Today is Sunday, the first day of the week but better known to most people as the last day of the weekend. Tomorrow is Monday – back to work or to school. Back to the daily grind. Today you are in here in worship, fellowshipping with brothers and sisters. You are nice; you are friendly. Some of you are working – teaching S.S., hosting Community Dinner, going to the Nursing Homes, ushering and watching over the worship service. You do it out of pleasure because you enjoy serving the Lord.
But tomorrow, it’s back to working in a job that is stressful or boring; it’s back to studying. What then? That is the concern of our morning’s passage. It wraps up a section on relations and duties in the home. The roles and responsibilities of wives and husbands have been addressed, then those of children and parents. Now the Apostle Paul turns to the slaves who serve as servants in homes.
This raises immediately the question of the practice of slavery. Does the Bible endorse it? The subject merits a sermon of its own, but for now, to have time for the real issue of the text, you’ll have to settle for the short answer, which is no, the Bible does not endorse the owning of persons as property. Do understand, though, that the system of slavery of the New Testament world was different than that of slavery in the U.S. The duties of slaves, who may have made up half the population of the Roman Empire, ranged from doing menial labor to serving in high positions. Slaves served as teachers, physicians, managers of households, estates, shops, and ships. They were city administrators. They could own their own property. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states:
In outward appearance it was usually impossible to distinguish among slaves, freedmen and free persons. Neither the slave’s clothing nor his or her race revealed a legal or social status. Patterns of religious life, friends, or work did not separate slaves from freed persons or freeborn workers.
Most slaves in Paul’s day could count on being set free by age thirty. Indeed, Augustus Caesar introduced a law to restrict setting slaves free before then because of the common practice of doing it before that age.
So, the issues for slaves are similar to those of anyone today in the workplace, or anywhere in which someone is working under another person’s authority. With that in mind, let’s look at our text:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man,8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. 9 Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.
When you are studying a Bible text, your goal is to get to the primary point of the passage. Sometimes that can be difficult simply because there is so much to get from Scripture, and sometimes the writer himself is not clear. But every now and then you get a passage like ours in which the writer could not be clearer. To both slaves and masters he instructs, Do your work and relate to your master or slave under the perspective that you ultimately are serving the Lord and are accountable to him. Every verse enforces this message:
v. 5 – as you would Christ
v. 6 – as servants of Christ…doing the will of God
v. 7 – as to the Lord
v. 8 – from the Lord
v. 9 – their Master and yours is in heaven
Paul pastored the church of Ephesus for more than two years. No doubt, his church members would come to him with troubles they encountered. “Paul, my master is so unreasonable. Why do I have to put with him?” “Paul, I am a Christian and my master is a pagan. Why should I have to listen to him?” “Paul, I don’t get any credit for what I do right, and my master is always quick to get on me for the slightest thing.” Or, “Paul, if you had to deal with such lazy servants like I have…” “Paul, if you noticed my servant not in church this morning, it’s because of the punishment I had to deal out to him. He can be so irritating.” Maybe there’s another reason, other than evangelism, why Paul didn’t hang around long after starting a church!
Now he is away from the church, most likely writing from a prison cell (where he can have some peace and quiet!). He is writing to his old church. Most of you have read Ephesians, and you know that he starts off with a glorious exposition of the blessings that the followers of Christ have in Jesus Christ. They are chosen people; they have been redeemed, they have been adopted into God’s family; their sins have been forgiven; they were dead and made alive; they have a glorious inheritance; they possess the power of God that was displayed in Christ; they are loved with a love that is immeasurable; they are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. It’s a pretty good list! Not a bad deal for guilty sinners deserving God’s wrath.
Half of the letter is devoted to these blessings. The second half is devoted to applying the knowledge of those blessings to day to day living. That is what Paul is doing now. First of all, he is saying, “Remember, slaves and masters, who is your true Master. Slaves, you are servants of Christ. Your real Master is the one who is your Redeemer. He is the one who took on your punishment that you may be set free from bondage to sin. How then, should you serve him, which is what you are doing when you carry out your work duties? What kind of attitude should you have knowing that he is observing you and regarding the work that you are doing as unto him?”
“Masters, remember you are servants too. Your master is your Lord Jesus Christ. Remember what I said earlier – ‘Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (5:1). Are you imitating Christ in the way you treat your servants?”
