Did Jesus come to be served or to serve?
In preparing for our Life Group Bible study last week, I came across what, at first glance, could seem like an apparent contradiction between the Luke’s Gospel and Mark’s Gospel when it comes to Jesus. Reading the prayer of Zechariah at the end of Luke 1, I was struck by these words:
That we, being delivered from the hands of our enemies,Luke 1:74–75, ESV
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
Zechariah had been unable to speak for many months after he questioned the angelic announcement to him that his wife would conceive and would give birth to his son, who we know as John the Baptist. Upon the birth of the boy and Zechariah’s obedience to the angel’s instructions about naming him John, his speech was returned to him and he began praising God. “Filled with the Holy Spirit,” verse 67 says, Zechariah “prophesied,” offering up this Spirit-inspired praise to God. The exclamation of praise eventually discusses his son John in verses 76–77, but centers mostly on the promises of what God would do through the Messiah, for whom John would prepare the way. And in these verses above, verses 74–75, Zechariah is referring to what the Messiah will accomplish.
The Messiah—Jesus Christ—would deliver us from the hands of our enemies, namely the enemy of sin and death (note that verse 77 says he would “give the knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins”); and having been delivered, we might then be able to “serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him.”
Luke is saying that one of Jesus’s aims is that we might serve him. And that struck me because it seems that Mark tells us the opposite about Jesus. Here’s what Jesus says about himself, as recorded in Mark’s Gospel:
“Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”Mark 10:45, ESV
So which is it? Did Jesus come that we may serve him? Or did Jesus come “not to be served but to serve”?
One thing to keep in mind when you’re studying Scripture is that we are reading, of course, a translation. The ESV (along with the NASB, CSB, KJV, and others) is a good, faithful translation, but it is still a translation of ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek into modern English. It is impossible to capture the nuance of every word in its original language and bring that into the English language.
So what do you do when, at the level of individual words, you come to a place that seems on the surface to contain a contradiction, like we have with the word “serve” in Luke 1:74 and “serve” in Mark 10:45? I would suggest that before you do anything else, check the original language and see if it is the same Greek word behind the English word in both places. Wait! Don’t go! Before you think that’s too hard and leave this blog, let me tell you that it’s not difficult at all! Thankfully, we have resources available that make this very, very easy.
I’m going to take the next three short paragraphs to walk you through step-by-step how to use one such tool, but I will get to the distinction between “serve” and “serve” in Luke 1 and Mark 10 at the end of this post. If you’re only interested in that, feel free to skip these next three paragraphs and go straight to it!
A QUICK AND EASY WORD STUDY
To do an easy word study like this, I’d recommend you bookmark the website blueletterbible.org. Blue Letter Bible is a free, online Bible study tool that you can use to enhance your Bible study. To check if there is a difference between “serve” in Luke 1:74 and “serve” in Mark 10:45, simply go to blueletterbible.org and type one of the references in the search bar at the top. When you do that, a page will open with a list of each individual verse in Luke 1 or Mark 10, whichever you entered in the search bar (note that the default setting is the King James Version). Scroll down to find the particular verse you are looking for, and click on the verse reference (“Luke 1:74”). When you click that reference, it will open up a box for that verse, showing you each individual word in that verse alongside the corresponding Greek word.
You could simply do that, and if you did, you would note that the Greek word for “serve” in Luke 1:74 is latreuo, then you could go back and type “Mark 10” in the search bar at the top, follow the same steps, and note that the Greek word for “serve” in Mark 10:45 is different. It’s the word diakoneo. And it may be enough for you to see, these are different words. Or, you may want to dig a little deeper. What do these words, both translated as “serve” in the ESV, mean?
To do that, find the number in that list of words in the individual verse, the number that is in between the English word and the Greek word that starts with the letter G and then has a three or four digit numeral. This is the Strong’s reference number, and for diakoneo it is G1247. When you click on that, it will bring up a page for that individual word, giving you a few resources for the definition of that word and, at the bottom, showing you every time that individual Greek word is used in the New Testament. (That’s an incredibly helpful tool for doing a word study!)
And when you do that for both diakoneo and latreuo, here’s what you find:
SERVING, WORSHIP, AND THE MISSION OF JESUS
Diakoneo (“serve” in Mark 10:45) means to serve in the sense of “waiting at a table” (see Acts 6:2) or “to provide … the things necessary to sustain life.” It’s serving in the most basic sense of the word; it’s meeting practical needs. It’s the word from which we get our word “Deacon.”
Latrueo, on the other hand, is serving in a very religious sense. That word, from Luke 1:74, means “to render religious service, to worship.” Worship is at the heart of latrueo. In fact, it’s translated as “worship” in the ESV in other places, including Hebrews 12:28, “let us offer to God acceptable worship.”
So here’s what that means: Jesus came to serve us, by meeting our most significant need, forgiveness of sins. He came to serve, giving his life as a ransom for many, that’s Mark 10. And he did that—he served us in that way by dying on the cross for our sins—“that we … might worship him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days,” that’s Luke 1. He came to declare us holy and righteous by his death on the cross, giving us his righteousness by faith, and therefore granting us the privilege to worship him, to draw near to him without fear.
Jesus came to serve us by making it possible for us to do what we were created for—to worship him. That’s what Christmas is all about. So let me ask you: Is your Christmas centered around that? And not only Christmas, is your life centered around that?
Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.
Photo by Sean Musil on Unsplash
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