that phrase stirred the Jews greatly. It meant glory for the nation of Israel. It meant freedom from their hated oppressors. It meant the total and ultimate triumph of God over his enemies. For all these things the people of Israel fervently longed, and they firmly believed that the day was coming when all would come to pass.

Much of their hope was based upon their faith in the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah:

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

(Isaiah 2:2-5)

Israel had always understood this prophecy and others like it, to be foretelling the glorious king­dom of God on earth. It would be established “in the later days,” inaugurating the everlasting reign of God over his people and over all the nations of the earth. God would rule the world, through his anointed king (Messiah) from the holy city of Jeru­salem. Every chain of oppression would be smashed, and there would never again be war on the face of the earth. Israel would then be in its glory, and all the peoples of the earth would come to it, to pay homage to the Lord and to learn his ways and his law. Israel’s eager expectation and longing for the fulfilment of this prophecy had been greatly inten­sified in the recent years before Jesus’ appearance. 

In 63 D.C. the great Roman general Pompey had annexed the land of Israel for the Empire, a great blow to national pride, but more importantly, a serious threat to religious freedom. For a while, the Jews were permitted their own rulers, but in 6 A.D. Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great was deposed from the rule in Jerusalem, and the first Roman procurator was sent in his place. The people of Israel were outraged that they were forced to submit to direct government by pagans, who neither understood nor believed their faith. They chafed bitterly under the often cruel regime of the procurators, and their anger fanned the flames of desire and expectation to fever pitch. Surely, many said, the coming of the Messiah, the destruction of the hated Romans, and the estab­lishment of God’s kingdom were close at hand.

The Preaching of John and Jesus

The stage was now set for the appearance of John the Baptist, and then Jesus, proclaiming in power for all of Israel to hear, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt 3:2; 4:17). Their message was certainly one of “good news,” for it struck the most resonant chord in the hearts of the people. Great furor was generated by their preaching, and many fervently hoped, first of John and then of Jesus, that the Messiah had finally come and would soon begin the work of inaugu­rating his kingdom.

These ideas were very much alive in the minds of the Twelve, who had begun as followers of John (John 1:35-42; Acts 1:21-22), and had turned to follow Jesus, whom they believed to be the Messiah. Now they had been with him for three years. They had heard his public and private teaching. They had seen incredible works of power performed at his hands. There could no longer be any doubt. Here, indeed, as Peter had only recently proclaimed, was “the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God” (Nit 16:16).

And now Jesus was telling them that the time was at hand. They were going up to Jerusalem. True, he was saying some disturbing and utterly incomprehensible things about suffering and dy­ing, but these had not really registered with the disciples. All they knew was that Jesus would soon declare his kingdom and establish his royal throne in Jerusalem. And there with him would be his twelve closest disciples, at his side as his most trusted and powerful ministers.

All this was very thrilling, but one unresolved issue ate away at their excitement and disturbed their brotherly harmony. Which of them was to be the top man in Jesus’ kingdom? Who among them would enjoy the highest privilege of sitting beside Jesus, wielding the greatest power and authority in the realm? It was much on their minds, a source of tension and rivalry among them. They decided to take it up with the Lord himself.

Part 2: Jesus’ Teaching on Being Like a Child

Jesus listens to their question with patience. He knows that they have not yet understood much of what he has taught them, and probably will not until he has died and risen. Now he takes the opportunity to teach them how different his king­dom is from the one they have in mind. He shows them what true greatness consists of in the eyes of God. His answer takes them completely by sur­prise. “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Who­ever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3-4).

What an amazing statement! What could Jesus mean by requiring his disciples to “become like children?”

Many people today suggest that Jesus is speak­ing of the qualities of young children, recommend­ing them to us for our instruction and imitation. Jesus is telling us, they say, to be like children in their innocence, charm, simplicity, trustfulness, spontaneity, and creativity. According to this interpretation, these are the qualities that God most values and looks for in his children, qualities which open the way for one’s entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

Is this really what Jesus means to say? I think not, for several reasons. First of all, this meaning of the response would not really answer the dis­ciples’ question. Once we have understood the actual point of their question and what “greatness” signifies to them, it becomes obvious that this interpretation of Jesus’ answer doesn’t even address their concern. They are asking about position and power, while Jesus extols childlike creativity, spontaneity, and charm.

