Over the nearly 30 years that I have preached the Bible, I have observed that while I am preparing my messages, God is often preparing me. This past year I traveled to Indonesia, where I taught in a church for five weeks. This trip taught me several important lessons that have enabled me to better identify with the Apostle Paul as he was writing this Epistle to the Philippians. First, I was able to identify with a man who was far removed from a body of believers that he loved greatly. I was far away from home and could not be in personal (eye-to-eye) contact with friends and fellow-believers back home. It was during this time away that I learned one of my brothers in the Lord in our home church had been diagnosed with a very serious form of cancer. I felt helpless and removed, and there seemed little that I could do from so far away.
Second, I was the beneficiary of a generous and sacrificial gift from Christian brothers and sisters who wanted to participate in my ministry to Indonesia. For a long time I have been associated with a wonderful organization that seeks to plant churches in the urban centers of the United States.8 Many of the staff and board of this fine organization are African Americans, some of whom I have known and served with for many years. My wife and I have gladly supported this ministry for years. When the time for me to leave for Indonesia drew near, one of my dear Christian brothers, the pastor of a predominantly African American church, took me aside and presented me with a gift from his church to help me on my way. This generous gift, graciously given by a church with needs of its own, helped me to identify with Paul, and the deep bond which he felt with the Philippians, because of their tangible participation with him as he went about preaching the gospel.
Third, it was this trip to Asia that gave me a deeper insight into the mindset of a servant. The home where I stayed in Jakarta had a maid. In biblical terms, this woman was a servant. I must confess that I felt very uneasy being constantly served by someone. She made coffee and tea whenever I wanted it. She brought my food to me and cleaned up after me. She washed and ironed my clothes. I felt guilty, not doing any of these things for myself, and so I attempted to help by clearing the dishes from the table and taking them to the kitchen. And yet when I did so, I realized it distressed her. She was uncomfortable when I prevented her from serving me, more uncomfortable than she was serving me. In her mind, and in her culture, serving was “her place,” and I struggled to accept that. I was amazed by her attitude toward her service. It was not just her place to serve, it was her honor to do so.
I finally realized that for me to refuse or circumvent this woman’s service was depriving her of her honor. I was uneasy with the appearance of being on a higher level than she, and she was most uneasy being treated as though she were on the same level. I still have not worked out this matter of social structure to my own satisfaction and comfort, but thanks to this very lovely older woman I have come to understand the “servant spirit” much better. It is the “servant spirit” Paul emphasizes and exemplifies in his Epistle to the Philippians.
As we approach the first two verses of Philippians, it will be helpful for us to consider the structure of the entire epistle. As this brief outline suggests, the conclusion of Philippians is very closely related to the introduction. Both reveal Paul’s personal perspective on his present circumstances and on his relationship with the Philippian saints. What is not as evident from this brief outline is the way that verses 1-11 introduce the major themes that Paul will develop much more fully in this brief letter. In very general terms, we may outline the structure of Philippians as follows:
Paul’s perspective as he commences this epistle
The Body of Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians
Paul’s perspective as he closes this epistle
The Book of Philippians deals with some of the greatest doctrines of the faith. These doctrines are not introduced so that the Philippians may write them down in their notebooks or merely arrange them in their heads. These doctrines are introduced so that throughout the history of the church the saints who read them may be transformed in terms of their perspective and their practice. Throughout this epistle, the reader is challenged to know Christ more fully, and then to live Christ. This happens when one has the same perspective, the same priorities, and the same practices of the Master. In Paul’s words, “For to me, to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). This is why he writes, “You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had” (Philippians 2:5).
For Paul, life is the opportunity to live out, to incarnate, so to speak, Christ in our own lives, in our attitudes and our actions. The perspective which Paul seeks to promote in this epistle is not just his own, but it is also—and most importantly—that of his Master, Jesus Christ. It is this perspective that we are to embrace as our own and to live out in our lives so that for us, as well as Paul, “to live is Christ.”
1 From Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and deacons. 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I don’t know how many “mail merge letters” my wife and I have received in recent years, but there have been many. Such letters appear to be personal, but we know they are not. My experience with computers over the years has taught me how such letters are written. One general letter is written, which will be sent to a large number of people. But there is a special technique used to make the letter appear as though it were written just to you. At certain points in the letter, such as the place for the recipient’s name, blank spaces or “fields” are left open. From a list supplied to it, the computer then fills in these blanks, so that the letter that comes to our house begins, “Dear Bob and Jeannette.” Thus, the letter looks personal, but it is really a mass mailing. (I confess, I always look at the postage on the envelope, and I usually find that my “personal letter” was sent bulk mail.)
