This article is part of the Key Bible Verses series.
He Came to Serve
Christ set the ultimate example of service and sacrifice when he condescended to us and submitted to death on our behalf. Likewise, we are called to humbly serve others. Be encouraged by reading the following Scriptures with commentary from the ESV Study Bible.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant 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 is yours in 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, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
There is always a temptation to be like Paul’s opponents in Philippians 1:17 and operate in a spirit of selfish ambition, looking to advance one’s own agenda. Such conceit (lit., “vainglory”) is countered by counting others more significant than yourselves. Paul realizes that everyone naturally looks out for his or her own interests. The key is to take that same level of concern and apply it also to the interests of others. Such radical love is rare, so Paul proceeds to show its supreme reality in the life of Christ (Phil. 2:5–11).
This passage is often referred to as the “hymn of Christ.” Paul depicts Christ’s example of service in a stirring poem that traces his preexistence, incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God. Paul wrote this magnificent theology to encourage the Philippians to consider other people’s interests first (see Phil. 2:4). Jesus is the paradigm of genuine spiritual progress: not a self-aggrandizing struggle for supremacy, but a deep love for God and neighbor shown in deeds of service. Philippians 2:6–11 have some clear indications of poetic structure, leading some to believe that this is a pre-Pauline hymn adapted by Paul. It is just as likely, however, that Paul composed the hymn for this setting. In view of the myriad theological questions that arise in these verses, it is critical to keep two things in mind: (1) these verses were written not to spur Christians to theological debate but to encourage greater humility and love; and (2) the summary of Christ’s life and ministry found here is not unique: the same themes are evident throughout the New Testament.
The believer’s mind needs to reflect on the proper model, if life is to be lived for God. There is some debate as to whether this mind-set is something Christians receive by virtue of being united to Christ (which is yours in Christ Jesus), or whether it is to be based on the model of Christ (ESV footnote: “which was also in Christ Jesus”). (The Gk. has no verb; either “is” or “was” has to be supplied.) In light of the consistent theme of behavior modeling in this letter (Jesus, Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus are all held out as examples), many interpreters have adopted the latter meaning. Both ideas are theologically true. In either case, the central theme of Philippians 2:1–5 is the same—that the Philippian church would be of one mind (Phil. 2:2), united by love (Phil. 2:2) and humility (Phil. 2:3), and looking out for the interests of others (Phil. 2:4).
Prior to the incarnation, Christ was in the form of God (Gk. morphē theou). Despite the assertions of some scholars to the contrary, this most naturally refers to the “preexistence” of Christ—he, the eternal Son, was there with the Father (John 1:1; 17:5, 24) before he was born in Bethlehem. “Form” here means the true and exact nature of something, possessing all the characteristics and qualities of something. Therefore having the “form of God” is roughly equivalent to having equality with God (Gk. isa theō), and it is directly contrasted with having the “form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). The Son of God is and always has been God. “Form” could also be a reference to Christ being the ultimate image of God, “the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). It might also refer to the fact that he is the visible expression of God’s invisible glory (Col. 1:15). Remarkably, Christ did not imagine that having “equality with God” (which he already possessed) should lead him to hold onto his privileges at all costs. It was not something to be grasped, to be kept and exploited for his own benefit or advantage. Instead, he had a mind-set of service. “Christ did not please himself” (Rom. 15:3). In humility, he counted the interests of others as more significant than his own (Phil. 2:3–4).
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.
The kind of servitude practiced in the first century was seldom in keeping with God’s will; the Scriptures regulate the institution without commending it, and the evil of trafficking in human beings is condemned in the New Testament (1 Tim. 1:10; cf. Rev. 18:11–13). As in any other city or village in the Roman world, there would have been many slaves (or bondservants) at Colossae; Paul treats them with dignity and appeals to them directly to honor Christ in their hearts, work, and behavior. Philemon (see the book of Philemon) was a wealthy Colossian who benefited from the labors of his bondservant, Onesimus. Slaves (or bondservants) should work heartily, not primarily to please their earthly masters but as if they were working for the Lord. The principles of Colossians 3:22–4:1 apply to employers and employees today.