Second, it is hard to imagine that Jesus, the bold and powerful proclaimed of the gospel of the king­dom, is here carefully instructing his disciples that childlike simplicity and innocence are the core of his gospel, the very heart of the Christian life, without which one “will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” These qualities may have real value, but it is highly doubtful that they are central vir­tues to which all Christians should aspire.

What is more, the picture of children defined by this constellation of virtues suffers from a serious, even fatal flaw: it is false. It is idealized, sentimen­talized, and one-sided. The full panorama of child­like character-the bad as well as the good-is sadly lacking in this romantic portrait. It is cer­tainly true that children can be innocent, creative, imaginative, spontaneous, joyful, and fun-loving. It is just as true, however, that they can be selfish, irresponsible, greedy, deceitful, jealous, and cruel. Like the adults they will eventually become, chil­dren are beset with all the human frailty and sin that results from the Fall. The little girl of nursery­ rhyme fame (the one with the little curl in the middle of her forehead) is a ‘fair representation of the average child: “When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid.”

I have first hand experience to back up my state­ments, having been a child myself once. By and large I was a “good kid,” raised in a fine Christian home, and taught right from wrong at an early age. From that same early age, though, I was fully capable of cruelty and treachery in my dealings with my younger brothers and sisters, often taking full advantage of my age, size, and experience.

The same was true of my friends. Like typical kids, we were quick to gang up on an outcast, quick to ridicule and mock. One such example has been firmly fixed in my mind. I was in the second grade. A few years ahead of me, in the fifth grade, was a boy with one of the worse cases of acne I’ve ever seen. The boys in the school dubbed him “Pizza Face,” and taunted him mercilessly about it. One day on the playground, I and my second-grade cohorts began to tease him. After suffering taunts for a while, he lashed out in his frustration and rage and grabbed the first little kid he could get his hands on – me. I thought for sure I was done for, and braced myself for the thrashing that I deserved. I didn’t get it, though. For some reason, he just gripped me hard and slammed his hand over my mouth to shut me up. My friends and I should have learned something that day. But all we really learned was to stay outside of arm’s reach when mocking someone bigger and stronger than we.

Now, I was not an exceptionally bad child. In fact, I might even have been considered an excep­tionally good one at times. But along with a mea­sure of goodness I had the capacity to be pretty bad. And so it is with most children. It is hard to imagine that Jesus would have displayed such poor judgment about human nature as to miss this fact. It would make more sense to conclude that he was not speaking of character when he recom­mended the imitation of children to his disciples.

There is a further reason why this modem, sentimental interpretation of Jesus’ words seems unlikely. The romantic, idealized view of children is a relatively recent development, a few hundred years old at most. To speak of children in these terms in first-century Palestine would have com­pletely mystified Jesus, his disciples, and any by­standers who would have chanced to hear. Their own understanding of children, one which makes perfect sense of the words of Jesus, ran along a completely different line from the modem, roman­tic portrait. It had to do, not with children’s char­acter or behaviour, but with their position.

Children in Israel

What was the position of children in first century Palestine? The answer to this question will shed great light on the perplexing words of Jesus. A clue to the answer can be found in the New Testament itself-in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In chapter four, he describes what it means to be a son of God. He begins with an example taken from everyone’s daily experience. “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate; but he is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father” (Galatians 4:1-2).

Paul takes for granted an idea that would have been instinctively obvious to all his hearers-that a child, even the heir of the estate, has a very lowly position in the household (“no better than a slave”) Children in Israel at the time of Jesus were at the low end of the social totem pole. They had very few privileges. They were not fussed over, were not idealized, and were not the center of adult atten­tion. Rather, they were expected to be of service in whatever way they could, to be at their parents’ disposal, and to be respectful and obedient.

