Now if you would please take a copy of God’s holy, inerrant Word in your hands and turn to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which you will find on page 979 of our church Bibles. Once you have the Scriptures opened before you, let’s bow our heads as we pray.
Lord our God, there are times, we confess, when our world in its sin and sorrow, in our suffering and grief, when normalcy seems like a contradiction in terms and though our own hurts may be raw and our own struggles more than we can bear, the details of life continue to roll over us and require much from us. We’re grateful, therefore, that Your Word gives us guidance for the normal and the mundane and the everyday and shows us where to step and where to stand and how to go on in the details in our home lives, in our marriages, and in our workplaces. As we come to the Scriptures now, we pray that You would do that for us. As a congregation, we’ve had to deal with a great deal of loss and sorrow and grief and suffering and we very much need a Word from You. We pray, therefore, as we read the Holy Scriptures, that the Holy Spirit would wield them with might and power and grace in our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Ephesians chapter 6. We are going to read from the first verse, though our focus this morning will be on verses 5 through 9. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Slaves, 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 servants 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 slave or 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.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.
The Proper Stance for Understanding the Passage
If you will all promise not to laugh at the images this will inevitably conjure in your minds, I will confess to you that I recently started working out at a local gym. Thank you! I’ve never seriously done any weight training before and as I’ve begun to learn one of the things the trainers have insisted on is proper form. You have to get your stance right. The different movements that go into a safe and efficient lift have to be mastered or else you run the risk of injury. You can’t just start lifting. You have to learn the right posture, the right stance. And the same is true, actually, of Holy Scripture. The stance we bring to the text of God’s Word changes everything. It’s vital for a safe engagement with its message. And that is especially true in the passage now before us, Ephesians chapter 6 verses 5 to 9. If you would look at it with me, you will remember that the apostle has been dealing with the way in which believers in the church at Ephesus ought to relate to one another in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and so he summed up his teaching in this section, or he gave sort of a general heading for it in chapter 5 verse 21. We are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. And then he will go on to show us the three great spheres of domestic life in the ancient world in which Paul is operating where we are to live out that mutual submission as the people of God. In chapter 5, 22 to 33, the bonds of marriage – husbands and wives. Then chapter 6:1-4 that we looked at last time – parents and children. And now chapter 6 verses 5 to 9 – slaves and masters.
And as we deal with that final category, as contemporary readers immediately we have a problem, don’t we? We have questions. Depending on our stance, to go back to that weight training metaphor, depending on our stance, you might read Paul here as supporting an institution that is fundamentally unjust. Is Paul advocating slavery here? That’s our question. But if our stance is incorrect when we come to the text of the Word of God, we are in danger of doing injury to its message as well as to our own spiritual welfare. What we need to understand, if I might correct our stance a little as we approach this passage, is that Paul is not affirming the institution of slavery, per se here. And if we had time we could survey the teaching of the New Testament and demonstrate how it has the theological resources that led to the undermining and eventual eradication of slavery as an institution in our own country and in other parts of the world. We might turn, for example, to 1 Timothy chapter 1 verse 10 where Paul clearly lists those who enslave others in a context where he is describing abominable and wicked vices. The New Testament actually is clear that slavery and enslaving others is inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul is not affirming the institution of slavery but he is saying that even in situations that to us are intolerable, where people are required by circumstances to live with extremes of need and deprivation, even there he’s saying the Christian Gospel has a word for us. He’s saying that even slaves, the lowest class of the ancient Greco-Roman culture and civilization within which Paul is operating, even they must learn to live under the Lordship of Christ and in light of the Gospel.
