“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones 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.” (Matthew 20:25–28)
SERVICE IN A HECTIC WORLD
Many Christians have both heard and heeded the call of Christ to serve him by serving others. However, many of those who have heeded the call experience burnout or simply fade out and often find themselves sitting on the sideline. Others have heard the call and thought about ways they could serve, but never really committed themselves to heeding the call. In truth, when we see someone not serving within the body of Christ, we can often correctly assume that they are serving elsewhere and feel as though they are just too busy to take on another task.
The mom who is exhausted from driving from soccer practice to basketball practice and dance classes often finds herself too stressed, too tired, or too overwhelmed to do anything more. The dad who works long hours and tries his best to coach his daughter’s softball team or at least be present at all the games, and who always seems to have a long list of things to get done on the weekend can’t fathom when and how he could do anything in the church. Showing up is hard enough! Or consider the school teacher who spends several hours a day corralling kids and then her evenings grading papers. When she is asked to teach a kids’ class or work in the nursery she can’t think of anything she’d rather do less when she’s away from school and home!
THE HOUSEHOLD OF GOD
However, behind these frustrations and this sense of inability or unavailability to serve often lies a misunderstanding about what the church is and how we relate to it. We often fail to see why the local church should be central to our lives and routines. The church is more than a once-weekly gathering. It is more than source of encouragement and the shot in the arm you need to soldier on. The pastor’s sermons are not TED talks designed to fill your tank or give you new information to brandish in your next Facebook debate or Twitter feud. The church is not a seminary course or Bible college. The church is the household of God. Paul tells us that when we become followers of Jesus we also become “members of the household of God,” (Ephesians 2:19). The Apostle wrote an entire letter so that “you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth, (1 Timothy 3:15).”
You’ve probably heard the saying, “when you marry our wife/husband, you marry her/his family as well!” Many married people can testify to the truth of that statement. It’s also true with regard to faith in Jesus. When you are united to Jesus by faith, his brothers and sisters become your brothers and sisters just as surely as his Father becomes your Father (Romans 8:12-17). This means that in order to serve him, you must serve others in his name. This is what it means to be a part of the family of faith. We serve one another because we love one another.
Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor… serve the Lord… Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” (Romans 12:10–13)
Christ has told us that one of the marks of his true followers is their service toward and meeting of the needs of his “brothers.”
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:31–40)
Our problem is not mainly that we are too busy or too tired. It is that we are too busy with other things and too tired from other activities to serve our brothers and sisters in the church. But Christ calls us to pour out our lives as he did in order to serve. If we work too many hours to be able to serve the church in some small way, then we have elevated our job above the household of God. Who has not heard the father of some cheesy tv special or some sitcom dad lament that he spent too much time working for his kids rather than playing with his kids? Oh, that we would lament working too much for the world or for worldly advancement than for the kingdom of God!
Maybe you really are too tired from shuttling kids from one place to another to do anything at church. Then slow down the van and decrease your stops. Your kids will benefit far more from seeing you serve and serving alongside you than they ever will from a softball select league or an advanced dance class. These things are not bad, but they become sinful distractions when they take the place of our place in the household of God. In whatever ways we can, when opportunities arise, we must serve others. A heart transformed by the one who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Matthew 20:28) should long to serve others as Christ has served him. For the busy and the worn-out, a new slogan needs arise: Slow down. Do less in the world. Do something in the church.
REWARDS FOR SERVICE
Who doesn’t like rewards? Most people are even willing to risk great loss if a great enough reward is held up. Millions of dollars are spent by millions of people in the hopes of winning a multi-million dollar pot in the lottery. Professional athletes punish their bodies and sometimes risk permanent damage to their bodies for a new contract or a championship ring. We do these things because we’re wired to long for something greater and better. We’re made to strive and reach for the reward. But the greatest reward is not offered to gamblers or professional athletes; it is offered to the followers of Jesus. Consider Paul’s sacrifice and suffering in pursuit of the ultimate reward:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christand be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7–11)
In Matthew 25, Jesus promises and incredible reward for those who serve him by serving others and says to them, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” (verse 33). There are indeed rewards for serving Christ by serving others. Now, we should not confuse these rewards with a works-based approach to salvation. The New Testament relates our service to Christ to heavenly rewards in two ways. First, loving others and laying down our lives for them is proof of the genuineness of our faith. Faith in Christ and his work gains us entrance into God’s Kingdom. But faith is tested and tried throughout our lives as our love for Christ is put on display when we love others in his name.
For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Galatians 5:5–6)
In this passage Paul is contrasting a works-based righteousness with the righteousness that comes by faith. The waiting in verse 5 is a waiting for final vindication; for the final verdict: righteous. That verdict comes by faith (i.e. we are justified by faith alone), but the only faith that counts, according to Paul is the faith that works “through love.” It’s this sense of reward based upon faith confirmed through acts of love/service that is in view in Matthew 5. In the context, Jesus is separating sheep from goats. He is placing everyone in a category: “mine” and “not mine.” Those who served and sacrificed for others are welcomed into the Kingdom and called “blessed,” and given the inheritance that was prepared for them “before the foundation of the world.” They haven’t earned anything. They’ve simply confirmed their identity as a sheep and one for whom a great inheritance already awaits.
There are other passages in Scripture, however, that indicate that there will be varied rewards given to those who receive this inheritance (eternal life). These varied rewards are based upon one’s service, or ministry. Consider Paul’s words to the Corinthian church”
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10–15)
There is work to be done in the Kingdom of Christ. Upon the foundation of Christ, we serve and build. In the end, what we have built throughout our lives will be tested. This isn’t a salvation issue. All sit firmly on the foundation of Jesus Christ. All are building. Some build with good material. Some with bad. All “will be saved” but some will “suffer loss” while others “will receive a reward.”
We should not be shy about serving Christ for the sake of the rewards that he gives. He will not give us anything that detracts from his worth and value. He will give us of himself in ways that cause us to rejoice in him all the more. Even if we do not know or understand the exact nature of the rewards he gives to those whose work is not burned up, we know that we can never have enough of him. He is the supreme treasure, and the hope of in some way experiencing his inestimable worth in a greater way is held out, we should pursue that with all our might.
The joys held out for those who love Jesus and love his people are not only future joys. Some pleasures are present realities available to us as we serve. We should take to heart the many times that Paul rejoices because of present joy:
For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. (Romans 16:19)
What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, (Philippians 1:18)
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, (Colossians 1:24)
For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy. (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20)
We should expect to experience joy as we serve others in the body of Christ. Not only that, we should rejoice in the joy that they often receive from our service:
But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. (2 Corinthians 7:6–7)
For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. (Philemon 1:7)
SERVICE AS A SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE
Obviously, one needs discipline to serve faithfully in the church (and outside the church). We also need to realize that self-sacrificial service is also one of the means that God uses to cause us to treasure Christ more. Submitting to serve prepares our hearts for Christ. He calls us to serve others because he works through our own ministry efforts to sanctify us. Rarely will we be more challenged and grow more in holiness than when we give of ourselves to serve our brothers and sisters. This may mean financial sacrifices, or sacrifices of our time or comfort. You may need to reorient your lifestyle or change your schedule to begin serving as the Lord has called you. You may need to put yourself in uncomfortable situations to experience the joy of serving others. Whatever changes or adjustments we must make to begin serving others in the church, we can be sure that it will be worth it. The sacrifice of service is worth it because God is at work in our work to make us more like Jesus.