Settling the Servanthood Issue

Luke 17:7-10

August 27, 2006 | Brian Bill

We live in a “me-first” culture that encourages us to think of ourselves first and others…well, rarely.  We’re told to focus on our self-image, to be involved in self-actualization and to be self-reliant.  There’s even an entire magazine called “Self” just in case we start thinking too much of others and need help getting the focus back on ourselves.  Because we’re saturated with messages about self, it’s easy to bring this mentality to church and expect the congregation to cater to us and to treat God like a genie whose only purpose is to meet our needs.  In his book called “The Ministry Playbook,” Henry Klopp writes: “Many Christians believe the way to evaluate the health and effectiveness of the church is by figuring out the degree to which the church meets their own individual needs…”

We’re beginning a new series today called “Living Beyond Myself.”  Since we follow a Savior who serves us, how can we not get out of our seats and into service?  We need some help learning how to live beyond self so that we can stop defaulting to our selfish settings.  I’m praying that during this sermon series God will ignite a fire that will revitalize our hearts and burn within us a white-hot passion for servanthood.  Our focus today is on settling the servanthood issue. 

Did you know that the word “servant” in one form or another is used over 1,000 times in the Bible?  That means it’s a very big deal to God and should be to us as well.  In Numbers 12:7, God refers to Moses with these words: “My servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house.”  Abraham, David and Job are called “my servant” by God.  When Paul, James, Peter and Jude introduced themselves in their letters, the first thing they did was to identify themselves as servants.  Here’s just a sampling:

Romans 1:1: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus…”

James 1:1: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ…”

2 Peter 1:1: “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ…”

Jude 1: “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ…”

Serving doesn’t make you a servant; but if you are a servant you will serve

Do you see yourself as a servant or just a volunteer?   There’s a world of difference between the two.  A volunteer picks and chooses when and even whether to serve.  A servant serves no matter what.  A volunteer serves when convenient; a servant serves out of commitment.   1 Peter 2:16 challenges us to “…live as servants of God.”  As I survey Scripture, you and I are called first to be servants, and second to serve.  We must settle the fact that we are called to a life of servanthood that leads to loving acts of service.  Serving flows from the heart of a servant.  We could say it this way: Serving doesn’t make you a servant; but if you are a servant you will serve.


I am honored to be part of a church that is saturated with servants.  We don’t want to be a church where 20% of our people do 80% of the work.  I’m not sure what the percentage is here, but I know that many of you are sold out to the Savior and to selfless service.  57 of you made a commitment last week to be involved in serving this fall.  That is amazing but not surprising because this church is filled with faithful servants.  I had the privilege of meeting with our ministry coordinators this past Wednesday night and was reminded again of how committed so many of you are to ministry.  You have unlocked the secrets of serving and you wouldn’t trade it for anything.

One day Jesus revealed the importance of serving with no strings attached.  I should warn you ahead of time that this passage is not for the faint of heart.  If we’re serious about growing in depth this year, our spiritual syllabus contains some pretty tough assignments.  Please turn in your Bible to Luke 17:7-10 and follow along as I read: “Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep.  Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’?  Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’?  Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?  So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”  

Serving doesn’t make you a servant; but if you are a servant you will serve.  I see four servanthood secrets from this passage.

1. A servant’s work is not always glamorous (7a). 

Look with me at the first part of verse 7: “Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after sheep.”  This particular farmer probably only had one servant who had to multi-task throughout the day.  He’d do the back-breaking work of plowing and then the tedious work of watching sheep.  His muscles would scream and then he may have screamed out of boredom.  And then he’d get up the next day and do it all over again.  Kind of sounds like some of our jobs, doesn’t it?  My guess is that over time, his daily responsibilities became routine and his tasks were not thrilling.  Not only that, he may have felt lonely since there were no other servants around.

Let me state the obvious.  Sometimes serving is not very sensational.  It involves exertion and often exacts a price.  If you find yourself strutting about how much you serve, you better check your motives.  In fact, if we’re not willing to sacrifice something, we’ve not really settled the servanthood issue.  