And when you adopt that stance, as we approach this passage, there’s both enormous comfort for us here and enormous challenge. Enormous comfort because our text is telling us that there is no one, no strata of human society, no place in our culture be it ever so mean and weak and despised, even slaves, where the Gospel light of Jesus Christ does not shine and where there are not clear, God-given directives for living for Him. Enormous comfort but also enormous challenge because this passage reminds us that in our comparative affluence that the Word of God and the church of Jesus Christ to which Paul was writing included slaves among its regular and welcomed members. Take a look down your rows for a moment, would you? Go ahead and take a sideways glance down the pew beside you. As you do that, I want you to count one person in every three. So go ahead; take a look. Count ever third face. You’re allowed to look at each other; you might even smile! We’re not so Presbyterian that we can’t be friendly, right? Count every third face. Now imagine for a moment this was the Ephesian church to which Paul was writing. One in three persons in the Roman Empire at the time of Paul’s writing was a slave. Every third face was the face of a slave. Those faces you counted in your pew, they’d be the faces of slaves in this city of Ephesus, and if they had come to faith in the Lord Jesus then Paul says not only are they welcomed and valued, their servitude notwithstanding, no, they’re addressed directly and specifically in Holy Scripture as worshippers present in the assembly of the saints, sitting at it were in the pew with free men and even their own masters, integral to the life of the people of God, fully equal with their full dignity as image bearers and heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. God, you see here, has a word for them in their hard and painful circumstances.
Brothers and sisters, the real challenge of Ephesians chapter 6 verses 5 to 9 is not so much that it mentions slaves and masters as perplexing as that no doubt can be; the real problem for us in our affluence and ease is that Ephesians 6:5-9 recognizes and affirms the dignity and rightful place among the people of God of the lowest strata of Ephesian society. I once served a church where a poor man with significant problems was a regular worshiper. It’s not his real name; we’ll call him Fred. He was simple soul with a bright faith in Christ. He dressed poorly, his teeth were all rotten, he spoke with a lisp; he smelled terribly. And one day an elder took him aside after worship and he said, “Fred, don’t you think it’s time you found a church with your kind of people in it? Don’t you think it’s time you found a church for your kind of people?” He’s completely missed the spirit of the New Testament as the apostle Paul explains it to us here, hasn’t he? I think had Paul been present to overhear that conversation he’d have taken the elder aside and said, “My friend, Fred is precisely our kind of people. It’s you I’m not so sure about! Fred is precisely our kind of people. It’s you I’m not so sure about!”
You remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians chapter 1 at the twenty-sixth verse, don’t you? “Consider your calling, my brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no human being may boast in the presence of God.” That is the church where slaves sit in the pew with their masters, alike, addressed, and affirmed and acknowledged as children of God. Not many wise; not many strong; not many noble. That’s the church. And if we are to take Ephesians 6:5-9 seriously then we need to face the possibly that we are being called to check how far our relative affluence and comfort makes us unwilling to serve and worship beside and learn from the opposite ends of the economic spectrum and the other side of the tracks to ourselves. If we’re ever tempted to say to a child of God, “Don’t you think it’s time you found a church for your kind of people?” we have fallen far from the spirit and tenor of New Testament Christianity, and before ever we can adequately hear the message of the Word of God in this text and elsewhere we must repent before God for our hardness of heart.
And so as we adjust our stance and we come to this passage in humility, not judging it but sitting under it, we nevertheless do still need to determine how to make use of it given that in our context and culture institutional slavery is no longer a dominant fact of everyday life for us, is it? And part of the answer to how we are to receive and use and profit from this text is to realize that while we may not be slaves or masters we do, nevertheless, continue to have obligations to employers and obligations to employees. We are subordinate or we have subordinates working under us in our places of business. And the passage before us, I believe, continues to provide significant guidance on how to live for Christ in that environment. So let’s take a look at it together and begin to think about how to work Christianly in our various vocations.
I. Work with Sincerity
Verse 5 gives us the basic, fundamental Christian ethic and attitude. “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” There’s a reverent respect of lawful authority that is to be recognized by every Christian in every environment, at work, as well as at home, as well as in civic society. Those whom God has placed over us are to be obeyed and reverenced in the Lord. That’s a starting point for a Christian work ethic. And then Paul gives us three principles that explain how that should work itself out in our context. I wonder if you can see them in the passage. Look at the text. First he says when we work we are to work with sincerity; work with sincerity. Verse 5, “Obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart.” Verse 6, “Do the will of God from the heart,” verse 7, “rendering service with a good will.” The Christian approach to work shows itself in our sincere effort. We are earnest, committed to our vocations, from our hearts; not just going through the motions, treading water, doing the bare minimum. We are to give ourselves to the task that God has set before us; sincerity.
