When Jesus washed the feet of His disciples the evening before He was crucified, He was demonstrating the command He had given them just before He traveled to Jerusalem for the last time:
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
The next day Jesus laid down His life to serve as a ransom for many. Today He yet continues His ministry for us:
“Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.”
The motif of slave and ministry also runs through the first two chapters of Philippians. This theme was on Paul’s mind because he was writing from prison. Paul opens his letter by calling himself and Timothy slaves of Christ, and when he speaks of his imprisonment in 1:7, 13, 14 and 17, he uses a Greek word with the same root word as slave—a word that means to bind.1 And then in chapter two, he again uses the word slave, this time as he describes the ministry of Christ and writes that Jesus took the form of a slave.
Paul’s use of Christ’s theme of slavery teaches us about how we are to understand ministry both in regard to Jesus and to people. Paul did not see himself as greater than his master. Jesus spoke of ministry in terms of being a slave, and Paul did as well. He acknowledged the authority of Jesus to define ministry. Jesus took the form of a slave, and Paul became one as well. When Paul said he was a slave of Christ Jesus, he recognized to whom he belonged, and he acknowledged the authority of Jesus over him. Thus in his understanding and in his actions, Paul acknowledged Jesus is Lord. Do we do these things when we speak of ministry?
In his introductory sermon on Philippians, John MacArthur states:
…Paul says in verse 7, “In my imprisonment,” he says in verse 13, “my imprisonment,” verse 14, “my imprisonment,” verse 17, “my imprisonment,” or my chains, or my bonds.
But in spite of all of this he was not the slave of Rome. He was the servant of Jesus Christ. It was Jesus Christ who would meet all his needs. It was Jesus Christ who would choose all his duties, like 2 Samuel 15:15 where it says so beautifully, “Thy servants are ready to do whatsoever my Lord the King shall appoint.” It was Jesus Christ who would provide all his needs, who said, “My grace is sufficient for you,” he served Jesus Christ.2
As Paul wrote of his imprisonment, he recognized its beneficial results in the lives of others. In 1:3-7, his imprisonment for the gospel had strengthened the ties of love between Paul and the Philippians. From 4:18, it’s evident that the Philippians’ concern for Paul had caused them to send Epaphroditus to him, and this had so encouraged Paul and meant so much to him. In 1:12-18, we see Paul’s joy that his imprisonment had meant the spreading of the gospel, more people heard of Christ, other believers were strengthened to trust in God and grew in their courage to speak God’s Word without fear. All of this happened because Paul was a slave of Christ. Whatever the work God gave Paul to do, he did—even though it meant imprisonment, for Paul knew he was not in the bonds of Rome, but in the bonds of Christ.
Because Paul was a slave for Christ, the gospel spread, people heard and believed the good news, love increased, joy abounded and courage grew. Because Paul was a slave of Christ it meant the endurance of great difficulties, but Paul knew it also meant eternal life for those whose lives were changed forever as they heard of Jesus Christ and repented and believed the gospel.
Being a slave of Christ was not only Paul’s calling, but is also the calling for each Christian. I’ve written previously that each believer has received a special gift with a responsibility of service towards other believers and an accountability of stewardship towards God. We tend to think of spiritual gifts more in terms of personal fulfillment rather than in terms of service. We usually don’t think of ministry in terms of being a slave at all, but when we do so, and submit our life to Christ as our Lord, we find grace, help and the perseverance to continue in whatever ministry He gives to us. And we also find love and joy as we see the results that God brings in the lives of those whom we serve.
In ministry we are slaves of Christ as we follow His pattern for ministry.
The stained-glass window number 23 (middle, detail) in the Sint Janskerk at Gouda/Netherlands:
“Jesus washing the feet of the disciples”, Wouter Crabeth (Gouda), 1562, from his own design:
Photograph by Joachim Köhler.
1W. E. Vine, Old Testament Edited by F. F. Bruce, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1981, Vol. 1, pp. 138–139.
2John MacArthur, Grace to You: The Epistle of Joy .
Dr. MacArthur has a new book, Slave, that will be coming out in January, 2011.
Original content: Copyright ©2010 Iwana Carpenter