March 9, 2014 Session 2. Who We Work For, Commentary1
The Passage: Ephesians 6:5-9
The Setting: In Ephesians 5, Paul commanded us to be filled with the Holy Spirit and began
to show how submission and reverence are to be carried out in our relationships. Paul
addressed family relationships—husbands, wives, and children—before turning to work
relationships. Paul addressed both slaves and masters, grounding every aspect of their work
under the lordship of Christ.
5 Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your
heart, as to Christ.
KEY WORDS: Slaves (v. 5)—This word can denote the lowest of slaves but also came to be
the most frequently used word for a servant. In the context of Ephesians 6, Bible students
generally associate this role with that of the contemporary employee.
Masters (v. 5)—Frequently translated ―lord,‖ this word refers to a person having authority
over another. In contemporary application, Bible students usually associate this role with that
of an employer or supervisor.
It is imperative to understand that Scripture does not endorse slavery. It is a historical fact
that slavery reaches back to antiquity. The Old Testament deals with slaves in a number of
Scriptures (Ex. 21; Deut. 15), but does so with the express idea that the Israelites were once
slaves themselves. Yahweh continually forbids the mistreatment of slaves in the Old
Testament and encourages their inclusion into the community of faith. Likewise, in the
New Testament slaves are recognized as valued members of the society. A number of Jesus’
parables cast slaves (and masters) in a favorable light depending upon their relationship to
Many have grappled with why slavery was not abolished either in the Old or New
Testaments. It may be argued that as the infant church began to grow in the first century
they were in the minority and concerned not so much with social change as they were with
individual change. The early churches took the commands of Christ to make disciples of all
nations as their charge and were busy preaching and teaching the good news on the very
bounds of society in the ancient world.
The Commentary is written by our lesson’s authors. I claim no original work except as noted.
Doctrinally, Paul as well as other New Testament writers seem to focus on
revolutionizing the attitudes of both slaves and masters to reflect the inward change
wrought by the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. It would be through this spiritual change
that slaves as well as masters would revolutionize the rubric of master/slave relationship
Lastly, first century extra-biblical writings as well as Scripture seem to indicate that the
idea of slavery was not as repulsive to Christians but rather was just part of life. Clearly, in
his letters Paul repeatedly identified himself (as well as others) as a slave of Jesus Christ. In
such instances, Paul did not distance himself from slavery but embraced it as a driving
force in his life. He reasoned that the relationship between himself and Christ was one of
Master/servant, and it was for the better. As Peter noted, God does not show favoritism
(Acts 10:34), thus the unity of Christians together in harmony. It would be this Christian
unity and the belief that regardless of one’s station in life that all are created equal before
God that would lead to the abolishment of slavery in the modern era.
As we read Ephesians 6:5-9, we must be careful how we approach this passage and
apply it to contemporary society. It must be noted that in our society we need to see the
master/servant rubric more in line with the employer/employee relationship. Nowhere is
the theology of this passage needed more than in the modern workplace. As an
employer/employee, each of us is faced with the truths of this passage just as were the firstcentury recipients. It is not scripturally right to neither abuse workers nor shirk work
responsibilities. The core theological values which Paul addressed are as relevant today as
they were 2000 years ago.
When we think of ―work‖ and who we work for, we often think of our own present
circumstances. While our tasks might be redundantly repetitive or exhilaratingly exciting, it
is not the job itself which is a means to an end. Rather, we Christians work as if laboring
for Jesus Christ Himself. He is the one who has providentially placed us where we are and
given us the tasks at hand. It is interesting to note that the Lord chose Bezalel son of Uri
and Oholiab son of Ahisamach (Ex. 31:1-11) to oversee the design and implementation of
the tabernacle. Two ordinary men, yet chosen by God for an extraordinary task. Paul noted
in Colossians 3:23 that whatever we do, we are to do it enthusiastically as something done
for the Lord. Likewise in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 Paul admonished the Thessalonians church
to continue to respect those who worked hard among them. As we labor we can face the
tasks as either drudgery or opportunities to be pleasing to the Lord.
When we see the word, slaves in the New Testament, we probably have a number of
reactions, all of which need to be critically examined in light of practices during the first
century AD. If we examine the parables of Jesus, we see a commentary on the position of
slaves in New Testament society. For example, in Matthew 24:45-47 we see the slave put in
charge of not only the master’s home but also other slaves as well as all possessions.
Clearly this type of service is not what some have associated with the term ―slavery‖ in
modern society. Likewise the slave owes his master complete submissiveness and sworn
loyalty (Matt. 8:9). At issue in the New Testament is the power the master has over the
slave. If the slave did well and was honest and forthright, then it was within the power of
the master to reward the slave (Matt. 18:27). However, if the slave was wicked and did evil,
then the master could mete out punishment (v. 34; 25:30). We need to acknowledge that
slavery did exist. However, we need to see this passage in light of being obedient in what
we are called to do for God. By this we are not expressly speaking of ministry (although
ministers must labor as strong and worthy servants of God) but of ordinary people, chosen
by God, for extraordinary tasks!
Paul began Ephesians 6:5 with a direct address to slaves to obey (literally to keep on
obeying) their earthly masters. The central thesis of this verse is essentially to keep on
being obedient in what you are doing—your work is an offering to Christ. The verse notes
that servants are to obey those over them with fear and trembling. The phrase is a favorite
of Paul’s and is used throughout his letters (1 Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 7:15; Phil. 2:12 all use the
same Greek words in the same order). However, the concept is not unique to Paul. In fact,
the idea can be found throughout both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament
the concept is found often in Wisdom literature (Job 4:14; Pss. 2:11; 55:5).
The Gospels have the concept that often denotes a person who is wholeheartedly
seeking Christ (Mark 5:33). The concept of fear and trembling emphasizes the servant’s
relationship to the master. It is a proper obedience which often is seen in biblical literature
as sincerity of your heart or a singleness of heart or a unity of purpose. A core concept in
Pauline literature is the idea of heart, cardiac, as the driving force behind the human being.
It is with the heart that servants are to obey their masters. The heart in New Testament
literature is often seen as the seat of physical, spiritual, and mental life. It is an all-inclusive
sense. In the Christian, it reflects being rightly related to Christ. Yet, the heart cannot be
tamed by man himself, for it is fallen by nature and is the seat of human will and decisions.
