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25. Submission and Slavery (Ephesians 6:5-9)

5 Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; 6 not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, 8 knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.

9 And, masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.

17 Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the churches. 18 Was any man called already circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. 20 Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called. 21 Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. 22 For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called (1 Corinthians 7:17-24).

22 Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men; 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. 25 For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality. 4:1 Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven (Colossians 3:22–4:1).

1 Let all who are under the yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine may not be spoken against. 2 And let those who have believers as their masters not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but let them serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles (1 Timothy 6:1-2).

6 Likewise urge the young men to be sensible; 7 in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified, 8 sound in speech which is beyond reproach, in order that the opponent may be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us. 9 Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect (Titus 2:6-10).

18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. 19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. 21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:18-21).

10 I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus, 11 who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. 12 And I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, that in your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything, that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will. 15 For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. 18 But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account; 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (lest I should mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well) (Philemon 1:10-19).


Recently, a certain Christian organization decided to file a lawsuit against another group of Christians. Immediately an outcry arose, citing 1 Corinthians chapter 6 as forbidding such a suit. The suing saints were not taken aback for long. They explained this text away by pointing out that 1 Corinthians 6 forbade an individual to go to court with another individual, and that they were suing as an organization. The argument is about as convincing as a group of men living in immorality arguing that the prohibition of 1 Corinthians 5 does not apply to them because it was addressed to an individual.

We come now to a text which, on the surface, seems to let all of us off the hook. How many of us own slaves? Who among us is a slave? But like the teaching of 1 Corinthians, the application is much more broad than merely slaves and masters. Our text applies to all Christians, in a variety of ways.

Paul begins by requiring all Christians to submit to one another in the fear of Christ (5:21). Submission applies to every Christian. Then Paul sets out to show how submission applies to the lives of Christians in a broad range of life situations: marriage (wives and husbands, 5:22-33), family (children and parents—6:1-4), and now slaves and masters (6:5-9). In each of these categories, Paul is not interested only in the expression of submission, but in its essence, in its mindset and motivation. Consequently, each category further unfolds the true nature of submission, and all of these categories together give us the full meaning of submission that Paul wants Christians to understand and apply.

Let me attempt to illustrate this with another Christian duty—love. We dare not limit our concept of love to the love of husband and wife, or of parent and child. We are to love our neighbor. We are even to love our enemy. If we are honest, we should admit that an understanding of what it means to love our enemy may, at times, help us to love our husband or our wife, or even our child. Sometimes they are our enemy, and we must love them. Thus, understanding love in its broader dimensions enriches my understanding and application of love in a more restricted dimension.

So it is with submission. Understanding submission in the context of slavery helps me to better understand submission in general, and thus in other categories. The submission which God requires of a slave toward his master is instructive concerning the submission which God requires of a child to its parents, or a wife to her husband. The submission which God requires of a master instructs husbands concerning their submissive spirit in relationship to their wives and children.

Our text makes it clear that the commands which are given to slaves have a much broader application: “And, masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (Ephesians 6:9, emphasis mine). Masters are not given a separate set of principles concerning submission. They are called upon to act on the same principles which Paul has set down for slaves. And so we see that Paul is not speaking only to slaves, and not even to slaves and masters, but to all the saints.

Our text is of great value and importance because it takes submission farther than any of the earlier examples of Christian submission. In this passage, Paul presses hard on the spirit of submission, and not just on its outward appearances. It is this spirit which every Christian must strive for in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is this spirit of submission which God seeks, and for which He rewards us when we obey.

Our Lord Jesus became a slave in order to bring about our salvation (Mark 10:45), and thus also became an example of submission for slaves (1 Peter 2:18-25). Paul often referred to himself as the Lord’s slave (see Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 9:19). Beyond this, every Christian has been delivered from slavery to sin, and has become a slave of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:16-20; 14:4; 1 Corinthians 7:22). And so the instructions which Paul gives to “slaves” applies to every Christian, as Christ’s slave.

Slavery in the Roman Empire

The slavery of Paul’s day was fraught with abuse. William Barclay writes of the evils of slavery in the Roman empire during the time Paul wrote this epistle to the Ephesians.

