THE CALL OF GOD TO SERVE
Another leadership issue that arises in connection with Matthew’s story is “the call of God to serve.” God takes the initiative and calls believers to serve in specific roles and to perform given tasks. In the New Testament, this call is an aspect of the calling of God in general. The terms “call” and “calling” mainly have a much broader meaning. In a general sense these terms refer to salvation and all its aspects. Through God’s call, He communicates to you the message of what He wants you to be and to do.
When God calls us in the broader sense, He summons us to all aspects of our lives as followers of Christ. Paul says that we are “the called of Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6). Most of the Scriptures dealing with our calling are general in nature (e.g. Romans 11:29; Philippians 3:14; Ephesians 4:1). However, some of the Scriptures highlight a specific characteristic of our calling. Paul writes, for example, about God “who has saved us and called us with a holy calling” (2 Timothy 1:9). Similarly, he declares that believers “have been sanctified in Christ Jesus” and that they are “saints by calling” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
When we speak about the call of God to serve, we have in mind a narrower use of the term call of God. All believers, in a sense, are called to serve, but each believer may serve in a different way. Thus, a commonly used meaning of this term is that a person is not only called to serve, but also to a special calling. Very often this is a call to lead by serving. God not only invites us to a given role, but He also urges us to do it. Because God wants us to do something, we can have confidence that He will enable us to do it.
Used in this way, “the call of God” frequently has the connotation of an individual being called to a task. One who is called of God to a prophetic role will likely be quite individualistic. However, individuals can be called to function in relationship to groups as well. When called to do something with or in a group, ways to work together must become a part of the outworking of the call. Also, groups can be called of God to given tasks.
The term “called of God” is widely used by believers in connection with service. With regard to our service, we consider it important to be called. Recently, we attended an Assemblies of God World Missions commissioning service for newly appointed or reappointed missionaries. The World Missions Board presented 89 persons for service in 39 countries.
At the appropriate time, Dr. Greg Mundis, the Executive Director, issued this declaration: “Assemblies of God World Missions, duly constituted by the General Council for the commissioning of missionary personnel, has, within the limits of our ability, determined that these people are called of God and qualified for assignment as world missions envoys.” The church, including Pentecostals, has long stressed the importance of the call of God. That emphasis includes, though it is not limited to, a special call to vocational ministry. Very often the call is to full-time ministry, but people who are not full time are called as well.
Jesus issues a call to service in the Matthew story. The story begins with the desires of James and John, supported by their mother, to be great and to have positions of honor. Jesus does not rebuke them, but He shows them how to become great through service. In effect Jesus issues a call to service. The call to service becomes the call of God for their lives. As in each previous chapter, I will cite the entire story in Matthew 20:20-28. Verses 21, 23, 26, and 27 are especially relevant with regard to the call of God to serve.
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him.
21 And He said to her, "What do you wish?" She said to Him, "Command that in
Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your
22 But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" They said to Him, "We are able."
23 He said to them, "My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father."
24 And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers.
25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.
26 "It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant,
27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave;
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."
The Desire and the Call
There are several verses in the Matthew story that raise the issue of the desire to lead and the call to serve. The mother of James and John asked for positions of honor (verse 21). Then Jesus told them and the other disciples that these positions were set aside for those for whom they had been prepared. Later in the story, Jesus addressed those who would be great and said to them that they must be a servant (verse 26). Moreover, the one who would be first must be a slave. Concerning the desire to lead and the call of God, we note the following thoughts.
First, the disciples, including James and John, were not strangers to the call of God. Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee when He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the Sea because they were fishermen. Jesus made His presence known to them. Matthew says (4:18-22):
18 Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.
19 And He said to them, “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men.”
20 Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.
21 Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them.
22 Immediately they left their boat and their father, and followed Him. (Compare Mark 1:19-20)
Obviously, James and John, along with Peter and Andrew, were “fishers of men.” The disciples began with service, especially with drawing people to Christ and His cause. Somewhere along the line during their service, they began to think in terms of honor and position. When Jesus and the disciples were on the way to Jerusalem, they made the request to sit on the right and left hands of Jesus.
Second, on the one hand, Jesus said: “"My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father" (20:23). The last clause raises the issue of destiny in connection with the call of God.
When God destines a person for a given service role, He takes a strong and sovereign action. Moreover, that destiny becomes the person’s calling. The destined person responds positively to God’s call. One can be destined for service without knowing it, but over time that destiny will become known, especially through the service. Very often, while serving, a person comes to the realization that he or she is destined for service.
The term “call of God” often has to do with God communicating His will to us. Although a person can have a calling without knowing it, we assume that normally God will make his calling known. Eventually He does. When He speaks to us, we have a conviction that He is working His will. Normally this is accompanied by a strong desire to fulfill that role. A person fully submitted to God wants to do what God wills.
