God’s Glory vs. My Rights
Passage: 1 Timothy 6:1-2
At some point in time all of us have probably been given a task that is mindless, trivial, and incredibly boring. You just despise doing it. Growing up on the farm, my dad worked me pretty hard, but for the most part I enjoyed the work. I didn’t mind stacking hay bales, pitching manure, or shoveling soybeans, but if Mom made me wash dishes, that was another story. I hated washing dishes, and I still do.
You probably have similar memories from your childhood, or maybe you continue to feel this way about some of the tasks your boss gives you at work. When we are doing one of these trivial and laborious jobs, we sometimes joke, or gripe, about being slave labor.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem to make those kinds of jokes, but the fact is that we don’t have any idea what it’s like to be a slave, to not have freedom to make your own choices and to have another person who doesn’t love or care about you dictate the details of your life.
Being in true slavery would be incredibly difficult, and the NT indicates that many of the early Christians were slaves. Because of that, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, Titus, Philemon and 1 Peter all give instructions regarding slavery. The NT doesn’t dodge slavery, but our modern sensibilities generally struggle with the fact that none of these discussions ever call slavery out as wicked. This troubles us because slavery is a very significant black mark on our national history that laid the foundation for racial tensions in our country that continue 150 years after emancipation.
Therefore, we need to park for a moment on the institution of slavery because we have to understand Paul’s context to really understand what he is saying in our text for today. After we do so, we will walk through vv. 1–2, where God teaches some very important principles that are very significant not only for first-century slaves but for 21st century Christians in America.
Again, before we get there, I want to briefly contrast…
Greco-Roman Slavery vs. Colonial Slavery
Greco-Roman slavery was not racially driven.
People of every race and nation could be slaves. That’s very different from colonial slavery, which was based in a belief that the African people were inferior to white people, which the Bible will have none of. It takes a very clear stand against racism.
Greco-Roman slavery was often temporary.
This wasn’t always the case. Some slaves had no hope of gaining their freedom, but the majority could obtain freedom. This is very different from colonial slavery, which was always permanent.
Greco-Roman slavery was often voluntary.
Many people freely became slaves because of the economic security it provided in a very harsh world. This was never the case in colonial slavery.
Greco-Roman slaves were often skilled laborers.
It was not uncommon for slaves to be teachers, doctors, or businessmen. For example the three slaves in the Parable of the Talents are responsible to manage a large fortune, and their master relates to them with respect and care. That’s very different from the hard, agricultural labor that most colonial slaves performed.
We could go on but hopefully you get the point that when you read about slavery in the NT, it is not necessarily harsh and inhumane. In many instances, it came close to an employer-employee arrangement.
But not always.
Greco-Roman slavery was often harsh and inhumane.
First Peter 2:18 notes that some masters were harsh and treated their slaves brutally. Intense beatings were not uncommon, and many slaves were treated with little dignity. Slaves were frequently abused and taken advantage of by wicked, greedy men.
Again this raises the question why didn’t Paul take a stronger stand against slavery? Our passage is going to reveal Paul’s reason, but before we get to it, I want to note that while the NT never explicitly condemns slavery…
The NT lays the theological and ethical foundation for the abolition of abusive slavery. Galatians 3:28
declares that the gospel has abolished the social barriers that commonly define culture. All Christians are equal before God. Folks, it is hard to overstate how this reality undercuts the foundation of abusive slavery. All people are made in the image of God, and one of the purposes of the gospel is to eradicate the sinful ways man rejects this equality.
Along these lines, Paul always assumes that slavery is the product of a sin-cursed world. When Paul gives instructions about marriage and childrearing, for example, he grounds those instructions in creation or God’s law. But he never makes this kind of argument regarding slavery because slavery is not part of God’s original design.
Furthermore, because all people are equal image bearers, Paul gave what amounted to radical exhortations to slave masters for their day. Paul urged Philemon to receive his slave Onesimus as a brother (Phil 15–16). And he urged slavemasters not to make threats against slaves (Eph 6:9) and to treat them justly and fairly (Col 4:1). These commands severely undercut the whole institution because a master’s right to threaten and beat a slave were just assumed and were the primary means he would use to exercise authority.