The exalted position of “son of God” that the New Testament describes in Galatians, Romans, and elsewhere is not a description of a young child’s relationship with his father. A son did not become fully a “son” until he reached adulthood and entered a mature relationship with his father. It is into this mature, adult relationship with the Father that Christians have entered through Jesus Christ, says Paul in Galatians, and so we are no longer in the lowly position of children under the tutelage of the law.

In his teaching on becoming like children, then, Jesus is speaking directly to the disciples’ concern for position and greatness. His words are paradoxical, reversing what his followers would have expected. To be great, to hold a high position involves putting oneself at the disposal and service of all. A disciple, says Jesus, should not seek personal honour and glory. He should not strive for the praise and adulation of men. Neither should he aim to enhance his own power, position, or reputation. Instead he should take a child’s position-humbly serving others before serving himself.

This simple passage, so often misunderstood, contains vital instruction for anyone seeking to be a true follower of the Lord Jesus. It is a strong and consistent element in Jesus’ instruction to his dis­ciples. Matthew 18 is not the only passage where his paradoxical teaching on the greatness of the kingdom of heaven appears. Indeed, as we shall see, Jesus himself places this message at the very heart of his mission to the world.

Part 3: Jesus’ Teaching on Being Like a Servant

One might think that Jesus’ astonishing lesson on childlike lowliness would now be emblazoned upon the minds of the disciples. Yet it was a hard teaching; hard to understand and hard to put into practice; and it is not long before the disciples give evidence that they have not fully understood. We pick them up again only a short time later, now on the road to Jerusalem, prior to Jesus’ final Passover with his disciples. The disciples have taken to the road with very different expectations than has Jesus. Despite his efforts to prepare them for the dark days of his passion and death, Jesus’ disciples have turned their faces toward Jerusalem with eagerness and anticipation. The long-awaited time has finally come, they think. Jesus, God’s chosen Messiah, is about to march on Jerusalem and declare his king­dom. It is only a matter of days now and the kingdom will be established. Two of his fiery dis­ciples, James and John, the sons of Zebedee (aptly renamed by Jesus “the sons of thunder”), decide that now is the time to make their move. They and their mother approach Jesus.

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him, with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom”.

(Matthew 20:20-21)

Power Play

The wife of Zebedee approaches Jesus with great respect, kneeling before him and paying him the homage due a king-to-be. She asks that he grant her only one request: the positions of highest honour in his kingdom for her two sons. She and her sons are not motivated by celestial visions of thrones in heaven, awaiting glory in the next life. Their eyes are fixed on the imminent coming of the kingdom of God, which will be’ proclaimed when Jesus the Messiah reaches Jerusalem and begins to establish his world rule. And in their mind’s eye, they can see it all now: There they are, sitting on Jesus’ right and left, his most powerful and trusted counsellors, James and John, the sons of thunder, Number One and Number Two in the glorious kingdom of the Messiah.

Jesus refuses to grant this request, saying that it is not his to decide. James’ and John’s bid for power and position has not gone unnoticed, how­ever. The other ten disciples, themselves eager for such greatness in Jesus’ coming kingdom, are hot with indignation. Who did James and John think they were, trying such a power play? Jesus, know­ing all that is in their hearts, takes the opportunity to re-teach his lesson on greatness and lowliness, this time with a different twist.

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men 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”.

(Mt 20:25-28)

His words about children had been hard to take but here was an even greater blow. The only set of people in a Jewish household who stood lower on the social ladder than the children were the ser­vants (slaves). First Jesus had said that his disciples must be as lowly as children. Now he was going one better by insisting that their lowliness be as that of slaves.

What Is a Servant?

As with our notion of children, our modern Western notion of a servant can at times prevent us from catching the full impact of Jesus’ familiar words. Household servants or slaves are hardly an everyday reality in our society, particularly in the U.S. For some of us, the word “servant” calls to mind that upstanding individual in society com­monly known as the “public servant.”

