“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. Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality. Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.”
You find a number of paragraphs like this throughout the New Testament (NT) addressing the relationship of slaves and masters and their responsibilities toward each other. I counted 6 such passages in the NT, if you include the letter of Philemon (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; I Tim 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10; Philemon; I Pt 2:18-25).
A little background about slavery in the Roman Empire
Much of the early church was made up of slaves and slave masters. Estimates about the prevalence of slavery in the Roman Empire vary. But often it’s estimated that about 1/3 of the population in the Roman jurisdiction were slaves.
One could become a slave in a number of ways. Some became slaves because they were taken as prisoners of war. Others because they were criminals and part of their punishment was to be placed in a household to serve as a slave. And some as a result of indebtedness. If you were indebted to someone and there was no likelihood that you would ever be able to repay your debt, you could legally be taken captive as a slave by the person you owed money to. Others became slaves simply as a result of bandits who kidnapped them and took them away either into slavery to themselves or sold them into slavery for a profit. The kind of thing you see for example in the life of Joseph, whose brothers sold him to passing travelers who in turn sold him as a slave into an Egyptian household. And children could be sold into slavery by their parents. (Teenagers were much better behaved back then by the way.) And probably the most common way a person would become a slave was by being born into a household of slaves.
Many historians believe that most of the work in the Roman Empire was done by slaves. Slaves were not just used for manual labor or menial tasks as we might think of slaves. But many were highly educated and employed in highly skilled jobs. Some were doctors and some were teachers and accountants and musicians and actors and secretaries.
And some were in better circumstances than others. Some fortunate slaves were treated like family by their masters. And others were treated like things. In Roman law a slave was not a person but a thing, a tool, and had absolutely no legal rights whatsoever. Masters could chain them, sell off their children, beat them, flog them, put them to death legally for any reason. One early Roman writer wrote about the instruments used in agriculture, and he divided them into 3 classes – the articulate, the inarticulate and the mute. The articulate referred to slaves. The inarticulate referred to animals. And the mute referred to inanimate things. And so in the minds of some masters back then the only difference between a slave and an animal or a plow was that a slave could speak. But they could all be treated the same. So some slaves had it better off than others. It all depended on the master.
Relevance of this text for us
So this would be a very relevant passage for a 1st century church. But it occurred to me this morning as I was looking around, maybe it has occurred to you as well, we don’t have any slaves or slaves masters in this congregation. So what do we do with this passage? Should we just skip over it? Does it have any relevance to us?
Well, actually I think it’s about as relevant to us as today’s newspaper. Think with me here for just a bit. If the Lord wanted slaves to work like this for masters who commonly did not treat or pay them very fairly, don’t you think this is at least how the Lord would have us work for somebody who treats and pays us much more fairly? Doesn’t it stand to reason if the Lord would permit someone to slack off and do shoddy work, do just the minimum to get by, it would be that slave who works for a master who treats him like a thing rather than a person? It would not be us who work for employers who are more fair and reasonable with us. So it seems to me that what is said here to slaves would be at least what the Lord expects of us as employees.
And the way masters are commanded here to treat their slaves is just simply in keeping with the Golden Rule that Jesus told us to apply in our treatment of everyone; that we treat others the same way that we would want to be treated (Matt 7:12; Lk 6:31). So the admonition of 4:1 is certainly applicable to anyone who has somebody underneath their management or supervision in the workplace.
So while this may not be one of the most popular of subjects, it is one of the most practical. For most people work occupies roughly half of their waking hours. And Christ calls us to give Him all our hours. You remember Colossians 3:17, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus…” II Corinthians 5:15 says, “He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” We’re to give our whole lives to Him who died for us. If we don’t serve Christ at work then we’re holding back a big portion of what He calls us to give to Him. And many of us have most our relationships and most our interaction with people at work. And so of all places where we need to let our light shine before men it is at work.
So let’s look more closely here at what God has to say to us about our work life?
