It is likely that there are few people who would be content upon being sold into slavery. For many, the very term “slave” immediately produces images of prejudice and horrific violence. Even more offensive to our selfish hearts is the implication of total subordination to another. To be a slave is to forget about one’s own wants; the bidding of the master takes precedence over all else. Even the very person of the slave becomes the property of the owner. Being enslaved is entirely about working for the gain of another. No sane person then, we say, would wish for this or would take pride in such a state.
Yet slavery is an office the apostle Paul speaks highly of in the New Testament. The Greek word he often uses to refer to himself means “servant” or “slave.” Paul writes that he is enslaved to his Lord, and he does so without any trace of bitterness or unhappiness. In some of his epistles, he even begins with such acknowledgment of his position of total service to God and his Son Jesus. While it may seem to us counterintuitive to readily identify one’s self with slavery, Paul’s attitude is a good one for the child of God to adopt. For a minister of the word, it is obvious that this is an applicable concept. But those who are not called to the ministry can also gain valuable instruction here. What does it mean to live as God’s slave in the ministry and other offices? To answer this question, we must begin by examining the fact and the benefits of Jesus becoming a slave for us. Only after having done this can we think about what it means for us to be slaves to our God.
The servitude of Jesus begins with an incredible occurrence—his incarnation. Jesus, the fully divine Son of God, took on a human nature and came into this world of sin. In so doing, he limited himself. Proof of this lies in Philippians 2:6–8. The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible does not capture this as well as some other translations, such as the English Standard Version (ESV). In the ESV, Philippians 2:6–7 read: “who, though he [Jesus] was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” By becoming fully human, Jesus sacrificed some of his power. Think of that! God himself, in the second person of the Trinity, emptied himself, being born by a human mother. The passage states that one way in which Jesus demonstrated servitude was by coming into this world in the flesh.
This was not, however, Jesus’ ultimate purpose in coming to earth. The ultimate reason for Christ’s incarnation was to go to Calvary, dying to redeem his people. Philippians 2:8 goes on to say, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (ESV). After emptying himself, Jesus bore the full wrath of the Father against sin. Jesus was made a slave that he might redeem us. We were bought with his blood. This purchase was a freeing one: “He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and brake their bands in sunder. For he hath broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in sunder” (Ps. 107:14, 16). We, who were by nature imprisoned by our sinfulness, have had our chains cut loose! What a knowledge! In the words of the psalmist in verse 5, “Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!”
However, we are not freed to a life of living as we please, void of any responsibility. No, we are as it were purchased from sin, our former master, at the auction block, and become instead slaves to Jehovah God. The implication is that we have a newfound responsibility—we must lead holy lives. This is reflected in Romans 6. In verses 18 and 20–22, we read,
Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness. For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness. What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.
We are not to live our lives flippantly; the salvation we have in Jesus Christ does not give us the right to do as we please. Rather, it gives us the incentive to live lives of thankfulness, continuing to serve our Lord daily.
Anticipating that we might stumble at this concept, wondering why good works would still be required of us since we are saved by grace alone, the Heidelberg Catechism states that in doing good works, “we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for His blessings, and that He may be praised by us.” A similar thought is found in the Belgic Confession. In Article 24, we confess that Jesus purchasing us by His death causes us “to live a new life, and [frees us] from the bondage of sin.” The idea is the same one expressed in verse 15 of 2 Corinthians 5—that we should no longer live for self, but for the One who died for us. Having been bought by his precious blood (1 Pet. 1:18–19), we are enslaved to him, and thus must live godly lives.
As was noted before, being enslaved to another involves a slave entirely setting aside his or her wants, focusing instead on what his or her master requires. For the apostle Paul, this was a daily calling. Rev. Cory Griess gave a convention speech on this a few years ago, noting three ways in which Paul served his Lord: he taught and believed what Jesus told him to, he witnessed of him, and he endured persecution for Jesus’ sake. As someone studying to be a pastor, I feel this pattern is a good one to emulate. It is important for a minister always to remember that he is God’s slave and that therefore, all he does must be for the furthering of the Master’s kingdom. Paul himself gives instruction to the minister in his second letter to Timothy, writing, “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient” (2 Tim. 2:24), an exhortation which shows that a pastor is a slave to God, but still in a capacity of service to his flock. A central part of furthering the kingdom for a minister is serving other people, both those in his congregation and those outside it. This takes on many different forms, and one could spend a long time simply listing different means of serving—through the preaching, visiting the sick, and evangelism to name a few. Certainly, though, all of these are also ways in which the minister shows his true master is King Jesus, and that service to the kingdom is above all else in his life.