Paul’s letters followed the standard format of his day, but they were by no means “bulk mail,” and they most certainly were not “mail merge” correspondence. Students of the correspondence of Paul’s day recognize that Paul’s greeting to the Philippians is expressed in the standard form for that day, but his content is far from standard fare. In this lesson, I would like to give special attention to Paul’s greeting, and to particularly focus on those elements that are unique, both in his day and our own. In addition to calling attention to those ways in which Paul’s greeting stands apart from the greetings of other ancients, I would also like to stress the ways in which this introduction differs from the introductions of Paul’s other epistles.
Paul’s greeting here is unique in referring to “the overseers and deacons.” In no other New Testament epistle does Paul or any other apostle begin his greeting with a reference to the elders (or overseers) and the deacons of that church. I should add the further observation that neither here in Philippians, nor anywhere else in the New Testament epistles, does anyone ever refer to a person as “the pastor” of the church.9 I know it is quite common for commentators and preachers to say things like: “Paul wrote 1 Timothy to Timothy, who was the pastor of the church at Ephesus.” When anyone says this, they are inferring something that has no basis in Paul’s own words. No one man is ever addressed as the “head” of the church, for this is the proper domain of our Lord Himself. Pastoring or shepherding is the responsibility of all the elders of the church, and the function of certain individuals gifted in this way (Ephesians 4:11). In the New Testament church, pastoring is a function, not an office, and so no one is ever addressed as “the pastor” in any New Testament book.
When we combine the observation that no one is ever referred to as “the pastor” of a New Testament church with the fact that Paul here addresses the “elders and deacons” of the church in Philippi, we see how the New Testament churches were led. They were led by a group (note the plural, “overseers,” “deacons”) of overseers and deacons. The elders were responsible for leading the flock and were assisted by the deacons. It would also seem that the churches in New Testament times had several men who were gifted at teaching and shepherding the flock. They were men gifted as pastors and teachers (or, as some would have it, “pastor-teachers”).
Paul’s greeting to the Philippians is unique in that it addresses the church corporately, rather than the saints individually.10 Letters are frequently addressed to individuals, but not this letter to the Philippians. While Paul’s reference to “the overseers and deacons” is valuable to us as an insight into the structure of the New Testament churches, I don’t believe that this was his primary reason for including these church leaders in verse 1. Why did Paul feel it was necessary to specifically mention the “overseers and deacons” of the church at Philippi, when he never did so when writing to any other church? What was Paul saying to the Philippians by this reference to their leaders?
To begin with, by specifically including the church’s leaders in his greeting, Paul was endorsing their leadership. In his final words to the Ephesian elders, Paul warned that some of them would go astray and seek to lead others into error:
28 Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. 32 And now I entrust you to God and to the message of his grace. This message is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:28-32, emphasis mine).
When Paul corresponds with the church at Corinth, one gets the impression that some of its leaders are corrupt. This is not so at Philippi. The leaders are acknowledged by Paul, an indication of his approval and support of their leadership. If Paul were to be found guilty and were to be executed, this church at Philippi would be in good hands, those of their leaders, and most important of all, the hands of God (Philippians 1:6).
Beyond this, I believe that throughout Paul’s introduction in verses 1-11 (and indeed throughout the entire epistle), the apostle is seeking to underscore the unity of the church as a body of believers. We know that by the time Paul writes this Epistle to the Philippians he has already written both 1 and 2 Corinthians. The church at Corinth was plagued with various factions (see 1 Corinthians 1:11ff.) and had a serious problem with unity. They were even taking one another to court (1 Corinthians 6:1-8). Paul seems to have written Ephesians just before Philippians, and here he spends considerable time on the matter of maintaining Christian unity (see Ephesians 4:1ff.).
If you stop to think about it, the saints at Philippi were a very diverse group. There was at least one Jewish woman in the church (Lydia), and probably others. It is possible that there were at least a few Jewish men who had also come to faith in Philippi. Then there were the Gentile saints, folks like the jailer, and perhaps some of the inmates who may have come to faith when Paul and Silas were imprisoned. In Philippi, as elsewhere, it was important for Paul to underscore and undergird the unity of the church, the body of believers in a particular place. Later in this epistle, Paul will deal with Euodia and Syntyche, between whom there was some kind of rift (Philippians 4:2-3). So at the very outset of this epistle Paul makes it clear that he is writing to all of the saints, which includes the overseers and the deacons. No one is omitted. This is a letter for the whole church, with no exceptions.