Sometimes we recruit people to a ministry by telling them how fun and easy it is to serve.  Actually, we make this same mistake when we urge people to get saved by promising them a happy life.  You and I must stop soft-selling the Savior and the life of servanthood.  2 Timothy 3:12 says: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  There’s really no way around it.  When we follow Christ we are saying goodbye to self and when we serve we are giving up all rights.  

Fred Craddock, in a message to ministers, once said: “To give my life for Christ appears glorious.  To pour myself out for others…to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom – I’ll do it.  I’m ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory…it would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul.”  He then tells a story about a wealthy man who handed his pastor a check for fifty thousand dollars.  The pastor looked at it and then handed it back to the man and said: “Go cash it in for quarters or dollars and spend fifty cents or a dollar at a time doing the Lord’s work.”  The man was flustered and said, “But that will take the rest of my life!”  “Precisely,” replied the pastor.  “That’s the point.”  

I shared Proverbs 14:4 with a couple ministry leaders the other night because this verse reminds me that ministry is always messy.  Things break, people drop the ball, and they make a mess.  Listen to these words in the King James Version: “Where no oxen are, the crib is clean…” If we don’t want to paint or clean or straighten or fix, then we shouldn’t be open for ministry.   Our deacons certainly understand this as they do a great job of improving and fixing and making sure everything gets clean every week.  They could use some help beginning next Saturday as we put a new roof on the old part of the building.

Serving doesn’t make you a servant; but if you are a servant you will serve.  

2. A servant’s service never ends (7b-8). 

After working all day, the servant comes back to the Master’s house.  He’s probably tired and hungry but it still is not time to relax.  Here’s the principle.  A servant’s service may change locale and the specific job description may be in flux but the truth of the matter is that service never ends.  Actually, the job description for a servant is very simple and straightforward: “Do everything your Master commands.”   Let’s listen to how Jesus said it in the second half of verse 7 and verse 8: “Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’?  Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’”? 

The servant moves from outdoors to indoors, from day to evening, and from hard labor to home life.  He goes from the fields to fixing food.  Don’t miss this truth.  A servant serves whenever, wherever, for whomever, doing whatever it takes.  We could say it this way: “It’s not break time yet.”  We talk a lot about serving opportunities in the church, but we’re actually to be serving all the time.  Matthew Henry says that we must make “the end of one service the beginning of another…when we have been working for God, we must still wait on God…continually.”  That means when you get up you serve your family, when you go to work you serve your boss and co-workers, when you come home you serve your family, when you go out into the community you serve, and you serve in at least one ministry at church.

I heard about a little girl who finally learned to tie her shoes.  Instead of being excited, she was overcome with tears.  Her dad bent down and asked her why she was crying.  “I have to tie my shoes,” she said.  Her dad responded, “You just learned how.  It’s not that hard.”  The little girl started wailing and said, “I know, but now I’m going to have to do it for the rest of my life.”  I suspect that some of us feel like we’ve already put our time in.  We’ve done the hard labor and now we feel like its time to sit and relax a bit.  Friend, if you’re alive, you’re still a servant.  The location and intensity of your serving may change as the seasons of your life change, but no Christ-follower has the option of sitting down to have his or her needs met, when there are still things to do.  

Notice that the servant is to spend time preparing and getting himself ready and then he is to serve.  These are good words to help us make sure we are prayed up and studied up and pumped up to serve.  The servant had to get himself ready before he could wait on his master.  If you’re teaching, make sure you have your lesson ready.  If you’re a small group leader, it’s a good idea to have the chapter completed (I need that reminder sometimes).  If you plug into AWANA, make sure your heart is right before you come.  When you go to the PTA meeting at school, make sure you’re prayed up.  When you look for ways to serve your neighbors get yourself ready by thinking through what their needs are.