II. Work with Consistency
Then secondly, Paul says that when we work we are to work with consistency. Sincerity; consistency. That’s especially the point he makes in the first half of verse 6. Look at it please; verse 6. “Obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, not by way of eye service or as people-pleasers.” Let those two graphic phrases sink in for a moment. Eye servants; people-pleasers. Here’s Paul’s question for us. Do you only work hard when you’re under the eye of your boss? Are you the same when no one’s looking as when everyone looks? Are you consistent? And by putting it this way, “eye servant, people-pleaser,” Paul is setting up a contrast with the third principle he’s about to articulate. He’s showing us that in fact if we are driven by the praise of men or by mere outward show and we’re not consistent and we’re not sincere in our labors, the chances are, in fact, we are idolaters because the engine that drives a Christian work ethic is this third principle.
III. Work for God's Glory
Here’s where sincerity and consistency come from and how they are sustained. We are to work sincerely; we’re to work consistently. Thirdly, he says, we’re to work doxologically. We are to work doxologically. Verse 5, “Obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling with a sincere heart as you would Christ.” Verse 6, “Work as bond servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” Verse 7, “Doing service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man.” How do you work with sincerity and diligence and devotion, investing yourself in your task and with consistency the same as when your boss is looking at you as when he’s not? When your work is drudgery – there are some tasks that you may have to perform in the course of your vocations that you particularly enjoy and others, no doubt, that you find to be tedious and dull. And in those moments, isn’t it hard to be sincere and consistent? How do you work Christianly when work is hard and dull and boring and mundane and monotonous? Some of you have vocations and jobs that require exactly that, day in and day out, over and over again. How will you be sincere and consistent? Paul says the root, the pathway, the fountain from which sincerity and consistency springs in a Christian’s life is devotion and doxology and praise to Jesus Christ. He says you are to do it for Jesus. You are to do it for Jesus. He is glorified in your work when you give yourself to it with sincerity and consistency. When you work for Jesus first, you’ll find yourself working with sincerity and consistency for the glory of His name and not for the praise of men. Not as an eye servant or a people-pleaser, as to the Lord and not to men.
Here’s the transforming power of the Christian Gospel at work in the details of our daily grind. It takes mundane drudgery and can transform it into doxology. It takes work and can make of it worship. It can take packing selves and turn it into the venue for prayer and praise. “Ora et labora” – pray and work; work and pray. That’s Paul’s message. In the 18th century there were a weird and frankly theological bizarre sect called the Shakers. You probably know them from their beautiful cabinetry and furniture, Shaker furniture. Every now and again heretics say something worth remembering and the Shakers had a saying that I think actually captures rather well what Paul is teaching us here and in fact explains why every product of theirs seem to be marked with such beauty. They said, “Hands to work and hearts to God.” Hands to work and hearts to God. And both go together all the time. Your work becomes worship; that’s what they said. Make your work, worship. Make the drudgery the venue and vehicle and devotion and doxology and delight in God. Do it for Jesus!
Jesus, the Perfect Servant
That was, after all, very much the attitude of Christ Himself, wasn’t it? You remember on the night of His betrayal, John 17 verse 4, as He peers into the gloom and suffering and agonies that awaited Him at Calvary, He prayed to the Father, “I have glorified You on earth. I have finished the work You gave Me to do.” That’s it. Hands to work and heart to God. But to Jesus, hands committed to the work He’s been given and a heart devoted to His God and Father meant choosing the nails that would puncture His hands and hold Him to the cross. It meant choosing the God-forsakenness into which His heart would be plunged when He bore your sin in His body on the tree. “I have glorified You on earth and finished the work You gave Me to do.” “Hands to work and heart to God” for Jesus meant death, condemnation, the wrath and curse of God in our place, “condemned He stood and sealed our pardon with His blood.” Was there ever a work so hard or so dark or so painful as His? Was there ever a job so menial and base as the work of the cross? Think of it now. Here is the King of Kings, the Lord of glory; the angels veil their faces before Him. Made to bare the degradation and shame of crucifixion, a penalty reserved for criminals and slaves. Here is the Master made to pay the penalty reserved for the slave. This was His great work. Philippians 2:7-8, “He emptied Himself and took the form of a slave. Being born in the likeness of men and being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
And now, Paul says, seeing what He has done, seeing how the Master was enslaved that you who were enslaved to sin and death and hell might be made free, seeing the dreadful work that Jesus finished on your behalf, what chore is too dreary for you, Christian believer, if Jesus Christ has called you to do it? What labor is too demanding, too demeaning, too mundane that you would not pour yourself out in His service in it since He poured Himself out without reserve for you at Calvary? That’s the message. The better we grasp the fact that Christ’s cross-work became our redemption, the more our daily work can become devotion. Our daily work increasingly becomes an act of devotion to Him as we understand more and more that Christ’s cross-work secured salvation for us.
