Slaves to God?

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.     Romans 6:16-23

This passage is a little confusing, yet at the same time there are so many lessons to be learned in these two small paragraphs. It is easy to look at this through our western mindset and think that there are statements all over these paragraphs that contradict each other, but that is because of our point of view.

Lesson #1: The Hebrew Mindset

Paul was the author of Romans. He was a Jewish pharisee who learned at the feet of Gamaliel. (Acts 22:3) All Pharisees were taught to memorize and understand the law flawlessly, but Paul loved it so much that he had advanced beyond many men his own age. (Galatians 1:14) As a Jew and pharisee himself, Paul wrote his letters from his cultural and scriptural mindset.

The Hebrew culture relied very heavily upon the Old Testament for their understanding of who YHVH is, just like Paul did. That is also how the pharisees that did recognize Jesus as the Messiah knew who he is, just like Paul. It was through his knowledge of how the law and prophecies work hand in hand to show who the Messiah is how Paul knew Jesus. Those who had added to or taken away from the laws did not recognize him. Paul knew about this problem and warned against those who would teach another Jesus out of lack this of context – a lack of understanding the law and the prophets. (2 Corinthians 11:3-4)

Today we have a new type of contextual error. Our western cultural mindset is completely different from the ancient eastern mindset of Paul. In our modern western culture, we have an either/or mindset. It is either this way or that way. We can either have this or that. The either/or mindset becomes clear when we start seeing what we think are contradictions in scripture, like the passage in Romans that we are using in this study. In the Western mindset, we are either free or we are not. We are either a slaves, or we are not. But in Paul’s ancient Hebrew mindset, we are both free and we are slaves.

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.     Romans 6:16-23

In the Hebrew mindset, the answer to most of our either/or questions is “both”. This comes up in many topics given throughout scripture, so it is important that we be able to look through the Hebrew mindset in which scripture was written in order to understand the true context of what we read and study.

Lesson #2: Slaves? Really?

Remembering that almost the entire Bible was written from a Hebrew mindset to a Hebrew mindset, we need to go to the Old Testament and ancient culture to understand what Paul means when he calls us slaves to righteousness and to YHVH.

Yes, there were slaves in ancient Israel. That being said, there were slaves all over the ancient world. I think it would be safe to assume that most of the ancient world that influenced Israel allowed for slavery in some form or another. However, there was a difference between the slaves of the Israelite people and those of the rest of the world. Are you ready to step out of your modern Western mindset and into the ancient Hebrew mindset for a while?

When we think of slaves, we think of the Civil War era and all of the negative connotations that come with it. Most slaves of the time were slaves against their will, and were treated worse than animals. In some cultures, like Islam, this still goes on today. Most cultures surrounding Israel in the ancient eastern world conducted slavery in this same way – just look at how the Egyptians treated the children of Israel – but that is not how YHVH conducts business.

YHVH is a holy (set apart) God, and He demands that His people are holy (set apart). One of the ways that He set His people apart was in their treatment of other human beings. Before we can look at how slaves were treated in Israel we need to look at how a brother became a slave in Israel.

If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God.     Leviticus 25:39-43

If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.     Exodus 22:2-3

“Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.     Exodus 21:16

According to scripture, there are only two ways a Hebrew could become a slave. They either had to be poor and have willingly sold themselves, or they had to have been unable to to pay a debt, as was the case with a thief who was unable to make restitution for what he stole. A person could not under any circumstance be forced into slavery without reason of their own consequences. This is the first difference between slavery in Israel, and slavery in the rest of the world.

Now we can look at how slaves were treated. We’ve already seen in the proceeding scripture in Leviticus, that YHVH instructed that any poor person would not serve as a slave. Instead, they could only serve as a servant, but there is much more given in the treatment of a slave. For example:

  • A Hebrew slave never served more than six years.
  • They were always freed on the seventh year, and when they were freed, they were sent out “liberally furnished”. (Deuteronomy 15:12-15)

When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free, then his master shall bring him to the judge, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.     Exodus 21:2-6

We have an example of this in the story of Jacob’s servitude to Laban in which he worked for seven years to obtain Rachel as his wife. When he left, he took all he had earned with him.

  • A servant rested on the Sabbath along with the rest of the family.

Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.     Exodus 23:12

If a master injured a servant, the servant was released.

“When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.     Exodus 21:26-27

There are other examples of how well YHVH wants servants treated in Exodus 21:20-21 and Deuteronomy 23:15-16, but I want to talk about the servant who chooses to remain a servant forever.

But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to the judge, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.     Exodus 21:5-6

In ancient Hebrew culture, somebody who chose to forever be a servant to the same master was a bond-servant. These servants were special, and received special treatment. First of all, they loved their masters enough to commit a lifetime to them. Secondly, their masters were likely to have a tremendous amount of trust in these servants, knowing that they were being served out of love. Due to this love and trust, I am sure most of these servants became like family.

Imagine being a master to somebody in ancient Israel. You would have cared for your servant for six years, and it is time for him to go free. However, instead of choosing to go free, your servant has decided to serve you forever. How would you feel about this servant? He is willing to do everything you require of him for the rest of his life. How would you feel towards this bond-servant in comparison to any other servants you may have?

We have a picture of such a bond-servant when we look at the relationship between Abraham and his bond-servant. In Genesis 15, Abraham had chosen him to be his heir since he had no son. Then in chapter 24, he trusted him enough to find a wife for his only son, Isaac.

Using our newly learned ancient Hebrew mindset and cultural context, let’s look at the passage in Romans again.

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.     Romans 6:16-23

We are slaves to whomever or whatever we choose to obey. It is our choice. If we obey sin, we are slaves to sin. Many of us were in the past. Maybe we still are today. How do we know who we are serving now? The hint is here:

For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

To become a servant/slave to anybody is to become obedient to them. Each master has a law to be followed. If you are a servant to money, money has a set of laws that you follow in order to obtain it. If you are a servant of popularity, popularity has a set of laws that you follow in order to obtain it. If you are a servant of YHVH, He has a set of laws that you must follow in order to obtain Him. In fact, Paul tells us here that those who follow YHVH are slaves to righteousness. He even tells us that the opposite of righteousness is lawlessness. Is it safe then to say that righteousness is the same thing as lawfulness?

Although Paul makes the “and” statement that we are both slaves and free when we serve YHVH, he also makes an either/or statement. He says that we are either slaves to sin or we are slaves to righteousness and YHVH. Jesus touched on this himself when he said:

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.     Matthew 6:24a

Now to make things just a little more complicated, using his ancient Hebrew mindset, Paul says that not only are we both slaves and free when we serve YHVH, but we are also both slaves and free at the same time, regardless of who we choose to serve.

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So are we servants or are we free? According to Paul’s Hebrew mindset, the answer is both. Depending on who we choose to be servants to, we are free from the other. If you are a servant to sin, you are free from righteousness, or the law; however, if you are a servant of righteousness, you are free from the law of sin and death.

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.     Romans 8:2

Being a servant of YHVH is a choice and a free gift given to us. Just as the law states, we cannot become His servant against our will. We are free to “try it out” and be set “free” after a few years, or we can become a bond-servant, clearly stating that we love our master and will not go “free”. We can either be free from YHVH, obeying the law of sin, or we can be free from sin, obeying the law of YHVH. As Peter says,

Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.     1 Peter 2:16

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