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Paul and Timothy in the Book of Philippians (Part Five)

Posted on February 13, 2013 at 10:45 PM Comments comments (93)
“Paul and Timothy, Servants of Jesus Christ…”  Philippians 1:1  

In the Journal last week, I proposed and argued extensively with biblical evidence, that Christians are slaves to Jesus Christ, the King of kings. I believe this is a position of honor.  This week, I’ll discuss the Old Testament use of slave and servant and its translation in the New Testament.  My objective is to show that translators could have used the appropriate Hebrew or Greek word(s) for servant instead of rendering slave for servant.  

First, Slave and Servant in the Old Testament:  The Hebrew word for slave is ”ebed.”  It literally means one who does not exercise his own will or rights, and is personally owned by another person as a property. A slave has neither legal rights nor the ability to make personal choices in some ancient societies. But in the Sumerian society, slaves had legal rights, could borrow money, and could engage in business.[1]  Also, the Law code of Hammurabi stipulated a maximum of three years of slavery for the family, as opposed to a maximum of six years under Hebrew Law. The root causes of slavery are debt, war and poverty.  A slave could be purchased locally from other owners or from foreign traveling merchants as in the case of Joseph who was bought by the Midianites and Ishmaelites, and sold to an Egyptian, Potiphar (Gen. 37: 36, 39).    

Slavery was practiced in the Old Testament. Joseph was sold by his brothers (Gen. 37:36, 39). The Hebrew word ebed was rightly translated slave in this text. Abraham had many slaves in his household. Daniel and his three companions were carried to Babylon in 597 B.C., as prisoners of war, when King Jehoiakim refused to pay tribute to Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 1:1-2). Captured in war, the Midianites (Number 31:28-30, 47) and Gibeonites (Jos. 9:23-25 were made slaves to serve in the temple. The practice continued through the reigns of David and Solomon (Ezr. 2:58; 8:20).  Nehemiah recorded that foreign slaves helped them with the repairs of the wall of Jerusalem (Neh 3:26, 31).   

There are also several Hebrew words used in the OT and are rightly translated servants.  Here are just a few:

  •  Na`ar /nah·ar is one of the Hebrew words that is translated servant. It occurs 238 times in the Authorized Version, and is translated  as “young man” 76 times, “servant” 54 times, “child” 44 times, “lad” 33 times, “young” 15 times, “children” seven times, “youth” six times, “babe” once, “boys” once, and “young” once.[2]  However, the context of a text determines its true meaning.
  • Another Hebrew verb translated as servant is sharath. It also means to serve and to minister, depending on the context.
  • A notable phrase in the OT is, “Servant of the Lord/Yahweh” which comes from the Hebrew word, ebed occurs nearly 800 times in the OT; it denotes a slave held in bondage (Gen. 9:25; 12:16; Ex. 20:17, Dt. 5:15; 15:17). However, the same word is used for people of noble rank, such as ministers and advisers to the king (2 Kgs. 22:12; 2 Chr. 34:20; Neh 2:10).  It also refers to servant of God (Gen. 24:14; Number 12:7; Jos 1:7; 2 Kings 21:8). We found this in such expressions as “Moses my servant” or David, Isaiah, Israel Job, etc. The reason why those in  noble ranks were call ebed, which by definition means slave is that in a kingdom you only have subjects, not citizens, and the ministers and advisers live at the mercy of the king.  They have to do everything possible to please the king like a slave to his master. The King’s word was the Law, life or death!  

One of the OT expressions which takes Christological dimension is the phrase: “The servant of Yahweh”  (Dt. 34:5; Jos 1:13; 8:31-33; Isa 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12).  Even a prophet was named Obadiah: meaning “servant of Yahweh.” Isaiah 41:8-9 defines this highest servanthood as something granted by God’s grace: “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen…; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant….’”(RSV).  This title is also applicable to heroes of faith and action:

  • To the patriarchs (Gen. 26:24; Ez 28:25; 37:25)
  • To Moses (Ex 14:31; 1 Kgs 8:53, 56)
  • To David (2 Samuel 7:26-29; Jser 33:21-26; Ez 37:24) and his descendants
  • To the prophets (2 Kgs 10:10; 14:25), and
  • To other faithful Israelites, such as Joshua and Caleb (Num 14:24; Jos 24: 29).  

Note that the use of ebed, through the ages, developed into Messianic victory on the Cross of Calvary. The slaves of the Lord/Yahweh failed, but God emptied Himself to be born of a woman, incarnated as man and called Jesus Christ.  He was not a slave but took upon Himself the form of a slave and washed His disciples’ feet (John 13:1ff).  He finally glorified slavery and the curse of the cross by His own blood, thus enabling us, by faith, to be slaves of Christ. Christians are purchased with Christ’s own blood and hence we are His possessions.  Therefore, by accepting the finished work of Jesus Christ on the Cross of Cavalry, He becomes our gateway to eternity with Him. 

Historically, the cross was cursed and used for capital punishment.  But now in Christ, it has become a blessing to humanity. Also, a slave must surrendered his will and rights to his master when he has been redeemed from the slavery of sin and now made a slave for the King of Kings unto righteousness in Christ.  What an honor to be a slave for Christ!  In the next journal we will explore the Greek meanings of slave and servant in the New Testament.

To be continued. 

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[1] W. A. Elwell & P.W. Comfort.  Tyndale Bible dictionary. Tyndale reference library (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 1205.
[2] James Strong. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible : Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order., electronic ed. (Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship., 1996), H5288.