The Fruits of Servanthood 3 (Awareness Awakened)
Servanthood brings an increased awareness of many types. The awareness of the situations others face and their subsequent needs is one. The awareness of our own nature, complete with its weaknesses and sins is another. It has been pointed out that awareness in Western culture is highly individualistic whereas in Eastern culture, it is more of a group awareness. Western culture has spawned the “me” generation concept. When it is all about me, selfishness in its many forms chokes out servanthood. Even our choice of “causes” to get involved in often carries a self-focus with it, for our choices may be based mainly on what makes us feel good about ourselves. Thus, involvement in causes doesn’t necessarily equate with being servants. This is why being self-aware spiritually is absolutely essential.
True servants are increasingly aware of their own shortcomings and sins. While in the hospital, becoming more and more aware of God’s supreme nature being that of servanthood, I was also becoming more and more aware of my lack of a servant spirit. During one of my sleepless nights, I had a thought jump into my mind seemingly out of nowhere. It involved me and my wife and my electronic preferences, of phones in particular. The story has a necessary back-story to fully appreciate what I am about to describe.
I officially decided to become computerized in 1992. I was writing quite a lot even back then without a computer. I had an assistant whose tasks included typing out my hand-written material. He kept telling me that writing on a computer was fundamentally important, not just in terms of saving both of us time, but in terms of what he described as something like thinking through your fingers. He finally convinced me to give up my computer phobia and buy a computer.
At that time, I knew just enough about computers to know that there were two basic types: Macintosh and Windows. I had no idea what the differences were, and which might be best for me, so I started asking advice of my computer using friends. One thing became obvious quickly. The Apple folks were not only sold on their products but sold to the point of sounding arrogant and even cultish. Purely because of that response, I decided to go with a Windows based computer. I reasoned that I had enough pride already and didn’t need to join the Apple cult to worsen it. Seriously, that was the true back-story behind my initial choice.
The problem I didn’t see coming or see once it came was that in my resistance to all things Apple, I had developed the same problem in reverse. I became a Windows snob, often deriding Apple products. Then came smartphones, with Apple being the leading innovator in this new field. I became very thankful very quickly when Android phones made their appearance. I didn’t have to use an iPhone! Yea! I had a choice and I made it. Since that first Android phone, I have owned many, and I was always quick to tell my iPhone friends that Android was the superior system.
Now we come to the real issue that God brought to my attention while in a hospital bed contemplating death and him and all points in-between. My wife is not technology oriented and initially showed no interest in smartphones, Apple or Android. Phones were used to make phone calls. End of story—until the grandchildren had smartphones and wanted to exchange texts with their grandmother. Knowing that the grandchildren had iPhones and that they were supposedly more user friendly, I bought my wife one of those dreaded iPhones. That initial purchase was nearly a decade ago.
Since that time, I have been impatient and unhelpful with Theresa in the use of her phone. I didn’t want to figure out anything about it, meaning that I wasn’t willing to serve her by learning how it functioned. Adding insult to injury, I often spoke disparagingly of her phone when she was having some problem with it. I. Was. Not. A. Servant! Not only did I fail to serve, but I was impatient and critical when she needed help with her phone. And this attitude and treatment was aimed at the most wonderful wife in the world, the one whom I love and cherish! What a servant husband would have done is switch to an iPhone when his wife first got one in order to help her with the unavoidable learning curve involved.
This whole story flooded my mind and heart in a flash, all at once, on that fateful night in the hospital. The next day, I shared the story not only with Theresa, but with my son’s whole family. They knew my attitudes and had heard my complaints and sarcasm directed at iPhones, and they all needed to hear me repent. Then they needed to see my repentance in action. I asked Joy to order two new iPhones, the latest and greatest of them, which she did. Now my wife and I both have iPhone 13 Pro Max phones. I can and do help her with her phone. I should have done this long ago—and would have if I had been imitating the God whom I love. He didn’t just change something owned to serve us; he changed himself into a human being and died for us—unimaginable servanthood!
