Dr. Richard L. Strauss
May 3, 1992
Purpose: To help us cultivate a servant's spirit.
What comes to your mind when you hear the word "servant"? A stuffy little man in a black suit, with a stern look on his face, who walks into a room where guest are gathered and announces, "Dinnah is suuhved"?
There aren't many of them in our circles any more. But we do have servants: porters at the airport and the bellhops on the hotel lobby who carry your bags. They are there to serve you. The maid who comes into your motel room, makes the bed, cleans up the bathroom and puts clean towels on the rack is serving you. You pay for her service in the price of the room, but she has nevertheless served you.
What do all servants have in common? They have as their goal meeting someone else's needs, giving aid, assistance or help.
The Scripture speaks about serving God. The Psalmist said, "Serve the Lord with gladness" (Psalm 100:2). God doesn't actually need our help, but He does in His grace allow us the great privilege of participating in what He is doing on the earth. We serve Him by using the gifts and abilities He has given us in order to advance His cause and accomplish His purposes, and to minister to the needs of others for His glory. He wants us to serve Him, which involves serving others.
That may require sacrificing our own agenda for His. We may have to give up what we might want out of life for what He wants. But He promises to make it worthwhile for us to do that. He promises eternal rewards for faithful and sacrificial service.
I would like to examine one of the central passages on that subject in the Scripture. It's an extended section of Matthew's gospel right after the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19, when Peter poses a question to Jesus: "See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?" (Matthew 19:27). Peter and the rest of the disciples were serving the Lord, and they had made some sacrifices to do it. What will they get for their efforts? That's the question that gets us into this whole discussion.
So let's begin by noting the promise of rewards in heaven for service here on earth.
1. The Promise of Rewards for Service, Matthew 19:28-30
Listen again to Jesus' reply. I say "again" because we looked at this verse in the previous message in this series.
Read Matthew 19:28. "So Jesus said to them, "Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel."
The word "regeneration" means literally "genesis again." Many Bible scholars believe it refers to the rebirth and renewal of the earth in the millennial age when the effects of the curse will be removed and Christ will rule in righteousness and peace. See what He says there? "When the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory." The twelve apostles who left everything to follow the Lord and serve Him will be rewarded, in the millennium, with special positions of honor and authority. The subject before us is clearly the promise of future rewards for present service.
And the Lord even broadens that promise beyond the twelve apostles in the next verse.
Read Matthew 19:29. "And everyone"--not just the twelve, now, but everyone--"who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit everlasting life."
Christ is not condoning neglect of our families. The point is simply that when people must make certain sacrifices for His sake, they are going to be repaid many times over in this life (Mark and Luke both add that, in Mark 10:30 and Luke 18:30), and then enter fully into their everlasting inheritance.
Now that promise raises several questions in our minds. First of all, how can we receive a hundred times more of all those things in this life? What would we do with a hundred more houses? I love my wife dearly and I wouldn't trade her for anything else in this world, but I tell you, I wouldn't want a hundred more of her! And I love my kids; God's been good to me. I wouldn't trade any of them either--or their wives--but frankly, 400 kids is a little more than I could handle!
What is the Lord promising here? He is simply promising that He will meet our needs abundantly, and give us a measure of joy and satisfaction that far outweighs the sacrifices we make for Him.
Many of our missionaries will testify to that. The close friends they have, the homes that are open to them, and the privileges they enjoy often far exceed the things they have forfeited for Christ. They don't feel like they've sacrificed anything.
But there is a second question that comes to mind when you read that verse: Does this imply that we can earn eternal life by making sacrifices in service? Not at all! Scripture teaches clearly that eternal life is a gift--the present possession of those who have placed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior from sin (cf. John 3:36; 1 John 5:12). So that can't be what Jesus means. What He means is that in the world to come, we will get to enjoy to the full, the special inheritance which we have earned by our faithful service while here on earth. This is the promise of reward in heaven for sacrificial service.
