Being A Slave Means Digesting the Sour
At my church, we talk about “Warhead Moments” studying the Bible1. The idea is that we want our Bible reading to be the spiritual equivalent of eating Skittles, or a Hershey’s Kiss: sweet and easy to swallow. When the reality is that if you truly read to comprehend, many passages will be like eating those Warhead candies that are shockingly sour on the outside. They are offensive to the taste. Disturbing even. You want to spit it out as a gut reaction. But, if you endure, you get to the sweet part in the middle.
The most recent Warhead moment I had was when studying for my very first Romans sermon of 2023. I had mapped out the whole book to preach over 48 Sundays this year, knowing there’d be about four special Sundays for other speakers and topics. January 1st would be the introduction and then on January 8 I would tackle the first seven verses of this famously mammoth letter of crucial Christian theology.
Except that first week, I struggled to get to seven verses because I couldn’t get past the first phrase of verse 1. Not the first verse, mind you–the first phrase.
Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus…Romans 1:1a
That wrecked me. Just that one phrase. Although I do confess knowing that he calls himself an “apostle of the Gospel” the next phrase only highlights the magnitude of him calling himself a “slave” first. Being a slave of Christ seemed to be more a heart identity than the honor of being an apostle of the greatest message in the history of the world2.
So, I ended up down a Bible rabbit hole studying just this concept as it is presented in other passages. Over and over and over again, I was wrecked. There were times I had to put the Bible down and just sit in silence and weep. And many of the passages I already knew! But that is very indicative of how God works. Sometimes, when you are expecting a Skittle, he gives you a Warhead.
Here are a few examples of what I am talking about:
First, Peter, Jude, and John all used the same identity marker in their New Testament books in chapter one, verse one. That is a powerful indication to me that this is how God wants all of his followers to see themselves. Foundationally even. Before I am a pastor or father or husband, I’m inclined to believe that God wants me to see myself as a slave of Christ. Those other identities matter. But these verses lead me to believe they are secondary to the most humbling, dependent, and weak identity of all.
Which leads me to another passage I found. One at my previous church we put on t-shirts we made for our Moving Team, people who volunteered the sweaty and backbreaking labor of helping others move their possessions to a new residence. It’s Luke 17:7-10:
“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”Luke 17:7-10
In a culture that thrives on social media applause, especially when we serve others or do something sacrificial, these verses hit me with all the subtly of a slammed door to the face. I’m tempted to want to spit them out, so to speak. But I cannot. The truth of how even when we serve humbly that it must not be out of a desire for attention or thanks or recognition, is rooted in our identity as slaves of Christ. Slaves do not get credit. They do not get thanks. They do not get photos on Facebook with hundreds of likes and comments and an avalanche of adoration and approval.
Is it normal to want thanks? Yes. Do we all need encouragement? Yes! The New Testament affirms that. But I think when we see these verses filtered through what Jesus taught in Mark 6 about praying, fasting, and giving to the poor so that only God sees, we find something far more important than human approval. We find the deepest meaning and purpose a human being could ever find–that God sees us3.
If we truly understood what that meant, effusive praise of others would become more and more vulgar to us. The good we do must be for his honor and glory because he alone deserves it. We are nothing without him and do not deserve an ounce of his glory and he will not share it with anyone4. But instead of this making us wretched, depressed, or self-deprecating, the opposite happens. We find our identity not in merely being a slave, but in Christ’s slave. The one God loves and approves of. And that is enough!
This always makes me think of Joseph in Genesis after he was sold to Egypt. He was an immigrant slave, and ultimately a prisoner. The lowest dreg of society, with zero dignity. Yet the refrain was always that the Lord was with him and showed him kindness5. Was that enough for him to be spiritually healthy and to keep doing good, to not lose heart, and even be successful in Potiphar’s eyes? Yes! The narrative proves it.
It also reminds me of how God describes Christ as a servant in Isaiah 42:1:
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights…”Isaiah 42:1a
The verse describes Jesus as a lowly servant6 but also says that God upholds him, has chosen him, and delights in him. That is a powerful testimony of an identity the world rejects, but God doesn’t. If God upholds me, has chosen me, and delights in me in his very soul, what else in the world could there be for me? At least as far as my heart identity?
Lastly, the story of how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet in John 13, as the lowest slave would, washing human and animal waste off of them, is jarring on this topic. Because it shows that Christ set the example for us. Here was the God of the universe, who created things the most brilliant astronomers of all time can’t fathom, getting down on his hands and knees in the most humiliating position of all. And as many teachers, like my friend Joshua Colson, have pointed out, the fact he did this for Judas is the most undignified action of all7.
This Jesus, just hours before his agonizingly painful and even more humiliating death, is the one we are told to have the same mind as by Paul in Philippians 2. It’s not just that we are to be slaves in identity and action–it’s that we are doing exactly what our God in the flesh did already. If he was not above it, how could we be?
So, I close by asking, what is your heart identity? How much do you value dignity and the approval of others? How much do you really believe that if God sees what you do, it matters so much less that anyone else does? Will we find these truths so offensive we spit them out, or will we wrestle with them and let them wreck us so then we can get to the sweet center of finding our identity in being God’s slave that he delights in, upholds, and has chosen?
May the truth of God’s Word transform how we think and live in this regard.
- I got this concept from reading “Reframation: Seeing God, People and Mission Through Reenchanted Frames,” a book authored by Alan Hirsch and Mark Nelson, recommended to me by Rambling Ever On contributor Daniel Speer. I in turn recommend the book. ↩
- I do not desire to sidetrack from the overall point of this article by getting bogged down in whether the best translation of “δουλοσ” in Romans 1:1 and similar passages is “slave” or “servant”. I have read the ESV preface and other similar explanations for why translators opt for “servant” over the more connotation-riddled (because of American history), “slave”. But I still find other reasons for using “slave” more convincing and so I use it. Not for shock value, but because that is what the word means. I offer both an article written by Sam Storms and a book by J. Murray Harris for further reading as to why I have chosen to use this word, even though it may not be as politically correct and could be offensive to some. The only thing I will say about it in way of explanation is that Paul and other Jewish New Testament writers had cruel slavery in their ancestral past, notably in Exodus 5, yet they did not use words that are actually closer to “servant” in English. They chose “slave,” and developed a theology of how God has bought us and owns us (1 Corinthians 6-7), so this is by far the best word for our relationship with him, at least in these contexts. No doubt we are God’s children as well and in other contexts that should be highlighted. ↩
- This will always make me think of two other times this truth has impacted me deeply. One is when I understood the story of Hagar in Genesis 16. That after God looked after her and took care of her after she ran away from Sarah, she called God “The God Who Sees”. And God told her to name her son “Ishmael,” which means “The God Who Hears”. God sees and hears us, especially when we are in the most helpless and pitiful circumstances. And secondly, my former pastor and mentor David Potete has mentioned how he was brought to tears during a scene in The Chosen where Jesus tells Peter’s wife, Eden, “I see you”. Because ministry wives are so often overlooked. But never by God. I am shedding tears on my laptop even as I type this. ↩
- Isaiah 42:8, 48:11 ↩
- Genesis 39:2, 21-23 ↩
- Note that in this case, the word better translated as “servant” in Hebrew as well as Matthew 12:18 in Greek (where it is cited), is used. Yet Christ was still very much of a slave mindset when he was on earth and so I think the verse applies. ↩
- www.helwyssocietyforum.com/god-in-the-form-of-a-slave-humility-incarnation-and-feet-washing/ ↩
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