I remember an old song, very popular in its day, “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” The first few phrases are heart-breaking, but true. Why do we hurt the ones we love? They are about the only ones who love us enough to put up with it. Sad thought, that. I wish that my little phone story was the only such memory I have about ways I have hurt my wife, failing to be the servant that God has called me to be. I imagine that this one story is enough to get the wheels of your memory turning, and hopefully enough to help you repent also. In my case, Theresa had a hard time believing that I was serious about really repenting. It took her seeing my tears of repentance to grasp how deeply grieved I was over my sins of selfishness and pride.
My hospital insights about the nature of God led to my insights about the nature of Gordon—and to repentance. I’m just so grateful to God for revealing both types of insights to me during my time of sitting on the brink of eternity with him. I needed to be there, and his servant heart was moved to take me there. Spiritual insights are found in the package of God’s nature that we humans can never fully open, but try we must, and try with fervor, determination and consistency. Let’s do it!
Curiosity being what it is, some of you are wondering how I am faring with my new iPhone. I still prefer Android for some technical reasons, but the iPhone is fine. A bit too heavy, but fine. Just so you know, I also bought an Apple computer years ago and used it daily and exclusively for six months. It was a good computer, but not as suited to my particular uses as is a PC. But no more disparaging talking about brands of computers or phones. They are all good and simply matters of preference, just like brands of a myriad of other products. My iPhone and I are doing well in developing our relationship, as my wife and I continue to do in deepening ours (after 58 years of marriage). Repentance is sweet and an integral part of servanthood for us humans!
The Fruits of Servanthood 2 — A Righteous Life
The effects of sin in our lives are always bad and often disastrous. I didn’t believe that when I was young. I was taught it but I hadn’t seen enough evidence yet to buy in to it. I had friends and relatives who were doing things that I knew were supposed to be wrong, but it seemed that they were getting by with it. I couldn’t yet see the consequences. That phase didn’t last too long. Those my age started getting married without God’s principles as a guide. Their lives started unraveling in time, and when their children reached adulthood, the picture came into sharper focus. Underneath the smiles and Facebook stories, the rigid rod of reality told the true tale. The last line of Fantine’s song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” in the famous musical, “Les Miserables,” tells the tale of many whose lives are not centered on God. “Life has killed the dream I dreamed.” That is the present condition of many in our society, leading to frustration and anger which can stay pent-up for only so long. It is being acted upon in many, many horrific ways as I write these words. And without Christ in lives, it will get worse.
Our nation provides a good example of how it gets worse. I remember a conversation with an older friend in Boston years ago who had grown up there. He recalled being in elementary school when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. He said that once they got the news, their teacher led the whole class in Bible reading and prayer for the rest of the school day. I remember reading a historical novel about the early settlement of the East Coast of the US, and in very challenging times, it wasn’t unusual for the mayor of Boston to call for a fast of even several days to cry out to God for help meeting those challenges. Now we have drifted so far away from the Bible as an accepted standard that we shouldn’t be surprised at the consequences of unrighteousness permeating our society. The kingdom of self and self-serving has taken the place of biblical servanthood demonstrated and called for by Jesus.
If sin is the disease, servanthood is the cure. Those focused on serving are already immersed in self-denial. Sin is not nearly the temptation that it is to people who are mainly focused on self or even on merely avoiding sin, and therein lies the failure of the religion of my youth. It was all about avoiding sin, not serving others in the name of Christ. Most who call themselves Christians live about the same as their neighbors, except they avoid outward sins. They are just about as self-centered and materialistic as everyone else. Self-denial is thus defined very narrowly indeed. It is about what not to do rather than being focused on what Jesus did and still would do—and wants to do in and through you. Do you see the difference?
Every follower of Jesus has the responsibility of serving. It is not a burden but a blessing, an opportunity, a privilege. Some followers of his also have the special gift of serving (Romans 12:7). Those with the gift serve more gracefully and naturally than the rest of us, and in doing so they provide an example to help the rest of us grow in that area. My wife, Theresa, has this gift in abundance. She lives to serve. She can’t help serving. She is compelled. It doesn’t matter who we are with or where we are, her gift will come out. It is pretty amazing to watch and sometimes a bit embarrassing for me to watch. She will take over situations involving total strangers as she tries to serve them. In a restaurant during pre-Covid days, she would be arranging chairs and tables and holding babies and doing whatever she thought would help them have the best time. They seemed to sense her gift and were quite relaxed about it all, appearing to view her as a part of their family on a temporary basis. As I said, it’s amazing to watch.