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1 Peter 4:10–11
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
All believers have received at least one spiritual gift from God, and they are not to hoard these gifts but use them faithfully as stewards of God’s grace (cf. 1 Cor. 12–14). Peter divides spiritual gifts generally into speaking and serving gifts (for more detailed lists, see Rom. 12:6–8; 1 Cor. 12:8–10, 28–30; and Eph. 4:11). Those who speak must not propound their own ideas but faithfully declare God’s words (oracles). Similarly, those who serve must not depend on their own strength but draw their strength from God, so that God alone may be glorified through Jesus Christ.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Freedom from the law does not lead to libertinism, for believers by the power of the Spirit live a new life characterized by love. Far from the Christian life being enslaving, it is the only way to resist the various slaveries offered by the world. But this does not mean that Christians can do whatever they feel like doing (which itself is just another form of slavery). Rather, serving and loving others is the route to escaping bondage and fulfilling the ultimate content of the law.
Opportunity for the flesh means “opportunity to follow your fallen, sinful desires and act contrary to God’s moral laws.” When Paul says the whole law is fulfilled in the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and when he uses that command as the reason why the Galatians are to “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13), he implies that Christians still have a moral obligation to follow the moral standards found in God’s “law” in Scripture. Obedience is not a means of justification, but it is a crucial component of the Christian life.
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But 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 slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The disciples are to be marked by humility of service, not by wanting to lord it over those for whom they are responsible. Jesus does not deny all use of human authority (cf. Matt. 16:19; Matt. 18:18) but exposes its oppressive misuse.
Leadership among God’s people should be characterized by serving the people and acting for their best interests, not by assuming that the people are to serve the leaders. These principles apply not only to leadership in the church but also in all relations (e.g., in civil government, the civil authority is to be “God’s servant for your good” [Rom. 13:4; cf. 1 Sam. 8:11–20; 12:3–5]).
The messianic rule of God is inaugurated by the greatest example of service: Jesus’ death as a substitutionary atonement (ransom for many; cf. Lev. 5:14–6:7; Isa. 52:14, 15; 53:8–12; Mark 14:24; Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:3; and note on 1 Tim. 2:6), offered by the future ruler (Son of Man; cf. Dan. 7:13–14; Mark 8:38; 14:62; and note on Matt. 8:20). This quality of humility and love for others, flowing from the infinite love of God for his people, will also characterize Christ’s eternal rule. The “ransom” of Christ’s life was paid to God the Father, who accepted it as just payment for the sins of “many” (all who would be saved).
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, 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 just as I have done to you.”
The disciples will understand fully only after the cross, though they do grasp in part Jesus’ amazing humility, which serves as a model for all of his disciples. Footwashing continues as a regular ceremony in a number of modern denominations, which literally obey Jesus’ command, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. Others believe the language is figurative for the importance of serving one another, and that the act itself is not required.
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But [the disciples] kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
In conjunction with their messianic expectation of a political liberator, the disciples dream of status, honor, and power, along the lines of the Maccabean revolt (166–160 B.C.; cf. Mark 8:34–38). Teachers often sat in order to teach. Just as the Messiah of God leads by suffering, each disciple is to lead (be first) by becoming a servant of all. The suffering of Jesus not only marks the beginning of the messianic rule of God but characterizes patterns of conduct (such as humility, faith, and love) that are required in the kingdom (Phil. 2:1–11).
‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
In the context of the parable, “the least of these refers” to those who are most needy among Jesus’ brothers—a reference most likely to Jesus’ disciples and by extension all believers. The “sheep” are commended for their great compassion for those in need—for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger; for those who are naked, sick, or in prison. The righteous will inherit the kingdom not because of the compassionate works that they have done but because their righteousness comes from their transformed hearts in response to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, as evidenced by their compassion for the “least of these.” In caring for those in need, the righteous discover that their acts of compassion for the needy are the same as if done for Jesus himself (you did it to me).
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus’ disciples have the kingdom life within them as a living testimony to those in the world who do not yet have the light. The typical lamp in a Jewish home was fairly small and was placed on a stand to give maximum illumination.
The world will see the light of the kingdom through the good works done by Jesus’ disciples (and believers today), with the result that the Father who is in heaven will be glorified.
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
Christians should concentrate upon and give their energies to the gifts God has given them, whether in serving others, teaching God’s Word patiently, or in exhortation and encouragement in the things of God. Thus Paul spotlights three attitudes necessary in exercising particular gifts: (1) those who have a special gift of helping others financially should never give grudgingly but always generously; (2) those who lead often have no one to whom they are accountable, and hence they must beware of laziness; (3) those who show mercy to the hurting must not grow weary but continue to minister with gladness.
All that Paul says is embraced by the call to love. Love cannot be reduced to sentimentalism. abhor. Christians are to hate evil. Hospitality was very important for early Christians, for most of them could not afford hotels (lodging houses) when traveling but depended on the provision of fellow believers.
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