The Gospel Applied to Work (Ephesians 6:5-9)


We’ve been looking at the book of Ephesians for months now. Now we will explore the section of the book where Paul uses theology to guide our lives, specifically our work lives. This is so important because preachers like me often talk about a lot of things, most of which have to do with how to be a Christian on weeknights and weekends. Today, though, we’re going to see that the gospel applies to our vocations as employees, employers, students, and so on as well.

Now, if you’ve read this passage, you may be thinking, “What does this passage have to do with my work life?” It’s a fair question. It’s troubling, isn’t it, to read about slaves in this passage, especially since this passage doesn’t condemn slavery. But to really understand what’s going on here, we have to see what Paul is talking about, and how subversive this passage really is.

So let’s try to figure out what Paul is talking about here. It’s very difficult to read a passage about slavery because our minds immediately go to the African slave trade from the 17th to 19th centuries. In fact, people have taken this passage and others to justify the slave trade. But the slavery that Paul talks about is very different.On one hand, this type of slavery was still a bad thing. The slaves Paul talks about here did have limited rights, and they were subject to exploitation and abuse. They were perceived as mere possessions and were denied the recognition of their legal rights as individuals. But despite this, it was much better than our more modern form of slavery — which shows how things degraded over the centuries.The slavery that Paul talks about was much better than American slavery for four reasons:

  • It was non-racial.
  • It was temporary. Slaves could expect to be emancipated by the age of 30. You could save and buy your own freedom. Only a small number of slaves lived to old age. In fact, so many slaves were being freed that Caesar introduced restrictions. It was not the lifelong thing that it became later.
  • It involved different occupations. You could fill almost any role: civil services, medical care, teaching, accounting, business, domestic work, and agriculture.
  • It led to economic advancement. It was often a way of achieving Roman citizenship. It allowed you to obtain a position you couldn’t as a free person, and often enjoy a better standard of living.

If you walked down the street of Ephesus, you could not tell by looking at someone if they were a slave or not. When slaves became free, they often voluntarily chose to keep working for the same person. I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture here, but we do need to recognize that this was nothing like the slavery that developed later. What Paul writes here is much closer to employer-employee relationships than we often think.

Before we look at what Paul says, we need to deal with why Paul didn’t attack or overturn slavery. And it’s here that we see the utter brilliance of what he writes. Paul was writing to a small group of Christians who really had no hope of overturning something like slavery if they wanted to. And he was much more focused on telling them how they were to live tomorrow than he was about the big issues of society in that day. There were up to 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire. About 1 in 3 in Ephesus would have been slaves. Paul was writing to give them help in understanding how the gospel applies to their lives. He was more concerned with that in this letter than in solving the bigger issue, which wasn’t even a remote possibility at that point.

Yet what he wrote was so subversive that it did eventually lead to the elimination of slavery. You see, what Paul did here was put slaves and masters on equal footing. He relativized their position and overturned the common way of thinking. Here and in other places he addresses them as equal before Christ, valued members of the people of God. He says they have a higher allegiance than their own masters, that they didn’t really have to please their masters, but they had to please God. He instructs masters to treat them in a completely countercultural way. He gave them a reciprocal duty to their slaves.

Even though Paul doesn’t address the bigger societal issue of slavery here, what he writes is so subversive that it led to the elimination of slavery. This is why it was eventually Christians who led in overthrowing slavery. Slavery has been a fact of life throughout history in all cultures. It was as Christians absorbed the biblical teaching that they worked to end slavery, which contradicts biblical teaching.So although this passage isn’t about how to change society, following this passage did in fact change society. And it will continue to do so today as we apply it to a context that, in many ways, is very different.

So how do we apply this to our lives today? We can apply this passage, I think, to our vocations, our work lives. We are not in exactly the same situation as the people Paul wrote to. Our situation is probably better. And we can learn three things from what Paul says. First, how the gospel changes our view of work. Second, how the gospel changes our standards. Finally, how the gospel makes this possible.

First, let’s see what Paul says about how the gospel changes our view of work.

There are actually two very common views toward work, and Paul challenges them both in this passage.

