Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun υπηρετης (huperetes) literally means under-rower but was used to describe all manners of assistants and attendants. This noun combines the preposition υπο (hupo), meaning under, with the noun ερετης (eretes), rower, from the Proto-Indo-European root "hreh-" that also yielded the English verb to row, and the Latin noun remus, meaning oar (but very curiously not the English noun oar, or so it's reported).
Several considerations reveal the nature of a υπηρετης (huperetes), and demonstrate the crucial difference between a υπηρετης (huperetes), under-rower and any old δουλος (doulos), slave.
The word for ship is ναυς (naus), from the verb ναιω (naio), to overflow, from which also comes the noun ναος (naos), temple. Old world temples were not like our modern churches but were in fact the academic, governmental and financial centers of society, which means that governors were virtually the captains of society — our English words "government" and "cybernetics" (the study of control) come from the verb κυβερναω (kubernao), to steer or pilot a ship (and also see our article on Jason, who is probably the second most famous "sailor" in history, after Noah).
In antiquity, ships were generally propelled by wind, and as we discuss at some length in our article on the noun ανεμος (anemos), meaning wind, the words for wind and spirit are the same and describe essentially the same process (also see our article on the noun νεφελη, nephele, cloud).
A captain who steers his ship through stormy seas is essentially doing the same thing as a governor who governs his nation through stormy social upheaval and revolutions (hence too Jesus' famous walk on water during a storm: Matthew 14:25). But that means that rowers were only required when there was no wind (or when the ship was an assault ship with no sail). That means that a rower was someone who provided thrust to the ship (or government) even when the wind (social support from collective passion) was not there. In our personal lives, "rowers" are habits, traditions and customs that keep us going even when we have no conscious desire, and the importance of these "rowers" both in private and in collective lives became eternalized in the name Remus (means Oar), the lesser of the two founders of Rome.
Rowers had to have physical strength, but more crucially important was their understanding of synchronicity and compliance to commands. Rowers always lacked a view on the bigger picture and depended therefore entirely on the instructions of their commanders (the governor at the helm). But they did have an excellent view on their fellow rowers, with whom they needed to form a seamlessly synchronized unified whole. That's why society's rowers commonly show up in uniforms, sport symbols and greet each other with special gestures, whilst uttering spells like "Bevel ist Bevel" and "ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer".
In Galatians 5:1, Paul writes that the purpose of the gospel is freedom — not anarchy, or lawless freedom, but ελευθερια (eleutheria), or freedom-by-law — which means that the Body of Christ has very little need for compliant "under-rowers" who are unaware of the wider view, and the rare occasion that such a vocation is implied, it's certainly facetiously tongue-in-cheek (Luke 1:2, Acts 26:16, 1 Corinthians 4:1). In Christ, we are not mindless under-rowers in a speeding war galley, but mindful musicians in a cheerful orchestra, fully aware of the whole song and the audience so served.
Our noun υπηρετης (huperetes), under-rower, is used 20 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it comes:
- The verb υπηρετεω (hupereteo), to under-row — that is: to provide collective thrust when there is no collective spirit, whilst lacking a view on the bigger external picture, in devoted synchronicity with the other under-rowers and in unquestioning compliance with the commands of someone who does have a view on the bigger picture (or says he does). Enthusiasts often classify this verb as virtuous, but it should always be interpreted with Matthew 23:9 closely in mind: "Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ." This verb is used in Acts 13:36, 20:34 and 24:23 only.