The Servant of Sinners
By Horatius Bonar, 1867
Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them– "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." Luke 22:24-27
We find in these words a double reference; first to the character, and secondly to the office, of the Son of man; to his character as the lowly one, to his office as the servant. For the purpose of bringing both these things before his disciples, he makes use of those marvelous words, "I am among you as THE SERVING ONE."
The dispute among the disciples respecting pre-eminence must have grieved and wounded him; more especially because of the time when this jealous strife arose. Scarcely had they finished the first solemn supper, the newly-instituted memorial of the body and blood of the Lord; scarcely had the Master ceased warning them of the traitor, and the treachery that was among them; scarcely had their own searching inquiry ended, "Is it I?" when there arose "a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest." How strange and sad, how almost incredible, the scene! Rising from the table of love to contend for the mastery, the one over the other; to wound the ear and heart of the Master with their angry words and selfish arguments; to turn the holy quiet of that upper chamber into a stir of strife, and ambition, and jealous wrangling, in the very presence of the Lord– how unfitting, how unkind, how inconceivably selfish and hateful!
To calm this tumult, to allay this strife, to stop the mouths of the disputants, the Lord interposes; and he does so in a way so pointed, yet so mild and loving, as must have overwhelmed the contenders, and covered their faces with shame.
The burden of his rebuke is just this– "Look at me; am I striving for pre-eminence? Am I coveting honor, or power, or greatness? Am I even exercising superiority over you? Am I not foregoing even my rightful claim of service, and acting as your servant? Instead of demanding service at your hands– I am among you as one who serves." He admits that this is not man's principle of acting, or estimate of service. He shows that this is not the scale on which earthly distinctions are graduated. Among the nations of the earth each one strives to be uppermost, and covets the titles which rank confers. But with his disciples this order was to be wholly reversed. Man's idea of greatness was that of pre-eminence over his fellow-man, in virtue of which all should be his servants. Gods idea of greatness was that of humble love, in virtue of which a man should be willing to be the servant of all.
To this life of lowly love, this posture of willing service, this place of subjection, and self-denial, and dependence, it was, that he, the Son of God, had stooped from the highest heaven. And was it possible for a man, a sinner, to cherish ambitious thoughts of supremacy or earthly honor? The Son of man had come, not to be ministered unto– but to minister; and, in the fulfillment of that ministry (that service), to give his life a ransom for many. And did not this show the true law of the kingdom, the principle on which God was acting, and on which he was calling us to act; did it not tell us that our aim should be, not to soar– but to stoop; that greatness lies, not in ascending above others– but in descending beneath them; and that the highest seat of honor is, in truth, the lowest place of service– service that counts no office base, no labor great, no sacrifice costly– service that is willing to go down even to the tomb itself in the performance of its offices of love?
Shall we not then covet this honor; this peculiar honor, so unlike all that is human, so truly divine; the honor of lowly service; the honor of resembling Him who took upon him the form of a servant, who girded himself with the towel, that he might wash his disciples' feet, and who has left us this precept for our daily practice, "If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet; for I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done unto you." When we hear him saying, I am among you as one who serves, shall we not be ashamed of our pride, and ambition, and love of ease, and self-exaltation, and self-pleasing? When we see him serving, shall we not also serve? When we see him stretching out his hands to all, however unworthy and unlovable, shall we ever turn away, in weariness or in disgust, from any soul on earth, even the unworthiest and most unlovable of all?
But our object at present is not to dwell upon Christ's lowliness and obedience; nor to set forth these as our example; nor to show the law of the kingdom, that service is the true nobility. We wish to exhibit the service itself of which He speaks; to bring before you Christ the servant; not merely Christ the Father's servant, doing the Father's will– but Christ a servant to us and for us; Christ fulfilling this lowly office, in order to meet the case of the neediest.
Let us consider these three things in reference to this service– first, its history; secondly, its nature; and thirdly, the ends and objects which it is intended to meet.