“It has been computed that in the Roman Empire there were 60,000,000 slaves. In Paul’s day a kind of terrible idleness had fallen on the citizens of Rome. Rome was the mistress of the world, and therefore it was beneath the dignity of a Roman citizen to work. Practically all work was done by slaves. Even doctors and teachers, even the closest friends of the Emperors, their secretaries who dealt with letters and appeals and finance, were slaves.

Often there were bonds of the deepest loyalty and affection between master and slave … But basically the life of the slave was grim and terrible. In law he was not a person but a thing. Aristotle lays it down that there can never be friendship between master and slave, for they have nothing in common; ‘for a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.’ Varro, writing on agriculture, divides agricultural instruments into three classes—the articulate, the inarticulate, and the mute. The articulate comprises the slaves; the inarticulate the cattle; and the mute the vehicles. The slave is no better than a beast who happens to be able to talk. Cato gives advice to a man taking over a farm. He must go over it and throw out everything that is past its work; and old slaves too must be thrown out on the scrap heap to starve. When a slave is ill it is sheer extravagance to issue him with normal rations.

The law was quite clear. Gaius, the Roman lawyer, in the Institutes lays it down: ‘We may note that it is universally accepted that the master possesses the power of life and death over the slave.’ If the slave ran away, at best he was branded on the forehead with the letter F for fugitivus, which means runaway, at worst he was killed. The terror of the slave was that he was absolutely at the caprice of his master. Augustus crucified a slave because he killed a pet quail. Vedius Pollio flung a slave still living to the savage lampreys in his fish pond because he dropped and broke a crystal goblet. Juvenal tells of a Roman matron who ordered a slave to be killed for no other reason than that she lost her temper with him. When her husband protested, she said: ‘You call a slave a man, do you? He has done no wrong, you say? Be it so; it is my will and my command; let my will be the voucher for the deed.’ The slaves who were maids to their mistresses often had their hair torn out and their cheeks torn with their mistresses’ nails. Juvenal tells of the master ‘who delights in the sound of a cruel flogging thinking it sweeter than any siren’s song,’ or ‘who revels in clanking chains,’ or, ‘who summons a torturer and brands the slave because a couple of towels are lost.’ A Roman writer lays it down: ‘Whatever a master does to a slave, undeservedly, in anger, willingly, unwillingly, in forgetfulness, after careful thought, knowingly, unknowingly, is judgment, justice and law.’”141

The Old Testament Law and Slavery

If the servitude of Paul’s day was slavery at its worst, the slavery which the Old Testament Law prescribed was of a vastly different kind. Slavery was not prohibited by the Law. The Israelites (Leviticus 25:44, 46) and even the priests (Leviticus 22:11) were allowed to possess slaves from the other nations. Even an Israelite could sell one of his family into slavery, or even himself if forced to by poverty (Exodus 21:7; Leviticus 25:35-42). By law, a Hebrew slave was to be treated even better than the slaves taken from the heathen (see Leviticus 25:35-42, 46).

Granted, slavery could hardly be considered a desirable condition. One’s freedom was significantly restricted. Nevertheless, The Mosaic Law provided for those who might decide to become lifetime slaves, as strange as this might seem (Exodus 21:6; Deuteronomy 15:17). This strongly suggests that slavery in Israel was of a very different kind than that found in the heathen nations (2 Chronicles 12:7-8).

When circumcised, slaves in Israel were allowed to enter into the worship of the One True God. The were the benefactors of God’s gracious provisions, such as the Sabbath rest (see Exodus 11:5; 12:44; 23:12; 25:6). A master was to be punished for cruelty or injury to his slave (Exodus 21:20; 21:26-27). It would appear from Job’s remarks that a slave could even file a grievance against his master (Job 31:13). Runaway slaves were not to be returned, but were to be given sanctuary (Deuteronomy 23:15). I take it from this that Israel was, by far, the best place for any person to be a slave.