I want to pause here for just a moment and share something to preachers, from a preacher. Years ago, a good friend gave me this advice: “Bob, be very careful not to preach to the elders.” What he meant was that there was a danger that I might work so hard to win the approval of the elders that I would preach over the heads of everyone else. The opposite danger—which I think is just as real—is to overlook the elders and leaders, often times out of fear that in preaching to them you might make them mad. I have known of men who were great preachers, but who would tense up when a great preacher came into the room and sat down to listen. I must confess that this is one thing that has not troubled me greatly. I believe that the Word of God speaks to everyone, including great leaders and preachers. And so when I preach, I look those who are better preachers than I in the eye, as if to say, “Listen up! You need this as much as anyone else.” I believe this is what Paul was doing in his greeting. He was letting everyone know that he was speaking to them all, without exception.
I fear that we fail to appreciate the “corporate emphasis” that prevails in Paul’s epistles, not to mention the rest of the New Testament. I think I can understand why most Americans would be inclined to miss this corporate aspect of the truth. I came to grips with this in my recent trip to Indonesia this past year. A fellow believer was my host for a week, and he shared this insight with me about the Asian culture of Indonesia. He said that in the United States, you often see people jogging alone. This never happens in Indonesia, he informed me; when people jog there, they jog in groups. In fact, they do almost everything in groups.
My friend explained the “corporate dimension” of Indonesian culture in yet another way. He used the analogy of a number of nails that have been pounded into a board. If the head of one nail is not pounded into the board as deeply as the others, so that it sticks up above the others, the people of that culture feel obliged to “pound it down,” so that it conforms with all the other nails.
How different that is from our highly individualistic culture. In America, competition is much more the norm, rather than cooperation. Everyone seems to feel compelled to stand out from the rest, to be different. It is almost humorous to watch this in the youth culture, where the youth all attempt to stand out (from the adults), but in so doing, they all act alike (conforming to their peers). This is apparent in pierced body parts, in rings protruding from all sorts of places, in various tattoos, in certain styles of clothing, in hairstyles, and (sigh) in music.
I believe there is a time to “stand alone” and to refuse to succumb to peer pressure. Is this not what the Bible speaks about when it warns us about “loving the world” and being conformed to it (1 John 2:15)? But there can also be too much independence—to the point that there is no corporate identity, no sense or expression of community. This not only happens in the unbelieving world, it happens in the church. We individualize everything, from our teaching and our fellowship to our worship. We make it possible for people to practice “drive-in worship,” where our individual needs are supposedly met, but divorced from any true corporate expression. We have classes for certain ages, and for certain interests, and even certain conditions (single, widowed, divorced, etc.). I’m not saying that this is bad, necessarily, but we have become so individualized that we often think only in terms of those in our categories.
Have you noticed how many different kinds of Bibles there are today? I am not saying that there are many different translations of the Bible, though there are. I am saying that rather than finding one kind of Bible in the bookstores, there are more and more types, each aimed at a specific market niche. I decided to do a search on the Internet, to see how many different “individualized” Bibles I could find. These are among the titles I discovered:
Kid’s Application Bible
African-American Devotional Bible
Woman’s Study Bible
New Believers Bible for Evangelism
Praise and Worship Study Bible
Self Help Bible
Jewish New Testament
The Teacher’s Bible
Teen Study Bible
Extreme Teen Bible
Living the Spirit Filled Life Bible
Living the Spirit Filled Life Revised Genuine Bible
The Forgiving Heart Bible
Prophecy Study Bible
Woman Thou Art Loosed Bible
People in some parts of the world are willing to risk death or imprisonment to obtain even a fragment of the “Holy Bible,” but folks in our part of the world have their bookshelves lined with numerous “individualized” Bibles. I am not saying that all these Bibles are a bad thing, in and of themselves. My point is that everyone wants the Bible tailored to their felt needs, to their specific situation in life. We have become so accustomed to “having it our way,” of having everything tailored to us individually. If a sermon that is preached does not have an application which is immediately relevant to my situation, I consider it merely an intellectual exercise, a second-class sermon. We see the same individualism in Bible studies. “What does this passage mean to you?” we are asked, as though the interpretation of a given passage of the Bible should be individualized, too.11 Paul will have none of this rugged individualism. When he writes to the Philippian saints, he writes one message to the whole church, including its leaders.
