How do you answer this question? Whose slave are you? In America when we think of slavery, we think of America's history of racial slavery. So very often to us the concept of slavery implies racism. But when asked whose slave we are, our response should be, "We are slaves of Yeshua the Lord and Christ." Slavery to us should not be a negative thing. Then there are others in our society who work so hard at fighting for their rights that they do not see themselves as slaves to anyone. If you don't see yourself as a slave, then Ephesians 6:5-9 will be totally irrelevant to you. But before you dismiss this text, you need to understand that Paul, Peter, James, and Jude called themselves slaves. Our Lord Yeshua became a slave:
but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Philippians 2:7 NASB
The word "emptied" is the Greek word kenoo, it means: "to make empty." Figuratively, it means: "to abase, naturalize, to make of none effect, of no reputation." This is what is called in theology the "Doctrine of the Kenosis"— the self-emptying of Yeshua. In the Incarnation He emptied Himself of the manifestation of Glory and Power.
"Taking the form of a bond-servant"—the word "taking" is a circumstantial participle of manner. So the phrase explains how He emptied Himself "by" taking the form of a bond-servant. When He took the form of a bond-servant, it veiled His glory. That is how He emptied Himself.
"Bond-servant"—is from the Greek word doulos. This word meant: "slave" in classical Greek. It was a word used to describe slaves who had no rights. Their masters owned them, and their only justification for being allowed to live was that they fulfilled the wishes of their owners. Doulos has normally been seen as a reference to a bond slave, someone without legal standing or personal claims; someone owned by another, since that is what the doulos was in Graeco-Roman Society. Most Bible students see this meaning and would say a Christian has no rights. But the term doulos has at least two meanings in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the LXX it was used to translate the Hebrew word ebed. An examination of the Hebrew text of the Tanakh, particularly that of Isaiah, shows that ebed was a title for pious men. It was applied to Abraham, Moses, Joshua or David, and to the Servant of Yahweh.
The essential difference between the Hebrew slave, who is sold into the possession of another, and the slave of Yahweh is not merely the status of the owner. The essential difference is one of covenant.
In the LXX doulos described a relationship within the covenant that Yahweh had made with Israel. This is also the case in the New Testament, where the context normally shows it to describe a relationship within the New Covenant which Yahweh has established through Christ. This covenant use does not speak of someone who has no rights, but of someone who is showered with honor and privilege as a result of being a slave of the living Yahweh. We see this use in:
"Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations. Isaiah 42:1 NASB
"Servant" here is ebed, which is a slave. The status of "slave" confers on the Church and her members the highest honor as she and they are called to serve the living God. Following the exodus type, Israel was Pharaoh's slave, but through her redemption she became Yahweh's slave. The same is true of believers, by faith we become Yeshua's slaves.
Your slavery to Christ results in a right standing with Yahweh. You are in union with Him who satisfied eternal justice on your behalf, so your union with Him results in full acquittal of your sins and God's declaration of righteousness. Christ accomplished all that was necessary for you to be declared righteous by God.
In verse 6 of Philippians 2, we see that Christ was in the "form of God," which refers to the possession of the essential attributes of deity. In verse 7, He takes the "form of a bond-slave"—the slavery of a person who has submitted Himself to a master in order to do His will in every respect.
So our Lord Yeshua became a slave, and according to verse 5, we are to have the same attitude:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Yeshua, Philippians 2:5 NASB
The word "attitude" here is the Greek word phroneo, which means: "To think, to exercise the mind, to have an opinion or attitude." The position of the pronoun "this" is emphatic and shows that the exhortation reaches back to 2:3-4 for its definition. The attitude that is being called for is the one of verses 3-4, which is one of humility:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Philippians 2:3-4 NASB
Here Paul calls believers to have a mind, attitude, or thinking of humility, which was Christ's attitude in becoming a slave. This whole chapter is about humility.
What is humility? Humility is first a feeling toward God that He has absolute rights over your life—that He can do with you as He pleases, and that He has absolute authority to tell you what is best for you; and that's just fine with you. It is a spirit of utterly yielding and submitting to the Lord as master. The humble person sees himself as clay in the Potter's hands, he sees himself as a slave of Yahweh.