Recently, as we began recording the first episodes of this podcast series, I talked to Theresa about how I wanted things to function. I explained that this wasn’t us entertaining fellow disciples or focusing on hospitality. It was business and we had to stay both quiet and focused. So, let’s just put bottled water in the refrigerator and inform them to serve themselves as needed. She listened very attentively and seemed like she understood exactly what I was saying and why, and was agreeing to follow the guidelines I mentioned. But as Rick and I were setting up all of the equipment prior to the arrival of the guests who were to be in the podcast, I glanced over at our dining room table. Of course there were bottles of water there, along with pumpkin bread, pumpkin chocolate chip cookies and a huge bowl of fruit salad and the sauce to top it with. In earlier years, that might have led to an argument, but I didn’t say anything negative to her. She can’t help it. She has the gift of service. Servanthood should have been her middle name!
Theresa is, not surprisingly, one of the most spiritual people I know. When we are focused on serving others, we are not focused on self and thus sin’s temptations have much less effect on us. Sometimes when we are praying together and confess our sins, I find myself wishing that all I had to confess was what she did. I have “big boy” sins; she has “little girl” sins—all because she is a far better servant than I am. As I was thinking about this servanthood concept recently, it occurred to me that I should ask her a question that I’m not sure I have asked her directly before.
I understand the challenges of male lust, which I have shared about honestly in describing my own battles, something that any honest man will admit is a problem. But I wondered what the challenge of that sin might look like for her. The results of a fairly in-depth discussion were about as expected. She just doesn’t struggle with it, and I believe her because I know her. Servants focus on the needs of others, not the bodies of others. Jesus was around women all of the time, women who adored him, and yet he never lusted once. Regarding my wife, we are talking about a woman who loves the sexual part of our marriage. Sex has been a big part of our marriage but her having lust for other men has not. The ramifications of being a servant are wide and deep. Spiritual greatness and servanthood are inseparably connected and the more you think about it, the more you understand why.
The Fruits of Servanthood 1 — An Abundant Life
Jesus did come to give us life to the full, the abundant life (John 10:10). That is his goal as the greatest servant of all. Satan will try to convince us otherwise, but don’t be fooled. God loves us and wants us to be full of joy. If you really believe that to be his goal, you will read the Bible in a way that expects to find that truth. For example, look at this oft-quoted passage: “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it’” (Luke 9:23-24). To follow Jesus, we must practice self-denial, daily cross-bearing and loss of life. Wow – sound exciting? Without understanding the servanthood of Jesus, these challenges sound demanding and unreasonable. But if you accept that Jesus wants the absolute best for you, the passage reads quite differently.
Let’s start with self-denial. It may sound too demanding, but is it? Stop and think about what your selfish self leads to when it is in control. Just about everything bad. Selfishness is a malady that destroys happiness and relationships and a bunch more. Self-centered people are miserable and they make those around them miserable (if taken seriously). I had two grandmothers who were polar opposites. One was focused on herself, her needs and her problems. The other was always focused on others and their needs. The first was negative and often miserable. The second was positive and always happy. You will never convince me that self-denial is a bad thing. Nor is it a burdensome thing. It frees you up to become more like God and the more you are like him, the happier you will be.
What about taking up a daily cross – it that a negative? Is that a heavy burden? For starters, look at Matthew 11:28-30. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus doesn’t say that his burden isn’t a part of our lives; he just says that it is a good part, a part that brings rest to our souls. Compared to the burden of selfishness and sin, it is light indeed.
Another very relevant passage in this discussion is Galatians 2:20. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Imagine a life controlled by Christ and no longer controlled by the sinful self. He loves us and has proved it by sacrificing himself for us. The Servant of servants is now living in us and leading us. There have been a number of times in my life when I felt like I was a third party watching on, watching myself do things that were pretty amazing. On those occasions, it was so obvious that Jesus was in control, working in me and through me. The feeling I have when this application of Galatians 2:20 becomes reality is simply euphoria. What could be better than being as one with him? Nothing that I have ever found. To be used by God and sense his presence as you are being used has no equal.
The Bible is full of passages that sound demanding but are quite the opposite in their effect. “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35). “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38). “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5). The passage goes on to describe Jesus as a servant, with the end result of him being exalted to the highest place (verse 9). If servanthood is our highest calling, you can be sure that it will carry the highest reward possible. It did for Jesus, and it will for you and me.
