Principles of Christian Service from the Unprofitable Servant

Luke 17:7–10

Matt Recker

FrontLine • November/December 2007.

Serving God is wonderful and satisfying … sometimes. It is fantastic if we do it for God and not man, and if we accomplish it in God’s power and not our own. When we lose focus on God, then service can be burdensome; and when done in the power of self, it is frustrating. But serving God in the Spirit is nourishment. It gives wings to fly, not chains to enslave. We are “his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (Eph. 2:10). God has planned our service for us. His daily planner for our life is more important than ours. He goes ahead of us, preparing the places we are going and the people we will be meeting. He works out all things for His glory so that the work we do may be a part of His great and eternal work.

Warren Wiersbe gives an excellent definition of ministry to Christ: “Ministry takes place when divine resources meet human needs through loving channels for the glory of God.”[1] In Luke 17:7–10 Jesus gives a story of a worker often called “the unprofitable servant” as part of an answer to the disciples’ cry to increase their faith. We learn that service toward Christ, accomplished with a willing spirit, will result in an increase of faith. Faith increases not in large steps but gradually through the daily drudgery of duty. When we think of increasing our faith, we may think that we have to set some great goal or have a great vision to do the impossible. The Lord teaches a simple truth that faith increases as we live consistently and do our daily duty.

Christian service is a high and undeserved honor. The servant in this story first worked outside and then inside. We must not be offended at anything commanded of us by Jesus Christ. Any service commanded by Him will strengthen our faith. In speaking to someone who recently told me why they came to our church and eventually joined, she said, “Because in our Sunday school we have teachers who open up the Bible with the students and have them read out of the Bible!” That Sunday school teacher who opens her Bible to her students has a high honor to teach young hearts and see people drawn into the fellowship of God’s church.

Service to Christ must be accomplished without expectation of human honor or reward. Serve the Lord with gladness and wait for the reward until the end of the day. The servant in this parable serves and gets no words of thanks. Why should he? He has done only what is expected and commanded of him. David Livingstone, the great missionary statesman to Africa, served without any thought of his own greatness, yet when he died, he was considered a great man. He is the only pauper to be buried in Westminster Abbey with full state honors. “Shame upon us, if we are to be outdone by slave traders. If we serve God at all, it ought to be done in a manly way. I will place no value on anything I have or may possess, except in relation to the Kingdom of Christ.”[2]

Do you think my mortgage company sends me a letter every month thanking me while extolling my virtues because I pay my mortgage on time? I don’t think so! But if I am late one time, you had better believe that I will hear from them! The fact is this: when I pay on time, I am merely keeping my word and paying what I owe them. They do not owe me any thanks, and the reality is this: I am still in debt to them. They have done me a huge favor in loaning me money so I could purchase my home. I should ever be grateful toward them, for they owe me nothing!

Similarly, the master in this story does not hold up his hands in wonder and cry, “How well my servant can plough, how cleverly he feeds the oxen!” and he does not go to him and say, “My dear, invaluable servant, I am sure I do not know what I could do without you; therefore come and sit down, and I will wait upon you.” Oh, no, the servant does only what has been commanded him to do, and so the master does not think of lavishing praise upon him. So says Christ: “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”

Do you remember the laborers in the vineyard who worked all day and then the ones who came at the end of the day received the same reward? When they received what they had agreed upon, they murmured because they merely got what they asked for. They served with expectation, and when they got what they expected, they complained because others who worked less time received the same wage. But the ones who came at the end of the day worked without any expectation, and that is the way to work. They served without a contract yet got more than they could have bargained for. When you serve the Lord because of the joy and privilege of service, the pay is great. It is far more than you could ask for! When you strike a bargain with God, you limit Him, and you may be disappointed.

Realize there will be strenuous days of grueling service. I imagine that plowing and feeding cattle in Bible days before all the powerful farm equipment was very hard work. Farming still is! And yet when the farmer came out of the field, his day was still not done. The Christian servant must keep his chin up and his knees down. Sometimes we will feel like quitting, but it is always too soon to quit. If you are looking to be a celebrity, then do not be a Christian servant. The church is full of pastors and evangelists who want to be celebrities but not servants. There is some agonizing labor in Christian ministry, but don’t worry—our bodies were made to work.