So when I ask the question, Whose slave are you? As a Christians, your response should be, "I am a slave of Yeshua the Christ." The apostles saw themselves as slaves to Christ:
"And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, Acts 4:29 NASB
They also saw themselves as slaves of the believers:
For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Yeshua as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Yeshua' sake. 2 Corinthians 4:5 NASB
Since the apostles were examples to all believers, we all should see ourselves as slaves:
Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 1 Peter 2:13-16 NASB
We are all to see ourselves as slaves of Yahweh. Notice what Paul wrote to the Romans:
Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? Romans 6:16 NASB
Paul lays down a very axiomatic principle in verse 16, and that is that we become the slaves of whomever we choose to obey. If we take a job working for someone else we become their slave while working for them. So I don't think we should dismiss this text in Ephesians 6:5-9 because we don't see ourselves as slaves. I believe that this text applies to the employee/employer relationship also. We could interpret this in the twenty-first century by speaking of labor and management. In a modern paraphrase, we could say, "Give your employer your very best work.":
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; Ephesians 6:5 NASB
So in this section in Ephesians 6, Paul is dealing with slaves and masters. The English translators of the New Testament seem troubled at the thought of rendering the Greek word doulos as "slave" and "slavery" and seem to duck away from anything which would hint at such a concept being spoken about.
The KJV identifies 127 occurrences of the word doulos and chooses to translate it 120 times as: "servant," 6 times as: "bond," and once as: "bondman"; where the English word "slaves" occurs only once in Rev 18:13, and there it's the translation of a totally different word.
The New American Standard translates this word doulos as "slave" in fifty of its occurrences. As offensive as it may be to 21st Century Americans, Paul is talking here about slaves and masters.
Now, it's important for us at the beginning of this study, as an introduction, to understand what New Testament slavery really was.
Slavery in the Roman Empire
The slave/master relationship was very common in the ancient world. William Barclay writes of the evils of slavery in the Roman Empire during the time Paul wrote this Epistle to the Ephesians: "It has been computed that in the Roman Empire there were 60,000,000 slaves. In Paul's day a kind of terrible idleness had fallen on the citizens of Rome. Rome was the mistress of the world, and therefore it was beneath the dignity of a Roman citizen to work. Practically all work was done by slaves. Even doctors and teachers, even the closest friends of the Emperors, their secretaries who dealt with letters and appeals and finance, were slaves."
The philosopher, Seneca, told of how the Roman senate defeated a law proposing that slaves wear distinctive clothing, because they feared the slaves would realize how numerous they were. While some warmth existed in the relationship of slaves and their masters, quite often, it was a dehumanizing existence. They were considered to be animate tools, alongside inanimate tools. Aristotle writes that there can never be friendship between master and slave, for they have nothing in common; "for a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave." Their masters had absolute authority over their lives, even to the point of death if so desired. For slaves who were strong, plenty of demanding work was set before them. For those of a more delicate nature, they would be plied to illegal trades on behalf of their masters. When their usefulness was over, many would be given over to prostitution. Slaves had no rights to property or inheritance.
Gaius, the Roman lawyer in the Institutes, writes: "We may note that it is universally accepted that the master possesses the power of life and death over the slave. If the slave ran away, at best he was branded on the forehead with the letter F for fugitivus, which means: 'runaway'; at worst he was killed. The terror of the slave was that he was absolutely at the caprice of his master. Augustus crucified a slave because he killed a pet quail. Vedius Pollio flung a slave still living to the savage lampreys in his fish pond because he dropped and broke a crystal goblet. Juvenal tells of a Roman matron who ordered a slave to be killed for no other reason than that she lost her temper with him. When her husband protested, she said: 'You call a slave a man, do you? He has done no wrong, you say? Be it so; it is my will and my command; let my will be the voucher for the deed.' The slaves who were maids to their mistresses often had their hair torn out and their cheeks torn with their mistresses' nails. Juvenal tells of the master, 'who delights in the sound of a cruel flogging thinking it sweeter than any siren's song,' or 'who revels in clanking chains,' or, 'who summons a torturer and brands the slave because a couple of towels are lost.' A Roman writer writes: 'Whatever a master does to a slave, undeservedly, in anger, willingly, unwillingly, in forgetfulness, after careful thought, knowingly, unknowingly, is judgment, justice and law.'"
