In Ephesians 6:5–9 Paul finishes his “household codes” by addressing slaves/bondservants and masters and how they ought to work as unto the Lord. In fact, in five verses Paul makes five explicit references to Christ. Thus, as with marriage (Ephesians 5:22–33) and parenting (Ephesians 6:1–4), he gives hyper-attention to the way Christ motivates Christians in the marketplace.
Acknowledging the cultural differences (and challenges) between masters and slaves in Ephesus and our own modern free-market, post-slavery context in America, there are numerous ways Paul’s words continue speak to marketplace Christians today. In what follows, I’ll list seven ways Paul puts Christ in the cubicle, the shop, the council chamber, and the medical office.
Indeed, by walking through these five verses, we can see how Christ motivates, supervises, evaluates, and coaches his followers. Rather than bifurcating Sunday from the rest of the week, Paul teaches us how Christ should be present with believers as they enter the work week.
Seven Ways to Meet Christ at Work
I suspect a whole book could be written on the principles Paul lays out in Ephesians 6:5–9, but let me list seven ways Paul teaches Christians to bring Christ to work.
1. Christ is the ultimate motivation for work.
In verses 5–8, Paul addresses slaves (NASB, NIV, RSV, HCSB) or bondservants (ESV), and he calls them to “obey” their earthly masters (“masters according to the flesh”). Why? For the sake of Christ. Verse 5 reads, “Obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ.” Paul explains that in obeying earthly masters, those in the service of another are evidencing their commitment to Christ.
There are many ways this teaching has and can be abused by those in authority, but in the original context, Paul is urging Christians to respect and obey their “employers” for the sake of Christ. This is the ultimate motivation for the worker, and as we’ll see, for the master/employer. Money, fame, pleasure, pride, prestige, power—none of these can be ultimate motivators. Neither can goodness, justice, love, or anything else be the ultimate motivation. In Christ, the Spirit-filled believer will long to glorify Christ, and as Paul says in Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
To clarify, this ultimate motivation does not eviscerate other human motivations. Rather, every other motivation must be tempered by and trained to serve the first priority—to serve others as the Lord.
2. Christ is your vocational supervisor.
If Christ is your motivation, he is also your supervisor. As verse 6 puts it, the disciple of Christ does not work “by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers.” As Galatians 1:10 indicates, such workers cannot serve Christ. Why? Because their man-centered devotion will ultimately lead them away from the Lord
Built into this instruction is the reality that in our fallen world, every worker will be confronted with decisions that will demand them to answer this question: Will they serve God? Or will they serve man? As Jesus says, “No man 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 6:24). In context, Jesus is talking about God and money, and Paul seems to be making a similar point. Every worker will be working to please God or themselves or some other human supervisor.
Therefore, we learn from Paul that no matter the company, institution, office, etc., the Lord claims precedent over them all. And Christians bought by Christ’s blood are not first and foremost slaves of their earthly master; they are slaves of Christ. And thus, what he says matters most. This, of course, does not mean that Christ permits workers to reject the authority of their earthly supervisors. Just the reverse, his oversight motivates us to humbly respect and obey our earthly “lords.” This is why Paul uses the word “obey” when speaking to servants.
3. Christ and his Word is your standard.
If Christ’s supervisory role calls us to affirm our allegiance to him, it also beckons us to work with diligence, skill, and honesty. In truth, our earthly masters may not see our dishonesty, and others may not care. As long as pragmatism reigns, there will be many work environs where productivity, not integrity, is prized.
But unrighteousness cloaked by effectiveness is not what pleases the Lord. As the Proverbs speak so often about hard work, honest scales, and righteous speech, the Lord longs for his sons and daughters to do more than get the work done. He longs for them to reflect his character in their carpentry—whatever their vocation may be.
In Ephesians 6:6 Paul calls for Christ’s disciples to do the will of God from the heart. In other words, work for the Christian is not just a means to some spiritual end (e.g., evangelism, money for the church, etc.). Work is a context—perhaps the most enduring context—Christians put God’s will into practice. Therefore, with respect to speech, decision-making, work relationships, etc., God’s Word—not man’s praise—is the standard by which our labors are judged.
4. Christ’s name is on your contract.
If Christ is our motivation, supervisor, and standard, it is not surprising he is also the one who “hires us.” This doesn’t deny the people and companies who sign our contracts, but it does recognize (1) the sovereignty of God in preparing us and placing us in our current occupations and (2) the sovereignty of God to lead, guide, and direct us in our vocations.
In fact, Paul’s words do more than draw the implicit connection between God’s sovereign rule and man’s work. He actually says that in fulfilling our calling, we are to “render service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man” (v. 7). This does not deny the human element in any vocation, but it does heighten the calling to serve God. He is our Lord and thus all that we say and do, is because of him, for him, and by him—by the Spirit of Christ (see Ephesians 5:15–21).
Once again, Paul’s point of view is radical. It grates against any sense of self-achievement and crushes the desire to boast in one’s resume, education, or accomplishments (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:7). To the self-confident, sought-after contractor, this way of thinking is repulsive. But to the Lord who opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34), this exactly what he wants. He’s not looking for high-end employees to boost his lagging company; he’s looking for children who seek their father’s glory alone.
Paul, therefore, reminds us who ultimately signs our contract—it is the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. To work with wisdom and grace, we must acknowledge him. The alternative is to look upon the work of our hands like Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4) and invite God’s judgment.
