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Ephesians 6:5-9 Paul's Instruction To Slaves and Masters

Our text this morning is Ephesians 6:5-9,

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.

I have often tried to imagine Paul as he would stand before a congregation that was full of slaves and masters and speak on this issue. I would imagine that it took a lot of courage for Paul to stand up before these Christian congregations and say, “Bondservants, slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.”

There have been many times when I have stood before this congregation and read a text that made me tremble in some way. I would tremble because there are many texts in scripture that will tend to bring out some strong responses from the listeners.

As William Barclay speaks about slavery in Paul’s day, he says, “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 the law he was not a person but a thing. There could never be friendship between master and slave, for they had nothing in common; for a slave was a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.”

As I have pondered this text and how to approach it, I have made the decision to begin by saying that I do not want to ignore the uncomfortable nature of this text and how it may relate to the social issues that we are experiencing in our culture. I do not want to come to this text and to immediately draw a correlation between the slavery that Paul is addressing and the parallels between employees and employers in our culture today. It seems as though that would be missing an opportunity to address some of the very real conversations that need to be had today.

In our culture, we see the problems that slavery has caused in our nation. We see the profound hurt that has been caused by prejudice and racism. We are a nation that is wondering how we can free ourselves from these sins and find healing for, and display love towards, every person in our communities.

First, I would like to ask the question, “Why does Paul not stand up and condemn the institution of slavery?” How is it that Paul simply tells servants to obey their masters. And why does he only tell the masters to have a gracious disposition to their slaves and not tell them to immediately free them?

Secondly, I would like to ask, ‘What gave Paul the confidence that a slave, who may have hated their status and situation in life, would be willing and able to obey these words?’ And I would like to ask, ‘What gave Paul confidence that a master, who may have habitually threatened his slaves (v.9), would become kind, caring, and gracious to them?’ (Ephesians 6:9 - Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening...)

#1 - Why does Paul not simply demand that slavery be demolished?

Commentators have given several reasons for this and I do not simply want to expound on their thoughts. What I would like to do is to remind us that God always begins in a different place than we do. He begins in the heart and we begin with the externals. God transforms our affections, our desires, our motives, our thinking; but we will generally begin with the demand for external change, believing that at some point the internals will catch up. But does this really happen? Does external change alone bring internal change?

Proverbs 29:25 describes our natural disposition when dealing with these things. It says, “Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the LORD that a man gets justice.” In the end, it is folly to seek justice from a ruler if our hearts never turn to the LORD. It is only the LORD who can give true justice.

Even in Paul’s century there were many reforms that were beginning to take place for the betterment of slaves. Dr. John Stott lists some of these things in his commentary. For example,

  • In AD 20 a decree of the Roman Senate specified that slave criminals were to be tried in the same way as free men.

  • In AD 50 Claudius enacted that sick slaves who were deserted by their masters should be free if they recovered.

  • In AD 75 a female slave could under certain circumstances be freed if she had been prostituted by her master.

  • In AD 90 Domitian forbade the mutilation of slaves.

  • Early in the second century laws were made to prevent the sale of slaves for immoral or gladiatorial purposes, and may have forbidden the execution of slaves by their masters.

Every person ought to grieve and mourn the sin of slavery in every form that it takes and in every place that it occurs. Every believer ought to work towards laws that protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and rejoice when the fruit of this is seen.

This week I went back and looked at a timeline of all of the laws that were made since the middle ages that sought to abolish slavery. There were times when laws came quickly. There were seasons when the laws came slowly. There were times when these issues would move forward, and there were times when these issues would have set-backs and gains would be lost.

In our day, there is a rising call for reform and justice; but can this alone bring healing? We can change the books but can we see our hearts changed through such things? And if so, why has it not happened already? Even with all of our advancements in the laws concerning these things, why is there still so much hatred, anger and mistrust?

Notice that in our text Paul speaks often of a heart change that has occurred in the believers life. In Ephesians 6:5 the slave is to obey with a sincere and generous heart, as they would Christ. In Ephesians 6:6 slaves are to not serve men as people-pleasers, but they are to do the will of God from the heart.

Ecclesiastes 7:8-9 has encouraged me this week as I have considered these things. It says, “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.”

When the gospel began to be proclaimed by the apostles many things began to happen and this world would never be the same again. All of these changes began in the heart of sinful men. And as the gospel began to spread it bore fruit in countless ways.

Colossians 1:5-6 speaks of this, saying, “Of this you have heard before in the word of truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing - as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth…”

Ecclesiastes 7:8-9 reminds us that there is a process to reaching the conclusion of a thing. There is a process that we will all go through when grace comes into our hearts and establishes the change in this world. If we are to reach the end of this process we need to be patient in spirit and not proud in spirit. And if we are quick to become angry it will lodge in our hearts and not be easily removed from generation to generation. Is this what we see happening in our culture so much today. We have become an impatient people who demand change and look for any opportunity to let our anger be seen and acted upon. There is no grace in our hearts that would be able to respond in a better and biblical way.

When we ask the question, “Why did Paul not simply come out and condemn slavery?”, we need to remember that something more powerful was already at work in the hearts of these believers. Grace was present in their hearts and eventually it would change everything. It began in the heart, it was seen in the churches where slave and master both worshiped and served the Lord together. It was seen in the home and work life where they worked and lived together. And if the gospel is received in the community it will transform our world and bring healing for generations to come.