To most Christians in America, Paul’s greeting is unique because it speaks of only one church in Philippi. Our church is located in the Dallas Metroplex, where there are literally hundreds of churches, many of which are good churches that preach Christ. Due to physical distance, language, and other factors, it is not possible for all the saints in this large city to worship together in one place. I am not suggesting that we should. But I would point out that “the church” in Dallas is bigger than Community Bible Chapel, bigger than any one church, bigger than the churches of any one denomination. Just as we tend to think individually as Christians, we also tend to think narrowly as a church. Our church may not be the only church in town, but we may think it surely is the best church. We tend to ignore the fact that the “church in Dallas” encompasses all true believers in our Lord in this Metroplex. If we are to view the church in our city as Paul would, then we must think of the church in terms of all the believers in the place where we are, or with which we are corresponding.
While there is nothing unique to the expression “grace and peace” in Paul’s greetings in his epistles, Paul’s meaning here may be unique to us as we read the words of his greeting. I have already indicated that Americans are individualistic. I would now suggest that most of us read Paul’s greeting to the church at Philippi in an individualistic way. What comes to your mind when you read the words, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!”? I must confess that I tend to read these words this way:
“May each of you who has personally experienced God’s grace through trusting in the saving work of Christ continue to experience His grace in many other ways in your life. And, may you continue to experience a deep inner peace in your life, a peace that commenced with your salvation, and continues throughout the rest of your days.”
This is an individualistic reading of Paul’s words. I do not wish to negate this meaning, but I fear that this paraphrase, with its individualistic perspective, does not capture the primary thrust of Paul’s intended meaning. If you were to grant the premise that Paul is addressing the church corporately, then how would you read verse 2 in a corporate way? I would suggest that Paul’s meaning might be paraphrased something like this:
“May you, a group of saints who have experienced the grace of God in salvation, now experience and express that grace toward one another in a corporate way. May you be gracious in your dealings with one another, especially when you disagree. May your words and actions bring grace to the rest of the church. And may the peace that you have come to experience in a personal way (through faith in Jesus Christ) now work itself out in the church corporately. May dissention and strife not be found among you, and may you be at peace, one with the other.”
I believe that this general benediction will soon be focused on a specific area of contention between Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2-3. What a wonderful truth the doctrine of “grace” is, but the sad fact is that some Christians seem more zealous to fight about the doctrines of grace than to practice the reality of grace. I think this is why Paul has written these words.
Paul’s greeting is unique in that he speaks of himself and Timothy as slaves or bondservants of Christ. It is not uncommon to find an apostle referring to himself as a slave of Christ in the New Testament. Paul did so (Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:1), as did James (James 1:1), Peter (2 Peter 1:1), Jude (Jude 1:1), and John (Revelation 1:1). But to actually possess the mindset and the perspective of a servant is truly unique.
In Paul’s culture, slavery was not desirable; slaves were eager to change their status (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:21-22), so much so that some ran away from their masters (Philemon 1:8-20). But in contemporary American culture, slavery is considered an out-and-out evil. It is not difficult to see why this would be the case. The evils associated with slavery and slave trade in our history are such that few would dare to try to justify any of it.
It was my recent trip to Indonesia that provided me with significant insight into the “bondservant” mindset of the apostles. In that part of the world there are many “servants.” As mentioned in my introduction to this sermon, the Indonesian servants I encountered seemed to perceive that “servanthood” was their place, their lot in life, and thus something that could not and should not be changed. After some time, it began to dawn upon me that they also looked upon their role as a servant as a place of honor. Americans find this almost impossible to fathom. We think in terms of entitlement. We assume that we deserve certain things: a particular standard of living, a certain level of education, happiness, and so on. A servant, on the other hand, thinks in terms of his duties. A servant is a debtor, so to speak, to his master; we Americans (and many others) think of ourselves as masters. No wonder Paul’s words to us in these verses are so foreign to us.
Because “servanthood” is such a fundamental element in our relationship to Jesus Christ and to His church, I want to devote the remainder of this lesson to this subject of slavery in the Old and New Testaments. I will attempt to demonstrate how the servant spirit should impact our lives in very practical ways. Consider the following biblical texts and their instruction concerning servanthood:
4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and became his servant; and Potiphar appointed him over his household, and all that he had he put in his care. 5 From the time he appointed him over his household and over everything that he had, the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian on account of Joseph. And the blessing of the LORD was on everything that he had, both in the house and in the field. 6 So he left everything he had in the care of Joseph; and he did not take charge of anything except the food he ate. Joseph was very handsome, a fine figure of a man. 7 And soon after these things the wife of his master cast her eyes on Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.” 8 But he refused, saying to his master’s wife, “Look, my master does not take charge of his household with me here, and everything that he has he has put into my care. 9 There is no one greater in this household than I, and he has withheld nothing from me—except you, because you are his wife. So how can I do this great evil and sin against God?” 10 And even though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he did not respond to her to lie beside her or to be with her (Genesis 39:4-10).