Therefore, the NT does not enable slavery; it stands against any and all inhumane treatment of others.
But if that’s the case, why not just say slavery is evil? This is where our passage for today is so instructive, not just for the 1st century world but for ours also. In this passage, Paul urges slaves to obey their masters based on two foundational gospel truths that are profoundly important for us. First…
God’s glory is more important than I am (v. 1).
This verse consists of a command and a reason why to obey it. Let’s begin by looking the command.
The Command Honor unbelieving masters.
This command is addressed to bondservants, but the Greek term is doulos, which is the normal word for slave. In particular, he addresses slaves of unbelievers. We know this because v. 2 is clearly directed toward slaves with Christian masters.
Notice as well that Paul acknowledges the difficulty of slavery when he calls it being “under the yoke.” You probably know that a yoke is a collar that is put around the shoulders of a horse, mule, or other beast of burden that enables it to pull an implement. It is a common picture of hard labor and specifically of slavery. Paul understood that slavery was very hard and very restrictive.
This would especially be true if your master was an unbeliever who had no understanding of God’s image in man and our obligation to love each other sacrificially. They could be pretty harsh and demanding.
And yet God commands these slaves to “count their own masters as worthy of all honor.” It’s very significant that Paul uses the word honor in this particular context. 5:3 said the church is responsible to honor real widows, and 5:17 said to give “double honor” to pastors who do their job well. In both contexts honor means respect and reverence. We have to understand 6:1 in light of these passages. God commands slaves to give their masters respect and to do good work for them. They weren’t even to be content doing the minimum; rather they were to give them “ALL honor.”
So what does this mean for us, since none of us are slaves? For one if a slave is supposed to honor a wicked master, then certainly you should honor your employer. You might say that he is unreasonable or incompetent. He doesn’t deserve the best that I have to offer. But those excuses simply don’t hold water in this context because most of the slaves Paul was addressing probably could say the same thing, but God says you are still responsible to honor them. You can’t control how others behave, but you are responsible before God for your own behavior. Be the best employee you can be. Work hard, be faithful, and be loyal as long as God leaves you where you are.
This command also implies that we should honor every type of authority, whether it be parents, teachers, the government, and on we could go. God expects us to recognize that God sets up authorities by his sovereign hand and that we must respond with respect no matter how faulty they may be.
But maybe you aren’t sure about that. Shouldn’t I stand up for my rights? Shouldn’t an authority earn honor vs. having it handed to him? Paul follows with a reason for the command that sets this whole discussion in a very different light. The reason why slaves must honor their masters is…
The Reason: God’s honor and the advance of the gospel are at stake.
God’s name is frequently used throughout Scripture in reference to how God is known, how people view him. It’s another way to describe God’s glory. The Scriptures are clear that God is very concerned for his glory. Not only that, our text says that God is also concerned for how “His doctrine” is known. In this kind of context, doctrine refers to the core of Christian doctrine and especially to the gospel.
Why did Paul urge slaves to obey even under very difficult circumstances? The answer is that something far more significant than their rights was at stake. If they resisted their masters, their actions would blaspheme God’s name and the gospel. The concept of blasphemy is a very big deal biblically. God’s glory is his highest priority, and the gospel is the answer to man’s biggest need. Therefore, it is a grievous sin when Christians set the name of God and the gospel in a bad light by their words and actions.
These slaves may have countered that yes, it is a bad thing when God is dishonored, but what about us. We were taught that the gospel eliminates the distinction between slaves and freemen. We are being treated unjustly, and we have a right to fight for our rights. They may have even been using their freedom in the gospel as a rallying cry for their resistance.
You can imagine how their masters would react to this and how the society at large would react to a protest of slavery that could throw the whole community into chaos. They were angry, and they were blaming God’s name and the gospel for the chaos. Therefore Paul urges these slaves to see that God’s glory and the gospel are more important even than your rights to fair treatment. Their rights must not take precedence over God’s glory and a clear testimony for the gospel.