For those of us who are employees (3:22-25)
We are given here 2 responsibilities and 3 realities to keep in perspective that help us fulfill those 2 responsibilities.
Responsibility #1 is…
Total Sincere Obedience (3:22)
“Slaves in all things obey those who are your masters on earth…” All things means in matters that are agreeable and pleasant and in matters that are disagreeable and unpleasant; whether menial or grand, tedious or enjoyable.
He explains that means “not with external service [or literally eye service], as those who merely please men…” You know what “eye service” is? That’s when you act busy when the boss is watching, but then you loaf when he walks away. That’s when rather than scrubbing the dishes with soap as you were hired to do you just spray the stuff off them and put him on the shelf so they look clean to the eye of the boss. It’s when you just vacuum up the visible stuff on the floor or sweep the dirt under the stove rather than completely cleaning the floor as you were asked to. It’s when you put in less nails, less screws, less glue, less quality materials into whatever you’re building to save time and money and yet the person paying you is expecting top quality work. That’s just eye service. Can you imagine people taking home a chair from Jesus’ carpentry shop and as soon as they lean back in it, it falls apart because it was shoddy work? Can you imagine Peter, Andrew, James or John shorting people in weighing out of fish? Can you imagine people setting up a tent made by the apostle Paul and discovering when it rains that it leaks? I can’t imagine it either. The command here is to give complete honest obedience to the expectations of whoever’s paying you.
Then Paul explains further, “with sincerity of heart“. The word translated “sincerity” in the Greek text is literally “singleness,” “obey in all things with singleness of heart.” Singleness as opposed to hypocrisy and duplicity. Duplicity or hypocrisy in the workplace would be the mere eye service kind of work. It would also be when I’m kind to my boss to his face, but I curse him at the water cooler or in the break room; when I’m kind to my boss to his face but I end up with all the paper clips and company pens and paper and toiletries at my house; when I’m kind to my boss to his face, but then I slander him around my supper table. Singleness and sincerity is Bob Cratchit. Do you know who I’m talking about? In the Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the abused and underpaid clerk of Ebenezer Scrooge. He didn’t agree with Mr. Scrooge not letting him have the whole day off on Christmas. But at Christmas dinner he raises a toast to “Mr. Scrooge, the founder of the feast.” And his wife is repulsed at the idea, “Why should we toast to that odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man?” He was no different, no less respectful, no less kind, away from Mr. Scrooge as when he was in his presence.
You notice that last expression in v22, “fearing the Lord.” You don’t serve your employer or your customers this way because they deserve it or they’re good people or so that you may be promoted or so they’ll recommend your business to their friends (though that will probably happen). But you serve this way because the eye the Lord is always on you and this is how He’s told you to serve and you are afraid displeasing the Lord.
Then the 2nd responsibility here is v23, and it’s basically…
Do your work the best you can (3:23).
He says, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily…” In the Greek text it is literally “from the soul.” I think it’s like our expression “put your heart and soul into it.” Give it all you’ve got. It’s like Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…”
It means don’t be a clock watcher. You know what it is to be a clock watcher. You do just enough to look busy, but your mind is not really on your task. It’s more on how many more minutes until the next break or until we go home. You’re just doing what you have to for the pay check. You’re not actually trying to serve anybody.
Like the man that was working on the road way. He’d been working there for a couple of weeks. He went to the foreman and complained to him he’d been there for 2 weeks and no one had given him a shovel. And the foreman said, “Well, what’s the problem? You’re still getting paid aren’t you?” he said, “Yeah I’m getting paid, but that’s not the problem. All these other guys over here have got something to lean on and I don’t.”
Joseph, 17 years old, made his father successful as a shepherd. Then sold into slavery in Egypt, he made his master Potiphar successful as a steward of his property. In jail he made the jailer successful working in the jail. Then exalted to prime minister of Egypt, he made Egypt successful. Do your work heartily, as best you can, try to make your employer or your customers successful.
