True Servanthood in the Footsteps of Jesus

by Daniel Brueske, John Lee April 26, 2023

Editor’s Note: This post is excerpted from A Ransom for Many by John J.R. Lee and Daniel Brueske (Lexham Press, 2023). This book is now available for purchase.

We believe that the term “service,” as applied to the mission of Jesus, must be understood in a nuanced and refined manner. Its overuse in our era has cheapened the concept. But in Jesus’s case, “service” meant embracing the most shameful and despised fate of his time—death on a Roman cross. It meant being condemned by his fellow Jews as one accursed by Israel’s God (cf. Gal 3:13; Deut 21:23). It meant being mocked by the Romans as a failed insurrectionist (cf. Mark 15:16–20). And the final phrase of Mark 10:45 (“to give his life as a ransom for many”) points to the ultimate expression of the Son of Man’s radical servanthood, his atoning death. Jesus did not allow his unique identity and authority to exempt him from the kingdom principle of sacrificial servanthood (cf. Phil 2:6–8). Instead, he lived it out fully (Mark 10:45) and thus provided the foundation and prototype for his followers’ radical servanthood in his footsteps (10:43–44; cf. 9:35–37;).

This emphasis on sacrificial servanthood is not limited to Mark’s Gospel alone. It is found across the New Testament (John 15:12–13; Eph 5:2; 1 John 3:16). Church history is replete with examples of radical servanthood in the footsteps of Jesus. Just beyond the apostolic era, 1 Clement 55:2 reports, “We know that many among ourselves have delivered themselves to bondage, that they might ransom others. Many have sold themselves to slavery, and receiving the price paid for themselves have fed others” (trans. J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer). This reported practice among early Christians reflects a literal application of Mark 10:45.2 Other examples of Christian servanthood across the centuries are not hard to find. One of the most notable examples is Francis of Assisi. Before his conversion, Francis felt a strong aversion to the sight of lepers. But after his conversion, he went to live in a leprosarium to care for those with the disease.3

Mark 10:45 does not describe service in general and abstract terms. Instead, the portrayal is quite specific and personal. The service in Mark 10:45 is a service that a particular person, Jesus, has offered in a specific manner at a specific time and place, namely, giving his life sacrificially for the sake of others by being crucified on a Roman cross. And he did this despite the defeat that such a death signified in the eyes of his contemporaries. If we want to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, we must also do so in a personal way in our own specific time and space. The readers of this book will likely have one or two people they can quickly identify as their models of sacrificial service. For some, time would fail them to tell about their heroes of Christ-like servanthood (cf. Heb 11:32).

However, following Jesus’s example of servanthood may also take less conspicuous forms and may have a more manageable and mundane expression. For instance, welcoming neighbors over for dinner, staying late after church to vacuum the building, serving in a food line that feeds the hungry, or offering to babysit for a single parent can all be meaningful ways of serving others sacrificially. The core thread common to each of these acts is a willingness to subordinate our liberties, comforts, rights, and sometimes even our necessities to those of others, and, in so doing, we embody Jesus’s own habit of sacrificial service in a small yet meaningful way.

To be clear, Mark’s message is not that we must suffer or serve in order to get into heaven. Suffering and service do not earn our redemption and reconciliation with God. And not everyone who follows Jesus will face the same obstacles. Interestingly, Acts 12:2 mentions the death of James, which likely occurred only a decade or so after the request of Mark 10:37, yet church tradition indicates that his brother John lived to an old age. Likewise, in John 21:18–24, the resurrected Messiah foretells two very different paths for Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Mark does not claim that we will all experience the same afflictions and persecutions or identify the same needs among our neighbors.

Instead, the message of Mark is that those who follow Jesus must be willing to complete the journey. It is not enough simply to hear the message of the kingdom (Mark 4:4, 15). It is not even enough to receive that message with joy and start following Jesus if we are not committed to remaining with him to the end (4:5–7, 16–19). It is only those who receive the message of the kingdom and bear the fruit of loyal perseverance—committed to following Jesus wherever he leads and whatever it costs—who can say that they have truly followed him (4:8, 20). If you consider yourself a disciple of Jesus, it is worthwhile to ask yourself periodically, “What obstacles might deter me from staying on the path?” This world offers many distractions to lure us off the path of discipleship. For the rich man, it was his earthly treasure (10:17–22). For James and John, it was the pursuit of honor (10:35–37). For Peter, it was an aversion to shame and suffering (8:32; 14:66–72). What tempts you to sidestep the shame and suffering that may come with following Jesus? What are you unwilling to give in service to Jesus and others?

The spirit of competition and worldly success that once possessed James and John (10:35–40) is still rampant in our generation. Even churches, Christian institutions, and missions organizations are not immune. Too often, we view one another as competitors, not recognizing that Jesus sharply opposed this sort of perspective. We must again listen to Jesus, who sharply contrasted his way (Mark 1:3; cf. Isa 40:3) with that of the world: “it shall not be so among you”(10:43, ESV)! We who would follow Jesus on the way to the cross must deny ourselves and take up our own crosses (8:34), and we must learn to embrace the way of God rather than the ways of the world (8:33).

2 Garland, A Theology of Mark’s Gospel, 453n62.

3 Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: The Life (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 18–19.