October/November 2017 - Vol. 94

Through Love Be Servants of One Another
By Don Schwager

In the Book of Genesis, beginning in chapter 37, we read the story of a remarkable young man who was anointed by God with a prophetic mission to be a savior for his people. Joseph, the second youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons, knew he was destined to rule on God’s behalf. What he didn’t understand at the time was that this mission would involve testing, suffering, and sacrificial service. His jealous brothers were determined to kill him. But out of fear of their father Jacob, who loved Joseph and favored him above all, they decided it was better to sell him into slavery to the Midianites who took him down to Egypt.

God was with Joseph through all his trials and setbacks. Whatever Joseph did brought blessing both to his taskmasters and to those who ill-treated him.

Serving Potiphar: Genesis 39:1-6
Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; and he was in the house of his master the Egyptian, and his master saw that the LORD was with him, and that the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.

Serving in prison: Genesis 39:20-23
And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love, and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph's care all the prisoners who were in the prison; and whatever was done there, he was  the doer of it; the keeper of the prison paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph's care, because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made  it prosper.

Serving the ruler of Egypt: Genesis 41:38-41
And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find such a man as this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you are; you shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.”

Joseph reunited with his brothers in Egypt
We do not hear of Joseph wallowing in self-pity, nor evading unpleasant duties. In fact he gave more than what was required or expected of him. He won the admiration and trust of his task masters because he put their interests above himself. He blessed others in the way he served them and cared for their needs, concerns, and interests.

God reversed the curse of Joseph’s slavery by elevating him to the highest position in Egypt, second only to Pharoah. When famine struck the world for seven years and threatened to decimate the surrounding peoples, Joseph’s brothers went to Egypt to buy grain, which Joseph had been wisely storing up for the seven years previously. When Joseph recognized his brothers, he pardoned rather than punished them. He used his position to save his family from death, and to reconcile and restore them in peace and unity together.

Jesus – God’s Chosen Servant
The early church fathers recognized the Patriarch Joseph as a type or prefigurement of Jesus Christ – God’s chosen servant (Isaiah 42:1; Matthew 12:15-21)).  Jesus understood that his mission as the Messiah and Redeemer of his people would involve taking on the role of a “suffering servant” as described in the Book of the prophet Isaiah:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law (Isaiah 42:1-4).
In love and obedience Jesus submitted to his Father’s plan of salvation. He knew that it was his Father’s will that he should suffer and die on the cross. It was love for fallen humankind that motivated Jesus to take the position of a servant rather than a king. He was king by right but servant by choice. He would bring the kingdom of God to the earth, not by military might or political stratagem, but rather by surrendering his life as an “atoning sacrifice” for the sin of the world. He knew that the cross would victory rather than defeat. The cross was God’s strategy for reversing the curse of sin and death. 

Jesus exchanged a throne for a cross and won victory through the shedding of his blood for our sake. He chose to be a servant for our sake – to free us from slavery to sin. His motto was simple and revolutionary at the same time – “not to be served but to serve.” He demanded no less from his disciples – they too must take up their cross and follow in his path of servanthood.
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  (Matthew 20:25-28).
Jesus embraced the way of servanthood with joy and obedience to his Father’s will. Everything Jesus did – his life and ministry, his teaching and miracles, his concern for the well-being of others – was motivated by one thing only – a love that was wholly directed towards others for their welfare. As John the Evangelist stated in his Gospel: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish buy have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Jesus love for others was personal and direct
Jesus’ love was very direct and personal. He never treated people impersonally or at a distance. Jesus often made it a point to stop what he was doing and to ask people what he could do for them. When a blind man, named Bartimaeus, shouted for Jesus’ attention, Jesus immediately stopped what he was doing and asked Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” Then Jesus immediately granted his request and restored his sight (Mark 10:46-52).

When Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, asked Jesus to heal his dying daughter, Jesus immediately went to the ruler’s home and asked to see the child on her sick bed. “Taking her by the hand, he said to her, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise’” (Mark 5:41).

When Jesus saw Zacchaeus, the tax collector, watching him from a distance in a tree, Jesus stopped what he was doing and began to speak with him. “Make haste and come down. I must stay at your house today!” (Luke 19:5-6. Jesus’ gracious invitation was not only an act of special favor and friendship, but a remarkable reversal of the scorn and distance usually shown to tax collectors at the time.

When the apostles tried to keep children away from Jesus, Jesus rebuked them and said, “Do not hinder the children from coming to me… then he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them” (Mark 10:13-16). When Jesus went to Peter’s home, he discovered that Peter’s mother-in-law had a fever. So Jesus “came and took her by the land and lifted her up, and the fever left her” (Mark 1:31).

