Slaves, Saints, and Sojourners (1)3
When I started preaching through Philippians at Bridgeway Church here in OKC, I suspect that more than a few people wondered aloud about my decision actually to spend an entire sermon on the opening two verses of chapter one: “Sam, are you kidding me? You actually plan on preaching an entire sermon on the opening greeting of a NT epistle. Come on! Give us some biblical meat, something we can really chew on and apply to our lives, something that’s going to make a difference in how I conduct my life next week, something that’s going to stick in my soul and change how I think and feel and act. For heaven’s sake, don’t waste my time with the meaningless trivialities of an ancient salutation!”
I hope you’re not thinking the same. Allow me to persuade you otherwise.
Let me start by asking you a question. What is a Christian? Surely you will agree that it’s important for us to know the answer. Surely you will acknowledge that knowing who you are is of indescribable practical importance if you are going to live as you ought. I’m convinced that the struggle many Christians face each day is largely due to the fact that they have very little understanding of their identity as children of God. Ask a lot of Christians to identify themselves and you’ll hear such things as:
“I’m a painful boil on the backside of the body of Christ.”
“I’m an embarrassment to the church, a drain on the energy of other Christians, an unsightly pimple on the public face of Christianity.”
“I’m a massive disappointment to God and a waste of everyone’s time.”
“I’m quite simply good for nothing when it comes to the needs of the church.”
I didn’t make those up. I’ve actually heard Christian men and women describe themselves in precisely those terms. That is why this seemingly unimportant and merely formal introduction to Paul’s letter to the Philippians is so massively significant and helpful to all of us today.
In this and the next two posts I want you to see three glorious truths about the identity of every Christian man and woman. It may not yet be the case that all of us are living consistently with who we are in Christ. No one does it perfectly. But I want to call you to think about who you are. A close look at Paul’s language reveals that we are “slaves of Jesus Christ,” that we are also “saints in Christ Jesus,” and “sojourners” on this earth.
Immediately upon hearing the word “slaves” of Jesus Christ we run into a problem. In fact, the problem is a double whammy. In the first place, people today can’t think of that word without associating it with the racial slavery that was so prevalent in the early years of America until the Civil War. The enslavement of black people in this country is such a reprehensible and nauseating chapter in our history that steps have been taken by English translators of the Bible to remove it entirely. That is why you see here in the ESV the word “bondservants.” Few people will flinch when they hear that term, but “slaves” is another matter.
But we must remember two things. First, the slavery that existed in the ancient world, especially in Paul’s day, had virtually nothing to do with race. The color of one’s skin was irrelevant when it came to the issue of slavery in Philippi. Slavery was almost entirely the result of military conquest or economic indebtedness. A conquered people could be enslaved by their enemies and forced to work in service to them. More often when an individual incurred massive amounts of debt that couldn’t be repaid they were put into slavery to their debtors until such time as their labor paid off the amount they owed.
The second thing to remember is that slavery in the ancient world rarely if ever have suggested the moral or intellectual inferiority of the enslaved. Slaves were often quite well educated and extremely competent. There was never the thought that one was subjected to slavery because they lacked human dignity or worth or were in some sense of an inferior quality of person. So please put out of your mind altogether any link between Paul’s use of the word here in Philippians and what you may have seen in the recent film by Stephen Spielberg that chronicled the life of Abraham Lincoln and his efforts to abolish slavery in America and bring into law the 13th Amendment.
There is a second reason why people in the west, and especially in America, flinch at the word “slave” and react so negatively against it. It has nothing to do with race or equality or human dignity. Rather, it runs directly counter to the notion of individual liberty and freedom of choice so precious to people today. In other words, people love to think of themselves as in charge of their own lives, obligated to no one and free to pursue whatever course of life or behavior they choose. You often hear people say, “I’m free to think whatever I please, to hold any opinion I choose, to believe whatever satisfies my soul. I’m no man’s slave. I don’t have to consult with anyone before I make a decision. If I want to get drunk, I’ll get drunk. If I feel inclined to live a sexually immoral lifestyle, then by golly that’s what I will do regardless of what anyone else says.”
Listen to me well. The Christian has no such freedom! To be a “slave of Jesus Christ” means that I have no right to use my mind or body or money in any way I choose. I can claim no right to how I think. My mind is captive to the Lord Jesus Christ. I can claim no right to what I believe. My opinions and preferences and prejudices must be brought into conformity with the mind of Jesus as revealed in Scripture. I can claim no right to my mouth, as if I were free to say whatever I want whenever I choose. My lips have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. He owns them and he is sovereign over everything I say.
I can claim no right to my feet, as if I were free to go wherever I choose. My path is directed by my Lord and Master Jesus Christ. I can claim no right to my eyes. I’m not free to look at whatever my flesh desires. My eyes belong to him and he has authority to tell me when to shut them and when to look away and when and on what to focus my attention. I’m not free to read whatever I want or to watch any movie released by Hollywood or to let my eyes surf the net indiscriminately or to channel surf on the TV without discernment.
I can claim no right in these hands. What I do with them, what I write, what I touch, what I take, what I build or destroy, is all subject to the supremacy and authority of my Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. I can claim no right to these ears. What I listen to on the radio or on a CD or at a concert or during a conversation with other people is under his scrutiny and subject to his will. I can claim no right in what I eat or drink. I can claim no right in where I live or what I wear. I can claim no right over the smallest cell or fiber of my being.
Some of you may think that sounds horrible and restricting and binding and oppressive. But I’m here to tell you that it is gloriously liberating! It is true freedom indeed. It is authentic liberty. Nothing is more satisfying to the soul or peaceful to one’s spirit or affirming to one’s will or joyful to one’s affections than living each moment in submission to the leading and lordship of Jesus Christ. We were not made to live unto and only for ourselves but unto and only for Jesus Christ.
This is why being a “slave” of Jesus Christ is such a glad-hearted and glorious privilege for Paul and Timothy and every man or woman who has been purchased by his blood and set free from the dictates and bondage of fleshly desires.
There is something massively ironic, if not paradoxical, in this truth. Paul revels in the fact that he is a slave of Jesus Christ. For most people, there is no lower or more menial or more degrading status than to be another person’s slave. To be a slave is the lowest state of humiliation possible. Paul, on the other hand, regards it as the highest of honors.
For a man to be the slave of another man is reprehensible. For one to enslave another, for one to oppress and exploit another in this way is the worst imaginable violation of fundamental human rights. But to be a slave of Jesus Christ is the highest dignity, the most glorious and liberating experience one can conceive.
A slave is put in chains in order to restrict his freedom and shame him publicly. But the chains placed on the soul of the saint bind us to Jesus in love. They do not restrict our freedom but keep us from the sin that would destroy our souls. These chains of love unite us to him. They bind us to him in spiritual intimacy and wed us to his heart, his purposes, his will, his thoughts, and his ways.
To be continued . . .