Third, on the other hand, Jesus said, “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (20:26) and “whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (20:27). In contrast to the destiny mentioned in verse 23, these verses talk about the desire of the disciples to be great and to lead. The emphasis here is on the free will of the disciples. Jesus issued a challenge to them—if they would be great, they must be servants. Going further, if they would be first, they must be slaves.
The challenge that Jesus presented constitutes, in a sense, the call of God. God calls the disciples to serve, and they answer the call. Normally, there will be the added step of hearing the call of God to a given role. So the steps to the call of God are the desire to lead, Jesus’ challenge to serve, and finding God’s will for a more specific role. God takes the initiative and issues the call. We answer the call and God empowers us for the task.
When a believer is trying to determine his or her service role, the human side is the desire to lead and the divine side is the call of God. The desire to lead and the call of God sometimes go together but not always. Either the desire to lead or the call of God can precede the other. When a person is called of God to lead, he usually will want to lead. When a person wants to lead, God may call him to lead, but not always.
The Need and the Call
A discussion of the call of God to serve presupposes that there is a need to be met. In other words there is a purpose and reason for our service. Meeting the need is how we will serve. Consequently, the call of God often focuses on a specific need or needs that He wants us to meet. He also gives us a spiritual burden to meet the need and shows us how. God helps us to see the need and then calls us to help meet the need. When God shows us the need, imparts a spiritual burden to meet the need, and gives us the solution, this constitutes the call of God to serve.
In the fall of 1998, Esther and I were attending the missions convention at Christian Life Assembly in Carrollton, Texas. We were developing plans for a global evangelism and discipleship outreach via the Internet. We saw the need to use the Internet as a tool of evangelism. Originally, we called the outreach Global Colleagues, but it later became known as Network211. The numerals 211 mean that we are using 21st century technology to communicate the 1st century gospel.
During the Sunday morning service, we happened to be on the front row and were standing for worship with the rest of the congregation. Although I was not real involved in the worship, I began to tremble and tears welled up in my eyes. Then I felt that I heard the voice of the Spirit speaking the words “ten million” to my mind and heart. I interpreted that to mean that the Lord would help us reach ten million people with the gospel. Later we set a goal of reaching ten million people in ten years. With the help of the Lord, we reached that goal in five years.
As we developed the outreach, we launched a web site that focuses on felt needs that people have worldwide. These are needs that people have on their journey through life. So we called the web site journeyanswers.com. We now have this web site in the world’s top ten Internet languages as well as others. We have other web sites also. As of this writing, our goal is to reach one hundred million people. We look forward to the day when that goal is greatly revised upward.
The Matthew story is about James and John who wanted positions of honor. Jesus used their desires to teach them that greatness comes through service and issued them a call to serve. However, the Bible has many examples of God calling people to given tasks whether they initially wanted to get involved or not. Thus, at this point, it will be helpful to look at some Biblical examples of people who were called of God to serve in specific roles. From these examples, we will learn that God sometimes calls in dramatic ways. As we observe these callings, we note that the Scriptures often describe a “call” without using the term “call of God.”
First, Abram, who became Abraham, was called by God to be the one through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed. God initially called Abraham when he was living in Mesopotamia. Speaking to the high priest, Stephen, in Acts 7:2-3, said:
2 And he said, "Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran,
3 and said to him, 'LEAVE YOUR COUNTRY AND YOUR RELATIVES, AND COME INTO THE LAND THAT I WILL SHOW YOU.'
4 "Then he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. From there, after his father died, God had him move to this country in which you are now living.
After Abraham’s father died, when Abraham was living in Haran, God spoke to
Abraham again. This time the record does not tell us that God appeared to Abraham. However, according to Genesis 12:1-3, God spoke to Abraham. The event is reported as follows:
1 Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father's house, To the land which I will show you;
2 And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing;
3 And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." (Gen 12:1 NAU)
Second, God called Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and to rule over them during the years they were in the wilderness. Moses took the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, to the west side of the wilderness and came to mount Horeb when something dramatic happened. According to Exodus 3:2, “The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed.” Moses “turned aside” to look at what happened. At this point, as reported in Exodus 3:4 and 10, God called Moses to his task of delivering Israel. These verses say:
4 When the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am."
5 Then He said, "Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." (Exodus 3:4-5)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
10 "Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt." (Exodus 3:10)
Third, when God called Isaiah, he saw a vision with seraphim standing above the Lord. Upon seeing the vision and hearing the seraphim speak, Isaiah declared that he was “a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Then one of the seraphim touched his mouth with a burning coal taken from the altar with tongs and announced that Isaiah’s iniquity “is taken away and your sin is forgiven” (Isaiah 6: 7). “Then,” as Isaiah 6:8 reports, “I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’”
Fourth, turning now to the New Testament, we read about the sending of the twelve apostles out to minister. Jesus had previously called them to follow Him, but this was a special moment of appointment for ministry. Luke tells us, “1 And He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons and to heal diseases. 2 And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to perform healing” (Luke 9:1-2). Luke does not tell us whether or not anything happened right away that would give evidence of empowerment, but we know that it did when they went out to minister. When they returned, they gave an account to Jesus of their ministry (Luke 9:10).
