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How a Servant Thinks

True servanthood stems from the crucified life, which seeks to give, not receive.


Today I want to talk about how a servant thinks. Let's read Luke 17:5-10:

The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" And the Lord said, "If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.
"Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and recline at table'? Will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink'? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'"

We don't typically hear a lot of sermons being preached on this text. To be honest, I don't like this passage of Scripture. There are days Jesus blesses me, and there are days Jesus bothers me. This is one of those texts that bothers me. It offends my Western, twenty-first-century sensibilities. It is a story of position and power. The master exploits another human being, his servant, for personal gain. The servant has been out in the field all day plowing. He is tired and hungry. But the master does not say, "Why don't you sit down, rest for an hour, and have something to eat. Then you can prepare my meal." He doesn't say that. Instead, the master basically says, "I don't care how you feel. I want my meal. After I am served, then you can take care of yourself."

This is also a story about total lack of gratitude. Jesus asked if the servant should be thanked for preparing the master's meal first. Of course the answer is no. The servant does what the master commands. Personally, I prefer to be appreciated. It bothers me that we don't find anything in this text about human rights, equality, or fairness. All we find is the gruesome word duty: "When you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty'" (17:10). In our Western culture, we are conditioned to think we are entitled; we are no bound by duty. For most of us, this story bothers our Western, twenty-first-century souls.

But I want to be fair I interpreting the text. We need to realize this text was not written to us in the twenty-first century. It was written in the first century to people in a culture much different than ours. It is important we understand that the things that bother us about this story did not bother the disciples. For the disciples, in their context, nothing about this story was surprising or out of the ordinary. This is a typical description of how a servant thought and acted. A friend of mine, who serves as a missionary in a third-world culture, told me, "In the culture where I serve, if you thanked a street sweeper for cleaning the streets, he would say, 'No, no. This is my job. I don't deserve thanks, because this is my duty. This is my job.'" Jesus and his disciples—two-thousand years ago, in an ancient Near Eastern culture—had the same type of mindset. So the disciples were not surprised by what Jesus said.

The disciples were not bothered by the description of the poor servant; they were bothered by Jesus' suggestion that they were supposed to be servants. They realized that by the end of the story. Luke starts the story with the disciples saying, "Lord, increase our faith!" They wanted to be power people, and Jesus said all they need was a little bit of faith; then they could have amazing power: "If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you" (17:6). But he wanted them to be level-minded. He told them they could have great power, but the disposition with which that power should be exercised is the mindset of a servant. Faith with that kind of power can be abused if one is not careful. Jesus told the disciples they should act like servants, not masters, when they exercise the power of their faith. We all prefer to be masters, but Jesus calls us to act like servants.

There is another passage in the Gospels where Jesus asks who is greater, the servant or the master. The obvious answer is the master. That is like asking, "Who is greater, the waiter or the customer?" Of course, the customer is greater. The waiter serves the customer. But Jesus said he came to be the waiter.

Many of us recoil at this story because we have been in churches where we have been hurt by exploitive leadership in Jesus' name, or we have seen it happen to others. Some of you have been taken advantage of. You have been unappreciated. You have been hurt by exploitive, top-down leaders who were more concerned about their well-being than yours. So as we consider this text, many of us have to work through our pain.

But this story is not meant to describe leadership as it should be in the kingdom. In the Gospels, Jesus frequently told his disciples that the greatest—those with great leadership influence—will be the ones who approach life and ministry with the mindset of a servant. The first will be last, and the last will be first. So Luke 17 does not teach us about how a leader should act in the kingdom of God, because Jesus says elsewhere that leaders should be servants.

The "me first" problem

Luke 17 is the one passage of Scripture that teaches us how a servant thinks. From this text, we learn two things about a servant's mindset from what Jesus says. First, the master's needs are more important than the servant's needs. Suppose you had a servant plowing in a field. Would you say to the servant when he comes from the field, "Come now and sit down"? No. Verse 8 says, "Will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink'?" The master's needs are more important than the servant's needs.

Most people in our churches don't buy into that mindset anymore, at least not in Western culture. I recently returned from a ministry opportunity in Southern California. I was speaking at the Filipino-American annual convention. Our fellowship of Filipinos is a dynamic fellowship. In my hotel room, a card was placed on the pillow of my bed. This is what it said:

You are our guest, and that makes you our highest priority. Each of us has made you a promise. We have signed it and displayed it in our lobby as a reminder of how committed we are to you. We promise to always make you feel welcome, give you a room that's clean, fresh, and reflects the highest standard of quality. And we promise to always promptly respond to any need that you might have.