The term “steward” is closely associated with the term “slave.” A steward is a slave. A steward does not own possessions; he is entrusted with the care of his master’s possessions. When Potiphar’s wife sought to seduce Joseph, she offered him the opportunity to “possess” her. He responded by reminding his master’s wife that he was a slave. He did not own what belonged to his master; he was entrusted with his master’s things. The one thing that was not entrusted to him was Mrs. Potiphar. For him to “possess” Mrs. Potiphar would have been to sin against God and to violate his role as his master’s slave. Joseph acted righteously by acting like the slave that he was. He did not seek to own that which was not his.
It is a common temptation for slaves to wish to “possess” those things that belong to their master. This can be illustrated by Satan’s fall (see Isaiah 14:12ff.; Ezekiel 28:12ff.). Lucifer was not content to “serve” his Master; he wanted to be the master. I believe that this is what he was seeking to tempt our Lord to do at the temptation, but in so doing, our Lord would have submitted to a new “master” (Matthew 4:8-10). Satan successfully tempted Adam and Eve to possess something—the only thing—that was not theirs to possess, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:1-7). The wicked slaves of Matthew 21:33-46 were not content to serve their master. They wanted to own what was his. Likewise, the temptation for some church planters is to assume that because they have planted a church in a particular place, they own it. This is not true. It is His church, and not man’s. A slave does not think in terms of what he owns, but in terms of what belongs to his master. At best, he is a steward of his master’s possessions. Slaves should not think in terms of ownership, but in terms of stewardship.
3 Watch yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. 4 Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 So the Lord replied, “If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this black mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled out by the roots and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Would any one of you say to your slave who comes in from the field after plowing or shepherding sheep, ‘Come at once and sit down for a meal’? 8 Won’t the master instead say to him, ‘Get my dinner ready, and make yourself ready to serve me while I eat and drink; and then you may eat and drink’? 9 He won’t thank the slave because he did what he was told, will he? 10 So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Jesus is speaking to His disciples about dealing with a brother who sins. He tells them that even if their brother sins against them seven times a day and repents seven times a day, they must forgive the brother each time. The disciples’ response is, “Lord, increase our faith!” It is as though they have said, “Lord, what you are asking is virtually impossible. It would take a miracle for anyone to be able to forgive his brother seven times a day. Nevertheless, if this is your command, then we will seek to obey, but you will have to give us greater faith than what we now have to do this.” Jesus first responds to the request for increased faith in verse 6. He tells them that if they did have greater faith, they could do seemingly impossible things. In other words, Jesus does not rebuke them for asking Him to increase their faith. He encourages them.
But our Lord’s answer does not end at verse 6. I believe that verses 7-10 are our Lord’s follow-up to the matter of forgiveness. The disciples certainly grasped the fact that forgiveness comes hard, but they did not seem to understand why this is so. I believe that verses 7-10 explain why we have such difficulty forgiving others. We believe that others are to serve us, to meet our needs.12 And so when someone sins against us we feel offended because we expect to be served, not sinned against. Jesus tells His disciples that if they had a “servant’s spirit” they would not expect to be served, but to serve. If they had a “servant’s spirit” toward their sinning brother, they would be eager to forgive. One of the ways we serve others is by forgiving them. Slaves do not expect to be served, but to serve. Slaves eagerly forgive, because they do not expect to be served, but to serve.
1 Now receive the one who is weak in the faith, and do not have disputes over differing opinions. 2 One person believes in eating everything, but the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not despise the one who does not, and the one who abstains must not judge the one who eats everything, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on another’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
There were those in Rome and elsewhere who were seeking to impose their personal convictions on other Christians. They were passing judgment on those who did not live according to their convictions. (We should remember that in the context of Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10, a conviction is really a matter of freedom; it is not something the Bible either commands or condemns. For example, someone might choose to be a vegetarian. This would be a conviction because the Bible tells us that all meats are now clean—Mark 7:19; Acts 10, and 11. The vegetarian should not condemn the meat-eater, nor should the meat-eater condemn the vegetarian.) Paul rebukes those who were condemning each other in matters of conviction and reminds them that it is not the business of one slave to judge another slave. It is the master who judges his slaves, not fellow-slaves. Once again, the temptation for the slave is to think and act like a master, rather than as a slave. Slaves do not judge their brethren in matters of conviction.13
20 Remember what I told you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they obeyed my word, they will obey yours too. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me.”
