Christian Greatness Comes from Serving
“Among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant.”—Matt. 20:26, New English Bible.
1. How does Jesus’ life stand in contrast to that of many persons today?
SERVICE lies at the very heart of true Christianity. When on earth, God’s Son said that he came, not “to be served, but to serve, and to give up his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28, New English Bible) His life stands in strong contrast to the self-seeking, ambitious attitude of so many today who are insensitive to the needs of others. By a life of unselfish service, Jesus set the perfect model for all his genuine followers to copy. Their lives, like his, should be distinguished by service and the spirit of giving.
2, 3. (a) What is distinctive about the word for “serve” used at Matthew 20:28 as compared with other Greek words relating to service? (b) What are we now interested in finding out?
2 The word translated “serve” that the Bible writer Matthew used when quoting Jesus is of interest to us. In the original Greek it is the verb di·a·ko·neʹo. There are other Greek verbs that refer to service and each has its own “flavor” or emphasis on a certain aspect of service. One verb may emphasize the subjection involved in serving as a slave (dou·leuʹo; Col. 3:24), another, the sacredness of religious service (la·treuʹo; Matt. 4:10), and another, the public nature of the service rendered (lei·tour·geʹo; Acts 13:2). Di·a·ko·neʹo, on the other hand, lays emphasis on the very personal nature of the service that is rendered to another. As one authority says, in this verb there “is a stronger approximation to the concept of a service of love.”—Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II, page 81.
3 What, then, does Christian service embrace? Is it limited to such activities as preaching God’s Word, making disciples of others or serving the strictly spiritual needs of those in the congregation? What does the word under consideration (di·a·ko·neʹo) show?
WAITING ON AND CARING FOR OTHERS
4. How does the Bible aptly illustrate the basic sense of the Greek word for “serve” that we are considering?
4 The Bible’s use of this word aptly illustrates the basic sense of personal service (expressed not only by the Greek verb but also by the related nouns di·aʹkonos [servant, minister] and di·a·ko·niʹa [service, ministry]).a One early use of the word refers to ‘waiting on tables.’ Luke uses it that way in quoting Jesus’ words about a slave’s ‘preparing his master’s supper and then waiting on [di·a·ko·neʹo] him while he had his meal.’ (Luke 17:7-10, NE) At Luke 12:35-38 (NE) Jesus gave his disciples an illustration in which the master, representing Jesus himself, traded roles with his slaves who had faithfully awaited his arrival from his wedding feast. Jesus said of the master in the illustration: “He will fasten his belt, seat them at table, and come and wait on [di·a·ko·neʹo; serve, Kingdom Interlinear Translation; minister to, New World Translation] them.”b
5, 6. (a) In what way did certain Christian women engage in service of this kind? (b) What does all of this show as to the scope of the Bible term being considered?
5 Not only ‘waiting on tables,’ however, but all services of a similar personal nature came to be embraced by the term. The Bible tells of certain Christian women who “provided for,” “waited on” or ‘ministered to’ the needs of Jesus and his apostles “from their belongings,” both in Galilee and in Jerusalem. (Luke 8:1-3; Matt. 27:55; Mark 15:41; NE, NW) They may have done shopping and cooking, the mending and washing of clothes, or performed other services of a similar nature, even using their own funds and possessions to supply needed materials.
6 We see, then, that this term is not restricted to purely “religious” activity but embraces a wide scope of service.
SERVING NEEDY BROTHERS
7. Why can we be sure that Jehovah God and Jesus Christ give real importance to this kind of service, not underestimating it?
