Servant: a biblical mandate for the importance of service

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“If you have a desire to be great among your companions then you are to be their servant” Matthew 20:26 (The Gift).

The concept of servanthood is strongly presented in Scripture. There are approximately 1600 references in the Bible to the words servant, servants, serve, served, serves, service, servile serving and servitude.

The derivations of the word “serve” are interesting and varied, but generally follow a fairly similar meaning, though used in different contexts over the centuries.

For example, in the late 12th Century the word meant, “to render habitual obedience to”, also, “to minister, give aid, give help”. In the Old French servir, interestingly, means “to show devotion to, to set table, serve at table. This is an echo of Acts 6:2, where one of the 12 disciples stated, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.” Other origins from Etruscan, Proto-Italian and general English usage through the 13th to the 16th centuries have the same general meaning as we understand the word today.

Christ made very clear what He meant by the word servant. Matthew records the incident when the mother of the sons of Zebedee, James and John, came to Jesus and asked that her two sons be placed in positions of high honour in His kingdom, sitting next to Christ on His right and on His left. What may seem an outrageous request to us was accepted by Jesus as a genuine request by a mother. He directed His answer to the brothers, who by this time were probably standing rather sheepishly before Him, probably hearing the murmuring of the other disciples.

Jesus asked them if they were able to drink the cup He was about to drink and be baptised with the baptism He would endure. The fact that they replied, “We are able,” shows that Christ was directing His answer to them and not to their mother.

We then come to the key point of this incident when Christ stated in clear terms, “who ever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant” (NKJV).

One of the character flaws that soon developed after the entrance of sin was the assertion of one’s self at the expense of others. This may not apply to every person, but it is part of the character and personality of many people.

To be selfless, like Christ, is an aim that all Christians should have.

Faith without service?

Luther was a towering figure in the great Protestant Reformation and, along with other great men before and after him, he changed the whole landscape of the religious world.

However, Luther had his weaknesses, as we all do. In much of his life and ministry, he did not like the Jews (to put it mildly). You might be surprised at what he said about the Jews and what should happen to them. He was also contemptuous of the book of James, calling it a straw-epistle compared to books written by John, Paul and Peter.

Luther’s main dislike for James’ book is that James highlighted the truth that faith without “works” is not faith at all. In fact, James challenges people by saying that they should try to show their faith without works, and he would show his faith by his works of service.

Surely Luther would not have been opposed to the concept of service. After all, penance that he had practised diligently may be described as service in the extreme, though ill-directed. Maybe this explains his aversion to James; if he equated these sort of acts from his past, to works.

Jesus’ powerful statement recorded in Matthew 25 shows just how He will separate the good from the bad, the sheep from the goats, at His second coming.

These challenging verses suggest that Jesus judges people by what they have done, and also by what they have not done.

Jesus does not bring prayer into the equation. He does not say, “If you prayed for the sick and those in prison etc, then you may enter into My kingdom.” Rather, if you knew someone was sick and did not visit them to comfort them, then you are a goat, plain and simple, whether you prayed for them or not.

Of course, prayer is good—it is essential for the Christian—but as James might say, Fine, you prayed for someone but did you do anything to help them in their distress?

Model servant

There is a very fine example of a true servant recorded very early in the book of Genesis. Isaac was 40 years of age and Abraham decided, as fathers did in those days, that it was about time that his son and heir married. He was adamant that Isaac’s wife should not be one from among the Canaanite people but should be chosen from among his relatives, who still mainly resided in and around Haran.

Eliezer, originally from Damascus, was Abraham’s chief servant. He was charged with finding a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s relatives. He was a prime example of someone who united doing with praying, for not only did he obey his master—taking all the supplies he needed, 10 camels and sufficient under-servants—but he also prayed fervently that God would give him success on his mission for his master. He asked God that the woman meeting God’s approval would meet two conditions. First, she would give Eliezer a drink from her pitcher when he asked for a drink, but she would also offer to water the camels.

Imagine how grateful and elated Eliezer must have felt in having a positive answer to his prayer on both counts. Here was this young woman, who is described as “very beautiful to behold” destined to be the wife for Isaac.

Eliezer’s mission was now a success, for when the party returned and were not far from Abraham’s tents, at Beer Lahai Roi, Rebekah alighted from her camel, met the one who would be her husband, who loved her at first sight and who then took her into his mother’s tent to be married.

There are many other examples in Scripture of faithful servants who were not only prayers, but also doers.

It was Jesus Himself who described His mission to the world in this way:

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” Mark 10:45 (NKJV).

William Ackland is retired in Cooranbong, NSW, and has written six books. 

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