The Servant Church


The Servant Church

August 19th, 1979 @ 10:50 AM

Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him; Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean. So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

John 13:4-5, 12-16

8-19-79    10:50 a.m.


As you know, for three full years I have been preaching through the Book of Acts.  Last Sunday night was the last and concluding message.  So the sermon this morning is the first one, and it is entitled The Servant Church.  The outline will be the servant Savior, the servant pastor, the servant deacon, and then the Servant church.

And on radio and on television with us here in this great auditorium and sanctuary, we welcome you in your prayerful listening to an expounding of the Word of God, beginning in John chapter 13, verses 4 and 5 and then verses 12 through 16, remembering the title, The Servant Church.

John chapter 13, verse 4:

He riseth from supper—the paschal meal, the Passover—and laid aside His garments—

there is not anything more humbling to a man than to be undressed—

and He took a towel, and girded Himself.

Then He poured water into a basin, and begin to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith He was girded.

[John 13:4-5]

Now verse 12:

After He had washed their feet, and taken His garments—redressed— and was set down again, He said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?

You call Me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.

If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.

I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done unto you.

Truly, truly—amen, amen, it is in Greek—Verily, verily I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.

If you know these things, happy are ye if you do them.

[John 13:12-16]

We do not look upon that as an ordinance because the Lord said to the apostles, “The Holy Spirit will bring you into all truth” [John 16:13].  Looking then at the church of the New Testament, at the apostolic church, they observed just two ordinances, baptism [Matthew 28:19-20], and the Lord’s Supper [Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Corinthians 11:23-28].  We know, therefore, from the teaching of the Holy Spirit to the apostles that the washing of feet is not an ordinance.  But it is a beautiful and incomparably and preciously and humblingly beautiful type, symbol, and example of what God’s people ought to be: washing feet.

The servant church: first of all, our servant Lord.  If you had lived in the days of His flesh and had seen Jesus, and somebody asked you, “What is He like?”  How would you have replied?  You could have replied in the language of the Lord Himself, in His self-description.  He said in Matthew 11:28:  “For I am meek and lowly in [spirit]” [Matthew 11:29].  He also said in the passage that we just read:  “For the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” [Matthew 20:28].

If somebody had asked you, “What kind of a ministry did He have?  What did He do, this peripatetic Prophet, as He walked around and among the people, what did He do?  What kind of a ministry did He have?”  Then again you could answer in the Word of our Lord as He spoke to John the Baptist in prison, who asked about His messianic calling [Matthew 11:2-3].  “You go tell John,” He said, “that the blind see, and the lame walk, and the lepers are cleansed . . . and the poor have the gospel preached unto them.  And blessed is he who is not offended in Me” [Matthew 11:4-6], the meek and the lowly Jesus.

Simon Peter summed His ministry up in the tenth chapter of Acts: “He went about doing good” [Acts 10:38].  Isn’t that a potent and powerful summation, capsulation of the whole life of our Lord.  “He went about doing good!”

Then, of course, in our Savior we are presented to a Man who is a silent sufferer.  He doesn’t answer back.  Simon Peter again in the second chapter of his first letter says, “Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example.  When He was reviled, He reviled not again.  His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree . . . by whose stripes we are healed” [1 Peter 2:21, 23, 24].  And when I read that, immediately I think of the majestic and holy.  It’s almost like entering into a sanctuary to read the words.  Immediately, we remember the prophecy that Simon Peter is quoting from the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah:

He is despised and rejected of men; a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief . . .

Surely, surely, He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows . . .

He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities:  the chastisement of our peace is upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed . . .

He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth: He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth.

[Isaiah 53:3-7]

You just can hardly conceive of anybody like that, the silent sufferer, the servant Savior, brought before those who slew Him and answered not a word [Matthew 27:12-14; Luke 23:9].

As some of you know, I’ve been preaching through the conference in St. Louis this last week.  And one of the preachers who spoke in the conference was a young fellow reared in the city of Dallas.  His father was a pastor here.  When he told something that happened here in our town, I was immediately most aware.  It was like this:   “There was a man in the church here in Dallas who worked in a small packing company, slaughter house.  And his assignment was to plunge a long, sharp knife into the heart of the cattle that were then dropped down a chute to be processed.

