The Disciple's Service
What kind of service does God require of us? Is any kind of service an acceptable offering to God? Meeting the physical needs of people? Clothing the homeless? Visiting the sick? Helping the impoverished? What “counts” as the Christian disciple’s service?
There is a lot of confusion in our day about this question. And while the passage from Scripture we turn to in this post doesn’t answer every question someone may have about what kind of service the Christian is to engage, it certainly highlights the central task that ministers—all Christians—should be engaged in.
It should come as no surprise that the portrait of this central task of service is the Lord Jesus. He is, after all, the one into whose image all Christians are being conformed. And so, the service he emphasized in his ministry should be the service we emphasize in our ministries.
The passage of this portrait is Mark 1:29-39. In this passage we see the theological truth as follows: Those who follow Jesus in the cause of the kingdom of God will seek selfless service over temporal benefits. That’s the main idea of the verses to which we turn in this blog. We need to unpack this by looking at two principles that flow out of this passage.
The first principle is this: self-giving service for the mission of Jesus is the response of the disciple. We will see that when Jesus intersects with the life of an individual for good that the response of that person is service.
Take a look beginning at v. 29: “And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
This event in the home of Simon and Andrew comes right after what we saw in the previous section. We learned about the authority that Jesus has. He is not like the experts in the law who quote other people as a sign of their authority. Jesus can just open his mouth and what spills out is gospel.
Well here comes Jesus and some of his disciples out of that situation and into this situation. We’ve got a woman, namely, the mother-in-law of Simon, lying down sick with a fever. She doesn’t have a terminal illness here. She may just have something like the flu. We don’t really know. We just know that she is ill.
Of course, that’s all it is if we look at it through the lens of our modern eyes. But we have to look at this illness through the eyes of someone who is a Jew. “Why do you say that?” you may ask. I say that because the people involved here in the story are Jews. And the Jewish people had a particular way in which they looked at the phenomena of “illness.”
Illness could only be understood within the covenant that God made with the Israelites. You’ve heard of the Mosaic covenant right? It’s the covenant that God made with his people, the Israelites, on Mount Sinai. And this covenant was patterned after the Hittite treaty. It was called a suzerainty-vassal treaty. What was the suzerainty-vasal treaty? It was a treaty made between a larger more powerful nation (suzerain) and a smaller state (vassal). It said that if you, small state, submit to these terms you will have our protection and provision. And included in these treaties were blessings for obedience and cursings for disobedience. Sound like something else you’ve heard? The covenant that God made with the Israelites was just like this. There would be blessings for obeying God. There would be cursings for disobeying God.
Why does all this matter to what we’re looking at in Mark? It matters because one of the cursings that God would bring upon his people for disobedience was illness, like the one that came upon Simon’s mother-in-law (cf. Lev. 26:14-16; Deut. 28:15, 22). So when Jesus came to Simon’s home and ended up performing this healing on his mother-in-law, it wasn’t just a miracle without any context. Jesus performed this healing because it was a witness to the redemptive work of God toward his people. In other words, Jesus performed this healing, as he did all the other miracles, as a sign that God had come to subdue his people’s rebellion and the effects thereof.
Now notice the account. When I read this recently it was extremely moving. V. 31, “And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.” Now really think about this. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the God-Man. Let’s focus on that part about him being God for a second. What can God do? Whatever he wants. If he says to the stars, stop shinning. If he says to the water, fall on the earth. If he says to the tide, come this far and no farther. If he says anything, it obeys. Jesus has this power.
So why doesn’t he just speak the word from a distance and it’s done? Because Jesus is demonstrating in this healing the story of redemption. I really want us to get this. When God comes to do a work of redemption, he comes near. When God saved his people from the Egyptians, he came near and parted the seas. And when it comes to our greatest need, and that is redemption from sin, God comes near as a baby in Bethlehem. And that baby grows up, ends up in a friend’s house, where he puts on display God’s nearness. This right here though is a picture of what Jesus will do on the cross. He will enter fully into the sinfulness of humans, though remaining sinless, and absorb the punishment that sin rightly deserves by substituting himself in the place of sinners. That snapshot of Jesus coming near to Simon’s mother-in-law foreshadows his work on the cross. Beautiful picture!