I. The HISTORY of Christ's service.It is not with His birth in Bethlehem that Christ's service begins. His visit to our first father in Paradise was its true commencement. After that we find him, age after age, visiting the children of men, and always in the character of one ministering to their needs. His communion with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, was that of one offering, not asking, service. In his dealings with Israel, we find the same unwearied, ever-watchful ministry; for the pillar-cloud that led them, that sheltered them, that guarded them by night and day– was the dwelling of the Son of God, the visible exhibition of his presence and service. It was he who ministered to them in the desert. He fought their battles. He selected their encampments. He shaded them from the scorching sun. He drew water for them out of the rock, and brought food out of the storehouses of heaven. In Canaan, too, he ministered to them, generation after generation; and the long record of Israel is the history of his manifold service.
At his birth, his life of service visibly began. It was to serve that he descended to Bethlehem. And his life at Nazareth for thirty years was a life of service. In the three years and a half of his public ministry, he showed how skillful he was in serving, how willing to undertake it in all its parts. At the well of Jacob we find him serving a needy sinner; in the house of Simon the Pharisee we find him doing the same. In the house of Lazarus we find him ministering to saints. Wherever he goes, we find him still exercising the same lowly vocation; ministering alike to soul and body, to Pharisee and tax-collector, to child or to man, to Jew or to Samaritan or to Gentile. The upper chamber, Gethsemane, Pilate's hall, the cross, the grave– these were all places of service. After his resurrection, on the way to Emmaus, on the shore of the lake, we find him still the same.
At his ascension He only entered on a new department of service; and as the Advocate with the Father, the Intercessor, the Forerunner– we see him still serving. As the priests under the law were, in all things relating to the tabernacle, the people's servants, ever standing ready to do the required work to any Israelite– so is our Intercessor. He stands ready to take up any case that may be put into his hands. He wearies not– he is not provoked; he never turns away. He is as willing and prompt to serve, even the most unworthy, as in the days of his flesh. For the glory that surrounds him above, has not altered his love or his meekness of spirit, nor made him ashamed of the lowly office which he exercised here, as the servant of the needy and the evil.
Nor, when he comes again in strength and majesty, as King of kings and Lord of lords, does he lose sight of his character as the ministering one. Hence in that passage in which he refers to this day of glory (Luke 12:37), he makes reference to this same gracious office as not even then laid aside– "Blessed are those servants," says He, "whom the Lord, when he comes, shall find watching. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them." As if, even in that day of triumph and happy festival, there would be something omitted, something incomplete, something incongruous, something not like himself– if he did not then find scope for his old office of condescending love, and appear, even at his own marriage supper, as the servant of his ransomed ones.
II. The NATURE of Christ's service.It is in all respects like Himself– like Him who, though he was rich, for our sakes became poor.
(1.) It is willing service. There is no constraint, no reluctance, no mere official performance of an appointed duty. In the anticipation of coming to earth as the Father's servant he says, "I delight to do your will;" and we know that it is as the Father's servant that he is also ours. He is the willing messenger of the Father's grace, the willing executor of the Father's purpose, the willing almoner of the Father's blessing, the willing endurer of the Father's wrath, the willing sacrifice for sin, the willing bearer of our sorrows and burdens. All is willingness with him; most unreserved and perfect willingness. His varied rounds of service are no heavy task. He is the willing servant of the needy.
(2.) It is a loving service. Out of no fountain– but that of love, could such amazing, such selfless, such endless acts of service flow. The loving and the serving are inseparable. The kind of service which he has undergone, and which he still undergoes, admits of no construction– but that of love. Of man's acts of service towards his fellow-man, however great or many, you have still the suspicion that they may be the mere fulfillment of duty, or the payment of a price. But Christ's acts of service cannot be thus misinterpreted. They can mean but one thing; they can spring from but one source; they are the utterance but of one feeling– love.
(3.) It is self-denying service. It is written, "Christ pleased not himself;" and how often in the Psalms does he breathe out the heaviness of his spirit when making mention of his unrequited labors! "They repay me with evil for the good I do. I am sick with despair." To continue ministering, day after day, in the midst of reproach, and opposition, and rejection– was self-denial and devotedness such as man can hardly either credit or conceive. In encountering the uncongenialities and hostilities of such a world as this, when stooping to serve and bless; in meeting with such unbelief, such ignorance, such willfulness as he had to deal with among his disciples themselves– his self-denial was drawn out to the uttermost; and though his service was truly willing and loving, yet it was self-denying, to an extent of which we can have no idea. The Holy One coming into daily contact with sin; the Blessed One meeting with the curse on every side– yet still laboring on, still carrying out unshrinkingly his work of service for the sons of men! Ah! this is self-denial, such as could have come forth from no bosom but his own!