So, upon this Sunday, the pastor asked that man, “How you doing?”

And the man replied, “I’ve quit.  I’ve quit.”

And the pastor said, “Well, why?  What’s the matter?”

“Well,” he said, “pastor, it was like this.” He said, “We’ve been processing cattle.  And I was down there at the plant, plunging that sharp knife into the heart of a Hereford, and the big cow would fall down the chute to be processed.  Then I’d plunge the knife into the heart of a big Angus, and it would fall down the chute to be processed.  But they never told me that they were going to start processing lambs.  And,” he said, “as I was plunging that knife into the heart of those cattle, and they were falling down the chute to be processed,” he said, “there came a little white fleecy lamb.  And,” he said, “I plunged the knife into the heart of that little thing.  And,” he said, “pastor, as the little lamb wilted away, died away, it softly licked the blood off of my hand.”

He said, “Pastor, I threw away that knife, and I quit!  And I’m not going to kill anymore, and I’m not going back anymore.”

You know, I thought, isn’t that like us?  We look at the blessed Lord Jesus and somehow things aren’t the same anymore.  “I’ve seen Him, and I can’t gamble anymore.”  Or “I’ve seen Him, and I can’t drink anymore.  I’ve seen Him, and I’m a changed man.”  “It is the love of Christ that constraineth us” [2 Corinthians 5:14].  Isn’t that right?  That’s what the apostle said.  And if you know the Lord, you know what he meant.  The gentle, and meek, and lowly, and suffering Lord Jesus: in His chastisement, we find our rest [Isaiah 53:5]; and in His stripes we are healed [Isaiah 53:5]; and in His atoning death, we are saved [1 Peter 2:24].

Second: the servant pastor.  When you get a harmony and look at the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John in that harmony, you immediately are made aware of why it was Jesus disrobed, bound Himself, girded Himself with a towel, and began to wash their feet [John 13:3-5].  It arose over a common denominator in the lives of those men.  They were quarreling over who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven [Luke 22:24].

I would suppose—and this is just a summarization—I would suppose that it arose over who was going to be seated where at the Passover dinner.  And, of course, each one of them wanted the chief seat.  Anyway, the Gospels say that there was an argument that arose between them, among them, over who would be greatest.  And upon that argument, then, the Lord begin to wash their feet [John 13:3-5].  As you read the Gospels that was a common argument among the apostles: who is going to be greatest in the kingdom of heaven [Matthew 20:20-21; Mark 9:33-35; Luke 9:46-48].

Jeremiah said to his amanuensis Baruch, “Seekest thou great things for thyself?  Seek them not” [Jeremiah 45:5].  And the Lord said, “He that would that be greatest among you, let him be your servant” [Matthew 23:11].   The one who is the greatest is the one who bows the lowest and is not adverse to doing a humble and a menial task.

Thus it is with the pastor of the church, the servant pastor.  Simon Peter writes, “Poimainō”—poimēn is a shepherd, poimainō is “to shepherd a flock,” translated “feed.” “Feed the flock of God, shepherd the flock of God, which is among you…Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but an example to the flock.  And when the Chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” [1 Peter 5:2-4].  That is one of the crowns of five that the Lord will bestow at the great marriage supper of the Lamb: the crown of a pastor, a pastor’s faithful reward.  “Poimainō, shepherd, feed, tend, take care of the flock of God, not lording it over God’s heritage.”  You couldn’t read that and not immediately be brought to rigid attention by that admonition: “Not lording it over God’s heritage” [1 Peter 5:3].

Any pastor who builds a wonderful church will have one supreme goal in front of him.  And that is this: to build up his laymen and his laywomen, to build up his people in the Lord.  When a pastor doesn’t do that and he’s buried, the church disintegrates, and world without end can I point to you in Christendom the dissolution of great churches.  They were built around one man, the preacher.

But also I can point to you—and this is one of them—churches that had been built because of the growth and the leadership of tremendously dedicated men and women.  And if the pastor does good in his ministry, that’s what he’ll do.  He’ll build up a strong leadership.  Then when he is buried, those dedicated, and tried, and attested, and true people lead the church from one height of glory to the other.

