The idea that one Israelite could permanently own another was completely ruled out; and though debt slavery was permitted, it was limited in duration to six years (Exod 21:1-4; Lev 25:39-55). What is more, each slave was invited to participate in the religious life of God’s people, including Passover and the Sabbath day of rest (Exod 12:43-44; 23:12). This took on an even more mature tone when Paul taught that slavery was not a barrier to becoming a

Christian: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). While salves were encouraged to pursue their freedom, the Epistle urged nothing short of a grand transformation in the slave-master relationship (Eph 6:6-8; Col 3:22-4:1; 1 Tim 6:1; 1 Pet 2:18-21). This is particularly evident in the book of Philemon where Paul urged this slave owner to treat his runaway “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philem 1:16).

The idea of slavery is a very important image within both Old Testament and New Testament. When the Israelites left behind their servitude in Egypt, the biblical authors quickly seized on the image, using it to describe Israel’s relationship to the Lord: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deut 5:6; 6:12). The Israelites, however, had not been freed to run wild but were freed to better serve the LORD, who assumed the role of their new, benevolent master (Deut 6:13; Jer 34:8-11). Israel’s relationship to him was defined by the covenant, and if they failed to honor that covenant, an ironic reversal of fortunes would follow that would literally return them to slavery. “I will enslave you to your enemies in a land you do not know” (Jer 15:14).

In the New Testament the movement from sinner to saint is described as a change in ownership. Jesus declared that everyone who commits a sin becomes a slave to sin (John 8:34). This is the place to insert the horrible and difficult pictures of literal slavery into the metaphor. Only then will the amazing purchase from slavery take on its full meaning.

“You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings” (1 Cor 7:23). With Jesus as the new, loving owner, the believer should look for every way possible to honor him and avoid being a slave to sin (Rom 6:6, 16-18; 8:15). This means that believers must also abandon the path back to the law as the path to righteousness. Paul treats it within an extended metaphor featuring Hagar and Sarah, the slave woman and the free woman (Gal 4:21-31).

But he captures the essence in one statement: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).

Finally, the model for Christian leadership is also housed within this imagery. When the disciples began to argue about their social status in the kingdom of God, Jesus reminded them that true leaders in his kingdom assume the attitude of a slave (Matt 20:27). That is why Paul said, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor 9:19).

Leave a Reply