In the midst of this cruel slavery, Paul writes:
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; Ephesians 6:5 NASB
Please note that the apostles didn't go around trying to alter the culture of the society by campaigning against slavery and preaching against the social evils that sees men and women under the dominance and direction of men to the point where they're considered to be part of the person's property. Rather, they demonstrate and teach both slaves and masters what their correct manner of conduct should be towards one another in the cultural framework in which they find themselves.
The early Church was concerned not to bring about political or cultural change per se, but to change the heart of man through the preaching of the Gospel that the life and reflection of Christ might be brought into society, heralding change not by law, but by the Spirit. The message of the Gospel isn't about altering a man's or woman's natural, physical circumstances, but in altering a person's relationship to Yahweh.
It's important that we don't think of the slave/master relationship in the sense of racial slavery in early America. The slavery of American history was totally unacceptable and sinful. It was racial, and the conflict it created is still very much alive in our society today. The racial slavery of American history was sinful, and the Bible does condemn it:
"And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death. Exodus 21:16 NASB
If kidnaping is wrong, and it is, then the slavery of American history was wrong.
The Word of God has come under attack because it does not condemn slavery anywhere within its pages. Paul certainly had enough influence to limit or possibly outlaw slavery among the believers, but he never took that approach. Paul dealt with matters of the heart. As hearts change, societies change. Trying to bring change to society without changing the hearts of people is how revolutions and wars begin.
Here is what we need to understand: Every single place where the Gospel message has penetrated, and the Spirit of God has moved, slavery has disappeared and the abuse of slaves has gone; not by revolution of morals, but rather by reformation, spiritually speaking.
The preaching of Wesley and Whitefield resulted in the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom. And the abolishment of slavery in America was primarily due to the Christian influence. Dr. Samuel Hopkins, pastor of the first Congregational Church at Newport, Rhode Island, preached a sermon in 1770 against kidnaping, purchasing, and retaining of slaves. The people were astonished, and one wealthy family left the church. But most of the members were surprised that they had not long before seen the evil of the system.
In 1776 the churches adopted a rule to restrict slavery. Members must agree to free their slaves. Slave sellers were expelled, and preachers were dismissed if they did not at once free their slaves.
We need to divorce ourselves from the idea that slavery in the Bible was racial, discriminatory, and abusive.
Slavery in Israel—Slavery has its roots deep in biblical history and the Middle East. Slaves were primarily domestic employees: cooks, household managers, barbers, butlers and even family physicians. Their housing, their food, clothing, and living expenses were provided. Teachers were slaves, like in early America, they were indentured servants; people who contracted themselves to an American family for 10 to 15 years. Where do we have indentured servants today in America? Military! When you sign up for the military, you become an indentured servant. They own you for at least six years. They tell you where to go and what to do, and if you don't do it they throw you in the brig. I was an indentured servant in the military for five years, and to tell you the truth, it was quite nice. All slavery is not bad.
The slavery which the Tanakh prescribed was vastly different than the slavery of the Roman Empire or American history. Slavery was not prohibited by the Law. The Israelites were allowed to possess slaves from the other nations:
'As for your male and female slaves whom you may have—you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Leviticus 25:44 NASB
Even the priests were allowed to possess slaves from the other nations:
'But if a priest buys a slave as his property with his money, that one may eat of it, and those who are born in his house may eat of his food. Leviticus 22:11 NASB
How were slaves acquired in Israel? There were several different ways of acquiring salves according to the Tanakh.
1. Purchase—foreigners came to Israel and sold themselves as slaves. Buying and selling of slaves was okay according to Lev. 25:44-46.
We should also expand the idea of "purchase" to realize that it wasn't just those who would sell others into slavery for a price (though this occurred by parents, relatives and even partners who might sell another to pay off debts or to gain some food to avoid immediate starvation through famine), but men and women might sell themselves to pay off either their own personal debt or the monies incurred as a result of crime.
2. Captives of War—this was considered human, it was better than death:
"Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the LORD your God has given you. Deuteronomy 20:14 NASB
What famous man in the Bible was made a slave of war? Daniel and his friends were made slaves as captives of war. Was Daniel's attitude, "I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery"? Thomas Jefferson, "It sure doesn't seem to have been."