That this is necessary for the pastor ought never to be in question. We often refer to ministers as the mouthpiece of God, and this is an appropriate way of describing what their main work—bringing the gospel through the preaching—truly is. However, the picture has a bit more significance in the context of being a slave. A mouthpiece is simply a small part of an instrument. By itself, a mouthpiece is really nothing but a piece of metal. But when one puts one’s lips to a mouthpiece and blows into it in a certain way, sound is produced. One might say that when the mouthpiece bends to the will of the one using it, it finds its purpose—making music. Similarly, when a minister bends to the will of the Master, he produces the beautiful strains of the gospel. Of his own accord, the pastor really serves no purpose. But when he is enslaved to his God, abandoning his own will and submitting wholly to that of his Lord, the kingdom is furthered.
Of course, ministers are not the only ones who must view themselves as slaves to Jehovah; this is a responsibility which lies on all of God’s people. It was shown above that our state of slavery necessitates that we lead sanctified lives, seeking to glorify him out of thankfulness for His purchase of us. In 1 Thessalonians 2:12, Paul writes that we ought to “walk worthy of God.” Scripture makes clear that we are to lead lives in accordance with the law of our Master. But being a servant also carries practical applications for our daily lives. There is not space enough here to deal with all of them, so we focus briefly on those that apply to young people, and how a pastor might encourage them to live rightly as slaves.
Young people in the modern church have ample opportunity to live out their responsibilities as slaves. Reverend Arie den Hartog writes that “In all of our service to the Lord we can never give him anything that he has not first given to us. All that we have, including our very life, all our talents, all of our possessions, we have only because the sovereign God has given them to us.” This idea brings to mind Jesus’ parable of the talents, found in Matthew 25. As servants of our God, we are called to use the gifts he gives us in his service, even if doing so is not meritorious for us. In instructing the young people, I feel this would be a good idea to focus on. So often we are like the servant who buried his talent in his lord’s absence, making no use of it. In my own experience, young people in particular often are reluctant to use their gifts in service to the church. One who is proficient in writing might be encouraged to submit articles to Beacon Lights. One who is talented athletically may be challenged to witness more broadly that she plays not for personal glory, but for the glory of God. One who has a particular gift in empathy and lending a listening ear to provide advice may be urged to visit the sick in his congregation. All of these are simple examples, but each one is a good way of acting in service to our Master.
More broadly, it is the responsibility of every believer (not only pastors or only Paul himself) to submit as Paul did, and as Rev. Griess alluded to in his speech. Certainly, enduring persecution is in some ways not quite as applicable to us today, but following the teachings of Jesus and being witnesses of him are very attainable goals for our young people. Making confession of faith, which so many of us do when in the high school age range, is a personal commitment to following the teachings of scripture. Witnessing can take on a variety of forms. One which is especially pertinent for our young people is how we conduct ourselves with friends. On Friday night, will you, young person, go to that party with its sinful allures, or will you stay home, showing yourself to value obedience to the Master over earthly relationships? Paul says, “[I]f I yet pleased men [rather than God], I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). If we, whether young people, parents, or aged saints, are unwilling to set aside others’ opinions of us, Paul writes that we are not worthy of the title servant that God has given us. A powerful reminder indeed!
If ever we are tempted to say that we need not submit to God as servants, we need only turn back to the Son of God; even Jesus saw himself as a slave to the Father. In John 4, Jesus told the disciples that, “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work” (v. 34). Because he had emptied himself, it was part of Christ’s responsibility to submit to the will of the Master. No place is this better exemplified than in his prayer in Gethsemane: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). That is true submission to the Lord, and it is our example. May we treat it as such. Having been bought with a price, we ought not to serve men (1 Cor. 7:23), but live the thankful lives of those enslaved to the Lord of lords, the Master above all others. As we sing in Psalter number 426, verse 9: “I am, O Lord, Thy servant, bound yet free, Thy handmaid’s son, whose shackles Thou hast broken; Redeemed by grace, I’ll render as a token, Of gratitude my constant praise to Thee.”
den Hartog, Arie. “Servants of the Lord.” The Standard Bearer, April 15, 1984.
Griess, Cory. “Paul, A Servant of Jesus Christ.” Beacon Lights, October 2013.
The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Grandville, MI:
Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005.