Our culture conditions this mindset: You are number one. You deserve to have the best from everybody around you. Life is like a movie, and you play the starring role; everybody else in your life is a supporting actor to keep the spotlight on you. That is how we are conditioned.

I call this the "me first" problem. It is as old as the human heart. Adam and Eve had this problem; that's why they disobeyed God. We want to live life according to our own terms, not God's terms. When Jesus and the disciples were traveling to Capernaum, the disciples had a disagreement over who was the best in the group. They acted like little boys. James and John wanted to sit on each side of Jesus in heaven; they wanted everybody to know that they were a cut above the rest.

The "me first" mentality supposes all of life is engineered to somehow benefit me. We cannot conceive that the master's needs are more important than our needs. This is the ultimate form of idolatry, and idolatry—idolatry of self—is great in America. Our culture tells us we are most important and we deserve what we want.

I once met with a person who told me he had no interest in a God who would not meet his needs. But Jesus comes and dismantles our cultural belief that we are most important. The gospel tells us that serving our Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, and his needs is our priority.

But that begs the question: What could an all-sufficient God need? How do his "needs" outweigh our needs? The answer: He has one self-imposed need, and that is help with the harvest. That is why he told us pray: The harvest is great, so pray for leaders. Pray for servants to go out into the harvest. His self-imposed need is that he needs help with his harvest, and the master's needs are more important than our needs.

When Jesus saves us from our sin, in part he is saving us from ourselves. He saves us from our selfishness—that the whole world and all the meaning of life revolve around us. When you are your own god, you become obnoxious. When you actually believe that life revolves around you and that everything is supposed to benefit you, you become obnoxious. It is difficult to like people like that and it is difficult to work with people like that. It is pathetic. But if we understand that God frees us from ourselves so that we could live for something bigger, we come to realize our mission and purpose is far greater than our own needs and concerns.

Living out of God's abundance

We need to win the abundance-scarcity battle. Is the glass half full or is it half empty? Some of us live out of scarcity; some of us are invited to live a life of servanthood out of abundance.

You see. The "me first" attitude can cause you to be self-promoting and self-protecting. Someone once asked Winston Churchill, "Doesn't it thrill you that whenever you speak the halls and the auditoriums are packed to overflowing?" He replied, "Yes, it does, actually. But when I start feeling that way I just remind myself that if I was being hung the crowd would be twice as big." It never hurts to continually chop away at the self-promoting instinct within us.

We also have a self-protecting instinct, because we live out of scarcity. We believe the pie is only so big; there are only so many slices. If we place someone else's needs above our own, we might not get what we need or want, we may not get a piece of the pie.

In his book, Bernie May from Wycliffe writes about the Aztec Indians in southwestern Mexico. He says there is a peculiarity to their culture in which people do not wish you well very often. And he said if you asked a skilled craftsman how he learned to craft the wood, the craftsman would not want to tell you. May said it is difficult to find teachers in that culture, because no one wants to share. Even the Christians find it difficult to share the gospel with other people, because their culture propagates the concept of limited good. So if I wished you well, I would be giving away some of my happiness to you, which would mean I had less happiness. Having a second child means you can love the first child the same as you once did, because there is limited love to give. So to teach somebody a craft means you end up with less knowledge, because you have given away part of what you possess. That is the scarcity mentality, and many of us live in fear that we will lose what we have, so we live self-protectively.

But the kingdom ethic is this: When we become servants of Christ, we are called to live by the ethic of abundance. In Luke 6:38, Jesus says, "Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you." The measure you give to others determines the size of the scoop that God will pour into your life. But we prefer to look at the size of scoop that God is pouring into our lives and let that determine how much we will give away, because we don't want to give away too much. But here is the amazing concept that Jesus said: It is the scoop by which you give away that causes you to step into the dimension of the abundance and generosity of God. Matthew 6:33 says, "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." When you rightly prioritize the Master's needs, his mission, and his self-imposed need to have harvest laborers, then you step into the abundance of God. If you act in self-protection, you cannot be a good servant.

In his book on spiritual leadership, Jay Oswald Sanders says, "The true spiritual leader seeks to put more into life than he hopes to take out of it." Can you imagine if you lived like that? When you step into the dimension of the generosity of God, your self-protecting mindset is dismantled, and you are able to live like a true servant, because you realize God's kingdom is one of never-ending abundance.

So the first thing we learn from this text is that the master's needs are more important than the servant's needs.

