Ephesians 6:5–8, “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.”

When I read these sections of Ephesians, I’m tempted to skip verses that don’t seem to apply to me. I’m a wife, but obviously not a husband. I’m a mother, not a father—but I’ll listen in on what Paul is telling fathers. And these verses about slaves and masters sound like antiquated instructions to the first-century church without relevance to 21st-century readers. If you feel the same way, I’d encourage us both to reconsider.

Paul’s discussion of bondservants and masters might cause this passage to sound irrelevant or even offensive to our modern ears. The Greek word doulos is translated in different translations and different places in the Bible as bondservant, slave, or servant. Regardless of the word used, we need to remember that slavery at that time was very different from our American history of slavery.

The Bible does not condone kidnapping, possessing people as property, or enslaving others ( Exodus 21:16 and 1 Timothy 1:10). Using Paul’s instructions to ignore or even perpetrate injustice is contrary to God’s Word. Paul’s goal in this letter to the Ephesians is not to condemn cultural evils. He’s giving instructions to church members regarding how to live as redeemed followers of Christ.

So as we study these verses, we see how we are to live as servants of Christ and one another. Yes, these verses address bondservants (or slaves) in the first-century church at Ephesus. But they also describe our Lord Jesus Christ, who “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This passage can encourage us as we grow in conformity to His revealed character.

How We Serve

Paul encourages us to obey those in authority with sincerity and trust the Lord to reward us even if man doesn’t. He exhorts us to serve with “a good will as to the Lord and not to man” (Ephesians 6:7). Whether we serve a boss, our family, or our community, we are serving Christ in all we do.

Imagine if Jesus were the one asking you to work overtime, wash His dirty dishes, or bring Him another cup of water at bedtime. We would be honored to serve Him. And Paul is saying we should serve others in the same way. Remembering that Christ laid down His life for us, we seek to glorify Him by laying down our life in loving service to others.

Why We Serve

Several years ago, when my kids were very young, a friend lived with us for a few weeks. It was the closest to perfect parenting that my children ever experienced. I was patient and kind. I never lost my temper. I served my family with a smile—all because someone else was watching. One day, my friend watched me care for my toddler and said, “You’re such a wonderful mom!” I had to admit to her, “It’s only because you’re here.”

Paul knows we will be tempted to serve “by the way of eye-service” (Ephesians 6:6). It was a good thing that I loved my family well while my friend watched. But I should also seek to serve my family sacrificially when no one is watching. In private moments, I should serve to glorify God. In public moments, I should serve to glorify God. In all situations, I should serve to exalt the Lord, not myself.

The One We Serve

Throughout his letters, Paul frequently describes himself as a servant of Christ (Romans 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:1). As servants of Christ, we can submit to the authorities in our lives, both just and unjust (1 Peter 2:18). We aren’t just serving men; we are serving Christ.

Our Lord and Savior is a good and gracious Master. By His mercy, He gives us the wages that He earned on our behalf (Romans 6:23). We are no longer slaves to sin but called to be slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:16-19).

Ultimately, this passage should point us to our Lord Jesus Christ, who came as a servant. He served with a sincere heart and did the will of God in perfect obedience to the Father. He served for the glory of God, not to impress men. He served as an example to us, and He served perfectly in our place. As those who have been redeemed and adopted by the blood of Jesus, we now have the privilege of serving our Savior by serving others.