The Lord's Day Morning
October 10, 2004
I Timothy 6:1-2
“Doctrine and Practice as Witness”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to I Timothy, chapter six. We’re working our way through the pastoral letters of Paul: I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus; letters which Paul wrote to two faithful servants of the Lord ministering in local congregations of Christians. And he wrote these letters to these faithful servants of the Lord in order to show them what church was supposed to be like. He wanted to give them the priorities for healthy local church life and ministry. And we've seen various aspects of God's direction for local church life and ministry so far, as we've studied through the Book of I Timothy.
Last week we looked at I Timothy 5 and what it has to say about elders, and about mutual accountability and discipline amongst the elders of the church. In fact, if you look at the whole of I Timothy 5, it's dealing with different groups in the church, beginning with widows and the church's responsibility to them, and their responsibility in the life of the congregation; and then dealing with elders, beginning in verse 17, and their responsibilities to one another and to the Lord, as well as to the congregation. And so Paul has been addressing different groups within the church.
And in the passage we're going to read today he turns his attention to yet another group. Now, as we begin to read you may be tempted to think, “This passage has absolutely nothing to say to me, because we don't have anyone in this congregation that fits into the category that Paul is about to address. The group that Paul is addressing in the Ephesian church does not exist at First Presbyterian Church.” So, you may be tempted to say then, “Well, this passage doesn't have anything to say to me.” Or you may say, “Well, I'm going to have to transpose what this passage says to this group of people to my relationship to my employer,” and there might be some legitimacy in doing that. But I want to suggest that what we in fact learn from this passage is deeper and more profound than that. I think there are two principles that are universally applicable for Christians that are learned from these important two small verses in I Timothy 6, verses one and two.
Let me just outline for you the passage so that you will be ready to look for where we're going to be going. First of all, I want you to notice who Paul speaks to. Secondly, I want you to notice the surprising thing that he says to them to do. And then thirdly, I want you to notice why he tells them to do what he tells them to do. Because it's from that last portion, the “why”–and there's one “why” in verse one, and there's another “why” in verse two. It's from the “why” that the two great principles for all of us are discovered. Let's look to God in prayer before we read and hear His word proclaimed. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, we acknowledge that this is Your word. You are true and faithful, and so Your words are true and faithful. But they’re not only true, they are applicable; they are practical; they are meant to change our lives; they are meant to be a lamp to our feet and a light to our way. So, by Your Spirit, open our eyes to understand Your word, and by that same Spirit cause our hearts to walk in the truth of that word in our lives. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear God's word:
“Let all who are under the yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine may not be spoken against. And let those who have believers as their masters not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but let them serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.
I. Paul is giving directions here relating to the Christian conduct of believing slaves.
Paul, in this passage, is giving directions to Christian slaves regarding their attitude toward and work for their masters, whether they’re working for pagan masters or for fellow believers. And I want you to look at this passage closely and see how God speaks to you by the principle of His word.
First, look at the group to whom Paul is speaking. He's giving directions here relating to the Christian conduct of believers who happen to be slaves. “All who are under the yoke as slaves….” You may not know it, but it was said, and has been said for many years, that perhaps a third of the Roman Empire was constituted of slaves. A third of the city of Rome was made up by slaves. And Paul regularly took time to address Christians who were slaves, because there were many Christians who were slaves in the churches. You remember how he opens the letter of I Corinthians speaking of the fact that there were not many rich or powerful or wise in the congregation in Corinth. No, they were those who were looked down upon by the world. They were weak and powerless in comparison to those who were in influential positions in society. And many of them would have been in this same state as members of the congregation in Ephesus.
And so Paul deals with these Christians who are slaves out of a pastoral awareness of their situation. He knows that to be a slave brought specific challenges to the Christian life. And so he pauses frequently in his writings to speak to Christians who are in the condition of slavery.
I should say in passing that that reminds us that all of us have different conditions and circumstances in life that impact our service of the Lord, our walk with the Lord, our love for the Lord. And we should be concerned to pray for one another in those different conditions and circumstances, that we would be faithful to the Lord. We should be concerned for one another.
And that reminds us as well that we need to continue to be concerned for Christians who are experiencing slavery in our own time. Thousands and thousands, and tens of thousands of Christians are under the yoke of slavery in the Sudan and elsewhere around the world. We as Christians, just like Paul, should be concerned for their conduct as Christians in the midst of that hardship. So that's the first thing. Paul is speaking to slaves.
II. Paul calls on Christians who are burdened with the yoke of slavery to honor their masters.
Secondly, notice what he says. It may surprise you. Paul says in verse one, “all who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor….” Now, does that surprise you? Does that shock you? Were you expecting Paul to call for the liberation of slaves? Were you expecting Paul to make a “Christian Emancipation Proclamation,” to inveigh against the evils of Greco-Roman slavery? And let me say, the evils of Greco-Roman slavery were many! This was not a happy life.
