Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A Slave of Christ Jesus

Slave: a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them (
Doulos (Greek): Slave. “Hence we have a service which is not a matter of choice for the one who renders it, which he has to perform whether he likes or not, because he is subject as a slave to an alien will, to the will of his owner.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament)

Slave and slavery are terms rightly repulsive to our ears. The horror of slavery past and the sad reality in parts of the world of slavery present sickens us. No human has the right to “own” another human. In our country today, we laud the principles of liberty, freedom, and equality (though we don’t always exercise those principles as effectively as needed).

Slavery in the first century was a prevalent reality. Some estimate that 1 in every 5 people in the Roman Empire were slaves. And slaves were disdained by most. Many Rabbis considered calling someone a slave as the worst insult you could make. A slave had no standing in society. A slave owned nothing, had no plans of their own, and no freedom to do what they wanted. A slave only had the option to obey their master.

So with all of this baggage, why in the world did the apostles and early Christians adopt this term “slave” as one of the primary descriptions of who they were as believers in Jesus Christ? The term is used about 150 times in the New Testament, but you will rarely see it translated “slave” in your English translations. Only the Holman Christian Standard Bible and one other translation accurately translate the term “slave” every time it is found in the New Testament. Yet, "slave" is the unequivocal meaning of the Greek term according to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Most English translations use the term “servant,” but that’s not the meaning of doulos. Doulos means slave. Throughout the New Testament we see the apostles refer to themselves as slaves of Christ: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus,” “Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ,” “James, a slave of God,” “Simeon Peter, a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ,” “Jude a slave of Jesus Christ,” and in the Revelation “His slave, John.”

Why does God, by His Holy Spirit, inspire these authors of scripture to so frequently refer to themselves as slaves? And is it beneficial for our translations to avoid that term and use “servant” instead? I believe it actually damages our understanding of scripture to avoid the term slave so often. The writers knew what a slave was and the negative connotations associated with that term. They understood that a slave had no rights. They understood that a slave was purchased by someone else. They understood that a slave owned nothing. They understood that a slave was duty bound to their master whether they wanted to do something or not. And that’s why they referred to themselves as “slaves of Jesus Christ.”

When I think of a servant, I think of a hired hand. I think of someone hired to carry out a duty or a task. They are required to perform their duty, but they are still free then to pursue their own activities. The person they serve doesn’t own them. That person doesn’t get to call the shots in every aspect of their life, only in the areas for which they have been hired. That’s the picture I have of a servant, and I think that’s the picture of discipleship for many. We view ourselves as servants of the Lord. He has some assignments and tasks that He wants us to carry out and we need to do those assignments. We need to read the Bible, pray, go to church, and share the gospel among other things. We are servants of the Lord and so we need to add those items to our agenda. But that’s where the problem lies. I still have an agenda. I’m just adding God’s assignments to my agenda. I’ll make sure I get God’s assignments done, but then I have my own agenda I also want to accomplish. Slaves don’t have their own agenda, only the master's agenda.

Peter, Paul, John, James, Jude, and even Mary didn’t view themselves as servants with their own agenda. They viewed themselves as slaves with only God’s agenda. They didn’t have the option to fit God in their schedule. They only had God’s schedule. They obeyed whether the task was difficult or even painful. They were slaves of the Lord and He called the shots. That’s the view of biblical discipleship. We only have God’s agenda. God owns us. He bought us at the extremely high price of His Son’s life and shed blood. As believers in Jesus Christ we are slaves of God.

But also recognize that this slavery is different from the oppressive and abusive slavery known in world history because our Master is far different from any human master. Jesus told His disciples in John 15:15, “I do not call you slaves anymore, because a slave doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from My Father.”

Though we are slaves, we are also our Lord’s friends. A master doesn’t tell his slave the reason behind his order. He doesn’t give his slave the big picture and explain his plan. He simply expects the slave to obey. But Jesus gave us the big picture. He shared His plan to redeem humanity. We’ve even seen the end of the story in the book of Revelation. We are not merely slaves, but friends and ultimately heirs with Christ. Yet, we must never forget this fundamental identity as the Lord’s slaves.

When you read your Bible and see the phrase “servant of Christ," just remember that it should literally read “slave.” Let the meaning of that reality churn in your heart for a while. As slaves of Christ we have no agenda but His, we have no master but Him, and we own nothing because it’s all His. Paul's words to the believers in Corinth are just as fitting and needed for us today, "You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body," (I Corinthians 6:19b-20).

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