Serve without looking at the time clock. Serving Christ is way of life. When we are saved, we punch in. When we die, we punch out. Life is war, and it is also work. We are to work for the night is coming when we will work no more! This man served all day in the field and came in during the night and served in the home. His day was our life. We serve in the day at our job, and we come home and continue working. We should see our home as a place and opportunity for ministry. We serve Christ in an awesome variety of ways. This servant worked in the field, hot and sweaty. Then he came into the house, where he washed up and then labored in an entirely different set of skills. To serve the Lord, one must be a jack of all trades. As a pastor, many skills can be used. A pastor is a manager and a motivator, a teacher and a theologian, a custodian and a counselor. Whatever your gift or ability, it can be used in Christ’s service. Can you cook? Use computers? Write? Publish? Sing? Talk? Type? File? Counsel? Build walls? Can you do electric or plumbing or carpentry? Work with finances?

As I review nearly twenty-five years of serving the Lord, I can tell you that there are hundreds of ways to serve Christ. I have torn down walls and built them. I have ripped out trees and planted flowers. I have filled dumpsters, mopped, swept, and vacuumed. I have counseled people who wanted to get married and who wanted a divorce. I have counseled people to eternal life and kept others from committing suicide. I have written sermons, e-mails, letters, articles, tracts, and books. I have worked with finances, made phone calls, taught children, adults, and senior citizens. And I am sure your list is much longer than this. And serving the Lord is great fun.

The Christian minister remembers that no servant is indispensable. An attitude that will cripple us spiritually is this: an overestimation of our own worth in either our work or our person. We are all replaceable; none of us is indispensable. God can take us anytime He wills, and His work will go on just fine with or without us! One of our common problems is that we take ourselves too seriously and we don’t take God seriously enough. This world got along fine before we were here. And since I got here, it seems that things are actually getting worse!

A servant for Christ realizes that no matter how much we do for Christ, it is no more than our duty and far less than what He has commanded. Have we done everything that the Lord has commanded us in a perfect way? I think not! So this should keep us humble. If we are unprofitable servants as we do all our daily duty, what are we if we do less than our daily duty? “Unprofitable” does not mean that we are less than nothing but that we are servants to whom our Master owes nothing. If we have done what He has commanded us to do, He still does not owe us anything. God will never owe us anything, but He does good things for us beyond what we deserve because He is good and a stronghold to us. God rewards us and gives to us more than we are worthy of, not because we have earned anything but because He is gracious.[3]

Duty means we have done what we owed. When we do our duty, we are merely paying our debt. Dr. Charles Dunn says that “duty is the desire to be useful that transforms you.” A true servant avoids extremes and maintains balance. In life, the right way usually runs between two extremes. Balance is a great word. One extreme is self-congratulation and the other is despondency. One extreme is thinking “I have done more than others, and I am deserving of reward and honor.” The other extreme is a sense of such unworthiness and bemoaning our ability to do anything good. Wisdom avoids high thoughts of ourselves and hard thoughts of God. It is easy to overestimate our importance. When we think too much of ourselves, we will quickly think that we are overworked and underpaid, under-recognized and way too overburdened.

A Christian servant knows at day’s end there will be grace for all eternity! At the end of the day the servant was able to eat and drink. What a meal is waiting for us at the end of our day! It is called the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. This will be the most awesome meal and spread of food you will ever taste. Let’s look at Luke 12:37 as we close. Jesus will gird Himself as a servant and serve those who are watching and working for Him until He comes. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).

Matt Recker has established urban churches in New York City and has authored two books, Behold the City (2002) and Living on the Edge of Eternity (2007).

(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Warren Wiersbe, On Being a Servant of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993), p. 4. []
  2. Rob Mackenzie, David Livingstone: The Truth behind the Legend (Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), pp. 140, 146, 133. []
  3. Charles H. Spurgeon, sermon on Our Service for Christ Never Finished (Ages Digital Library, 1999), Number 2334, p. 731. []