Slavery in the Gospels and in the New Testament

In the Gospels, slavery was frequently mentioned. Our Lord told a number of parables in which slaves and their masters were key characters. Never de He condemn slavery as evil in any of these stories. (Neither did He indicate that slavery was an asset to society) In some stories, the slave was punished for his unfaithful service (see Matthew 25:14-46; Luke 17:7-10). Jesus’ words to His disciples in John 15:15 indicate that a slave-master was under no obligation to explain to his slave why he was commanding him to do a certain task. A slave doesn’t need to be told “why,” just “what.”

Sometimes, the slave master was represented in a favorable light (see Luke 7:2-10). Faithful slaves were highly commended, while unfaithful slaves were condemned. What Jesus taught about one’s standing in the kingdom of God turned the value system of that society (and our own) upside-down. He taught that greatness was not to be measured in terms of being served, but in terms of being a servant. He was the greatest example of this truth the world has ever seen:

And calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Paul, too, spoke about slavery. Slavery was assumed to be a fact of life. In our text in Ephesians and elsewhere (1 Corinthians 7:21-24; Colossians 3:22–4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Titus 2:6-10), he instructed both slaves and masters concerning their conduct. He spoke of himself (Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 9:19) and others (Colossians 1:7) as God’s slaves. Paul did not view slave as the ideal condition, and encouraged any who could gain their freedom to do so, but those who could not were not to agonize about it, knowing that both masters and slaves are God’s bond-servants:

21 Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. 22 For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called (1 Corinthians 7:21-24).

When he encountered Onesimus, a runaway slave, and led him to faith in Christ, Paul wrote to Philemon, his master. He sent the epistle which we know as Philemon to this slave-master, along with his returning slave. He indicated what a blessing Onesimus had been to him. He urged Philemon to accept Onesimus back, receiving him as a brother, while still his slave, but clearly left the door open for him to set him free, so that he might return to Paul and minister to him as he had done before. Slavery might not have been sin, but setting this slave free appears to have been the “high road” which he encouraged his master to take.

Whatever one’s status might be in society, Paul makes it abundantly clear that one’s earthly status does not affect his standing before God, in Christ. In Christ there are no second class citizens:

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

Underlying Assumptions

From our text in Ephesians 6, along with the other New Testament passages dealing with slaves and masters, we can identify a number of underlying assumptions, which are foundational to Paul’s teaching in our text and elsewhere. Let me sum up some of these assumptions:

(1) In the church of Jesus Christ there will be both slaves and masters who are saints.

1 Let all who are under the yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine may not be spoken against. 2 And let those who have believers as their masters not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but let them serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles (1 Timothy 6:1-2).

It is not conceived of as inconsistent with the Christian faith that either a slave or a slave-master could be a born again believer and a part of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Once, when I was teaching in a prison, an inmate was amazed that I could suggest that a guard could be a Christian. I suggested to this inmate that there were those who might wonder if an inmate could be a Christian. The truth is that guards and inmates can be saved, and serve in their capacities as Christians, to the glory of God. So it is with slaves and masters.

(2) Slavery is hardly likely to be labeled a social asset, but in the Bible it is not viewed to be as great an evil as some might think. The Old Testament community of Israel was not defiled by it. It was not one of the evils which Israel was to rid, so that God could dwell in their presence.

(3) Masters are construed to exercise legitimate authority over slaves, and thus slaves are obligated to obey them. In Romans 13:1-7, Paul indicates that “there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Romans 13:1). Thus, if anyone resists this authority, he resists God (13:2). In Romans 13 Paul is speaking of government authorities. This includes the laws of that government, unless they clearly violate God’s laws. When the Roman government gave slavery legal authority, it was assumed that Christians should submit to their status as slaves, and thus to their masters. Peter makes the connection between the authority of government and that of masters even more clear, by speaking of the two side by side in 1 Peter 2:11-25).

(4) For some, God has divinely appointed their “calling” as slaves, and requires them to remain in this condition unless they have a legitimate opportunity for obtaining their freedom (See 1 Corinthians 7:17-24).

(5) Slavery is divinely ordained, not because it is righteous, but because it provides a context in which righteousness is readily evident, both on the part of the slave and of his owner.

Paul’s Instruction to Slaves

Of all the instances in which one would hardly expect to read about submission, it would be here. Who would think there would be any problem in getting a slave to obey? The difference is between suppression and submission. Few slaves enter into slavery voluntarily. It is something that one is forced into. I think it is safe to conclude that those whose “obedience” is compelled, are those who are most likely to be unsubmissive in spirit.

