Serve. Service. Servile. Servant. Server. Servitude. Serving.
It’s odd, really, the wide variety of associations and reactions we can have to these very similar words. The first seems somehow positive and noble, like in “How may I serve you?” Serve could also be a tennis or volleyball term, which is sort of positive but perhaps less noble. The last word in the list, serving, might be describing an action—or you could be talking about a portion of food. That is usually pleasant. So why do some of these related words carry negative connotations?
A century ago, the aristocracy and wealthy had servants who waited on the table and served the meals. Today we use the word server for those who bring us our food in restaurants; or we might call them waitress or waiter or even wait staff—more appropriate terms than servant.
“Wait on the Lord: be of good courage” (Psalm 27:14, KJV). Has it occurred to you that “wait on the Lord” means “serve the Lord,” not “be patient until He accomplishes His design”? Can you see yourself as one of God’s personal servants, standing by, waiting for a request, then moving swiftly to fulfill it?
What is it that we mean when we exhort each other to serve God and humanity?
Service in the Old Testament
Strong’s Concordance has pages and pages on serve, serving, servant, servanthood, etc. In Bible times, servant was a widely used term. People were forever referring to themselves as “your servant” to show respect, and such notables as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, David, Daniel, and Mary the mother of Jesus are called servants of God. What higher calling could there be?
In Strong’s one sees that frequently “loved and served” or “worshiped and served” appear together. So service to God seems inextricably entwined with love and with worship. Moses delivers God’s message over and over to Pharaoh: “Let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exodus 7:16, KJV). What does this entail? Is it just to hold worship “services,” as they were called thousands of years ago (see, for example, Exodus 12:25-26; 27:19; Hebrews 9:1) and as we call them to this day?
Deuteronomy 10:12-13 defines the service God asks of us quite clearly: “What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good?” (NKJV). Doesn’t this passage sound similar to Micah 6:8 and to Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the famous prayer of Israel? Serve, it seems, means love and obey.
Service in the New Testament
Matthew 8:1-4 tells the story of Jesus healing a man with leprosy. There are several principles at work in this passage.
Jesus followed local customs and protocols. He told the man to go to the priest and make the prescribed offering “as a testimony.” This had at least three results. It gave the local priest a chance to be involved, (and perhaps turn to Jesus himself.) It gave honor to the law, which, after all, Jesus Himself had originally given. It also gave the healed man something to do on his own behalf, which may have helped his self-confidence.
Jesus was led by the expressed needs of this man. He didn’t seek out the leper and ask him if he wanted to be cleansed. He let the leper come to Him and ask. However, He had made no secret of His ministry, so people knew where to find Him and had at least heard rumors about what He could do. How often have we put a burden on people by pressuring them to receive something (even the gospel) that they don’t think they need?
Alternatively, are we clear about the ministries provided by our churches, groups, or us as individuals—are there well-defined and respectful methods for accessing them when someone does feel a need?
Jesus met more than the expressed need. He heard the request for healing, but He also recognized an even deeper need that was felt but not expressed: the need for touch. No one touched a leper. It wasn’t just dangerous—it was against the law. This man had taken a risk to even approach Jesus. His courage was rewarded not only by the miracle of healing but by the miracle, accessible to us all, of human touch. We can’t hand out miraculous healings. But our loving touch can surprise us with its miraculous power to ease isolation and loneliness.
Jesus’ heart was touched by a need so deep, the needy one could not even ask for help. How did He know? Well, of course, He was the Son of God, and “knew what was in man” (John 2:25). But we are looking for principles we can imitate. Jesus paid attention. He loved everyone He saw, and He was always in close contact with and led by the Holy Spirit. We can do that. We can build relationships so that we can sometimes give voice to something the other person can’t speak. If she closes up, we can back away and apologize if necessary. But frequently the response will be relief, even tears, as the person who has come to trust us realizes we have seen what she didn’t dare to share, and that we are not shocked and don’t love or respect her any less.
Jesus did what needed to be done. He didn’t ask questions. He didn’t look around to see if anyone else was going to do it. He didn’t examine His soul to determine if He had the requisite skills. He saw a need, got up, set aside any doubts about risk or self-consequence, and did the job.
During the last night Jesus and the disciples were all together, some unpleasantness surfaced: “A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves’” (Luke 22:24-27, NIV).
Did this incident take place after Jesus had washed their feet? Could the disciples really get into a conflict over who was the greatest after watching Jesus take on the persona of the lowliest of servants in their society, the one who had anything to do with feet? Is it possible we can forget so easily, so quickly?
The God we love and worship and serve came to live among us, and He knelt down to serve us. What more could He possibly tell us about what He means by service? It was love that had come to this world, to serve.
Alberto Valenzuela is the associate director of communication and community engagement for the Pacific Union Conference and editor of the Recorder. This article is adapted from the iFollow curriculum produced by the Center for Creative Ministry.