Related: Spiritual Gifts
Is service optional? Yes, and no. Yes in the sense that God’s servants are not robots. Our service is a voluntary thing. Christ does not command us to serve Him. We were once slaves to sin and Satan, but Christ has freed us. But are we now “free” to do our own will? No. If we have our spiritual senses, service for the Lord is not optional. It is our “reasonable (or intelligent) service” (Rom. 12:1). Thus, Paul could speak of himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). He spoke of this in 1 Cor. 9 in terms of “willingly and unwillingly”. Paul served freely, but he also had a stewardship. He was free in one direction; he was free to serve, but not free to slack off (1 Cor. 9:17).
Whom do we serve? We were once the servants of sin and Satan, but now Christians are “the servants of God” (1 Pet. 2:16), “the servants of Christ” (Eph. 6:6), “servants of righteousness” (Rom 6:18-19), “servants of the assembly” (Rom. 16:1), and also the servants “of one another” (Gal. 5:13). We are not to serve ourselves.
What is the proper motive for service? On a most basic level, we ought to serve because we are under the Lordship of Christ. A servant needs to obey, without any other motive than submissive obedience. But as we survey the New Testament, the consistent message is that love is the proper motive for service. We read that “the love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Cor. 5:14). We read that our service is a “labor of love” (1 Thess. 1:3; Heb. 6:10), that “faith … worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6), and that we should “by love, serve one another” (Gal. 5:13; 2 Cor. 6:6). The more we appreciate what Christ has done, the greater our desire will be to devote ourselves to the One who loved us, and gave Himself for us. When we remember what He did for us, the presentation of our bodies as “a living sacrifice” is our only “reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1). Love is the great motive-spring of all Christian activity; whether it be service for others, or praise and worship to God. Christ set the pattern for us, who could say of His own service; “I do always those things that please him” (John 8:29). Typically, we see in the Hebrew servant (Ex. 21:6) a threefold love as the motivation for such a man to give up His freedom for ever; “I love my master, my wife, and my children, etc.” Love causes us to take our eyes off of self; “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Phil. 2:4). There are many false motives for service, which the Christian should never hold; serving for acceptance before God, serving for applause from men, or serving for money or power. Motives are deeper than the outward actions… only God sees the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). However, if love is not or motive, it is possible that others will discern it, and our hypocrisy will cause the ministry to be blamed. Even reward from God (the judgment seat of Christ) is not the proper motive for service (Matt. 20:1-16), although it is an incentive. The prospect of reward encourages us because it shows us that the Lord appreciates what we do for Him. But we cannot serve in a legal way, as if we will do some amount for Him, and He will gives us some amount in return.
Were the whole realm of nature ours,
That were an offering far too small;
Love that transcends our highest powers,
Demands our soul, our life, our all.1
What is the proper attitude for service? The scriptures abound with principles and patterns of service. One of the most important things about service is our attitude in it. Following are a number of attitudes that we ought to have in our service:
- Humility. The single greatest characteristic of the true servants of God is humility. The ultimate example and pattern for us is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who, though He was in the form of God, He “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). This makes the Lord’s teaching on humility all the more powerful. He said to His disciples; “For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth” (Luke 22:27).
- Contentment. Another important attitude for a servant to have is contentment. The apostle Paul deals with the attitude of discontent in 1 Cor. 12:14-19. It is possible for a servant of God to envy another servant or their work; specially is the other’s works is more prominent or appreciated by men. We cannot say, “because I am not the eye, I am not of the body”, because every member has its role. We need to be content with whatever work the Lord has given us, not matter how difficult or insignificant it is. Think of Christ, and the work that was given Him to do!
- Appreciation for others. Another attitude that we need to have is appreciation for others. Paul deals with disdain for fellow-servants in 1 Cor. 12:20-24. If we hold the attitude of disdain for other members, it will lead to the dishonor of the whole body, and the disruption of practical unity in the assembly. For one member to say to another, “I have no need of you” will lead to unprofitability. On the contrary, when we appreciate our fellow servants, it will promote joy in the field of service, and tremendous blessing for the people of God.
- Gladness. We read in Psa. 100:2 that we should “serve the Lord with gladness (joy)”. That is, we should serve with a happy heart. Glad service is the opposite of grudging service. If we are unhappy in our service, the Lord may set us aside to use another servant who has a right spirit. It can be especially hard to serve with gladness in days of weakness and failure. Perhaps this is why the very last words of Paul to Timothy were; “the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (2 Tim. 4:22).
- Readiness and Willingness. We must be both ready and willing to serve in order for God to use us. A negative example from the Old Testament is Amasa, captain of David’s hosts. David told him to gather the men of Judah, and be back in three days. However, he delayed “longer than the set time which he had appointed him” (2 Sam. 20:5), and so David turned to Abishai to get the job done. God will set aside one servant and use another who is less suited to the work if the first is unprepared or unwilling. A positive example of this readiness is little Samuel, lying in the Tabernacle, who instantly replied; “Speak, for thy servant heareth” (1 Sam 3:10).
