What Does it Mean to be a Servant?
DECEMBER 31, 2022
by Thom Rainer
Jess Keller was my uncle and one of my heroes of the faith. He was one of those Christians who demonstrated servanthood every day I knew him.
I always admired Jess, but we became especially close after my dad died. Jess immediately began serving me at that critical point in my life. He knew he could not replace my dad, but he wanted to be there for me as much as possible.
It was not like Jess had a lot of time on his hands. He was a prominent attorney with more business than he could handle, yet Jess and I communicated every week. We had a bond that was unique and a mutual love that was unmistakable.
I preached his funeral sermon, but my awakening to my uncle’s God-given servanthood came after the funeral.
Many people wanted to tell me what Jess had done for them. One couple told me with tears that Jess had saved their marriage. They told me he spent hours with them, speaking truth in love, both encouraging and admonishing them.
A local businessman shared with me that he had gone to Jess ready to declare bankruptcy. My uncle worked with him on ways to save his business—and never charged him any legal fees.
An elderly woman told me about a strong storm that knocked down a tree in her yard. Jess had immediately organized a crew with saws to remove the tree and other debris. The men were in her yard as soon as the storm abated.
The stories seemed endless, and I was astounded. I had no idea he served so many people.
Uncle Jess embodied servanthood more than anyone I know. What, then, are some implications of declaring, “I am a servant”? Here are a few to consider.
Freely Choosing to Be Last
Being a servant is not just choosing to be last; it is desiring to be last. A servant mindset is totally counterintuitive in our culture today.
In the Bible, the twelve disciples learned this lesson when the mother of James and John made an unthinkable request of Jesus. Her sons were already close followers of Jesus, but she wanted them to be even closer. Read her request to Jesus carefully: “In your Kingdom, please let my two sons sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left” (Matthew 20:21).
The seats next to a king are not only seats of honor, but also seats of power. The mother of James and John made a totally unreasonable request. And when the other disciples heard about it, they were not happy: “When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant” (Matthew 20:24).
Jesus quelled the tension. He called together all the disciples and explained what they were missing: “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them” (Matthew 20:25).
I wonder whether Jesus paused for a moment after this sentence. I wonder if he let his disciples absorb those words before he told them they must take a different path.
“But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28).
And there it is.
Do you want to be like Jesus? Serve others.
Do you want to be like Jesus? Choose to be last.
Do you want to be like Jesus? Be willing to sacrifice your life.
Be willing to set aside your preferences and desires for the preferences and desires of others.
A true servant wants to please his or her master. A true servant will do whatever it takes to follow both the teachings and commands of the master.
It’s not uncommon to hear people at church say that they have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. The latter title, Savior, is pretty easy to proclaim. After all, Jesus saved us from our sins. Jesus saved us from condemnation. Jesus saved us for eternal life.
But do we truly grasp the meaning of the title Lord?
It certainly means we confess that Jesus is God. He is the one true God. There are no other gods.
Acknowledging Jesus as Lord also means that we recognize that he has all authority. It is his Kingdom, and he reigns over all creation and eternity.
Confessing Jesus as Lord also defines the posture of our relationship to him. To say that Jesus is our Lord means that we willingly subject ourselves to his authority. We want to please him.
Jesus clearly challenged those who would take his lordship lightly: “Why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say? I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it” (Luke 6:46-47).
We cannot be servants of Jesus unless we submit to his authority and follow him as our Lord. Calling him Lord means surrendering to him as our master. We strive to live for him. We seek to answer the question, “What would Jesus do?” in all our actions and thoughts.
Loving Others by Serving Others
We have clearly seen that our Christian faith requires us to demonstrate love. The love we show should first be to Christ and then to others. We can show our love for others in countless ways, but one of the most obvious is by serving.
In John 13, Jesus does something that astounds his disciples. He wraps a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin, and begins washing the disciples’ feet one by one. That is, until he comes to Simon Peter. In keeping with his impetuous temperament, Peter objects: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (John 13:6).
Jesus calmly responds, “You don’t understand now what I am doing, but someday you will” (John 13:7).
When Peter still objects, Jesus does not mince words: “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me” (John 13:8).
Foot washing was dirty work, usually delegated to a house servant. Most people wore sandals on their feet, which provided some protection but didn’t keep their feet from getting dirty on dusty roads and paths.
It was the lowliest of tasks. It was likely very unpleasant. But it is an example of what it means to love other people by serving them.
After Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, he said, “Since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet” (John 13:14).
There it is: Not even the lowliest of tasks will be beneath us when we seek to serve our Lord by serving others.
I am a Christian means I am a servant.
Adapted from I Am a Christian: Discovering What It Means to Follow Jesus Together with Fellow Believers by Thom S. Rainer. Copyright © 2022. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.