Jesus made it clear to His disciples that He would suffer greatly at the hands of men. He would be rejected by the Jewish religious leaders, be killed by them, and then He would rise from the dead (Mark 9:31). Our Lord’s disciples persistently clung to the hope that Jesus would immediately establish His kingdom on the earth. In their minds, this meant places of honor, power, and glory for themselves. They even argued about who of their number would be the most important. Jesus taught them that if they were truly His servants, they would be treated no better than their Master. This is why Peter will later write that Christians should not be surprised at their sufferings for identifying with Christ (1 Peter 4). Peter even employed the Lord’s righteous suffering as an example for the saints, His servants (1 Peter 2:18-25).
Today, as in the past, there are those who continue to cling to the false assumption that trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins is also a guarantee that they will immediately enter into the unrestricted blessings of God. Such folks tend to believe that they need not experience sickness or suffering in this life. They believe that God wants them to be prosperous—to enter into heaven’s blessings—here and now. They fail to understand that those who trust in Christ become His servants, and as His servants, they will enter into His rejection and suffering at the hands of unbelieving men. Servants should not expect to be treated better than their master.
20 The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 The one with the two talents also came, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ 23 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent came, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered, Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? 27 Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! 28 Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29 For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matthew 25:20-30).
This parable in Matthew 25 is most interesting. I have always felt I understood one part of the parable, but not necessarily all of it. The “slave perspective” of our lesson now helps me to better understand this parable. It is not difficult to see from this parable that heavenly rewards are distributed in relationship to one’s earthly stewardship. But I never quite understood the last slave, who refused to “invest” his master’s money, and who simply buried it. I think it is safe to say that this slave is the one that receives the most attention in this parable. His master calls him “evil and lazy” (verse 26), as contrasted with the other slaves, whom he calls “good and faithful” (verses 21, 23). He rebukes this one slave for not investing his money (verse 27), and then takes away what was entrusted to him and casts him into outer darkness (verses 28-30).
My attention was drawn to the slave’s attitude toward his master. He told his master that he was “a hard man,” who was very demanding. This was the slave’s excuse for doing nothing. One would have thought that it should have provided strong motivation for the slave to work hard at investing his master’s money. This slave did not love his master, and he found no pleasure or joy in contributing to his master’s success. Consequently, he did nothing with the resources his master had placed in his care.
A “good and faithful” slave is one who loves his master and delights in his success. The reward for these slaves was for them to “enter into the joy of their master” (verse 23). The wicked slave could not do this because he had not identified with his master, in his purposes and pleasures. When I think of “slaves” like Joseph, who served the Pharaoh of Egypt, I see a man who genuinely cared for his master and was committed to his success. In his master’s absence, the wicked slave does little or nothing (Matthew 24:32-51; 25:25), but the faithful slave continues to serve his master, even though he is absent. It was in Potiphar’s absence that Mrs. Potiphar sought to tempt Joseph to do wrong, but it was here that Joseph’s faithfulness to his master was most evident.
I am reminded of Daniel and his service as a slave to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. When this king described his dream to Daniel, this godly servant was horrified because the dream revealed a time when the king of Babylon would experience God’s discipline. Daniel was horrified when he understood the king’s dream:
19 Then Daniel, whose name is also Belteshazzar, was appalled momentarily; his thoughts were alarming him. The king said, “Belteshazzar, don’t let the dream and its interpretation alarm you.” But Belteshazzar replied, “Sir, if only the dream were for your enemies and its interpretation applied to your adversaries!… 27 Therefore, O king, may my words be pleasing to you. Break away from you sins in acts of righteousness, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps there will be a prolonging of your prosperity.” (Daniel 4:19, 27).
The Babylonians had devastated Daniel’s nation. The Babylonians had torn him away from his family. How easy it would have been for Daniel to find pleasure in the king’s adversity. But Daniel was a “good and faithful” servant to his master. He sought his master’s best interests, even at his own expense. He wanted, if at all possible, to spare his master from the disciplining hand of God.