I have been amazed at all the ways that Luke 6:38 has been true in my life. You simply cannot outgive God. I think back to a time when I didn’t go to church often as a young married man and didn’t want to go when I did. I just went to get my new wife off my back! A number of surprising statements were made in sermons by the preacher who eventually became the vessel God used to turn my life around spiritually in ways that I could never have imagined. One of them was when he was preaching about giving to the church financially, a tithe no less, and quoted Matthew 6:21. This verse says simply that where our treasure is our hearts will be also.
He made the point that most people look at this passage backwards, thinking it says that where are hearts are, our treasure will follow. Of course, there is truth to that also. But he said that if we put our treasure in spiritual things, applying it to church contributions, our hearts will follow. In other words, giving our money will change our hearts. I thought this was ridiculous, to be candid, but I decided to start doing what he recommended to just test out one of the many spiritual things he was stating as absolute truths. Even with a questionable attitude, we started tithing and have never stopped. He was right. Rather, the Bible was right. Luke 6 is also right. I have never in those nearly sixty years since been able to outgive God, and I have more real-life examples to illustrate that fact than I have time to describe. Amazing! Simply amazing!
Once I understand intellectually that the supreme description of Jesus is that of a servant, I have to clear out any hurdles that keep me from emotionally accepting this marvelous truth. Since God’s “harshness” in the OT has been one of my greatest hurdles to clear, let’s just start here. What did God have to work with when he brought the Israelites out of four hundred years of bondage? It wasn’t spirituality. They had long forgotten the God known by their ancient ancestors like Abraham and Joseph. They were idolators as were their captors and owners. Just how difficult would it be to deal with several million people in that condition? Just imagine taking a million people out of some of the countries today which are immersed in the most extreme form of Muslimism with the intent of leading them into living by true Christian principles. Can you not picture the absolute necessity of dealing with many of them in ways that uninformed observers might call harsh?
Illustrations like that help me understand that whatever God did in OT times was necessary for the good of the majority as history unfolded. God was still a servant seeking the best for his people, but those people forced him to do things that he hated doing. Even as God meted out judgment, Ezekiel describes his heart. “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11) God is literally begging them to repent and live, but their failure to repent left him no choice.
The capacity for evil in the human heart is difficult to fully grasp. This must be kept in mind as you wrestle with what seems to be amazingly harsh discipline in that OT setting. Jeremiah 17 describes the blessings of the ones who trust in God and put their confidence in him, but also describes the plight of those who do not. What determines the difference? The heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? 10 I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (Jeremiah 17:9-10).
I’ve always been drawn to a comment by Spock in the old Star Trek series: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” When God punished individuals in the OT period, at least three things have to be kept in mind. One, they deserved it. God is just and the punishment he dished out fit the sin. Two, those punished set an example to hopefully prohibit others from following their sinful behavior. Many passages in both OT and NT make this point. “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11). 1 Corinthians 10 provides a shockingly specific example of such disobedience and its consequences, and also assures us that Christ was right in the middle of it all. Thankfully, the section ends by assuring us that God can deliver us from temptations that lead to such consequences if we will but trust and follow him. Read it carefully, noting the symbolism involved between this OT setting and our NT setting. Being in the church as a baptized, communing member does not guarantee our salvation, that’s for sure.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. 6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 13 No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
Many of such examples came at times of transition when keeping people on the right path was fundamentally important for their future. One such time was when the church was very young and two people set a bad example that led to them becoming another type of example for both the church and the community. Read the account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. The last verse shows the effectiveness of God taking their lives. “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” Verses 13-14 make the point even clearer. “No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.”
Three, God directly killing the disobedient or them being killed via the laws of capital punishment didn’t necessarily mean that they were lost spiritually. I cannot imagine that Uzzah touching the ark to steady it, through ignorance of the Law’s stipulations for carrying the ark, was thereby condemned spiritually. The accounts of this unfortunate situation are found in both 2 Samuel 6 and 1 Chronicles 13. Both accounts should be read to get the complete picture. Those being put to death through capital punishment were admonished to repent before being killed. It is not that much different today in America, as clergymen are made available for those on death row. Repentance doesn’t always remove consequences of our sins, but it can remove the sins in God’s mercy.