I remember hearing of a waiter who was “serving” a very demanding individual at one of his tables. After considerable abuse, the waiter disappeared into the kitchen to bring out a salad for his hostile diner. Just out of sight, before entering the dining room, the waiter spit with great satisfaction on the guest’s salad. On the outside, the waiter was courteous and helpful, but on the inside, he was resisting his role as a servant.

The closest institution to slavery that I know of in our culture is a prison. The inmates are the “slaves” and the “guards” are the “masters.” In Texas prisons, the inmates often call them “boss.” The inmates have virtually no rights (even when they are wrongly accused or treated). There are few who are willing or able to challenge the authority of those who are in charge.

In the course of teaching a seminar in a large Texas prison, I spoke about Daniel, and his submission to those who were in authority over him. He was a virtual prisoner of the Babylonian Empire, and yet he devoted himself to serving the king. He was a faithful and a submissive “prisoner.” I then pressed the point further. I said, “Some of you men spend more energy fighting the (prison) ‘system’ than you do fighting sin.” That comment got a substantial response. The fact is that many prisoners may outwardly keep the rules, but inwardly they are still rebelling, still “spitting in the salad.”

In chapter 4, Paul urged the saints in Ephesus to cease walking “as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their mind” (4:17). Instead, they are to “lay aside the old self” (4:22), to “be renewed in the spirit of their mind” (4:23), and to “put on the new self” (4:24). Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 6:5-9 instructs slaves and masters as to how “the new self” and the “renewed mind” of the Christian impacts their attitudes and actions as slaves or as masters.

The Christian Slave’s Submission Must Be Inward, As Well As Outward

In his instructions to slaves, Paul focuses on three areas in which slaves are to manifest a reversal in their thinking and actions. Let us give thought to these three areas of contrast between the response of the ungodly and the response of the saints to slavery.

In verse 5 Paul instructed Christian slaves to be obedient to their “masters according to the flesh,” but in a way that would distinguish them from unbelieving slaves. The expression, “according to the flesh,” suggests two important assumptions, which it seems Paul makes here. First, slavery is really a matter of the “flesh” and not of the “spirit.” That is, a slave master’s authority is limited to the “flesh” of his slave. He possesses his body, and he has the right to employ it’s services for his own purposes and profit. His authority ends here.

Second, I believe Paul assumes that the unbelieving slave will render obedience only in the flesh. The ungodly servant may appear to be obedient, but his spirit may well be in rebellion. He will do no more than his master demands and requires. When his master is not present, or when he is not looking, the slave lets up, producing only under pressure. All that the master gets from his ungodly slave is begrudging service. The slave cares not for his master, nor will he do more than he is forced to do for his master’s benefit. And not only will the unsubmissive slave fail to give his master his due, he may also steal from his master by pilfering, an evil which Paul forbids (Titus 2:9-10).

Paul’s words imply that while the authority of a slave’s master is limited to the flesh, the extent of a Christian slave’s submission goes far beyond the outward. There is a spirit of submission which is to attend one’s actions, and which inspires the godly slave to go above and beyond the minimum requirements of his master. Several phrases describe the deeper, more spiritual, level to which the slave’s submission is to extend:

“with fear and trembling” (verse 5)
“in the sincerity of your heart” (verse 5)
“not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers (verse 6)
“doing with will of God from the heart” (verse 6)

Here, then, is the inward dimension of submission, which is to accompany the outward acts of obedience, and which therefore set the Christian slave apart from the rest. The slave is to obey his master “with fear and trembling” (verse 5). This expression may refer to a respect for his master, but as it is used elsewhere by Paul, I believe that it speaks of a deep sense of humility, and of dependence on God. Consider these texts, where the expression “fear and trembling” occur:

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling (1 Corinthians 2:3).

And his [Titus’s] affection abounds all the more toward you, as he remembers the obedience of you all, how you received him with fear and trembling (2 Corinthians 7:15).

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).