In the New Testament, I find the “servant spirit” beautifully demonstrated by John the Baptist, who finds both his fulfillment and his joy in the “success” of his Master, Jesus Christ:
22 After this, Jesus and his disciples came into Judean territory, and there he spent time with them and was baptizing. 23 John was also baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized. 24 (For John had not yet been thrown into prison.) 25 Now a dispute came about between some of John’s disciples and a Jew concerning ceremonial washing. 26 So they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you on the other side of the Jordan River, about whom you testified—see, he is baptizing, and everyone is flocking to him!” 27 John replied, “No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but rather, ‘I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. This then is my joy, and it is complete. 30 He must become more important while I become less important.” 31 The one who comes from above is superior to all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is superior to all (John 3:22-21).
John was a true slave, who found his joy in serving God and in fulfilling his mission of magnifying Christ.14
A slave should love his master, and seek as much as possible to embrace his goals, his perspective, and his success. Such a slave will work hard for his master’s success, whether or not his master is present. While employees in America are fortunate that they are not slaves (this is not the case in various parts of the world), Christian employees would do well to seek to develop a “servant’s spirit,” that would motivate them to enhance and enrich their employer, and to do this in obedience to their true Master, which will be an adornment to the gospel:
5 Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart as to Christ, 6 not like those who do their work only when someone is watching—as people-pleasers—but as servants of Christ doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Obey with enthusiasm, as though serving the Lord and not people 8 because you know that each person, whether slave or free, if he does something good, this will be rewarded by the Lord (Ephesians 6:5-8).
1 Those who are under the yoke as slaves must regard their own masters as deserving of full respect. This will prevent the name of God and Christian teaching from being discredited. 2 But those who have believing masters must not show them less respect because they are brothers. Instead they are to serve all the more, because those who benefit from their service are believers and dearly loved (1 Timothy 6:1-2).
When I was in India, one of my Indian friends living there had a phrase he frequently used to sum up the religious condition of this great nation: “Too many gods.” He was right, of course. There are “too many gods” in India. More than one is too many, but they have so many gods. If I were to coin a phrase which would characterize evangelical Christianity in America, I would probably say, “Too many masters; too few slaves.” The servant spirit is not natural; it is exceedingly rare. It is contrary to everything the flesh desires. It is, however, the spirit of Paul, and of the other apostles. This is why they proudly identify themselves as “bondservants of Christ.”
In point of fact, must of us like to think of ourselves as being free, and not being slaves to anyone. This was the proud claim of the Jewish religious leaders:
31 Then Jesus said to those Jewish people who had believed him, “If you continue to follow my teaching, you are really my disciples 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 “We are descendants of Abraham,” they replied, “and have never been anyone’s slaves! How can you say, ‘You will become free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “I tell you the solemn truth, everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the family forever, but the son remains forever. 36 So if the son sets you free, you will be really free. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. But you are wanting to kill me, because my teaching makes no progress among you. 38 I am telling you the things I have seen while with my Father, but you are practicing the things you have heard from your father” (John 8:31-38).
Many of us who are Christians are sometimes willing to say that they are slaves, but the real test comes when someone treats us like slaves. We are very independent, self-sufficient people. We do not wish to be dependent upon others, and we most certainly do not wish to serve others. We do not wish to hear about our obligations to others; we want to think in terms of entitlement.
Someone may object to what I am saying, by responding, “We are not to be slaves of men; we are to be slaves of God.” There is a sense in which this is true (1 Corinthians 7:23), but the Word of God makes it clear that we are also to serve one another:
For since I am free from all I can make myself a slave to all, in order to gain even more (1 Corinthians 9:19).
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity to indulge your flesh, but through love serve one another (Galatians 5:13).
We are free, free to serve. There is also a sense in which we are no longer “slaves,” but “sons” (John 8:34; Romans 8:15; see also John 15:15), but never in this life do we cease to be “slaves of Christ,” or of our fellow-believers. This is why the apostles so often refer to themselves in this way.
It has taken me a long time to see this truth about slavery and servanthood, but I believe it is true, and so I will share it with you. For a long time I was willing to admit that slavery was the path to honor and reward. Servanthood, I thought, was the price Christians had to pay now so that we could enjoy glory then (in heaven). It is as though one were saying, “To serve is to suffer, and we must suffer (i.e., serve) so that we may someday experience glory.” Several biblical texts have forced me to re-think my position on suffering and glory:
5 You prepare a feast before me in plain sight of my enemies. You refresh my head with oil, My cup is full of wine. 6 Surely your goodness and faithfulness will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the LORD’s palace for the rest of my life (Psalm 23:5-6).
We know this verse from Psalm 23 very well, but it just now occurred to me that while the Psalmist (David) speaks of God’s protection and care, he also speaks of Him serving us at His table, and it is at this table that he know he will sit for all eternity. Imagine the wonder of knowing that God is preparing the table for us, even now!