7 We should never doubt that Jehovah God and his Son Jesus Christ give real importance to this kind of service. Jesus personally experienced human needs such as hunger and thirst. He undoubtedly appreciated it greatly when, after forty days of fasting, “angels appeared and waited on [di·a·ko·neʹo] him.” (Matt. 4:11, NE) In a parable given toward the close of his earthly service, Jesus described his judgment upon two classes of persons, one class likened to “sheep,” the other to “goats.” The “sheep,” who were approved and blessed, came to the aid of Christ’s brothers when they saw them in need. But the “goats,” who were condemned, saw these in hunger and thirst, in need of hospitality or lodging, lacking clothing or ill or in prison and ‘did not come to their help [di·a·ko·neʹo; did not “serve” or “minister” to them, Int; NW].’—Matt. 25:31-46, Jerusalem Bible.
8, 9. (a) How did Christians in the first century show that they appreciated clearly the importance of serving the physical needs of their brothers? (b) How did the apostle Paul show his concern that this “service” be performed in a proper way?
8 True disciples of Jesus during the first century C.E. proved themselves “sheeplike” in attitude and action. When Christians in Macedonia and Achaia heard that their brothers in Judea were in need, they gathered relief supplies and sent these to them, performing a “relief ministration [di·a·ko·niʹa].” (Acts 11:29; 12:25, NW) For they recognized that the Judean brothers had rendered them precious spiritual service and that they had a corresponding ‘debt’ that made it fitting for them to “do them a service in material ways” (An American Translation); to “minister publicly to these with things for the fleshly body” (NW). (Rom. 15:25-27) This was especially commendable on the part of the Macedonian congregations. Though themselves in a state of poverty, they proved to be “lavishly open-handed.” As Paul says: “Going to the limit of their resources, as I can testify, and even beyond that limit, they begged us most insistently, and on their own initiative, to be allowed to share in this generous service [di·a·ko·niʹa; ministry, NW] to their fellow-Christians.” (2 Cor. 8:2-4, NE) What a powerful example of unselfish service for us today!
9 The apostle Paul was very concerned that this relief measure should be conducted in a fine manner, so that there would be no “criticism of our handling [di·a·ko·neʹo; administering, JB] of this generous gift,” whether from those on the giving end or those on the receiving end of the project. For that reason, others, “delegates of our congregations,” were ‘duly appointed to travel’ with Paul and Titus (whom Paul called “my partner and my associate”).—2 Cor. 8:19-23, NE.
10 Paul himself later experienced refreshing help from men like Onesiphorus and Onesimus as they ‘served’ and ‘looked after’ (di·a·ko·neʹo) him in times of trial. (2 Tim. 1:16-18; Philem. 10-13, NE) When writing to the Corinthians, he showed them what fine results all such kind, unselfish serving brings to God’s praise and the advancement of the good news. Of the “provision of aid” (di·a·ko·niʹa; “service,” Int; “ministry,” NW) for the Judean brothers, he said: “Through our action such generosity will issue in thanksgiving to God, for as a piece of willing service this is not only a contribution towards the needs of God’s people; more than that, it overflows in a flood of thanksgiving to God. For through the proof which this affords, many will give honour to God when they see how humbly you obey him and how faithfully you confess the gospel of Christ; and will thank him for your liberal contribution to their need and to the general good. And as they join in prayer on your behalf, their hearts will go out to you because of the richness of the grace which God has imparted to you.”—2 Cor. 9:1, 11-14, NE.
11. (a) In what ways does our thoughtful care for the physical needs of others contribute to the expansion of pure worship? (b) What is one of the ways that we can show ‘love of God’s name,’ according to Hebrews 6:10?
11 Yes, the good news of God’s kingdom becomes meaningful to people when they see the effect it has on the personalities of those embracing it, the generosity and love of neighbor that it generates. Such thoughtful service and giving to others not only causes these to feel gratitude toward the human givers but also “overflows in a flood of thanksgiving to God.” It recommends true Christianity as the finest way of life, as true worship of a kind and loving God. (Compare James 1:26, 27; 2:14-17; 1 John 3:16-18.) No wonder, then, that Paul could write to Hebrew Christians who had come to the aid of their brothers and assure them that “God would not be so unjust as to forget all that you did for love of his name, when you rendered service [di·a·ko·neʹo; ministered, NW] to his people, as you still do.”—Heb. 6:10, NE; compare Heb 10:32-34; 1 Corinthians 16:15, 16.