In order to do that, the pastor has to do one thing.  He must give to the men authority and responsibility.  And it is a corollary: if he gives it to them, then he doesn’t have it.  Isn’t that simple?  And isn’t that a truism?  If the pastor gives the authority and the responsibility to the men, then he doesn’t have it.  He gave it to them.  They exercise it.

A man came to me—a dear precious friend, and one of our deacons—came to me this last week, and he said, “Pastor, you write in your Pastor’s Pen that these men have the responsibility for these educational institutions and this committee work in the church, but we think, some of the people in the church think that that’s just partly true.  We think that the reins are in your hands, and you make those decisions.”

I said to him, I said, “You’re correct.  The reins are in my hands.  I preside over the church.  I am what the Bible calls the ruling elder’ in the church.  I am the pastor of the church.  And ultimately the thing lies in my hand.  But,” I said, “I’ll tell you something.  If I interdict and intervene in what those men do who are charged with these institutions and with this work in the church, if I interdict and intervene, two things happen.  Number one: I ruin the morale of the men.  They look upon themselves thereafter as mere figureheads and rubber stamps.  It isn’t their actual responsibility.  It isn’t their actual authority.  ‘He has it, and we are just gadgets.  We’re just pawns.  We don’t really do it ourselves.  And we really don’t have the responsibility.’  And,” I said, “The second thing that happens is this.  The men will be very glad to check it back to me. Fine, pastor, you want it, it’s yours.  All we were doing was trying to help you serve the Lord.  And if you want to do it, we’d be very happy to place it back in your hands.  If you want to have the school, it’s yours.  Just take it.  If you want to have the entire music program, it’s yours.  You just take it.’”  If you want to have the entire business office, it’s yours.  Just take it.  If you want to have the entire educational ministry, just take it.  If you want to run this entire recreational program, do it.  If you want to run this entire outreach ministry, do it.  It’s in your hands.  You just take it.”

And when I do, and when I do, who is able for so vast an assignment?  How could I, if I am a wise pastor at all?  The last thing in God’s world I ought to do is to lord it over God’s heritage when I have been expressly interdicted and forbidden to do it.  Not lording it over God’s heritage [1 Peter 5:3], but looking upon these men as peers, to pray for them, to commend them to God, to ask the Lord’s blessings upon them, and to uphold them and strengthen them in the tremendous decisions that they make.

Now I’ve been at this here for a long time, as Dr. Estes says, and this is what I have learned.  You trust those men, and they will faithfully pour their very lives into that ministry and calling or assignment.  We have trustees that run our schools.  Dear me, how faithful those men are!  And we have committees that supervise and look over every area of this church life.  And they do it faithfully and well as unto the Lord.  I cannot help but think where they came from, these deacons.

In those days when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring on the part of the Hellenists, the Greek-speaking Jews, against the Aramaics, the Hebrew-speaking Jews.  And they appointed those men in order to help in the building and construction and on-going of the church [Acts 6:1-6].

Dear people, when I was pastor of my first church, little church of eighteen members, I did it all.  I didn’t have anybody that would lead in public prayer; I led the prayers.  I didn’t have anybody to lead the singing; I led the singing.  I didn’t have anybody to teach;  I did the teaching.  I didn’t have anybody to train; I did the training.  I did the whole thing.  I did all of it.  And when I had my little church of forty members, the second one, I did just about the same thing.  God has multiplied it in this dear church, and for the pastor to assume the responsibility of all of this vast ministry, would be unthinkable, inconceivable, and of all things, irrationable and unreasonable.

So we do what God is pleased with: these men are charged with responsibility and authority.  And they meet together, and they work together, and they spend untold hours in these many, many ministries.  And what I need to do is to work with them, and pray for them, and lift them up to God, and commend them, and encourage them.  And if I am a good pastor, that’s what I’ll do, not lording it over God’s heritage, being a servant pastor: humble, prayerful, a yokefellow, trying to help.

And that’s our third avowal: the servant deacon.  Diakonos in Greek is just an ordinary word, like your word “servant.”  Diakonos, servant, the deacon is the servant of the church.  He’s not an imperious dictator.  And the board is not like a corporation in a great business institution downtown.  But a deacon is a servant of the church.  That is his name, and that is all of his qualifications in the New Testament.  And for a man to be a deacon in the true spirit of his calling and consecration in the Bible, in the New Testament, is to be that: a menial, blessed, God-loving, yokefellow in the ministry of the Lord.