The heart directs humanity in how we make moral choices or engage in immoral vices.
Paul, therefore, instructed servants to obey their masters (with heartfelt fear and
trembling) as they would obey Christ. This connotes integrity and a singleness of purpose
that can only come through a redeemed relationship with God! Be careful to note that Paul
did not say that the servants were to see their masters as Christ Himself, nor were they to
give allegiance that is due Christ to their earthly masters. Rather, as they worked at their
earthly jobs, they were to do so as if they were working for Christ Himself.
The first-century usage of masters stands over against the concept of slave or servant.
The literal word used by Paul here is Kurios, which is often translated as Lord in reference
to Christ. In this context the better translation is master, owner, or even better for our
contemporary application, employer. Notice that Paul specifically did not use the Greek
word despotes (from which we get our English, despot) which is often used in reference to
an absolute earthly master. In fact, despotes also carries the connotation of ―lord,‖
―master,‖ or ―owner,‖ yet in this verse Paul did not make the distinction of a despotic
master. In Ephesians 6 the master has responsibility to respectfully tend to and care for the
servant(s), as well as to be fair and consistent to his workers. The type of master Paul
mentioned is one that is likened to Christ Himself. A master living a Christ-centered life
will reflect the grace with which he himself has been blessed (cf. Philemon).
6 Don’t work only while being watched, in order to please men, but as slaves of Christ,
do God’s will from your heart.
7 Serve with a good attitude, as to the Lord and not to men,
8 knowing that whatever good each one does, slave or free, he will receive this back
from the Lord.
KEY WORDS: A good attitude (v. 7)—Literally, the compound word here is ―well/good
mind.‖ It reflects the attitude of goodwill, kindliness, enthusiasm, or even affection or love.
In Ephesians 6:6, Paul further exhorted servants to not simply work only while
being watched, in order to please men. Christian servants received two commands—one
negative and one positive—concerning how they should structure their work ethic. The
negative command calls for servants to work with integrity for their masters, as though
working for Christ. Christian servants were not to simply work to catch the eyes of their
master in order to please him. This injunction is very similar to and in the same spirit as
Paul’s command to the Colossians. In his letter to the church at Colossae, Paul noted,
―Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men‖
(Col. 3:23). Servants who work only to please men are simply currying favor and seeking
to salve their own consciences. At issue here is the motivation of the servants’ activity via
their relationship to Jesus Christ. Positively, in light of their Christian faith the servants
should work as if they are servants of Christ (rather than simply servants of their earthly
masters). This mindset can only be accomplished if those working are doing so from an
inward motivation. In fact, the Greek of Ephesians 6:6 notes that the servants should work
motivated inwardly (literally from their ―soul‖).
Paul encouraged the servants to obey their masters with a good attitude. Literally the
Greek word used here may mean simplicity, sincerity, uprightness, frankness, generosity, or
liberality. The Greek word clearly connotes both a good attitude but also one which is from
the heart. Paul spoke of a gladdened heart graced by Jesus Christ and worked out with a
refreshing frankness that caused masters to notice the lives of their servants. This type of
attitude cannot be forced or coerced in any way or by anyone. It is an attitude that springs
from a new heart that has been redeemed by God Himself.
A good attitude is paramount in the service for those servants who profess Christ. Paul
reiterated a number of points he had already made thus far in this letter. Specifically Paul
noted that the servants should serve as to the Lord! This command indicates the reason or
motivation for the way in which we serve. In essence, Paul stated that we who are
Christians should serve with an attitude of eagerness or zealousness as is befitting our walk
Who rewards those who serve as Paul commanded in the previous verses? In 6:8 Paul
noted specifically that each servant should know ―that whatever good each one does … he
will receive this back from the Lord.‖ Clearly the principle of reaping what we sow is being
put forth here by Paul (Gal. 6:7). The way Paul began this verse illustrates that each person
(whether slave or free) should be mindful of the fact that God rewards those who serve
wholeheartedly (Luke 6:35; Rev. 22:12). The reward will come from the Lord, but Paul did
not specify what or when God would reward the faithful. However, it is possible that he
was implying the rewards would take place at the end of days (Rom. 2:6-10; 2 Cor. 5:10).
Regardless of when God rewards His servants, no one should believe that they will receive
merely temporal rewards for living the Christian ethic.
9 And masters, treat your slaves the same way, without threatening them, because
you know that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism
Paul used a coordinating conjunction And masters to stress that masters
(employers/supervisors) are to approach their work ethic with the same obedience, attitude,
and desire to please Christ as their workers are. Likewise, at the end of 6:9 Paul linked both
masters and servants by noting that there is no favoritism with Christ. Unity under the
lordship of Jesus binds both the master and servant together as they live their lives
according to God’s Word. The vast dominion of Christ’s lordship over humanity is quickly
explored in this verse. Just as husband/wife and parent/child relationships are forged by
familial bonds so also are the bonds of Christ’s love over the master/servant relationship.
It would have been shocking for the first-century audience to hear Paul expound on
this universal truth of treating one’s slaves in the same manner as one expects to be treated
by them. However, that was exactly what Paul enjoined masters to do: treat your slaves the
Furthermore, the masters were not to threaten their servants. The only possible
explanation that could be given to keep fallen man in check is that Christian slave owners
knew that they too must answer for their actions. Paul explicitly stated that, ―because you
know that both their [slaves] Master and yours [masters] is in heaven.‖ Even though
masters exercised power over varying numbers of servants, Paul warned that their heavenly
Master was neither influenced nor impressed by such (Col. 4:1). Paul made it explicitly
clear that Christ will show neither partiality nor favoritism on the day in which He rewards
One’s attitude toward work should be scripturally driven. As we approach the tasks
which we assign others or are assigned ourselves, we must ask ourselves, ―Are we working
to please men or God?‖ It is only through the lordship of Jesus Christ that we can be the
people Christ has called us to be—both practically and theologically. If our theology does
not match our life and attitudes, is our theology really a theology at all? James states ―As
the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.‖ (Jas. 2:26). While
we go about our work we must ask, ―would God be pleased with the quality and quantity of
labor I am producing?‖ Let us work with all of our hearts—not to please those over us but
rather with a sincerity of heart. We must serve with good attitudes and be good stewards of
the time and energy God has given us. We serve God this way knowing that one day we
will stand before Him to hopefully hear the words ―Well done my good and faithful
Live it Out
Consider completing one of these applications based on what God is calling you to do.