Paul did not come to the Corinthians with an arrogant, authoritarian spirit and demeanor, but in humility. He knew that the salvation of men was not something he could accomplish in his own strength, and so he spoke simply, trusting in the Spirit of God to convince and to convert lost sinners. Titus was received by the Corinthians with “fear and trembling.” These saints were humble, and aware of God’s ministry among them through Titus, and so they obeyed his instructions. The Philippians were to work out their salvation with “fear and trembling.” They were to humbly (see the early verses of chapter 2) conduct their lives, knowing it was not their own strength, but God’s strength and wisdom which was being accomplished through them. So, too, slaves are to obey their masters, aware of their God-given authority, and also aware that the submission requires is that which He alone produces, through His Spirit (see Ephesians 5:18).

Obedience is to be the outflowing of a spirit of submission which originates in the “sincerity142 of the heart” (verse 5). This expression informs us that the “heart” is the spring from which “sincerity” flows. The terms rendered “sincerity” is used by Paul in Romans 12:8; 2 Corinthians 8:2 and 9:11. It refers to a singular purpose, as opposed to mixed motives, and this singularity of purpose often is evidenced by generosity. When one gives, one is to give with the singular purpose of pleasing God, and he is thus to do so generously. When a slave obeys his master, he is to do so with a purity and singularity of motive, and that is to please the Lord. The generosity which accompanies “simplicity” is evidenced by going above and beyond the minimum requirements he has been given by his master.

To be specific, the one motive is to please God, and the mixed motive which is to be rejected is that of being a “men-pleaser by way of eye-service” (verse 6). The man-pleaser seeks to please his master. His obedience is a performance for his master, only when he is present to view it. The slave thereby hopes not only to win his master’s approval, but also to be rewarded for his apparent (feigned) obedience.

Once again, Paul presses to the “heart” of the matter, instructing slaves to be “doing the will of God from the heart” (verse 6). It is not therefore not the outward acts of obedience alone for which Paul calls, but an inward spirit of submission and obedience, which results in obedience and faithful service, whether the master sees it or not.

The other day, one of our elders spoke of a principle that is applied to business. It goes something like this: “It isn’t what is expected, that gets done, But what is inspected.” This is not only true in business today, it is also true in slavery. The minute the boss is out of sight, production slows down, and perhaps stops altogether. Those who spoke respectfully to their master moments earlier when he was present, suddenly begin to make fun of him and to speak disrespectfully about him. That is the way it is when men obey externally, but not from the heart. Submission produces a far greater obedience.

One of the young men who worshipped and ministered among us in his seminary years recently returned to our church for a visit. Todd and Melody Elafson will soon be going to the mission field. A few years ago, Todd had ministered in a church that decided to close its doors. During the weeks that followed, Todd had to support his family by working as a laborer in the construction business, until he was offered a position in another church.

During those days his work barely provided for the needs of his family. These were difficult and discouraging days for Todd and his wife. He told me that one day conditions were such that all of the other workers went home. He could not afford to lose a day’s work, and so he stayed on the job. His task was to carry materials from the ground up to the roof of the building under construction. So far as Todd could tell, no one was there to see whether he worked or not. In simple obedience to God and to his employer, Todd labored hard, though unsupervised. Hour after hour he pressed on. He told me that as he did so unto the Lord, he was overcome with joy. He sang songs and meditated on Scripture and prayed and praised God—all alone.

Or so he thought. Unknown to him a contractor was on the job in the building. He had not seen the contractor, inside the building, but the contractor had seen him, on the roof. The contractor watched him all day long. And when the day was nearly over, the man approached Todd and told him he had never seen a man work so hard when no one was around to see it. It was a wonderful testimony to the truth of this text, and it gave Todd the opportunity to share his faith. That is what Paul is talking about—an obedience with begins in the heart, and which extends to work which exceeds anything the world expects.

Christian Slaves Are Slaves of God, And Not Men

Jesus said it, no man can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). Our text calls for slaves to obey their masters, but in a way that makes it clear that they are, in doing so, serving God.

5 Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; 6 not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, 8 knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.