When I was on the board of trustees of our Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, the president of the board was Mr. Anderson who owned the beautiful Anderson Department Store in Knoxville, Tennessee.  He’s one of the richest men in that part of the world.  His pastor was Dr. Fred F. Brown—absolutely without doubt one of the dearest, sweetest pastors in the earth.  I’d loved to be like Fred Brown.

Well, Fred Brown started preaching out on the street in Knoxville, Tennessee, out there on the street.  Now Knoxville, as you know, is the seat of Tennessee University.  It’s right there within two or three blocks of the church.  And it is a distinguished pulpit.  And some of the members of the church said to one another, “It’s beneath the dignity of our pastor that he be out there preaching on the street.”

Mr. Anderson heard about it.  Having heard about it, the next time Dr. Brown went out there on the street to preach in Knoxville, Tennessee, Mr. Anderson—this distinguished, wealthy merchantman—Mr. Anderson took his place by the side of the pastor.  And he handed out tracts to the people.  And he shook hands with them and he visited them: a menial servant of the Lord, witnessing on the streets to the grace of Jesus.

That’s what I think makes a church great, not to be ministered unto, but to minister, to sweep out the floor.  If you need somebody to sweep out the floor, sweep out the floor; somebody to stand at the door, somebody to raise the window, somebody to help park a car, somebody to open a door and help a mother with a little baby.  These ministries make a church sweet, and great, and loved by the people: the servant deacon.

Friday, Gene Cloe, our business administrator, came to me, and he said, “Pastor, you just can’t imagine the faithfulness of our men.”  He said, “Four months now every Wednesday from high noon until the evening, about twenty of them have been coming down here working through this budget program.”

And he said, “There have been a parade—it seems endless—of these in the church who make appeal for support in that budget.”  He said, “Pastor, if there are fifteen of them on one day who come before that committee, there will be fifteen prayer meetings that day.”  He said, “Everyone that comes before the committee, they have a prayer session and consider the appeal that is made.”

That’s great!  That’s great!

I received this last week—and I put it in my Pastor’s Pen for this coming week—a letter from letter from Leon Howard and Ed Hecht, the faithfulness of those deacons who are visiting now, talking to the people about the Lord.

Did you know, all of you who signed those cards—you know, a visitor-—this afternoon you’ll get a visit from one of our deacons, this afternoon.  It’s just great, the faithfulness of these men.  I just sometimes think, “Dear God, how is it that I ever came to be the undershepherd of people like this, deacons like this, godly men and women that we have in this wonderful church?”

We must hasten.  Last: the servant church, the servant church, there are two things that I’d like to say about our servant church: one regarding our members, and second, regarding the poor.

First, about our members: Paul wrote to the churches of Galatians, Galatians 6:2:  “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”  Bear ye one another’s burdens: if there is death in the home, if there is sickness in the home, if there is great burden and sorrow in the home, we ought to be the first ones there.  Before anybody, we ought to be right there.

Do you remember that stanza in that beautiful hymn, “Blessed Be the Tie that Binds.”  Do you remember that stanza?

We bear our mutual woes,

Our mutual burdens bear;

And often for each other flows

The sympathizing tear.

[“Blessed Be the Tie that Binds,” John Fawcett]


There’s no one of us, no one of us that shall escape sorrow, and hurt, and heartache, and tears, and illness, and death, no one of us.  When I got through preaching at 8:15 this morning, one of the dear, precious women in this church came down to me, and put her arms around me and just cried her heart out saying, “Pastor, yesterday, yesterday, I had to take my husband and put him in a rest home.  Oh, it killed me!  It killed me!”  She said, “Would you go see him?”  I said, “I’ll get John Stepp to take me and I’ll go see him.”  I know how she felt.  I put my mother in a nursing home one time.  She stayed there seven years.