I understand that the above paragraph contains my opinion on the matter. However, that opinion doesn’t come simply from my sense of what should be true. Moses gives us an example that clearly illustrates the point I have made. He was God’s man and God’s hero, and yet he sinned grievously enough that God refused to let him go into the promised land. The description of his sin leaves us questioning the severity of the punishment, but since God is perfect, whatever was involved in this sin was sufficient to warrant the punishment. Was Moses lost spiritually for this sin? Of course not! He and Elijah appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration in Matthew 17. God is just but he is merciful. James 2:13 says that mercy triumphs over judgment. God shows mercy in every way possible under the umbrella of justice. Servanthood in action leads to life answers to life questions. Thus, let’s ask and answer this question: What are the fruits of servanthood? Coming in the next episode!
Implications of Matthew 20
Let’s go back to the text of Matthew 20:25-28 and ask of it some questions that are begging to be asked. Why did Jesus begin with a description of worldly leadership? That was obviously where the apostles were conceptually. Ten of them were indignant toward James and John. Why? Because the two were being worldly in their thinking and the ten wanted to see them get help? No, not at all. They were envious that the two beat them to the punch in seeking what they perceived to be the ultimate leadership positions as men would see them. Plus, the two had their mother to advocate for them in their request. Position, not servanthood, was the foundation of their thinking and desires regarding leadership. Of course, we would never be like that, would we?
I look with embarrassment back to a time when our movement was characterized not simply by worldly leadership concepts, but by military ones. I describe this sad period in Chapter 4 on leadership styles in my book, “Dynamic Leadership,” under the subheading, “The Military Model.” I include there nineteen evidences of the military model, all suggested by leaders in several different churches. The suggestions came in rapid-fire order; it didn’t take much time to figure it out. Sadly, most of us bought in to accepting parts of the model, although some were better or worse than others. But no one from our earlier days can deny that our leadership was full of worldly concepts and practices.
Nor do I think that many today would deny that we have vestiges of worldly leadership left in our churches right now. The most concerning one is not manner, as in “harsh,” but manner of decision-making, as in lacking true collaborative teamwork. Thankfully, we also have many Golden Rule type leaders. But the servanthood of which Jesus spoke has not dominated, in my opinion, which means that we still don’t understand the basic nature of God as the Servant of servants.
Another question that arises from these verses is how does Jesus fit in? He was obviously correcting the views of the apostles and calling them to both servanthood and even slavehood in their views of leadership. But he used himself as the ultimate example. He came into the world as a servant and giving his life up on the cross could demonstrate slavehood. Two passages come to mind.
13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Dying for a friend is servanthood. Dying for our enemies could be called slavehood. Jesus is the greatest example of both to ever walk the earth, but as old Jim said, Jesus didn’t become a servant or slave by virtue of becoming a man. His nature is that and always was. In an article I wrote entitled, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” I describe the plan of the cross as being in the mind of God before he created Adam and Eve. He knew what introducing creatures of choice into the world was going to cost him. He had already filled out the price tag before the merchandise existed. If that doesn’t define servanthood, I don’t know what would. Always and forever, he does what is best for us, whether we can understand it at the time or not. Some of my greatest gains have come though the times of greatest pain, and my recent stay in the hospital marks the highlight of this principle. I wrote three health updates on Facebook, and this is the last paragraph of the final one.
The normal reaction to hearing these details goes something like this: “Goodness, that must have been tough, but I’m so happy you made it through!” That is an appropriate response, to be sure, but mine is different. Yes, it was very challenging and sometimes very scary, but it was the greatest spiritual experience of my life—by far. The spiritual insights I gained were simply marvelous. I knew even in the worst days that if I survived, I would need to start a YouTube channel and share through some form of podcasts what God had taught me. I am working on getting that set up now. If I could skip the illness episode but also miss the spiritual insights, would I choose that? I don’t think so. As crazy as it may sound, I believe I would go through it all again (but only with the help of your prayers) to learn what I learned and to connect to God the way I have. I love and appreciate you more than you imagine. Stay tuned! I will resume my radiation treatments Monday, but only have about 9-10 remaining. No more chemo! Please keep me in your prayers that all of the cancer will be eradicated. God bless you!
