What would you do if you suddenly won $34.5 million? It happened to a family from Hauppauge, New York, this week. Dad spent $5 on a winning Lotto ticket and hit the jackpot. So what did they do? Dad quit his job driving a Pepsi truck. The whole family is going to Disney World. The two teenage boys want new cars—they mentioned Lamborghinis and Dodge Vipers. Mom wants a new home on the water, a dream kitchen, and a large walk-in closet.
How would you live your life after the lottery? It's not an abstract question, because in one sense you're already a winner. The fact that you're living, breathing, thinking, walking, laughing, working, creating, and doing all these things in the freedom and prosperity of one of the most blessed nations that has ever existed means that you're rich. You have access to a beautiful church building and the Bible and wonderful worship; you're a lottery winner already. God has blessed you beyond measure. What will you do with your winnings? Let me urge all of us to consider this question: how will you live the one and only beautiful life that God has given you? If you're 63 or 89 years old, it's not too late. If you're 16 or 22, it's not too early. How will you live the one and only beautiful life that God has given you?
Jesus gives a succinct, clear answer on how to best live this life: live as a servant. The joy of servanthood is even better than winning the lottery. It affords the satisfaction of making ripples for God in this life and in eternity. That's the point of this story in Mark 10:32-45.
The disciples' request
So the story begins: "They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way." Servanthood doesn't mean that we let other people walk all over us. It doesn't mean constantly saying, "Let's do whatever you want to do." Jesus is modeling servant leadership here, which begins with a clear sense of mission. If you're leading anything—a small group or a business or a family—and you don't have a clear sense of mission, people will take advantage of you.
As Jesus is leading the way, he pulls aside his closest group of followers and tells them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed … condemn[ed] to death … mocked … killed." This is not a pretty picture. Notice the violent words in the passage: betray, condemn, hand over, mock, spit, flog, kill. Jesus states quite clearly that all of these things will happen to him soon—and he invites his disciples to join him: "We are going up to Jerusalem." I imagine the disciples may have been thinking, Whoa! I'm not sure about that we part, Jesus. Maybe you should take this one by yourself. But Jesus is perfectly clear: if you want to share in my glory and triumph, you must also share in my suffering.
This is the third time Jesus has told his disciples he would go to Jerusalem, suffer, and die (see Mark 8:31 and 9:31), but for some reason, his followers didn't get it—or didn't want to get it. After Jesus' third attempt to talk about his impending death, James and John, two of Jesus' closest disciples, pull him aside and say, "We want you to do whatever we ask." In other words, "Jesus, we have this blank check—would you mind just signing your name right here so we can cash it in?" As usual Jesus answers with a question: "What do you want me to do for you?" Remember James and John have spent three years with Jesus, and they have just heard Jesus declare for the third time that he is going to be betrayed, tortured, and murdered. Here is what they ask: When your kingdom party really gets cranking, can we have the best seats in the house?
How insensitive, dense, and cruel can you get? It's insensitive to Jesus, but it's also cruel to other disciples. To James and John, life is like the reality show Survivor, and they've just voted the other ten disciples off the island.
Bent towards recognition
Servanthood is the best way to spend our lives, but it isn't easy. It goes against the grain of our souls and the grain of our culture. That's why Jesus said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them." Yes, they sure did. Every time a Gentile picked up a copper coin, he saw the head of the reigning emperor Augusts (and later Tiberius) with the inscription: "He who deserves adoration." Talk about obnoxious and arrogant! But listen: every time we reject a lifestyle of servanthood, we're being just as arrogant and obnoxious. That's why Jesus radically rejects the path that leads to power and glory. "It's not so among you," he says. In other words, "You are called to something different" (Romans 12:1).