The key is to be a servant, not a slacker.  I heard about a company that felt like they had to shake some things up so they hired a new CEO.  His number one job was to get rid of all slackers.  On his first tour of the building he noticed a guy leaning against a wall, not doing anything.  Seeing this as an opportunity to show everyone he meant business, he went up to the guy and asked, “How much money do you make a week?”  Undaunted, the young man looked at him and said, “I make $200 a week.  Why?”  The CEO then reached into his pocket, pulled out $200 in cash and screamed at him, “Here’s a week’s pay, now get out and don’t come back!”  Feeling pretty good about his decisive decision, the CEO looked around the room and asked, “Does anyone want to tell me what that slacker did here, anyway?”  With a sheepish grin, one of the workers muttered, “He’s the pizza delivery guy.”

The servant in the story Jesus told is able to sit down to a meal only after he has served his master.  Likewise, there is a time coming when we will receive a reward, but it’s still in the future, isn’t it?  Until then, keep serving.  D.L. Moody once said, “The reward of service is more service.”  1 Corinthians 15:58: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”  In Revelation 22:12, Jesus says: “Behold, I am coming soon!  My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.”

Ray Stedman tells the following story.  “Years ago I heard of a missionary couple returning from Africa in the days of Teddy Roosevelt.  It happened that after years of service they came back on the same ship as President Roosevelt, who was returning from a big-game hunting expedition in Africa.  When they pulled into New York harbor there was a band playing the president’s favorite songs, and all the high officials of the city were there to meet him.  But the missionary couple slipped off the ship unnoticed, and rented a run-down flat on the East Side of New York.  The man was utterly crushed, and said to his wife, ‘It isn’t fair, it just isn’t fair!  Here we are, we haven’t any money, and we don’t know who is going to take care of us or where we are going.  God has promised great things, but nothing’s happened.  We’ve given him everything we’ve got, and what has he done for us?  But just look at what happens when the president goes on a big-game hunt! It isn’t fair!’

His wife said, ‘Dear, I know it isn’t fair…Why don’t you go into the bedroom and talk to the Lord about it, and see what he has to say?’  He went in and knelt by the bed, alone.  He was there a long time, but when he came out his face was alight…She said, ‘What happened?’  And he said, ‘I got down on my knees and poured out the whole story to the Lord.  I told him that I thought it was so unfair… I told him that he was treating us all wrong.  But you know what the Lord said to me?  It was almost as though I could hear the voice, he leaned down and said, ‘But you’re not home yet.’”

Serving doesn’t make you a servant; but if you are a servant you will serve.  Why?  Because you’re not home yet.

3. A servant should not expect to be thanked (9). 

After going all out and working from sunup to sundown, the servant is no doubt tired.  A word of appreciation would mean so much to him, but it never comes.  Look at verse 9: “Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?”  The implied answer is a strong “no.”  The word “thank” means to have gratitude or to be grateful.  The idea is if the master expresses gratitude it could be construed as a debt that must somehow be settled to even the score.  This is absurdly arrogant as Job 22:2 points out: “Can a man be of benefit to God?”

Some of us think that God somehow owes us for all that we’ve done for Him.  The Pharisees believed that their deeds put God in their debt.  This kind of thinking gets us in deep trouble because God doesn’t owe us anything.  In fact, according to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, God doesn’t owe us, He owns us: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your body.” 

God does not need us to serve Him; it’s our duty and delight and He is under no obligation to reward us

We are not entitled to a word of thanks or appreciation.  Our focus is often on our feelings whereas this servant was focused on just doing his job.  Here’s the amazing thing.  The farthest thing from his mind was the feeling that he should be thanked for doing what he was supposed to do. Too many of us serve with way too many expectations.  This gets us frustrated and angry and mad and we determine to never serve again because no one thanked us, or because it didn’t go like we wanted it to.  God does not need us to serve Him; it’s our duty and delight and He is under no obligation to reward us.