Change your attitude. It is unacceptable for a believer in Christ to have a bad attitude
toward those in leadership. Think about a leader for whom you have a bad attitude.
Confess your desire to obey God by acting in a Christ-like way in thought and speech
toward this person. Pray for the strength to start today.
Change your focus. Before you begin your day, spend time in Scripture and prayer. Focus
on the truth that in every task of the day, you are truly working for Christ. As part of
your devotional time each day, pray for the leader you identified in the previous
Change your workplace. Is your workplace at home, at church, in the community, or a
combination? Wherever it is, let your respect for the work, those you work with, those
you work for, and those who work for you be contagious. In your conversations this
week, be an example of godly respect for the work and for all the people involved.
Draw others to Christ by your determination to work for Jesus in all things.
Whatever your tasks may be, work for the true Master. Work for Christ.
SLAVE, SERVANT: Person totally responsible to and dependent upon another person.
Slavery was prevalent and widely accepted in the ancient world. The economy
of Egypt, Greece, and Rome was based on slave labor. In the first Christian century, one
out of three persons in Italy and one out of five elsewhere was a slave. Huge gangs toiled in
the fields and mines and on building projects. Many were domestic and civil servants.
Some were temple slaves and others craftsmen. Some were forced to become gladiators.
Some were highly intelligent and held responsible positions.
Legally, a slave had no rights; but, except for the gangs, most were treated humanely and
were better off than many free persons. Domestics were considered part of the family, and
some were greatly loved by their masters. Canaan, Aram, Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia
had fewer slaves because it proved less expensive to hire free persons. Still, the institution
of slavery was unquestioned. The Stoics insisted that slaves were humans and should be
treated accordingly; Israel’s law protected slaves in various ways; Christian preachers
called upon masters to be kind, but only the Essenes opposed slavery. See Essenes; Jewish
A person could become a slave as a result of capture in war, default on a debt, inability to
support and ―voluntarily‖ selling oneself, being sold as a child by destitute parents, birth to
slave parents, conviction of a crime, or kidnapping and piracy. Slavery cut across races and
Manumission or freeing of slaves was possible and common in Roman times. Masters in
their wills often freed their slaves, and sometimes they did so during their lifetimes.
Industrious slaves could make and save money and purchase their own freedom. By the
first Christian century, a large class of freedmen had developed. There was even
a synagogue of the Freedmen in Jerusalem (Acts 6:9).
As compiled by the authors of the Biblical Illustrator and Advanced Bible Study.
Slaves—The Greek word for slaves can mean ―servant‖ or ―slaves,‖ but it indicated the
class of people who had lost their freedom either through legal means, financial means, or
were born in that condition. They made up a large portion of the population in that day,
and they had no rights of their own unless their freedom was bought through a financial gift
or the grace of the one who owned them.
Masters—The term could refer to either slaveholders or to heads of households who had
both slaves and employees.
Masters—Masters in verse 5 is a translation of the Greek word Kurios, which also may be
rendered as ―sir‖ or ―lord.‖ The word refers to any persons in authority, of high rank,
slaveholders, or heads of households. Of course, the word is also applied to Jesus whereby
He is called Lord or Master.
Scripture uses master in two basic senses: (1) one in authority and (2) teacher. 1. As
one in authority, master applies to slaveholders and to heads of households (which in
biblical times frequently included slaves or servants). Greek terms translated master (of
servants or a household) include despotes, kyrios, oikodespotes (Mark 13:35; Luke
13:25; 14:21; 16:13; Eph. 6:9). 2. KJV regularly translated the Greek didaskalos (teacher)
as master in the Gospels (as in Matt. 8:19; 9:11). KJV twice rendered kathegetse (guide,
teacher) as master (Matt. 23:8, 10). KJV sometimes also translated rabbi (rabbi, teacher)
and rabboni (my rabbi, my teacher) as master (Matt. 26:25; Mark 9:5; John 4:31). Modern
translations render the above terms as teacher or rabbi. Luke often uses epistates (manager,
chief) where Matthew and Mark have teacher (didaskalos), rabbi, or Lord (for
example, Luke 5:5; 8:24, 45; 9:33, 49; 17:13).
A good attitude—The Greek word eunoia, rendered a good attitude in 6:7, literally meant
―to be well-disposed toward something or someone.‖ Often it had the idea of ―good will,‖
and sometimes carried the meaning of ―meeting someone halfway.‖
A good will—A good will in verse 7 renders one Greek word (eunoia), a word that means
―wholeheartedness,‖ ―enthusiasm,‖ ―kindliness,‖ or ―eagerness.‖ It describes the kind of
attitude servants were to manifest in their service to their masters.
): ―Master,‖ when the translation
n, ―ruler,‖ ―lord‖ (Sir), often translated ―lord,‖ denotes generally the owner or
master of a servant or slave (Gen 24:9, etc.; 39:2, etc.; Ex 21:4, etc.; Dt 23:15 bis; 2 Sam
9:9, 10 twice; Prov 30:10); elsewhere it is rather ―lord‖ or ―ruler‖ (often king, e.g. 1 Sam
24:6, 8; 26:16); in the plural
m, it is, as the rule, used only of God (but see Gen
19:2, 18; Dt 10:17; Ps 136:3, ―Lord of lords‖; Isa 26:13, ―other lords‖; 19:4 (Hebrew
―lords‖); 24:2). Baʽal ―lord,‖ ―owner,‖ is translated ―master‖: ―the master of the house‖
(Ex 22:8; Jdg 19:22, 23); ―the ass his master’s crib‖ (Isa 1:3). We have it also translated
―masters of assemblies‖ (Eccl 12:11). Compare Ecclesiasticus 32:1, ―master (of a feast),‖
the Revised Version (British and American) ―ruler‖; Jn 2:9, ―ruler of the feast‖; rabh (Dan
1:3; Jon 1:6, ―shipmaster‖); rabh, Aramaic, ―great,‖ ―mighty,‖ ―elder‖ (Dan 4:9; 5:11,‖
master of the magicians‖); also sar, ―head‖ or ―chief‖ (Ex 1:11, ―taskmasters‖; 1 Ch 15:27,
―master of the song,‖ the Revised Version margin ―the carrying of the ark,
Hebrew the lifting up‖);
r, ―to call,‖ ―to awake,‖ is also rendered ―master‖ in the King
James Version, ―The Lord will cut off the man that doeth this, the master and the scholar,‖
margin ―him that waketh and him that answereth,‖ the Revised Version (British and
American) as the King James Version margin (Mal 2:12).
The verb ―to master‖ does not occur in the Old Testament, but we have in Apocrypha
(The Wisdom of Solomon 12:18) ―mastering thy power‖ (
), the Revised
Version (British and American) ―being sovereign over (thy) strength.‖
In the New Testament
s answers to
n as ―master‖ (1 Tim 6:1, 2; 2 Tim
2:21), rendered also ―Lord‖ (Lk 2:29,etc.); Kurios, is ―Master,‖ ―Lord,‖ ―Sir,‖ used very
frequently of God or of Christ (Mt 1:20, 22, 24), translated ―Master‖ (Mt 6:24; 15:27; the
King James Version Mk 13:35; Rom 14:4, etc.);
s, a ―leader,‖ is translated
―Master‖ (Mt 23:8 (the King James Version), 10); didaskalos, a title very often applied to
our Lord in the Gospels, is ―Teacher,‖ translated ―Master‖ in the King James Version Mt
8:19; 9:11; Mk 4:38; Lk 3:12, etc.; the Revised Version (British and American) ―Teacher‖;
also Jn 3:2, 10; Jas 3:1, ―be not many masters,‖ the Revised Version (British and American)
―teachers‖; rhabbi, rhabbei (―Rabbi‖) (a transliterated Hebrew term signifying ―my
Teacher‖) is also in several instances applied to Jesus, the King James Version ―Master‖
(Mt 26:25, 49; Mk 9:5; 11:21; Jn 9:2 (the Revised Version (British and American) leaves
untranslated) Mk 10:51, ―Rabboni,‖ the King James Version ―Lord‖; Jn 20:16
(―Rabbouni‖), the Revised Version (British and American) ―Rabboni,‖ which see).
For ―master‖ the Revised Version (British and American) has ―lord‖ (1 Sam
26:16; 29:4, 10; Am 4:1; Mk 13:35; Rom 14:4); ―master‖ for ―lord‖ (Gen 39:16; 2 Pet
2:1; Rev 6:10); for ―good man of the house‖ (Mt 24:43; Lk 12:39), ―master of the house‖;
in Eph 6:5, the Revised Version margin gives ―Gr lords‖ (in 6:9, ―their Master and yours‖ is
also Greek Kurios); instead of ―the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ‖ (Jude 1:4),
the Revised Version (British and American) reads ―our only Master and Lord, Jesus
Christ,‖ margin ―the only Master, and our Lord Jesus Christ‖; for ―overcame them‖ (Acts
19:16), ―mastered both of them.‖
ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND READING:
―Slaves of Christ‖
By Hal Lane, pastor of West Side Baptist Church, Greenwood, South Carolina.
IN EPHESIANS 6:5-9 Paul gave instructions to Christians who were slaves and owners of
slaves. He urged Christian slaves to do their best in serving their human masters for the
sake of Christ, their heavenly Master. He urged Christian slave owners not to threaten their
slaves and reminded them that they too had a heavenly Master. The purpose of this article
is to explore the implications of the phrase for Paul’s readers and for believers today.
In Greek literature doulos or ―slave‖ referred to a person who was considered the property
of a Kurios or ―master.‖ Greeks highly prized personal freedom and did not use doulos
positively when referring to human relationships.1 Free Greeks considered the position of
doulos to be the most debased role in society and found no virtue in subjection to another.
Interestingly the concept of being a slave to a deity was also foreign to Greek thought.
Greeks considered themselves philoi (friends) rather than douloi (slaves) of the many gods
and goddesses in the Greek pantheon.2
The Hebrew Old Testament provides the background for Paul’s use of the phrase ―slaves of
Christ.‖ Slavery was an accepted institution in the nations of the ancient Near East.3 The
great act of deliverance in Israel’s history was their rescue from slavery in Egypt. That
experience affected legislation regarding Israelite treatment of slaves (Deut. 15:12-15).
Mosaic legislation forbade enslavement of Israelites by fellow Israelites beyond six years
of debt repayment (Ex. 21:1-11).
Mosaic legislation however allowed the permanent enslavement of peoples from other
nations (Lev. 25:44-46). Male slaves were required to be circumcised (Gen. 17:10-14), and
all slaves shared in religious festivals (Ex. 12:44) and Sabbath rest (20:10).
A critical difference between Greek religious vocabulary and Hebrew vocabulary involved
the use of ―slave‖ (Hebrew ebed from abad, ―to serve‖) by Old Testament writers when
referring to worship of God. Old Testament writers used imagery and vocabulary of human
slavery to describe service to God (Ex. 23:25; Josh. 24:21; Ps. 100:2). The Old Testament
refers to some of the more faithful and better known individuals as servants of God (1 Sam.
23:10; Num. 12:7; Isa. 20:3). Isaiah used the title ―Servant‖ to refer to the coming Messiah
(Isa. 42:1; 49:3; 53:11). The revelation that the Messiah would be the Servant of the Lord
prepares us to understand the New Testament phrase ―slaves of Christ.‖ The virtues of
obedience to God and humility are essentially linked to the imagery.
10 | P a g e
The New Testament use of doulos follows the Old Testament pattern. References are
sometimes to the institution of human slavery (Matt. 8:9; 26:51) but more frequently the
human institution of slavery served as an illustration of subjection to God. In the Gospels
Jesus frequently used the imagery of human slavery to illustrate service to God in His
parables (24:45-51). These parables present God as the Master (Kurios) and the slaves as
those charged with tasks and responsibilities. The Master holds the slaves accountable for
their actions and dispenses justice based on the slaves’ faithfulness (25:14-30).
Jesus used doulos to describe His authority over His disciples (10:24). Jesus called them
friends instead of slaves because of their intimate knowledge of Him (John 15:15). Jesus
retained, however, His position over them as Kurios (20:28). Using a Greek verb related to
doulos, Jesus warned that no man can serve (douleuo) two masters (Matt. 6:24). He urged
His disciples to be slaves of one another in humility and service (Mark 10:44). Jesus set
the proper example for humility toward one another when He took the role of a doulos in
washing their feet (John 13:1-16). Washing the feet of guests was the most menial of all
tasks and by accomplishing the task Jesus demonstrated the dignity of serving as a doulos
and its related verb form douleuo more than any other New Testament writer. Paul
described Jesus’ humility in the incarnation as ―assuming the form of a slave [doulos]‖
(Phil. 2:7a). Jesus’ submission to the will of the Father was an example for His followers.
Because He was faithful, He was exalted as Kurios (―Lord,‖ see 2:8:11).
Paul declared that all people are spiritual slaves of someone or something. Paul’s
conversion on the Damascus road led to his absolute subjection to Christ. He often
introduced himself in his letters as ―a slave of Christ Jesus‖ (Rom. 1:1; Phil.1:1) or ―slave
of God‖ (Titus 1:1). In writing to the Romans, Paul confronted those who distorted the
message of salvation by grace as a license to sin. He reminded his readers that as believers
they were slaves of God and no longer slaves of sin (Rom. 6:15-22).
With this background we turn to Paul’s instructions to the Christians in Ephesus who were
slaves. Ephesus was one of the largest cities of its time and the center of culture and
commerce in Asia Minor.4 Some scholars have estimated that in the first century AD, onethird of the population in Italy were slaves and in other parts of the Roman Empire, onefifth were slaves.5
Paul’s address to slaves and masters probably indicated a sizeable number of believers
associated with slavery in the Ephesian church. Some question why Paul appears to accept
slavery and fault him for not condemning it. If Paul had urged believing slaves to run
away, the result clearly would have been bloodshed. Paul dealt with the realities of
Christians locked in the institution of slavery in his time.
11 | P a g e
The liberating message of love in the gospel of Jesus Christ would lead historically to the
abolition of human slavery in many cultures and societies.
Paul focused on a different kind of slavery and freedom. All believers, regardless of their
stations in life, can find freedom from sin through submission to God through faith in
Christ. All believers are to use their time, talents, and resources in doing their best for their
―human masters,‖ reminding them of their ultimate accountability to their heavenly Master.
Human masters were likewise to submit as slaves of God and show respect to those who
Christians today are more likely to identify with the Greeks’ love of autonomy rather than
the biblical view of submission. The rejection of submission to God is actually much older
than Greek culture. Satan is the author of rebellious autonomy; the sin of pride led to the
fall of Adam and Eve. We all serve someone or something. We can serve God or we can
serve Satan. Jesus humbled Himself and came as a slave in order to free us from the power
of Satan, sin, and death. God summons us to submit our lives to Him and find true freedom
in serving Him.
A SLAVE’S STATUS IN THE FIRST CENTURY
By Gary M. Poulton, president emeritus and professor of history, Virginia Intermont
College, Bristol, Virginia.
THROUGHOUT RECORDED HISTORY man has enslaved his fellow man. Even though
this practice has been largely suppressed, indications are that it still exists in various
people-groups today. Although abhorred and thus rarely seen in most of modern
civilization, slavery was common in ancient societies. The institution was accepted as
normal and as a crucial aspect of political, social, and economic life.
Greek and Roman civilizations were supported by widespread slavery. The Romans in
particular utilized slaves to a great degree. The Empire’s numerous wars of conquest
generated a plentiful supply of war captives, along with their families, which the Romans
quickly turned into slaves.
A person’s fate after becoming a slave was somewhat dependent on his or her talents and
abilities, or simply the ―luck of the draw.‖ An educated slave might become the tutor of the
master’s children (many Greeks did this) or become a household servant. Others might be
consigned to work in the fields or the slow death of laboring in the mines. Even less
fortunate slaves might find themselves as unwitting participants in the bloody gladiatorial
12 | P a g e
Slavery extended throughout the Roman Empire, including the area we think of as firstcentury Israel, which was also under Roman control. At various times in their history, the
Jewish people had suffered enslavement under such peoples as the Egyptians and the
Babylonians. However, they has also been the enslavers of others. We see a number of
examples of slavery in the Old and New Testaments.
In fact, some of Jesus’ parables provided us the clearest snapshots of slavery in the first
century that we have. Matthew records, for instance, three parables that reveal a great deal
about slavery in the first century (see Matt. 18:21-35; 22:1-14; and 25:14-30).
During the time of Jesus, Israel was under Roman dominance, so it did not have a supply of
war captives as slaves. Instead Jews primarily had other Jews for their slaves. ―If you had
been a son or daughter of a well-to-do citizen of Jerusalem, your father might very well
have had in his establishment one or more servants who were not hired in the way that we
hire cooks . . . but who were actually the property of your father.‖1
Contributing Factors : Several factors could contribute to a person’s becoming a slave. In
the first parable (Matt. 18:21-35), we see debt as a reason for enslavement. In ancient
societies, which offered no bankruptcy laws or other legal protections, debt-ridden people
commonly because the slaves of those to whom they owed their debts. In other cases, a
father in debt might provide one of his children as payment. As abhorrent as this practice
seems to us today, such debtor-slaves were not bound for life but for a set period of time,
usually six years. If a child was used to satisfy a debt, the law permitted a parent or relative
to work and save enough money to pay off the debt and release the child. Debt slavery was
common in the first century in large part due to the excessive taxes the Romans levied.
Debt slavery in the first century could be compared to indentured servitude of American
colonials times. Moreover, since debtor slaves were generally fellow Jews, they typically
received better treatment than many slaves. In many cases they were treated more like
―day labourers rather than slaves; all slaves were granted a Sabbath day of rest.‖2
Other Jews became slaves because they had broken the law. Laws were especially strict for
persons who stole from others. Thieves had to repay their victims by becoming their
slaves. King Herod even decreed that a person who broke into another’s home should be
sold into slavery.3 Whereas Jewish rabbis often spoke out against debt slavery, they seemed
to accept slavery as a suitable punishment for robbery.
Still others in first-century Israel were slaves not because of financial debt or illegal
activities but because they had been purchased as slaves and brought to the region.
Wealthy Jews and Jewish slave merchants traveled to slave markets such as on the island of
13 | P a g e
Rhodes to buy foreign slaves. The seller was responsible for pointing out the physical
defects of slaves prior to the sale. Failure to do so would void the sale.
Common Conditions. Most Jewish slaves worked as shepherds or farmers and usually
served on the large estates of the wealthy. Because of expenses related to the slave’s
upkeep, having slaves make economic sense only when the owner could expect years of
service from the slave. This was easier to do on larger farms. Still, ancient records offer
numerous examples of small farms having one or two slaves. In these cases slaves work
alongside their owner in the field. Many times such slaves were treated as part of the
family. Even on smaller farms, thought, not all slaves worked the fields. Some worked as
domestic or household servants.
On large estates slaves usually lived in simple homes near their master’s home. On a small
farm a slave might actually have had a small room in his owner’s home or, when weather
permitted, would have slept outside or on the level roof.
Slavery is slavery, and finding anything positive to say about it is difficult. As hard as it
can be for us to imagine today, thought, some slaves had more secure living conditions than
some free people in ancient times. A Jewish slave in first-century Israel was better off than
slaves in other parts of the Empire.
In the Empire slaves were plentiful and their price was thus relatively low. As a result,
many Romans did not overly concern themselves with their slaves’ well-being. They
considered their slaves to be easily replaceable. Roman slave owners also had the power of
life and death over their human property. Roman slaves had little protection from a cruel
master other than escape. Although slaves running away was not a major problem in the
first-century, a captured runaway slave was dealt with harshly. At the very least the slave
would be beaten and branded as a runaway. Other times a runaway might be executed to
serve as an example to others.
The fewer slaves in first-century Israel made them more valuable and their cost high. This
is one reason why Jewish slaves were treated more humanely. Jewish religious traditions
also served to improve a slave’s condition. ―No ancient religion and jurisdiction was as
much opposed to slavery as the Mosaic one.‖4
As already stated, Jewish slaves were to be treated more like servants than slaves. In the
parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), we see how the owner entrusted his slaves with a
large sum of money. He treated them more like loyal servants rather than slaves.
14 | P a g e
Further, some slaves were treated better than day laborers, as owners did not want to injure
their property. Thus to protect his investment, a slave owner would occasionally hire a day
laborer and give him the more difficult or dangerous tasks.
Slaves were not to work on the Sabbath day and restrictions were placed on their
punishment. Rabbis were also involved in the buying and selling of slaves. Rabbis also
worked to prevent the sale of Jewish slaves to Gentiles. They wanted to insure that they
would not be placed in idolatrous homes.
Ending Slavery .
Regardless of conditions of enslavement, persons looked forward to manumission (the
legal freeing of a slave). Although not always observed, Old Testament laws called for
Jews who had become debtor slaves to be freed after six years of servitude. Repayment of
the debt by a family member or relative would also result in freedom. Some exemplary act
on the part of a slave might do the same. Certainly the possibility of being freed motivated
slaves to work harder and remain loyal to their masters. On the other hand, rabbis
―discouraged manumission [of non-Jews], since the freeing of slaves created an influx into
the Jewish community.‖5
This moderate view of Jewish slavery changed dramatically after the Jewish revolt against
Rome in AD 70. Thousands of Jews became Roman slaves and suffered a fate far worse
than that of earlier Jewish slaves.
Slavery gradually declined largely because the ―enhanced status given by Christ to every
individual soul, and also the teaching of the Stoic philosophers about the brotherhood of
man . . . made it difficult for the institution of slavery to survive.‖6 For that, we can all be
God as Master
By Gary Lee Gramling, associate professor of Christian Studies, Howard Payne University,
BEGINNING IN EPHESIANS 5?21, the apostle Paul addressed the relationships found in
the homes of the first-century Greco-Roman world: husband and wife (5:21-33), parent and
child (6:1-4), and master and slave (6:5-9).1 Paul’s instructions regarding the third
relationship provide some surprising insights into the concept of Jesus as Lord.
At first glance, Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9 seem to support the status quo in
terms of who was weak (wives, children, and slaves) and who was powerful (husbands,
15 | P a g e
fathers, and slave owners) in the first-century world. Yet, a closer look reveals some
radical ideas. Paul insisted, for example, that husbands must love their wives (5:25, 33).
Even more surprising is the appeal for wives and husbands to submit to one another (v.
21).2 Paul also required that Christian slave owners should not threaten their slaves,
realizing that they and their slaves have a common Master (6:9).
Paul envisioned that all three relationships would be transformed if believers approach their
treatment of other persona as a part of their service to the Lord. Believers, slaves and
masters included are urged to carry out their responsibilities as an expression of their
devotion to Jesus, their common Lord.
Slavery was widespread in the first-century world, having reached its peak between 150
and 50 B.C. Amazingly, the number of slaves in the city of Rome during the New
Testament period has been estimated at between 200,000 and 300,000 – approximately one
third of the city’s total population! For slaves to be sold in large numbers and to be
purchased like any other good was not unusual. The origins of slaves varied greatly, and
their skills were diverse. Agriculture and certain production industries were largely
dependent on the slave labor force.3
Each slave had an owner, or master. The status and living conditions of slaves varied, often
depending on the attitude of the owner. Conditions were extremely severe in some areas of
the empire. Yet slaves of the first century enjoyed certain legal rights and generally
received much better treatment than the African slaves of the nineteenth century in the
United States.4 Many slaves worked as domestic servants in households were they could
enjoy regular meals and a roof over their heads.5 Responsibilities of household slaves
included duties such as grinding corn, baking bread, sewing garments, boiling soap, and
pressing oil.6 In addition, slaves who had attained higher levels of education than their
masters were assigned the responsibility of teaching the children of the household.7
Paul provided a code of conduct for both slaves and slave owners who belong to Christ.
First, he urged Christian slaves to be obedient to their ―earthly‖ masters and to serve them
with singleness of heart (6:5). Secondly, Paul exhorted Christian slaves to render service to
their masters ―as to Christ‖ (NASB). In other words, they were to submit themselves with
good will as slaves of Christ (6:6-7). Next, Christian slaves were told that whatever good
they did would be repaid to them by the Lord (6:8). Finally, Paul addressed Christian slave
owners and required corresponding behavior from them. He also insisted that they were to
―give up threatening‖ because the Master of both slaves and owners is watching from
heaven, ―and there is no partiality with Him‖ (6:9, NASB).8
16 | P a g e
Interestingly, Paul used the same Greek word (kyrios) to refer to earthly masters (lords) and
to the Master (Lord) who is in heaven. Paul could have chosen either of two Greek words
that designate a master. The term despotes (found 10 times in the New Testament)
typically means in areas of family and public life and often carries overtones of harshness
and caprice.9 The word kyrios (which appears in our passage) occurs over 700 times in the
New Testament and is used most often in the literal sense of a master/owner of property
(house, vineyard, slaves, stewards, and so forth). It can also convey a title of courtesy
(sir/mister) or a religious title (Master/Lord).10 In the New Testament, kyrios can refer
directly to Jesus or to God the Father. In the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old
Testament), kyrios is used primarily to replace the tetragrammaton YHWH (Yahweh). This
enabled readers to reverence the personal name of God by not speaking it aloud.11
Some debate exists as to whether the Master (kyrios) in heaven mentioned in 6:9 denotes
the ascended Lord Jesus or God the Father. The context of the verse within the passage and
within the letter argues for understanding the Master to be Jesus. Moreover, Paul used
kyrios as a title for Jesus in all but one of his epistles. On the other hand, one could argue
that Paul intended kyrios as a reference to God the Father. The Old Testament records
several instances where the phrase ―Lord of heaven‖ is used to describe God the Father,
and He is also characterized more than once as being without partiality.
Furthermore, there are numerous New Testament examples where kyrios refers to Yahweh,
especially in quotations from the Old Testament. In some passages, the New Testament
writer has taken what was clearly a reference to Yahweh in the Old Testament and has
applied the term to Jesus.12 In the present passage, kyrios is best interpreted as a reference
to God the Son, our Lord Jesus, who now sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven.
In any case, the Master described in Ephesians 6:5-9 is set apart from any human master.
He is without parallel. This truth is expressed in several ways. First, the Master in heaven
is deserving and worthy of the single-hearted obedience (with fear and trembling) that must
be given to earthly masters. Thus the Christian slave was instructed to offer his compliance
to his earthly master ―as to Christ‖ (6:5, NASB).
Secondly, the heavenly Master is served and His will accomplished when heartfelt service
is rendered with good will and right motives, not just when someone is watching (6:6-7).
Jesus’ example and instruction enables enthusiastic acceptance of servant status by
Thirdly, the heavenly Master promises to reward every good deed performed by His
followers, whether enslaved or free (6:8). No other master in the world could make such a
17 | P a g e
Fourth, the heavenly Master has complete authority. Slaves and their owners have a
common Master. Both are servants in His eyes (6:9). Finally, unlike humans, the Master in
heaven is completely fair.
He will not be influenced by the ways that people have categorized and classified one
another; instead, He will judge both slaves and owners without partiality (6:9). ―The gold
ring of the master does not attract his eye, and it is not averted from the iron fetter of the
slave.13 What slave would not want to serve the Master described in this passage? His
character, authority, example, and words cause us to embrace wholeheartedly the lifestyle
that puts others first. We thrill at the privilege of having and serving such a Master!
Although contemporary American society has no masters and slaves, the principle holds
true. Christian employees should approach their work ―as to Christ‖ with sincerity,
faithfulness, and enthusiasm. At the same time, Christian employers should treat
employees with dignity, respect, and consideration. One’s relationship with God cannot be
separated from one’s relationship with others. The idea of a common Lord provides a
constant, dominating motive for how believers are to approach their relationships. Jesus
Christ is Lord of the slave. He is Master of masters. He is King of kings, and Lord of
By A. O. Collins , chairman, department of Christianity and philosophy, Houston Baptist
University, Houston, Texas
―There are three kinds of farm tools, the voiceless ones (wagons and plows), the
inarticulate ones (oxen and mules), and the speaking ones (slaves.)‖ In this manner Cato
described the status of slaves among Romans, advocating that they be discarded like other
objects when they became old, worn out, or diseased.1
Slavery was an integral part of many ancient cultures, but it reached its widest use in the
period just preceding and during the Roman Empire. At the beginning of the first century,
slaves made up at least half of the population. By the century’s end, the city of Rome had
400,000 slaves, one-third of the populace. Many households had several slaves, and a
wealthy master might have as many as a thousand, so many that they did not recognize
The campaigns of Caesar Augustus supplied thousands of slaves, and the institution of
slavery grew rapidly. Caecilius, in the time of Augustus, claimed in his will that he owned
4,116 slaves. In one transaction, Caesar sold 63,000 Gauls into slavery. Josephus (Wars
6.9.3) states that Titus brought 97,000 Jewish slave-captives from Jerusalem in AD 70.
18 | P a g e
In Rome, slaves became so numerous that the senate voted down a proposal requiring them
to wear distinctive garb, for fear that their numerical strength would become too apparent.
Slaves were procured in many different ways. Sometimes, of necessity a person offered
himself for enslavement to pay debts, or he turned over one or more of his children in
payment. At the market slaves were sold or exchanged for other slaves, cattle, or other
property. Slaves were given as gifts to relatives and friends or passed from one generation
to another through inheritance. Many slaves were house-born; and within some households,
slave breeding became a specialized practice in which intelligent, muscular males were
mated with healthy females to produce superior working stock.