And when Paul turns to masters in verse 9 notice he says, in effect, “The same principles apply to you too.” Do you see that in verse 9? “Do the same to them,” he says to masters. The same attitudes, the same motivations, should drive masters as well as slaves, employers as well as employees, subordinates as well as superiors. It’s the great engine of Christian labor. You do it for Jesus, whether slave or master. But then notice carefully that he very quickly follows up that exhortation to masters with one that is specific to them. “Do the same to them,” he says, “and stop your threatening.” Isn’t that interesting? He knows how easy it is for those in leadership to get what they want done by means of coercion and threats. Sometimes it’s quicker. And so he says instead of threats and coercion, “Remember that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven and there is no partiality with Him.” The character of God who judges justly should find its echo in the way those in positions of leadership and earthly authority conduct themselves in all their business dealings. There is something fundamentally incongruous, something essentially contradictory and incoherent and frankly distasteful and offensive to God about a Christian professional who coerces employees. If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, will you really excuse your threatening and your manipulation of subordinates while at the same time hoping yourself to stand before Christ at the last, banking on His impartiality and His equanimity toward you? It was Jesus Himself, you will remember, who said, “Judge not lest ye be judged, for with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” How can we who one day will stand before the Judge of all the earth, hoping to be treated with equity and impartiality, how can we treat those placed under our care with anything less?
Jesus: The Goal of Christian Work
And did you notice that phrase at the end of verse 9 is really carrying on a thought that Paul introduced back in verse 8? Look at verse 8 again for a moment. We are to work, Paul says, “knowing that whatever good anyone does this he will receive back from the Lord whether he is a bondservant or is free.” So in verses 8 and 9 do you see Paul is setting our work into a context – whether we are superiors or subordinates, slave or master, employee or employer, he places our work against the backdrop and into the context of eternity and the final judgment where Christ shall reward each according to their work. Which is another way to say very simply this – the value of a Christian’s work is not measured by the money that she makes or the reputation that he builds, or the portfolio she may amass or even the good report of colleagues. The value of a Christian’s work, listen, is measured by the, “Well done, good and faithful servant” of Jesus Christ before whom you will stand at the last day. Work for the smile of King Jesus. That’s Paul’s point. Work for the same of King Jesus. That’s the secret of working Christianly, whatever our work may be. It makes the daily grind of duty an opportunity for devotion and doxology. Aim in every duty, therefore, for the smile of Jesus Christ so that both here and hereafter in glory He may get all the praise and all the honor. The Gospel, the Gospel is that Christ worked for the glory of God and the salvation of others, devoting Himself, His life, to the task given to Him, even to the point of death. And if today you are a follower of His you are being summoned by the living God to be an imitator of Him. Make your work a mirror of His work for the glory of God and for the good of others. Do it as worship. Do it as devotion. Do it as doxology. “Hands to work and hearts to God.” Do it for His smile and for His final, “Well done.” Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we praise You for the Lord Jesus Christ and for His perfect finished work. We pray that You would forgive us for our idolatrous hearts that pursue so much of what we’re called to, for the praise of men and for the glory of our own name. Scarce wonder then that insincerity and inconstancy so easily characterizes us when our work is dull and dreary or hard or slow. Would You teach us to give ourselves for Your glory in the details? Would you so capture and captivate our hearts with the glory and worth and excellency of Christ who gave all for us that we would always aspire in every context and in our vocations especially to give our all for Him? For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.