The fundamental submission and obedience which Paul calls for here and elsewhere in his teaching on the subject is to our Lord. The Ephesians were not instructed to obey their masters and Christ, but to obey their masters in obedience to Christ. The fundamental obedience is therefore not to masters, but to the Master. This is not only true for slaves, it is true for wives (5:22) and children (6:1).

Have you ever watched a movie in which a trained animal performed? In nearly every case, the animal does not belong to the actor, who appears to be giving the animal his cues. The animal is looking beyond the actor, who stands nearby, off-camera, giving it every command. The animal is not obeying the actor, but its owner.

So it is for the slave. The master gives him orders, and he obeys, but in so doing he is obeying his Master, Jesus Christ. The way you know who is really in charge is to observe what happens when the (slave) master’s orders contradict the Master’s orders. In these occasions, which are conceived of as rare in the Scriptures, the saint must choose to obey God rather than men (see Acts 5:29).

The non-Christian slave does not see the Master behind his master, and thus he does only what his earthly master demands, and only when he is standing over him, threatening to punish him if he fails to produce to his master’s expectations.

Look for Your Reward in the Future, Not in the Present

The world view of an unbelieving slave could be very narrow in Paul’s day. It is unlikely that slaves were free to travel very far from home. They might never come back. The slave’s “world” could well be his master’s estate. His associations might be limited to only be his fellow-slaves. Hope would hardly characterize his view of the future. His only reward would be the favor he might gain by being a man-pleaser, or the few things he might pilfer when his master wasn’t looking.

Imagine how the Book of Ephesians could transform the world-view of a Christian slave. From Ephesians chapters 1-3 the slave would marvel that God chose him in eternity past, and that He sent Jesus Christ to die for his sins on the cross of Calvary. From these chapters he now comes to grasp the fact that he has been joined together with believing Jews, and is a part of God’s glorious church. And for all the blessings which he has already received in Christ, there is yet to come the glorious return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of His kingdom. There is yet to come an eternity of worship and praise in God’s presence.

The Christian slave comes to understand from Ephesians that the purpose of history is not to make people happy or to achieve momentary comfort, but to glorify God, now and for all eternity. Just as God purposed to accomplish this through the submission of Jesus Christ to suffering in God’s will, so He has purposed for us to glorify Him by our submission in suffering as well.

And so the slave who is also a saint learns not to look for his rewards from his earthly master, but from His heavenly Master. He learns that he is to obey his earthly master now, in submission to the Lord, and to wait for that day when He will be rewarded by His heavenly Master. While earthly masters see very little of what their slaves do, our Heavenly Master sees all that we do, and He also sees our hearts. And so the Christian slave looks to his inner attitudes and to his outward actions, knowing that God will judge him according to both. And in spite of the treatment which he receives from His earthly master, the treatment he will receive from God will be just.

Here, then, are three areas in which the attitudes and actions of the Christian slave should contrast those of the unbelieving slave. The Christian slave submits inwardly as well as outwardly to his earthly master. The Christian slave obeys his earthly master as an expression of his submission to the Lord. And the Christian slave looks to his Heavenly Master for his reward, which he will receive in eternity. The Christian slave lives by faith, his conduct energized by the Holy Spirit who works within him to the glory of God.

Paul’s Instruction to Masters

9 And, masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.

Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven (Colossians 4:1).

It is interesting to note what is not said to masters, here or anywhere else in the Scriptures. It is not said that masters should free all their slaves. Instead, masters should submit themselves to God and should subordinate self-interest to serving others. Masters should use their position in such a way as to serve the best interests of those who are their slaves.

Can you imagine what a different place the Roman Empire would have been if every slave owner had used his position to benefit his slaves? The problem with authority is that sinners abuse it, using it for their own selfish gain at the expense of those under them. Paul calls for attitudes and actions which would set Christian masters apart from all others. He calls for actions which would likely cause a Christian slave owner’s peers to be greatly upset with him, for he would put a great deal of pressure on them by his practices.

Probably the most dramatic contrast which our text highlights between a Christian view of slaves and masters and that of the unbelieving culture of that time (and ours) is revealed by this command: Masters, do the same things to them.

In the world, there is a double standard, one for masters, and another for slaves. But with God there is one standard, for masters and slaves, for husbands or wives, for parents or children. All are slaves of Christ, and all are called upon to submit themselves one to another in the fear of Christ (5:21).

At first glance, one might think that Paul has much more to say to slaves than he does to masters. After all, he has four verses addressed to slaves (verses 5-8) and only one addressed to masters (verse 9). But Paul’s words in verse 9 indicate that what he has said previously to slaves applies equally to masters. All Paul adds in verse 9 are a few additional words which more precisely apply the principle of submission to the circumstances of a slave owner.

There is but one specific command given to masters, and that is to “give up threatening.” Threatening must therefore have been a very common practice among slave owners. I think I know why. Consider these verses from the Book of Proverbs.

A slave will not be instructed by words alone; For though he understands, there will be no response (Proverbs 29:19).

He who pampers his slave from childhood Will in the end find him to be a son (Proverbs 29:21).

In these verses, we are being told “how things are,” not necessarily how things should be. Elsewhere we are told that a bribe accomplishes a great deal (Proverbs 17:8). This is not to say that bribes are good, for they are shown to be evil elsewhere (15:5; 17:23). But, in a fallen world where men and women are willing to set aside what is right for money, bribes work. So, too, in a fallen world where slaves rebel against their masters rather than submit to them, beating and threatening “works,” too.

But if Christian slaves serve their masters in an entirely different way than unbelieving slaves, Christian masters rule their slaves in a way that contrasts with the way unbelieving masters rule. Threatening seeks to produce obedience by instilling fear. Christian leadership seeks to motivate service through grace and gratitude. The reverence which the slave should have for his master should not be created by threats, but is the attitude of heart which a Christian slave should have in his heart toward his master because of the work of the Spirit (see verse 5 above). The service which is ideal is that which is rooted in the grace of a master toward his slave, and in the love of the slave for his master:

“But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door of the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently” (Exodus 21:5-6).

The slave’s devotion to his master is the result of his relationship to Christ. So, too, the master’s care for his slaves is the outgrowth of the master’s relationship to the Master. The master is just as much a “slave” of Christ as his slave is. And just as the Christian slave obeys his earthly master, looking to God for his reward, so the slave master fulfills his obligation to his slaves, knowing that he will give answer to his Master, in heaven. And he knows as well that His Master will judge with justice, and not with partiality.


As we come to the conclusion of this lesson, let us pause to reflect on what Paul has taught us in this text.

First, we learn that submission to higher authorities is rooted in our submission to God. In every case in Ephesians 5:21–6:9, the submission for which Paul calls is “unto the Lord.” In a very practical way, our submission should be based upon the assurance that God is in complete control, and that the authorities to which we are instructed to submit are those whose authority God has placed us under. While a Christian slave may not understand God’s purposes for his calling as a slave, he must be convinced that this is his calling. Jesus submitted to the authority of the Roman government and to the cross of Calvary, knowing that this was His Father’s will, and that the Father was in complete control, even as He was sentenced to death (see John 19:10-11; Acts 2:23).

Our text informs us that the slave’s obedience to his master is the will of God. Submission to those in authority over us is the will of God. A slave need not agonize so much about what God’s will for him is as he does over his obedience to the will of God. A child, likewise, can find the lion’s share of God’s will for his life summed up in this one command, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Christians often agonize about “knowing God’s will” when the greater portion of His will for our lives has already been revealed in Scripture. We may focus on the process of discovering God’s will because we don’t like what He has revealed to us about His will in His word. God does guide individually and personally, but it is most often through His word, and never contrary to it.

Submission and obedience goes beyond the surface level of appearances. Submission is not just giving the impression of pleasing, even to the one whom we are seeking to please. It goes much deeper, to the goal of seeking the benefit and blessing of the one we are subject to, to their good and God’s glory. Head-coverings for women do not prove they are submissive to their husbands, her actions do. Let us be careful that our submission goes much deeper than mere appearances.

The glory of God and not our happiness is the chief end of our salvation. The gospel is often represented in terms of our happiness or fulfillment or contentment, as thought God’s primary purpose for saving us was our own pleasure. God saved us for His own pleasure, and to bring glory to Himself. God’s glory is also our good, and so we do benefit from His grace in salvation. The error is to see man as the chief end of God’s purposes rather than God.

