I had to read this book slowly because just about all of it was new to me. I never knew there could be so much meaning packed in the metaphor of slavery (nor did I realize how often this term shows up in the original Greek of the New Testament!). Unless the reader is already an expert in this area – there is so much to be learned by reading this book. There had been three experiences that generated the authors’ special interest in this topic:
- The author was teaching a Greek exegesis course and discussing translation theory and how various theories are represented in the 20 major translations of the NT. He found that only one translation consistently renders the most distinctive Greek term “doulas” (slave) as slave. This was surprising, so Harris wanted to find out more.
- The author had been involved with the NIV translation since its inception and for an additional 12 years was on the committee responsible for reviewing the text. On that committee he was asked to write a special report on the matter.
- In October 1987 a Romanian pastor who had been arrested and imprisoned in 1974 and 1977, then exiled in 1982 was asked to speak at a conference. He forcefully expressed his preference to be introduced simply as “a slave of Jesus Christ.” “There aren’t many people” he observed, “who are willing to introduce me as a slave. They substitute the word ‘servant’ for ‘slave.'” In 20th century Christianity we have replaced the expression “total surrender” with the word “commitment”, and “slave” with “servant”. But there is an important difference. A servant gives service to someone, but a slave belongs to someone. We commit ourselves to do something, but when we surrender ourselves to someone, we give ourselves up.
There is really so much that could be highlighted within this extensive work. Lots of background and history (the section on how the Isrealite form of slavery was more humane than other ANE forms was especially helpful – page 29), lots of Biblical exegesis, and lots of helpful cross-references and explanations. I learned something new on virtually every page. Since I don’t want this post to be as long as the book, I’ll highlight just two really cool sections. One was on the freedoms Christians receive in conversion, and the other pictures the heart of our God who is our Ultimate Owner:
Our Master Offers Us Freedom(s):
In Chapter Three “Slavery and Freedom” (pages 75-76) Harris shows that conversion to God brings freedom on at least seven fronts. Indeed Paul can say that the divine call of God is “for freedom” (Gal. 5:13), that is, “to be free.” We may note the following aspects of this freedom: In our conversion to God we receive:
- Freedom from spiritual death. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “those who hear my word and believe him who went me have eternal life and will not be condemned; they have crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24; cf. Eph. 2:1,5; Col. 2:13)
- Freedom from “self-pleasing”. “And Christ died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (II Cor. 5:15)
- Freedom from people-pleasing. “Am I [Paul] now trying to win human approval or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ” (Gal. 1:10; cf. 1 Cor. 7:23; 9:19).
- Freedom from slavery to sin. Jesus solemnly declared, “Everyone who sins is a slave of sin… If the Son sets you free, you will be indeed free” (John 8:34, 36; cf. Rom. 6:14-23)
- Freedom from bondage to the Mosaic law, especially if observing it is seen as a way of gaining God’s approval. “Now we have been released from the law, in that we have died to what once held us captive” (Rom. 7:6; cf. 3:20; Gal. 2:16; 3:10, 13). “So, my brothers and sisters, through the crucified body of Christ your bondage to the law has been broken” (Rom. 7:4; cf. Gal. 5:4, 13). “For in the case of every believer is the end of the law in its relation to righteousness” (Rom. 10:4).
- Freedom from fear of physical death. “Since the children all share in flesh and blood, he [Christ] too shared in their human nature so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and set free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15).
- Freedom from slavery to the elemental spiritual forces of the universe. “During our minority we were slaves, subject to the elemental spirits of the universe…Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to gods who are not gods at all. But now that you do acknowledge God – or rather, now that he has acknowledged you – how can you turn back to those feeble and bankrupt elemental spirits? Why do you propose to enter their service all over again?” (Gal. 4:3, 8-9; cf. Col. 2:8, 20).
The Heart of Our Master
These few passages took my breath away – and help the reader to understand the sort of Master the Christian is “in slavery” to:
“When we recognize this correlation between kind master and compliant slave, and cruel master and reluctant slave, we can begin to understand why the early Christians found their slavery to God sweetly attractive. To be the slave of a Master who is himself ‘gentle and humble-hearted’, and whose yoke is so easy to wear that his load is light (Matt. 11:29-30), is to be a highly privileged and readily obedient slave. When the Master is the omnipotent Lord of the universe, the slavery is a consummate privilege and a passionate delight, as well as being infinitely worthwhile. The eloquent words of Philo (Cher. 107) regarding slavery to God are equally applicable to slavery to Christ:
“The purified mind rejoices in nothing more than in confessing that it has for its master the One who is Lord of all. For to be the slave of God is the greatest human boast, and is a more precious treasure not only than freedom but even than wealth or dominion or anything that mortals cherish.”
In his drama Amphitryo, the Roman playwright Plautus places on the lips of one of his characters the words: “It’s no fun being a slave. And it’s not just the work, but knowing that you’re a slave, and that nothing can change it.” The slave of Christ, on the other hand, says: “It’s a delight being Christ’s slave. And it’s not just the work, but knowing that you’re his slave, and that nothing can separate you from his love.” (Page 142)
The Master who is served is not only peerless in status (Matt. 28:18; Phil. 2:9) and meek and gentle in character (Matt. 11:29; II For. 10:1). He provides for his slaves generously, protects them jealously, and rewards them handsomely. (Page 149)
Christ’s slaves render their services voluntarily, not under external compulsion. They may confess, to be sure, that Christ Jesus has “laid hold” of them (cf. Phil. 3:12), but they serve him by their own choice, grateful that he has set them free. They have committed themselves to him totally and unconditionally – all of life for the whole of life. Slavery to Christ is not an irksome necessity imposed from without; it is a pleasurable commitment motivated from within.
Half-heartedness has no place among Christ’s slaves; they serve with an enthusiasm generated by Christ’s Spirit. In Romans 12:11 it is significant that immediately after saying, “Be aglow with the Spirit”, Paul adds, “Serve the Lord as his slave,” as if to suggest that “the real proof of the presence of this fire of the Spirit would not be effervescent religious excitement but renewed energy and determination in the humble and obedient service of the Lord Jesus (Page 155).