All to Him I Owe
The New Testament frequently refers to believers as slaves or servants. It gets a little confusing, because in our time and world, slaves and servants are very different things. We might be willing to be a servant, but the thought of being anyone’s slave is not only cringe-worthy, but also morally reprehensible. So why does the Bible command us to be slaves?
The Greek word, in most of these cases, is doulos. A doulos is most accurately translated as “bondservant”. This is the Greek word the Jews of the first century used for a practice established by Mosaic Law. The word in Hebrew was ‘ebed. These were people who, through debt or as punishment for thievery, offered themselves as slaves to the person they owed. Instead of a salary, their work would pay off their debt. When they were free of debt, they were free of service. There’s a lot more to this, of course, and I recommend reading the article “Slavery and the Old Testament Law”, by Andrew Schmidt, for a more in-depth analysis of the practice. But what I’ve described is the main gist of the matter, and it is the picture that Jesus and His Apostles are referencing when they refer to believers as douloi (servants).
Why does Jesus call us bondservants to God? As the hymn so succinctly puts it, “Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe.” The book of Romans goes into this in intimate detail, beginning with “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), and ending with “for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13). In the end, it’s all about whether we owe a debt of Death, or a debt of Life. We can be unwilling slaves to Death and Sin, or willing bondservants to Christ. Our choice.
I Choose Life
If you’ve read this far, then you’ve probably made that choice already, and serve Christ. As mentioned above, we are willing bondservants. We serve out of gratitude and love. Having been saved from death, ourselves, we seek to help the Master save others.
So, what does being God’s bondservant look like? Having read through the passages talking about this topic, I’ve found four traits that I believe are associated with being the very best bondservant we can be.
A trait that comes up frequently is that bondservants are hardworking. They don’t do “just enough”, because “just enough” is not enough. Take the parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The two servants who worked hard with their talents were able to multiply them and were even rewarded for their work (they would not have expected this). The servant who buried his talent did nothing and ended up with nothing. In Matthew 9:37, Jesus implies that, the harvest being so great and the workers being so few, exhausting work lies ahead. In the many parables that Jesus tells involving servants, they always do everything their Lord tells them to do, even when the work is difficult. They brave danger, even unto death (Matthew 21:33-45), they keep watch for long periods of time (Matthew 24:42), they manage the estate compassionately and wisely while the Master is gone (Luke 12:43), they speak boldly on His behalf (Acts 4:29), and work tirelessly (Revelation 2:2).
Hard work is part of the job. Sometimes it’s thankless, but it is always worthwhile.
Jesus frequently praises servants who take initiatives and find clever ways to serve more efficiently. In the parable of the Talents, the money was invested wisely. In some parables, the Master leaves his servant to manage all his resources. In one parable, Jesus even praises a crooked servant, not because of his sins, but because of his cleverness (Luke 16:1-9). We need to be wise in our service.
Being wise servants isn’t an easy thing to do, mostly because wise servants keep their eyes on changes and anticipate them. If a certain way to evangelize just doesn’t work anymore, they find another way to present the Gospel. If they must learn more, they learn more. If they must challenge their current way of thinking, they will do so. They invest their time, money and emotion where it is most needed, and where they are most capable. They don’t cling to fear, or “safe” ways to do things. They are risk-takers, and habit-breakers, and earth-shakers. A wise servant is a prize servant.
The Apostles (and especially Paul) frequently referred to themselves as servants. Through trials, persecution, pressure, and mockery, they never swayed from the conviction that they served a worthy Master. Recalling the words of Jesus, Matthew wrote, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Compared to the toll sin takes on us, His yoke is easy. Compared to the heavy burdens we impose on ourselves—the grief, the shame, the anxiety, the suffering—our identity in Him is light. He lifts all our guilt and shame and takes it upon himself and, in exchange, gives us the burden of caring for the lost. Rather than getting lost in ourselves, we can turn our eyes outward, confident in the assurance that He is with us. Always. He is absolutely deserving of our loyalty.
This is the kind of unwavering loyalty his Apostles showed him, and the kind of loyalty they passed on. Loyal servants love their Master. They know that they have already given everything up to Him; there is nothing left to retain. They’re not hesitant to be called Christians, because other servants are embarrassing. Whose name do they carry? Not the names of servants, but the name of the Christ! They carry the name of the Savior of Nations, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the Conqueror of Death, and future Judge of all. The loyalty of Christ’s servants is as solid as the Cornerstone upon which it is built.
I put this trait last, because it is the hardest to attain. Humility is the art of learning to be just as comfortable on your knees, with your head bowed, as you are on your feet, standing strong. It’s easy to forget that we IN NO WAY deserve God’s salvation, or love, or even a gaze in our direction. Our sins were so great that God had to turn away from His own Son the moment that they were taken onto the Lamb. We tend to think that we’ve been SO good, so hardworking, so smart and loyal, that surely God would be pleased with us. Jesus constantly had to remind his disciples of the pitfalls of pride. They were regular victims of it. This is seen when they rebuked a person driving out demons in Jesus’ name (Mark 9:38), when they urged Jesus to send a woman in need away because she was bothering them (Matthew 15:23), when they tried to turn away the children because they didn’t deserve to see Jesus (Matthew 19:13), or when they presumed to sit at the right and left of Jesus when He took a place of political power (Matthew 20:21). They thought that serving the Messiah made them more important; it should have made them humble.
It happened enough times that Jesus told them a parable. “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’” (Luke 17:7-10).