Folks, there is a lot of significance for us in what Paul says. First and foremost, this verse is a reminder that I am not ultimately here for myself; my primary purpose as a Christian is to glorify my Savior and to make his gospel know. Paul drives this home in a similar charge to slaves in Titus 2:9–10. God says to slaves and to all of us that we need to be very careful that our conduct adorns the doctrine of God. In other words, I should always be very careful to make sure my life communicates a beautiful picture of Christ to those around me even if it means I take one on the chin that I don’t deserve.
This principle is very important in our day for how we interact with the culture, especially on political and moral issues. There’s no question that we live in a time of tremendous moral upheaval, and people on both sides of the various debates are passionate about widely different agendas. This was very evident during the last election cycle. People on the right have always made strong moral appeals during elections, but the moral outrage coming from the left was very powerful last year.
You might think, yes, but we have to stop them because their outrage isn’t based in true morality; it is primarily based in immoral convictions. You are right. The Scriptures are clear that the moral revolution in particular is wicked, and we absolutely should resist it.
But we have to keep our priorities straight. And I am very concerned that many Christians and Christian organizations are far more concerned about preserving a culture that will make our lives comfortable than we are about adorning the doctrine of God and the gospel. Again, I am as thankful as anyone when our freedoms are protected and our government takes moral steps. But I fear that oftentimes in order to win a victory for the culture we have sacrificed the name of Christ. I fear that many people on the left don’t associate Christianity with the God of the Bible and a people who have been supernaturally transformed to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit. Instead, they see us as a bunch of hypocrites who are willing to sell our souls and to check our morals at the door to get our way.
We must remember that we never win when the gospel loses. We need to make sure that what stands out about us more than anything else is that we love a great Savior, and we want others to know this great Savior also. If that means I take one on the chin occasionally, so be it. I would urge you to be very careful about your manner of life. Be aware of the culture in which we live, and walk carefully so that your life adorns the name of God beautifully for those around you.
The primary reason Paul didn’t openly condemn slavery and call the church to fight it was because the gospel would lose. And it was better for Christians to continue in slavery than for God to be blasphemed. May God give us all that kind of heart. Let’s live to adorn the gospel well.
The second gospel truth is that…
God’s people are more important than I am (v. 2).
Like v. 1, this verse consists of a command and a reason why it must be obeyed.
The Command: Serve fellow believers.
This verse shifts to a particularly tricky context. There were slaves in the church whose masters also attended the church. I’m sure this created a weird tension at times in the church, but what was probably especially challenging is that these slaves held their masters to a higher standard than they would an unbelieving master.
Again, this was the church at Ephesus, and so they were all aware of Ephesians 6:9. But the bigger issue is that they understood the principle of Galatians 3:28 that the gospel makes us all equal before God. You can imagine the mental struggle this would create. Every Sunday, slaves and slave masters would attend church together, and they would relate as equals.
But then they would go home, and the equality went away. The master acted like a master, and he expected the slave to do what he said. And the slaves had an attitude about it. They were “despising” or disrespecting their masters. The grammar indicates that Paul probably intended to say “stop despising them.”
They really struggled with the disparity between their equality in the gospel and the obvious distinctions they felt on a daily basis. This is a natural struggle, even in a free society. I’ve heard people who work for a wealthy businessmen grip many times about how things aren’t fair even when they are treated just fine. We feel like there should be equality even when we know nothing unjust is happening.
But Paul says that rather than despising or disrespecting their masters, the slaves were to serve them. Paul then goes on to paint a fuller picture of what he means by service when he talks about benefitting their masters. The NKJV actually combines a Greek verb and noun in the verb “benefitted.” Most other translations have something like “partake of the benefit.” I bring this up because the noun Paul uses, euergesia, is loaded with significance in this context. This term was typically used to describe the generosity of a wealthy individual. Therefore, when Paul uses this term, he calls to mind a powerful man who uses his money to support a good cause.
