Bob Dylan once wrote a song entitled Gotta Serve Somebody. The track appeared on the first of his more gospel-oriented albums, Slow Train Coming. You can read the lyrics here: http://bobdylan.com/moderntimes/songs/serve.html. The song addresses the fact that we as humans have to serve somebody, and suggests in a leave-the-conclusion-to-the-listener kind of way that we’d be wise to consider Christ as our master.
This whole issue of servitude is, I wholeheartedly believe, an important one for Christians. Dylan essentially says the same thing that Joshua 24:15 (ESV) said: “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I’ve always loved that verse. I like the whole book of Joshua, due mainly to its relative accessibility compared to the rest of the Old Testament, and its encouraging storyline and ending.
I’d encourage you to read all of Joshua 23-24. It’s a great summation of God’s love for the Israelites. After reading it, it’s painfully clear to see that God was working with them, right from Abraham’s calling and onwards to the present day. In particular, the Israelites’ covenant renewal, during which Joshua makes the above speech, is one of my favourite moments in the Old Testament. I like the definitiveness of it – Joshua, as an old man nearing his deathbed, is drawing a line in the sand, giving an ultimatum to the Israelites, giving them a chance to turn from their sinful ways and start over. It’s a sort of “this far and no further” statement. I also like how Joshua clearly states that his family has made their decision already: no matter what the rest of the Israelites decide, they will follow Yahweh.
Of course, if you read on to Judges, the story also becomes a sobering reminder of how fast a people can fall back into their old ways when they don’t follow God. But that’s another topic for another time. Back to servitude.
Fast forward to the New Testament. In Matthew 6:24, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the people, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Although Jesus was talking about money here, I think it’s safe to substitute just about anything in for money. Try, “You cannot serve both God and your own earthly desires.” But mainly, notice how Jesus gives no option of non-servitude. Saying that you cannot serve two masters is saying that you’re going to serve one. Just like Joshua: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Not serving is not even an option for Joshua and Jesus. Joshua didn’t say, “Choose if you will serve this day.”
Nor was it an option for the Apostle Paul. In Romans 6, Paul talks about being “slaves to righteousness.” Since we have already established that we are going to serve somebody or something, Paul takes it one logical step farther and says, “Thanks be to God that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” Again, no option of non-servitude is presented. Paul finishes this thought later in 14:7-9: “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”
I guess I find this truth about servitude fascinating because it means that humans are hard-wired to be servants. You can’t not be a servant. The notion of constant servitude and submission filters down into interpersonal relations as well. As Paul would later write, it affects husband and wife relations, parenting, and other relationships, which all can be summed up in Eph. 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
In a sad twist of irony, many people try to live their lives thinking they are not serving anyone or anything, when in reality a great deal of things may be controlling them; they just don’t realize it. Of course, I myself am not above this sort of thinking at times, either. I suppose it’s part of the ongoing battle of the flesh and spirit that Paul talked about in Romans 7. Anyways, this whole notion of involuntary servitude is not very encouraging to Christians until we remember that we are serving Christ, who will never lead us wrong. I don’t know about you, but I find that massively reassuring.