The value of service
Updated: Apr 8
God's instructions to Joshua for possessing the promised land were clear. Israel was to utterly destroy the seven nations which occupied the land to prevent them from leading the people of God into their sins (Ex 34:11-16, Num 33:50-56, Deut 7:1-6, Deut 12:1-3, Deut 20:10-18, Deut 31:3-6). One of the cities that was to be conquered was Gibeon. It later became part of the land of the tribe of Benjamin (Josh 18:21-28), and for a time the tabernacle was pitched there (1Ki 3:4, 1Chr 16:39, 1Chr 21:29). The Gibeonites saw the cities of Jericho and Ai fall to Israel and realized their demise was also coming (Josh 9). They sent emissaries to Joshua who pretended to represent a far away nation which was not slated to be destroyed. Joshua and the leaders of Israel fell for their deception because they did not pray. They made a covenant with them and later learned that they had been tricked. Nevertheless, they honored the word they had given them. This covenant was later broken by Saul, and God sent a famine for 3 years in the days of David until it was addressed (2Sam 21). Joshua let the Gibeonites live, but the Israelites made them to be servants and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the tabernacle (Josh 9:21-23). The altar of sacrifice needed wood (Lev 6:12), and the laver required water (Ex 30:18). Joshua and the Israelites assigned the Gibeonites a menial chore so they would no longer have to do it themselves.
Later, when Solomon was building the temple which was to replace the tabernacle as the center of worship, he made the Gentiles in Israel servants to be bearers of burdens and hewers of wood in the mountains to prepare the materials for the construction (1Ki 5, 2Chr 2). He did not make Israelites to serve in these types of roles (2Chr 8:7-9). They were called the Nethinims (1Chr 9:2), and were mentioned 18 times in the Bible, especially during the rebuilding of the temple and the walls in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. They were not priests or Levites, but served them in the temple (1Chr 9:2, Ezra 2:70, Ezra 7:7, Ezra 8:20, Neh 7:73, Neh 10:28, Neh 11:3).
It is true that the Israelites were in a special covenant with God (Ex 19:5-6, Deut 4:7-8). However, serving has value to everyone, even those who are specially chosen by God. It keeps us humble (Lk 14:11). It reminds us that although God has blessed us, we are to see and treat each other as equals (Mt 23:8). We are not to seek to be above others, but to serve (Mt 20:20-28). Serving reminds us that we are all servants of God no matter what our status. That was the point Jesus was making when He washed the disciples’ feet (Jn 13:1-17). When leaders forget that they are also servants, they begin to mistreat those God has called them to serve (Mt 22:6, Mt 24:45-51). If we become too big for certain tasks, then we are too big indeed. The phrase "thy servant" appears 152 times in the Bible. It is used by some of the most noted people in the Bible to describe themselves, such as Abraham (Gen 18:3), Jacob (Gen 32:4 & 10), Moses (Ex 4:10), Samuel (1Sam 3:10), David (1Sam 17:32), Solomon (1Ki 3:7), Nehemiah (Neh 1:6), and Daniel (Dan 9:17).
Of course, there is a practical need for balance, prioritizing, and distribution of responsibility (Acts 6:1-7). Stephen and Philip were two of seven men chosen to serve food to widows, but that did not stop them from having powerful spiritual ministries as well (Act 6-8). Serving keeps our focus on the kingdom of God and off ourselves. The Israelites continually fell into murmuring in the wilderness (Ex 15:24, Ex 16:2-3, Ex 17:1-3, Ex 32:1, Num 13-14, Num 16:41). Whenever they had nothing to do, their placed their focus on their temporary surrounding circumstances and took it off of God and all of His miraculous provision. They became unthankful. However, when they were involved in the building of the tabernacle, there is no record of them complaining (Ex 25-40). In fact, they went over and above what was needed and had to be restrained (Ex 36:3-7). This is a stark contrast to when they were not occupied in serving. It has been said that the biggest killer of older people is retirement. When people no longer have a need to serve, they find it much easier to give up.
One of the criticisms leveled against the Bible is that it allegedly endorses slavery. This can be an involved topic of study, but here are few basic points to disprove that. The phrase "hired servant" appears 17 times. When someone is being paid for their work, they are not in what we typically think of as chattel slavery. Servants in the Bible had rights. They got Saturday each week and the seventh year off, and they were freed in the year of jubilee (Lev 25). They were not to be oppressed or made to serve with rigor (Lev 25:53, Deut 24:14). They could not be killed, and if they were stricken so they lost an eye or a tooth, they were to be freed (Ex 21:20-27). That is the passage from which we get the famous saying, "an eye for an eye". The Bible did not invent slavery. It greatly restricted what it does detail which is not chattel slavery. Kidnapping and selling into slavery was punishable by death (Ex 21:16). Escaped slaves were not to be returned to their masters (Deut 23:15-16). The book of Philemon was written by Paul to a man who had a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus had escaped and became a convert through Paul. Paul was now sending Onesimus back to Philemon, not to return as a slave but as a brother in Christ. The Bible by far places the most value on human life than any other religious document or system of beliefs. It is eminently responsible for the end of slavery, especially in western civilization, and not its founding or continuation. Just one example is John Newton. He worked on and operated ships that transported slaves from Africa to the new world. When he became a believer in the Bible, he quit that and became an abolitionist and a preacher.
Although we are to be servants to Christ, He also calls us not just servants but friends (Jn 13:13-14, Jn 15:13-15). God gave all men the power of choice. That was the meaning of the two trees in the garden of Eden (Gen 3). There are 7 scriptures that say God planned for our salvation before He even made the world (Jn 17:5 & 24, 1Cor 2:7, Eph 1:4, 2Tim 1:9, Titus 1:2, 1Pet 1:20). That means He knew man was going to choose to sin but decided to make him anyway. That is because He loves us (Jn 3:16). He wants us to have a relationship with Him based on love, not coercion. He made us to be more than robots. Love must be chosen. Serving Him is an honor, not oppression. Submitting to His authority is not giving up freedom. It is gaining it (Jn 8:31-36, Rom 6, Gal 5:1). We can either be the servants of God or the servants of sin. God is good and loving. He rewards His servants in this life and the one to come (Eph 1:21). There is true joy and fulfillment in serving the Lord, even when it is difficult. The highest fulfillment is not in this life, but the next. Sin is a cruel taskmaster who does not pay other than with misery in this life, and eternal damnation (Prov 13:15, Rev 20:11-15). Let us choose to serve God and each other by the will of God (Deut 30:15-20, Josh 24:14-15).