The servant's life is the crucified life

The second principle we learn is this: Our obedience is more important than our rights. Jesus does not say the master thanked the servant. We think the servant had a right to be appreciated for his service. But there is nothing in this text that speaks about rights or entitlement. Instead, Jesus says, "So you also, when you have done everything you were told, you should say, 'Hey, we're just some unworthy servants. We've only done our duty.'"

Rights are addicting—my right to be appreciated, to be treated like I should be, to be paid what I am worth, to have the last word, and so forth. But these rights mitigate the mindset of a servant. All of us have probably been hurt by abusive spiritual leaders who have taken advantage of us, who have suppressed us. But Jesus is not talking about abusive leadership. Here, he is simply focusing on how a servant thinks. A servant realizes his or her obedience is more important than his or her entitlement.

More specifically, this text is talking about the biblical concept of the crucified life. Galatians 2:20 reminds us that we have been crucified with Christ; we were hung on the tree with him. Just as nails were put through his body, so nails are put through our rebellion and sin; the nails that pierced Christ have pierced our rights, our egos, our reputation, and our self-dependence. And ultimately, Christ's nails have pierced our self-idolatry. When you were crucified with Christ, you died, and all your sinful habits and tendencies died, too. "I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless I live." Hallelujah. "Yet not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me."

In his book on discipleship, Miles Stanford listed a number of spiritual leaders in the last three-hundred years—people like George Mueller, D. L. Moody, Jonathan Goforth, and Amy Carmichael—and he said it took these Christian leaders an average of 15 years in their personal spiritual growth to move from working for Christ to the place where Christ was working through them. That is a huge transformation, and that transformation can only come by way of the crucified life. When Christ is working through you, you do not focus on your needs, because you are walking in his abundance. You don't think about your rights, because you have died with Christ. It's not that you don't draw the line, that you don't say, "You shouldn't treat me like that" when you are mistreated. That's justice but that's not the subject found in this passage. The subject we are talking about is servanthood. God takes away our rights when we are crucified with Christ so that the life of Jesus—resurrection life—can flow through us. In turn, that sets us free. Though we have been crucified with Christ, we live with him. We have his life in us, and the things that once held us back—sin, idolatry, self-promotion, and self-protection—have been put to death. We are finally set free.


Before I was married, when I was a student and into my first year as a student pastor at the University of Minnesota, I was leading a discipleship household. I lived with eight other guys, and we tried to establish a Christian community together. We tried to have an order of life together. We would wake up at six every morning, and we would pray together. We would have a Bible study at night before we went to bed. Three times a week, we shared a meal together, with a different guy cooking each time. And we always had guests. We wanted to learn to serve our guests. Typically, it was funny saying grace. Half the guys in the discipleship household had been saved for only six months or so; the others had been Christians a little longer. But every one of them was on fire for God. So I would say, "Let's bless the food." The nine of us, plus our guests, would be seated around the table. When we blessed the food, these guys would raise their hands and start shouting praises to God. That was how we blessed our food. The visitors expected nine college guys to start eating immediately. They expected us to grab our bowls and fight over the food. Instead we were learning to be servants. We believed following Jesus meant we were supposed to be servants, and so we politely ensured our guests were served first. We wanted them to know that the Christian life is about serving others.

It was the first time I lived in a community of Christians that was passionate about serving the needs of others. Even though I was the leader of the house and I was the most seasoned Christian in the house, our acts of service began to affect me. I began to experience the tangible love of Jesus in a way I hadn't before. When you start living like a servant, you begin to encounter the love of Jesus in powerful ways. Sometimes the other guys in the house would make my bed for me. I would come home in the afternoon, find my bed made, and ask, "How did my bed get made?" One of the guys would raise his hand and say, "I just wanted to do that for you." On another occasion, one of the guys changed the oil in my car for me because he wanted to honor me and serve me. These guys knew that being a follower of Jesus and being filled with his Spirit meant that we are called to serve.

Jesus said he did not come to be served but to serve and lay down his life for others. Even though I never doubted that God loved me, I experienced Christ's love in a powerful way when I was around those guys. They had been deeply affected by the cross, and they were filled with the resurrection power of God's Spirit.

I pray that when we meet people, they will feel loved by Jesus as we serve them in ways that can change their lives. It is unusual in our culture to encounter people who believe their rights and needs are not the most important thing in the world. God wants communities of Christians to think and act that way.

James T. Bradford is general secretary of the Assemblies of God, and author of Preaching.

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Sermon Outline:



I. The "me first" problem

II. Living out of God's abundance

III. The servant's life is the crucified life