The NIV rather generously translates it as “unworthy servants”. The word in Greek falls closer to “worthless”. Jesus gave his disciples a not-so-subtle reminder that they needed to be humble. They didn’t just need to consider themselves unworthy; they needed to consider themselves worthless. Every time they thought they were doing things worthy of praise, they needed to remember that they were merely doing their duty. A bondservant would never expect his Master to invite him the table to eat. A bondservant would prepare the meal, serve it, and then leave to eat on his own.
Be a worthless servant. Be the kind of servant who is empty of pride, and full of gratitude; who lacks arrogance but holds grace. Come to the Table and offer your best service to your Lord. You were lost and now are found. You were drowning, and He reached out to take your hand. You were dead, and He gave you Life.
Come to the Table
Come to the Table, Worthless Servant, and hear our Master say: “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”
Our attitude must be humble, for we were owe everything to Him. This is His mercy. To save us from the punishment we deserved. But, having truly understood how worthless we are, He gives us worth again. He is the Master that invites us to His Table to dine with Him. He is the Master who not only invites us to His Table but sets it for us. This is His grace. To give us gifts that we never deserved.
A huge thank you to missionary Tabi Boyce for her work for His Kingdom and for writing this piece! Please check out Mike & Tabi’s missions blog here: Cornerstone Chilean Mission
Amen. I think it astounds the world when people willingly submit their heart to God. Part of what is missing in the Western church is in the focus on bending our will to His, the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Thank you for this post.
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Love it! So many are willing to accept Jesus as Savior but not step into Jesus as Lord!
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I really like this article. However, I’m not sure how “humble” the phrase “slave/servant of God” is. In the Hebrew Bible, some of Israel’s most esteemed leaders are called a “slave (ebed) of God”.
For example, God frequently calls David “My slave/servant (ebed) David.
Not taking anything away from the point about humility, though I wouldn’t use the word “worthless”, surely the greatest honour we can aspire to is to be a “slave/servant of God”.
Also, does God create, love, redeem, and use people but at the same time regard them regard them as worthless? I don’t think so.
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I think you nailed the tension! Being a servant is worthless in the eyes of man, and honored in the eyes of God. It’s the upside-down Kingdom, where the servant is honored and the last is first and the poor are blessed and humility is lauded while pride is put down. David was one of Israel’s most esteemed leaders; he also happened to be an unclean shepherd, the youngest of 8 siblings, and later both an adulterer and a murder. While we often seem worthless to human eyes, God raises us to so much more!
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There is a tension. And yet Moses, Joshua, David, Paul, etc, were not considered worthless (overall) by many of the people in their own community.
I’m a great believer in the fact that in God’s kingdom the humble are exalted, the lowliest are the greatest, and the last are first. But I still don’t think we should not think of any human being, ourselves included, as worthless.
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I think they mean that Moses, Joshua, David, Paul were only considered of worth by people “in their own community” since those communities had begun to look through God’s perspective. To the world, these people are worse than worthless – they follow a God that no one else believes is real or an advocate for man! Worthless through the lens of worldliness, worth-full through the lens of godliness!
I think another tension that exists for us as well though is that we are servants of God yet also children of God! So agreed with you – ourselves included, let’s treat ourselves and all around us with worth because we aren’t *just* servants of God – we are his beloved kids!
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Let me reiterate that I really like this article. My one qualm is the word “worthless”. I still can’t see that “worthless” is a valid way to describe a Jesus follower, a fellow believer.
A slave who is hard-working, wise, loyal, and humble is valuable, not worthless. Truly worthless slaves would usually be discarded by their masters (cf. John 15:5-6).
I’d love to be called a slave/servant of God. This is a biblical description and it is an honour. And, as you say, Jared, there are other wonderful descriptions given to Jesus followers too, descriptions that hardly equate with worthlessness.
I can’t see that what outsiders might think of us, or what they thought of prominent Bible characters in the past, is the issue. What matters is what God thinks of us, and how we see ourselves.
I trust that we are not worthless and that we may aspire to be valuable. My greatest desire is that I be “made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” 2 Timothy 2:21b
You’re creating a discussion that’s necessary. I like what you guys have going down here.
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Hi! Just thought I’d chime in here to remind everyone that my point is to encourage us to *consider* ourselves worthless. (See also Lk 14:10 and Phil 2:3) Not that we *are* worthless. It’s a handy literary device called “overstatement”. Jesus uses it here and in other places. He asks us to cut off hands that sin (Matt 5:30), to hate our families (Lk 14:26), and to call ourselves worthless (Lk 17:10). None of these statements are considered literal. We see them and realize that Jesus uses overstatement to make a point. You do everything you must in order to avoid sin, you love God so much that all other loves pale in comparison (and almost seem like hate), and you consider your work as practically worthless, grateful for the fact that God truly does love our labor for Him.
Not trying to argue, just hoping to clarify. 🙂 Blessings!
I hope I don’t sound argumentative, that’s not my intention at all. But I do have a different opinion of the word “worthless”.
Choosing to take a lowly position (Luke 14:10) or humbly valuing others above ourselves (Phil 2:3) is not the same as thinking that you’re worthless. (The fact that we have the agency to choose to do these things means that we have some worth.) However, if lowliness and/or humility is what the author means as “worthless”, this needs to made clearer in the article.
Jesus uses the word ἀχρεῖοί in Luke 17:10 and, rightly or wrongly, most English translators render this word as “unworthy”. Luke 17:10 is about slaves who have done their duty. On the other hand, the truly useless/worthless (ἀχρεῖον) slave gets cast into outer darkness (Matt. 25:30).
Unworthy and worthless are not synonyms. We are unworthy. We are not worthless. I just can’t see that we benefit God and his mission, or ourselves, if we see ourselves as worthless. But I appreciate others may have a different opinion.