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling down she asked something from him. 21 He said to her, “What do you want?” She said, “Permit these two sons of mine to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He told them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right and left is not mine to give. Rather, it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the other ten heard this, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high position use their authority over them. 26 It must not be this way among you! But whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant. 27 And whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:20-28, emphasis mine).
We might be tempted to conclude that Jesus is teaching us that one must suffer before he can reign, and there is, once again, an element of truth in such a statement (see 2 Timothy 2:8-11). We may be inclined to think that our Lord suffered, so that He might reign. There is truth here, also. But is “serving” part of our Lord’s “suffering,” which He eternally sets aside in heaven? Did He serve then, so that He may be served forever in heaven? These words from the Gospel of Luke should give us pause for thought: “Blessed are those slaves whom their master finds alert when he comes! I tell you the truth, he will dress himself for serving and have them take their place at the table, and he will come and serve them!” (Luke 12:37).
My impression from our Lord’s words is that there is glory in serving; there is greatness in serving. Is this not true to the nature of spiritual realities? The things we disdain and avoid (like serving), God exalts. The things we esteem (like fame, power, and authority), God finds less than impressive. I am saying that a position of servitude is not a position that leads to honor, it is a position of honor. This is why Paul employs the title “servant” or “slave,” in the introduction of his epistle to the Philippians, but not “apostle.”
I have titled this series in the Book of Philippians, “To Live Is Christ.” I believe that we see the truth of this title played out in the first two verses of Paul’s epistle. Paul sees himself as a slave because he looks at and lives life through the eyes of Christ. In Philippians 2, Paul once again employs the word “slave”:
4 Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but the interests of others as well. 5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death even death on a cross! 9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:4-11).
If a slave is “no greater than his master” (John 13:16; 15:20), and if Jesus became a slave, then how can we seek to be anything other than a slave as well? When we can embrace Paul’s words, “For me, to live is Christ,” then we will embrace the perspective and the practice of a slave. And when we do, we live out the life of Christ before a lost and dying world. Slavery is no option for the Christian; it should be our way of life, because it was our Savior’s way. The “Suffering Servant” of Calvary becomes the model and the motivation for our service (see 1 Peter 2:18-25).
One last word. Do not suppose that yours is the choice of whether or not to be a slave. Your choice, and mine, is whom we will serve as a slave. We will be slaves; the question is, “To whom?”
15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. 19 (I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.) For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free with regard to righteousness. 21 So what benefit did you then reap from those things that you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now, freed from sin and enslaved to God, you have your benefit leading to sanctification, and the end is eternal life. 23 For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Have you been freed from your slavery to sin and death? The only way this can happen is through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ:
14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in the same as well, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), 15 and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).
8 I am referring to the Urban Evangelical Mission (UEM), formerly known as Black Evangelistic Enterprise (BEE), with its headquarters in Dallas, Texas. The President of UEM is Dr. Ruben S. Conner, a long-time friend.
9 The closest one might come is the reference to “the angel” or “the messenger” in each of the seven churches addressed in The Book of Revelation, chapters 2 and 3. But it is not clear that this reference is even to a human being, let alone to one who would be called “the pastor” of that church.
10 It is evident that Paul had some very close, personal relationships with individual saints in the various churches. In the last chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, Paul specifically names a number of individuals, and this in a church he had not founded and had not even visited yet. Paul had certainly established some close relationships with some of the saints in Philippi. Paul values personal relationships, but in Philippians he makes it clear that he is writing to everyone.
11 The interpretation of a passage of Scripture should not be individualized. The question is not, “What does this text of Scripture mean to you?”, but “What does this text of Scripture mean in its context?” “What did the author intend for its original reader to understand by these words?” After having answered this question, we can then ask, “How does the teaching of this passage impact my life?”
13 I must once again reiterate that the context of Romans 14 concerns personal convictions. I know that there are those who persist in saying, “Judge not…” (see Matthew 7:1). We are not “judging” when we rebuke a brother for disobeying the Word of God. When a brother sins, he is to be corrected (see Matthew 18:15-20).
14 This certainly helps to explain or qualify John’s doubts and concerns, as recorded in Luke 7:18-23. John was concerned because Jesus did not seem to be successful. His mission was beginning to look like a failure. The disciples had their concerns, too, because no one really understood the role of the cross in God’s plan for our Lord. His “apparent” failure on the cross was His triumph, proclaimed by His resurrection.