“But the greatest among you shall be your servant.” Matthew 23:11 NASB
Servant – Are you a servant? Have you adopted the Christian virtue of being an enabler for others? You might think you have. After all, servant language is very popular these days. From “servant-leadership” to foot-washing ceremonies, many of us attempt to instill a sense of humility in our practices. But until we understand the culture of Yeshua, we probably won’t realize the full extent of His comment or the definition of “servant.”
First, a little Greek. The word here is diakonos. In a previous verse in Matthew, it is paralleled with doulos (slave). This might lead us to think that servants and slaves are equal in Yeshua’s eyes, but that would be an exegetical mistake. There is a difference between these two, but it isn’t the kind of difference we normally associate with “slave.” Our perception of “slave” has been altered by the history of abuse found in all pagan societies. If we rely on the Greek text alone, we might mistakenly think of diakonos in terms of doulos, the description of someone who was owned by another. In the Greek-speaking world, slaves were property. Servants had some rights but not those of citizens. In the pecking order, slaves were at the very bottom, servants were in between and citizens rested at the top. It is the order that Yeshua reverses. But He doesn’t do it from a Greek perspective.
In the Hebraic world, slaves were not property. They were people with dignity, rights and worth, even if they were temporarily indentured to someone else. In fact, under Torah no man or woman would be an indentured servant (slave) for more than seven years. Furthermore, even those who were taken as slaves in war had specific rights and redress when they were not treated properly (this was especially true of women). The same Hebrew word (‘ebed) describes both servant and slave. It is worth noticing that this word is used to describe all the subjects of a king, the worshippers of God and a self-designation for humility. Obviously, being ‘ebed did not mean being someone’s property. None of this was true of the pagan world outside Israel. When Yeshua speaks in Hebrew, He does not employ a Greek word that has connotations of property ownership. To be a servant (or a slave) is to be under the authority of someone else. But being under that authority doesn’t mean the person has no status, no rights, no dignity. Quite the opposite is true. The “servant of the Lord” is a designation of very high regard even if it describes someone who exhibits extraordinary humility.
Now that we know a little of the differences between the Greek and Hebrew, what conclusions can we draw about Yeshua’s statement? First, we can set aside that false humility that we often see when people emulate servant behavior without voluntarily submitting to another’s authority. The issue is not washing feet. The issue is wholeheartedly following orders.
Secondly, we should notice that permanent servitude is always a voluntary act. It is possible to be ‘ebed for life, but not because any rule, regulation or situation requires it. ‘ebed for life is strictly a personal decision. It is a decision to place the control of my life under the authority of another. No man can force this upon anyone else, not even God. But this is precisely what is needed in the Kingdom. Volunteers, not conscripts.
Finally, since ‘ebed describes all subjects of the king, all worshippers of YHWH and all those who recognize their true status under God’s banner, the Greek equivalent diakonos actually applies to everyone who follows Yeshua. We are all servants simply because we fall into that divine category. The only question is whether or not we act like servants. In the end, being a servant is not a matter of title. It is a matter of behavior. In fact, those who reach for titles have probably misunderstood what it means to be diakonos. There is only one determination of the true diakonos (‘ebed). Does this person treat others as God would treat them? Hmm? Sounds like the “Golden Rule,” doesn’t it?
Topical Index: servant, slave, diakonos, doulos, ‘ebed, Matthew 23:11