Ephesians 6:5-9 “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.”
Two thousand years ago over half the people in the Roman Empire were slaves. Slavery seems to have been universal in the ancient world. We suppose that there was no place in the entire world that was a slave-free zone. It’s been computed that in the Empire there were 60 million slaves. They constituted the work force, the engine room of the Roman Empire . They included not only domestic servants and manual labourers but educated people as well, like doctors, teachers and administrators. Slaves could be inherited or purchased, or acquired in settlement of a bad debt, and prisoners of war commonly became slaves. Nobody queried or challenged the arrangement. It was so completely accepted as a part of the labour structure of the time that no-one considered it as a “problem.” It was simply accepted, and that explains why Plato in his plan of the good life as depicted in The Republic didn’t need to mention the slave class. It was simply there. Then along came somebody who told his followers, “You have only one Master and you are all brothers.” (Matthew 23:8). The man who said this didn’t start a slave revolt. He didn’t change society overnight. But Jesus was good news for slaves.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his most famous speech to hundreds of thousands of people in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on August 28, 1963. In that speech he said,
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…
“I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by content of their character. I have a dream today!
“I have a dream that one day . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!”
Today we say, “But of course . . .” Any other society is for us unthinkable. We hate the idea of slavery and grieve that in parts of the world today it is still a reality. The movement for racial equality has made such progress in the Western World and black men and women have reached the highest offices in the USA . Where would be the British Health Service be without men and women from the non-white races? We are greatly in their debt. That sermon of King’s made a contribution to that change in attitude to people of different races which was of lasting good. It was a great speech and a great dream. It is a great dream, but it’s not something Dr. King dreamed up on his own. He got it from the Bible. Dr. King said, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” That’s taken right out of Isaiah 40. Barriers removed, crooked things straightened out, and “all flesh,” people of every kind, brought together in a vision of God’s glory – it’s all going to happen, says the Bible, because “the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5).
In Revelation, chapter 7, the apostle John describes a dream given to him. He says, “I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb'” (Revelation 7:9-10). The Bible’s vision of heaven includes people from every land and race and tribe praising God and the Lamb, Jesus Christ. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized the many-coloured, many-cultured aspect of that great biblical dream. Dr. King wasn’t perfect in his personal life or in his theology, of course, but he forced people to take seriously a part of the biblical gospel that many people (and even many Bible-believing Christians) ignored for too long. We need to believe that the glorious gospel bridges social and tribal and racial divides.
Martin Luther King could make that speech only because another King, Jesus Christ, said so many years earlier “You have only one Master and you are all brothers.” Wherever Jesus’ influence spread, the lowly were lifted up and the institution of slavery was weakened. Jesus has been a world changer in many ways, and this is surely true in the area of freedom and dignity. Millions of people who now enjoy freedom might still be slaves if not for Christ’s impact on the world. Slavery was ingrained in the cultures of Europe, Asia, Africa, among natives in North and South America – just about everywhere on earth. But in culture after culture, slavery wilted and shriveled away when the gospel of Christ took root and grew.
Not everyone who claimed to follow Jesus took his message to heart. Some tried to defend slavery in God’s name and insisted on their own superiority over others, rather than regarding them as members of the same family in Christ. But wherever Jesus’ followers faithfully regarded Jesus as their only true Master and each other as brothers and sisters, things changed. Slaves no longer saw themselves as nobodies, and slave owners no longer saw their slaves as property. When slaves gained true human dignity in their own eyes and in the eyes of their masters, the entire relationship of master and slave was sure to change, and the acceptability of slavery was sure to fade.
1. PAUL’S TEACHING ON SLAVERY: THE WIDER NEW TESTAMENT PICTURE.
Let’s step outside these verses for a moment and see the whole impact of his teaching on slavery. One of Paul’s letters was written to Philemon, a man Paul had led to faith in Jesus. Philemon had owned a slave, Onesimus. This slave stole from Philemon and ran off to another city. There Onesimus met Paul and became a Christian. Paul loved him like a son but sent him back to his master, Philemon, whom Paul also loved. Paul sent Philemon a letter of advice about what to do with Onesimus.
In the Roman Empire , a runaway slave could be punished with death. But that would not happen to this runaway. Paul told Philemon to accept his former slave back “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 16).
