A wave of fear swept over me as I held the familiar looking Hebrew envelope. I knew it contained my tzav rishon, or first military interview. I was 16 and had seen other friends receive similar letters. This letter required my presence before the military in order to evaluate my physical and mental condition for service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). It was only an interview, a simple bus ride, an afternoon’s trip. But it represented much more. It was the first of many obligations of service or sacrifices I would make for Israel. To say I did not feel prepared was an understatement, and yet I knew I had no choice.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, both boys and girls in the Land have been raised with the awareness that they will serve their country when they turn 18. It is not a matter of personal preference; it is a matter of national security—a matter of duty. Men and women give years of their lives, sometimes life itself, for this cause. Most Israelis do not see service as an option but an obligation, because it is so clearly tied in with survival.
When we don’t sense it is a matter of survival, it is human nature to view service (and I don’t mean just military service) in a different light. We might choose to exchange our services for something we desire—a paycheck, a good reputation, a sense of accomplishment. We might not necessarily view ourselves as servants, from whom service naturally flows. Of course most of us want to do our part to serve God. We just want to fit it in with everything else we have to do. And because we don’t associate service with survival, we may sometimes forget that serving is crucial to our identity.
Paul uses the recurring theme of servanthood to articulate his commitment to the Lord. He refers to himself as a servant” or “slave” on numerous occasions (Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:1, etc.) and tells of his “duty” or “obligation” to serve in a most familiar passage:
I am obligated both to Greeks and to Jews…that is why I am so eager to preach the gospel to you. (Romans 1:14-16)
He knew service wasn’t a matter of personal preference, but an obligation or duty. Is this how we view our roles, as followers of the Messiah of Israel?
Paul was not the only New Testament writer to express his duty in terms of servanthood. James (1:1), Jude (1:1) and Peter (2 Peter 1:1) also viewed their ministry as service. Mary referred to herself as a slave when visited by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:38). The Greek term doulos, most often translated “slave,” “servant” or “bondservant” was not a self-designation in Greek or Roman thinking, since autonomy was prized and the lack of personal freedom was an intolerable notion in these cultures. Yet in the Hebrew tradition to be a “slave” or “servant” of the Most High was a great privilege, one we’ll explore later. So it is no wonder that numerous scholars attribute Paul’s usage of the word doulos to his Jewish heritage.1
The Hebrew equivalent, eved, is most often translated “servant” or “slave.” It is derived from the root verb avad which is typically rendered “to serve,” “to worship,” or simply “to work.” In Jewish thinking, work and worship were not mutually exclusive. And yet today these concepts are rarely associated with one another. If you watch worship on Christian television today, or glance at the back of a worship CD, what do you see? People singing songs, their eyes closed and hands raised to the Lord. Worship is often equated with one thing: adoration of God through songs and prayers. Worship is not necessarily associated with prison ministry, homeless outreach or hospital visits.
Once when I was a new believer living in Jerusalem, I met a group of Christians participating with a well-known agency on an extended “mission trip” to Israel. I became excited at the prospect that they had come to Israel to minister among Israelis and Arabs. I must admit I was disappointed to learn that their activity in Israel was strictly limited to praise and intercessory prayer. While both are necessary, I believe their worship would have been much richer if it had included hands-on ministry.
I understand the great importance of personal and corporate times of reflection, praise, and prayer to the Lord, but feel that the Jewish understanding of worship has faded from Christian culture—which is a loss for the Body of Christ.
In Jewish thinking, service and worship were intertwined. The noun avodah, another derivative of avad, is most often translated “labor,” “service” or “worship.” It included such tasks as working the earth (Genesis 2:15), repairing the Temple (2 Chronicles 34:13), performing Levitical duties (Numbers 4:19) and bringing sacrifices before the Lord (Joshua 22:27). In Jewish tradition, the term avodah eventually came to denote a central part of the Musaf liturgy on Yom Kippur, which recounts the ancient sacrificial rituals once performed by the High Priest in the Temple—sacrifices necessary to make atonement for the people of Israel. So avodah could refer to a variety of sacred (sanctified) acts of service and worship unto the Lord. Reflecting upon the intertwining of work and worship we see that while the practical outworking of these differ, they complement one another. In fact it could be argued they are interdependent: that without active service for the Lord, worship is incomplete, and without true worship, active service would be hollow.
In the Hebrew Bible, to be the eved Adonai or “servant of the Lord” is an exalted privilege. Such a person was God’s chosen vessel. This designation emphasized a person’s exclusive loyalty to the Lord; their willingness and desire to serve Him alone. While the phrase implied the privilege reserved for those who enjoyed an honored relationship with the God of Israel, it also implied submission, sacrifice and humility. A long line of Israel’s greatest heroes were called “servants of the Lord.”