But Paul surprises you, doesn't he? He doesn't call for emancipation; instead, he gives instructions to Christian slaves to follow in whatever context they find themselves. Now what do you make of that? That offends our modern sensibilities. We’re expecting the New Testament to speak out against this horrible condition, this social evil. How do we explain this?
Well, first of all, let me note that Paul elsewhere makes it clear that if a Christian who is a slave has an opportunity to become free, he ought to take it. In other words, Paul recognizes that slavery is not a condition that it is desirable to be in. To mitigate some of the difficulties and hardships that are entailed in slavery, even as he speaks to the master, Philemon, about the runaway slave, Onesimus.
Secondly, in the book of Philemon, notice how Paul works to mitigate slavery.
Thirdly, notice that Paul does not ground his teaching on how a Christian ought to respond in the condition of slavery in the positive teaching of God's moral law or in the creation ordinances. Let me contrast for you, for instance, how Paul treats marriage and family with how he treats slavery.
Turn with me to Ephesians 5, and let your eyes fall upon verse 31. And in Ephesians 5:31, Paul is giving the biblical reason why husbands ought to love their wives sacrificially, and why wives ought to respect their husbands, even as the Lord. And he says in Ephesians 5:31 that the reason for this is:
“For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh.”
In other words, Paul is grounding his instruction on husbands’ and wives’ relationship to one another in the bonds of marriage in–what?–in how God created marriage originally in the state of perfection in the Garden of Eden. In other words, God's ordinance in creation in Genesis 2–where this quote comes from–is to be determinative for how Christian wives and Christian husbands relate to one another. In other words, he's giving a positive grounding for the way we relate to one another as man and wife in God's creational order.
Now, let your eyes look down further on the page to Ephesians 6:1. Here Paul says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Now, what is Paul's reasoning? Look at verse two: “Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth.” Paul goes to the Fifth Commandment. Paul says, ‘This is the reason, children, that you are to obey your parents: because God has said that it is right to do so, in His moral law.’
So in both Paul's teaching on marriage and his teaching in parenting, he grounds our obligation to relate to one another in a specific way, or to obey our parents, or to respect one another or to love our wives, in God's original creation order and in God's moral law–the Ten Commandments.
But here, if you look back over at I Timothy 6, you will note that Paul does not ground his teaching in the creation order or in the moral law. And that is because slavery is an institution of a fallen world, and the Bible mitigates, constrains, and attempts to mark out proper actions within the bounds of the relationship of slavery, but it does not condone it or sanction it, or argue that slavery is somehow the way it ought to be.
For instance, if you look at Exodus 20-21, as God begins to give the civil law to Israel, in the midst of those civil laws, beginning in Exodus 21:1, He gives laws on slavery. And all of those laws, by and large, are requirements on masters treating their slaves well. In other words, Moses’ law is designed to mitigate the state of slavery. Paul does the same thing in Philemon, as he attempts to mitigate Onesimus’ situation with slavery. So he doesn't ground slavery in the creation ordinances or the moral law; no, slavery is an institution of a fallen world that the Old Testament and New Testament teaching manages rather than condones.
And yet, he says to Christians who are burdened with the yoke of slavery to honor their masters. Why? Well, Paul tells you why in verse one. Look at what he says: “Regard your own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and our doctrine may not be spoken against.” In other words, Paul gives an evangelistic reason for Christian slaves’ behavior. Paul tells the Christian slave that his conduct has implications for God's reputation and God's glory, and the credibility of the truth of the gospel. And so Paul expects Christian slaves to so care about their witness to God and to the truth of Christianity that they bear witness in their service and attitude, even though they are in a dreadful personal condition.
Now, this is absolutely phenomenal. Paul is reminding us that Christ has freed us to serve Him. And the service of Christ is true freedom, but that freedom Christ gives us enables us to die to ourselves and to our desires for special treatment, and to live for Christ. And so he is ready to say to these Christian slaves, ‘Whether you have a pagan master or whether you have a believing master, here's what I want you to do: I want you to live in such a way that brings honor to the name and reputation and glory and gospel of God.’
III. Paul gives an evangelistic and apologetic reason for the Christian slaves behavior.
Now, my friends, I want to suggest to you that that counsel has two staggering implications for you and me. None of us are slaves, at least not in the way that these people were slaves. Some of us may be slaves to death; some of us may be slaves to opinion; some of us may be slaves to popularity; some of us may be slaves to other things. But none of us are slaves in this way. We are all in positions of privilege and power relative to these dear brothers and sisters, and yet the principles that Paul sets forth for them speak even more so to us.
