Yesterday I was privileged to preach from Ephesians 6:5-9 as we continue to press on toward the end of our series through Ephesians.  As Paul provided practical instruction on how to live in holy and Christ-honoring relationships in the family, at this point he begins to widen the circle to look outside the immediate family to external relationships.  He begins with the closest group on the outside of the family—slaves.

It’s estimated that by the time of the letter to the Ephesian Christians, the city of Ephesus was approximately 33% slaves.  While there were periods of slavery throughout time in the Roman empire that were harsh and cruel, filled with mistreatment and abuse—by the time of the early church, that type of behavior had been curbed by new Roman law that protected slaves as citizens.  Slavery was a workable system that was not only protected under Roman law, it had long been governed under God’s Law as is evidenced by the language of Exodus 21.

The reason that we don’t see liberation sermons and texts devoted to calling down slavery is because by the time of the early church period, slaves were viewed on a respectable cultural level and the system was respected among the people—including slaves.  It would be an incorrect method to read the slavery mentioned in Ephesians through an American slavery lens.  For instance, slaves in the days of the early church were given education privileges, opportunities to own property, the freedom to own their own businesses, the option to buy their own slaves, and it was often the case that slaves and masters were difficult to distinguish apart.  Perhaps this is the main reason why we don’t see the condemnatory language toward slavery in the New Testament.

With such a large number of slaves and slave owners, the occupational structure of their system needed to be addressed by Paul.  The church at Ephesus would have been populated by slaves and slave owners, and how they treated one another outside the church assembly mattered.  In fact, it would say much about the sincerity of their salvation.  Paul was pressing the church at Ephesus to go beyond a profession of faith to a reflection of their faith in their various different circles of life.

The Responsibility of Slaves

The slave was like an employee of the slave owner.  They worked and had specific job responsibilities to carry out,  Paul points to their need to obey.  He uses the same word found in reference to children obeying their parents.  He then pointed to their need to do so with fear and trembling.  This was a circular phrase that circles back to their rightful relationship with Christ. Slaves were to obey their masters in such a way that they demonstrated a proper fear and respect of Christ.  This attitude produced a proper reverence for their earthly masters.

The sincerity of their salvation was to be reflected in the sincerity of their service to their master.  They were not to work with eye-service, a term likely coined by Paul for the purpose of describing those who work hard while the master’s eyes are watching only to slack off when he turns his back.  They were not merely working to please an earthly man.  They were working before the One who never closes His eyes, never takes a break, never walks away, never goes on vacation, never clocks out and goes home.  Their ultimate service was to Christ Jesus.

The Responsibility of Masters

The responsibility of the Christian master was to go beyond Roman law to the Word of God.  To lead out of love—not fear and intimidation.  The one who uses threats to produce service is a poor leader.  This was what Paul was pointing to in his letter to this church.  Masters were called to lead out of good will toward their slaves—being encouragers rather than discouragers.  William Hendriksen writes, “In other words, ‘Let your approach be positive, not negative.’ Hence, not, ‘Unless you do this, I will do that to you,’ but rather, ‘Because you are a good and faithful servant, I will give you a generous reward.’” [1]

Finally, Paul points to the fact that both masters and slaves have a higher Master who will one day judge all without partiality. We will all have our time before the throne of God – before His majestic and sovereign throne we will be judged. However, as we see here in this text, there is a purpose in all submission and authority roles. It points to Jesus Christ.  Ultimately the ground is level at the foot of the cross (Gal. 3:28).

While it may be difficult to find application to a slave-master context in ancient Ephesus to our present day relationships in our culture—the most natural bridge would be to examine the relationship between employee and employer.  How healthy is your relationship with your boss?  Do you perform labor as unto the Lord or unto an earthly boss?  Do you perform your duties out of a sincere heart or is your labor based on eye-service and people-pleasing?  If you’re a business owner or boss in your place of employment, you should apply the words of Paul to masters to your own role as a leader.  Do you lead out of good will toward your employees?  Are you a burdensome leader?

Remember—we are all slaves to a higher master.  It is our goal to hear these words in the end:

Well done, my good and faithful servant (Matt. 25:21).

  1. William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of Ephesians, vol. 7, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 265.
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Author We Are Slaves to a Higher Master

Josh Buice

Pastor Pray's Mill Baptist Church

Josh Buice is the founder and president of G3 Ministries and serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church on the westside of Atlanta. He is married to Kari and they have four children, Karis, John Mark, Kalli, and Judson. Additionally, he serves as Assistant Professor of Preaching at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He enjoys theology, preaching, church history, and has a firm commitment to the local church. He also enjoys many sports and the outdoors, including long distance running and high country hunting. He has been writing on Delivered by Grace since he was in seminary and it has expanded with a large readership through the years.