Philemon took Paul’s advice and preserved the letter so that others could read it as part of the Word of God and experience its impact. Paul’s advice to see someone not as a slave but as a dear brother echoed Jesus’ principle, “You have only one Master and you are all brothers.” But was Paul supporting slavery? Some people have charged him with this, that Paul is ordering them to obey, here in these words and again in his letter to the Colossians (3:22), “Slaves, obey your earthly masters”. But please remember the time when this was written and the place slaves had in society. Many church members were slaves and they needed God’s guidance on how to deal with their situation. What if Paul had told them to rebel or run away? What would have happened? Countless Christian slaves would have been killed, and the Roman Empire would have persecuted Christians more fiercely than ever. So rather than trying to abolish slavery on the spot, Paul preached the gospel of Jesus Christ that told slave owners and Roman emperors and slaves alike that the only way they could become the children of God was by faith in Jesus Christ, and that after that they became brothers and members of one family, and that is the context in which Paul told Christian slaves to obey.
Does that mean Paul supported slavery? Not at all. He spoke of “slave traders” as “ungodly and sinful” (1 Timothy 1:9-10). He told slaves, “If you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Corinthians 7:21). If slaves were offered freedom, they should accept, and if they could buy their freedom, they should do it. Slaves weren’t the only ones Paul instructed. Notice that he goes on to address masters who had become Christians. He told them not to threaten slaves (Ephesians 6:9). Instead, Paul ordered, “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1). Now, what would happen if Christian masters regarded slaves as brothers instead of property? What would happen if masters paid fair wages and did not threaten slaves or force them to be employed against their will? The bondage would no longer exist. And that’s what happened as the Spirit of Christ worked in people’s lives.
But what about Christian slaves with non-Christian masters? Should they feel sorry for themselves and hate their masters? No, Paul taught them to care more about the salvation of their masters than about their own slavery. It would be far worse for a non-Christian master to suffer in hell forever than for a Christian slave to endure a few bad years. Christian slaves, said Paul, should be cooperative and “show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:9-10). The main concern was not just social and political equality but to lead people to salvation and make them brothers and sisters in God’s family.
Paul urged Christian slaves to focus more on the privilege of belonging to Christ than on the problem of being in slavery. “Were you a slave when you were called?” said Paul. “Don’t let it trouble you–although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.” (1 Corinthians 7:21-24). Anyone bought by Jesus’ blood and treasured by God could not think of himself as merely a slave and a nobody. He wasn’t just somebody’s slave; he was a child of the King of the universe. Paul himself was often mistreated and spent a lot of time in prison for his faith, but even in chains he lived in the freedom of Christ, and he wanted others to have this same Christian freedom even in hard situations.
In those first decades after Christ’s coming, economic and social and racial status counted for very little in the church. What counted most was being loved by God and adopted as his children. As Paul put it, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither … slave nor free … for you are all one in Christ Jesus…” (Galatians 3:28). “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body–whether … slave or free” (1 Corinthians 12:13). These weren’t just Paul’s own thoughts. They were revealed by God and mirrored the mind of Christ. Jesus didn’t overthrow institutions with violence; he transformed relationships with truth and love.
By faith in Jesus, a slave could become a prince in God’s kingdom. Even if the world around him treated him as a slave, he knew himself to be much more than that. The Bible says, “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position” (James 1:9). The honour of being God’s child and a citizen of heaven gave joy and dignity to even the lowliest slave. As the church grew, the Christian brotherhood and respect for people of every social class had a transforming effect not just on individuals but on entire civilizations.
2. PAUL’S TEACHING ON SLAVERY: THE IMPLICATIONS FOR THE CHURCH.
Let’s look at Paul’s approach to this congregation. The first thing to note is very obvious, that Paul did not ignore the slaves in the church. He wrote more about slaves than he wrote about fathers. He devoted one verse to the duties of fathers but five verses to the duties of slaves. He wasn’t embarrassed by their presence; he didn’t think it bad form to talk to them. It would have been incorrigible to have ignored them. He put the spotlight of the word of God on them. He said, “God is interested in you slaves too. God wants you to please him and live to his glory. How you live is important to the Lord.” So this is what he said to them, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free” (Ephesians 6:5-9). What great words! Choose to obey your masters! Choose to serve them from your hearts. Serve them as if you were serving the Lord. Consider the reward that lies before you!
