One of the ways Paul identifies himself in his letters is as the slave (doulos) of the Messiah. Many of his letters begin with “Paul, slave of Messiah Jesus” (Romans 1:1), or something similar. In Greek society such language was viewed with repugnance because it denied the essence of human autonomy. Conversely, Jewish thought reveled in the idea that a human being could become the “slave of God”, thereby entering into a relationship with the Sovereign Lord of creation. Paul’s Christian usage of the phrase “slave of the Messiah” fits well with Jewish thinking.
Jewish convention prevented human beings from speaking God’s personal name. In its place they used a term we would translate as “lord” or “master”. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, God’s name was regularly rendered by the noun “Lord” (kyrios), which in other settings would describe the owner of something or a ruler, someone who exercised control over someone or something. The one who owned a slave was a kyrios, i.e. master. So it was natural for Jewish people who knew that God was “Lord/Master” to describe their relationship to Him as slave (doulos). Often the worship of God was described as the actions of a slave (doulouein).
The Exodus experience of Israel was frequently described as release from the “house of slavery”. Language of redemption expressed how a slave would come to enjoy freedom. Paul builds on these ideas when he describes human bondage to sin as the fundamental human dilemma and the opportunity that Jesus brings for our redemption from this slavery. He can speak of our freedom in the Messiah, but this is not autonomy. It is rather the opportunity to relate to God as He intended, namely as God’s slave, fulfilling His will and experiencing the blessing that results. Christians are then slaves of the Messiah because he has bought us and emancipated us from Satan’s rule.
Paul works with this language in his letter to the Galatians. He begins by describing Jesus as “Lord” (1:3) who sacrifices himself “so that he might rescue us from this age, the present evil one” (1:4). Here we have the story of redemption. In vs. 10 he declares himself to be the “slave of the Messiah” and this means that he no longer “pleases human beings”. A fundamental change of loyalty has occurred that binds him to the service of the Messiah. Now, as the Messiah’s slave he “has been entrusted with the Gospel” (2:7).
In practical daily terms his slavery to the Messiah is only possible because “the Messiah lives in [him]” (2:20). The will of the Messiah finds expression in Paul’s words and deeds. Shifting to other metaphors he can say that he “has been immersed into Messiah” and “has put on Messiah” (3:27). In the deepest sense he belongs to the Messiah as his possession (3:29). God dignifies this relationship with the status of sonship (4:5-6). Like a newly conceived child, the Messiah is being formed in the believer (4:19).
God’s Spirit transmits the will of the Messiah to the believer. Through His power we act as slaves to one another through the exercise of love (agape) (5:13). So we “walk by Spirit” (5:16) and like soldiers on parade we “keep in step with the Spirit’s cadence” (5:25). As we live in obedience to the Spirit, we discover ourselves “fulfilling the law of the Messiah” (6:2).
Behind this wonderful cluster of ideas that Paul uses to explain the essence of our Christian experience lies, I would suggest, Isaiah’s description of God’s Suffering Servant. We know that Isaiah’s prophetic word is fulfilled in the work of Jesus. However, both Peter (1 Peter 2:21-25) and Paul conceive of their relationship with the Messiah and their mission in terms of this Isaiah figure. In terms of Galatians it is the Servant Song in Isaiah 49:1-6 that Paul interacts with most significantly. Consider the following linkages:
- God names this figure “my slave” (doulos) (Isaiah 49:3,5)
- God knows him “from my mother’s womb” (49:1) and is “the One Who formed me from the womb” (49:5). Cf. Galatians 1:15
- God ‘calls’ this person to be His slave (49:1). Cf. Galatians 1:15
- The servant wonders whether he has “laboured in vain” (49:4). Cf. Galatians 2:2; 4:11
- God receives glory through the actions of His servant (49:3,5). Cf. Galatians 1:24
- The servant will be “a light of the nations” and bring “salvation unto the end of the earth” (49:6). Cf. Galatians 1:16; 2:8.
It seems quite clear that Paul sees his own life purpose wrapped up in the work of God’s suffering servant. In this he truly is the disciple of Jesus Messiah, letting the Messiah’s purposes and values find full expression in his life.
What paradigm do you use to define your relationship to God and to motivate your service for Jesus? Do you see yourself as God’s representative or ambassador? Perhaps you think of yourself as God’s friend and assistant. Or perhaps you enjoy reflecting on your status as God’s son. Paul sometimes uses the metaphor of being God’s tool or instrument. There are many ways the Bible gives to help us see the full nature of our relationship with God. However, one analogy that needs to be at the centre is our role as the “slave of the Messiah”. Without this understanding firmly embedded in our minds we will probably become a little arrogant, a little presumptive, a little selfish in our walk with God. He is “Lord” and we need to affirm this daily.
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today:
- consider the benefit of being the slave of the Messiah, who loves you, rather than the slave of Satan, who seeks your destruction — and the cost of this redemption for the Messiah;
- try to discern how this reality of Messianic slavery is finding true expression in your personal life? In your ministry life? Does something need to change?
- recognize Who is in charge in your life and thank Him for His gracious inclusion of you in His plans.