Maybe you remember the story of the older missionary couple, the Henry C. Morrisons. I've told it to you before but it's such a neat story and it fits so well here that I've just got to tell it again. The Henry C. Morrisons were returning to New York City to retire after 40 years of service in Africa. They had no pension--there weren't retirement programs for missionaries in those days. Their health was broken, and they were defeated, discouraged and afraid. They discovered that they were booked on the same ship as President Teddy Roosevelt, who was returning from one of his big-game hunting expeditions. Everyone on board tried to get a glimpse of the famous president, but no one paid any attention to them. "Something is wrong," Henry said to his wife. "Why should we have given our lives in faithful service for God in Africa all these years and have no one care a thing about us? This man comes back from killing animals in Africa and everyone makes much over him."
When the ship docked in New York, a band was waiting to greet the President. The mayor and other dignitaries were there, but no one noticed the missionary couple. They slipped off the ship and found a cheap flat on the East Side, hoping the next day to see what they could do to make a living in the city. That night the man's spirit broke. He said to his wife, "I can't take this; God is not treating us fairly." And as an ideal, spiritual helpmeet would, she replied "Why don't you go into the bedroom and tell that to Him." A short time later he came out with a transformed look of contentment on his face. His wife asked, "What happened dear?" "The Lord settles it with me," he answered. "I told him how bitter I was that the President should receive this tremendous homecoming, when no one met us as we returned home. And when I finished, it seemed as though the Lord put His hand on my shoulder and said, 'Henry, you're not home yet!'"
We have the promise of eternal reward for faithful service when we get home. Home to heaven.
But then the Lord says something very strange.
Read Matthew 19:30. "But many who are first will be last, and the last first."
Now remember, we are talking about rewards. That's the subject here. A strange statement, isn't it? Evidently there are going to be some surprises when rewards are given out. Those who are first in this life may not necessarily be first in the life to come. The "first" in this life are probably those who are highly regarded for their position, their power, their success, or their fame. But that isn't God's measuring rod for reward. He sees what man cannot see: the heart attitude, the motives. That is much more important to Him.
He goes on to tell an interesting story to illustrate that truth. The story illustrates a very important principle. Having talked about the promise of rewards for service, let's now talk about the principle.
2. The Principle of Rewards for Service, Matthew 20:1-16
The story is intended to illustrate that cryptic saying of Matthew 19:30. We know that for a couple reasons, one being that it begins with the word "for." It means "to elucidate then..." And notice that it concludes with the very same point in Matthew 20:16: "So the last will be first, and the first last." He starts the story with it and ends the story with it. It's obvious that the point of the story is to teach that truth.
You remember the story, don't you? The grapes were ripe and had to be picked immediately, so the landowner went to the marketplace at 6 a.m. to hire laborers to do the job. There was some bargaining over the pay, but an agreement was finally reached and a contract accepted for a fair wage. As the day progresses the landowner realizes that he's going to need more help to get the job done, so he hires another group at 3 p.m. and a few more just an hour before quitting time. The major point here is that there was no bargaining and no contract with these later groups. That was only with the first group. The rest of the groups trusted the landowner to give them what was fair, just and right.
Now in verse 8 it's quitting time and the foreman of the job calls the workers together to receive their pay. He starts with the last men hired and works back to the ones who had worked all day. And the surprising thing is that he gives them all the same amount--the amount for which the first group had bargained and contracted. They didn't like that very much, and they complained about it. But it was absolutely fair. That was their agreement.
What we learn from the story is not that everyone will get the same rewards, but that God is sovereign and has the right to do what He pleases with what is His. He will reward each one personally and individually, according to His own good pleasure and what He knows is right. And there will be no appeal. He is in full control.
But we also learn that He is gracious and will do far more than we expect if we will simply trust Him. Not bargain with Him, but trust Him. This subject of rewards may have some folks thinking, "I want to know exactly what's in this for me before I volunteer to serve. What am I going to get out of it? I'm not going to leave home and go to mission field unless I know what I'm going to get." We may think we can strike a good bargain with God that is going to make us happy, but we'll probably end up being last and least if we try it. That's the point. Don't bargain with God and end up last and least.
Just use the gifts God has given you, and do the job that needs to be done, and leave the pay with Him. He'll be fair. You'll come out far better that way. The principle of rewards for service is simply this: It is to our eternal benefit to trust God to do what is fair, and to leave the matter in His hands.
Evidently James and John didn't get that message. It's pretty clear, but they missed it altogether. No sooner had Jesus finished the story then they turn right around and try to strike a bargain with Him! Let's call it...
