I used to wait tables at Long Horn Steakhouse when I was going to the Atlanta Bible College. It was a great job for a lot of reasons. In particular, it taught me about service. You see my title was “server.” We had twelve steps of service, and the managers expected us to hit each of those steps with each guest in our section. In fact, they would send in “mystery shoppers” who would evaluate us on each of these twelve steps. We would never know if someone was really testing us or if they were just a normal guest. However, after a couple of days, the corporate office would send an official report to our store that management promptly posted for all to see. If a server scored 90% or higher on this evaluation, she or he would get a prize. If you failed to do well repeatedly, you would lose your job. Now why did Long Horn go to such an extreme measure and spend all that money reimbursing mystery shoppers? They really want their team to provide stellar service and that was the way they could insure everyone upheld their standard.
Fortunately for us, angels probably aren’t visiting you to see if you hit the twelve steps of Christian service—though this sort of thing has happened in the past (see Gen 18:20-22; Heb 13:2). Even so, the Scriptures repeatedly tell us that serving God, Christ, and others is essential. First of all, we need to serve God with our whole heart. When Satan went head to head with Jesus in the desert, he tempted him by showing him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory and then said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Mt 4:9). Jesus replied, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Mt 4:10). Jesus didn’t give Satan an inch to work with, but shut the temptation down. If we are to take our cue from Jesus, we must keep worshipping and serving God foremost in our hearts. Ultimately, all that we do should either directly or indirectly serve Him. We cannot serve two masters but wholeheartedly should cling to God over whatever else may pull us in another direction (Lk 16:13). We shouldn’t let ourselves get lazy or slothful in spirit; instead, let’s serve Him zealously (Rom 12:11). Even so, just because we serve God doesn’t mean we can neglect serving others. In fact, much of what it means to serve God is to serve others.
The Scriptures teach us that we should serve one another through love (Gal 5:13-14). Instead of acting out of selfish ambition or conceit, we are to humbly think of others as more significant than ourselves (Phil 2:3). “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4). If we are strong in the faith, then it is our job to bear the failings of the weak rather than just seeking to please ourselves (Rom 15:1). We can search for ways to please our neighbors and build them up like Christ did when he became a servant to God’s people (Rom 15:2-3, 8). By bearing one another’s burdens, we not only make each other better for God, we also fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). Yet, even if we grasp the importance of serving one another, it is so easy to get our minds twisted around about service. Thankfully, Christ, our chief example on how to serve, repeatedly taught and illustrated how his followers should think about this important aspect of our faith.
Jesus was a master teacher. One time his disciples were arguing about who of them was the greatest. Jesus found out and took advantage of the opportunity to teach them. He said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35). He took a child and put him in the midst of them. Taking the boy into his arms he said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mk 9:37). Children are among the most vulnerable in any society. They are obviously not “the greatest,” yet Jesus says that we should receive them in his name rather than reject them. Another time, James and John came up to Jesus and asked for him to give them the highest seats of honor in his kingdom (Mk 10:35-36). Jesus would not grant them this request but said such a privilege was God’s alone to decide. However, when the other disciples heard that James and John had boldly made such a request, their anger burned. Addressing the situation, Jesus said the following:
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But 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. Mk 10:42-45
According to Jesus, greatness is not found in how the nations use power, lording it over others and dominating them. No, true greatness is found in coming under others and lifting them up, serving them. The first is the slave of all. This paradoxical statement might seem impossible if it were not for the fact that Jesus himself demonstrated it in his own life. He came to give his life as a ransom for many.
Before moving on to look at the diversity of service and providing some specific examples, let’s consider one more saying of Christ on the subject. This statement picks up on how servants functioned in their culture. Jesus asked a question about whether a master should thank his slave for doing what he commanded, even if it had been a long hard day in the field. The question he asked was rhetorical. Everyone knew the answer was, “Of course, not.” Then Jesus said, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Lk 17:10). This statement so offends our cultural sensibilities that it’s like a bone caught in our throats. How can we swallow the notion that we are “unworthy servants” or as another translation puts it, “unworthy slaves?” Of course we have value. Our accomplishments matter. The fact that I read my Bible today means I’m better than that slacker who picks up the book only on Sundays, right? Or we might subtly say to ourselves, “I help with the refreshments every week unlike that guy.” We may think of our service as something that qualifies us to tell others what to do: “I’ve taught this children’s fellowship for ten years; don’t tell me what to do!” It’s so easy to think of our service as establishing our status and call into questions the commitment of others who don’t serve in the same way we do. What Jesus is telling us here is that we don’t get accolades for doing what we are supposed to do. For example, does your boss come up to you at the end of each work day and say, “Thank you for the work you did today?” Of course, not. Management expects you’ll do the work you are supposed to do every day, and if you don’t, they’ll find someone else who will. We offer our Christian service because that is the proper response of someone who has experienced God’s forgiveness and love. Our life is not our own. Look at the words of the Apostle Paul:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Gal 2:20
Is Paul being showy here? Is he some unusual exception or is he merely articulating a mindset that all Christians should have? He’s expressing how we should all feel about our new lives in Christ. So the issue is not so much whether we should serve, but how.
God has graciously given his church many different gifts. Peter said, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet 4:10). We are not all the same, and we need what each other can contribute. In one place Paul lists the gifts of prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, contributing, leading, and acts of mercy (Rom 12:6-7). The point here is not so much that you should figure out which specific listed item uniquely applies to you, but that whatever God has graciously equipped you to do, you should do. The Scriptures do not scrimp on providing us with specific examples, but probably the best is the time Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Just imagine how humbling it was for the anointed Messiah to get down on his knees and wash their feet! After he was done, he said the following:
Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. John 13:12-17
What this example teaches us is that we need to be willing to perform the lowliest task. None of us is above some act of service if Jesus wasn’t above washing feet. There is just no room for pride if we want genuinely to serve one another.
I want to make one last point before concluding this disciple habit. The Scriptures talk a lot about taking care of a sister or brother who is in need. I plan to write another article about the overall topic of giving, but I did not want to leave out this important aspect of service. Probably the most emphatic teaching on this comes from Jesus’ story about the sheep and the goats (Mt 25). He talks about how we should give food to the hungry, provide drink for the thirsty, invite in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and go see the imprisoned. In fact, when we do it “to one of the least of these my brothers,” we did it to Jesus himself (Mt 25:40). Furthermore, James decries the hypocrite who says to his ill-clad and hungry brother, “Be warmed and filled,” while refusing to give anything to help (Jam 2:14-17). Paul tells us that we should contribute to the needs of the saints and show hospitality (Rom 12:13). John asks how God’s love could possibly abide in us if we don’t give to our sisters and brothers when we see them in need (1 Jn 3:17-18). Likewise the Old Testament is littered with God’s commands to advocate for and take care of the poor, the widow, and the orphan. If we will serve each other, then we must learn to hold our own possessions lightly such that we are able to genuinely help those in the family.
In conclusion, let’s serve. Let’s serve God; let’s serve Christ; let’s serve each other. Even in our work, we should “render service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man” (Eph 6:7). If we make this a habit, we can be confident that the Lord will take care of us (Eph 6:8). “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do” (Heb 6:10). So, whether you are washing feet, making the coffee, teaching the children, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or helping the sister or brother in need, let’s get out there and serve!