The first view of work is that work is a necessary evil, that we have to work, but we should do as little as possible, and if we ever get a chance to escape work and live a life of leisure that we should take it. You see this view in this passage in verse 6, in which Paul says, “Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” The picture you have here is of someone who only works when the boss is looking, and who otherwise does as little as possible.

You may know the Greek myth of Pandora, the first woman, in the Greek myth, who ever lived. Zeus ordered that Pandora be created, and gave her a large jar that he told her not to open. But of course, her curiosity got the best of her, and she opened that jar, and out came evil and disease and work. The Greeks believed that work is part of what’s wrong with this world, especially manual labor, and that we should aim to do as little as possible. This attitude lives on today when we say we live for the weekends, when we complain about having to work, and when we dream of winning the lottery, so we can tell the boss – well, you know the rest. You may have thought or said it sometime.

If anyone should have such a negative view of work, it should be the slaves that Paul writes to. If anyone should hold this Greek view of work as a necessary evil, it should be these people. And yet Paul tells them that their work is holy, that their work in some way is doing the will of God. He says that their work – as slaves! – is in some sense service to the Lord, and will be evaluated by him. “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people,” he says (Ephesians 6:7).

Why does Paul say that work is holy? What Paul is saying here is that your profession, as a teacher, doctor, laborer, student, whatever – is part of your service to the Lord. You can serve God by cleaning or cooking or lawyering as much as any missionary or pastor, Paul says. Your vocation is holy. You can say that you are in the Lord’s service.

And you see, the reason why is that Scripture teaches us something completely different about work. Work isn’t part of the curse. Our work has been affected by the curse, but it isn’t part of the curse itself. Before sin corrupted this world, God gave Adam the responsibility to subdue the earth, have dominion over it, and be fruitful within it. This is part of what it means to bear the image of God.

That is why there is, within each of us, a desire to contribute and create, to order and to add value and meaning to what’s around us. This means our work is part of what it means to bear God’s image in this world. Every time we weed a garden, teach a child, sell a product that will benefit others, or bring order to a set of finances, we are doing our image-bearing work in this world. Your work isn’t a necessary evil. It’s holy and part of your service to the Lord. God has chosen us to care for and cultivate his creation. Martin Luther said, “God milks his cows by those farmers he has assigned to that task.” Our work is part of how God intends to care for and cultivate this world.

But some people go to the opposite extreme and get their meaning and identity from their work. Paul corrects those who devalue work, but he also corrects those of us who get too much meaning from our work and who define ourselves by our careers. The masters that Paul wrote to would have been tempted with feelings of superiority from their status as masters, just like today we get meaning from our place on the totem pole. When you’re above others, it’s tempting to see them as your inferiors and to treat them as means to an end.

But Paul says in verse 9: “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way.” This would have been shocking. The reasons why are twofold, in the rest of verse 9: “Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.” Paul tells us two things here, specifically to those of us who tend to overvalue our work:

  • First, no matter who we are or what our status is, we are all fellow-slaves of Jesus Christ. Our identity does not come from our vocation; it comes from the fact that we are servants of Jesus.
  • Second, God is completely impartial, and a higher social status or more prestigious position carries no weight with him. God is not as enamored with our resumes as we are.

This completely changes our view of work. You’ll sometimes hear pastors and missionaries say that they’re in full-time Christian service. That’s true, but if you ever hear a pastor or missionary say this, you need to say, “I am too.” When they ask what it is you do, then you can tell them your career. Whatever you do as a living is your full-time Christian service. Theologian Mike Wittmer says:

If we do our work as unto the Lord, then our work pleases God just as much as if we were preaching a sermon or evangelizing in a Third World nation. Whether we are a lawyer, engineer, entrepreneur, or janitor, we must recognize that our job, too, is a calling from God. (Heaven is a Place on Earth)

Do you see how the gospel changes our view of work? We won’t devalue our work, nor will we make work our idols. We’ll see it as important but not ultimate. We won’t hate work, but we won’t idolize work either. We’ll see our vocations as holy, as another way that we can serve God and others.

It also completely changes the way that we see others. No matter who you are and what job you have, we all tend to look down at those who have lesser jobs. But if we really understand a biblical view of vocation, we won’t be able to do this anymore – nor will we be intimidated by those with better jobs. The gospel changes our view of work.

But that’s not all.

The gospel also changes the standards for our work.

