How do you understand your relationship with God? Do you see yourself primarily as a worshipper? That would mean that your main role would be to praise God. Do you see yourself as a follower? That would mean that you try to figure out the rules and follow them to the best of your ability. Do you see yourself as a disciple? That would mean that you see God as your teacher and it is your role to learn. Do you see yourself as friends with God? Then you would see your relationship being about mutual sharing. Do you see yourself as a child of God? Then Christianity would be about enjoying our Father and receiving his provision. There is truth in all of this. But what about slavery? Have you ever thought of yourself as a slave of God? Slavery? No way! Who wants to be a slave? When we think of slavery, we think of people in chains, people beaten and bloodied, people who are treated life animals. We would all likely agree that slavery is one of the worst evils of human history, one unfortunately still plaguing us. Slavery is bad. But here is something to consider. James and Jude were two brothers of Jesus and therefore people to be highly respected. When they wrote their letters that are found in the New Testament, they did not promote themselves as half-brothers of Jesus. They describe themselves as slaves of Jesus. It is likely that your English translation says servant, but the Greek is really slave. Everyone knows it sounds much more respectable to be a servant than a slave. Our problem is that we have an inaccurate understanding of ancient slavery. We think of slavery in the American south or human trafficking today where people are kidnapped and forced into slavery. That was not the typical form of slavery in the ancient world. There were people who were captured in wars and forced into slavery. But in Rome at the time Paul was writing his letter, there slavery looked different. Often slavery was instigated by the one who would become a slave rather than the slave master. Why would anyone ever sell themselves into slavery? For many people it was for financial reasons. Once a person went into debt, there were not a lot of options. You could not just declare bankruptcy and have a new beginning. You still had to pay your debts and you still had to feed your family and that meant you had to do whatever you needed to do. If you sold yourself into slavery, your master would take over your debt and you would work for him for free. But there were other reasons to go into slavery. There were not many opportunities for people to move from one class to another. In our society, you can work hard enough and study hard enough that you can move up the economic and social ladder. It was not so in the ancient world. Education were for the rich only, the majority of people would not even learn to read. However, there was one option. You could sell yourself and your family into slavery. Why do that? Because masters were not just looking for general laborers. They saw their slaves as an investment and they sought to improve that investment. They would provide education for your family and train you for a specific trade. People such as doctors and scribes and other trained professions were often made up of slaves that masters had invested in. Since slavery was not necessarily a life long commitment, it was often worth entering into. Once you were free, you had the option of remaining in the employment of your former master. This is the background that we need to understand what Paul is saying about slavery in this passage.
Slave to Sin
The first type of slavery that Paul talks about is slavery to sin. We all start off in this place. We are born into this state. Is it fair? No. But neither is it fair when a child is born into slavery because the father sold the family into slavery. Fairness does not change the reality of the situation. So what does it mean when I say we were slaves to sin? It does not mean that we are completely controlled by sin, that is being forced to sin all day long. Even in human slavery, the master does not control every thought, word and deed of the slave. Rather the slave is in a position where they must submit their will to the master. The master does not control everything but he does control the destiny of the slave. When we are in slavery to sin, it mean that are identity is found in our sinful master. We may want to do good and be a righteous person, but in the end we must submit to our master. This is the situation that Paul has been describing. Our father Adam sold us into slavery because of a debt. Unfortunately that debt has piled up so high that it is impossible for us to ever pay it off. There is only one way for us to escape that slavery. If someone rich enough could pay that debt, then we could be freed from slavery. That someone was Jesus and that payment was the cross. By accepting what Jesus did for us, it is like walking up to our old master and handing him the statement of our emancipation. However, like human slavery, we have the opportunity to continue to serve our old master by our free choice. This is something that many Christians do. We are freed from sin but decide to stay continue to serve the old master. It is a bad decision and must be avoided. What we must see is that there is another master to be served and he is not willing to share.
Slave to God
Our alternative to be a slave to sin is being a slave to God. A slave to God? That likely still sounds wrong. But that is because we still imagine the brutal slavery of the American south. It does not feel like God has captured us in chains and has beaten us into submission. That is why we have to remember Roman slavery. Roman slavery often began with the confession that the desired life was beyond the person’s own resources. They could not work hard enough to get out of debt, they could never have the resources to get an education and receive training for a career. So they would attach themselves to one who had those resources, they would become slaves. We are left in the same situation. We could remain as slaves to sin, but that way leads to death. We have a huge debt of unrighteousness that we cannot pay off ourselves. We do not have the resources to achieve the life that we want, to be able to have peace and rest and wholeness. There is only one who has these resources and that is God. We need to be his slave. This is important. Christianity is not about just believing a set of doctrines. It is about submitting one’s life to God. The earliest Christian creed was simple: Jesus is Lord. We use ‘Lord’ in our prayers and songs and liturgies. Do we realize that it means ‘Master‘ and we must be prepared to submit to our Master and Lord? We should not take this language to lightly. If God is our Master, then we are his servants or better yet, slaves. Slavery does not mean we have no freedom. In the ancient world, many slaves had more freedom than poor free people. But it does mean that we ultimately submit to God. When we feel like doing something, the final decision is not whether it makes sense to us or if it brings us pleasure. The final decision is based on the will of God. What does God want? Does that feel humiliating? Remember this truth: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:5–7 NIV) The word for servant here is still that word for slave. And what did Jesus pray in the garden? “Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36 NIV) Jesus, who was equal with the Father, became a slave and accepted submission. And yet we are hesitant to take on that same role? Remember that our slavery to God is not punishment but rather it ultimate leads to blessings beyond our imagination.
We do not like to talk about slavery today and that is understandable. And yet it is a part of our experience. We are born into slavery, slavery to sin. Sin is our master we ultimately do its will. However, Jesus came into the world to redeem sinners, to purchase us from our master. But how do we respond to this? Do we take our new freedom and voluntarily serve our old master? Or do we embrace our role as slaves to God? We are not mindless slaves that are unable to think for ourselves. We are like the slaves of the old Roman empire, who in submission to their master, received a much better life. Being a slave to God is good thing. Even Jesus did it. Let us humble ourselves and live in right relationship with God.