Slavery: Freedom to Serve

The master … thrust the awl through my ear into the door, and I was his servant forever. So I won my Rachel. And was ever love like mine? – Ben Hur (1880)

In his novel, Lew Wallace (1827-1905) tells how the Jew Simonides is set free by his master – Ben-Hur’s father – after seven years of service in accordance with the Law of Moses (Exodus 21:2, Deuteronomy 15:12). He then serves for payment but eventually falls in love with the master’s slave Rachel. “Bond-servant forever,” Simonides says, “she gave me love for love, but was happy where she was, and refused her freedom. … She would be my wife … if I would become her fellow in servitude.” So, instead of remaining free, Simonides chooses to become a lifelong slave in order to marry Rachel. In accordance with the Law of Moses, then, Ben-Hur’s father “took me to the judges, and back to his door, and thrust the awl through my ear into the door, and I was his servant forever” (Exodus 21:5-6, Deuteronomy 15:16-17).

humility jesus christ wash disciples feetThe ceremony that Simonides endures for love is a biblical symbol of voluntary, lifelong obedience to God the Father. In his notes on Exodus 21, Matthew Henry explains that Jesus Christ “loved his Father, and his captive spouse, and the children that were given him, and would not go out free from his undertaking, but engaged to serve in it forever.” Therefore, David prophesied, “My ears you have opened” – with an awl – so that “I delight to do your will” (Psalm 40:6, 8; cf Hebrews 10:5-9).[1] Isaiah also prophesied that “the Lord God has opened my ear and I was not rebellious, nor did I turn away” (50:5).

He had become, for our sakes, the lifelong servant of God; He loved His spouse, the Church; He loved His dear sons, His children whom He foresaw when He looked through the future ages—and He would not go out free. Our insolvency had made us slaves, and Christ became a Servant in our place! … When he came to the waters of Baptism at Jordan and said, “Thus it becomes us to fulfill all righteousness,” then did He, as it were, go before the judges and say plainly that He loved the Master, whom He was bound to serve, loved His spouse, the Church, and loved her little ones, and would, for their sakes, be a Servant forever! – Charles Spurgeon[2]

jesus-carries-the-cross christSince “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve,” Jesus told his disciples that “whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-28). If Jesus, who “did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,” could stoop to save mankind by “taking the form of a bond-servant” and becoming “obedient to the point of death” on the cross, then who are we to refuse the same role (Isaiah 52:13, 53:11; Philippians 2:7-8)? God’s prophets, priests, kings, and apostles are always called “servants.” Israel was also given this sacred title (Isaiah 41:8-9; 44:21). Even angels are servants (Revelation 22:9). One day, the redeemed will “serve” Jesus “day and night in his temple” (7:15, 22:3). Therefore, we should “love our Master and his work and have our ears bored to his door-posts, as those who desire not to go out free from his service but to be found more and more free to it and in it” (Matthew Henry). “Well done, good and faithful servant” is a phrase we should long to hear (Matthew 25:21, 23).

Seeing the harsh reality of sex slavery and sweat shops, secular people today think that the servant portions of the Mosaic Law are cruel. In love with physical independence – the freedom to do what they want, when and where they choose – and wanting to serve themselves, these people ridicule the concept of slavery or service to another. They abhor the very words. Yet they don’t know that they’re slaves to sin and Satan, both cruel masters, and therefore cannot spiritually rule their own hearts, minds, and souls. These people also refuse to admit that the wild and lawless heart of man was made to be tamed by its master Jesus Christ, not free to roam at will.

Philemon slavery paulMost Christians are little better. They wrongly read Paul’s letters as cries of freedom to believing slaves. The opposite is true. Paul’s advice that we shouldn’t “become slaves of men” refers to sin, not a social status (1 Corinthians 7:23). Therefore, he says that those called while slaves should “remain” in that calling and “not be concerned about it” (7:21, 24). Since they are Christ’s “freedmen,” slaves should obey their masters “in all things” (7:22, Ephesians 6:5-8, Colossians 3:22). They should also seek freedom only through legal means – death or purchase; those like Onesimus who run away should return to their masters (Philemon 12). Paul didn’t believe in political and social rebellion, so his advice rendered the slavery question meaningless.

Will you not say, “Let my ear be bored to His service, just as His ear was dug for me”? – Charles Spurgeon[2]

The mark of an unrepentant sinner is pride; he or she craves a crown. The mark of a repentant saint is humility; he or she loves to serve. So, will we remain slaves to sin, or will we let Jesus Christ thrust a symbolic awl through our ears – an acceptance of spiritual freedom and a sign of lifelong service to the King of Kings? The choice is ours.


[1] New King James Version (NKJV), unless otherwise noted
[2] “The Ear Bored with an Awl,” Sermon 1174, (pdf)


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