Fifth, when God wanted to use Peter to take the gospel to the Gentiles at the House of Cornelius, He spoke to Peter through a vision. Three times God instructed Peter to eat food that He had cleansed. While Peter was perplexed by what he saw, the men from the House of Cornelius arrived. Then, according to Acts 10:19-20:
19 While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are looking for you.
20 "But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself."
The essential point is that Peter was to go to the House of Cornelius “without misgivings.” It is always a great moment when we know with assurance that God has called us to a given task and that we can perform it with full assurance of God’s blessing. This assurance can come through a variety of ways as well as through a dream or a vision.
Sixth, Paul believed and taught that he was called to be an apostle. He was “an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (1 Corinthians 1:1; compare Romans 1:1 and 1 Corinthians 15:9-10). When Paul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, he was smitten with blindness. However, God spoke to Ananias in a vision saying that Paul saw him in a vision come and lay hands on him so that he might receive his sight. Ananias was reluctant to go, but went when God explained what was happening. We read about it in Acts 9:15-19:
15 But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;
16 for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake."
17 So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit."
18 And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized;
19 and he took food and was strengthened.
The callings that I have cited have supernatural elements. I am not suggesting that every call of God in the Bible is like these. Indeed, these examples stand out because of their uniqueness. Many people, no doubt, were called to serve without having such supernatural crisis experiences. Nevertheless, it helps us to know that it is the same God calling us no matter how He does it. Sometimes He still speaks in dramatic ways, but sometimes in more ordinary modes. God speaks in different ways, but we have the assurance that He does speak. We must follow Him fully, no matter how He speaks.
Hearing God’s Call
Many times we pray that we will hear the call of God and that we will be in the will of God. In 1 Corinthians 1:1, Paul states: “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.” He made it known that it was by the will of God that he was an apostle. The call of God is something He does whereas the will of God is what He wants. When He calls, He calls according to His will.
When we talk about the call of God, we usually have in mind an event that has lasting impact, but the call is not limited to one event. We have an ongoing relationship with God with many special moments. When we speak about finding the will of God, we often think of an ongoing condition, but we can refer also to a given event or time. God continues to align us with His will and call us to service.
We live with the conviction that God calls us. Moreover, God makes His call known to us in a variety of ways. These ways also are ways that He communicates His will to us. He may reveal His call and will in a special moment or step-by-step over time. Sometimes God calls in surprising ways. Without attempting to write a complete list, I have commented here on some of the ways that God speaks to us.
First, sometimes, when God calls us, our spiritual senses are dramatically engaged, but at other times, we simply commit our lives to God and trust Him to lead. My favorite verse of Scripture is Proverbs 16:9 which says: “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” God has given us our minds, and we should diligently use them. As we plan for the future, we should do our “homework.” While doing this, we must fully submit ourselves to God. We must make a “faith-commitment” to Him. We can do this with confidence that He will lead us. He will make His call known to us as we serve Him.
Second, a few people testify to hearing the audible voice of God, but many more testimonies have do with the inner voice of the Spirit. The inner voice can be the voice of the Spirit, our own spirit, or our spirit inspired by the Spirit. So that we can be in the center of God’s will, our great desire is to hear the inner voice of the Spirit. Fortunately, we can hear the Spirit’s voice with our spiritual ears. A. W. Tozer declared, “The soul has eyes with which to see and ears with which to hear. Feeble though they may be from long disuse, but by the life-giving touch of Christ alive now and capable of sharpest sight and most sensitive hearing” (1948, 58). When our spiritual senses are alive, we can know with assurance that God has called.
Third, God may call us by inspiring us with His Word. We must base our lives on the Word of God. The principles and commands of the Bible provide with the overall guidance that we need to live Christ-centered lives. Obviously, we want to also have specific guidance for our lives. We want to know that we are being and doing what God wants. We are eager for God to communicate with us.