What are the implications of this? Paul is saying, “This is the way the system is going to be changed, by the spread of the gospel and this kind of credible godliness in the lives of those who profess to be Christ’s. You are protagonists of change, and it is not going to come about by the sword and a so called ‘holy war.’ It is going to come about when you live in the closest proximity to slave owners and you live Christlike lives. You needn’t develop a victim mentality. Christ can save you from that, and of course if you are beaten for doing something wrong, you are merely getting what you deserve.” The gospel is the light of the world. Don’t put your light under a bucket. Let it shine, and you slaves can shine by living like this. The Christian faith brings men and women out of the victim zone and into the vision zone.
Most of the time, you slaves won’t get hurt for doing the right thing, says the Bible. “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed” (1 Peter 3:14). So get rid of the “poor me” mentality. Get out of the victim zone. If you as a slave have been truly wronged through no fault of your own, then look to God for strength and help. The Bible says that no matter what happens to those who belong to Jesus, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Nothing “can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39). “Slaves,” Paul exhorts, “The Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.” You are not going to lose out in eternity because you were a slave on this earth. Our ultimate vision is to reign with Jesus Christ and to enjoy his happiness forever. This is the life-changing message of the gospel. This is what transforms despair into delight. Faith, forgiveness, and vision—these are the keys to life in the blessing zone. “Thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).
That is the general context of Paul’s words here. What he is doing is to elevate the whole vocation of the slave. He is setting out the agenda of the life and conduct of a slave before the whole church. He is putting it in the faces of the wealthy and the upper classes and the slave owners of the Ephesian congregation. “Now let’s consider the work of the Christian who . . . runs the Coliseum?” No. “. . . who is a land-owner, who is a merchant with a fleet of ships, the centurion in the army? No, . . . who is a slave.” That is what Paul is saying. He makes the congregation examine something that it wants to ignore. He sets the spotlight on the hundreds of slaves who were in the Ephesian congregation. He is, in effect, introducing the management of Sainsbury’s to retrieving trolleys from the far corners of the car-park. He is introducing the directors to the work of the check-out staff. Tesco’s executives would learn more about themselves, their business and human nature from a day manning their own check-outs than from three years at business school. Paul is reminding them that the meanest servants have to glorify God too. So by speaking like this to the slaves Paul is strengthening a humaneness, a sense of reality, a brotherhood and compassion into the church. This was an utterly revolutionary approach.
The Romans were conscious of the power of the slave class and feared slave uprisings, and so throughout the Roman Empire there was an annual feast called Saturnalia, and for this one day masters became servants and vice-versa. It was a gesture of appeasement. Of course the exchange was severely limited. The servants weren’t permitted, for example, to feed their masters to the lions while they were in charge, but the ruling classes were reminded each year of what it was like to be bossed about. Paul is far more radical; he is bringing slavery out of the closet and talking about the duties of Christian slaves with all the congregation keenly listening, and then he will press on and speak to slave masters and instruct them in their duties; “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him” (v.9).
Isn’t this important? You think how the Tory party in Wales shrank into an insignificant rump in political influence because it was perceived by the farmers and the miners and the steel workers as being run by men who were insulated from the real world. The Tories were conceived of as being a party of the establishment, the people of inherited wealth who had little experience of the hard graft of ordinary life. They weren’t at the coalface, shovel in hand. How different it is today when all the political parties’ leaderships and all the big decision-makers are people who take home their goodie-bags and have virtually no contact with those whom their diktats will most affect. Schools are run by heads who haven’t taught for years. Hospitals are run by administrators who never go within 50 yards of a patient. Railways are run by management consultants who are chauffeured to work. Banks are run by millionaires who haven’t the faintest idea of what it feels like to be unable to pay off a £100 overdraft. They have all forgotten, if they ever knew in the first place, the nitty-gritty of their own business. They have no idea what it is like to be a slave. As W.S. Gilbert wrote in response to the appointment of W.H.Smith as the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1877,
“Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,
And you all may be the rulers of the Queen’s Navee.”
So Paul wonderfully addresses the underclass of the slave, and notice the priority that the shrewd old apostle gives to these vocations, that pride of place is given to the slaves and after them the masters. In classical culture the wealthy classes of the Roman Empire disdained slaves. Politicians and intellectuals thought along the lines of the famous philosopher Aristotle; he said that slavery was good because “the master gained a worker, and the slave came under the guidance of a superior, reasonable being.” According to Aristotle, “a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave. Therefore there can be no friendship with a slave as a slave.” Paul is challenging that whole attitude. Let the slaves lead by example; let them do what Paul tells them, and let there be respect in the congregation for the slaves. From the godly slaves choose Sunday School teachers, and elders and deacons and preachers and evangelists and missionaries.