12, 13. (a) In what way can worldly government be described as God’s “servants”? (b) What is the difference between their service and that rendered by Jesus’ disciples?
12 Because these Greek words for serving were expanded to include, not just ‘waiting on tables,’ but all kinds of personal service, they can be applied even to worldly governments. For that reason the “superior authorities” of the present system of things are called God’s “servants” in a particular sense. At Romans 13:4 (An American Translation) the inspired apostle says of such governmental authority: “They are God’s agents [di·aʹko·nos; it is God’s minister, NW] to do you good. But if you do wrong you may well be afraid, for they do not carry swords for nothing. They are God’s servants [di·aʹkonos], to execute his wrath upon wrongdoers.” God allows these political systems to continue for a time and to render certain services that benefit his people on earth and that contribute to a measure of order and protection against lawlessness. In that sense they are his “servants.”
13 These worldly governments, however, do not serve out of love for God or for his Son’s true disciples. Rather, they render these public services indiscriminately for the benefit of any and all citizens under them. Their services, therefore, do not bring them the reward that comes to those who serve Jehovah God out of love for him and for their neighbor.
AN EVEN MORE VITAL SERVICE
14, 15. (a) While caring for the physical and material needs of others is a vital aspect of Christian service, what other aspect is even more vital? (b) How does the account at Acts 6:1-4 illustrate this?
14 From what we have considered it is clear that to care for the physical and material needs of others, particularly our Christian brothers, is a vital part of Christian serving. None of us should ever view it as “beneath” us to serve humbly in these ways, or underestimate the importance in God’s eyes of such serving. And yet, there is an even more vital aspect of service that genuine Christians will be very concerned to render. What is that? It is the serving of the direct spiritual needs of others.
15 The relative importance of serving others’ physical needs as compared with serving their spiritual needs is made clear by the account at Acts 6:1-4 (NE). A problem developed after Pentecost of 33 C.E. because a measure of partiality was causing some widows to be “overlooked in the daily distribution [di·a·ko·niʹa; daily serving of food, New American Standard Bible].” The apostles, when informed, “called the whole body of disciples together and said, ‘It would be a grave mistake for us to neglect the word of God in order to wait at table [di·a·ko·neʹo; to keep accounts, AT].” So they called on the brothers to search out seven men “of good reputation from your number,” so that the apostles, with appointive power, could “appoint them to deal with these matters, while we devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry [di·a·ko·niʹa; the service, Int; delivering, AT] of the Word.”
16. Did the apostles take the position described because the providing of food supplies to those widows was an extra-congregational activity?
16 To care for providing food supplies to these overlooked widows was certainly a necessary part of Christian service. So, it was not an extra-congregational activity, but it had a spiritual aspect to it. The disciple James’ words at James 1:26, 27 show that this is a definite part of clean “worship.” Still the apostles recognized that it would show a lack of discernment for them to spend their time in the actual handling of these material supplies instead of concentrating on the handling of things of a directly spiritual nature, particularly the providing of spiritual food and guidance for the brothers from God’s Word.
17. How did congregations elsewhere follow the lead of the Jerusalem congregation in such matters?
17 As congregations developed in places outside Jerusalem, this principle was observed. Primary attention was given to serving the directly spiritual needs while not overlooking or failing to give due importance to physical or material matters. Bodies of elders were appointed to serve as spiritual shepherds and overseers in the congregations. (Acts 20:17, 28) And, to make it possible for these to concentrate on upbuilding and counseling the brothers, bodies of assistants worked under their direction in caring for duties not so directly spiritual.—Phil. 1:1.
18. Could just anyone serve as one of the ministerial servants (di·aʹko·nos) in the congregation? How does this show that the service these performed was no light matter in God’s eyes?
