Learning to Serve Like Jesus

In John's first letter to the church, he addresses the need for Jesus' followers to model themselves after His example:

We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did (1 John 2:3–6).

As John communicates here, following Jesus is about obeying His commands and following His precedent. We're called to obey His commandments and follow in His footsteps, making choices that demonstrate His character and priorities.

Following Jesus' example of service

When the disciples looked back on their time with Jesus, their final Passover meal together was likely a high point. It was a last moment of calm before the evening tumbled into the emotionally tumultuous chaos.

On that night, Jesus would offer a final dramatic object lesson. He got up from the table, wrapped a towel around His waist and began washing the disciples' feet. Normally, a house servant would fulfill this role, washing the day's grime from the visitors' feet. But in lieu of a servant, Jesus took the role upon Himself.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them (John 13:12–17).

This act of service was to be a model. The servant is no greater than the master, so if the master was willing to subject Himself to the lowly place of domestic helper, then the servants need to willingly do the same. This was a fitting example to the lesson Jesus had already given them about kingdom leadership:

The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Matthew 23:11–12).

Unlike the Pharisees, the disciples (and all future followers of Jesus) needed to recognize that God was looking for servants who were willing to make sacrifices to take care of others.

What does it mean to be a neighbor?

When asked by an expert in the law what one must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus responded this way:

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered, "'‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live" (Luke 10:26–28).

Luke tells us that the lawyer's response to Jesus' comment was to justify himself. So he asked the Lord, "And who is my neighbor?" This seems like a fair question. Is it the people who live adjacent to us? Is it the people who look like me, share my values, or share my religious perspective? Jesus answered him with a parable:

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:30–37)

In this single parable, Jesus drove home just who it was that this man was responsible for. His neighbor was anyone in need. Your neighbor wasn't the person you knew (or were even acquainted with). It wasn't someone who shared your viewpoints or values. Jews couldn't stand Samaritans and would travel days out of their way to avoid traveling through Samaria.

In the end, Jesus communicated that you're a good neighbor when you meet the needs of the person in front of you. We see Jesus doing that throughout the Gospels.

Jesus serving those who need Him

Let's examine some verses that demonstrate how Jesus was a good neighbor wherever He went:

  • When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick (Matthew 8:16).
  • When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick (Matthew 14:14).
  • When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there (Matthew 19:1–2).
  • At sunset, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them (Luke 4:40).
  • When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing (Luke 9:10–11).


These are but a few examples where Jesus ended up caring for a large number of people who were desperate for healing. But when you read the Gospels, you quickly notice that nearly every single case of healing and deliverance happened at inconvenient moments when Jesus was doing something else.

Allowing God to upend our schedule

When we look at His example and His teachings, we quickly recognize that serving like Jesus requires that we open ourselves up to the destruction of our schedule. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we see the priest and the Levite cross the road to avoid the robbed man. Maybe they wanted to avoid trouble or maybe they had a legitimate place they needed to be. Either way, both of them passed up an opportunity to take care of the man lying on the side of the road.

It was the Samaritan that demonstrated true love and service by allowing himself, his schedule, and his pocketbook to be disrupted. Service requires sacrifice, and if we want to obey Jesus and follow His example, we'll be careful not to sanctify our plans, goals, and finances. Instead, we'll open ourselves up to opportunities to do good for others.

Recognizing the cross as a template

At one point in His ministry, Jesus predicts His impending suffering. Peter immediately contradicts Him, telling the Lord that this will never happen to Him. Jesus rebukes the brash disciple, and then turns His attention to the rest of the twelve.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done (Matthew 16:24–27).

Jesus is clear that following Him means taking up our own crosses. Does that mean Jesus expects His followers to die? No. The cross represents Jesus' willingness to demonstrate His love through sacrifice. This is how John explains it:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16).

The apostle wants us to understand that our model for what love looks like is Jesus laying down His life for us. We know what love is because of the cross, and we are to practice that kind of love when it comes to others.

In Paul’s joyful letter to the Philippians, he encourages the church to follow Jesus' example of a humble servant:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage,
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
 and gave him the name that is above every name (Philippians 2:5–9).

In keeping with Jesus' words to the disciples, Paul tells us that Jesus was exalted because of His great humility and willingness to take on the form of a servant. But notice that Paul uses the cross as the penultimate example of Jesus' humble servanthood.

British theologian Graham Tomlin explains that, to Paul, the cross is more than "God's means of achieving salvation" but it's also "a paradigm for God’s action in the world." What God longs to achieve in the world won't be accomplished through power and coercion, but through the sacrificial love and service of His people as they follow Jesus' example of cross-like love.

Serving others like Jesus

When it comes to serving others, there are some simple things we can do that will help us follow Jesus' example of service. We can see this in the washing of the disciples' feet (John 13:1-17).

1. Don't let your experience get in the way of service

If there was ever a time for Jesus to make Himself the center of attention, it was in the upper room during the last supper. In a matter of hours, He was going to be arrested and suffer a humiliating evening that would culminate in His crucifixion. But instead of focusing on Himself, He got down on His hands and knees and washed the disciples' feet.

It might seem counterintuitive, but focusing on others in the midst of difficult circumstances can actually help change your perspective and help you navigate the difficult terrain of a debilitating situation.

2. Accept that no task is below you

Washing the disciples' feet wasn't simply a metaphor. It was a practical service. Their feet would have been filthy after their day's travels, and it was a requirement of the host to ensure that a servant was available to wash the guests' feet. Jesus stepped up when one wasn't available, and you can tell from Peter's reaction that the disciples believed that this act was below Jesus.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus replied, "You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand." "No," said Peter, "you shall never wash my feet" (John 13:6–8a).

Jesus was going to use this act as an object lesson, but don't miss out on the significance that the God of the universe was getting down on His knees to wash the day's filth from the disciples' feet. Bundled in the lesson that the disciples' must serve one another is the clear message that if the master is willing to do the work of a household servant, so should they.

3. Recognize that your service is also an example

Mentoring is a critical component of discipleship. Over the course of Jesus' ministry, He discipled the apostles. This included teaching them essential theological principles, but it was more than that. During this time, they watched Jesus demonstrate what godly leadership looked like.

After washing the disciples' feet, Jesus makes it clear that what they just witnessed was a template for future behavior.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them (John 13:12–17).

We, too, are supposed to serve others. But it's important to recognize that we're also to be an example for others. If the disciples needed to set a precedent for them to follow, other Christians need to see the same commitment to serving. This means pastors and ministry leaders need to demonstrate serving that authority doesn't put them above certain tasks. Parents need to communicate the value of serving others in their behavior. And new Christians need to witness established Christians prioritizing service.

Discover what the Bible says about service

Walking like Jesus walked (1 John 2:6) requires a willingness to serve. The Scriptures have a lot to say about the importance of serving others. If you're interested in understanding God's heart on service, check out the post "15 Bible Verses about Christian Service."

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