Throughout Paul's first letter to Timothy, we've seen the apostle give the younger pastor a wide range of advice as to how Timothy in particular and the church in general should conduct themselves in Ephesus.
In this part of Ephesians, Paul turns his attention to the issue of how slaves should interact with their masters, and especially also with Christian masters. So the first question I want to address this morning is the question of relevance to us.
After all, we might talk about slaving away over a hot stove, working like a slave or being a slave to something, but we don't really serve other people as slaves today – not like in Paul's day. Perhaps you've quickly made the jump to today's employer – employee relationship, but then what about those of us who are children, students, housewives, unemployed or retired. Is what is written here irrelevant to those people?
No. Take a step back from the text and look at the overall thrust and underlying principles. Paul is encouraging people to think about how they interact with other people, isn't he? And why? “So that God's name and our teaching may not be slandered.” After all, a slave's owner is no more special than any one else. The slave's owner is not more deserving of respect, more needy of salvation or more in danger of being made to slander Christ than anyone else.
So even if we take nothing else away from this sermon, we can take this question to ponder as we go through life. Is what I'm doing adorning the gospel? Are my thoughts, my words and my actions helping make the gospel attractive, or leaving people saying “If that's what a Christian is like, I don't think much of their God and I don't want to be a Christian.”
Paul's focus here is on applying these principles to servants, so he says “All who are under the yoke of slavery”. Notice that there's no room given for us to pick and choose whether we obey. “All” means “All”. So every slave should consider their master worthy of full respect.
If you and I were writing this letter, would we say that? Wouldn't we focus more on obedience? “Every slave should do what their master tells them without arguing or complaining.” Paul calls for something deeper, something that would exclude giving your letter-of-the-law obedience, or grumbling and complaining behind your master's back or after the event. Paul and the spirit who inspires him knows that it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks.
And so he calls not merely for his readers to seek to look the part, but to be the “real deal”. They are called to give their masters “full respect”. Again, there's no room for half-hearted fulfillment of this calling. It's full respect, not “no respect” or “a little respect” or even “a lot of respect”. Full respect.
But what if you have a master who isn't worthy of that respect? What if they require of you things that are unethical?
This is where we need to keep the purpose in mind. Paul says we should do these things “so that God's name and our teaching may not be slandered.” So the aim is for Christian slaves to act in a way that will at least increase the likelihood of their masters glorifying God rather than cursing Him, and being more open to Christianity rather than less.
Sometimes that might mean disobeying your master. If he asks you to do something that contradicts God's revealed will – you must obey God rather than man, like the Apostles in Acts 4. But even in such a situation you can still do so with respect to your master. When the apostles refused to stop preaching the gospel, they didn't say a simple, blunt “No”. They spoke with grace - “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)
And that situation parallels this very closely, for Paul is not assuming in this verse that a slave's master is a Christian – he expects this of us regardless of the master we have.
So, to come back to that general principle again, we need to hear a call to treat our boss at work, our co-workers, our children, our spouse, our friends, our family, our neighbours, our pastor, our elders and deacons and the stranger we have never previously met with respect. We should seek to do whatever we can reasonably do to contribute to their spiritual welfare – to be a blessing to them, we might say. For even if they're not our owner in that master-slave relationship that Paul envisages, they are still a person made in the image of God, fallen and broken, and in just as much need of Christ as we are. Perhaps by God's grace, they are one of the elect and noone but God knows it yet. Perhaps you will be part of the means by which God brings them to faith.
But what about the case in which your slave owner – or anyone else – is already a Christian?
Can you be a bit more relaxed? Can you validly give less respect to a fellow Christian? In the second verse, Paul says “No”. In fact, quite the opposite. The apostle calls us to treat believers even better than non Christians, if that's possible.
And for two reasons.
First, it's precisely because they're believers who are benefiting from your service as a slave in the original context.
If I as a slave do my best for a non-Christian master, what is the benefit? I will glorify God among the people around me, and provide a good witness and valued service to my owner, but that will be about it.
If on the other hand my owner is also a Christian, he or she will be also seeking to use the fruit of my labours to honour and glorify God. Together, we will accomplish more for our saviour than either of us could achieve by ourselves. And the same will apply in other contexts, won't it? If you and I work together to give our best in the life of the church, for example, we'll glorify and serve God better than we would by pushing our own barrows or being half hearted in what we do.
Doesn't that sound like a good reason for us to treat each other well?
But this is not the only reason we're given. Pal also talks about that fellow Christian you're serving being dear to you. And isn't he spot on – or at least shouldn't he be? In Christ, the slave's Christian owner is not merely another human being, not merely a person from the same state or the same nation – if they are that – but a brother or a sister in Christ.
This person shares with you the same purpose to living, the same priorities in life. They think must the same as you about everything that's most important – their understanding of who God is, what He is like, what He has done and will do. You share your recognition of the desparate need of salvation mankind has, your reliance upon Christ to save you, the hope of a new heavens and earth, the assurance of God's grace to you.
Being a fellow Aussie alone has nothing on that.
And this is another reason to give your employer, your pastor, your elder, your wife, your child, your neighbour... to give them your best.
This, then, is what Timothy is called to teach the Ephesians. And Paul underscores the importance of doing this by explicitly saying so. Notice though that he's not merely to teach and leave it at that. He's called to urge God's people to obey these commands too.
This should underscore to us the importance of what is being said here. If we walk out of here this morning, forget what God's Word says and conduct ourselves in a way that allows God's Name and the teaching of the gospel to be slandered, what good is that? We need, by God's grace, to care about the fate of the ungodly, to earnestly desire that our conduct glorifies God's name and adorns the teaching of the gospel that those around us receive. We need, by God's grace, to help other Christians in their service of their Lord and ours, not hinder them.
Paul calls Timothy to teach and urge people in Ephesus to do these things, but this doesn't in anyway deny or contradict what he also teaches in other places. Apart from Christ, apart from the Spirit of Christ working in us, we can do nothing.
And so this morning, in the footsteps of Paul and Timothy, I teach and urge you to act in such a way that God's Name and the teaching of the gospel may not be slandered. Don't merely react unthinkingly to the events of life. Don't seek first your own comfort and ease. Seek above all else, in every circumstance of life, by the grace of God and empowered by the work of the Spirit in your life, to do what most glorifies God and what is best for those around you. Seek first the Kingdom of God, and His glory, and what pleases Him, to the praise, the honour and the glory of His Name.