Jesus’ compassionate care for others was more than a verbal expression of heartfelt sympathy. With his tender physical touch he personally identified with the misfortunes of others and went on to alleviate their suffering as well. When he met a man who could not speak or hear, he put his fingers into the man’s ears and he touched the man’s tongue with his own spittle – both to physically identify with his ailments and to bring his healing touch (Mark 7:32-35). When lepers approached Jesus he did not keep his distance to avoid contamination. He physically touched them, embracing them with his personal care, and he made them whole and well, both physically and spiritually (Mark 1:40-42).

Jesus identified so closely with people’s concerns and burdens, that these became his as well. He wept with those who lost loved ones and he mourned over the city of Jerusalem because many of its inhabitants were unprepared to receive the salvation he could bring them. Jesus shared in the joys of people as well – he even changed water into wine for a newly-wed couple when their wedding reception supply ran dry (John 2;1-10). The gospels state over and over again that when Jesus saw the crowds who came to see him “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36; Matthew 14:14 and 15:32; Mark 6:34).

Jesus loved with a servant’s heart – a heart that was always oriented to the needs and concerns of others.
In Jesus’ darkest hour, when the enemy was about to scatter his disciples and betray him to a criminal’s death on the cross, John tells us that Jesus “loved his own to the end” (John 13:1). In Luke’s account of the last supper, the disciples were arguing at table about “who was the greatest among them” (Luke 22:24). No wonder that Jesus rose from the table and began to do something that was shocking and unthinkable to his disciples – he removed his outer garment and stooped to wash their dirty feet with a towel and basin of water.

If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
(John 13:14-15)
Put on Jesus Christ 
If we want to follow Christ’s example, then we must learn how to be a servant and grow in the Christ-like qualities that make servanthood possible. Paul the Apostle tells us, in his letter to the Philippians, that the first thing we must do is put on the mind and heart of the Lord Jesus who chose to became a servant for our sake:
Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better 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 was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in for form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).
What does Paul mean when he says “do nothing from selfishness… but count others as better than ourselves?” Paul is describing the true nature of Christian humility and servanthood. We are called to empty ourselves of all that would hinder our growth in Christ – including pride, envy, hatred, selfishness, and greed. And in place of these vices we are called to put on the servant-like qualities of the Lord Jesus – compassion, mercy, kindness, patience, lowliness, and meekness. These are the qualities that enable us to truly lower ourselves to the last place – the place of a humble servant – so we can serve others better by giving them our highest attention and care.

Christian servanthood is made possible through the gift and working of the Holy Spirit. Paul the Apostle tells us that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Christians already have a divine power at work within us (2 Peter 1:3). The Spirit recreates us and gives us a new heart – the heart of a servant like the heart of Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us. 

Obstacles to servanthood
There are many obstacles that stand in the way of growing in the virtue of servanthood. For many of us, fear is a key road block: Fear of being taken-advantage of, fear of being asked to do unpleasant tasks, or to serve disagreeable and irksome people. Pride also gets in the way. “I deserve to be first.” “I deserve better treatment.” “I’ve earned the right to insist on what I want or what I prefer.”

For others, selfish ambition is the driving force that blinds them from serving others with attentive care. Selfish ambition can make us view and treat people as obstacles, interruptions, and problems that stand in the way of getting what we want. Self-centered people are concerned chiefly with themselves and with advancing their own interests to the exclusion of others. They seek only to manipulate and use others.

In our day, preoccupation with self is perhaps the biggest obstacle of all. Our materialist culture caters to putting self first. “You deserve the best! After all, you’re first.” We can easily become absorbed in our creaturely comforts and not notice how we might be neglecting others or missing the opportunity to give a helping hand.

It takes effort to serve others selflessly, it takes discipline to put their cares and concerns above my own, and a healthy dose of self-renunciation to place myself last rather than first. The willingness to change, and the courage to ask God to widen our hearts with generous love, are key steps for growth in Christ-like servanthood.

Freedom to serve in love
True servanthood is neither oppressive nor demeaning, because its motivating force is love rather than pride or fear.

The Lord Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has won great freedom for us – freedom from slavery to sin, selfishness, fear, and everything else that would keep us from loving others for their sake. Paul the Apostle reminds us that Christ has given us this freedom, not just for our own benefit, but for the opportunity to lay down our lives in loving service of our neighbor as well.
For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another (Galatians 5:1, 13).
With this gift of freedom comes the choice – to advance myself first or to put the interests of others first and to serve them with love. The gift of a servant’s heart – loving and serving others selflessly – involves more than simply giving some of my time and resources to help and care for others. Being a servant of Christ involves taking on the heart of Jesus – a heart that loves to give generously and serve with everything I have. After all, everything I possess – my life, gifts, talents, and material goods – come from God. I can use them simply to please myself or share them in serving and caring for others.