So Jesus reaches down and takes her by the hand, she gets up, and what does she start to do? She starts to serve. Now I want us to remember that the main purpose of Mark’s book is to teach us about discipleship. How does this woman’s response to Jesus’ healing her relate to that purpose? It’s teaching us that self-giving service for the mission of Jesus is the response of the disciple. When Jesus comes into your life for good, your response will be the response of Simon’s mother-in-law. Self-giving service. You will serve Christ and his people.
And that’s the first principle I wanted us to look at. Here’s another one: temporal relief from the problems of life is not the goal of following Jesus in discipleship. To have our momentary illnesses and sicknesses and problems and needs relieved is not the most important thing about following Christ as his disciple. Ministries all over the globe will build their whole ministries off of healing people, as if that is our greatest problem. But our greatest problem is not that we are sick and broken and need to be healed. Now, our brokenness and our illnesses and diseases are certainly a symptom of our problem, but they are not the problem themselves. The greatest problem we have is sin, which is rebellion against God. And for that, we need to hear the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.
Take a look beginning at v. 32: “That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” (A brief word on this last v. here. Many people wonder at why Jesus did not permit the demons to speak about him. The answer is: Jesus didn’t want his identity to be shared through the influence of demonic activity. He wanted it to come by other means. More on that the farther we go in the book of Mark.)
We continue, v. 35, “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ And he said to them, ‘Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.’ And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.”
How many of you want to go into business and marketing one day? In some form or fashion you want be involved in doing business? Okay. I heard a marketing person say once, “you go where the attention is.” In other words, wherever people are placing their greatest attention, that’s where you advertise, that’s where you focus your energies, that’s where you go. We’ll Jesus wasn’t too concerned about that business principle in these verses. He had a whole bunch of attention back in Capernaum, at least according to what the disciples said: “Everyone is looking for you.” But Jesus just slipped away and left.
Why did he do that? I mean, wouldn’t you think, “Jesus, here is a chance for you to boost your image, to advance your brand. These people are looking for you.” That’s certainly what the disciples were thinking. But Jesus departed from them. Why? We get a clue as to the first part of the answer in v. 37.
The disciples said, “Everyone is LOOKING for you.” This word for “looking” every other place in Mark has to do with opposition. It’s not a good word to describe the actions of someone in Mark. And the same is the case here in reference to the crowds that are “looking” for Jesus. They want him for the wrong reasons. One commentator says: “it is natural to want a magic Jesus. But we must always remember that God is not someone to be used. He is to be loved, worshiped, and served regardless of what comes in this world.” So part of the answer to why Jesus didn’t stick around was because he knew the selfish reasons why people were wanting him, and he wasn’t going to pander to their selfishness.
Now, we could answer this question in another way. Jesus didn’t stick around for all these people because it didn’t fit with his primary mission. His primary mission was not healings and miracles. We see very clearly why Jesus came from v. 38. Jesus turns away from them, goes to other towns, and does what, v. 38? He preaches. And why does Jesus preach according to v. 38? Because that is what he came to do. His ministry focus was preaching.
This goes back to what we saw in 1:14-15 where it speaks about Jesus preaching the gospel of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The main purpose of Jesus’ ministry is preaching the gospel. And if his main purpose is preaching the gospel, then what does that say about everything else that takes place in ministry? It’s not the main purpose. So you see, temporal relief from the problems of life is not the goal of following Jesus in discipleship. The focus is involvement in the proclamation in the gospel.
Those who follow Jesus in the cause of the kingdom of God will seek selfless service over temporal benefits. And the cause of the kingdom is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So what kind of service does God require of us? A self-giving service that focuses on the spiritual needs of people that are met in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let me leave us with an application of this passage for this Christmas season. In your self-giving service of others, don’t forget the most important thing: the gospel!
R. Kent Hughes, Mark: Jesus, Servant & Savior (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 48.