All of us, all of us somewhere in the journey and the pilgrimage of our lives, all of us fall into tears and heartache.  We ought to be right there praying, touching the hand, saying a word of encouragement.  Not that a touch of our hand might do anything particularly, or a prayer might change it, or our presence might make it any better, but it just means a lot that somebody would know, and care, and pray, and hold her hand.  And that’s what we ought to do: the servant church, not to be ministered unto, but to minister [Matthew 10:28; mark 10:44-45].

And then the poor and the needy, “Now what do you mean, pastor, when you talk about the church ministering to the poor and the needy?  Do you have this in mind, that we have millions and billions of dollars here, and an endless line on that side of the church, on the plaza side of the church, where they get food stamps, and on this side of the church, where we have doles and welfare checks; is that what you mean?”

This last week in St. Louis they placed us in a motel, a famous chain.  And in the morning I went to eat breakfast, and it was filled.  And there was one place, three in a booth, and they said, “Come over and sit with us.”  So I sat there.  And then they announced to me, “It will be a long, long time before you can be served.”

Well, I looked around and watched for awhile and I understood.  In all of the throng in that restaurant that morning, there was one afflicted girl and one old man who picked up the dirty dishes.

Had I gone to the management of the restaurant chain and said, “What’s the matter here?  Why don’t you do better here?  Look at all of these people who need to be served.  Look at them.  And you have one afflicted girl, one crippled girl and one old man.  What’s the matter with you?”  They would have replied—as the First Baptist Church in Dallas replies, and as ten thousand times ten thousand other businessmen reply—”Sir, we can’t hire them.  We can’t hire them.  They’d rather take a dole, a welfare check from the government, than to work in a menial place like serving tables.”

That’s the worst government in the world, a welfare government!  It undermines the moral fabric of the people!  It makes beggars out of the citizens.  I’m against it, as long as God gives me breath, I’m against it!  People ought to work!

God says if a man does not work, neither shall he eat [2 Thessalonians 3:10].

 “Well, what do you mean, pastor, when you say the church ought to be a minister, a servant to the poor?”

This is what I mean.  You don’t realize it, but a great part of the money that you give to this church goes for the poor.  Far more than a half million dollars every year, we give to the needy in the city of Dallas.  But we don’t have any lineup of able-bodied men and women reaching out for a dole or a welfare check.  What we do is this.  We take this money that we’ve dedicated to God, and in twelve chapels and in a dozen other preaching places, we try to minister to those people: give them food when it’s necessary, give them clothes when it’s vital, help them with shelter and medical when they don’t have any other alternative.  But most of all, getting them to the Lord Jesus, then the man takes care of himself.

Dear people, let me tell you.  One time we had a missions banquet here at Coleman Hall, jammed full of people.  And the program that night was testimonies from those men and women out there in the mission.  I don’t exaggerate when I say to you that I sat there and cried two solid hours.  I was never so moved.  Man after man after man stood up and said, “I was in the gutter.  I was in the gutter: drunk, a thief!  I was in the gutter: my children hungry, my wife half-naked, and our shanty despicable even to think about.  I was in the gutter.  And this pastor”—he’d point out one of those mission pastors—”And this pastor sought me out and found me and won me to the Lord.  And now,” he says, “I have a fine job.  And we’re paying for our little home.  And our children are clothed.  And my wife walks with dignity in our community.”

Man, you couldn’t help but rejoice and be glad to do something like that!  That’s what we need, not a dole or a welfare check!  My brother, all the civic enterprises in this town and all the government agencies that are created cannot change human hearts and human lives.  God does that!  God does that!

And that’s our ministry, trying to get these people to the Lord.  And getting them to the Lord, they are new people.  Got a new husband, have a new wife, have a new family, have new children.  “We have found the Lord, and God has wonderfully remade us.”  That’s the servant ministry of the church.  And it’s beautiful, and I love to just look at it and to think that I have a part in it.

And that’s our appeal to you, precious, precious friend, to give your heart to Jesus, to put your life with us in the circle of this dear church, to bring your family and to rear those children in the love and nurture of the Lord.

And as our people pray, and as we ask God to speak to your heart, to give yourself to Jesus, to put your life with us, in the church; “Pastor, I want to accept the Lord today,” or “I want to be baptized today,” or, “The whole family of us are coming today.”  While we pray and wait, and while our choir softly sings, we are looking for you.  God bless you in the way as you come.