And then Paul helps us see what that means when he says “work as though you were working for the Lord rather than for men“. Think of how you would work if the house you were called to do a repair on was the Lord’s house. I suspect after you finished the repair, if you saw something else you could also fix real quick, you just do that as well for Him. Or what if it was the Lord’s car that came into your shop? Maybe you’d not only fix the problem, but wash the car too before you gave it back to Him. What if your client was the Lord, or if it was the Lord who wanted you to build Him a piece of furniture, or if it was the Lord who came into your clinic, or if it was His office building that you cleaned? If you’re a waiter or a waitress, what if the Lord sat down at your table? How would you serve Him? No doubt you’d welcome Him and make sure He was comfortable. You would make sure His drink was always full. When He asked for ketchup and Tabasco you’d bring right away. And when He asked that apparently dreadful question for waiters or waitresses, “Could you split up the check?”, you wouldn’t grumble and sigh and say, “Yeah, but I want you to know it’s really a major pain.” You’d smile and say, “I’d be glad to.”
So our responsibilities are total sincere obedience and doing our work as best we can, as though we were serving the Lord and not men. Then Paul informs us of 3 realities that will help us do that if we can keep them in view.
The 1st reality to have in perspective…
“from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance.” (3:24a)
And that would have been an all the more significant truth for slaves who got no wages from their masters, who were never allowed to own property, who never expected to get a tip or anything for good service. If we have a right to object to this saying, “I don’t get paid well enough to work like this for my boss,” slaves would all the more have that right. But Paul says, “You follow the Lord in your work, you work this way that I’ve told you, and the Lord will see and the Lord will reward you with wages beyond your imagination, the inheritance.” He’s talking about the world to come, the new heavens and the new earth. He’s talking about paradise. Whatever your job, whatever your pay grade, you can think in terms of having one the highest paying jobs in the world. If you stock shelves and clean floors to the best of your ability to obey Christ and you persevere in following Christ in your life including in the workplace, your retirement package is out of this world, literally.
The 2nd reality to be seeing is the rest of v24.
“It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.” (3:24b)
Did you know if you work like Paul is telling you to work here, then you don’t do secular work? You may be a full time mechanic or chiropractor or taxi driver or science teacher or stay at home mom, but you do your work this way and you are involved in full time service of Christ.
I know of a lady who has a little sign above her kitchen sink that says, “Divine services held here 3 times daily.”
How could washing dishes or changing diapers or threading bolt 37A onto throttle body C, be serving Christ? For several reasons.
- First of all, you are taking care of people whom Christ loves. You’re taking care of your customer or whoever uses the products of your company. You’re taking care of your family by earning money to provide for them. And you’re taking care of others outside your family by earning money to be able to give. Ephesians 4:28, “He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need.”
- You’re also serving Christ by mundane ordinary services because in doing them well and doing them honestly you are adorning His gospel. Titus 2:9-10, Paul tells the preacher Titus, “Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith so that they will adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect.” People who don’t know Christ or the truth of the gospel, often what they think about it and whether they want to learn about it or not, is based on what they see in us who claim to be His followers. And if what they see in us is something special, this unselfishness, this desire to bless people, this beautiful, honorable, admirable character, then they’re much more likely to want to know the message that has made us such people. But if what they see in us is nothing special, just the same old grudging service just to get the pay check, just what they see in everybody else, then they’re not interested in our faith any more than they’re interested in anyone else’s faith.
- Doing your work well also serves Christ because it can correct ignorant and misguided notions about Christianity. I Peter 2:12, “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.” Did you know early Christians were slandered as cannibals because it was said that they ate the body of Jesus and drank his blood in the Lord’s Supper? And they were called haters of the world because they spoke of the world as full of evil. They were accused of immorality and incest because their meetings were called love feasts. And they were accused of being home wreckers because when one family member would become a Christian and others wouldn’t, a lot of time their relationships were ruined. And Peter is telling them to change people’s ignorant and preconceived ideas about us by excellent behavior and good deeds. Some of us probably have employers or work beside people who think little of Christians for some reason or another. We can change their attitude by our work.
