Cultivating a Servant’s Heart

Jacob Tanner

red and brown brush on white wooden table

After I was baptized at age 10, I remember the parable of the sheep and goats making a great impression upon me. In Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus informs us that there will come a judgment day when all people will be gathered together before the Lord, with one group being like sheep and the other like goats. To the sheep, Jesus will turn and say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matt 25:34–36). When the sheep asked when they did these things, the King (Jesus) responds, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40). On the opposite side are the goats who are rebuked and sentenced to everlasting punishment in Hell, for, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt 25:45).

I remember hearing this parable and, as it impressed itself deeply upon me, sensing a deep desire to serve the Lord and his people. I approached the pastor of the church we attended at the time and asked where I could serve and what I could do.

His answer? He handed me a vacuum cleaner and told me to get to vacuuming.

Now, of course, he didn’t actually word it like that, but praise the Lord he recognized the importance of allowing me to serve in what many would consider a very small way. When he asked if I would be interested in helping to clean the church, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted, more than anything else, to do exactly what he asked. I would be the best church-vacuumer I could possibly be, to the glory of God.

Years later, I have come to find that this desire to serve is often expressed by new believers but will sometimes wane as the years go on. Rather than joyfully taking the vacuum or broom in hand or holding the door to greet people and hand out bulletins on Sunday mornings, many will instead shirk such responsibilities with an attitude of superiority or neglect. Some have even asked, “Why should do something so small?” Of course, there is no small thing ever done for God’s glory. As Jesus said, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” But this does raise a very serious question: How do we begin to view even these apparently small tasks as infinitely greater than we can imagine? How do we begin to cultivate and nurture a desire to serve Christ and his Church within our hearts?

Many Parts, One Body

The Corinthian church evidently dealt with an issue similar to the one we are discussing here. There were some who thought themselves better than others. Some thought they were above serving in various capacities. But Paul wrote to them, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:12–13). 

He goes on to explain that there are some parts of the body that, from our perspective, have less importance than others. But the body still has need of all these different parts. Just as our physical bodies need eyes to see, noses to smell, ears to hear, feet to walk, and so on, so the body of Christ needs members performing different functions. Indeed, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor 12:21).

At the most basic level, this means that the door greeter is every bit as important as the one leading music, who is every bit as important as the one preaching, and the one who cleans the bathroom is every bit as essential, too. The kitchen worker is needed as much as the one who prays over the meal, and the one who cleans up afterward must not be forgotten either. Some of these tasks may be more immediately obvious to others or may even be more praised than others. But every one of them is important and needed to keep churches flourishing.

The point is that every task done in service to Christ and his Church is essential. Do we need to pray for more qualified men to be called to serve as elders? Absolutely. Do we need to pray the Lord gifts more young men with the ability to lead biblically sound worship? Of course. But we also need to pray for greeters, cleaners, and cookers. Every part of this body is essential.

Of course, we need to do more than pray for these positions to be filled. We need to actually serve in those areas where we are both qualified and needed.

The Danger of Not Serving

We recognize that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and that even faith itself is a gift from God. Faith is not the intellect of an individual assenting to the knowledge and truth of Jesus Christ on its own; faith is the inner working of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of the sinner wherein, according to God’s grace, the sinner is drawn to Christ. As Ephesians 2:8–9 makes clear, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Salvation is not our own doing. Grace is not our own doing. Faith is not our own doing. It is all the gift of God so that we boast in him alone.

Yet, while works have no contributing factor to our justification, the one who has been justified will exhibit good works. Paul and James are in complete agreement when both write, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10), and “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). There is no contradiction in stating that faith alone saves, yet faith will never be alone. Good works—in this case, service to the Lord and others—will necessarily flow from our salvation.

The danger of superiority complexes, laziness, and willful neglect is that a total lack of good works may very well be an indication of a deficient or false faith. The words of Jesus should compel every Christian to serve the Lord and others when he said, “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt 25:45). Similarly, we know that the sheep with good works are brought eternally into the presence of God in Heaven, while the goats without good works are sent into the eternal punishment of Hell. “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46).

But, if that is not compelling enough, consider the way the Bible speaks of those who refuse to serve. In Nehemiah 3, the Lord has recorded for us the record of those men who worked to restore the wall of Jerusalem. Nobles like Nehemiah work, as do goldsmiths, Levites, and many more. There are a ton of men working together to accomplish the work. And that’s what makes verse three all the more shocking. 

Like a sore thumb, verse 5 sticks out among all the other verses of this chapter with its matter-of-fact statement that, “And next to them the Tekoites repaired, but their nobles would not stoop to serve their Lord.” In the whole chapter, there’s found only one group of men not building: The nobles of the Tekoites. Other nobles are working hard, like Nehemiah, but not the nobles of the Tekoites. They “would not stoop to serve their Lord.” They proved themselves to be goats.

Let it never be said of us that we “would not stoop to serve the Lord”! What a damning inditement against these nobles. They failed to see themselves for what they truly were: creatures created to serve and glorify their Creator. Instead, with a puffed up view of themselves, they thought they were above serving the Lord. Foolishly, they saw service to the Lord as “stooping,” rather than rightly perceiving all service to the Lord as actually being “lifted up” to a place of honor.

Better to be a Sweeper in God’s House than Counted as One Who Would Not “Stoop”

We ought to never think ourselves so grand, so spectacular, so wonderful, that we convince ourselves we are above serving the Lord in some capacity. Our creature/Creator distinction matters a great deal; God made us from the dust of the earth, and to dust we shall return. It should be no difficult thing to “stoop” ourselves before the King of kings and LORD of lords, for apart from Christ we are but worms that grovel in the mud and decay. Besides, it does not lower us to serve God, but actually lifts us up. 

We see the right attitude that servants of the Lord should possess in Psalm 84. In this Psalm, the sons of Korah stand in opposition to the nobles of the Tekoites who would not “stoop” themselves to serve the Lord. The sons of Korah, as sheep, approach God with the right attitude. In Psalm 84:10, the Psalmist writes, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” Do you see the difference? The nobles of the Tekoites would not even consider working on a wall to serve and glorify God, thinking it too far below them. But the sons of Korah say, “It would be wonderful to simply be a doorkeeper in God’s house!” Indeed, it would be better to be the designated sweeper of your local church than be found as one who would not “stoop” in service to God and his people. 

The sons of Korah had the right view of God and His majesty, which developed into a right response concerning service to the Lord. They were not only willing to basically act as the janitors of the Temple but were pleased to “stoop” themselves in such service to their Lord, because they knew it was a far grander blessing to serve God in some capacity or another than to refuse out of some sense of sinful pride.

One final note: the Nobles of the Tekoites probably believed that by not stooping to repair and rebuild the wall, their subjects would think more highly of them. But the opposite occurs. Nehemiah 3:3 is not only a record of their refusal to stoop down and serve God; it’s a judgment against them. They are not thought of well by others but are seen for what they truly are: Sinners and goats.

Those who refuse to bow, stoop down, and serve the Lord now will find that, in the final analysis, the Lord will bring them to their knees before him anyway. Salvation will no longer be possible when they are forced to stoop before their maker, but they will fulfill the purpose for which they were created when, under God’s judgment, they glorify the Lord by acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord. 

While it is today, though, let us serve the Lord. We are members of his body, and every part and function are essential. And, when we serve in this way, we can look forward to hearing those sweet words, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

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Jacob Tanner

Pastor Christ Keystone Church

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife and two sons and is the author of Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace.