Intro: What is the best way to describe the Christian? Who is he really? We might start with the word Christian itself. It means one who follows Christ. It is close in meaning to the word disciple – a learner. I read recently about one of the early martyrs of the second century – a young man named Sanctus. He lived during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, when being a Christian was illegal. He was brought to trial in the city of Lyons, on that charge and commanded to renounce his faith. But no matter what question they would ask him his answer was always the same 4 words… “I am a Christian”. Eusebius, (church historian) tells us that he refused to tell his accusers his name, his nationality, his educational status, or whether he was bond or free. He only answered, I am a Christian. He was sentenced to death; He was “forced to run the gauntlet, subjected to wild beasts, and fastened to a chair of burning iron.” Those were the only words he uttered. That is who he was.
But the followers of Jesus were not called Christians until 10 to 15 years after the church began. (Acts 11:26 – called Christians first at Antioch of Syria) Before that they were referred to as disciples, believers, brethren, or those of the Way. The word Christian is only found 3 times in the NT.
The word Christian has been so diluted in its use today that it does not carry the impact or meaning as it did in the days of Sanctus, and the early Christians. It leisurely used as an adjective to describe everything from rock music to amusement parks.
The Bible uses other metaphors and descriptive terms for God’s people: pilgrims, soldiers, lights, branches on a vine, joint heirs with Christ, ambassadors, athletes in competition for a crown, citizens of the kingdom, members of the body of Christ, sheep in His flock, and even friends. Each of these terms describe a certain characteristic or responsibility of the relationship we have with Christ. They help us understand what it means to be a Christian.
Yet the Bible uses one metaphor more frequently than any other. It is a powerful word that presents a picture we might not expect. It challenges us as much as anything we can learn about being a Christian.
I. A Slave of Jesus Christ – Throughout the scriptures the followers of Jesus refer to themselves as slaves. To the church of the first century to be a Christian was to be a slave of Christ.
• Rom 1:1 – Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus; Phil 1:1– Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus; Titus 1:1– Paul, a servant of God; Col 4:12 – Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus; James 1:1– James, a servant of God; 2 Peter 1:1– Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ; Jude 1-Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ; Rev 1:1 – The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John; Rev 22:3 – No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.
A. The fruit of a mistranslation? The original Greek word that appears in all of these verses (and about 130 times in the NT) is the word, doulos (doo’-los). This word unequivocally means, slave. It designated one half of the slave-master relationship. But is that a prevalent picture of the disciple in the pages of the English versions of the NT. No, it is not. The reason is simple.
1. The word doulos is almost universally translated (or mistranslated) as servant in the English translation. This is true even though the Greek language has at least 6 words that can mean servant. The word doulos in not one of them. It only means “slave”. “The meaning is so unequivocal and self-contained that it is superfluous to give examples of the individual terms or to trace the history groups… The emphasis here is always on “serving as a slave”. Hence we have a service which is not a matter of choice for the one who renders it, which he has to perform whether he likes it or not, because he is subject as a slave to an alien will, to the will of the owner.” – The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.
a. While the slave is certainly a servant (serves another), not every servant is a slave. A key distinction between the two terms is that a servant is hired, but a slave (doulos) is owned.
b. The word doulos appears 124 times, yet it is only correctly translated as “slave” one time in the KJV. The other major translations follow suit. The ASV sometimes uses “bondservant” (which is a little closer – a servant under bondage), but the simple translation of “slave” is avoided whenever possible. (only the Goodspeed translation and the recent Holman Christians Standard Version consistently translate doulos as “slave”.)Why?
1) Many English translations followed the Latin version which translated doulos with the Latin term, servus (servant). It was an easy transition to use the English word, servant.
2) We have almost an allergic reaction to the word “slave”. The word has connotations and conjures up images that disturb us. – an oppressed person in chains. How can such an image be associated with our relationship to our loving Savior? There is very little room for accommodation in this word, unlike the word, servant. But despite this, the NT uses doulos to describe the Christian. The Christians of the 1st century, and beyond, used the word to describe themselves. The original audience of the apostolic message clearly understood what the word meant. We need to see it as they saw it.
B. The Slave in the Roman World – Slavery in the world of the NT was so commonplace that its existence as an institution was never seriously questioned or denounced.
1. Slaves constituted a large section of the population, and were made up of all types of trades and occupations. I am told that 20-30% of the empire were slaves – up to 12 million individuals – many becoming slaves through military conquest.
2. The slave was used in many occupations, not just for physical labor. From shopkeepers to doctors to teachers to cooks. Might have been hard to spot the slave from the free person in the street.
3. Some slaves were treated horribly (worst life possible), others as members of the family. Although there were side social and economic benefits (provided food and shelter) the life of a slave was difficult.
4. He had no personal identity, no legal status, no voice, and no ability to direct his own life. He was the property of another person.
5. A slave’s life experience depended on the character of his master. If his master was cruel and uncaring, his life was miserable. If his master was good and kind, his life could be rewarding.