Finally, if the greatest quality of a follower of Christ is servanthood, especially leaders, it has to be the greatest quality with which to define Christ himself. It simply has to be; it must be; it cannot be otherwise. Certainly God is light and love and many other things, but his overriding supreme quality is servanthood to the nth degree with no limitations or boundaries—up to and including death for his enemies. If that is what I am to imitate, especially if I am a leader, it changes so much about how we see him, ourselves, our roles and our relationship with him. God’s greatest description is servant.
A Beautiful Realization
How do you know a person, really know them? This knowledge can come through several avenues. One is through their actions. “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:15-18). Our actions begin to define us early in life, as Proverbs 20:11 informs us. “Even small children are known by their actions, so is their conduct really pure and upright?” The challenge of defining God by his actions we have already mentioned. Some of those actions seem scarily harsh and some seem tender and warm. Therefore, trying to really grasp the nature of God through examining his actions alone falls short of the goal, at least for me.
The same challenge exists when looking at the titles or names of God. This could be a long study if we considered all of the Hebrew terms thus used, so let’s just look at some we have already mentioned. Creator, Lord, King, Judge, Father, Abba, Friend. These also provide us with a bit of a mixed bag. Understanding that the three latter terms are covenant terms for those in a saved relationship with God is helpful, but terminology and titles alone don’t fully clarify the nature of God for me. More is needed. What is the essence of God’s nature? What best defines him? Who is our God, really?
Now we come to what I believe to be the main revelation God brought to my mind during my hospital struggles. It may well have been the reason he allowed me to go through those struggles in the first place. If so, it was worth it. I believe the implications and applications of this one point about the nature of God are absolutely monumental. Yet, it is clearly stated in the Bible in spite of the fact that most people simply miss the point, amazingly. It is an obvious truth hidden in plain sight! For me, it began with one little statement coming to mind made years ago by an old friend named Jim McGuiggan. Jim is one of the most interesting, captivating people I have ever had discussions with, and we had a number of them. We both were teachers at Preacher’s Schools, two of the best-known ones, and this shared profession brought us together on occasion.
I have long felt that Jim was perhaps the most outstanding Bible scholar in the mainstream Churches of Christ. His study was broad and his presentations of it were captivating, whether in print or in speech (with his Irish brogue). He wrote both NT and OT commentaries, with some of the latter addressing several of the most challenging prophets. His commentary on Ezekiel is my go-to source when trying to figure out the meanings of what I believe to be the most difficult book to interpret in the OT (actually, in the entire Bible). He wrote extensively on prophecy and exposed the errors of modern “end-times” teachers. His book, “The Reign of God” is priceless in expanding one’s view of God. But in spite of his extensive writing about complex doctrinal topics, his books containing short devotional chapters about our relationship to God and each other are my favorites. The titles of two of this type give insight into the contents: “The God of the Towel” and “Jesus, Hero of Thy Soul.”
Before we proceed with my recall of his little statement, let me ask you a question. Suppose you were a part of a very large church which had many ministers on the staff of the church. What if someone asked you which one of the ministers was the very best one and to describe them with one word or a very brief phrase. What might you say makes them the best in your opinion? Some common answers could be along these lines. He’s a great speaker. He’s a really effective organizer. He’s always nice to me and others I see him with. He has a good marriage and family. He knows his Bible really well. He connects with the audience and with individuals on an emotional level. He has both intellectual and emotional intelligence. Just what might you say about your favorite minister right now in describing why they are your favorite? I know how God would both identify and describe the best one on any church staff anywhere. I do. Unquestionably. Jesus said it.
This leads us to the statement that came to mind as I was somewhere between life and death in that hospital bed? Here it is: “God did not become a servant when he became a man (in the person of Jesus); he became a man precisely because he was a servant.” I immediately thought of Matthew 20:25-28. “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” Jesus uses two terms to differentiate between spiritual leadership and worldly leadership. All spiritual leaders are to be servants (diakonos), and the greatest of them are to be slaves (doulos). Assuming the position of a slave meant to renounce all individual rights, and to live one’s life in service of others.