(4.) It is patient, unwearied service. He has compassion on the ignorant, and on those who are out of the way. He does not break the bruised reed. He does not quench the smoking flax. He is ever ready with his helping hand. He grudges no toil, no cost. By day or by night we find him ever girt for service. Tender, gentle, and patient, he sends none away empty. He does not upbraid them with requiring his services so often, or with needing the same help again and again, by reason of their own forgetfulness or perversity. He pities, and therefore he serves. He is patient, and therefore he serves. He is tender and gracious– and therefore he serves. Instead of being wearied out with the multitude of applicants, his only complaint is, that so few avail themselves of his help– "You will not come to me." Instead of grudging the labor of supplying so many ever-recurring needs– he speaks as one to whom a favor is done, in allowing him to be the servant of the neediest.
(5.) It is free service. It cannot be bought; for what gold could purchase it? Neither does it need to be bought, for it is freely rendered. It is without money and without price. Service, without wages asked or given, is an unknown thing among men. Man cannot command the service of his fellow-men without money. But it is not so with God. All is of grace. The love is free, the gift is free, the life is free. Just so, the service afforded to us, by him who came to serve, is altogether free! It is freely presented to us, no, urged upon us by One whose delight is in serving, whose honor is in serving, and whose one regret is that there are so few among the needy ones of earth who will allow him to serve! Oh, that you would but accept the service of the Son of God! Oh, that you would allow him to gird himself with the towel, that he may wash you! Oh, that you would give him the joy, the honor, that his heart is set upon– of ministering to you, of attending on you, of guiding your steps through the gloom, and the storm, and the weariness, and the warfare of the desert– until he lands you in the promised kingdom, and sets you down at his marriage-supper– there and then to know what the service of love can do, even for the weakest and unworthiest of those whom the blood has washed.
III. The ENDS and OBJECTS of Christ's service.It is to sinners that this service is rendered; and there is much in this to exhibit the ends which it has in view. Those to whom Christ presents himself as the willing, loving, self-denying, patient servant– are not some nobler race of creatures, worthy of such condescension. They are the ungodly, who have no claim upon this gracious One, nothing to recommend them to his regards– but their poverty, their misery, their helplessness, and the impossibility of their delivering themselves, or finding their way out of this region of darkness, into the kingdom of light.
No question is made as to the character of the people to be saved; no objection is raised as to their unfitness or undeservingness; no hesitation is intimated as to the difficulty of the case, or the greatness of the guilt, or the strength, and toil, and care needed in undertaking it. No one of these things is mentioned, nor any such barrier for a moment supposed to exist. This gracious servant of the needy is willing to be employed by anyone, no matter who– let him be the poorest, and the sickliest, and the feeblest of all who ever sought a helper, a protector, or a guide– on their way to the kingdom.
We need forgiveness. He ministers this in all its fullness; not once, nor seven times– but seventy times seven; bringing forth to us each hour, for our new sins, the new forgiveness out of the treasury of God; making us feel how exceeding abundant must be the grace of our God, that can afford such endless pardons to be thus so freely ministered.
We need cleansing. He serves us also in this; girding himself with his towel, and washing us until we are clean every whit! Yes, washing us hourly; marking with the eye of faithful, patient service every spot that soils us, and purging it off with the clean water of the heavenly laver; attending our steps as we pass along this world's polluted highways, and ready every moment to cleanse our feet from each newly contracted defilement.
We need healing. He ministers healing to us. He heals all our diseases. With unwearied care and heavenly skill, he watches every turn they take, and applies at once the suited remedy. Our languor he revives, our insensibility he quickens, our callousness he softens, our parchedness he refreshes, our wounds he binds up, our sickliness he turns into health. Thus he serves us in patient love.