Of course, it would have really grabbed these humble and poor slaves’ attention when Paul called on them to model the generous service of a wealthy benefactor. Very likely Paul is thinking here of the words of Christ in Luke 22:25–27. According to Christ, the true benefactor (same word as in v. 2) is not the wealthy king who sits in the seat of honor, but the one who serves faithfully.
Therefore, Paul urges these slaves not to seek human glory by resisting the place where God had put them; instead, they must pursue the true greatness that Jesus modeled through humbly serving mankind in going to the cross as a sacrifice for sin.
Folks, there is so much significance in Paul’s words and in Christ’s words for us because our selfish and proud hearts resist this spirit so hard. We want people to respect us and honor us. We want our rights, and we get mad at anyone who would challenge them. Maybe you don’t get the respect at work that you think you deserve. Maybe your family doesn’t appreciate you like they should. Maybe your coworkers have a twisted sense of morality, and they despise you for your faith. These things can frustrate us to no end. But Jesus says that none of these things ultimately matter. The only place that I will find true joy is in Christ and in serving like him. Embrace the heart of Christ and value what he values. Rather than pursuing greatness in the eyes of people, pursue greatness in the eyes of God through humbly serving others.
Notice as well the reason Paul gives for why we should serve this way.
The Reason: Christians must be committed to each other.
Paul really urges these slaves to have a heart of service by driving home the spiritual relationship they have to these Christian masters. First he tells them not to despise them “because they are brothers.” From a social standpoint, they were slaves, and they should be cranky toward their masters. But the gospel is far more powerful than social structures. The fact that they were brothers in Christ was far more significant than the social order.
God goes on to say that they are to serve “because those who are benefitted…” Paul reminds them that their masters are fellow Christians. Because of that, the relationship between Christian slave and Christian master shouldn’t be marked by animosity; rather they should love each other.
I have to think that for some of these slaves, calling their masters “beloved” was a tough pill to swallow. That’s not what they had probably been raised to think. It had probably been pounded into their heads over and over that slave masters were evil oppressors and that they should do all that they could to stand up to them. But again, Paul drives home the fact that our relationship in the gospel is far more significant than what society says. The gospel didn’t just mean that masters should look at slaves as equals. It also meant that slaves should look at masters as equals and that they should love them accordingly.
This is not normal, but it is exactly the kind of unusual love that should mark the church as Christ’s disciples (John 13:35). And it is the kind of love that we must also pursue. Folks, the world is not impressed when we love like they do, meaning that we love people just like us who come from the same social class, race, and political philosophy. But when slaves and masters love each other, the world takes notice.
We must pray and work as a church to cultivate this kind of supernatural love where we are really committed to each other with all of our warts and irritants, and where we are eager to serve each other even if it is costly to us.
Maybe there is someone in this room that you cannot stand. You are sitting on the left side because he is on the right side. He’s wronged you, and you will not let go. He may very well need to make something right, but the fact remains that he is family and because of that, he deserves love.
Do you want to be great in the eyes of God? Don’t buy the world’s push to be first and to take what is yours. Instead, be a compassionate servant of your brothers and sisters in Christ.
This passage sets before us three very important values in the eyes of God. God’s glory, the advance of the gospel, and love for one another. It tells us that these things are far more significant than my rights ever will be. I would urge you today to consider your own priorities and make sure that you are pursuing what truly matters.
Maybe you have sat there today sort of dumbfounded by all that I’ve said and all that God said in this passage. You can’t imagine making this kind of self-sacrifice or serving someone as harsh as a slave master. It’s true that Christ calls us to a high standard, but he doesn’t call us to something that he hasn’t already done himself. Jesus sacrificed his rights more than any other person ever has. He humbled himself to the lowest degree, when he died for us on the cross. And through his cross he offers us the power to be transformed and to love like he does. If you have never come to the cross for salvation, I hope you will talk to me after the service about how you can have a relationship with Christ. And I hope that all of us who know him will go from here today and humbly serve others as Christ served us.