A Slave by Choice
The world is currently obsessed with ancestry. There are online resources that allow us to map our family back generations. We can take DNA tests that were once the stuff of science fiction just to show our genetic relatives. We love exploring who we are related to. Many of us take great pride when research reveals we are distant relatives of a great figure from history. The identification as being the distant cousin of William the Conqueror is worn with great distinction. “I am special because I am related to them” is the subtle statement. We instinctively look to our family connections to define us to some extent, but should this be so for Christians?
James was the brother of Jesus. One cannot get a better connection to royalty in the world. He literally likely shared a room with the Eternal God! He was intimately familiar with the Lord. He knew Jesus all of his life. He likely played games with and tricks on the King of Kings in the way that only brothers can. He had a close relationship with Jesus as his blood sibling. Yet, a fascinating thing occurs when James introduces himself at the beginning of the Book that bears his name. He simply says:
James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
He is a brother by birth. He does not even mention that relationship. He chooses “bondservant” instead. We tend to glorify this title as Christians. It is a type of slave in the ancient world. James identifies as a slave of Jesus Christ by choice. This is not just an expression of humility by James. Rather, it is a statement of tremendous importance.
This may seem surprising. Why would anyone choose to call themselves a slave? Our confusion is compounded when we examine the Bible further. Paul, Timothy, Peter, and Jude (another half brother) all refer to themselves by the same term – bondservant. Abraham, Joshua, David, and Isaiah are referred to with a similar term. Bondservants and slaves, descriptions that are abhorrent to us now defined some of the greatest men in history. What are we missing?
Service by Choice…like Jesus
As much 30 percent of the Roman population were slaves and many more had been slaves earlier in life. It was a hard life. Many died working in dangerous professions or at the whims of their cruel masters. This was not the bondage the disciples had in mind when claiming their title.
Rather, in the life of Israel, if a person of Jewish descent fell on hard times he was free to sell himself into a sort of indentured servitude. It was slavery for a limited time. A person sold themselves for a time to pay off debts or to avoid outright starvation. They would live as a possession of the buyer. The worker would receive room and board as a member of the household but also work for the master for a period. It was not final and there were rules governing how these workers were treated.
Set Free to Serve
It is at the conclusion of this indentured servitude that the position of bondservant comes into play. The man who had been forced into slavery by life is now a free man. His time required to repay the debt is complete. He is then offered a choice. If he has grown to love His master and His master’s household, the former slave can choose to continue to serve in that family. He returns to a position of service, but it is a free will decision motivated by the goodness of the Master. He also gets all of the benefits of the household. His master’s house is his house. His master’s goods are his to use. With a good master, the servant is fed, warm, protected and taken care of in life. It is so much better to serve a loving and awesome master than face the pain, struggle and sorrow of the world on our own. Yes, it is totally dependent on the will of the Master, but this is why there is a choice involved.
Jesus Himself has all of the power in the world. He is free to make His own way. Jesus could have chosen to do what He wanted. He could have avoided the hard things that occurred in His life on earth. Instead, He willingly chose to be a servant.
This is the meaning of bondservant. A freeman who chooses to serve a Master after experiencing the greatness of that Master.
This is the heart of the great men’s description of themselves as bondservants. They all tried life on their own. They all failed and ended up in bondage – spiritual and sometimes physical. Jesus bought their freedom with His life on the Cross. Once they were set free there was nothing more important than continuing to serve Jesus. He is the perfect Master. He will take care of the food, preparations, plans, and power. His servants just follow along and do what they are told.
It is clear exchange of infinite value for very little. Freely submitting our will to Jesus opens up the riches of the Lord’s household in our lives. He is the Greatest Master. We can trust Him to take care of us and reward us openly.
Freely You Have Received
Jesus never forces our service. Servanthood, as modeled by Jesus, is a free will choice. It is a decision to give up our rights and work for the interests of others. It is the choice to be a bondservant for life. The motivation for this service is love. It must start with an understanding of who Jesus really is and a desire to serve Him. From this service, giving our very little to God, we reap a hige harvest. We have a reward that we could never get for ourselves – joy, power, eternal rewards, and peace that are impossible to obtain elsewhere. It is the greatest deal in history. Our loves that were leading to destruction in exchange for a place in the eternal household of God.
Have we found ourselves working really hard for others but filled with resentment? Are we grumbling and angry while claiming to serve in Jesus. We may want to check how we got the job we are doing.
Was it a choice out of love or did someone take us captive?
Only service flowing from the love of the Lord matters in the Kingdom of God.
Only freely given service flowing from the love of the Lord matters in the Kingdom of God. The rest is just servitude.