5. Christ is your coach.
Not only does Christ oversee our labors, he also teaches us how to “work” as he worked. First of all, he liberated us from having to render service to the Lord by accomplishing a work we never could achieve. By dying on the cross, Christ paid the full price for our sins and in his resurrection, he is now building a temple for his people to dwell with his Father (Ephesians 2:19–22). This is the work he does, and one we cannot do.
But in watching him work, we learn how me might imitate his craftsmanship. In fact, this is exactly what Paul says in Ephesians 2:10. For those who have been saved by faith and not by works (2:8–9), the Father has prepared good works for his new creations to walk in (v. 10). For some these works will include labors in the church, but many good works will be done “outside of church.” Still, it is in the church where disciples learn from Christ and his people how to work.
And thus, we find Paul giving a how-to in verses 6–8. In three consecutive participles (italicized below), Paul says
- doing the will of God from the heart,
- rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man,
- knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord
In these three verbs verses, Paul teaches Christ’s disciples how to work like Christ.
- First, he calls us to learn the will of the Lord. Because Christ is the perfect example of God’s will, this instruction leads people to watch the Lord in his work. It is in this way, that we can say Christ is our “coach,” “mentor,” or “teacher.” To be sure, the Lord doesn’t teach us medicine or metallurgy, but he does teach us principles of mercy and justice, wisdom and goodness. These impact every area of work and therefore apply to all people, regardless of calling.
- Second, by learning from Christ, we learn how to have a good will in serving the Lord. Just as Christ did everything in service to his heavenly father, so must we. And we learn how to do that by looking to Christ. Hence, one of the most important habits a Christian can cultivate for ‘success’ in their vocation is the study of God’s Word, especially the person and work of Christ. Only those who know Christ and his ways, can render service with a good will.
- Third, our motivation to do the will of the Lord, in the ways of the Lord, is increased by looking to the future reward promised to those who work by faith in Christ. Indeed, faith impels Christ’s followers to labor in love; however, hope is also needed to grant endurance in good works. As various vocations put into practice love of neighbor, difficulties will mount. In response, how will the Christian press on without growing discouraged or turning from the Lord’s ways? The answer Paul gives is to keep looking to the future reward. By sowing good seeds in the hope of future reward, the follower of Christ looks forward to a harvest that goes beyond company goals. This is what empowers God’s people to endure. And again, no one has modeled this better than Christ.
For all these reasons, Christ’s servant leadership and humble obedience models for all Christians how to work for God’s glory. Therefore, we should look to him and learn how Christ’s attitudes and actions inform our vocation.
6. Christ, not your career, is the source of your value and worth.
In Ephesians 6:9, Paul turns from slaves to masters. Again, he puts Christ at the center of his instructions. Importantly, Paul uses the same perfect participle (knowing) in both verses to address slaves (v. 8) and masters (v. 9). And in between Paul says the reward from Christ is irrespective of the workers class: “knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.”
With an economic valuation that comes from heaven (see v. 9), he encourages masters and slaves that their eternal rewards are not dependent on their earthly standing. Rather, the reward comes from Christ who looks at the heart. Moreover, by saying in v. 9, “Masters, do the same to them,” he stresses the reciprocal nature of masters and slaves.
In principle, then, Paul teaches the value of work is based on someone’s relation to Christ and eternity, not to his income, education, or competence. To be clear, those things are not unimportant, for each of them come with a particular stewardship to glorify God. But ultimately, one’s value in Christ’s eyes is not based on his or her work; it is based upon their standing in Christ. “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” is the uniform praise God gives to his children regardless of their earthly standing.
7. Christ is the ultimate motivation for work.
Finally, we return to the first point, because Paul comes to it again with masters. The ultimate motivation for work is the glory of God. And we see this point in verse 9 when Paul says, “Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”
Again, these words are meant to humble masters and to prevent the abuse of their power. Like slaves, they too are to use their position to reflect God’s character. Only in this case, their position of authority requires their humility to look like kind-hearted service to those under their care. Why? Because they too are servants under the wise and loving care of Christ, their master in heaven.
In this way, Paul concludes this section like he began, with a Christ-centered motivation for masters to glorify God with their lives and their livelihoods.
Remembering Christ’s Perfect Attendance
Paul finishes his instruction about submission (going back to Ephesians 5:21) by stressing the fact that God in heaven is looking down on all actions and attitudes of his people. And he calls masters (and all of us) to attend to this fact: God is always present.
Enthroned in heaven with all creation under his feet, Christ is never absent from the world and its various markets. And while false motives and unjust practices abound in the world, God is calling Christians to do more than bring Jesus to work. He is calling Christians to realize he is already there. As “little Christ’s” (i.e., Christians) we are to see him in our daily workspaces so that we might work to reflect his ever-present glory.
Indeed, for Paul, who at times worked in the marketplace to provide for himself, such service included far more than just making money for ministry or being a witness to co-workers—although both of those motives also exist. For Paul, working unto the Lord—whether as a slave or a master—was a call to do everything with an eye to the Lord, an awareness of his presence, and a passion to bring glory to God.
Such a motive should grip all of Christ’s followers today, too. Though the economic systems of the West are far different from first-century Ephesus, these inspired words abide the test of time. There continue to be occupations of authority and others of submission, and usually they are an admixture of the two. Thus, we can apply Paul’s words today, because they are centered on Christ and the calling of disciples to work as unto the Lord, by remembering his perfect presence and imitating his humble service to the Father’s glory.
To that end may we labor.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
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