How do you answer the question, “So…what do you do?” This is always a fun question for me to answer, because I can tell a lot about a person based on how they react to me once they hear the answer! They either smile or back away in horror. What we do (or did) to put food on the table is hardly the most important thing about us, yet, God has something to say about how we are supposed to work as well as worship. Namely, our work, according to the passage before us, is part of our worship of Jesus. “Ultimately, Christian slaves belong to one Lord, Jesus Christ (v. 6), and their obedience to their earthly masters is all of a piece with their serving him (vv. 7, 8).” (O’Brien, 449)
No matter what stage of life you are in, this passage actually has something to say to you. Even if you are retired and don’t collect a paycheck from a company anymore, this passage has a great deal to say to you about any endeavor that you put your mind towards. What’s amazing is in our economy in America, all of us have been on both sides of this master/servant divide. While you may not have official employees, you talk to someone at the bank, doctor’s office, and favorite restaurant. You may not be signing the paycheck for the wait staff at La Costa, but be sure that those people are serving you, and thus this passage applies to your interactions with them.
Our two points are Servants, serve Jesus and Masters, remember that you are a servant to Jesus, too.
Servants, serve like you would serve Jesus
Let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room: slavery. Many people have critiqued the Bible because it would appear to condone slavery rather than condemn it. How on Earth is Paul not saying, “Slaves, rebel against your masters!”? We won’t spend a ton of time on this because it could be a sermon unto itself, but a few points need to be made. First, the way we typically think of slavery here in the US was never allowed by the Bible. Stealing people from one place to sell them to work another called for the death penalty in the Old Testament (Ex. 21:16; Dt. 24:7) (Thielman, 539). Here in the New Testament, Paul is setting things up for us to see slaves and masters as the same, namely, people. Slaves, even in Roman times, were considered property, but here Paul is addressing them as people. Such a concept was radical, and in the words of one writer, “If Paul does not make a full frontal attack on slavery, he is certainly putting a time-bomb under it.” (quoted in Francis Foulkes). Indeed, it was this very New Testament concept that drove the abolition of slavery in many parts of the world (Foulkes), thought it must be remembered that around 50 million people still sit in slavery even today (IJM).
Paul instead of calling for a social action that a small, minority group of people could hardly pull off against the Roman Empire, he shows them that even the lowest in society still had much to contribute to the Kingdom. Just because you were a slave didn’t mean that you were useless to God, and just because the wider society saw you as little more than a talking drill or wagon, doesn’t mean that God saw you that way.
Paul begins by addressing the slaves first with a simple command: obey your masters. They were supposed to do this with “fear and trembling.” This doesn’t mean that they needed to be physically afraid of their masters (as we will see in a moment, masters are called to not even threaten violence). The phrase “fear and trembling” comes up in a lot of different contexts (Phil. 2:12, 2 Cor. 7:15, 1 Cor. 2:3), with the idea that this is referring to a subordinate recognizing his position to a superior and showing respect. (Thielman, 405). Indeed, “[The phrase “fear and trembling”] has to do with an attitude of due reverence and awe in the presence of God, a godly fear of the believer in view of the final day (see also on 5:21, 33).” In other words, you are not acting with fear and trembling because you are reacting to a man. You are giving respect and awe because you can see God behind that boss.This is how we can carry out the command to respect even an unjust employer (1 Peter 2:18-19)
Indeed, as we go on to the next couple of verses, Paul makes how we are supposed to work quite clear. We are to do our work with a sincere heart (meaning, we do good works with good attitudes springing from a willing heart [Thielman, 406]) as if we were doing it for Jesus. One writer put it this way: “‘The conviction of the Christian workman is that every single piece of work he produces must be good enough to show to God’ (Barclay, quoted in Foulkes).” Now, this doesn’t mean that everything that you attempt in your life needs to be perfect. Growing up, Dad had a saying for me when we were working on something that didn’t need to be our best possible effort: “Son, we’re not building a piano here.” Pianos need to be built perfectly if they are going to be tuned and played correctly. Digging a fence post doesn’t require near the level of attention to detail. This passage isn’t trying to turn us all into OCD piano builders on every project, but it is saying that whatever God calls us to do, we should do with reasonable excellence. Nothing will be perfect, but we should put our heart and soul into it because ultimately, our heart and soul belong to God and so does our work that we present.
That is what work should look like, but Paul makes equally clear what a Christian work life shouldn’t look like. Paul uses the term “eye-service,” or working only so that you are noticed, for the first time in Greek literature, so likely he has coined the term (O’Brien, 451). This goes hand in hand with people pleasing, the definition of not doing your work for God (O’Brien, 451). When we work it should be work that is from the heart whether people notice or care about it or not. Integrity, as my family used to define it is doing what’s right when no one is looking. That’s really hard! Why do you think social media is so popular? It was something of a stereotype when our generation would go on a missions’ trip that we would film ourselves doing work and post it. We acknowledged that what we were doing was promoting ourselves, but somehow that didn’t stop us and even helped us coin a fun term for eye-service called the “humblebrag.” Let the reader understand.