Unfortunately, this drive for power and glory isn't just an external reality; it's inside all of our hearts. Notice that James and John's unbelievably callous and self-serving attitudes arise as they are talking to Jesus. Isn't that scary? It scares me! I can know Jesus, talk with Jesus, use Jesus jargon, be busy serving in the church, listen to the sermon—even preach the sermon—and still be utterly callous and self-serving, driven by my ambition or lust for power and not by a spirit of servanthood. That's scary!
So, how do I live as a servant when I don't always want to be a servant? Even when I'm doing things for God, I want recognition and power and status. So how in the world can I go against the grain of my own flesh and the grain of this self-centered culture that I live in?
Christ's big story of servanthood
Here's the good news from Scripture: it doesn't start with you saying, "I have to try harder. I have to do better and act nicer. I have to be less selfish." It starts by getting your eyes off yourself and on to Jesus, because he is the Master Servant. Jesus knows servanthood. All of Scripture is the big, huge, amazing, exciting, adventurous story about how God comes to serve us and set us free. Once we've been set free, we get to join the story. Christ invites us to become players in the big story of servanthood.
Mark 10:45 says that this revolutionary idea of servanthood begins with Jesus coming not to be served but to serve us and to give his life as a ransom for us. Clearly and undeniably, following Jesus is good news. You see, it's impossible to follow Jesus, it's impossible to be freed from our sin and selfishness to pour out our lives for others, it's impossible to please God—unless Jesus first serves us. That is the gospel. Jesus serves us. We don't just need another religious leader to give us rules for how to live; we need someone to free us from captivity to sin and empower us to walk in real love. The Christian life is taking Jesus seriously when he says, "I came to serve you."
Jesus put it this way, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). So, every time Jesus tells us to do something—love our enemies, forgive those who hurt us, live a life of purity, share the Gospel, give generously of our time and money—he's really asking us to be served by him. When you become a Christian, you do not become God's helper; God becomes your helper. That's why becoming a Christian requires deep humility. We must admit we need help; we need someone to serve us. This is something we will never grow out of. Once we stop depending on Jesus, it's like we've stopped breathing; our spiritual life begins to suffocate.
How is Jesus serving us? Verse 45 says Jesus came "to give his life as a ransom for many." On the cross, Jesus serves us by paying our ransom. In Jesus' day ransom simply meant "to release, deliver, or set free." When someone wanted to set a slave free, he would pay the price of redemption, and the slave would become a free man.
Freedom from bondage
This idea of Jesus ransoming us leads to this central truth: apart from Christ, we are all hostages. We're enslaved to the power of sin—that's why we wind up in addictions and pettiness and poutiness and "demandingness" and selfishness. We're enslaved to our past, and we're dead in our sins; it's not a pretty picture. But God came to us in Jesus as a rescue operation. Jesus came to break the bonds of sin, to set us free from its power and the penalty of our sin. When Jesus died on the cross he broke the old way and offered us freedom—freedom to pursue intimacy with God, freedom to pursue wholeness and holiness.
During World War II, some American soldiers were being held in a prison camp. They were hostages without hope. Every day some of their buddies died or lost heart. No one was coming to rescue them. Somehow they smuggled in a short-wave radio, and they heard that the Allied forces had broken through and, for all practical purposes, the war was over. The Allies had won the war. The soldiers had a deliverer. Any day now freedom would be assured—as a matter of fact, freedom had already started. In the same way, those who trust in Jesus know and believe they have been set free by Christ. They've heard the news of salvation; they have believed the good news; they are now enjoying their liberation from slavery and bondage to sin and death.
Every time we engage in small acts of servanthood, we participate in the grand story of Jesus to set people free from bondage. If we don't keep that one story in front of our eyes and in our hearts, we get bogged down in our small, petty, pathetic, complaining stories of power and glory—which was exactly what happened with the disciples.
Releasing our egos
The toughest part of servant leadership is releasing the "I"—getting our ego out of the way. Servanthood is love, and before we can love we have to release our big, fat, all-consuming ego, the demand that the world should really revolve around me, my needs, my preferences, and my wants. James and John and the rest of the disciples are focused on their own personal agendas, so Jesus says, "You have no idea what you're asking. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" In other words, Jesus asks: Don't you realize my mission runs right through the cross? The mission isn't about your comfort. Do you really want my mission?
