Honor Our Masters (v. 1)
The True Gospel Revolution
Gospel wonder is too rare among us. The cares of the world choke away the quickening influences of the word, our Savior taught us, as do neglect of God’s grace and unrepentant sin that loads us down with guilt and grief. The more we deal honestly with our sins and turn to Jesus Christ, the more wonder we shall have at the gospel of God’s mercy. Whatever the reasons for our coldness, we should want tremendous depth of feeling in our religion, so that our hearts are quickened to love and obey God with all that is in us. When we stand before him and hear the singing choirs of angels, shall we sit on our hands? A big head is no substitute for a cold heart. When we see our Lord as he is and hear his voice will not our hearts leap within? Will there not be loud “Hallelujah’s,” unending praise, tender embraces, and awed silence? Many, including me, have decried the runaway emotionalism of much that passes for modern Christianity, but we should not avoid strong feelings and deep, legitimate emotion. We need more of the right kind of strong feelings, true gospel amazement at God’s saving work and the gospel of our Savior. We need to know more of his love and loveliness so that we give ourselves fully to him.
These lines certainly give us ample reason to feel strongly about God’s grace and mercy to sinners. Why would a learned Jew speak so positively and seriously to Gentiles slaves? It boggles the mind that he would see a purpose to their miserable existence. More wondrous yet is the fact that unlike the revolutionaries that proclaim their gospels of social upheaval and equality by the guillotine, or massive wealth transfer, marching in the streets, or globalism, the gospel does not say to slaves, “Well, you can be happy, but you must throw off the yoke of slavery.” It does not even say, “One day, this will all be over, so bear it the best you can now.” It says, “Be the best slave you can be; honor your master. Wear your yoke with dignity and be a slave of Christ in the way you are another man’s slave. If he happens to be a believer, give him even more service and better honor.” How is this possible? Why not simply cut to the chase and denounce the institution of slavery and masters, and immediately institute church discipline against Christian slave holders? Aside from the fact that the issue of slavery is more nuanced than soundbite egalitarians can possibly conceive, the main point here is that Jesus Christ is not a band aid Savior. He transforms men in the most miserable circumstances imaginable. He may over time alter the circumstances themselves, but there are no obstacle to his working and our serving him faithfully. Any demagoguing fool can whip men into a frenzy so that they burn down cities and kill their masters in an attempt to establish an egalitarian make believe world. Jesus Christ is the great Physician because he transforms men so that in serving their human masters, they serve their heavenly Master.
A Profound Gospel Honor
Thus, the command to the slave is to honor his master. Honor? Honor a man who has his boot on my neck and to whom I am chained? If I am a slave, I am no better than a dog. Not so fast. If a Christian man is a slave, he is the Lord’s free man and goes about his work as a slave as truly free (1 Cor. 7:22). A Christian slave looks up at his master while the boot is on his neck and says, “Let me serve this man. He may be personally unworthy of it, but my Jesus is worthy of my best service to unworthy men.” One reason the Christian faith so quickly and fundamentally altered the old Roman world is that it provided a basis for truth love and honor among men. This does not exist in other religions and cultures, beyond a tyrannical family and “save face” honor that is really one of the nastiest sorts of pride Satan ever devised. The Christian faith sees every man, including the lowest slave, as made in God’s image. When the lowest believe in Jesus, they are raised with him and have a heavenly dignity and destiny clinging to them. They look at men differently, even masters. When beaten, they smile. When cursed, the Christian blesses. Many a master’s heart was melted to faith and repentance, or at least to giving the faith an honest hearing, through the witness of honor received from a Christian slave. The way Jesus changes us and the life to which he calls us is profound! He does not save us out of our circumstances but in them. He might even make them harder – to show that he is stronger!