The Scriptures are full of examples of men and women who loved and served with generous hearts, and who willingly put the interests of others ahead of themselves. 

One notable example comes from the Second Book of Samuel, Chapter 23. King Saul, out of envy, was pursuing David as he fled into the wilderness. Saul was determined to put him to death. At one point when Saul’s men were closing in on David, David, along with a band of his loyal companions, hid in a cave at Adulum. In his weariness and thirst, David spoke of his longing for a taste of the cool refreshing waters from the well at Bethlehem, his hometown. Before David could realize the impact of his words on his men, three of his companions chose to break through the enemy’s lines so they could fetch for David some cool refreshing water. They risked their lives to serve David in this act of kindness. David wept when they returned with water from the well at Bethlehem (2 Samuel 23:13-17).

Another example, this one from the New Testament, shows how Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus, looked upon herself as a “maidservant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38,48). When the angel Gabriel greeted her and told her that she would be the mother of the Messiah, she did not hesitate to give her unqualified “yes.” When she heard the news that her elderly cousin Elizabeth was expecting a child, she went in haste to give personal support and practical help (Luke 1:39). Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months – no short time of personal, probably often menial, service (Luke 1:56).

To serve is to reign with Christ
An early church father once said, “To serve Christ is to reign with him” (see Revelations 5:10). When we submit our lives to the Lord and Master of the universe and allow him to work in and through us, we, too become a blessing to many others. Our joy and privilege is to be servants of Jesus Christ – not just when we offer our prayers or when we perform some act of service. Indeed, our privilege is to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in each and every circumstance of our daily lives.

Distinguishing True Servanthood from Self-serving Interests and Selfish Ambition
Serves Others Selflessly
Selfish Ambition
Serves out of self-interest; preoccupied with self-concerns, avoids unpleasant tasks. Serves the interests of others, other-focused, attentive to their concerns, puts the welfare and good of others first. Wants to be served and be first; 
acts like a dictator – overbearing, controlling, outspoken/opinionated.
The self-oriented individual expresses interest and motivation for things of their own liking, and express disinterest or dislike for things they don’t care about. 

“What’s in it for me?” “How will it benefit me or help me advance?”


Other-focused, motivated to serve, build up, and strengthen others; takes on the concerns and interests of others as if they were his/her own.

Not preoccupied with oneself – a healthy disinterest in self that frees a person to focus attention and service on the needs of others. 


Self-centered and selfish, concerned chiefly or only with yourself and your advantage, to the exclusion of others.

Disinterested in others. Views and treats other people as obstacles, interruptions, problems, and as inferiors. Lacks interest in and concern for the welfare of others.

Self-minded individuals are preoccupied with their own interests, opinions, and personal concerns. 

They don’t recognize, listen, or pay attention to what others think and are concerned about.


Listens first; seeks to understand others before being understood. 

Cooperative, and good team builder.


Arrogant, know-it-all attitude, “I’m always right, they are wrong.” “I can do it better by myself.”

Distrust of others; can’t listen to others; prefers imposing his/her own views rather than building consensus and motivating team spirit and cooperation.

Self-interested people try to shuffle unpleasant tasks and problems to others so they can focus on their own preferences and interests. Enjoys serving others anonymously – doesn’t look for credit, reward, or payback. Coerces others to do his/her bidding and to advance their  own interests.
Reactive rather than proactive –driven by feelings/moods, and  by the changing circumstances and problems which interrupt the status quo – cripples objective thinking, problem-solving, response, and decision-making.

Timid/fearful of other people’s reactions, opinions, and demands.


Proactive and responsible (response-able) rather than reactive (being driven by feelings, circumstances, or the social environment). 

Proactive people make love a verb (reactive people make love a feeling).  Love is something you do – the giving of self, making sacrifices, serving others freely.


Motivates others through fear, intimidation, and punishment.


This article is excerpted from Training in Excellence, by Don Schwager, published by Kairos, 2014, and is available from Tabor House Books.

Don Schwager is a member of the Servants of the Word and author of the Daily Scripture Readings and Meditations website. 

His book, Servants of Jesus Christ: What can the New Testament teach us about the transforming power of Christ's love and the way servanthood? is available from Tabor House Books.

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