Paul reiterates that we shouldn’t be servants like that, but rather serve in a way that shows that Jesus is our greatest treasure. Does your work look like you value Jesus? Do most people say, “Man, I wish I could hire a Christian! They do all their work like they are working for Jesus, and wow, they must really love that guy, because their work is stellar!” Your love changes how you work. Think about how you respond to text messages. You respond faster to people you like and respect more, don’t you? You’re more careful in typo-checking those emails, aren’t you? As a Christian, though, all our work is offered up to God and needs to be given the time to make it-not perfect- but excellent.
The only way that this is possible is that it comes from a transformed heart. You might be able to turn in excellent work no matter how you feel about the person, but God demands that this good work goes all the way down to the heart level. My old seminary professor, Frank Thielman, put it this way: “The obedience of the slave, Paul says, should have this straightforward character: there should be no division between the quality of the labor produced and the attitude of the one who produces it.” (406). That needs a heart transformed by Jesus. We need to cry out to Christ every time we clock in. Open up your heart to God before you open up the laptop. That’s what this passage calls us to do.
But Paul goes further than just a bare command. As usual, there is a promise waiting in the wings of a command. Paul says that God will reward good work. One scholar put it this way, “[Paul] knows what it will mean to his readers who are slaves to live out what he has said. So he reminds them that nothing is unwitnessed by the Lord in heaven, nothing well done is ever done in vain. There may be no thanks on earth. A person may reap only criticism and misunderstanding. But there is an unfailing reward for faithful service (cf. Luke 6:35; 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 22:12).” (Foulkes). Isn’t that incredible? God misses nothing. O’Brien puts it like this: “He notices the good deeds of each and every one of them — note the stress on ‘each one’ — so that none will miss out on being rewarded for any good that has been done.” (emphasis in original, 453). Now that works both ways (Colossians 3:25), but God graciously promises to bless. To be clear, we are still justified and go to heaven on Jesus’ work alone, but in His kindness He rewards the efforts of His people. I remember one spring break, I helped my dad cut down a very large tree. We spent a number of days on it, but finally, on the last day, it fell! As a reward for my work, I got a computer (Thanks, Dad)! I didn’t get my sonship by doing that. I am Dad’s son, and nothing will change that, but it is a father’s delight to bless. And our Heavenly Father is no different.
Masters, remember that you are a servant to Jesus, too.
As we come around to the final verse in this passage, we see that God has things for masters, those with authority, to do, too. They are told to “do the same,” which means to do their work unto the Lord as well (Thielman). Paul also has a special command for masters. It is a significant one, that a little history lesson can help explain. From one scholar: “Although positive encouragement to obey was also used to keep slaves intermission, violence was the primary foundation of the institution: ‘slaves were never in a position to predict when the wrath of an owner would descend upon them, and their lives were thus conditioned by this perennial fear of physical abuse and maltreatment. Within that element of fear lay owners’ capacity for the permanent control of their lives’… Believing masters, however, must give up…the threat of violence. The command is not qualified in any way. It is not that masters must give up certain forms of threatening…, But they must give up threatening entirely. With this command, Paul has cut the thread that held the institution of slavery together.” (Thielman 409-10). Paul is telling Christian masters to treat their slaves, like, well, people! They could not use a slave’s status as an excuse to treat them poorly. Indeed, “Christian masters are reminded that they, too, are slaves, indeed fellow – slaves of the same Lord as their own servants.” (O’Brien, 455, emphasis in original). I don’t care what your business card says, you are a slave to God just like that other person is if they are in Christ. If they are not in Christ yet, then you should pity them on top of respecting them.
I am always amazed at how people in service positions, particularly retail, react when you genuinely ask them how their day is going and thank them for coming into work today. It’s incredible the abuse they take for minimum wage jobs. Christians should never be known for that. Christians shouldn’t be known as poor tippers for wait staff. The person in front of us is no different than we are. We serve a heavenly master, and should treat them as we are treated by our master.
Retired folks: You’ve got more people working for you than you think! From the doctor’s office to the post office, there are people working for you. Treat them excellently.
Employers: You are under authority, and God is checking to see how you treat your employees.
Employed people: You’ve only got one Boss. Make sure that you are doing His work first and foremost which at the very least includes being excellent at your job.
Church Officers: You fit into both of these categories! This is why seeking an office is a big responsibility!
Kids: Your school is your work! Do it accordingly!
The only way you can do that is to realize that Jesus died and rose again for your poor treatment of others. You can be honest with yourself about how you have treated others under you and run to Jesus. He can forgive you if you have been a harsh boss or a lazy worker. Just go to Him. You will find forgiveness and transformation. Leave behind those old works, and find the joy of working for Jesus.
Finally, while Paul laid down the foundation to oppose slavery, God in His grace allows us to continue the work of abolishing it! Slavery is still very much a problem today, and probably strikes closer to home than you might think. The aforementioned human trafficking is a MASSIVE part of the pornography industry. The vast majority of those people on that screen are very unwilling victims, that according to statistics, are being viewed by 64% of Christian men and 15% of Christian women at least monthly. Half of those people view porn several times a week (link).
We can do something about it! See the International Justice Mission for ways in which you can help fight against modern-day slavery!