- And it also serves the Lord simply because it’s obedience. And obedience conveys more than words that you trust and love the Lord.
And so if we’re working like this our work isn’t secular. We’re in full time Christian service this way.
The 3rd reality to keep in view is…
The impartial judgment to come (3:25)
“For he who does wrong [I don’t think he means someone who commits a sin, which would be all of us. He’s talking about somebody characterized as a wrong doer. It’s somebody who has a practice of wrong doing and won’t repent of it.] will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality.” It means though our employer may never know, we can’t get away with just giving eye service or not giving a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay if we’re not repentant of that. And it also means if our employers mistreat us or pay us unfairly, unless they repent, they won’t get away with that. So we don’t need to concern ourselves with vengeance and giving our employer what he deserves. Christ will handle that. We just need to concern ourselves with serving Christ at work.
Now, let’s look real quick here at what is said…
For those of us who are employers (4:1)
Paul doesn’t say near as much to masters and employers as he said to slaves and employees. One explanation is that this is a reflection of the social make up of the congregation to whom this letter was written. In other words perhaps there were more slaves than masters, and Paul knowing that decided to give more attention to the larger group. Or it may be that Paul knew the typical mindset of slaves and the resentment they commonly held toward their masters and felt they needed a little more explanation and motivation.
Either way, just one verse for masters and for those of us who are employers. But this one verse was a revolutionary statement for the time in which Paul wrote it. In the Roman world there was no such thing as a code of working conditions. There was no minimum wage law. A slave was viewed as a thing, a tool and had no rights whatsoever, and so masters had no responsibilities whatsoever toward their slaves.
But Paul says, “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness…” The word “justice” here is a word that means rightness. And rightness is that which meets the standards set by God regarding how you treat another human being. And the word “fairness” here means equality. You treat them as well any other human being should be treated. And God’s standard for how you treat human beings is as you would want to be treated (Lk 6:31).
John 13:3-5 is amazing statement about Jesus. It says, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God [In other words Jesus knew the Father had given Him the CEO position of the universe, and that He had come down from His executive office, that He was among the unskilled laborers at the bottom of the pyramid, and that soon He was heading back up to the executive office. So what did He do down among His servants? “He got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.” Did you know washing feet was the task for the lowest of slaves? Normally the youngest slave or the newest slave would be one who would have to do that job. That’s like polishing your employees shoes. That’s like cleaning their bathroom. That’s like washing their dishes in the break room for them.
What could you do that would make your employees more comfortable, that would make their lives easier, or that would just lift their spirits? Could you bring them a coffee? Could you maybe just ask about how they’re doing and how’s their family, show interest in their lives? Ask if there’s anything that would make their job easier? Could you maybe remember their birthday, do something special for them on that day? Could you offer to watch their kids some evening so they could have a date night with their spouse? If one day at work they seem to be stressed out about something in their life, could you let them have the rest of a day off?
Certainly you don’t take advantage if the economy is bad and they just can’t find any other work so they have no choice but to work for you. It might be okay to take advantage of bargains at the grocery store and see how to get the most and the best quality for the least cost possible, but not when you’re hiring human beings. You treat them as you would want to be treated.
The reality Paul gives for every master or employer to keep in view is that “you too have a Master in heaven.” You may be at the top of the pyramid, in the highest executive office, but you too have a Master, and one that you know loves every one of your employees so much that He gave His life for them. No employer can rightly say, “This is my business and I can do what I like with it.” We must say, “This is the Lord’s business that He’s entrusted to me. And these are people that He has made and that He loves and that He’s put under my management. And I’m responsible to Him for what I do with what He’s entrusted to me.”
Let’s never forget who we work for. Whether we’re employees or employers we work for the same Master. Let’s not see our jobs as secular work. Let’s see them as a means to take care of people that Christ loves and as a means to be a light to those people for Christ and as a means to worship Christ by our obedience.
– James Williams