We need strength. He serves us in this also, with untiring patience, placing all his strength at our service. More– perfecting his strength in our weakness. He is ever helping our infirmities, giving us his arm to lean upon– no, carrying us, as a shepherd his sheep, when too feeble to go, sustaining us in our weariness, reviving us in our faintness, watching our steps that we may not stumble, teaching our hands to war and our fingers to fight– no, giving us the victory. No sense of feebleness or helplessness should ever lead us to despond. No hosts of enemies, whether of hell or earth, no terrors of battle set in array against us– should cause us to turn back. To those who have no might he increases strength. In all our varied weaknesses he is at hand to serve.
We need wisdom and guidance. He ministers these to us, according to our need. He is made unto us wisdom. He guides us with his eye. He pities our ignorance and perplexity, and takes his willing place at our side, to instruct and to lead. His infinite resources he places at our disposal, and invites us to accept of his service– in the communication of all wisdom, and knowledge, and prudence, and true enlightenment of soul. If we are foolish, or dark, or misled, or stumbling– it is because we will not have him to serve us! O folly without a parallel, to decline or to slight such an offer as this!
We need faith and love. He increases our faith; he prays for us, that our faith fail not; he marks it when feeble and ready to give way, and strengthens it anew. So with our love. He kindles it, and nourishes it, preventing it from being cooled or quenched in this uncongenial climate. Oh, what would we do for faith or love, were it not for this ministering One! Is your faith feeble, and unbelief obtaining the mastery? Or, is your love becoming chill and heartless? Accept the offered service of the gracious Son of Man; allow him to do that in which he delights– to minister to you in these things; so shall your faith wax strong, and your love become fervent like his own.
We need protection. He is our shield and screen. In the battle he covers our head, and thrusts danger away from us. Ever ready, at our right hand and at our left, before and behind, he wards off the stroke, or anticipates and prevents the evil. Unweariedly serving us as our protector, and wielding for us the weapons of battle, he enables us to say, with tranquil confidence– The Lord is on my side; I will not fear though thousands set themselves against me!
But I cannot number our needs. They are numerous as the moments that run on. Each day brings forth its new ones, and repeats the old. How blessed, how comforting, in such a case, to have one to minister to them all, and that one none other than the Son of God himself! The Lord is our Shepherd, we shall not lack any good thing. Jesus himself is he who waits to serve, to supply, and to satisfy. What can make us fear or despond? What can make our hands hang down, or our knees wax feeble? Our strength may be small; he will increase it. Our faith may be feeble; he will give it strength. Perplexities may beset us; he will guide us through. Sorrow may press us down; he will minister consolation. Sin may struggle hard for the mastery; he will subdue it. In every scene, and place, and duty, and struggle, and trial– he will be at our side, as the servant, to minister to us in everything, so that in nothing we may be found lacking.
"I am among you as one who serves." Thus he speaks to us now; coming into the midst of us, and offering his gracious services. I am come, not to receive– but to give; not to be filled– but to fill; not to be healed– but to heal; not to be gladdened– but to gladden; not to be ministered unto– but to minister! Oh, who is there that can listen coldly to such an announcement, or refuse such a offer of service? Shall condescending love like this be trifled with– or set at nothing?
Is there some one here, like Peter, ready to say, Surely this is too much! "Lord, you shall never wash my feet! I cannot bear the thought that you should perform an act so menial for such as I am." Then hear the answer– "If I wash you not, you have no part in me." If you will not allow me thus to minister, then you cannot be mine! Strange, yet blessed thought! We cannot be saved, we cannot have any part in him– unless we allow him thus to perform for us his service of lowly love! It is as the servant that he is the Savior! In saving, he serves; and in serving, he saves!
Do we not often lose sight of this? And, in losing sight of it, how much do we miss! We would be holier, as well as more blessed men, if we did but allow the Master to serve us as he desires. We would be wiser, stronger, more full of faith, and love, and zeal– would we but consent to let him minister to us in all the varied service which we need so much, and which he is so willing to perform. As the Father's servant for our profit, and our servant for the glory of the Father– he presents himself this day to us, seeking to be employed by us in his lowly office, and grieving only at this– that there are so few who will employ him; and that even those who do, either through false humility or self-reliance, do not give him, even to the ten thousandth part, the extent of the employment that he desires!