In Matthew 23, Jesus was condemning the leadership of the Pharisees and teachers of the law in no uncertain terms. He forbad applying titles to mere men, leaders or not. As I explain in my first chapter of “Dynamic Leadership,” we can be rightly described in terms of function and role, but never in terms of titles and offices. I am not Gordon the Teacher (with a capital “T”), but Gordon who teaches, and unless I am functioning in that role, I am just one of the brothers—on level ground at the foot of the cross. Just before Jesus pronounced his seven woes upon the leaders of his day, he said about the same thing he had said to the apostles with their worldly views of leadership. “The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12).
I have probably written more about spiritual leadership than any other biblical subject, and yet I think very few church leaders understand what Jesus is teaching in these two accounts in Matthew. We cannot seem to expunge our worldly views of leadership. We simply cannot, at least the large majority cannot. If you are shocked by my dogmatism here, let me illustrate. A dear sister of mine, a former ministry staff member herself, shared an experience she had that didn’t shock me, but it saddened me. She listened to recordings of the majority of the main lessons delivered at one of our conferences—the one held in 2016 in St. Louis. She was especially struck with how the various speakers introduced themselves.
All but one did it something like this: “Hello, my name is _______, and my wife and I lead the ___________ church.” The one exception evidently took Matthew 20 literally and said: “Hello, my name is Tom Brown, and my wife and I serve the North River church.” I’m not surprised that Tom was the one who took this approach. It was his spirituality and humility that drew me and my wife into this family of churches back in the early 1980’s. In the classes of the recent church Summit Conference in Orlando, I did notice more leaders describing themselves as those who serve churches. That was encouraging.
Yes, yes, I know that the Bible, including the NT, uses the term “leader.” And yes, I know that followers of those leaders are called to be submissive to them. I know all of these passages and I believe and teach them. But I also believe that our emphasis shows what we most believe and value about leadership, and it isn’t Matthew 20. How do we keep missing the vital heart of leadership? Get ready for a shock. We start going amiss by missing the real heart of God, his true nature. And what is that? Servanthood, pure and simple. While he can be described accurately in many ways with many terms, his overriding nature is simply that of a servant.
We know that we are to imitate Christ and we do try to imitate many things about him. But is our natural inclination to gird ourselves with a towel and wash the feet of the unworthy? That was exactly what Jesus did in John 13. He wasn’t temporarily lowering himself to make a point; he was acting in accordance with who he was by nature. He was a servant, has always been one and always will be one. Just consider what is being said in Hebrews 7:25. “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” Jesus lives to serve you and me, right now and always, twenty-four/seven. Do you always live to serve the people God has given you to serve (lead)? Do they describe you as a great servant, an imitator of Jesus with this most fundamental leadership quality defining you best as a leader?
While many words describe Jesus and what a righteous life consists of, he summed it up as love. Loving God with all of our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves are the foundation of the entire Law (Matthew 22:36-40). Paul stated the same principle is slightly different words in Romans 13:8-10. That said, John warned us not to mistake love for a feeling without actions demonstrating that love. 1 John 3:18 says, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” A similar summation word for me is one I have used quite a lot, the word “surrender.” This term encapsulates the words faith and trust. Actually, faith is used in at least six different, but related, ways in the NT, all falling into the idea of surrender.
One other summation word is what this who episode is about, servanthood. It encompasses all that love is, just like the word surrender encompasses all that faith is. Those terms help me grasp the bottom line and provide the big picture view of the very essence of who God is and who I am to be as I strive to imitate him. The key point of Matthew 20 about the servant/slave being the greatest of all is illustrated by Christ coming not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. I find Luke’s parallel account of the same truth striking. Luke 22:25-27: “Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 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. 27 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.’”
Perhaps even more striking is what Jesus says in Luke 12 about his return in words very similar to those in his Matthew 25 parable of the ten virgins. In both passages, he is describing our need to be ready and watching for that coming. Then Luke 12:37 records this shocking statement: “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.” Do you grasp the implications of what he is promising us who remain faithful until he comes again? We, the servants of the most high God will continue being served by the most high God. Christ and the Father are both described in Scripture as Lord of lords and King of kings. They obviously can also be described as Servant of servants. In some inexplicable way, God will still serve us in the world to come as he does now. He is a servant, always and forever. He cannot be otherwise. His nature never changes, nor can it. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). A remarkable truth hidden in plain sight, indeed!