3. Through insolvency—thieves were sold into slavery to pay off there debts:
"But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. Exodus 22:3 NASB
You've got to love this: instead of sending them to prison, they make them slaves. Defaulting debtors were also sold into slavery:
"But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. Matthew 18:25 NASB
There was no claiming bankruptcy and walking away from your debt. You were made a slave of your creditor. Children of defaulting debtors were sold into slavery:
Now a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, "Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the LORD; and the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves." 2 Kings 4:1 NASB
An Israelite could sell one of his family into slavery:
"If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do. Exodus 21:7 NASB
They could even sell themselves if forced to by poverty:
'If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave's service. 'He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. Leviticus 25:39-40 NASB
By law, a Hebrew slave was to be treated even better than the slaves taken from the heathen:
'You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another. Leviticus 25:46 NASB
If you were cruel to a slave, that slave was to be freed:
"If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. "And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth. Exodus 21:26-27 NASB
Granted, slavery is not the most desirable condition. One's freedom was significantly restricted. Nevertheless, The Mosaic Law provided for those who might decide to become lifetime slaves, as strange as this might seem:
"But if the slave plainly says, 'I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,' then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently. Exodus 21:5-6 NASB
This strongly suggests that slavery in Israel was of a very different kind than that found in the heathen nations.
Circumcised slaves in Israel were allowed to enter into the worship of the One True God:
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "This is the ordinance of the Passover: no foreigner is to eat of it; but every man's slave purchased with money, after you have circumcised him, then he may eat of it. Exodus 12:43-44 NASB
They were the benefactors of God's gracious provisions, such as the Sabbath rest:
"Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves. Exodus 23:12 NASB
A master was to be punished for cruelty or injury to his slave:
"If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. Exodus 21:20 NASB
Runaway slaves were not to be returned, but were to be given sanctuary:
"You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. "He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 NASB
I take it from this that Israel was, by far, the best place for any person to be a slave.
Slavery in the Gospels and in the New Testament.
In the Gospels, slavery was frequently mentioned. Our Lord told a number of parables in which slaves and their masters were key characters. Sometimes, the slave/ master was represented in a favorable light:
And a centurion's slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die. When he heard about Yeshua, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his slave. Luke 7:2-3 NASB
This centurion obviously cared a great deal about his slave. Faithful slaves were highly commended, while unfaithful slaves were condemned.
What Yeshua taught about one's standing in the kingdom of God turned the value system of that society (and our own) upside-down. He taught that greatness was not to be measured in terms of being served, but in terms of being a slave:
Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, "If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all." Mark 9:35 NASB
He was the greatest example of this truth the world has ever seen.
Paul, spoke about slavery. He instructed both slaves and masters concerning their conduct. He spoke of himself and others as God's slaves. But Paul did not view slavery as the ideal condition, and encouraged any who could gain their freedom to do so, but those who could not were not to agonize about it, knowing that both masters and slaves are God's bond-slaves:
Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord's freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ's slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called. 1 Corinthians 7:21-24 NASB
Paul says even if you're a slave, don't worry about it. Allow God to use you right where you are. Be a sanctifying influence right where you are. God needs Christians in every walk of life to be an influence for Him. By living a life of holiness, we sanctify; we influence those around us. We can't influence people if we're not around them.
Paul says if you have the opportunity to become free, then use it. Just don't make freedom the preoccupation of your life. Your preoccupation is to be serving the Lord, being an influence for Him in whatever vocation you are in.
During the same time that Paul wrote Ephesians from prison, he had met and led to Christ a runaway slave named Onesimus. Runaway slaves were usually executed or at least punished so severely that it served as a lesson to other slaves not to try the same thing. But Paul sent him back and wrote to Philemon, the Christian slave owner, telling him that he should now treat Onesimus as a beloved brother in Christ.
In the Church of Yeshua there will be both slaves and masters who are saints.
So as we approach Ephesians 6:5-9, dealing with slaves and masters, we must not think in terms of the history of American racial slavery, but we really need to think of it more along the lines of employee/employer relationships. If we look at it in that light, this section has much to say to us. This text gives us the Christian work ethic.
Vincent Cheung writes, "The passage forms the foundation for the matchless work ethic that Christians were famous for in the past."
St. Francis said, "The most powerful effective evangelism takes place on the job as you live out your Christianity in the face of unbelievers."
Believers, we are all slaves of Yeshua, and in obedience to Him, we are to obey our earthly masters for His sake.
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