18 Thus, after instructing Timothy on the qualifications of those who would be appointed as elders, the apostle Paul goes on to say: “Assistants [di·aʹko·nos; servants, Int; ministerial servants, NW; deacons, NE], in turn, must be serious, straightforward men, not addicted to wine or dishonest gain, but holding the divine truth of the faith with a clear conscience. They should first be tested, and afterward, if there is no fault to be found with them, they can serve as assistants [di·a·ko·neʹo; serve as ministers, NW]. . . . Those who do good service as assistants [who minister in a fine manner, NW] gain a good standing for themselves and great confidence in their faith in Christ Jesus.”—1 Tim. 3:8-13, AT.
19, 20. (a) What special use, therefore, was made of the Greek word di·aʹko·nos (servant) in the early congregation? (b) What question now arises as to the relationship between such congregational “servants” and those appointed as elders?
19 So, in the same manner that the Greek word pre·sbyʹte·ros, which simply means an “older man,” came to be a designation of a man with a congregational assignment of service, namely, that of being an “elder,” so the word di·aʹko·nos, which simply means a “servant,” came to designate a man with another congregational assignment. Commenting on the different uses of the Greek term di·aʹko·nos, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume II, page 89, says, under the heading “B. The Deacon as a Church Official,” this:
“1. A distinction may be made between all these general uses and the employment of the term as the ‘fixed designation for the bearer of a specific office’ as diakonos in the developing constitution of the Church. This is found in passages where the [Latin] Vulgate has the loan-word diaconus instead of the [Latin] minister used elsewhere (cf. Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12).
“Members of the [Christian] community who are called deacons in virtue of their regular activity are first found in Phil. 1:1, where Paul sends greetings to all the saints in Philippi syn episkoʹpois kai diakoʹnois [together with overseers and servants, Int]. Already in this phrase there emerges a decisive point for our understanding of the office, namely, that the deacons are linked with the bishops [overseers] and mentioned after them. At the time of this epistle there are thus two co-ordinated offices.
“ . . . the description of office has here become a definite designation.”
20 These brothers, then, were designated as congregational “servants,” humbly serving the needs of their brothers in assigned duties. Did this give the brothers who were “elders” justification to assume a superior attitude toward them (the ones appointed to serve as a di·aʹko·nos) as though the elders were now their “bosses”?
NO ROOM FOR A SUPERIOR ATTITUDE
21. Why is there no reason for any elder to view himself as “above” those serving as congregational “servants”?
21 No, for that certainly would not be in accord with Jesus’ counsel and the principle he taught his apostles. Actually, all those who served as “elders” were also servants of their brothers, including those called congregation “servants” (“ministerial servants,” NW). Jesus Christ himself had come, ‘not to be served, but to serve.’ The inspired apostle Paul stated that Jesus “became a servant [di·aʹko·nos] of the Jewish people to maintain the truth of God.” (Matt. 20:28; Rom. 15:8, NE) Paul referred to himself (as well as to his coworkers, Timothy and others) as a “servant” (di·aʹko·nos). (Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, Int) By this he did not mean that he was part of a body of congregational servants (“ministerial servants” or “deacons”) in a particular congregation but, rather, that he had been assigned to serve in behalf of the Christian congregation as a whole. Speaking of that congregation, he says: “I became its servant [di·aʹko·nos; minister, NW] by virtue of the task assigned to me by God for your benefit: to deliver his message in full.”—Col. 1:24-26, NE.
22, 23. (a) How does a person show that he is a true servant of another? (b) What kind of evidence did the apostle Paul point to as proof of his being a genuine servant of God and of Christ?