3. The Misunderstanding about Rewards for Service, Matthew 17-24
Matthew says their mother made the request (Matthew 20:20), but it is clear from the Mark account that she was doing what they wanted her to do (Mark 10:35). And what was it that they wanted?
Read Matthew 20:21b. "She said to Him, 'Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.'"
We're still talking about rewards in the kingdom. We have learned that our rewards include positions of honor and authority, and what James and John are after here are the two highest positions in the kingdom, which they anticipated would be established very shortly. Maybe they thought they deserved them because they were in Christ's inner circle. Peter, James, and John were the inner circle. Maybe they thought they should have them because they were Christ's cousins. (There is some Biblical evidence that they were Christ's cousins--refer to the lists of women's names in Matthew 27-56, Mark 15:40 and John 19:25). Maybe they were afraid that Peter was emerging as the leader of the apostles and they wanted to be sure he didn't get ahead of them. I don't know why they made that request. But for whatever reason, they were trying to strike a bargain--the very thing Jesus had just warned them against! They completely misunderstood the basis for reward.
I think there are some people today who are like this. Maybe you think you deserve reward in heaven because of who you are. Your family members have been Christians for five generations. Your great-grandfather was a minister. You've been a member of a church all your life. You've held prominent positions in your church. You've been first, in other words. May I remind you of what Jesus said, "But many who are first will be last, and the last first."
You have completely misunderstood the basis for reward in heaven. We are not going to be rewarded for who we are or what position we held. Rewards are for what we do, and particularly for how faithfully we serve.
The Lord is about to drive that point home to His disciples. Let's call it...
4. The Nature of Rewards for Service, Matthew 25-28
Read Matthew 20:25-27. "But Jesus called them to Himself and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave.'"
If we could sum up the nature of our rewards in one word as Jesus describes them here, it would be the word "greatness." "If you want to be great," He says. And it is clear from the context that by greatness Jesus means positions of honor, respect, and esteem. The people of the world endeavor to establish their greatness by bossing other people around. The more people they manage and the more power they wield over them, the greater they think they are.
But that's not the way to attain greatness in Christ's future kingdom. Greatness in that day depends on faithful service today. Honored positions in that day are earned by willingly serving others today. That's what Jesus tells us.
Did you notice the two different words Jesus used? The first (diaconos) refers to a servant, one who ministers to the needs of another. The second (doulos) refers to a bondslave, the humblest and lowliest kind of servant who has renounced all his own personal rights and is totally committed to serving another. That degree of service is what will earn for us the very highest position in Christ's coming kingdom.
This is a wonderful truth for the less prominent people in the Body. It isn't necessarily going to be the one who stands behind the pulpit in front of the whole congregation who gets the most honor in the kingdom. There is a great deal of prominence in a position like this, and it's probably dangerous. But it doesn't earn any reward. It puts me at the end of the line according to what Jesus said. You see, it's far more likely to be the lady who is down on her hands and knees cleaning up some mess in the nursery that a baby made because she cares for that child and the parents. Nobody will ever know what she did, but she's going to have a reward.
We've got some real servants in this church who are going to have great honor when the kingdom comes. Like the Tuesday morning cleaning crew who keep this building attractive for the rest of us to enjoy. Some have been doing it ever since we got this building--19 years ago last month. And folks who give sacrificially of their time to repair, remodel, paint, water, weed, cook, set up tables, transport people, visit shut-ins, and keep things running behind the scenes. Or the people who have been teaching two's and three's for the last twenty-five years. Or the retired school administrator who makes the restrooms in building 10 shine. Does it by himself, quietly, weekly, freely, and for the Lord. I didn't even know about it until this week. God has a reward for him in heaven.
Not all service takes place on the church campus. Let me remind you of that. We have people serving in rest homes, feeding the homeless in the park, tutoring students at risk of not graduating. These people are doing service for the Lord.
You see, some who appear to be great by human standards may turn out to have been using less than their full capacity, or serving with the wrong motives, and will have very little status in the kingdom, while others, whose gifts seemed so humble but who used them faithfully to the full, for the glory of the Lord, will be exalted in the kingdom.
Have you heard this servant's prayer? I hope it isn't your prayer (Pulpit Helps, August 1981, Serving the Lord, only if it suits us):
Dear Lord, I want to serve you so badly! I'm literally burning with the fever. I've been on a vacation and I'm more ready than I've ever been. What I need now is an assignment. That's what I want to discuss with you.
