The Disciple and Service

In this lesson, we learn the basic requirements for becoming and persevering as disciples of Christ.
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The subject of my lesson today is the disciple and service. I'd like to review a passage of Scripture that deals with the relationship between these two.

Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.
- Matthew 20:28

In this verse, Jesus summarizes His own attitude towards service as well as the extent to which His service was willing to go. Now the details that lead to this comment about discipleship and service really begin in the previous chapter with the episode concerning the rich young ruler where Jesus lays out the requirements of discipleship and the nature of the service they are called to give.

1. The Call of the Rich Young Ruler

16 And someone came to Him and said, "Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?" 17 And He said to him, "Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." 18 Then he said to Him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 20 The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?" 21 Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." 22 But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.

23 And Jesus said to His disciples, "Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." 25 When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, "Then who can be saved?" 26 And looking at them Jesus said to them, "With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
- Matthew 19:16-26

I want us to zero in on what, exactly, did this man want from Jesus. Despite his position and wealth, this man sensed that he lacked something in his spiritual life. Based on his answer to the Lord concerning the law, it seemed that his approach to salvation/eternal life/personal righteousness was based on his efforts to obey God's laws. In his Jewish mind, he believed that he had actually accomplished this obedience — and there lay the problem…His "obedience" approach had not yielded the spiritual reward he was looking for. Of course, Jesus had unmasked this kind of false self-righteousness in His sermon on the Mount.

In Matthew 5, the Lord compared the superficial obedience to the law that the Jews thought they had accomplished to the true demands of the law as God had intended. For example:

A. Matthew 5:21-22

21 "You have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not commit murder' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.

They thought avoiding murder was obedience but Jesus sets the bar for obedience at anger and insult.

B. Matthew 5:43-44

43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

The Jews believed that loving their own people, tribe, family was proper compliance. But Jesus shows that the law demanded loving the most unlovable of people — our enemies. Jesus was showing them what obedience to the law really meant.

So this young man was confident that he was obedient to the law — yet there was something missing — some law or rule he had not mastered yet and Jesus could reveal that to him. I want you to see again that in His answer, Jesus says, "If you want to be complete." Notice that He describes in one word that "thing," that elusive state that the young ruler searched and despite his efforts, position (probably a leader in a local synagogue), and especially his wealth — he had not yet attainted. Jesus said, "If you want to be perfect/complete."

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
- Matthew 5:48
And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
- James 1:4

TELIOS (GR) — Means that something has reached its end, fully grown, mature. In this case, it meant how the man sought after and attained salvation/eternal life. Not his own way — the impossible effort at self-righteousness coupled with trust in his material possessions to confirm his goodness. (God blesses the righteous with wealth.) This was a deadly spiritual delusion that kept him trapped in a perpetual state of spiritual yearning without satisfaction. And so, Jesus, loving him, seeing his true dilemma shows him the way out.

  • Not another law to keep
  • Not another good work to do. (Although some have interpreted it as such)

Jesus tells him to break free from the false source of your confidence (wealth) and put your faith in Me, not yourself or your own righteousness. And therein lies the first part of our lesson on the disciple and service…and that's the "Disciple" part:

  • Disciple (Mathaytes - GR) A learner, one who follows a teaching or teacher.

We know that the young man leaves, saddened because he is now aware of what is missing but not yet willing to leave what he has in order to obtain it. We're familiar with the passage that follows (vs. 23-26) concerning the insidious power of wealth and how it inhibits spiritual life. But in this story, we see the basic requirements for becoming and persevering as disciples (learners, followers) of Christ.


The episode with the young ruler teaches all of us what is needed to follow Jesus.

1. We Need to Accept God's Reality

This reality says that we are sinners condemned by a just God. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). This means abandoning the reality what we've been taught or made up for ourselves concerning what our lives are really about. For example:

  1. Nicodemus' reality was that as a Jewish leader and teacher, no changes needed to be made in his life to please God.
  2. The young ruler's reality was that his wealth would sustain him on earth and his own righteousness would make him acceptable to God.
  3. Saul's reality was that he was doing God's work in defeating Christianity's rise.
  4. Post modernist's reality is that the reality they imagine and construct for themselves is good enough for God.
  5. Atheists' reality is that their denial of God's existence actually makes it so.
  6. The Religious or political zealot's reality is that their zeal can accomplish change and the change they die for is actually worth it.