The other ten disciples catch wind of this conversation and the desire of James and John to vote them off the island, and they are indignant. Isn't this great! Jesus has announced his own death sentence, describing in detail his betrayal, torture, and murder, and his twelve closest, most-experienced disciples are all at each other's throats—backstabbing, judging, complaining, and finger-pointing.
Helen Roseveare, a medical missionary in Africa, was the only doctor in a large hospital. There were constant interruptions and shortages, and she was becoming increasingly impatient and irritable with everyone around her. Finally, one of the African pastors insisted, "Helen, please come with me." He drove Helen to his humble house and told her that she was going to have a retreat—two days of silence and solitude. She was to pray until her attitude adjusted. All night and the next day she struggled; she prayed, but her prayers seemed to bounce off the ceiling. Late on Sunday night, she sat beside the pastor around a little campfire. Humbly, almost desperately, she confessed that she was stuck. With his bare toe, the pastor drew a long straight line on the dusty ground. "That is the problem, Helen: there is too much 'I' in your service." He gave her a suggestion: "I have noticed that quite often, you take a coffee break and hold the hot coffee in your hands waiting for it to cool." Then he drew another line across the first one. "Helen, from now on, as the coffee cools, ask God, 'Lord, cross out the "I" and make me more like you.'" In the dust of that African ground, Helen Roseveare learned the master principle of Jesus: freedom comes through service, and service comes by releasing our ego. My mentor used to say, "The main problem in the church is that we have people following a crucified Savior who have a totally un-crucified ego."
As we release our precious, fragile egos into God's hands, we can truly start to serve like Jesus. Notice how Jesus does it. As his disciples are fighting and bickering, Jesus simply takes the initiative, calling them together and saying: Okay, everyone, time out! Let's all cool down and huddle up here. Isn't this practical? This is the first family conference and conflict resolution meeting mentioned in the Bible. Jesus, as a servant leader, takes the initiative and throws himself into the middle of the conflict. That's what servants do. Rather than saying, "That's not my job," Jesus sees a need and he takes initiative. Jesus has done this for us; now we can be a part of his story to rescue others.
Seeing with servant eyes
The exciting thing about being a servant leader is that you can do it anywhere. You pray. You spend time with the Father. You listen. As you listen, pray, and release your ego, you will see needs; they're all around you. You then start plugging in and making a difference. You're part of the grand story. Wherever you go you have the privilege of being part of this exciting rescue operation with Jesus.
I remember as a 16-year-old, I wanted to quit the varsity basketball team. I had just become a follower of Christ, and I couldn't reconcile my faith with my former idolatry of basketball. But my parents more or less commanded that I keep playing so I played. But I realized that basketball was more than just a game. Through it, I had a chance to serve others. We started a two-person prayer meeting before the games. Then we started a Bible study on Friday mornings for the basketball players, and then other athletes and students joined. When you're acting as a servant, you begin to see everything in life as an opportunity and privilege to bring the story of Jesus into the world.
This is God's plan: to gather people together into Christian community, form them, shape them, encourage and challenge them, and then send them out. It's an amazing plan, and so utterly subversive. Whatever you do—whether you're a student, a mechanic, an electrical engineer, a plumber, or a doctor—you're like an undercover spy. There's more to you than meets the eye. Yes, you're a nurse or a carpenter—and you should do that for the glory of God with all your might—but you're also a servant of the Living God, pointing toward, and living within, that grand story of Jesus the Servant.
Where do you see a need? What is stirring inside of you? What makes you weep? What burns within you? What makes you say, "Why doesn't someone do something about this?" Plug in there and make a difference. Ask God, "What can I do about this?"Don't live your life as a boring stone sitting on a shelf—make an impact! Live a life of servanthood.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.