The slaves and the masters would complain to Paul, saying, “Paul, if you knew…if you knew what my life was like…” Paul is replying, “If you knew…if you knew the blessings you have in Christ; and if you knew that in whatever you do you are doing unto Christ as your Master…”
Well, what difference would it make if they knew? Servants would obey their masters with a right spirit. They understood and accepted the system of their day. They knew that servants were to obey. If they understood they were serving Christ, they would obey without complaint. They would do it with fear and trembling before the Lord. Paul wrote the same instructions in Colossians, and he is clearer when he writes “fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:22). We are familiar with the expression, “What Would Jesus Do?” Paul would have the Ephesian believers consider, “What Would Jesus Think?” What would he think of them slacking off? What would he think of their witness if they disrespected those with authority over them?
To continue, a servant who was serving Christ as Lord would carry out his duties with a sincere heart. He would not do his work merely to win promotion and the praise of others. He would do his work with the sincere desire to do it well. He would take pride in the quality of his labor. And he would delight in pleasing his heavenly Master. He would understand that his very labor for his earthly master was a means of doing the will of God. It is not that the earthly master is requiring what God wants, but that the very obedience is pleasing to God.
Paul is not teaching that slaves are to do anything required of them. They are not to murder or do other harm. His point is this. The slave might be complaining that his work is tedious or meaningless or counterproductive. The work has nothing to do with Christ’s kingdom. It is not in keeping with the spirit of the gospel. But the type of work should not be the issue for the slave. He is not in a position to set his own course and determine what work he is to do. The choice before him is not “is this the work that is of God’s will,” but “will I do the work given me to the best of my ability so that Christ whom I proclaim as Lord will be glorified”? It is doing work in such a spirit – to glorify God – that is “doing the will of God from the heart” and “rendering service with a good will as to the Lord.”
It should be enough for a slave to know that he is serving his Lord who has already paid the greatest sacrifice for his salvation. And it is. Even so, Paul adds an encouraging word in verse 8: “knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is slave or free.”
Does a doer of good deeds put the Lord in his debt – I am nice to my rude boss, so Christ now owes me a like measure in return? I hope not, because if that is the case, it is likely another implication is true – that when I do something wrong, like be rude to my boss, I will receive a like measure back from the Lord. The whole attraction of the gospel is getting out of the do-enough-good-deeds-to-outweigh-the-bad-deeds system. I can’t win on the balance scale. Just read over Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to get an idea of the standard he uses.
No, Paul is not talking about Christ’s servants getting their due but rather their reward. Is it a reward in this life? It can be. It is difficult to find a Christian who even in the most difficult of circumstances is not able to name blessings he or she has received from following the Lord. Doing good does have its rewards. But the rewards that those who place their hope in Christ truly look to are the rewards granted in heaven and at Christ’s return. Yes, we are pie-in-the-sky believers, and that God should promise not only heaven but rewards in heaven is a wonder to us. That he actually gives worth to our imperfect, sin-tainted good deeds and delights in them is wondrous indeed.
Let’s be honest as to what we know about ourselves. I know we Christians can be self-righteous, but even our self-righteousness is a mere mask to handle being the sinners we know ourselves to be. The first effect of being awakened by the Holy Spirit is to be convicted of our sinfulness. We struggle with feeling worthy of our Lord’s sacrifice, and then we read that our Lord will reward us for the little bit of goodness we can muster? That is pretty good motivation to do the will of God whatever the present circumstance.
Let’s consider now what Paul has to say to the masters of slaves: Do the same to your slaves. That would have raised eyebrows. They are to treat their slaves in the same manner their slaves are to treat them – that is, doing what is right with sincerity. To get straight to the point, he says, “Stop your threatening.” Threats are precisely what masters have over their slaves – threats to sell them, to pull their families apart, to beat them, to make them suffer. And to do such things with impunity. They have the law on their side.
They are not to make such threats. Instead, they are to obey the laws of their Master Jesus Christ, understanding that he watches both master and slave, and that there is no partiality with him. The civil laws might tip the scales in favor of slave owners, but not the Lord.
Paul does not spell out more about what masters should do, but he indicates that we are to learn from what he told slaves. Slaves are to serve their masters with a sincere heart doing whatever is given them with a good will. Well then, masters should assign work from a sincere heart with good will. They should be thinking not only about the work they want done but about the welfare of the one doing the work. They are not to do this as people-pleasers, only pretending in public to be benevolent masters. They should be that way sincerely and privately. They should consider how their own Lord treats them and strive to emulate his example. It is interesting that Paul has not held up Christ as the model servant, as he does elsewhere. Rather, he presents Christ as the model Master. Let the way that Christ treats his servants be the model for master-servant relations.
So to recap, both slaves and masters are to relate to one another and do their respective work from the perspective of serving Christ and living under his lordship.