Every disciple of Jesus, however, begins with the recognition that the only reality that counts is the one revealed by Jesus Christ. To be "complete" or "perfect" therefore…

  • Is not winning American Idol and going on tour.
  • Or getting the dream spouse, job, house, child, or car.
  • It's not retiring with enough money to live well until 100.
  • Or be physically healthy enough to run a marathon when you are 75!

These things are the settings of our lives, the backdrop, the props, the incidentals. Some have more and some have less. They are the wallpaper of our lives but not the essence of it. The reality being played out in all of these different scenarios from Beijing to Boston, from Alaska to Australia is recognizing that as the Bible says, "The wage of sin is death…" (Romans 6:23).

Discipleship — Learning about reality begins there.

Satan and the world he controls does everything to distract and deny this reality while offering alternate realities. I.e.:

  • The Bing Bang
  • All the "isms"
  • Hollywood Reality

Those who became "learners" learn first and foremost that we are lost and subject to physical death and spiritual suffering — and that we are powerless to stop sinning and avoid the consequences.

The second requirement of discipleship is the understanding that…

2. Completeness/Perfection is a Gift Received by Faith in Jesus Christ

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;
- Romans 3:23-24

The young ruler needed to give his wealth to the poor not as a "condition" of salvation but because it stood in the way of what he wanted…what God in Christ was ready to give him, — Treasure in heaven! Jesus said, "Come, follow Me." He could have said:

  • Trust in Me.
  • Believe in Me.
  • Put your faith in Me.

These convey the same idea to the same end.

  • Completeness is given to us based on a system of faith, not a system of works.
  • Actually following Jesus would have been that expression of faith for the ruler.
  • It would also be the only response to satisfy the hunger he had for righteousness.

Jesus refers to this process in the simple terms of leaving one reality and accepting another through a change in lifestyle, Essentially going from rich synagogue leader to poor follower of Jesus of Nazareth.

It is left to Paul the Apostle to explain the theological details in I Corinthians 1:30-31:

30 But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31 so that, just as it is written, "Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord."

Paul explains that God considers us complete because of and through our faith in Jesus Christ. The young ruler would have come to the knowledge of this liberating truth had he followed Christ. You cannot grasp the meaning or experience completeness/perfection without faith in Christ. Every other experience of this is counterfeit if not based on faith in Him.

The disciple pierces the dark reality of his own sinfulness and condemnation when he accepts not only the reality of his condition, but also the fact that his salvation ( call it eternal life / perfection / completeness / righteousness / regeneration / forgiveness ) salvation under any name is given and retained exclusively by faith in Jesus Christ. For example: I became fully righteous because I believed. I continue to be righteous today because I continue to believe in Jesus Christ.

Jesus offered this to the ruler in the context with burying his old life by giving away his earthly treasure and beginning a new life by following Him. Make no mistake, the context is different but the essence is the same today for those who want to be perfect/complete. We bury the old life of sin and self-righteousness in the waters of baptism (Romans 6:3) And we raise up to the new life of discipleship with it's status of completeness/perfection from that moment on. (Romans 6: 4)

I tell people that they never become more saved, more righteous, more children of God, than the moment they come out of the waters of baptism. With time, they become more knowledgeable, more useful, more pious, more fruitful…but not more perfect. Nothing we do improves what God has freely given us through faith in Jesus Christ.

That brings me to the 3rd requirement of discipleship, and that is the realization that…

3. The Nature of our Lives as Disciples Must Reflect the Nature of Our Lord's Core Ministry Goal … Service to Others

This point is negatively highlighted by the Apostles in the passages following the account of Jesus speaking to the rich young ruler. You can tell that they are slow to understand this idea:

  • Peter wants reassurance that he will be rewarded for becoming a disciple.
  • Jesus answers that the reward is there but is only for those who follow His lead in ministry and attitude.
  • There's a cryptic warning about evaluating our reward based on any other reality inserted here: The rich young ruler "had it all" in his personal reality — he was first, he was called — but he refused and in God's reality he became last.

Peter's question smacked of this type of attitude. For good measure, Jesus goes on to explain the system of grace that operates in the real world Kingdom of God by way of the parable of the laborers in the vineyards. The owner hires people at different times of the day but pays everyone the same wage.

