By Pastor Glenn Pease
In the early days of Israel if a man got into debt and could not repay he was not sent to prison, but was allowed to become the slave of his creditor. But it was not to be a permanent situation. When the 7th year came he would be liberated and be free to be his own master again, and begin to rebuild his life. Some of these free men would soon find that their chances of making it on their own was near impossible. They had no future as a free man, and if they liked their master and felt well treated by them they could go back to him and volunteer to stay as his slave. The master would then take him to the tabernacle where the priest would bore a hole in his ear lobe as a sign that he was the slave of his master.
Here was slavery that was not the result of war, or even debt, but a voluntary slavery by choice because it was the best option available at the time. This might seem crazy to give up your freedom to be a slave, but it is not a lot different that what we have today. Unemployed people have the freedom to stay at home, watch T. V. and go for walks and shop whenever they please, but this can only last for so long. So they go around looking for a place where they can give up this freedom and volunteer to be a slave for 8 hours a day for the sake of a paycheck. We use different terms, but the end result is not all that different. We just get a number today instead of the hole in the ear. It is not all that bad to be a slave to some degree for the sake of the benefits.
Paul was happy to be a slave to his Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. The first thing he says in this letter to identify himself is that he is a servant of Jesus Christ. The word for servant is doulos, which is the word for slaves all through the New Testament. It is one of the paradoxes of the Christian life that the way to the top is to be a servant. There is no greater title than that of being a servant, and that is why Paul even puts it before his office as an Apostle. He does it again in his letter to the Philippians and his letter to Titus. The top of the totem pole is not chief, captain, kings, or President, but servant or slave of Jesus Christ.
Jesus established this value system when he said in Matt. 20:26-27, "..whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave." Mark 10:43-45 repeats it with this added slant, "..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."
In the Old Testament in Isa. 52:13 God calls the coming Messiah, "My Servant." Jesus establishes the way by which Christian status will be determined. It will not be by inheritance or by riches or by honor or by power or by any of the methods that the world determines status. The Christian status symbol is a towel that symbolizes the Head of the church wiping the feet of His disciples. The Head serving the feet is the way Jesus wants us to see true greatness. The more needs a Christian meets in others the greater the status of that Christian. That is why Paul is proud to wear the title of slave of Jesus Christ, for his greatest joy is to sever the Head of the church by serving the church which is his body.
Paul knew the teaching of his Lord that the servant is the greatest of all and that the servant will be the one greatly rewarded in eternity. Jesus used this same word for slave in Matt. 25:21 where he said, "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness." If you want the best that heaven can offer, do not seek to be a king or a noble, but strive to be a servant, for these are the people most pleasing to the Master of all.
The final use of this word doulos is in Rev. 22:6 where we read that God, "..sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place." There is no higher honor than to be a servant of God, and this will be an honor for all eternity. Three verses before this we see heaven described as a place where "his servants will serve him." When you become a Christian you are volunteering to become a slave forever. Once a slave to Christ, always a slave to Christ. Voluntary slavery is what the Christian life is all about.
Paul did not hesitate to call himself a slave, for he was sending this letter to many who were actually slaves. If you go to the last chapter you read in 16:11, "Greet those in the household of Narcissus." Before this in verse 10 he writes, "Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus." Paul is referring to slaves. Rome was filled with slaves, and many of them became Christians. These who were slaves by necessity became voluntary slaves of Christ.
Even if one was not a literal slave when he became a Christian, he became a slave for Paul says in I Cor. 6, "You are not your own, for you are bought with a price." Like a slave purchased from a market, so you have been bought out of slavery to sin by the precious blood of Jesus to become His slave. There is no escape from slavery, for everyone is the slave of some master. But not all masters are alike. Some are so brutal, and it is miserable bondage to be in their service. Others are kind and benevolent, and it is a joy to serve them. One does so freely so that it is a choice of voluntary slavery. Paul spells this out clearly in Rom.7:20-22. He describes the Christian life as escape from slavery to the freedom of a new slavery.
"When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control
of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from
the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become
slaves to God, the benefits you reap lead to holiness, and the
result is eternal life."
Everyone is either a slave to sin and death, or a slave to holiness and life. The choice is not, should I be a slave or free, but whose slave shall I be, for all who are not slaves of God are slaves of sin, self, and Satan. We tend to think the slavery issue is long past, but the fact is, it is always relevant and contemporary, for every person on the planet struggles with it continuously. We are ever in an age of slavery. People are slaves to every form of addition on a grander scale than ever before. In our great land of freedom we have people in bondage to alcohol, drugs, sex, cigarettes, TV violence, and abuse of every kind. Until Satan is in the lake of fire slavery will be a major issue of life.
The New Testament answer to all forms of bondage is freedom in Christ. If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. But the freedom in Christ is not a form of total independence, for this will just lead to some other kind of bondage. Freedom in Christ is a liberating form of slavery which is voluntary slavery. It is a choice to be committed to Christ as Lord of one's life. No man can serve two masters Jesus said. But every man has to serve one. Every man has to have a master. The choice is of one that destroys and diminishes the self, or one that enriches an exalts the self to become what it was meant to be. The Prodigal Son wound up as slave to pigs, but he chose to go back home and be a voluntary slave of his father. He made the wise choice, and that is a choice all of us must make.
There is no third choice of being independent and free from all commitments to either good or evil. There is no such ground to stand on between good and evil. You have to make a choice, and so in a very real sense every person is in some form of voluntary slavery. If the Prodigal would have stayed feeding the pigs, that too would be a form of voluntary slavery. When the Gospel is heard one can choose to follow a new master, and by the help of the Holy Spirit come out of bondage to the old master. This is the ministry of the body of Christ in the world. It is to help people be delivered from on form of slavery, and be set free to choose another form of slavery so radically different that it is called coming out of darkness into light.
The whole book of Romans is about slavery. Paul stresses that Jews and Gentiles alike are slaves to sin. The Jews are slaves to the law also, and the Gentiles are slaves to their evil desires. The result is that the world is full of judgment on the folly of man. The only solution is the Gospel which is the power of God to liberate both Jews and Gentiles. It is hard for us to think in these Biblical terms, but the fact is, the battle with slavery is the crucial battle of life. Paul was a slave to the law and self-righteousness. He had to be set free from salvation by works, and become a slave to Christ by faith. The journey from slavery to slavery is the journey all must take if they are to be used of God to change the world.
In the 13 volume set called 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, most of the names are well known by those who have studied the history of preaching. But one name is very unknown and obscure, for though he was a great preacher John Jasper was born a slave in Virginia in 1812 as the 24 child in his family. At age 22 he married a slave girl, but when his master found he had spent a night away from his plantation he forced them to separate, and he never saw her again. He went on a wild rampage of rebellion as he lived a sinful life.
Then at age 27 he came under conviction and was radically converted to Christ and began to preach. He was so eloquent and full of fire that he soon became the most popular preacher around. Whites as well as blacks would travel long distances to hear him. He was soon preaching to several thousand people every Sunday. So many whites came to the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church of Richmond that they had to rope off a special section for them. For forty years he was a slave, but then the Civil War set him free, and he lived forty years more as a free man. Here was a man who had no training and was terribly ungrammatical, but he became so famous that his sermons stand along side of the most brilliant preachers of the centuries. Was there ever a slave who set so many people free?
Yes there was, for all of the great preachers in that set of books from Paul to Billy Graham were also slaves. They were not literal slaves like Jasper, but they were real slaves before they were set free in Christ to be slaves of a new master. All of this might seem like a trivial play on words, but when you study the history of the word doulos or slave you begin to realize just how serious a biblical issue this is. The word doulos was a nasty word until the New Testament cleaned it up and glorified it. The Greeks use the word often as a despised word. Plato and Aristotle used it in a derogatory way. We still do today when we say who was your slave last year, or I'm not your slave. Seneca said, "The foulest death is preferable to the fairest slavery."
In the Old Testament you have the concept of a noble slave developing, but the Hebrew mind despised the slave just as much as did the Greek and Roman mind. A Jewish proverb said, "A dog is more honorable than a slave." This kind of thinking entered into the Christian world and many came to believe that slaves were less than dogs, and that they were sub-human. There was a time when calling your neighbor a slave could lead to excommunication from the church. It has been universally despised to be a slave. The only place where the term and idea become on of honor is in the New Testament.
Paul describes his whole ministry as that of a slave. In I Cor. 9:19 we read, "Though I m free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible." Notice how Paul stresses it is a voluntary slavery. He does not have to do this. He is not forced against his will, but he chooses to be the slave of everyone. He goes on to say he become all things to all men in order to win them to Christ. He is a slave to what others want him to be in order to win them. He did not try to be anyone's master and win them by authority, but he became their slaves to win them by service. If you can catch the spirit of Paul as a slave, you will never judge him again as a proud or arrogant man trying to impose his will on others. He was a humble servant of Christ and a slave to all men.
It was Paul's writing about literal slavery that led eventually to the abolishment of slavery in the Western world. When Paul wrote to Philemon about his run away slave Onesimus he said in Philemon 15 and 16, "Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good-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." These words were the nails that finally put slavery in the coffin where it belonged. But it took centuries for Christians to grasp the implications of Paul's words. If it was not for servants of God fighting slavery we could still have millions today being treated like animals rather than like persons made in the image of God.
Paul has some powerful words in I Cor. 7:21-23, "Were you a slave when you were called? 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." The whole point of Paul is that Christians are to be free from all forms of slavery except slavery to Christ. Our job as slaves of Christ is to be rebels against all other forms of slavery, and to help people escape from all other forms of slavery.
The exodus out of Egypt was the great deliverance of God's people out of slavery. Salvation in the New Testament is also an exodus out of bondage to sin. Slavery is the number one problem of man, and freedom is the number one goal. The only adequate answer is a transfer of ownership. The slave to sin has to find a master who will purchase him. That is what the Gospel is all about. Jesus is the new Master who bought us with His blood. We are now free to come under his ownership and be slaves to Him rather than slaves to sin and all of the masters of the flesh. The Gospel revolves around the idea of voluntary slavery. We are freed by faith in Christ to choose a new master, and like Paul, become slaves to the Lord Jesus.