Friday, February 18, 2011


I received this question the other day from a friend:
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"I have been thinking a lot about a Grace to You sermon I heard this week that the word servant is a very bad translation that the more accurate one should be slave...we were bought for a price; everything we have comes from and depends upon our master, etc.  A servant can be a paid person and can come and go but a slave seems to set another level of love and commitment and loyalty and I see it in a good way, a deeper level of dependence.  It is hard to filter out all the stories of slavery abuse in our history in the US, that was horrendous and certainly not God's plan.  Just thinking as usual and wondering if John McArthur is accurate."
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Mr. McArthur is probably referring to the Greek word DOULOS, which is literally a slave as contrasted to a free person, or to a master, or even to a son.  This is the word usually used by the New Testament writers of themselves and others:
  • Roman 1:1 -- Paul, a DOULOS of Jesus Christ.
  • Philippians 1:1 -- Paul and Timothy, DOULOI of Christ Jesus.
  • Titus 1:1 -- Paul, a DOULOS of God.
  • James 1:1 -- James, a DOULOS of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • 2 Peter 1:1 -- Simon Peter, a DOULOS and apostle of Jesus Christ.
  • Jude 1 -- Jude, a DOULOS of Jesus Christ.
One problem is that the word is often translated (I believe incorrectly) “servant” in many translations.  There is, however, another word DIAKONOS, which literally has this meaning (see John 2:5).  Our English word “deacon” comes from this word (1 Timothy 3:8).  The New Testament writers also used this word of themselves and others (1 Corinthians 3:5; Ephesians 3:7; 6:21; Colossians 1: 23, 25).  In Colossians 1:7, Epaphras is called both a SUNDOULOS (fellow slave) and a DIAKONOS.

Another problem is that these words also have verb forms DOULEUO and DIAKONEO.  It is difficult to know how to translate DOULEUO at times, but “serve as slave” is probably best, though most of our translations simply translate “serve.”  For instance, the older son in the parable (Luke 15:29) doesn’t simply tell his father, “Look, all these years I’ve been serving you,” but “all these years I’ve been serving you like a slave.”  This gives it more of an impact, don’t you think?

The economy in the Roman Empire in New Testament times was so much different from today’s, which it is difficult for us to see what’s going on.  People didn’t just have jobs and go to work; they were literally owned by their boss.  Though there were many freemen, the majority of workers were slaves.  Even upper level managers were often slaves.  A hired servant was sometimes considered even lower than a slave because he didn’t have the “security” that a slave had.  See Luke 15:17-29.

Many have seen a parallel with the Old Testament Law of the bondslave.  Under this law, an Israelite who couldn’t pay his debts could be “repossessed” by his creditor for up to seven years of indentured servitude.  After his service he was to be set free.  However, if he so chose he could remain permanently as a slave to his master.  This would be made legal by the courts and the master would seal the relationship by putting a hole in the ear of the slave and apparently inserting an earring, marking the man as a lifetime slave (Exodus 21:2-6; Deuteronomy 15:12-17).

This was in a sense, the experience of Paul and James and Peter and Jude.  They (as we) were bought and paid for by the blood of Christ and given our freedom (1 Corinthians 7:23; Galatians 5:1; 1 Peter 1:18, 19).  They willingly in love gave themselves back to their Master as eternal bondslaves.

(For some thoughts on the institution of slavery see:  RACE, Part 1.)

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