I would think that you have already been making application to your own circumstance as we’ve gone through the passage. It’s not that difficult, except for discomfort we have when being convicted by Scripture.
That tedious job you have. You are to do your best work with a good will. The boss that drives you crazy – you are to work for him as you would Christ. The boring class you are taking – you are to study diligently and turn in your best work. That teacher who gives dumb assignments and doesn’t know what she is doing – treat her as you would Christ.
But, Pastor Clark, you don’t know my situation. Maybe, but here is the situation I do know for you. If you profess Christ as your Lord, you possess the riches of his glorious inheritance (1:18). You have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (1:3). You were dead in your trespasses and sins, but God, being rich in mercy, made you alive in Christ (2:1ff). That’s your situation. Now, how are you going to live in response to such a Lord?
The answer is fairly simple; it is the carrying of it out that is difficult; but again, not because it is complicated to know what to do; just hard, given our wounded pride and thwarted desires. Look, we all want to be appreciated. We say that we’re not in “it” for recognition. But in truth, we do want that recognition, particularly from the persons we are serving under. Never to be thanked; never to be acknowledged for the good work we do – it grates us.
But it is under such circumstances that we are able to examine our hearts clearly. Is serving the Lord our great delight, or is it really the acknowledgment we get from others? Is the quality of our work based on our relationship with Christ or with the boss or teacher we are serving under? As soon as we say something, “Why should I care about my work if my boss doesn’t care,” then we know the answer. We know how much desire to honor Christ we actually possess.
Here is another question: Which rewards matter to us most? Note the very question I am asking. I’m not asking should we work for rewards, but which rewards should matter to us. The Scripture here doesn’t admonish us for seeking reward. Rather it admonishes us for caring so much about the reward that is of less value. No, don’t work as people-pleasers, desiring the temporary and shallow rewards that people give; work as Christ-pleasers. And yes, desire with all your heart the eternal, precious rewards that he bestows! What do you really value? Your work ethic reveals it.
Or consider another question. The way we approach work reveals how we regard our relationship with Christ. It reveals how we regard the rewards that Christ offers us. It answers this question too: How do we regard ourselves?
Have you ever made a comment like this – “This work is beneath me”? When the work assignments are passed around, do you complain, “I shouldn’t be the one getting this”? Then your problem may not be so much about pride as it is not knowing where your true value lies. We have the example of Christ himself (remember his washing the disciples’ feet?) to teach us that no work is beneath our dignity. And we have teachings and expressions throughout Scripture that uphold honest labor. There is such a thing as immoral work, but otherwise, any honest labor is of value. Now if our value is in being the beloved children of God, by what right, then, should we be measuring ourselves according to our occupation or where we rank on the corporate latter? Certainly it must be distasteful to our Lord to see that we measure our value according to how much money we earn. Remember, he has poured out his riches on us.
I want to be careful here. It is good to desire “meaningful work,” work that fulfills your gifts and sense of calling. It is fine to change jobs when you are unfulfilled or the conditions are not good. You may even, in the appropriate manner, present complaints. That’s the blessing of living in a modern, free society.
But meanwhile, in whatever job you may be, Christ expects of you to do your work as service to him. He is concerned about your witness for him. It matters to him that you do your work for him. He wants to know that the rewards he offers matters more to you than the rewards your earthly superiors offer.
I know this sounds hard to do, but consider the blessings of having such a perspective. You are free! What a burden it is to be a slave to the rewards of men. You continually have to make a show, continually have to compete, and your best efforts may be ignored or twisted against you.
Furthermore, your life is simplified. You do not have to resort to schemes to get your way. You do not have to tract the performance of others and figure out ways to get ahead. And have you ever considered how burdensome being lazy is? By being focused on serving Christ, you don’t have to keep tabs on your boss to know when he may or may not be observing you. You don’t have to keep coming up with excuses for why you don’t do your work. You just do your work to the best of your ability knowing that your Lord is watching and taking delight in it. What a great way to counteract stress!
Those of you who employ and supervise others, what do you learn here? Think about the importance of rewards. If Christ, who gave his very self to his redeemed, still thinks it is good to offer rewards, shouldn’t you be offering your own rewards to good workers and students? Christ is presented here as the model Master; how then can you learn from a foot-washer about how to treat those under your supervision? Perhaps you should explore the concept of being a servant-leader.
There is that clear instruction not to threaten your workers. If you rely on threats – i.e. if you rely on warning your workers what will happen if they fail – you’ve already lost the goal of winning respect and instilling the desire to work well.
I think you would agree, there is much to learn, much to gain from working and supervising as servants of Christ.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By D. Marion Clark. © 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org