Here is the first principle. Based upon Paul's command to the Christian slave to live so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against, we see this principle: Christians are to fulfill our calling with a view to defending the name of God and the gospel, and to commending the name of God and the gospel.
When Paul tells these slaves, “Regard your masters for the sake of God and the truth of Christ,” he's calling all of us in our vocations to do what we do with a view to causing regard for the name of God and the truth of Christ. Paul is saying, ‘Don't let your lamentable status blind you to your kingdom responsibilities.’ And especially since most of us don't share in this lamentable status, it is especially important for us in our vocations to honor God in how we live.
Isn't it a shame that so often Christians are looked upon by the community around us as not fulfilling the highest standards in our employment and in our vocation? And Paul is saying, do nothing in the way you work for pagans that would besmirch the reputation of God and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, if he can say that to slaves, how much more does that apply to us, friends?
I was at a conference yesterday, and a man quoted a story from Sergei Kourdakov's book, The Persecutor. You've heard of Kourdakov, a Russian intelligence and naval officer who defected in 1971 to Canada, and then told his story. He was killed two years later, perhaps by the Russian secret police. But he was converted to Christ during that time, and he wrote in his book The Persecutor the story of how he and his special police unit were assigned to attempt to break up Christian churches and to discourage Christianity.
And he tells the story of his fellows coming into a church gathering in a home one day, and seeing a beautiful young woman named Natasha. One of his colleagues picked Natasha up above his head and flung her against the wall, so that she was knocked unconscious. Three days later they went into another Christian setting, and guess who they saw?–this beautiful young woman, Natasha. Being flung against a wall and knocked unconscious had not fazed her in the least. She was right back there where she was supposed to be, worshiping the Lord.
At this time, they stripped her naked, and they beat her until the flesh began to fall off of her body. She bit through her lip in order to contain herself in the midst of this beating. A few days later they went into another Christian setting, and guess who they saw? Natasha! This time, when one of Kourdakov's men moved towards her with a club to kill her, another of Kourdakov's colleagues stepped in front, and said, “No. You don't touch this girl.” Kourdakov, when he came to Christ, wrote a letter to Natasha, whom he never saw again, and simply said, “Thank you, Natasha. You showed me what the gospel does for a human heart.”
Now, she was faithful in her calling. She was where she was supposed to be. She was mistreated for her calling, and her calling was used to witness for the gospel of Christ. If she, in that horrendous circumstance, can do that, how much more should we do that in our callings? We are to bear witness to the gospel of Christ in the way that we live. The way that we live either commends the gospel, or it undermines the gospel.
And so, Paul is saying Christians are to fulfill our callings with a view to defending and commending the name of God and the gospel.
But secondly, and you’ll see this especially in verse two, he says that Christians are not to use our Christian profession as an excuse for less exemplary service of other Christians. Look at what he says: “…serve them [that is, Christians] all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved.” In other words, he's saying to these Christian slaves, regard your Christian masters all the more because they’re fellow believers. You know, the logic might have been this: we've been freed in Christ; there's no longer slave or free in Christ; therefore, I'm really not obligated to serve this fellow-Christian as a slave, because we're both free in Christ. And Paul says, wrong logic. Being a brother and sister in Christ does not free me from my obligations to serve to the best of my ability those who are fellow believers.
In other words, Paul is telling us, don't use your equality in Christ as an excuse for sloppy service. And that's an enormously important message. I've told you before the story of Richard Halverson, the former Chaplain of the United States Senate, and the man who owned a series of area car dealerships in the Washington, DC, area. He wanted to witness to Christ. He thought of having his salesmen hand out tracts, and even New Testaments to all those who came into the shop. But he was notorious as a bad businessman. He didn't stand behind his product. He came to Halverson and he said, “Wouldn't this be a great idea, to give out tracts and New Testaments?” And Halverson said, “That's a wonderful idea, but you know what a better idea would be? Treat your customers right. Be an upstanding businessman. Stand behind your product. Honor your warranties. Don't sell lemons.”
My friends, the greatest barriers to our gospel witness in this congregation to our community are our lives. Our lives will either commend the truth or undermine it. People will either say, ‘You know, that woman, what she believes is immediately credible to me because of the way that she lives.’ Or, they will say, ‘You know, I wouldn't want to believe anything that that person believes, because I know how he lives.’ May God grant that we would live in such a way as to adorn the gospel and bear witness to Jesus Christ. Let's pray.
Lord God, hear our prayers. Change us by the gospel. Make us good witnesses in our lives to unbelievers. And Lord God, as we serve one another, grant that we would do it with all our heart, knowing that we're serving fellow believers. What a privilege! And bear witness to Yourself and to Your power, and to Your grace in this. We ask it for the glory of Christ. Amen.