To be a citizen of the kingdom of God requires a life of self-sacrificial service for others, not power over them.

According to the New Testament, collectively, Christians are a “kingdom of priests.” As citizens of this realm, they rule with Jesus both now and in the “age to come.” But such a high calling raises the obvious question:  How does each believer participate in his present reign? Fortunately, both Jesus and Paul provided straightforward explanations for how the disciple implements his sovereignty.

When James and John asked Jesus to appoint them to high positions in his kingdom, he responded: “You know not what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am drinking, and to be baptized with the baptism with which I am being baptized?” – (Mark 10:35-40).

In the Hebrew Bible, “cup” often symbolizes something given by God, and usually in the negative sense of judicial punishment. Likewise, here, the image of drinking the “cup” illustrates how Jesus was to partake of the wrath of God on account of sin, and likewise, the metaphorical use of “baptism” – (Psalm 11:6, 16:5, Isaiah 57:17-22, Jeremiah 25:15-28).

When James and John declared that they were indeed prepared to drink this bitter “cup,” Christ retorted that they had no idea what they were saying. However, eventually, they would indeed drink from the same “cup” when they also suffered for the kingdom.

When the other disciples heard what these two presumptuous disciples had requested, they became indignant. But Jesus took them all aside and explained just what it means to become “great” in his kingdom – (Mark 10:41-45).

Contrary to the ways of this age, “greatness” is found in self-sacrificial service to others, and not in political power, wealth, or rank. In contrast to the ways of this age, the one who wishes to be “great” in HIS kingdom must become the “servant” of all. And here, “servant” translates the Greek noun ‘diakonos’ that is used elsewhere in the New Testament as a general term for “servant.”

But in secular Greek, ‘diakonos’ originally referred to servants who waited on tables, who was usually a slave since that was considered a truly lowly task. In the parallel passage in Luke, this term is used in just this manner:

  • (Luke 22:26-27) – “But let him who is the greatest among you become as the youngest and the leader as the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”

In Mark, Jesus defined his mission as one who came “not to be served, but to serve and give his soul a ransom instead of many.” The Greek verb rendered “served” in Mark’s version of the passage is the verbal form of the noun ‘diakonos.’

And in Mark, the Greek word translated “slave” or ‘doulos’ could refer to anyone who was a “servant,” but among Greek speakers, most commonly it referred to slaves. Unfortunately, because of the negative connotations we associate with that word, many English versions prefer to translate it as “servant,” unintentionally dulling the sharpness of the original point.

Unlike the political rulers of this age, HIS disciples are not to lord it over others. Instead, to reign with him means we must become the “servant” of others, and to be “first” among our brethren, we must become the “slave of all.”

And that is exactly what Jesus did – the “Son of Man came to serve, not to be served, and to give his soul a ransom instead of many.”  This saying alludes to the ‘Suffering Servant of Yahweh’ found in the book of Isaiah:

  • Yet Yahweh purposed to bruise him… He shall be satisfied with his knowledge, a setting right when set right himself shall my Servant win for the many, since of their iniquities he takes the burden. Therefore, will I give him a portion in the great, and the strong shall he apportion as spoil because he poured out to death his soul, and with transgressors let himself be numbered, Yea, he the sin of Many bare, and for transgressors interposes” – (Isaiah 53:10-12).

The “many” heard on the lips of Jesus was a verbal link to this passage from Isaiah, where “the many” were the “transgressors” for whose sins the “servant” made atonement. Just as the “servant of Yahwehpoured out his soul” for the “many transgressors,” so the “Son of Man gave his soul” to ransom the “many.”

And in first-century Greco-Roman society, “ransom” money was paid to purchase the freedom of a slave. Christ’s statement was a declaration of his mission – to give his life as the ransom price to free others from slavery to sin. And he summoned his disciples to emulate his example by becoming “servants” and “slaves” of others.

Paul made a similar argument to the Philippians, also alluding to the very same passage from Isaiah. The Christian is to exercise the same “mind” that Christ did by “counting others better than himself.”

Unlike Adam, Jesus did not consider the “being like God” as something to be seized. Instead, he “poured himself out, taking the form of a slave… and he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death.” It was for that very reason that God exalted him to rule over all things – (Philippian 2:1-11).

Crucified One - Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash
Crucified One – Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

And Paul next provided two real-world examples of what he meant. First, Epaphroditus, his “fellow-worker” and “servant to my need,” who became seriously ill – “nigh unto death” – for the “work of Christ, having hazarded his life to supply” what was lacking in the Philippians’ service to Paul. And thus, Epaphroditus “poured himself out” for the sake of his congregation – (Philippians 2:25-30).

Second, himself. For the sake of the “excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus” Paul experienced the “loss of all things.” Previously, he had placed great value on his Jewish heritage. Had he not been “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of Israel and of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee, regarding zeal, persecuting the church, and regarding the righteousness that is in law, blameless.”

But the “apostle to the Gentiles” left all that behind to serve Jesus. And considering what he gained in Christ, he came to value his ancestral heritage and past accomplishments as little more than “refuse” in comparison – (Philippians 3:4-11).

And in the book of Revelation, all those who are redeemed by the “blood of the Lamb” become “priests” in his kingdom in the present tense. They now reign with on “on the earth,” however, they do so in the same manner that he did – “He that overcomes, I will give to him to take his seat with me on my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” – (Revelation 1:4-6, 3:21, 5:10).

Thus, the disciple of Jesus becomes a citizen of his kingdom in the here-and-now. This means he participates in a real political order with genuine sovereignty. But unlike the institutions of the present age, he does not become a lord or tyrant. Instead, he is now a “priest” and rules as such.

To change the imagery, anyone who wishes to become a disciple of Jesus and reign with him must first “deny himself, take up his cross,” and follow Jesus “wherever he goes,” even when doing so leads to very unpleasant places.

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