After soldiers were defeated and slaughtered in war, their wives and children were brought
to Rome as slaves. Through piracy and kidnapping, professional slave dealers captured
people from Syria, Asia Minor, and the Greek islands, importing them for the Roman
market. Astute contractors provided slaves for the specific needs of public officials and
households, whether it be for entertainment, unique skills, or other purposes. While prices
for slaves varied from 300 sesterces for a farm worker to as much as 700,000 for a
grammarian, the average price was about 4,000 sesterces.2
Roman law gave the master complete power over the life and death of his subjects. A slave
could not own property; he was property. Although he could acquire goods, legally
everything belonged to his master. He could not be accused of stealing because, technically,
anything taken merely was displaced among the master’s holdings. A slave could neither
sue nor be sued. No legal marriage existed, only cohabitation. Mates could be separated
and off-spring taken at the will of the master.
In Rome, 80 percent of the industry and retail trade was carried out by slaves. Freedmen
and public slaves, nearly all of Syrian and Greek origin, provided most of the government
clerical work, managed the imperial palace, and held important cabinet positions.
Highly educated slaves, more intelligent than their masters, monopolized the medical,
financial, and literary fields, serving as research aids, financial secretaries, agents, tutors,
copyists, librarians, and philosophers. Among renowned Roman slaves were Epictetus,
Terence, and Andronicus.
In Roman households, a slave headed the work force and was responsible for day-to-day
activities. A domestic slave always was at his master’s side, at his elbows when he ate, at
each leg when he dressed, assisting him with his bath, beside him at the market, constantly
present. Slave companions were chosen for their skill at remembering names, physical
appearance, or social charm. A slave’s ability to cook, serve, or groom endeared him to his
19 | P a g e
master. Slaves guarded the master’s wealth, and sometimes other slaves guarded the slave
guards. In wealthy households, a Greek pedagogue was the first companion of a young
child and became his mentor, instructing him in manners, literature, and the arts.
Besides personal servants, the master secured attractive young boys as cupbearers. Dwarfs,
giants, or deformed individuals were prized curiosities. Dancers, musicians, mimics, actors,
and clowns provided entertainment.
In rural areas, where they worked on construction projects and on extensive country estates,
slaves were treated the worst. Food was bare subsistence. At night, they slept on work
camps, often chained. Old and weak slaves often were abandoned.
Some prisoner-of-war slaves were put into gladiator training schools and prepared for
public spectacles. They were forced to fight one another, thrown to wild animals, or dressed
as animals to have dogs turned on them. The night before gladiatorial contests, they were
―honored‖ with a banquet, looked over by the fans and gamblers, and bets were wagered on
As the first century progressed, treatment of slaves improved. They were accepted as part
of the extended family, enjoyed comfort, security, and permanent employment. On certain
occasions, such as the Saturnalia festival, slaves temporarily were freed and their masters
served them briefly. Favorite slaves were treated well, received gifts, advanced from one
position to another, and even could possess a slave of their own.
In the country, punishment for light offenses consisted of limited rations, extra labor, fines,
or confinement. Flogging was common, as was branding with an iron. In more serious
cases, a slave might be placed on a torture rack or thrown into a dungeon. Records exist of
punishment by being thrown into a fishpond to the eels and being burned collectively in a
pit. Mutilation, such as cutting out the tongue or cutting off hands, sometimes was
Household slaves generally were punished with extra work or denial of food. In severe
cases, they were sent to country to work in the quarries, mines, or farms at more strenuous
Runaway slaves were put into chains or put to death as a lesson to potential offenders. If a
slave owner was murdered, every slave in the household was held responsible. About the
time of Paul’s Letter to Philemon (AD 61), Pedanius Secundus had been killed by a slave,
and all 400 of his slaves then were executed, considered guilty for not preventing his death.
20 | P a g e
Freedom from slavery always was possible through any one of several means. Rich men
often secured slaves, set them up in business, and allowed them to keep part of their
earnings, or they permitted slaves to farm a portion of the estate. Eventually, when slaves
accumulated savings, they bought freedom. At times it was to the advantage of the owner to
liberate the slave, use the money to purchase another, and continue
control over the new freedman as a client.
In other circumstances, freedom was earned by dedicated service to the master. Faithful
slaves occasionally were released when they became old or too weak to work. A master, on
his deathbed, often granted freedom to dutiful slaves as one last noble gesture.
Slavery, by its very nature, became a moral poison in Rome society. Intelligent people
uprooted from land and family and forced into servitude could not be content forever.
Masters, dependent on the skill and labor of others, naturally felt threatened. Clever slaves
resorted to fraud, trickery, flattery, and other means to get what they wanted. Even the
master’s children became tools in the hands of unscrupulous slaves, who contaminated
them with their immoral teachings and habits.
In conquering others, Rome had been conquered. The saying arose, ―So many slaves so
many enemies.‖ Conditions became so volatile that more and more stringent laws had to be
passed to deal with the dissidents.
Slavery was accepted as part of the social fabric of the first century. People in general
thought no more of having slaves than our generation thinks of having employees or
domestic servants. A slave’s welfare and treatment depended on his relationship with his
master. The Greek word doulos, translated ―slave‖ or ―bondservant,‖ carried the idea of
commitment, resting on one’s dependence on his lord, and the master’s claim upon the
subject’s loyalty. In this respect, the term came to be used of the relationship of the
Christian to Christ, and Paul probably called himself a doulor of Christ (Rom. 1:1; Phil.
Often the question is asked, ―Why was slavery not condemned in the New Testament?‖
Some people have argued that because early Christians expected the imminent end of the
age they felt there was no need to challenge the institution of slavery. While that may be
true, the conflict between the Christian view of the worth of the individual and the practice
of slavery was not ignored completely. Slaves were attracted to the new religion because in
Christ one found a new sense of worth and self-respect. Recognizing that he was a being of
worth in the sight of God and other Christians, he realized that his social status was
secondary. In Christ, he was free.
21 | P a g e
Paul encouraged Christian masters to be considerate and slaves to be obedient (Eph. 6:5-9; Col.
3:22 – 4:1). In his letter to Philemon, Paul asked, not demanded, that because of their common
brotherhood in Christ, Onesimus be received not merely as a slave but as a brother ―both in the
flesh, and in the Lord‖ (Philem. 16). Some scholars suggest that Paul’s payment to Philemon was
an indication that he expected Onesimus to be set free. Although it would take centuries for the
thrust of the Christian gospel to be understood properly, ultimately it has led to the general
rejection of slavery in most of the world.
22 | P a g e