When you’re at school, you get report cards. When you get a job, you get performance reviews: 360 degree reviews and so on. But this passage tells us that our work is ultimately evaluated by God, because he is the one we are working for. Verses 7 and 8 say:

Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one of you for whatever good you do, whether you are slave or free.

Do you see what this does for a slave? He can look at his master and say, “I may work for you, but I’m not ultimately working for you. My real master is the Lord.” The ultimate performance review for our work will come to all regardless of what job we held, and we’ll all be judged by the same criteria.

What difference does this make? Verse 6 gives us a hint: “Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.”

When we work for people, then the quality of our work will depend on how much we think of those people. Has anyone here ever worked for a boss or company that wasn’t very good? I have. Our work for them won’t be very good either. When we work for people, we’ll work harder when they’re looking and not as hard when they’re away. But when we work for Christ, we will be working for one who is ultimately worthy of our best work, and who is always watching. That’s why Paul says that we’re to serve with respect and fear, with sincerity of heart, from the heart, wholeheartedly. It’s because we’re ultimately serving God in our work rather than people. You are not mowing lawns or building websites for clients; you are mowing lawns and building websites for God.

If we really worked this way, this alone would cause a lot of people to ask what it is that causes us to live this way. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said:

The Christian should always be the best in every department. I am not suggesting that the Christian is always the most able man of his group. He may not be; there may be others, who are not Christians, who are much abler…[But] the Christian should be ‘all out’, always industrious, always honest, always truthful, always reliable, always helpful, always trustworthy. That is what should always stand out in the Christian. You cannot give him new ability, or new propensities; but a Christian, however unintelligent he may be, can be an honest man, an upright man, a reliable man, a man who keeps good time, a trustworthy man, a truthful man, a man whose word is his bond—always, a man upon whom you can rely. And all this, because he is a Christian.

Paul tells us that the one who will judge us is God. “The Lord will reward each one of you for whatever good you do, whether you are slave or free” (Ephesians 6:8). “The homeliest service that we do in an honest calling,” said one puritan, “though it be to plow, or dig, if done in obedience, and conscience of God’s Commandment, is crowned with an ample reward” (Joseph Hall).

If you’ve been paying attention, I hope you’re a little overwhelmed. We’ve seen that the gospel changes our view of work: that it’s important but not ultimate. We’ve seen that the gospel gives us a new standard for work, and that from Monday to Friday we’re really working for God, and not others. But there’s one more thing that we need to see.

We need to see how the gospel makes this possible.

The only way we will ever be able to do what Paul says here is through the gospel. It’s easy to forget in chapter 6 that Paul is applying the gospel. The only way we will be able to keep the commands of Ephesians 4-6 is if we understand the gospel of Ephesians 1-3. This passage is part of how Paul says we apply the gospel to our lives as we are filled with the Spirit.

In other words, the only way we will be able to work in a way that pleases God is if we see Christ’s perfect work. The only way we’ll be freed from idolizing either our leisure or our performance is if we’re worshiping God through Christ. The Spirit will apply the gospel to our lives so that we will not only be able to live out what Paul describes; we will also want to. We can only live out what Paul says as we apply the gospel through the power of the Spirit to our lives.

What could take a group of slaves and help them see that their work was holy? Because they saw the ultimate servant, Jesus Christ, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). What would allow masters to treat slaves with unparalleled respect, humbling themselves to them and even calling them brother or sister? That they saw Jesus humble himself, to leave the riches of heaven and make himself of no reputation. Jesus is the ultimate servant and the ultimate example of love, and when we grasp what he has done, we will, with the Spirit’s help, see our work transformed through the power of the gospel.

Father, I pray that you would help us have a biblical view of work that sees our vocations as part of our Christian service, as what it means to serve you in this world. I pray that you would free us from devaluing work, and that you would also free us from idolizing our work. Help us to see our work as a way that we serve you.I pray that you would also change the standards for our work. May we work wholeheartedly and with sincerity of heart, knowing that the Lord will reward each one of us for whatever good we do, no matter what our job.

Most of all, help us see Jesus, who knew what it was to work with his hands, who knew what it was to become a servant, who was willing to serve others even to the point of death. I pray that Jesus’ gospel would become so real to us through the power of the Spirit that it will change the way we see work. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada