To serve God is to love him with all that we are, obeying, and enjoying him forever.
Serving God is what we were made to do as his creatures, but our service has been corrupted by our sin and rebellion which has rendered us unable to please him. An important part of the gospel is that in Jesus Christ we can begin to serve God again with the promise of being able to serve him perfectly and forever in the age to come. This Christian service is our privilege and delight.
The Ubiquity of Service
Today words like serve, serving, and servant are often freighted with negative overtones because they describe something difficult and undesirable compared with being in charge and having others serve us. But everyday life involves serving in all kinds of ways that are so common that it is easy for us to take them for granted and hardly notice their existence. For instance, we have what are called service industries and sectors of the economy as well as other service organizations that provide aid and protection in time of need. In a variety of ways, we are all called upon to serve one another because it is impossible for someone to live in isolation from everyone else. This reality raises important questions: Where did the idea of serving come from? Is it merely a pragmatic necessity or does it point to something deeper?
The Biblical Roots of Service
Christian theology posits that a proper understanding of serving takes us back to the opening chapters of the Bible and God’s special creation of human beings in his image. This divinely inspired account establishes the starting point for understanding ourselves because it elucidates the relationship between humankind and our Creator. Genesis 1-2 explain that God, the Creator, made all things out of nothing by the agency and power of his word and that he as the sovereign of the universe did so for his honor and glory. This means that at the most basic level all that God created was made to serve him. The creation does not exist independently of God, but continually depends on him for its existence and sustenance. God does not need the creation, the creation needs him and as it fulfills its purpose it testifies to his existence, wisdom, and glory.
What is true of the creation generally is even more true of human beings. Our special creation in the image of God means that we were created to serve him in a way that goes beyond anything else that he has made. Our unique service is indicated by the blessing that God pronounced on humanity and his command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth (Gen. 1:28). Later theological reflection on this creation mandate reveals that humans were to serve God as prophets interpreting the world that he made, as priests working before him and presenting to him the works of their hands, and as kings exercising their delegated authority to extend the boundaries of Eden to the ends of the earth. This exposition of our original human responsibility is based the astute observation that “the true nature of the image of God is to be derived from what Scripture says of its renewal through Christ” (cf. John Calvin, The Knowledge of God the Creator, vol. 1 of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960], 189).
Thus, in the beginning, humankind was given an exalted position on the earth. They were entrusted with authority and dignity and placed in a beautiful garden where it was their privilege and delight to serve God. While their work was challenging it was not odious, and it brought them fulfillment and contentment because they were doing what God created them to do. Serving God and its necessary entailment, serving one another, is basic to our image bearing and our humanity, and although this is as true today as in the beginning, something has happened that makes things our service painful, discouraging, and frustrating.
Service Compromised and Complicated
Genesis 3 chronicles the rebellion and moral fall of our first parents, which took place when they substituted the word of the serpent for the word of their loving Creator. Although God graciously spared their lives, so they did not immediately die, the contamination of Adam’s race meant they were unable to serve God as they should, even though their responsibility to serve him remained. Instead of wholeheartedly serving God, they were enslaved by the dark power of sin that contaminated and made their service unacceptable. Now they chaffed under his authority and refused to accept their creaturely status and obligations. As the apostle Paul writes to the Romans, human beings “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen” (1:25). As a result, everything is distorted, and because of the power of our sin and the just judgment of God pronounced in Genesis 3:14-24, we are unable to serve God as we ought.
If this were the end of the story our situation would be helpless and hopeless, but mercifully this is only the beginning. In the Scriptures there are many ways to explain the saving intervention of God that results in the creation of his people who are zealous to do what is good. One way is to see God coming to rescue those whom he has chosen to save out of Adam’s fallen race by becoming a servant himself. Calvin and others after him speak of Jesus Christ coming into the world as our prophet, priest, and king to bring those who trust in him back into the service of God (John Calvin, Knowledge of God the Redeemer, vol. 1 of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Lewis Ford Battles [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960], 494-503). This multifaced act of love, grace, and condescension, which involved the action of triune God, was something that fallen sinners did not deserve. Yet, God in his great mercy, came in the form of a servant to liberate us from sin and death so that we might live before him and love, worship, and serve him now and forever.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about God acting in this way is that it reveals something profound about God himself – as great as he is, his greatness is not incompatible with serving those on whom he set his love. To put it bluntly, when God asks to serve he is not asking us to do something that he is not prepared to do himself. In saying this we must be clear that he serves as the sovereign, self-sufficient God who needs nothing outside of himself and not as a creature made for the Creator. But the fact remains that having freely chosen to rescue us by his Son he serves us in a way that changes our lives and becomes the pattern for our service in this life and in the one to come.
Preparing the Way in the Old Testament
We can trace the theme of God’s service in the rescue of his people by reading how he called to himself a series of servants through whom he made his saving purposes known. It is remarkable how many times words like serve and servant and related concepts are found in the Scriptures. For instance, although servant is not found in connection with Abel, Seth, and Noah, they nonetheless served the Lord after the devastating fall of humanity into sin. By faith Abel brought God a better sacrifice than Cain (Heb. 11:4 cf. Gen. 4:4), and in the days of Seth men began to call on the name of the Lord (Gen. 4:26). Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord and by the grace of God he was a righteous man who walked faithfully with God. Noah obeyed God when called to build an ark to save himself and his family (Gen. 6-9).
After rescuing Noah and his family and re-establishing his covenant with him; and after another act of human rebellion at the Tower of Babel, God continued to pursue his saving purposes by calling Abram to follow him (Gen. 12:1). Abraham, as he was later known, is specifically called the Lord’s servant in Psalm 105:42, and he faithfully served the Lord who made a covenant with him that promised blessings for Abraham and in him all the families of earth (Gen. 12:2-3). Moses, who was used by the Lord to deliver the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from slavery in Egypt is also called “my servant” and it is recorded that he was faithful in all the Lord’s house (Num. 12:7 cf. Deut. 34:5). Even Israel as the nation that God redeemed from Egypt is called the “Lord’s servant” (Psa. 136:22; Luke 1:54), though often rebellious and disobedient. And then there was King David, who the Lord called “my servant David” in connection with his promise to establish his kingdom forever (2Sam. 7:8-17).
But as important as these servants were in the unfolding story of redemption, the Old Testament reveals that they were not enough. Though great in many ways they were also weak, sinful men who were not able to serve God in such a way that they could bring God’s people back into a holy relationship with him. Running throughout the story of God’s dealings with these very human servants was the increasingly apparent need for him to intervene and send into the world the ultimate servant who would finally put things right.
The Servant of the Lord
The intention of God to do just that is foreshadowed in the lives of his servants like Abraham, Moses, and David, and others, but it is most clearly spoken of in Isaiah’s prophecy with its four magnificent servant songs: Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; and 52:13-53:12. Taken together these moving and powerful songs prophecy about the Messiah, the true and faithful Servant of the Lord, who will perfectly do the will of the Lord and make atonement for the sins of his people. Full of the God’s Spirit he will win the victory over sin and death and bring healing by his vicarious suffering and life beyond the grave. He will establish justice, gather his people from the nations, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
The New Testament Scriptures clearly portray Jesus as the fulfillment of these songs. He is the Servant of the Lord proclaimed by the evangelist Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch when he was puzzling over Isaiah 53: “Then Philip opened his mouth and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:34-35). This was the same good news which transformed Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:22-36), and later at the temple when he boldly spoke about the glorification of God’s servant Jesus who though rejected and put to death was raised up and sent to bless sinful men by turning every one of them from their wickedness (Acts 3:13, 26). It was God’s saving work through his holy servant Jesus that gave the early Christians strength when facing persecution, and their prayers reveal that they were deeply conscious of the victory of this holy servant and the power that was now available to them in his name (Acts 4:27, 30).
The Practical Implications
The New Testament also tells about the transformation of those who trust in Jesus, the servant of the Lord, and the myriad of ways that his ministry informs their obedience. He makes it possible to serve God, and reflection on his words and example teach us what this means for our lives as his people. When we assemble a sample of the biblical instruction predicated on his service, we can see that serving God involves: 1) truth, 2) love, 3) joy, 4) determination, and 5) humility.
Service and Truth
First, we must serve God in truth, or in the way consistent with his word. Jesus came to do the will of his Father and we must do the same. Jesus said that we cannot serve two masters because we will either hate the one and love the other or we will be devoted to the one and despise the other. We cannot serve both God and money, or anything else (Matt. 6:24). Paul tells us that God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven against those who have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). We are not free to define our own terms of service, rather we have been freed that we might walk in the new way of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6). We must be faithful servants who do the will of God to the end (Matt. 24:45-50; 25:21-30). And this service must not be restricted to merely religious activity. Paul instructs us, “whether we eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God” (1Cor. 10:31) and as Christians “we are to take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2Cor. 10:5).
Service and Love
Second, no service is acceptable without love. Jesus said that the two greatest commandments are: “Love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-40). Service without love is drudgery and can breed resentment and pride. Love for God purifies our service and lightens the burdens that we face in this life as we do the Lord’s work. It is not a coincidence that Paul’s extended treatment of love in 1 Corinthians 13 comes in the middle of a section where he is teaching the church about the use of spiritual gifts and serving the Lord in the assembly of his people (1Cor. 12-14).
Service and Joy
Third, we must serve the Lord with joy because anything less is unworthy of him who should be our supreme delight. When Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies, he rejoices in the Lord, the God of Israel because he has come to his people and redeemed them. By the Spirit he sees that God is fulfilling the promises made to David, and the words of the holy prophets that spoke of salvation from their enemies and from the hand of those who hated them and the coming of God’s mercy tied to his covenant promises to Abraham. He blesses the Lord because this means that God’s people will be able to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all their days (Luke 1:67-75). He is God-centered in this think and understands that it is a great privilege to serve the Lord. The same is true today and mediation on this entailment of grace should fill us with joy. Writing from prison Paul exhorts the Philippian believers to: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice” (4:4). And the psalmist tells us, “Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!” (100:2).
Service and Determination
Fourth, we must serve with unyielding determination. Serving God in this world is not easy, which explains the frequent reminders in the New Testament to serve the Lord. Jesus said, “Whoever loves his life will lose it, while whoever who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, my servant will be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:25-26). Paul says that we have been set free from the domination of sin that we should no longer serve it as slaves … rather we are to present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and our members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Rom. 6:6-13). Jesus also said that a servant is not above his master so if he was persecuted, we can expect persecution as well (John 15:20). In this fallen world those who loyally serve God will experience various troubles, but we press on because we know that in the Lord our labor is not in vain (1Cor. 15:58).
Service and Humility
Fifth, our service must be characterized by humility. The story of serving God is the story of his grace. We must never think that our service in any way merits salvation. We are saved because of the perfect service of Jesus our Prophet, Priest, and King. We have no standing of our own and nothing we can do can ever put us right with God. Jesus, our Servant-Savior, knew this better than anyone else. In a context of sin and forgiveness he told his disciples that when they have done everything they were told to do, they should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10). Only Jesus can wash us and make us clean as he taught his disciples by taking the position of a servant and washing their feet (John 13). In our pride, we sometimes find it difficult to admit that we are debtors to grace at every stage of our Christian journey, but we must remember that not only are we servants of Jesus Christ similar to Peter, James, John, and Paul, but we are also his friends and members of his family (John 15:15; Heb. 2:5-18).
Christian service takes us back to Eden and beyond. In Jesus we rediscover all we were originally made to be and more as a part of the purified multitude who will come out of this world, washed in the blood of the Lamb, freed from the curse, and in the glorious city of God we will serve him, see his face, and reign forever and ever (Rev. 7:15; 22:3). Until that day comes, love for God and the Lamb, and gratitude for all they have done for us, requires that we present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship (Rom. 12:1).
- John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Lewis Ford Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960).
- Francis A. Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1971).
- J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977).
- Sinclair Ferguson, Christian Service: Slavery or Sonship.
- Alistair Begg, On Serving God in our Every Day Lives.
- Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Serving God.
- John Piper, What Does It Mean to Serve God?
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