C. The Slave in Hebrew History – The NT metaphor of the slave cannot be fully understood apart from the image and presence of slavery in Hebrew history. The Hebrew word meaning slave, ebed (eh’-bed), appears in the OT 799 times. It is never translated as slave in the KJV, opting again for servant or man-servant. The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures), however, translates ebed as doulos more than 400 times! The early Hebrew scholars understood what ebed meant – it was a slave (doulos).
1. The image of slavery runs deep in Israelite history. In Genesis 15 God told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land. That prediction was fulfilled after Joseph was sold into Egyptian slavery. Although God exalted Joseph out of slavery to a position of power in Egypt, when another Pharaoh arrived Abraham’s family were enslaved to hard labor in Egypt. God heard their cry and delivered them with a strong hand, as told in Exodus.
2. The Exodus did not end slavery for Israel. The text would indicate that they entered into a new type of bondage. They were once the property of Pharaoh, but now they are the property of Jehovah. Ex 19:4-6 – ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. 6 And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” They belonged to God. Later God told Moses… Lev 25:55 – For the Israelites are My slaves (ebed). They are My slaves (ebed) I brought out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. (HCSB) The covenant demanded that Israel obey their only Master, Jehovah, in all things. To be an Israelite meant to be a slave.
3. Historically Israel refused to obey God. God warned them that if they failed to obey Him, they would be enslaved by their enemies once again. Centuries later, after much longsuffering and prophetic warning by God, the nation was removed from the land once again taken into captivity.
4. But the merciful God brought a remnant back to the land, with the offer of freedom if they would obey. Nehemiah understood this, and prayed to God for the nation’s forgiveness. Read Neh. 1:5-11– And I said: “I pray, Lord God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments, 6 please let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, that You may hear the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You now, day and night, for the children of Israel Your servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel which we have sinned against You. Both my father’s house and I have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. 8 Remember, I pray, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations; 9 but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name.’ 10 Now these are Your servants and Your people, whom You have redeemed by Your great power, and by Your strong hand. 11 O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” For I was the king’s cupbearer. Do you see the slavery imagery here? – v. 10 They were set free in order to become slaves of God.
D. The Slave in Apostolic Preaching: The apostles understood the concept of slavery and utilized it in their preaching. They understood it in terms of both the Roman society and Jewish History.
1. As a Jew, they recognized that to be a slave of God was an element of the covenant the people of Israel made with God on Sinai, when they proclaimed, “All the words the Lord has spoken we will do” (Ex. 24:3) They also recognized the all the great men of faith; Abraham. Moses, David, and the prophets, were previously identified as the slaves, or servants (ebed) of God.
2. From the standpoint of the first century Roman culture, they understood the powerful picture that slavery presented for the spiritual relationship between Christ and His people. The Lord did not have to explain the concept or reality of slavery to them. The slave was in complete subjection to the master. The slave did not live for himself, nor did he work for his own good. He did not have an identity apart from his master’s will. The fact that they understood it (better than we ever could) did not remove the shock contained in the image. But the image was there, and provided a fitting self-designation for these disciples. Nothing else mattered except pleasing the Master.
3. What we might find compelling is that the image of the slave of Christ was not reserved for the “common believers” only. The apostles themselves took up this shocking appellation for themselves. What does it tell us to see this?
a. James could have boasted on the fact that he was the brother of the Lord, but instead he introduced himself in his writing as James, a slave of God (James 1:1) Later in his epistle he tells us that the Christian does not look at his life through the perspective if individual freedom – Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; but rather he ought to say if the Lord (Master) wills we will live and do this or that (James 4:13; 15) Do you see the slavery image in that admonition?
b. Peter, Jude and John all designated themselves as “slaves of God”.
4. But the image of the slave of Christ is preached in the context of the gospel message. Jesus has redeemed His people, and adopted them into the family of God. They are not just slaves, but joint -heirs. To be called a slave of God is proclamation of the greatest hope of all men. Look at the slave picture in the book of Revelation:
• Rev 1:1 – The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants (doulos) — things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John,
• Later in Rev. 7:3 he refers to the 144,000 who are sealed as the possession of God as the slaves (doulos) of God.
• The prophets are referred to as the slaves of God (10:7), as are the martyrs in Revelation 19:2.
• Then at the end of the book, all the collected believers are described in these words… Rev 22:1-5 – And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. 2 In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants (doulos) shall serve Him. 4 They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. 5 There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever.
Next lesson: Jesus’ use of the slave metaphor. What does it mean to be a slave of Christ? The Biblical writers understood it, do we?
Conclusion: There is very little that appeals to us in slavery. Who would want it, who would give up all identity and live completely to please another person? What type of life is that? For the Christian it is the only life that presents hope. It is life, and life abundantly. To live is to live as a slave of Christ. Will you submit?
Sermon derived from “Slave” by John MacArthur, 2010; pg. 1-38.