Servanthood is central to the work of the church simply because it was central to the work of Jesus.
Jesus’ ministry included two types of activity: he said things, and he did things. Through his parables, sermons, theological debates, and conversations with current and would-be disciples, Jesus presented a compelling vision of what he called “the Kingdom of God.” These teachings envisioned the world as it would be if people lived like God were King, and as it will be when Christ returns.
It is sometimes said that Jesus performed miracles mainly to validate his teachings. According to this line of thinking, the miracles simply proved that Jesus had authority to speak on God’s behalf. “You need to listen to me because I can do this, or else.”
There is no question but that Jesus’ power demonstrated his authority. But it is also true that Jesus did not do miracles just to draw a crowd. This becomes immediately clear when we consider the nature of Jesus’ miracles.
Jesus never walked into the middle of a crowded street, called for attention, and then levitated before teaching. Jesus never pointed to a boulder and lifted it into the air without touching it before spouting a few parables. Jesus could have demonstrated his divine authority by disappearing in front of the Pharisees and teleporting to the top of a nearby house. All these things would have been impressive, and all would have demonstrated that God was speaking through Jesus. Yet he never did any of that. In fact, on one occasion when Satan encouraged Jesus to do things like this—“Turn these stones to bread”; “Jump off the top of the temple in front of all these people”—he refused.
Instead, Jesus validated his teachings through works of power that met the needs of others. His miracles were a central part of his message, not something he did to get people to listen to his message. His actions were sermons in their own right. In fact, most of Jesus’ teachings were simply commentary on things he was doing in his ministry.
Jesus healed people. He made blind people see; he made lepers whole; he made lame people walk. Jesus brought people back from death, and brought their families back from grief and despair. He turned water to wine at a wedding so the groom wouldn’t be ashamed. Jesus walked on water, but he didn’t do that so people would listen to him; he did it to save his disciples from drowning.
Jesus was in the business of serving others, and in the business of changing the world through service. If dead people can come back to life; if 5000 hungry people can be fed on five loaves of bread; if lepers go home clean; if blind people see—if the impossible can happen, then God can change people’s hearts in powerful ways. When people look beyond themselves and serve others, the way that Jesus did, God’s Kingdom comes and His will is done, and this earth begins to look like heaven.
We can preach to our co-workers all day long, and they can counter our best arguments with things they read on the internet. We can rant about our values and the decline of our society on social media, and people will just ignore us. Helping someone pick up a stack of papers that they’ve just dropped, or working overtime because someone called in sick, are theological statements that cannot be refuted. Meeting the needs of others touches them on a deeply emotional and personal level, one that overcomes intellectual barriers.
If a church does not cultivate a spirit of servanthood, its members can never fully imitate Jesus.
Tom Thatcher | The Elemental Group
Adapted from The Elemental Churches Inventory Field Guide
Dr. Tom Thatcher is co-founder and Chief Analyst of The Elemental Group. He has served as Dean of the Russell School of Ministry and Cincinnati Bible Seminary and professor of Biblical Studies. He has served on numerous research committees in the Society of Biblical Literature and has authored or edited 20 books on the New Testament. As an administrator, Tom has substantial experience in program review, strategic planning, organizational infrastructure, and outcomes assessment.
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