Many times God quickens our minds when we read His Word. The quickening of the Spirit as we read God’s Word can constitute a call. A verse of Scripture often takes on new meaning and we believe that the verse applies to us. Sometimes our spiritual eyes see a great truth and the Word of God burns in our hearts, inspiring us to act. God uses the Word to guide our lives. As the psalmist declares, “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
Fourth, God may call us by what He does as we pray. As we pray, the Spirit sometimes leads us to examine our own lives. Just as Isaiah was cleansed before God called him, so He can tune up our lives. After cleansing Isaiah, God was able to communicate with Him concerning a call to serve. Similarly, we can be led into the service that God desires for us.
Sometimes we face problems in our ministries. Many times, while we are praying, God will inspire us with the solution. Early in the history of International Correspondence Institute (now Global University), we faced tension over the role of ICI and the Bible schools around the world. Some of the Bible school people felt we would diminish their work. The tension was serious, so I took some time in a room on the Central Bible College campus to pray. While on my knees praying, I wrote our proposed way of working with Bible schools. We created a way for the schools to use our materials for credit with us or without credit. They were able to see us as a blessing rather than diminishing their work. The materials we developed enhanced their work. This became the way we worked with the schools ever since. This is the way we answered God’s call to help the Bible schools.
Many times we pray to God, listen for His answer, and hear the inner voice of the Spirit speak to us. However, sometimes we feel that He has not spoken as clearly as we would like. Sometimes we do not know just how to pray, but the Spirit prays through us according to the will of God. Paul writes:
26 In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;
27 and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom 8:26-27).
The Spirit may pray about any aspect of our lives. This would include knowing God’s will for our service and hearing the call of God. When the Spirit prays through us, we can be confident that He will lead us. It may not be real clear at the moment what the Spirit is saying to us, but we know He will guide us.
Fifth, God may call us through the advice of wise counsellors. Sometimes God raises up a prophet, such as Moses, and calls him to act without much consultation with others. However, most of the time, having wise counsellors is a helping step in knowing God’s will. According to Proverbs 15:22, “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, But with many counselors they succeed.” The consultation can help define the shape of the call of God for us.
As I indicated earlier, I proposed the formation of ICI to the leadership of the Foreign Mission Department (now Assemblies of God World Missions) of the General Council of the Assemblies of God. Obviously, we had a lot of meetings with the leaders of the Foreign Missions Department as well as others. Then, in 1969 my family and I took ten months to make a trip around the world. We visited with many missionary field fellowships. The purpose was to consult with the people on the field and learn what could be workable patterns for the operation of ICI. Through consultation, the nature of our calling was refined. What we learned was invaluable for the entire future life of the school.
Sixth, God may call us through the circumstances of life. All of us are daily confronted with the circumstances of life. We often face decisions that seem to be influenced by factors that we cannot control. Under such circumstances, we sometimes have to yield to the situation and live within the limits of the situation that confronts us. Fortunately, God is in control of all the circumstances. So sometimes He works in ways well beyond what we can do. When he does, we are blessed by His miraculous work. He gives us new circumstances to guide our lives. God calls us in a new way.
Seventh, another way that God calls us is by giving spiritual gifts to us. Paul writes: “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Each person has at least one gift. The very giving of the gift becomes a call for us to properly use it. Sometimes we have to exercise a gift for a while before we realize that God has called us to be used in this way. When it becomes obvious what gift the Spirit has distributed to us, it becomes easy for us to answer His call.
Every believer is called to follow Christ and to experience His life in many dimensions. Used in this way, the term “calling” or “call” of God is broad and quite inclusive of all that we are in Christ. One of the dimensions of our calling is the call to serve. In a sense all believers are called to serve the Lord. In addition each believer can serve the Lord in a specific way. The call of God is one of the great evidences of the presence of the Spirit in the life of the church.
James and John wanted positions of honor and power. Rather than rebuking them, Jesus challenged them to become great through service. In other words He gave them a call to lead through service. When God calls us, there is no tension between our desire to lead and doing the will of God. His will is what we sincerely want to do. Also, our lives are lived fully in harmony with our destiny.
With regard to how to serve, it is important that we see what needs to be done, have a spiritual burden to do it, and then listen to the voice of the Spirit as to how to meet the need. We serve because there is a need to be met.
The Bible is replete with examples of men and women who felt called of God for specific tasks. Many of these examples of God’s call are supernatural in character. It is important, however, to know that these examples stand out because of their special character. No doubt multitudes of people were called to given tasks in ways much more ordinary. We realize that God is at work even in the ordinary ways. We know that God can call today in any way that He chooses.
While we are planning our future, God directs our paths. Also, we may hear the inner voice of the Spirit. The Spirit guides us by quickening His Word, assisting us as we pray, giving us wise counsellors, using the circumstances of life, and giving spiritual gifts. The end result is that we can hear the reassuring voice of the Spirit say “Go and fulfill your call without misgivings.”