God often chooses to glorify Himself through suffering. God was glorified by the innocent suffering of His Son. He is also glorified by the innocent suffering of slaves (see 1 Peter 2:18-25). We will never understand or obey Paul’s instructions to us as slaves of Christ until we grasp the fact that our calling in life is to glorify God, and that suffering for us not only leads to glory, it is glory. It is not that we should live our life without joy, but rather than we should experience joy in suffering for the glory of God:

1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance (James 1:2-3).

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4:12-14).

The Gospel of our Lord does not call on us to overthrow evil institutions as much as it does to be lights in this world by response to them. There are some Christians who thing we should try to bring about heaven on earth by transforming society and its institutions. The Scriptures do not urge us to overthrow institutions, but to submit to them, and by living our lives to the glory of God, showing how the Christian faith can endure and even thrive in the worst circumstances.

Christians are to live in their small little world in the light of the eternal plans and purposes of God for His creation. The “world” of the slave may be small, but the plan of God is immense. Glimpses of that cosmic plan have been revealed by Paul in chapters 1-3. The conduct of the slave toward his master is governed by God’s purposes for history. We are to live out our lives in the light of the bigger picture, which we find only in the Scriptures.

Trusting in Jesus Christ is inseparably tied to the matter of our submission and obedience to His authority. The same word is used for “masters” in verse 5 as is translated “Master” in verse 9. Submission is the appropriate response of the Christian to divinely appointed authority. Why is it, then, that some try to separate saving faith from submission to the authority of Jesus Christ. Paul insists that every Christian submit to the authorities God has placed over them. He bases this submission and obedience on our submission to Jesus Christ. How, then, can some speak of being saved without submitting to Jesus Christ as Lord. In Paul’s mind, to be saved is to be subject, not only to Christ, but to all divinely ordained authority. Salvation is not only about the atonement of Christ, it is also about His authority. Salvation is about His death for us and His dominion over us.

And so I must close by asking one simple question: “Whose slave are you?” You are either a slave to sin and thus to Satan, or you are the bond-servant of Jesus Christ. Salvation begins when we recognize God’s authority over us, and our failure to live up to His standards. It begins when we cease to trust in our own efforts and receive the death of Christ on our behalf. It is by trusting in His death, burial, and resurrection that our sins are forgiven, and that we become His slaves by the bonds of love and gratitude. If you are not His slave by faith in Christ, do so today. He in whom we are instructed to trust for our eternal salvation is the very one who became a servant for our salvation.

“He does not tell them to rebel; he tells them to be Christian where they are. The great message of Christianity to every man is that it is where God has set us that we must live out the Christian life. The circumstances may be all against us, but that only makes the challenge greater. Christianity does not offer us escape from circumstances; it offers us conquest of circumstances.”

“He tells the slaves that work must not be done well only when the overseer’s eye is on them; it must be done in the awareness that God’s eye is on them. Every single piece of work the Christian produces must be good enough to show to God. The problem that the world has always faced and that it faces acutely today is basically not economic but religious. We will never make men good workmen by bettering conditions or heightening rewards. It is a Christian duty to see to these things; but in themselves they will never produce good work. Still less will we produce good work by increasing oversight and multiplying punishments. The secret of good workmanship is to do it for God.”

“Paul has a word for the master of men, too. He must remember that although he is master of men, he is still the servant of God. He too must remember that all he does is done in the sight of God. Above all he must remember that the day comes when he and those over whom he is set will stand before God; and then the ranks of the world will no longer be relevant.”

“The problem of work would be solved if men and masters alike would take their orders from God.”143

141 William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, [revised edition], 1976), pp. 179-180.

142 “The word [sincerity] … is used several times by St. Paul (by him only in the N.T.), and always indicates singleness and honesty of purpose, sometimes showing itself in liberality … Here the meaning is the obvious one, there was to be no double-heartedness in their obedience, no feeling of reluctance, but genuine heartiness and goodwill.” T. K. Abbott, A Critical And Exegetical Commentary On The Epistles To the Ephesians And To The Colossians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, [reprint], 1974), p. 178.

143 William Barclay, p. 181.

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