#2 What gave Paul the confidence that a slave and a master could obey his commands

  • Paul would teach them the necessity to keep their eyes on Christ

  • Paul has taught them the necessity of being filled with the Spirit (5:18-21)

In 1741 Jonathan Edwards received a letter from a young woman in a neighboring town. She was a new convert and she had heard Edwards preach a few months before. Her name was Deborah Hatheway and she was looking for some spiritual guidance and she turned to Edwards for help.

Edwards replied to Mrs. Hatheway with these words, “As you desired me to send you in writing some directions on how to conduct yourself in your Christian course, I will now answer your request.” The advice that soon followed consisted of nineteen instructions that were meant to guide this young lady throughout the whole of her Christian walk.

I would like to draw your attention to Edwards’ eighteenth piece of advice. Edwards emphasizes to her of the need to remain humbly dependent upon the Lord and that she should always be looking at Christ. He said, “In all your course, walk with God and follow Christ as a little, poor, helpless child, taking hold of Christ’s hand, keeping your eye on the mark of the wounds on his hands and side. From these wounds came the blood that cleanses you from sin and hides your nakedness under the skirt of the white shining robe of his righteousness.”

Edwards displays so much wisdom when he gives Mrs. Hatheway this advice. How easily both young believers and mature Christians can turn our attention away from Christ to other things, and when this happens there are tragic consequences as our hearts begin to fall away.

Psalm 73 is a good example of this very thing. The psalm begins with these words, “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”

The psalmist continued to struggle until he once again turned his gaze back upon the Lord. Psalm 73:16-17 says, “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.”

Consider what the psalmist says in Psalm 73:23-28, “I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.”

As Christians we will occasionally look away from Christ, as Peter did as he walked on water. Yet, Christ will be there to lift us up to safety.

Let us also consider the church in Galatia who were deserting Christ after they had begun to embrace a false Gospel. To them Paul says, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” (Galatians 3:1) The Galatians eyes and attention had been taken off of Christ. As a result, the Galatians looked upon themselves and upon those around them and they became envious, conceited and provoked each other. Paul again says to the Galatians, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” (Galatians 5:25-26)

In Ephesians 6:5-9 Paul speaks to slaves and masters and tells them that they are to continually look to Christ. If they are not looking upon Christ, considering His sufferings and His glorification, they will be impatient and angry. In all five verses of our text this morning Jesus is mentioned in some way:

  • Slaves are to obey their masters as if they were obeying Christ. (v.5)

  • Their obedience is not to please men, but as slaves of Christ. (v.6)

  • They are to do good and render service as to the Lord. (v.7)

  • They are to remember that any good that they do they will receive back from the Lord. (v.8)

  • Masters are to remember that the Lord is the Master of both the bondservant and the free. He shows no partiality. (v.9)

Several times Paul warns both slaves and masters that throughout the course of their life they are not to set their gaze upon men.

  • Slaves are not to serve their masters by way of eye service, as people pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ. (v.6)

  • The service that they bring is not to be brought to men but to the Lord. (v.7)

  • Masters are to keep their gaze heavenward and remember that the Lord in heaven is Master of both the free and the slave. (v.9)

Paul was confident as he stood before these congregations and said these things because he had taught them to keep their gaze upon Christ. He was also confident because he had taught them to be filled with the Spirit. He had said to the Galatians, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” (Galatians 5:25-26)

He has said to the Ephesians in Ephesians 518-21 that they were to be filled with the Spirit. And there were four characteristics of a believer who is being filled with the Spirit. They will speak the Word, they will sing praises to the Lord, they will thank God in everything, and they will submit to everyone in reverence to Christ.

Since Paul has told every believer to be filled with the Spirit, he has given us three practical examples of what it would look like for us to be filled with the Spirit and to be submitted to one another out of reverence for Christ.

  • In Ephesians 5:22-33 we looked at husband and wives

  • In Ephesians 6:1-4 we looked at children and parents

  • This morning, in Ephesians 6:5-9 we are looking at today the relationship between slaves and masters

His instruction, his commands, have not always seemed like they would be easy for us to obey. But if we will see the grace that changes our hearts, look upon Christ far more than our circumstances, and be filled with the Spirit and not intoxicated with any other thing; we will obey with a sincere and generous heart. We will do the will of God from a heart rendering service from good will. And those in authority will no longer threaten; but they will also be loving, gracious and kind.

The grace of God begins in the hidden places of the heart and not in the halls of human courts and political institutions. Grace does not find its completion through the passing of laws here on earth; but it is always pointing up to heaven where Christ where we will receive back from the Lord for the good done here and where Christ is in heaven and He judges with no partiality.

  • Receive Grace into your heart by looking to Christ and seeing his wounds and His place of honor

  • Be filled with the Spirit and do not be intoxicated with any other thing.

  • Celebrate the beginning of grace in the heart

  • Celebrate every time grace is received by a family, a church, a community, a country

  • Celebrate the godly changes that grace brings in this world

  • Celebrate Christ in heaven who will one day judge us all without partiality

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