Take Joe O’Brien, for instance. He’s a talented, educated big-hearted businessman, grateful for the opportunities and blessings he has re­ceived. One of his desires in life is to help his fellow men. Joe earns more than enough to maintain his family in their pleasant suburban lane, and he tries to be generous with both his time and money. He donates to several charitable organizations and is a member of the local school board. He has helped to sponsor a cultural enrichment program in his city and is even considering running for City Council in the next election-putting in a few years of even higher dedication to public service.

Joe is doing his best to place himself in the position of a servant-a public servant. Such pub­ic service is a very respectable, even dignified position in which to be found. A public servant is well-appreciated by his beneficiaries, held up be­fore all as an example, and graced with the satisfy­ing and fulfilling experience of doing good for others. As commendable and satisfying as Joe’s public service may be, it is a far cry from the lowly position of servant (that is, “slave”) which Jesus demands. One can be a “public servant” without humbling (that is, lowering) oneself in the slight­est. Joe O’Brien can be his own man, calling his own shots, choosing his own service, while being a fine public servant at the same time.

Doing Whatever the Master Wants

When Jesus speaks of being a servant, he is referring to something much more difficult, de­manding, and total than the contemporary notion of a “public servant.” He has in mind someone whose entire life is summed up in that single word, “servant.” A brief look at his words in Luke 17 will make this fact clearer.

“Will anyone of you, who has a servant ploughing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table?’ Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird your­self and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’.

(Luke 17:7-10)

As he had done when talking about becoming like a child (Matthew 18), Jesus borrows a common image from daily life to teach his disciples how to live in the kingdom of heaven. They are to take on the lowliness of servants. At the time of Jesus, servants had fewer rights and privileges than those who were free. Their lives were not their own but were oriented to the service of another­ their master. Only after all of the master’s needs were met could they turn to their own. Jesus’ portrayal of a servant in Luke 17 shows us an individual with no other job description than “to do whatever the master commands.” The servant can be told to plough, to tend the animals, to cook, to slit at table, to clean up, or anything else. If the master says, “Prepare my meal,” the servant doesn’t answer, “Sorry, boss, you got the wrong guy. All I do is plough fields.” When the master requires service at the end of a long day, the servant doesn’t say, “Hey, c’mon. I’ve already put my eight hours. Ask me tomorrow.” Nor does the servant expect to be touted and congratulated for all his labors. Jesus rhetorically asks, “Does a master thank his servant for obeying his com­mands?” the obvious answer being: “Of course not!”

These are very difficult and trying words. Our inexperience with the kind of servanthood to which Jesus points can obscure just how hard a saying Jesus’ teaching is, but to men like the dis­ciples, who were more familiar with the life of a servant, the force of this teaching is inescapable.

A recent discussion increased my appreciation for the power and the challenge of these words of Jesus. A friend of mine was visiting from the Philippines, a country where, as in many Third World nations, a large number of upper- and middle-class people have servants. Several of us got into a discussion with him about the ideal of servanthood which Jesus presents, and we Ameri­cans began to speculate about the daily existence of a servant. My friend sighed and shook his head. “You guys in the U.S. can’t fully understand how hard it is to do what Jesus is calling for. In our country, many people have servants. Sometimes the servants will live their whole lives in their masters’ service-at times not marrying, having little personal life of their own. And the social gap between masters and servants is immense. Taking on the role and position of a servant is a very difficult lesson for our people to accept and to learn, especially those who are well-off, because they really know what it means.”

Jesus: The Perfect Example

Jesus really knew what it meant, too. And he was in dead earnest that his disciples learn this vital lesson of kingdom life. But Jesus didn’t just teach the lesson about becoming a servant; he lived it. Perhaps had we only received an account of his words, we might more justifiably hem and haw, complaining that the words are hard to un­derstand, or that they mean something else, ­something easier and more comfortable. We can claim no such justification, though. We have the teaching of Jesus presented to us in human form, lived out in his own flesh and blood. Jesus himself is the perfect example, our surest model, of the lowliness and humility of a servant.