- Restraint and Dependence. To balance readiness and willingness, we also need to have restraint and dependence in our service. Paul taught that “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32), which indicates that there is to be restraint or self-control in the use of gift. The Spirit of God is the way the Lord leads our service. We cannot push our own way without suffering some kind of loss. When the Lord Jesus was speaking of the harvest, and the fewness of laborers for such a great work, He guarded the imposition of human will by saying; “pray therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send forth workmen unto his harvest” (Matt. 9:38). Prayer and dependence are key to successful service.
- Dedication. The Lord wants us to be consistent, and fervent in our service. A nice example of this is Anna, though “herself a widow up to eighty-four years” still she did not “depart from the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers” (Luke 2:37). We are exhorted in Revelation to “hold fast what thou hast, that no one take thy crown” (Rev. 3:11). The Lord is coming soon… do we want to be found holding on when He comes? or giving up?
- Selflessness. Finally, we must be selfless. This is what Paul means by “a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). A sacrifice is something you offer without a hope to ever get it back. It has been remarked, tongue-in-cheek, that the problem with living sacrifices is that they tend to crawl off the altar! A selfless servant does not labor for reward, either from man or from God. The Lord made this abundantly clear in Luke 17:10 when He said, “when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”
How has God equipped us for service? We have been provided with “all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (2 Pet. 1:3). It follows, then, that God has provided for our service as well.
- Gifts. God has given spiritual gifts to every believer to aid us in our service (1 Cor. 12:7). These special abilities go beyond any natural ability that we have, and they are given for the edification of the whole body of Christ (1 Cor. 4:12).
- Authority. The servant of Christ has a tremendous resource; they serve the Lord Christ (Col. 3:24). This means that we can serve in confidence, knowing that we answer to a higher authority than the governments, etc. The servant of God is is immortal till his work is done (Rev. 11:7; John 11:9-10).
- The Word of God. The Word of God tells us not only what we should do, but how we should serve (2 Cor. 6:7; Psa. 119:105). We need to take heed how we are building (1 Cor. 3:10)… is our service in accordance with the Word of God? If not, it will be burned up in the fire.
- The Spirit of God. The Spirit of God is on earth indwelling believers. The Spirit (the Comforter) teaches us (John 14:26), leads us as the sons of God (Rom. 8:14), and guides in ministry (1 Cor. 12:11; 2 Cor. 6:6) as well as worship (Phil. 3:3).
- Background. Another way God equips is for service is by giving us background experience. For some, they have the blessed experience and privilege of growing up in a Christian home. There habits can be learned and wisdom gleaned that will help for years to come. Others are placed in hard circumstances where they learn other lessons equally valuable in our service.
- Experience. The benefit of experience should not be underestimated. Gift needs to be developed, and God often provides His servants with a training period where experience can be gained.
- Others. We can and should share our service with others. We see this with Christ at the feeding of the five thousand, He said “give ye them to eat”. We see it too with the apostle Paul, who was imprisoned, but was able to carry on his service event behind bars through the Philippians as his extension (see Phil. 1:27).
What are some common roadblocks to service? How can they be overcome? Give examples from scripture. Things that either prevent us from serving, or can make our service ineffective.
- Procrastination is a very common roadblock to service. With regard to service, Jesus said “Do not ye say, that there are yet four months and the harvest comes? Behold, I say to you, Lift up your eyes and behold the fields, for they are already white to harvest” (John 4:35). The time for service is now… we cannot procrastinate! In natural harvest there is a cycle… a slow time, and later a busy time when the harvest is ready. This is not true in spiritual things.
- Wrong priorities can also hinder our service. The Lord needs to have the highest claim in our life; “that He might have the first place in all things” (Col. 1:18). If we let worldly things (entertainments, etc.) or even just natural things (school, work, hobbies) have the preeminence, we will not be useful servants of the Lord.
- Family ties. The Lord Jesus said, “he who loves father or mother above me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter above me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37). We cannot allow family connections to come between us and the Lord. Sometimes parents, children, and even spouses will not approve of ones service for Christ. But the Lord must have the first place. Sometimes family members can push us into a field of service that God has not given us or we are not ready for (e.g. Barnabas and John Mark).
- Uncertainty. Sometimes believers feel stuck, saying “I don’t know what to do” or “I don’t know what my gift is”. There is always something we can do for the Lord. If we are faithful in the little things, the Lord will give us greater responsibility. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might” (Ecc. 9:10).
- Imbalance. While service is very important, we need to keep it in its place. In the Word of God we have instruction to put worship before service; e.g. Mary and Martha. It is when we have sat at Jesus feet in worship that we are properly prepared to go out in service for Him. Getting service before worship makes us very unbalanced, and can lead to failures or ineffectiveness in service.
- Poor discernment. One of the critical things we need in our service is wisdom, or discernment. In Matt 10:16, the Lord told His apostles to be “prudent as the serpents, and guileless as the doves”. We need discernment to navigate the difficulties of the path of service. There are many pitfalls along the way; temptation to sin, temptation to compromise (1 Kings 13:21), temptation to go beyond what the Lord has given us (2 Chron. 26:19). We need that discernment to avoid those pitfalls.