If the Gospel transforms slaves…
Because Jesus Christ changes us, he changes our priorities. Instead of, “How can I get out of this very unpleasant circumstance,” he teaches us by his Spirit so that our main consideration is that God be honored by the way we live and the attitudes we have toward others. Imagine how this altered the lower class believers in the Roman world. No more drudgery or dishonor being part of the despised rabble; the only truly despicable thing is to live in such a way that God’s name and truth are blasphemed. Now, if a slave could be appealed to in those days as having the honor of God as foremost in his thinking, what of us? Whatever may be said about our current economic and political systems, we can certainly live for God in them. Is Jesus Christ not worthy of our praise and service in the midst of a consumerist society? Is his arm shortened that it cannot save? Will he not use the honor and service that we give our employers and those in political authority to be a witness to his majesty? Know this Jesus, and be changed. This is the most radical aspect of the teaching of these two verses. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a slogan or idea; it is the revelation of a living person, the Savior of sinners, the transformer of men in all the circumstances of life. If he condescends to walk with us, he will change us. He will confront the idols and fears of our hearts and set up his throne in them so that for us to live is Christ. Or better yet, we are crucified with him, and live, but he lives in us. This is what the world needs, what the church needs – not prophets of societal revolution and change but preachers of the Prophet who changes sinners, breaks the power of selfishness and pride, and sets up his kingdom of love in our hearts so that we can honor all men, especially those who are over us and have power to harm us.
Serve Our Believing Masters (v. 2)
No Disdain for Fellow-Servants
Stranger yet is the dynamic between a believing slave and a believing master. Paul had regular occasion to deal with first-century slavery, and he never suggested that Christian slaveholders had a moral obligation to free their slaves or that Christian slaves had a right to be free. Certainly freedom was preferable, but he said to the Christian slaves, “Care not for it” (1 Cor. 7:21), in modern parlance, “Do not worry about it.” The world cannot see this wisdom, but Christ changes the dynamic between Christian slave and master so that while the external, legal bond remains in place, the inner reality of life in Christ completely transforms the entire relationship. Paul encouraged Philemon to receive Onesimus back “not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved” (v. 16). There is much that we shall not like about this fallen world, and much injustice, but the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it saves and elevates and sanctifies us in bad circumstances. Instead of looking down or despising their Christian masters because they are brothers – hey, who put you over me? Why do I have to serve you? Are we not equal in Christ? – serve them more. Look at the service you do for Christian masters and employers as bettering and helping them, allowing them to benefit from your service! Where is jealousy? It is gone, its power broken through Jesus. Where is the fear of being trampled upon and insulted? Again, Jesus delivers us so that we can serve him in every non-sinful circumstance. Note this carefully – while living and serving in the economic realities of slavery, the Christian slave sees a higher reality. In serving his Christian master, he is serving Jesus and bettering his Christian master!
Christ in the Daily Grind
We have forgotten Luther’s woodsman and washerwoman, who glorifies God by chopping the wood and doing the wash faithfully. Our expectations have been horribly skewed by advertising barrages that enflame the covetousness of our hearts. We equate being happy with having what we want or having better circumstances or being freed from bad ones. Yet, the glory of God is in the mundane details. Did I ask him to help me as I began the day? Did I determine to do my work, however trivial or difficult, with an eye upon him? How could a slave rejoice in honoring and bettering his master except that he was filled with the desire to honor his Savior? There really is no such thing as the daily grind. It is another creation of the marketers to encourage the five o’clock escape bell and happy hour – when we get to do what we want. But wait – were we not on God’s time all the day? Should we not have devoted each hour to his service? And when numerous obstacles and frustrations make us feel like we are stuck in the mud, we must call upon him the Lord to help us and move forward obeying him, knowing that he gives us grace and fresh tastes of his presence when we trust and obey! The daily grind takes on a different perspective entirely when all the day is dedicated to Jesus Christ and is seen as the way we glorify and enjoy and promote him in this world.