Let me clarify something.  I don’t think it’s wrong to show appreciation when someone is serving.  In fact, we need to do more of that.  Most people, including me, get discouraged and a word of encouragement can go a long way.  Hebrews 3:13 says that we are to encourage each other every twenty four hours: “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”  The theme verse for our women’s mentoring ministry is Proverbs 25:11: “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”  What I am saying is that it is dangerous to expect affirmation and wrong for us to expect acknowledgment and make that the motivation for our service.  Serving doesn’t make you a servant; but if you are a servant you will serve.  

4. A servant does what is expected (10). 

Jesus concludes this story with some corrective words to those of us who attend the church of “me, myself and I” in verse 10: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”  Unfortunately, too many of us want to know what serving will cost us and how it will benefit us.  If the benefits outweigh the costs, and we can fit it into our schedule, then maybe will do a little bit of ministry.  This verse helps us see what being a servant is all about.  A servant’s heart is intent upon, and his will is bound to, the will and wishes of another.  If I am your servant, what you say goes.  Someone put it this way, “Regardless of how much we do, we cannot do more than is expected of us.” Can we really say that we’ve “done everything we’ve been told to do?” 

Instead of having a feeling of entitlement, we need to see ourselves as unworthy servants.  The idea in the Greek is that we are “unworthy of any praise.”  It means “no one owes me anything extra.”  My observation is that the happiest servants are those who consider themselves to be unworthy.  In 2 Samuel 23:13-17, David exhibits this attitude when three of his “mighty men” show their devotion by risking their lives to bring him water.  Astonishingly, he would not drink it but instead “poured it out before the Lord” because he said he wasn’t worthy of such devotion.  Unfortunately, too many of us drink up praise and admiration, seeking to be exalted and affirmed rather than to be humble before the Master.

One of the best biblical images of this single-minded resolve to deflect devotion from self to the Savior is found in Psalm 123:2: “As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God…” When the master moves his finger, the servant falls in line.  When he says, “jump” the servant says, “how high?”  The servant does not waffle or hedge or complain or bargain or debate.  He or she simply obeys like the child Samuel who responded to the Lord’s voice in 1 Samuel 3:9 by saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

God hasn’t called us to be sensational; He’s called us to be servants.  Lorne Sanny, the founder of the Navigators, was once asked how we can really know when we have the attitude of a servant.  His answer is to the point and very profound.  It’s worth pondering: “You know you’re a servant by how you act when you’re treated like one.”  When you’re treated like a servant, do you get offended?  When someone forgets to say thanks do you go in the tank?  Do you think you’re worthy of recognition?  Or do you say, “I just got treated better than I should, because I’m not just a servant, I am an ‘unworthy’ servant.”  

Gayle Erwin, in his book called, “The Jesus Style,” writes: “A servant’s job is to do all he can to make life better for others…a servant’s first interest is not himself but others.”  A lifestyle of servanthood flies in the face of most Americans because we’ve been led to believe that the way to be happy is to gratify our physical and emotional desires.  In a recent Breakpoint Commentary called “Vanity of Vanities,” Mark Earley points out that Americans will spend $22 billion on luxury bathroom items alone, ten times what is spent on AIDS research.  While Americans are wealthier and healthier than they were fifty years ago, the number of people who say they are very unhappy has risen 20 percent.  Earley argues that since most of us believe our lives are our own, then it’s up to us to “maximize comfort and ease pain.”  Quoting J.P. Moreland, in his new book, “The Lost Virtue of Happiness,” happiness does not come from a life filled with self-gratification: “Real life does not come naturally.  It is counterintuitive.  It’s a skill we have to learn.  That’s because the way to real life is not something we get, but something we give.”  Jesus said it this way in Matthew 16:25: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”

The issue is really one of obedience.  Am I going to serve myself or serve others?  The servant does his duty out of devotion to the master.  Part and parcel of living out the second ingredient of our vision statement, as Pastor Dick reminded us, is to grow in depth.  We do that by diving deep with God so that we do our duty with devotion to our Master.  It was Kierkegaard who said, “It’s hard to believe, not because it’s hard to understand, but because it’s hard to obey.”  That’s true, isn’t it?  Serving doesn’t make you a servant; but if you are a servant you will serve.  