- Fear and guilt. It is possible to let the difficulties of the path discourage us. Hard circumstances surrounded the path of the apostle Paul, but they did not stop him from serving (2 Cor. 6:4-10). Also, it is possible to let past mistakes and failures discourage us from service. There was only one flawless servant: the Lord Jesus Christ. The rest of us have all failed, and will continue to fail. John Mark is an example of a servant who failed. John Mark had a good upbringing, and we read of a prayer meeting in his mother’s house (Acts 12:12). He was Barnabas’s nephew, and Saul and Barnabas took John with them on their first missionary journey (Acts 12:25). However, on the journey, John Mark became disheartened or something, and “departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work” (Acts 15:38). After that, Paul and Barnabas could not agree about taking Mark on the second journey, and the issue drove a wedge between the two servants (Acts 15:37, 39). However, the Lord was not done with John Mark. Years later, Paul could say “Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11). Finally, when selecting a writer for the gospel, who would God chose the to write the inspired biography of His perfect Servant? He chose a failing servant who had been restored. God doesn’t write off failing servants, and neither should we.
- Lack of separation from evil. The next roadblock or hindrance to service is failure to separate from evil. We are not talking about sin that we are personally involved with, but association with others who are going on in sin. Paul wrote to Timothy, “If a man therefore purge himself from these [vessels to dishonor], he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21). Part of “preparation” for service is separation from evil. God will not use defiled instruments. If we refuse to separate from evil, God will use someone else, and put us under His chastisement.
- Sin in general is a tremendous hindrance to service. We are exhorted to “lay aside every weight, and sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run…” Heb. 12:1). Personal sin, if left unjudged, will damage our life, and will drain us of spiritual energy. Pureness is vital (2 Cor. 6:6). Furthermore, unrighteous behavior will bring shame on the name of Christ. Paul explained that he lived in such a way “that the ministry be not blamed” (2 Cor. 6:3).
- Not rightly dividing the word of truth. Paul told Timothy that he needed to show himself “approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). We must understand the divisions and distinctions in the Word of God, or we will be ashamed; i.e. make mistakes in our service due to ignorance. For instance, if we do not rightly distinguish between the Church and Isreal, we may lose sight of our heavenly portion and calling.
- Not understanding the times. We read in 1 Chron. 12:32 of “the sons of Issachar who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do”. If we are going to be effective in service, we need to be in tune with the times. If we do not keep our heads up, we will not know what behavior is appropriate. Gahazi thought it was time to make money, when really it was a time to allow a new covert to depart with an unconditional sense of grace (2 Kings 5:26).
- Self-occupation and competition will hinder our service as well. Martha was “cumbered about with much serving”, and compared herself to Mary who was not doing as much, and had to be gently rebuked (Luke 10:40). Elijah developed an “I, even I only” attitude (1 Kings 18:22), and could no longer be used by Jehovah. The first group of laborers in the vineyard were concerned that others were being rewarded more than they deserved (Matt. 20:11-15). Comparing ourselves among ourselves is not wise (2 Cor. 10:12).
- Bad relationships with brethren. If there is disunity between brethren, or if the servant is at odds with the local assembly, one’s service will be hindered. This is why Paul desired “the right hands of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9). It can be disastrous to carry on without the fellowship of or brethren. Kindness is key (2 Cor. 6:6).
- Lack of preparation. The servant of God must be prepared by God, or their service will be ineffective. Especially in public ministry, we need “the Lord’s messenger with the Lord’s message”. We see this great lesson borne out in the messengers of Joab in 2 Sam. 18:9-33.
Who is the perfect example for service? The Lord Jesus Christ is the perfect example and pattern for our service. What was He like? He was humble, selfless, devoted, faithful, consistent… He was perfect. Perhaps the leading characteristic is the Lord’s humility. Though He was in the very form of God, yet in lowly grace He “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:7). How opposite this is from the logic of this world. Jesus Himself taught about service, and compared the world’s view of greatness with God’s view. In God’s sight it is greater to serve than to be served; “For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.” (Luke 22:27). The Lord Jesus never expressed His will as anything different to His Father’s will, except on one occasion. In anticipation of the horrors of Calvary, the Lord Jesus asked His Father, if it were possible, to remove the cup from Him… and then immediately added, “not my will but thine be done” (Luke 22:41). This is the character of servants… to sent one’s will aside, and always do the Master’s will (John 8:29). It is precious to consider the oft repeated expression “My Servant” throughout the Old Testament prophecies. Jehovah would speak prophetically of His perfect servant; “Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles” (Isa. 42:1). The Lord is serving us now (Heb. 4:14; 1 John 2:1), and will serve us for eternity: “verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them” (Luke 12:37; see also Ex. 21:6).
Though in the very form of God,
With heavenly glory crowned,
Thou didst a servant’s form assume,
Beset with sorrow round.2