In him, we see the lesson of servanthood played out on the grandest scale imaginable. For in the fullness of time, the second person of the Trinity, the mighty Word of God, in whom and through whom and for whom all things were created, and under whose headship all things will be united, lowered himself and became flesh. He put aside all the splendour and glory of his position to take on the form of a slave (Philippians 2:5-8). The degree to which Jesus lowered him­ for our sake boggles the mind. As C. S. – comments in Mere Christianity:

The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.[2]

Jesus came in fulfilment of God’s promises to his people, promises such as those spoken enough the prophet Isaiah. One strain of Isaiah’s prophecy foretells the coming of the Servant of the Lord, “my chosen one with whom I am pleased” (Is 42:1), and whose life would be given as an offering for sin for the salvation of his people. “Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear” (Isaiah 53:11). Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus was keenly aware of his identity, his mission as the Servant of the Lord-a mission that would be fulfilled most perfectly in his death and resurrection.

In instructing his disciples that they become as servants, he was not insisting that they follow some new and uncharted course. He was teaching them that as true disciples, they must do as he did, walking the same path that he walked before them. He makes this point very forcefully in Mat­thew 20:28. Having instructed them in the spiritual principle of being servants, he proceeds to point out that he is their standard of behaviour. They are to become slaves, “even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus, the glorious and ex­alted Son of man, who had every right to be honoured, worshipped, and served, had come rather to serve. His service would extend to the point of “giving his life as a ransom for many” ­probably an intentional echo of the prophecy of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53.

Jesus was careful to repeat this message once again, during his last instructions to his disciples before his death. To their surprise and chagrin, in the midst of the Last Supper, Jesus humbled him­self as a servant before the Twelve, stooping to wash their feet-a lowly task befitting only the lowest and most menial household servant. This he did for their instruction, saying, “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15). Surely, Jesus considers this lesson to be of central importance for his disciples, reinforcing it at his last opportunity be­fore parting from them.

A Formidable Task

It is very striking how strongly and insistently Jesus returns to these ideas during the last days of his earthly life. He seems very concerned that his disciples learn childlike and servant-like lowliness. They are to see it in him, and they are to live it out in their own lives. The instruction and example that Jesus gives are not simply for his original disciples. They are of the utmost importance for all who would follow him, in any place, in any age.

As Jesus’ disciples, we also must learn to take on the role and position of a servant. It should not surprise us to find that taking on the full identity of “servant” is a formidable task; that we recoil at the prospect of not belonging to ourselves. Nor should it shock us that we must contend with selfish ambition, the desire for glory, position, and power. After all, were not these among the very temptations with which Satan tried to lure Jesus away from his true mission?

Again, the devil took him to a very high moun­tain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me”.

(Matthew 4:8-9)

And were they not also some of the temptations which worked most strongly on the Twelve, the men who knew Jesus better than anyone, who had travelled and lived with him constantly for almost three years, who had heard his teaching and seen his life: how he spoke, how he acted, how he bore himself? Even these closest of disciples, at the end of three years together, were still capable of strong selfish ambition, still vulnerable to the lure of glory and position.

We should not be alarmed to find the same fight going on in us. Ever and again, Satan has offered God’s people a different way, easier and more attractive than the hard and painful way of the imitation of Christ. The seductive voice of the serpent, the alluring promises of the world around us, the driving force of our flesh within us would conspire to lead us down the wide and easy path of self-seeking. But the grace of God our Father, the teaching and example of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit within us will enable us to conquer and to follow in the footsteps of our Master, down the narrow and difficult path of the servants of the Lord.

“Humble yourself like a child.” “Become a ser­vant.” Herein lies the paradoxical greatness of the kingdom. The high road to heaven, says Jesus, is taken by the humble and lowly of heart. It is on this road that we press on towards true greatness, laying down our lives for God and his people as Jesus and his faithful followers have done before us. It is on this road of lowliness and humility that we set our sights on the final, ultimate test of greatness, where before the throne of God we will hear our Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”


[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Co., 1943), p. 174.

[2] Ibid., p. 155.


This article was adapted from Strength Under Control, Chapter 2, by John Keating, first published in 1981 by Servant Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan USA, and updated by Tadgh Lynch for © Kairos Publications in 2011.

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