Labor Relations (Ephesians 6:5-9)

Sermon by Daniel L. Sonnenberg | 2013-09-01


5 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.  9 Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9)


Moses prays God would cause their work endure, to last, to count for something even when they are gone. That is the hope and prayer of most of you in this room. You want your life to count for something. If you’re in school, you want to get through it to “get to the real work of your life, to follow your calling wherever it leads. If you are already working, you want your work to make a difference in the world, in people’s lives, somehow. If you’ve retired, you want to be able to look back and see that you made a difference, even a small one, to someone along the way. You’ve made the world a better place. Yet we are often frustrated in our desire to do so.

Why do we feel that way? “God ordained work from the beginning so that it is good. [Also], God commands mankind to fill and exercise dominion over the earth, but also to keep the garden. So we preserve creation even as we develop it (Gen. 1-2). But daily work is hard. We labor beside people who are incompetent, careless, and mean. (Doriani in booklet.) We suffer the effects of the fall. But the good news is that Christ’s work of redemption has reversed the effects so that by faith in him we are no longer in bondage to the ways of the world. We can work in the world as Christ worked, fulfilling our calling, and making a difference in right relationship with those around us. 

God ordained work in the beginning. He also ordained labor relations in the beginning. In ancient times, God prescribed in his Word how slaves and masters should relate to one another. Slaves were often integral members of the household. In the OT, if the head of the household converted to Judaism, all the sons and male were circumcised. In the NT, if the head of the household converted to Christianity, the whole household was baptized including any slaves that were part of the family. This passage neither condemns nor condones slavery in itself. Its purpose was to show believers how their new lives in Christ affected their most intimate relationships.

In modern times, passages like this tell Christians how employees and employers as well as students and teachers and others in similar relationships should relate to one another. Many of you spend 6 to 8 to 12 hours a day at school or at work. During the course of your life you will have many different school teachers. Some of you work as teachers, so you have many students. Most of you will have several or many different jobs with many different employers. Some of you will work as supervisors and bosses, so will have many different employees. These are important relationships to God because you spend so much time together. These people are, like slaves of ancient times, virtual members of your household. You may spend more time with them than with your own spouse and children. This is the final group with whom we are called to live according to Ephesians 5.21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” 

Instructions for employees and students

As to the Lord. First, bondservants or slaves are addressed. So we will apply these first verses to employees and students. The main verb here is OBEY, just as it is for children toward their parents in the previous verses. Employees and students, you are to obey your employers and teachers unless you are told to do something that contradicts God’s word. The key to doing so is found repeatedly in the first four verses. You are to obey and serve your employer as if you are obeying and serving Christ himself. Verse 5 – obey your earthly masters as you would Christ. Verse 6 – not as people-pleasers, but at as bondservants of Christ. Verse 7 – rendering service with a good will as to the Lord. Verse 8 – whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord. As a Christian, you obey Christ when you obey your teacher or boss. As a Christian, you can look past the faults of your teacher or supervisor or boss to the perfection of Christ. God’s sovereign plan has placed them and you in this position for now. You are to treat them as you would treat Christ if he was your teacher or boss.

This passage is primarily about how Christians should treat one another. But what if your teacher or boss is not a Christian? 1 Pet.(2:18-21) tells us,  18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.  …if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. You are to follow the example of Christ whether your teacher or boss is a Christian or not.

What does that look like? He spells it out. As a student or employee there are five ways you should obey your masters.

  1. Be respectful. 5 Obey your masters…with fear and trembling, …. (as you would to Christ. To fear and tremble before Christ is to demonstrate the utmost respect for him. You should respect your teacher’s or employer’s authority, knowing it comes from God.  Give respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Rom.13:7) Even during Jesus’ trial, he demonstrated respect for those who were unjustly accusing him.
  1. Be sincere. 5 obey your masters…with a sincere heart…(as you would to Christ). Put your heart in your work. Care about what your teacher or boss cares about. Be single-minded about needs to be done. Jesus was single-minded about doing God’s work. As a twelve year old he told his parents, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) As a grown man he said, “My father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5.17).
  1. Be conscientious. 6 obey your masters… Not the way of eye-service as people-pleasers… (but as bondservants of Christ). A conscientious person does their best work whether someone is watching or not. Their aim is to please God, not merely those who are looking over their shoulder. Jesus often went off to pray before it was light in order to receive guidance for the work of that day. No one saw except God. The disciples only realized it when they woke up and found him missing.
  1. Be a willing worker. 6b Doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will… (as to the Lord and not to man). Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He knew God’s will and he set about doing it willingly. Even in his darkest hour he said, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luk 22:42) Do your work willingly, even when it is difficult, depending on God for support.
  1. Be expectant. 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back… (from the Lord)… In spite of the trials he had to endure, Jesus expected God to reward him for his work. God promised through Isaiah, 11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied…I will divide him a portion with the many…because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors… (Isa.53:11-12) Likewise Jesus tells us to expect a reward for our work. “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance… For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” …whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:35-41) Jesus will bless the faithful. Most likely, your faithfulness will be seen in your work. There you apply your best skills, time and resources to serve others. And by serving others, you serve him. And he will reward you for it.

Instructions for employers and teachers

Second, and more briefly, masters are addressed. So we will apply these verses to employers, supervisors and teachers. There is one thing you should do, one thing you should not do and one thing you should know.

  1. Do unto others.  9 Masters, do the same to them… Treat your employees and students the same way you wish to be treated – respectfully, sincerely, conscientiously, willingly, and expectantly. At the last supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, saying, 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. (Jn.13:13-15) Be a good example to your students and employees even if it means humbling yourself in some way.
  1. Do not threaten.  …stop…threatening… As parents are not to provoke their children to anger, you should not abuse your position of authority by threatening. You should warn them of the natural consequences for disobedience. But constant or threatening reminders of those consequences either cause people to rebel or retreat. They will be more focused on their anger toward you or fear of you than on their work. So they won’t be productive students or employees. Jesus warned people of the consequences of persistent disobedience, but he didn’t threaten in order to persuade them. As in the case of the rich young ruler, he left the choice to them.
  1. Know you have the same master. …knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. This is the great equalizer between Christian students and teachers and between employees and employers. Both should understand they are of equal value in God’s sight. You both serve at the pleasure of God’s will. The only difference is that in that time and place, God has sovereignly ordained one to submit to the other. He could have done it the other way around. But we must trust that “God works all things together for good for those who are called according to HIS purpose.” (Rom 8.28). The Father ordained that the Son should suffer for the sins of man, but he did not force him to do so. As the Confession says, “The Lord Jesus undertook this office completely voluntarily.” And so should we voluntarily submit ourselves to those whom God has placed over us. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death– even death on a cross!  9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,  10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (2:5-11)

To God be the glory.

Categories: 2013, Ephesians, Ephesians: The Christian's Inheritance, Sermons

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