The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all identified as the Lord’s servants (Exodus 32:13). Each one walked the path of servanthood, and each experienced a unique encounter with the Lord. As the generations passed, a lineage or tradition of servanthood was established. When Isaac was called, he was reminded of Abraham’s special relationship with God and of the covenant promises (Genesis 26:2-5). Jacob was reminded of the Lord’s relationship with both Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 28:13). Moses was reminded of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3:6). Joshua was reminded of Moses’ faithful service (Joshua 1:1-3). They stood upon a foundation built by those who went before them. An association, an unseen bond united these heroes in their call to the Lord’s service.
The path of service is well-worn by kings such as David and prophets like Elijah (2 Kings 9:36). They too were servants of the Most High. More importantly, the one for whom all Israel awaited, the Messiah, was a servant of the Most High.
Our Messiah Yeshua set the bar for servanthood. His entire life was an expression of sacrificial service, as was His death. He was truly the suffering servant, stripped of status, abased, rejected and eventually killed (Isaiah 40-55). Knowing what lay ahead of Him, it must have been difficult for Him to see His friends jockey for position. When approached about who would be the greatest in the kingdom, Jesus gathered his disciples and said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27). For Jesus, service meant everything and everyone. Servanthood was necessary for the greatest kings and the simplest peasants.
Of course Jesus fulfilled the role of a servant as no one else could. But He also helped us to understand the importance of service for all who want to be near to the heart of God.
Although this mandate to serve often came in the form of an individual call, some, like Joshua, were in dutiful service to the Lord before their official appointment. There also existed a corporate notion of servanthood. The people of Israel had been liberated from serving the Pharaoh. They now belonged to the Lord. Indeed all the redeemed of Israel were called the Lord’s servants. As it was written,
For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 25:55)
Not everyone will experience a call to service like Moses or Joshua, but all those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb have a special purpose and are called to be servants nonetheless. And for Jewish believers, it runs in the family! So we should not be asking, “Lord, am I called to serve?” but rather, “Lord, where/how do You want me to serve?” because we all serve something or someone. Bob Dylan wrote,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
(from “Gotta Serve Somebody”)
When we realize that, consciously or not, we all serve somebody, it becomes apparent how crucial it is for us to make certain that somebody is God.
So, what does serving the Lord entail? The answer is simple: putting God first. It means laying down our lives as a sacrifice before the Lord. In Hassidic circles, avodah (service) refers to the conduct of one’s whole life as dedicated to the service of God and as furthering God’s work.2 This belief is evident in their “evangelical” approach to Judaism. Although I do not espouse Hasidic belief, I am inspired by their commitment to service. And while service certainly entails prayer, worship, sharing God’s love, and helping those in need, it works out differently for each of us.
For some, serving God may mean going into full-time ministry. For others it may mean moving into another field of expertise such as education or accounting. There have been great examples of Jewish believers in a variety of different areas of service. Joseph Schereschewsky, a Russian Jewish believer, spent years in China and translated the first Bible into Mandarin Chinese. Richard Wurmbrandt, a Jewish believer from Rumania, spent years in prison for serving the Lord and eventually founded Voice of the Martyrs, an organization that continues to uphold the persecuted church around the world. In more recent times, Jay Sekulow is a Jewish believer who has fought for First Amendment rights all the way up to the Supreme Court. Our Jews for Jesus board of directors includes those who serve as pastors, psychologists, legal counsel, educators, accountants—even missionaries.
We stand in a long line of faithful servants. The path of service is well worn. We’ve been set free from sin in order to serve God but His burden is light, and He carries us as we serve Him.
Paul said it beautifully:
Therefore, I urge you brothers in view of God’s mercy to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your reasonable service. (Romans 12:1)
The Greek word latreia (service) in this passage was the term commonly used to translate avodah throughout the Septuagint. Remember that according to tradition, avodah hearkens back to the Temple sacrifices. This was Paul’s understanding of service. It is in God’s mercy that He enlists us into His sacred service. We do not deserve the honor. Yet we are graciously called to lay down our lives, give up our freedom, and follow the well-worn path of service for our Lord. Such is the life of a true servant of the Most High.
- Dunn, J.D.G. Vol. 38A: Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8 (electronic ed.), Logos Library System; Word Biblical Commentary, Word, Incorporated: Dallas, 1998.
- Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, “Abodah,” p. 29