The Gospel Taught and Lived
“These things teach and exhort.” The directive is transitional, but it also establishes that redemption accomplished is inseparable from redemption applied. Where Jesus Christ is known and his gospel believed and obeyed, there will be power unto godliness. The false teachers in Ephesus denied the validity of God’s creation order in favor of a hyper-spiritual, realized eschatology version of his kingdom. Misunderstanding the kingdom of Jesus Christ and omitting the weightier matters of his gospel, their practice was abominable. They were like those today who talk a good line and theorize in the clouds, but if you speak with them about prayer, sharing the gospel, or obedience in their families, and they will look at your strangely, almost with that knowing, Oh, you are one of those simpleton, spiritual Christians – as if there is any other kind. The way we live unto Christ indicates that whether we are truly united to him by faith. By the way the false teachers were living and encouraging others to live, “the name of God was being blasphemed among the Gentiles” (Ezek. 36:20-23; Rom. 2:24). God’s grace teaches us to live godly in Christ Jesus so that our light shines before men and they glorify God.
Hold Fast to God’s Truth (vv. 3-5)
Jesus’ Words Heal and Make Us Godly
It takes a certain kind of man to see and teach the close connection between gospel truth and gospel living that honors God. He must have internally consented to the wholesome or health-giving words of Jesus Christ. Three millennia ago, David showed the connection between right thinking and right living when he wrote, “I understand more…because I keep your precepts” (Ps. 119:100). Understanding of God’s word is not something gained simply from books. Our hearts must be humbled by God’s grace so that we are obedient to the form of sound words. The more obedient we are, the more understanding God will give us. Similarly, the truer our understanding, the more fruitful our lives will be. This is the beautiful point made in verse 3. Jesus’ words are intrinsically health-giving, stabilizing, and fruitful unto holiness. His words are unto “godliness,” a most important word in the pastoral epistles that emphasizes reverent piety toward God. The false teachers were giddy and irreverent; true doctrine rightly understood and obeyed makes a man careful in his walk before the Lord, a God-fearer: not morose or judgmental but God-conscious (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1) and therefore careful and earnest. Jesus’ words always do this in those that know and believe and obey them. Obedience is often the missing link, but here what Paul said elsewhere: “And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Heb. 5:9). Remove obedience and godliness from the gospel, and you are left with half a gospel, which is no gospel at all.
Man and His Word Known by Their Fruits
Why would a man not consent to the words of Jesus and seek the fruits of righteousness that come by Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:11) in his life through obedience? Especially why would a supposed teacher not seek to bring himself as fully as possible under the power and glory of Christ’s gospel? Paul gives a few reasons. Pride is one, but there is no place in the church for bickering over positions of preeminence, for we have only one Lord, and we are all brothers. There is also the disease of liking strife and questions that stir up strife. Not all questions, of course, would fall into this, but all long disputing over secondary matters that do not touch upon the heart of our faith or our service to Jesus Christ in this world must sooner or later encourage the railings and strife and party spirit that gives the church a bad name and God a worse one. It is a corrupt man with a corrupt mind that loves to dispute. He may be very smart, but he is in “destitute of the truth,” for the truth is always unto godliness, i.e., righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost, as well as humility, love, meekness, and gentleness. And not too far away from men not being transformed by God’s word are ambition and the love of money. This is also a problem now – timeservers and mercenaries who lack earnestness and fire from the King’s altar.
Flee False Teachers
You will know true from false teachers by their fruits – the fruits of their lives and ministries. Some crops take a long time to mature, and there are varying degrees of fruitfulness even in Christ’s vineyard, but it is impossible to be planted in the good soil of the gospel and not bear fruit. From the false teachers, run away quickly. Only remain near to those who open the word of life and handle it correctly and obey it themselves. The glory of God, the good of Christ’s church, and the security of our own souls are too important to listen to half-gospels and no gospels. We must listen to gospel teaching that encourages us to fear God and keep his commandments, that unites our hearts closely to Jesus Christ so that we are slaves of righteousness and joyful servants of our one Master.