The lesson for the Apostles is that rewards in the kingdom are based on the goodness of the Master, not the efforts of the workers. And, as if to press the point, He repeats the warning about the reversal of first and last. Then, Matthew inserts a prophecy that Jesus makes concerning his suffering, death, and resurrection.

17 As Jesus was about to go up to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and on the way He said to them, 18 "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, 19 and will hand Him over to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up."
- Matthew 20:17-19

At first blush, this pronouncement seems out of place, not in the flow of discourse between Jesus and His disciples concerning service. But in a larger context we see that it is very much in place because it describes how good the Master is, and the level He will go to in His service to them.

The next passage confirms that Jesus is still dealing with this issue of discipleship and service as two Apostles and their mother make a bid to establish priority positions in the kingdom.

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him.
- Matthew 20:20

Note that the sons are with their mothers.

21 And He said to her, "What do you wish?" She said to Him, "Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left." 22 But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" They said to Him, "We are able." 23 He said to them, "My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father."
- Matthew 20:21-23

Jesus reveals part of their future (suffering for the Gospel's sake) but leaves to the Father and the future the issue of positions in heaven.

24 And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. 26 It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave;
- Matthew 20:24-27

Jesus again repeats, in different words, the new reality of the kingdom — that His disciples are valued based on their humble service — rewarded by the goodness of the Masters.

just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."
- Matthew 20:28

Jesus now combines the principle and prophecy concerning His ministry. He has become the least and servant to all by offering His life to pray for the sins of all.

29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed Him. 30 And two blind men sitting by the road, hearing that Jesus was passing by, cried out, "Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!" 31 The crowd sternly told them to be quiet, but they cried out all the more, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!" 32 And Jesus stopped and called them, and said, "What do you want Me to do for you?" 33 They said to Him, "Lord, we want our eyes to be opened." 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed Him.
- Matthew 20:29-34

As a way to confirm the principle and prophecy, Jesus asks the blind men, "What do you want Me to do for you?" He's busy, He's popular, He's in demand, He's ready to leave — and those are the lowest rung of the Jewish social ladder (blind beggars)…cry out, make a scene, cause a stir. And Jesus said, "What do you want Me to do for you?" How can I serve you? There is healing there. He not only puts the principle into action (the greatest becoming the least to serve all), He also confirms to prophecy of His death, burial, and resurrection with the power of His miracle.

In answer to their questions about who would be first, who would rule in the coming kingdom — Jesus reveals His divine nature in service to His core ministry goal — helping and serving others. As I said before, Jesus demonstrated to His first and all subsequent disciples that the nature of our life in Christ as perfect/complete followers of the Lord is genuine and compassionate service to others.


And so, what shall we say about the disciple and service? First of all . . .

1. There are two realities

  • This is the reality of the world offering any number of variations to suit the purpose of different groups and individuals.
  • It is broadcast and affirmed by the government, media, business leaders, teachers and artists.

Then there is the reality of the kingdom of God revealed in the Bible most notably by Jesus and His Apostles, existing as the church in this present world.

The perception of this truth is the beginning of Discipleship. What shall we say about discipleship and service?

2. A Person Must Wholeheartedly Embrace This "Kingdom" Reality If He Wants To Become A True Disciple of Christ

This new kingdom reality includes:

  • The knowledge that he is a condemned sinner and not only forgiveness, but all other spiritual gifts are given based on God's grace and received by faith expressed initially in repentance and baptism.
  • It includes the understanding that a disciple's progress in faith is measured by the level of service he provides to others in Jesus' name.

I like Jim McQuiggan's take on this idea in his book "The God of the Towel." "We weren't given our gift or influence over other lives for any other reason than to serve them."

One final thing to be said concerning discipleship and service…

3. The Cost of Discipleship In Terms of Service Is Death

Jesus established this as the norm for the service of His disciples. Again, I read His words in Matthew 20:28.

just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

Sometimes, as in Stephen's life, the full call of service is extracted in a single moment — death at the hands of an angry mob (Acts 7: 54-60). Most times however, like the Apostle John, a long life of dedicated service is given until we've been completely emptied out by the Spirit in our ministry to Christ.

Paul, the Apostle, said it best when he showed the hope of every disciple from then to now, and forward to the time when Jesus returned. He, the faithful servant said,

6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8 in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.
- II Timothy 4:6-8

I am convinced that if this is the nature of our service as disciples, Paul's words will also become the substance of our hope for a future with Christ.

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