INTRODUCTIONOn a superficial this section of Ephesians might seem irrelevant to progressive modern life. Such a judgement would be a serious mistake as its 5-fold references to Jesus as Lord and Master place him at the centre of life’s basic relationships and provide the one true remedy to the often destructive patterns of family and work life today.
Tragically the contemporary Church pulled apart what belongs essentially together.
Whilst for reasons both cultural and spiritual Paul’s readers would understand the intimate relationship between their conduct in the home and the Spirit-filled life of their congregation such insights are rare today (Eph 5:18 ESV, Eph 6:1-9 ESV).
If Jesus is not honoured as Lord in the household he will hardly be honoured as Lord of the Church. I was reading a book recently about the 18th century Moravians, and the writer commented, “Can you imagine a church Elder (today) from time to time asking couples whether their marriage was honouring God?” (Wemmer). But this is exactly the sort of transparency God always expects.
Christians often gravitate to conferences which promise great things but rarely produce much fruit, but in a very down to earth way this passage teaches what it means for us to be God’s new society, the “household of God”, to quote Ephesians 2:19 ESV.
The instructions as to how parents and children, slaves and masters are to relate to one another is a call to reflect the final state of all things(Eph 3:10 ESV). It is not by accident that this passage immediately precedes Ephesians 6 with its teaching about the evil spiritual rulers of this world. The life of believers at home and work is to stand in stark contrast to the demonically controlled social structures which in every society, Paul’s and ours, exploit the weak and powerless.
CHILDREN AND PARENTS (6:1 – 4)
Paul consistently begins his teaching by addressing the socially inferior member of a pair. Given the context of the times that children would be addressed at all is extraordinary; but the gospel imparted dignity and a valued position to minors unprecedented in the ancient world.
vs.1 “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”
Submission for children (not wives) means obedience to parents, not in the interests of social conformity but “in the Lord”. In the New Testament we read how the 12 year old Christ “was submissive” to Mary and Joseph and how for the whole course of his life the Son of God was totally obedient to his Father (Luke 2:51 ESV; Romans 5:19 ESV; Philippians 2:8 ESV).
The declaration such obedience “is right” doesn’t mean “do what you’re told” or “this is the way we do things here” but is a call to conform to God’s righteous ordering of family.
It is not a cue for a child to strive to be a “good boy” or a “good girl” for such self-willed righteousness is disastrous for human flourishing. Obedience is a duty children owe to parents as life-givers but Christian children have the help of the Holy Spirit to do this.
The New Testament pictures disobedience to parents as a serious sin because it is a sign of God’s wrath and judgement coming on the world in the last days (Rom 1:28-30 ESV; 2 Tim 3:1-2 ESV).
This counsel does not imply unquestioning obedience of children to their parents in everything but the disposition of a prayerful heart unwilling to displease mum and dad except where parental direction contradicts the scriptures.
vs.2 “Honour your father and mother” is a command for life.
It means younger children obeying instruction in the household and older children who have left home showing respect and care for aged parents. Honouring parents brings with it a special divine “promise” of material prosperity and long life; “(this is the first commandment with a promise)”,
vs.3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”
Keeping this command brings God’s blessing because to honour our parents is to honour the Lord who has given our parents to us as the first and most important of his image – bearers in life (cf. Gen 5:3 ESV).
When it comes to honouring parents our society is in deep trouble. Take away God and replace him with nothing and we shouldn’t be surprised at articles like that in last weekend’s Australian newspaper titled, ‘Loved ones’ pose biggest threat to old people’s assets’1)see http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/loved-ones-pose-biggest-threat-to-old-peoples-assets/news-story/966cfe0e6dfdf43044b5049ffd3638a1. “Elder abuse”, including adult children stealing from their aged parents, is no longer rare in our culture. Such is the cost of rebellion against God’s order of creation.
Paul now moves to address fathers who in ancient times were responsible for the education and discipline of their children. Today we would include mothers in these instructions but in the households of ancient times things were to be ordered for the comfort and happiness of the patriarch. In the Roman world fathers were extremely powerful; under law the father of the household (paterfamilias) had oversight of all moral, civil and religious duties. In principle he had the power of life and death over household members.
vs.4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
There is no parallel to this exhortation in ancient literature, where you might expect an exhortation to children not to provoke their fathers to anger. The provocation Paul forbids includes things like reactionary flare-ups, harshness, sarcasm, insults, nagging, unreasonable demands, or inappropriate teasing. At a deep level children experience hurt and anger when their parents frustrate their natural goals and desires e.g. directing or manipulating what sort of job they must enter. Christian fathers should know that all fatherhood derives from “the one God and Father of us all” the cosmic paterfamilias (3:14-15; 4:6).
Angry responses to children always wreak havoc. When we were in Toowoomba we attended a service at The Base Family Church. Its pastor Nat Spary shared how he was terrified of his wrathful alcoholic father and ran away from home to live on the street when he was 15. The usual issues of drugs and broken relationships followed.
He shared how one night the street kids were together and talked about how they all hated their fathers. When Nat became a Christian he quickly accepted Jesus’ love, but he struggled for a long time to know God as Father because his own dad’s misuse of authority had unconsciously taught him to rebel about the authority of God the Father. Sadly this is an extremely common problem2)see http://cross-connect.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Images-and-Intimacy.pdf.
To “bring children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” will include exhortations and rebukes to keep them from the wrong path; but exercised in the tender nourishment and discipline “of the Lord” (v.4) it should give no grounds for frustration or anxiety. The instruction “of the Lord” doesn’t only mean about the Lord but it “comes from the Lord” himself and so reveals his caring qualities. Paul now moves to household instructions for slaves and masters.