Let’s summarize the secrets of servanthood:

  1. A servant’s service is not always glamorous.
  2. A servant’s service never ends.
  3. A servant should not expect to be thanked.
  4. A servant does what is expected.


It’s not “me-first” or even “we-first.”   It’s got to be “He-first.”  We need to be involved in service, not “serve-us.”  How do we do this?  Let me give some practical applications.

1. Surrender first to the Savior. 

The first place to start is by making sure that you have surrendered to the Savior by being saved and that you are a devoted disciple.  One way you can publicly demonstrate your commitment to Christ is by following Him in believer’s baptism.  After you surrender, you will want to serve Him, not because you have to, but because you want to.  You’ll live as a servant because you love Him as your Savior.  And, when you realize that He is committed to serve you, you’ll want to do all you can to serve Him and others.  Luke 22:27: “But I am among you as one who serves.”

2. Choose to be a servant, not a volunteer. 

Richard Foster, in his book “Celebration of Discipline,” writes: “There’s a difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant.”  We could say it this way: Don’t serve until you’ve settled the servanthood issue; but once you’ve settled it, don’t ever stop serving.  In John 13, we read about Jesus washing the dirty feet of His disciples.  He did this in large part to set an example of what servanthood is all about.  He concludes the lesson with these words in John 13:17: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”  Have you ever been to a foot washing service?  Well, we’re going to have one right now.  When the ushers get to your row, those of you at the end of each aisle take the container of water and the towel.  I’m going to ask everyone to remove their shoes and socks and turn to the person on your left.

I’m just kidding.  You can breathe again.  With thanks to Dave Stone for this idea, let me ask a couple questions.  How did you feel when you thought something bizarre was about to happen?  Did you feel incredibly apprehensive and uncomfortable?  You were uneasy because either you didn’t want to handle the feet of the person next to you or you didn’t want someone else to see your feet, or both.  It doesn’t really matter what camp you were in because either one comes from the same root cause.  We want to preserve our dignity, don’t we?  We’re prideful people.  We don’t want to do menial tasks like washing someone else’s feet and we certainly don’t want someone to wash ours.  Friend, what unglamorous, undignified duty does God want you to do this week?  You won’t serve until you settle the servanthood issue.  

3. Don’t settle for any sourness in your spirit. 

This next action step may seem out of place but it’s really not.  In the verses before the passage we just studied, Jesus warns us about causing others to sin in verses 1-3: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come.  It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.  So watch yourselves.”  

In the very next breath Jesus tells us to make sure we are quick to forgive those who sin against us: “If he sins against you seven times in a day…forgive him.” Is there anyone you’ve been withholding forgiveness from?  Stay with me on this.  When the disciples heard these challenging words they immediately asked Jesus for more faith.  He told them that just a little bit of faith in a big God was all that they needed.  He then told the story about the servant doing the will of His master.  Why?  Because everything ultimately comes down to obedience and submissive servanthood.  Am I going to obey God and serve those around me by making sure I’m not causing them to sin?  Am I going to forgive those who sin against me?  Friend, this is only possible when you settle the servanthood issue and realize that life is not about you.

4. Sign up to serve. 

Deuteronomy 10:12 says: “…serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” That reminds me of the story I heard about a pastor who grabbed a man named Jack by the hand after the service and pulled him aside.  The pastor said to him, “You need to join the Army of the Lord, Jack.”  Jack quickly replied, “I’m already in the Army of the Lord, pastor.”  The pastor persisted, “Then why do I only see you on Christmas and Easter?”  Jack looked around and then whispered, “I’m in the secret service.”

It’s not about us, is it?  This is not a “me-church.”  Serving doesn’t make you a servant; but if you are a servant you will serve.  Jesus said in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?