January 2008 - Vol. 15

Jesus Washing Peter's Feet, by Ford Maddox Brown (1865)

The Greatest Title of All

Whoever would be great among you (Matthew 20:26)

by Don Schwager


What is the most coveted title in the Bible?
What prompted Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet at the last supper?
What character trait most identifies Jesus as the Messiah?

Titles and honors 
We like to rank people – to know who are our superiors and inferiors, and who is first, best, or the greatest. We are forever making distinctions and comparisons. Entitlement for the House of Lords in Great Britain is different than the House of Commons. One’s peers cannot be lords and commoners at the same time! We don’t address children as Sir or Madam. If you have more than one doctoral degree you may be called “Doctor Doctor” in some countries. Most lords and dignitaries are addressed as “your eminence” or “your excellency” while a select few are called “your most excellent eminence”.

Some are born with titles – others must earn them. And some must defend their titles against all takers. Muhammed Ali, the title winning world prize fighter, simply called himself “The Greatest”! 

Who wouldn’t cherish a title and recognition and the opportunity to be a “somebody” rather than a “nobody”. The appetite for glory and greatness is inbred in all of us. 

A title chosen by God
God addressed Abraham as his “friend” and “servant” (Genesis 26:24) and he honored Moses before the people as “my servant Moses ..who is entrusted with all my house” (Numbers 12:7). God addressed King David (Psalm 89:3) and all the prophets of Israel as “my servants” (Jeremiah 35:15). 

Jesus – God’s Chosen Servant
When Jesus was born, no earthly title was conferred on him. He was simply known as the “son of Joseph, the carpenter” (Luke 4:22). But his name, which means “God saves”, revealed the hidden plan of God for this child who was conceived, not of man, but of the Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. 

Jesus understood that his mission as the Messiah would involve his taking on the role of a “suffering servant” as described in the Book of 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)
Isaiah prophesied that this Servant would be God's instrument, a "sharp sword" for speaking God's word and executing God's decrees (Isaiah 49:2). This Servant would be a teacher of God's truth, but also a perfect disciple and learner (Isaiah 50:4). Lastly, he would be a suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), a "sinless one" who would be "numbered with the transgressors." He would be one who would yield himself, uncomplainingly, to unjust punishment. His work for a time would seem to have failed but he would meet adverse circumstances with enduring faith and courage. He would be deeply despised and abhorred by the nations, then disfigured, condemned and put to death. His death, however, would be a sin offering. By his atoning death many would be made righteous. He would not experience corruption since God would vindicate him gloriously by raising him up. His fruitful life beyond the grave would prove him to be the righteous one. It was the will of the Lord that he should first suffer and die and then prosper and reign victoriously (Isaiah 53:10-12).

King by right – Servant by choice
In love and obedience Jesus submitted to his Father's plan of salvation. He chose to follow the course set by his Father even though he could have accomplished the mission another way. 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 to an “atoning death”. He knew that the cross and resurrection was the way of triumph for overcoming his enemies and for establishing his everlasting kingdom.

Jesus, who knew well that he was Lord of all, set himself as an example to his disciples – as an example of a servant.

“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)
Paul the Apostle, in his letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2, explains how Jesus’ self-abasement, his willingness to become a servant, resulted in his exaltation as Lord of heaven and earth:
“Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the 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. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)
The character of servanthood
Jesus embraced the way of servanthood because it freed him to love selflessly and courageously for the sake of others. Everything he did – his life and ministry, his teaching and miracles, his  concern for the well-being of others – was motivated by one thing only  – selfless love for others – with its attributes, such as loving-kindness, goodness, gentleness, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and steadfast faithfulness. 

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 are arguing at the table with one another for “who is the greatest among them” (Luke 22:24). It is precisely at this moment that Jesus rises from the table and begins to do something which is shocking and unthinkable to his disciples – he stoops to wash their smelly, 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” (John 13:14). 
Freedom to serve in love
True servanthood is neither oppressive nor demeaning, because it’s motivating force is love rather than fear.

Paul states that servanthood is more than simply a willingness to serve and help others. Its chief characteristic is to put others first in our care and concern for them (Philippians 2:3) and to love them as we would love ourselves. It’s key not only for overcoming self-centeredness, selfishness, pride, conceit, and arrogance. It’s the way to true freedom, joy, and happiness. Jesus is our model. He shows us the way of perfect love and freedom through humble self-sacrificing service of others.

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. We are free to love as Christ loves because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit” (Romans 5:5). Paul reminds us that God 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 neighbour 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).
Servants of Jesus Christ
Is it any wonder that the greatest title which the first disciples chose for themselves was “servant of Jesus Christ”?
“And Mary said, 'Behold, I am the maid servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.'” (Luke 1:38)

“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1)

“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:1)

“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1)

“Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ” (Jude 1)

“Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1)

“The revelation of Jesus Christ ..to his servant John” (Revelations 1:1)

"Where I am, there shall my servant be also." (John 12:26)

Are you ready to serve as Jesus served and to lay down your life for others? Ask the Lord Jesus to give you a servant’s heart.

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

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