22 To be the “servant” of another could call for one to bear up humbly under hardships, endure unpleasant circumstances. Whether one would be willing to do this or not would demonstrate the genuineness of his service to the one served. Because some were inclined to disparage Paul’s worth in comparison with others, he set forth proof of his being a bonafide servant of Christ and of God. To Christians in Corinth, where some of his detractors were located, he wrote: “As God’s servants [di·aʹko·nos; ministers, NW], we try to recommend ourselves in all circumstances by our steadfast endurance: in distress, hardships, and dire straits; flogged, imprisoned, mobbed; overworked, sleepless, starving.”—2 Cor. 6:4, 5, NE.
23 Of those making light of him, he asked, “Are they servants [ministers, NW] of Christ?” and then went on to say, “I can outdo them. More overworked than they, scourged more severely, more often imprisoned, many a time face to face with death. Five times the Jews have given me the thirty-nine strokes; three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I have been shipwrecked, and for twenty-four hours I was adrift on the open sea. I have been constantly on the road; I have met dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my fellow-countrymen, dangers from foreigners, dangers in towns, dangers in the country, dangers at sea, dangers from false friends. I have toiled and drudged, I have often gone without sleep; hungry and thirsty, I have often gone fasting; and I have suffered from cold and exposure.”—2 Cor. 11:23-27, NE.
24. How does the apostle thus help us to keep the right viewpoint in estimating the genuineness of our own service?
24 Here, indeed, was real evidence of being a genuine servant! No boasting of impressive accomplishments in which to take human pride, such as the construction of mighty edifices; no recitation of drawing great crowds to hear him speak; no taking of personal credit for the marvelous expansion that had been accomplished in the spread of the good news. Rather, a record of humble service, like a servant who, without any fanfare, goes out even in dark of night, braving storm, discomfort and danger, to accomplish some errand on which his master sends him. We can think of this when estimating the genuineness of our own service to God. However, we can also remind ourselves that Paul also called attention to his letters of recommendation, namely, the Christian disciples whom he had made as proof of his servanthood.—2 Cor. 3:1-3.
25. How did Paul express his humility in writing to those in Corinth, where he had labored so diligently?
25 Paul was never guilty of elevating himself or wanting others to look on him with deference as a ‘chief one’ among them. To those Corinthians, among whom he had labored for a year and a half, he said of himself and a fellow worker: “What is Apollos? Or what is Paul? Just servants [di·aʹko·nos, ministers, NW] through whom you came to have faith, as the Lord gave each of us opportunity. I did the planting, Apollos the watering, but it was God who made the plants grow. So neither the planter nor the waterer counts for anything, but only God who makes the plants grow. . . . We are fellow-laborers for God, and you are God’s farm, God’s building.”—1 Cor. 3:5-9, AT.
26. How can we seek to be great and still be free from selfish ambition and pride?
26 Certainly, seeking to be great in this way, not by gaining prominence, prestige or power, but by giving of oneself in humble service, is a desirable goal. It is an evidence, not of ambition or pride or selfishness, but of love, love for God and love for neighbor. May all of us today seek such greatness, to the praise of Jehovah God, who established this rule of greatness, and in honor of his Son, who exemplified it as no one else ever has done. Our seeking Christian “greatness” will bring grand benefits to ourselves and to others. It will bring a rich outpouring of God’s holy spirit, which will, in turn, contribute to splendid unity and harmony among us, as the following article explains.
a According to lexicographers, the term di·aʹko·nos comes from the Greek word di·aʹ, meaning “through,” and the Greek word koʹnis, meaning “dust,” hence describing a servant who is dusty due to performing some duty or errand for his master.
b We find other examples of this kind of serving (“ministering,” NW) in the account of the wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-9), in the serving done by Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14, 15), and in that done by Martha.—Luke 10:40; John 12:2; see Kingdom Interlinear Translation.
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The Greek word di·a·ko·neʹo emphasizes the personal nature of a service that is rendered to another
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Christian service includes attention to material needs of Christians who experience a shortage; such giving results in praise to God
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Early Christians gave primary attention to serving the spiritual needs of others