I've been offered program chairperson for my Sunday School class, but I'm hoping you'll agree with me that it's not quite right. They need a teacher badly in the Junior Department in the Sunday School, but I know too many of the children. Wild bunch if I ever saw one. (It's no wonder, though, considering the homes they come from.) I would love to help out in the nursery but that would mean missing the worship service periodically and I know You wouldn't want me to do that. Besides, my children aren't even in the nursery anymore. The woman next door can't drive. She needs help with the groceries and she needs company, but she never lets go once she gets hold of you.
How about something different? No nursing homes please. I can't stand some of what I see in those places. I know you'll think of something! I can hardly wait to see what You come up with.
With all my love,
If we want a position of honor in God's kingdom, we'll have to take the position of "bondslave" here on earth--that is, a willingness to do whatever needs to be done that we are capable of doing, no matter how lowly or insignificant it may seem, or how much sacrifice it may require.
And the Lord will not overlook the tiniest or least significant act of service when we stand before Him. Don't forget Hebrews 6:10. "For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister." God isn't going to forget it. You can count on it. Are you willing to believe it?
Even an act of service as trivial as giving a cup of water because we belong to Christ will be rewarded on that day (Mark 9:41). Paul wrote that to the Colossians, speaking to them about their secular employment. Even there, we are ultimately serving the Lord. When we serve others, we are essentially serving Him (Colossians 3:24), and with such acts of service He is well pleased (cf. Hebrews 13:16). Pleasing Him is what counts when it comes to reward.
I read a story about a brilliant young concert pianist was performing at the very first concert of his professional career. He played skillfully and beautifully, and the audience sat in rapt attention. At the conclusion of his performance they exploded into a standing ovation. All were on their feet, except for one old man at the front. But the young pianist went off stage dejected. Backstage, his manager came up to him with words of congratulations and praise, but the pianist said, "It was no good; I was a failure," The manager responded, "You didn't fail! It was tremendous! Look out there; everyone is clapping! They're all on their feet, except for that one old man." And the pianist responded, "Yes, but that one old man is my teacher" (Service, motivation for). He was the only one who really mattered, you see.
We can impress everyone on earth with our success and our achievements, and it will make no difference in eternity. Impressing one Person is all that counts when it comes to receiving eternal rewards: our Lord Jesus Christ. And He is impressed when we cultivate a servant's spirit. If you want to be great in God's kingdom, you'll have to be the servant of all.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
We've got a good example to follow. I can't teach this passage without referring to verse 28, which sums it up so beautifully.
Read Matthew 20:28. "Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."
A ransom is the price paid for our release from the guilt and condemnation of sin. And that ransom provides the only way we have of entering heaven. All the good things we have ever done and all of the service we have ever performed is not going to give us a ticket to heaven. There is only one ticket to heaven, and we get it by acknowledging our sinfulness, and putting our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to deliver us from the guilt our sin brings and the condemnation that our sin deserves. Have you done that? Once you've done that, He gives you everlasting life. Then you can enjoy your inheritance of eternal life to the greatest degree possible by serving Him and serving others.
Let's bow our heads and our hearts prayerfully in His presence right now. With our heads bowed, I want to ask you whether you've made that decision? The decision to put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior from sin. That's what guarantees entrance into heaven. Whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. He taught us that (John 3:16).
If you've not made that decision, we'd like to invite you to do it right now. Just in the quiet of your own soul, right where you sit. You talk to the Lord, will you?
"Lord, I'm a sinner. I believe You went to Calvary's cross to die in my place and pay for my sin. Lord Jesus, I want to put my trust in You right now. Come into my heart and save me from sin."
If you mean business, He'll transform your life. Some old things will pass away. Things will become new. But it begins with this act of trust and faith, by consciously receiving Him as your Savior from sin. Will you do that right now?
Most of you here this morning are Christians. You've made that decision. Can I ask you if you're faithfully serving the Lord? Or have you hidden your talents and gifts and abilities and resources under a bushel somewhere--buried it? Would you make the commitment right now? "Yes, Lord, I want to be available to You to do whatever it is You call me to do. Whatever it costs me."
Father, do a great work in our lives, we pray. May we be a people known for our love for You and our love for each other, in our willing spirit of service. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.