SLAVES AND MASTERS (6:5- 9)
The actual condition of slaves in the first century is a matter of some debate but some things are clear3)see https://readingacts.com/2011/11/20/philemon-and-slavery-in-the-first-century/. Aristotle famously described a slave as a “living tools” but by New Testament times slaves could marry, be educated and hold responsible positions, receive pocket money and pay for freedom. However a former slave would always bear this social stigma . About a quarter of the population of Ephesus at this time were slaves and people lived in fear of slave rebellions. “every slave we own is an enemy we harbour” said one ancient writer (Diodorus Siculus). A slave could be brutally punished or put to death for a trivial offence because the father of the house had this legal authority. The very fact that Paul addresses this underclass is amazing. Christianity treated slaves as free moral agents of equal worth to anyone. There are divine rather than social reasons why slaves should submit to their masters.
vs.5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, vs.6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, vs.7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man,
Few today understand the sort of “fear and trembling” Paul recommends here.
It is not a foreboding terror and dread before God or of human masters. When the apostle describes his own “fear and trembling” in coming to preach to the Corinthians (1 Cor 2:3 ESV) and counsels the Philippians to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:13 ESV) he is surely speaking about sharing in the holy trepidation Christ experienced in obeying the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (Heb 5:7-8 ESV).
This is a powerful and healthy emotion we all need. Slaves are people in the sight of God of such significance that they will have to answer to God for their attitudes and actions at the Last Judgement (2 Cor 5:10 ESV).
Anyone who has this sort of fear will certainly not fear man (1 Pet 1:17 ESV; 1 Pet 3:4 ESV). Obeying masters, ungodly as they may be, is part of the Christian slaves vocation in obeying Christ “from the heart”.
Jesus did the will of God from the heart even when it was very painful to do so, and so must we.
Such heart obedience is free from scheming, guile or deceit for its one intention is to please God (cf. 1 Chron 29:17 ESV).
The caution against “eye-service” is a warning against “serving to be seen” in order to impress others and be well thought of. A people pleasing mentality undermines a person’s spiritual and moral authority.
We can all have problems in these areas. From a slightly different angle I sometimes need to be careful not to do too much not because I want people to like me but because I don’t want others to think I am lazy.
Heart service is what do you do when no one is looking and as “slaves of Christ” Christians have a higher motivation to serve than gaining any earthly advantage (Rom 1:1 ESV; 1 Cor 7:22 ESV; Gal 1:10 ESV; Phil 1:1 ESV; Titus 1:1 ESV). As usual, Paul backs up his exhortation with an ultimate consideration.
vs.8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or is free.
Every good deed done in this life will be taken into account by the Lord at the final judgement (2 Cor 5:10 ESV). We know this not because it suits our sense of justice but because God raised the one true servant, Jesus, from the dead (Acts 17:31 ESV).
vs.9 Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven
Christian masters should treat their slaves as they desire the slaves to honour them. As slaves of Jesus masters must not threaten or bully their slaves, for slaves and masters alike have a heavenly Master, Christ, and he is never controls or manipulates through threats. Jesus gave plenty of stern warnings but he never coerced obedience through terror (e.g. Matt 23). When Christians bully or harass this is a sign that in their hearts, whatever they profess to believe, they think God in Christ is a harsh Master (cf. Matt 25:24-25 ESV).
Our problem today, both inside and outside of the Church, is that we have no clear insight into the true nature of authority. Even yesterday I was talking to someone about a bullying pastor and surveys show that about half of Australians experience bullying n the workplace4)see http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-09/half-all-australians-experience-workplace-bullying-survey-finds/7916230.
If you think that in the End you are answerable to no-one you will use whatever means you can to make people answerable to you. This is why Paul adds, “and that there is no partiality with him.”
When it comes to the Last Judgement God won’t preference anyone, slave or master, boss or employee. That God shows no partiality is conveyed by the fact that the gospel is to offered freely to all (Rom 2:11 ESV; Gal 2:6 ESV; Col 3:25 ESV). Masters should treat their slaves the way God treats them.
Sometimes people complain that the New Testament doesn’t directly condemn slavery.
However it does encourage salves to gain freedom where possible, in one case expects their masters to release them (1 Cor 7:21 ESV; Philemon 1:16 ESV) and treats slaves as people with dignity and worth in such a way as to eventually undermine the institution of slavery.
More foundationally, unlike marriage, to which Paul gives the deepest theological justification of Christ as Groom and Church as Bride, there is no theological basis given for slavery in the New Testament.
This passage is as revolutionary today as when it was first penned.
The self-disciplined sacrificial manner of living it directs for everyday human relationships is only possible if we are filled with the Spirit under the Lordship of Christ.
But such seemingly unspectacular obedience, honour and service manifests the triumph of Christ over all the powers of evil in household and society which set up hierarchies and enable the powerful to exploit the poor.
A community which lives according to the precepts of this passage resisting the social norms of the day, ancient or modern, is a prophetic image of a new and eternal society which will replace the distorted social systems of this world.
Paul’s counsel to children, and slaves, can easily be applied to employees, soldiers, prisoners, and all under authority structures.
The attitude, manner of service and motivation of believers in these situations must be Christ-centred and God pleasing. With eyes are on the reward that will be ours in Christ in the End can serve and respect others in a way that honours God free from any personal ambition.
Looked at from the other side, employers, supervisors, managers and the like can exercise authority for the Lord’s sake, not for career advancement. They are, like Christ, able to hold workers accountable without showing favouritism. Altogether this paints a picture of Christians as light, salt and leaven in a society that has lost its way. One in which self interest usually dominates at the expense of the interests of others.
Whether it is the family, the church or the workplace Paul’s teaching imparts a vision of order where Christ dwells as Lord and Master of all relationships.
MESSAGE DELIVERED: 24th September, 2017 | St Mark’s
Author: Dr. John Yates
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