There is a word in Scripture that is critical in demonstrating to us the true nature of the Christian’s identity. This word does not just explain one aspect of godly living or merely nudge open the door to understanding. Rather, it throws the door wide open and even though the implications of the word are offensive to man’s natural inclinations, it reveals the entire way of life for a true believer.
The word is the Greek word, doulos which literally means “slave”.
The true English meaning of this word has been obscured and even lost in many translations of the Bible. We find a good example of this in Matthew 6:24:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Doulos is the word that appears in the original language, yet here it has been translated “serve” in English. However, “serve” does not adequately convey the intent of these words. Jesus is not just saying that a man cannot serve two different masters; he is saying that it is impossible for a man to be enslaved to two different masters.
The significance of Christ’s words have been lost to us because in our culture, it is possible to serve two masters. We all know individuals who have more than one job. They have a day job and an evening job; they go to their first job and serve a master, and in the evening they go to their second job and serve a master there. We all juggle allegiances to multiple entities – family, extended family, government, occupation, heritage and much more. In our modern minds, we serve different masters all the time.
However, one could not and cannot be enslaved to two different masters – especially within the ancient understanding of slavery. According to Roman law, a slave could only be owned by one person at a time. In fact, slave ownership was governed by documents similar to our title documents today. The ownership document listed the name of the slave and the name of the owner of that slave. Slaves could be sold to a different master, but they were only possessed and purchased by one master at a time.
This understanding makes perfect sense in the context of what Jesus is saying in Matthew 6:24. Only one master can own a slave and his service at a time. Therefore, the relationship between Christ and the believer is distinctly different from that of just a servant. We are not just servants to Christ, we are slaves.
Lost in translation
To truly appreciate just how much this word doulos has fallen out of our modern translations, consider the following:
Doulos is found 168 times in 156 verses in both nominative and verbal forms throughout the New Testament. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is better than most as it translates a good portion of these as “slave” or some derivative of that word. However, even in the NASB, there are places where doulos appears in the underlying Greek text and yet the word is rendered “servant”, “bond-servant” or “to serve”. As quoted above, Matthew 6:24 is a perfect example of the softening of the word doulos. Here are some other places in Scripture where translation has affected the true description of the relationship of the believer to Christ:
Romans 1:1: “Paul, a bondservant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.” The original text reads, “Paul, a doulos…” So what does it literally say? How does Paul identify himself? He says that he is a slave – not a servant – of Christ Jesus.
Philippians 1:1: “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons.” Here Paul speaks not only for himself but also for Timothy and again the word is doulos! Paul says, “This is my identity: I am a slave. This is Timothy’s identity: he is a slave.”
2 Peter 1:1: “Simon Peter, a bondservant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” The term is doulos, but here it is translated, “bondservant”.
Revelation 1:1: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John.” The text does not say bond-servants and bond-servant, but rather slaves and slave.
Since most other popular English translations do an even worse job of translating doulos, the word has truly been lost in translation, along with the true identity of a Christian. If you are a true believer, a true follower of Christ, your entire existence is summarized in one word: SLAVE.
The stigma of slavery
The most prominent reason for watering down the true meaning of these texts is obvious. The negative connotations and stigma associated with slavery are overwhelming to western culture – especially in the United States. We look back at our past and rightly view slavery in the United States as an evil thing. But to say that slavery is wicked in every possible form is a mistake. The Bible simply does not always see slavery as bad.
In fact, slavery is not universally portrayed as cruel in Scripture – unless you believe that God is cruel. Revelation 22:3-6 explicitly says that we will be doulos, slaves for Christ in heaven for eternity. As we have just shown, being a Christian means being a slave in this life. This slavery is not bad, cruel or evil. In fact, a true believer will actually desire slavery. Christians are slaves now and will be enslaved to our God for all eternity.
However, slavery to Christ is not the opposite of freedom. Instead, true freedom is learning to be happy as a slave to God. For the first time, the new believer is free to do righteousness. Romans 6:6-7: “. . . our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.” 1 Peter 2:16 commands us to “act as free men” and use our freedom in order to be “bond slaves of God”.
Through the process that God has started in the heart of every believer, we become like the slave in Deuteronomy 15 who loves his master so much that he wants to become a permanent resident in his master’s house. Through a ritual prescribed in Mosaic Law, that desire could be fulfilled:
. . . if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he fares well with you; then you shall take an awl and pierce it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever. Deuteronomy 15:16,17
The psalmist who desired to “dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:6) expressed a similar kind of love for his Lord and Master. he too desired permanent slavery as the means to true freedom and happiness. Again, we can become that kind of slave through the power of God. If we are a true believer, God changes our heart and we become the slave who loves his master so much that he will never leave.
So, the question is, are you that kind of person? Do you want to be His loving, enduring and permanent slave in His house forever? Do you spend your life trying to learn all “goodness and righteousness and truth” (Ephesians 5:9)? Are you like that soldier who does not engage in the affairs of everyday life but instead lives his life to please the One who has purchased him out of the bondage to this world?
The true believer IS that kind of a person. The Apostle Paul taught that ownership is revealed by the one to whom you are devoted (Romans 6:16). We must know exactly how a slave of Christ behaves. If we do not learn about our identity as a slave, we will not function in a way that is pleasing to Him. Instead of hearing, “well done thou good and faithful servant [doulos] . . . enter into the joy of your Master” on the Day of Judgment, we will instead hear: “you wicked and evil slave” and be thrown into “outer darkness” in that place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:14-30).