So slaves became loved and treasured as valuable members of the church. Slaves worshipped beside nobles. Slaves received the same baptism as the rich. Slaves ate at the same table of the Lord’s Supper as the powerful. Some who were slaves in society became leaders in the church. One former slave, Callistus, became bishop of Rome . What a contrast between the gospel church and the culture around it. No wonder so many slaves were attracted to Christ and his people. And still today, any waitress, or dish-washer in a hotel or restaurant, or burger flipper, or street cleaner, or the men who collect our rubbish each week, any of whom might might feel at times like a slave or a nobody can find out that in the church of Jesus Christ , everybody matters.
I am told that if the Englishman goes on holiday with a group of strangers he never asks what another person does for his living nor does he volunteer what his own job might me. If people find out what your job is they immediately classify you as being above them or below them. We are so bound by class structures in our so-called egalitarian society. But there is this gospel of Jesus Christ and it says that there is no shame in being the lowest of all classes, and in working hard to serve others. Jesus defined the difference between a world so conscious of class and the Christian attitude when he said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
3. PAUL’S TEACHING ON SLAVERY; INDIVIDUAL IMPLICATIONS.
I want you to notice in our text something that is very important and distinctive about ethical and moral exhortations in the New Testament, how Paul brought Christ to bear on these slaves. John Stott points this out helpfully; “If children are to obey their parents, slaves are to obey their earthly masters (verse 5), and for the very same reason, namely that behind them they must learn to discern the figure of their master in heaven (verse 9), namely the Lord Christ. In each of the four verses addressed to slaves Jesus Christ is mentioned. They are to be obedient as to Christ (verse 5), to behave as servants (literally, ‘slaves’) of Christ (verse 6), to render service as to the Lord rather than men (verse 7), knowing that they will receive good from the Lord (verse 8). The Christ-centredness of this instruction is very striking. The slave’s perspective has changed. His horizons have broadened. He has been liberated from the slavery of ‘men-pleasing’ into the freedom of serving Christ. His mundane tasks have been absorbed into a higher preoccupation, namely the will of God (verse 6) and the good pleasure of Christ” (John Stott, The Message of Ephesians, IVP. Leicester , 1979, p.252).
But then the application that John Stott makes to us is just as striking; “Exactly the same principle can be applied by contemporary Christians to their work and employment. Our great need is the clear-sightedness to see Jesus Christ and to set him before us. It is possible for the housewife to cook a meal as if Jesus Christ were going to eat it, or to spring-clean the house as if Jesus Christ were to be the honoured guest. It is possible for teachers to educate children, for doctors to treat patients and nurses to care for them, for solicitors to help clients, shop assistants to serve customers, accountants to audit books and secretaries to type letters as if in each case they were serving Jesus Christ. Can the same be said in relation to the masses of industrial workers with tedious routine machine-minding to do, and to miners who have to work underground? Surely yes. The presence of Christ in the mine or factory is certainly no excuse for bad conditions. On the contrary, it should be a spur to improving them. At the same time, their situation is not nearly as bad as slavery in the Roman Empire , so that if the work of Christian slaves could be transformed by doing it as to the Lord, the same must be true of Christian miners, factory workers, dustmen, road sweepers and public lavatory attendants.” (John Stott, op. cit.)
So notice four brief but mighty words that Paul brings to these Christian slaves as they work out the implications of serving Christ in their calling.
i] First, work respectfully. They would obeying their with fear and trembling (verse 5), which implies not a cringing servility before a human master but rather a reverent acknowledgement of the Lord Jesus whose authority the master represents. This is plain not only from the usual contexts of the _expression ‘fear and trembling’ but also from the fact that in the equivalent Colossians passage it is replaced by ‘fearing the Lord’. There was an incident during the army service of Captain Olyott, the father of Stephen and Stuart. A private in his regiment was converted to Jesus Christ, and he became full of zeal and love for his fellow Christians and for taking the gospel to other soldiers. This young Christian became over-familiar with Captain Olyott, ignoring the reality of the distinction in rank and the respect that army structures have to maintain in order to work efficiently. There are lines of authority that are set and have to be sustained. That had to be dealt with carefully not to crush the young believer and not in some pompous manner. So a slave cannot take advantage of the fact that his master is a professing Christian to begin to ignore the fact that there is a superior/inferior relationship in their work – while there is not in the body of Christ. Paul says, “Obey your masters with fear and trembling.” Work respectfully.
ii] Second, work with singleness of heart (5), with integrity or wholeheartedness, without hypocrisy or ulterior motives. Bunyan urged the pilgrim, “Let him in constancy follow the Master.” In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord said that if our eyes were single then our whole bodies would be full of light. The apostle is speaking about a disdain of hypocrisy, that we are always conscious of the Lord’s eye upon us.
Dr. Lloyd-Jones once spoke of hearing a preacher tell a story which he assured us was simple, literal truth. It illustrates perfectly the point which we are considering. It is the story of a farmer who one day went happily and with great joy in his heart to report to his wife and family that their best cow had given birth to twin calves, one red and one white. And he said, ‘You know I have suddenly had a feeling and impulse that we must dedicate one of these calves to the Lord. We will bring them up together, and when the time comes we will sell one and keep the proceeds, and we will sell the other and give the proceeds to the Lord’s work.’ His wife asked him which he was going to dedicate to the Lord. ‘There is no need to bother about that now,’ he replied, ‘we will treat them both in the same way, and when the time comes we will do as I say.’ And off he went.
In a few months the man entered his kitchen looking very miserable and unhappy. When his wife asked him what was troubling him, he answered, ‘I have bad news to give you. The Lord’s calf is dead.’ ‘But’, she said, ‘you had not decided which was to be the Lord’s calf.’ ‘Oh yes,’ he said; ‘I had always decided it was to be the white one, and it is the white one that has died. The Lord’s calf is dead.’
We may laugh at that story, but God forbid that we should be laughing at ourselves. It is always the Lord’s calf that dies. When money becomes difficult, the first thing we economize on is our contribution to God’s work. It is always the first thing to go. Perhaps we must not say ‘always’, for that would be unfair; but with so many it is the first thing, and the things we really like are the last to go. ‘Ye cannot serve God and mammon.’ These things tend to come between us and God, and our attitude to them ultimately determines our relationship to God. The mere fact that we believe in God, and call Him, Lord, Lord, and likewise with Christ, is not proof in and of itself that we are serving Him, that we recognize His totalitarian demand, and have yielded ourselves with singleness of heart to him.
iii] Thirdly, work conscientiously, not offering eye-service as men-pleasers, busy only when the boss is watching in order to curry favour with him, but as servants of Christ, who in reality is watching all the time and is never deceived by shoddy work. A secretary will busy herself typing at her computer when the office-manager is around, but she sits back and talks when he leaves the room. If the boss is away then lunch-breaks last 90 minutes rather than 60 minutes. Paul is pressing for steady, faithful service as being conscious that the eyes of the Lord himself were always on you.
iv] Fourthly, work generously. See that the service you render is willing and ‘cheerful’ ( NEB ) instead of reluctant or grudging. We are told that God loves a cheerful giver. Do you realise how wearisome it is to plead with a Christian to do something for you or for the church? What a delight to be greeted with a happy smile, “What can I do for you, pastor?” What a blessing to see that smile! You are doing the will of God, aren’t you? So you do it from the heart (verse 6) and with a good will (verse 7). It is as if the Lord Jesus Christ asked you to so something for him, and you have just been singing about his dying love for you, and that such love which is so amazing and so divine demands your soul and your life and your all, but this task is not a big deal like that, it’s a half an hour chore, or it’s “Watch with me for an hour,” and you do it in a bad spirit. Don’t you know, says Paul, that no good work, whoever does it (slave or free), is ever left unrewarded by the Lord (verse 8).
To live like that you need a change of heart, don’t you? A new spirit, and a new birth is essential for slaves to live in this way. The great world changer, Jesus Christ, once said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Jesus was talking first of all about being freed from slavery to sin. Do you trust Jesus as your Saviour and repent of your sins? That’s what we all need most of all: liberation from the guilt, shame, and bondage of the evil within us, and freedom to live in the joy of forgiveness and eternal life. And that’s not all. When Christ sets individuals free from sin, the impact ripples throughout entire societies and nations. Wherever people trust in Jesus for and take to heart his words, “You have only one Master and you are all brothers,” slavery shrivels and discrimination dies.
6th November 2005 GEOFF THOMAS