Key text: “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free” (Ephesians 6:7-8).
Lesson objective: To understand that the rise of the Christian faith had such an impact on the Gentile world that it changed the status quo of personal relationships across family and social barriers, through the principle of equal treatment and mutual submission in the Lord.
Introduction: The world was very different in Paul’s day. The Roman Empire was pagan to the core, and there was no sense of equal treatment (a concept we have today based on creation and redemption). Christianity was to play a major role in planting the seeds of change in the ancient world by example and unreserved commitment to Christ. Those seeds would eventually give fruit to the freedoms that we enjoy so much today in the “free world.” Make no mistake about it; the freedoms we enjoy are Christian-based principles. Without Christ, there would be no such freedoms today!
In ancient Rome, children were very vulnerable and often thrown out and abandoned, or worse. As long as a child’s father lived, the child was under the father’s absolute power. The son or daughter could be a grown person and still be beaten, and or at the father’s whim have their very lives taken from them. Also, a father had the sole authority to decide whether to retain a newborn child or throw the baby out. The expositor William Barclay mentions an ancient letter where the father’s request to his pregnant wife is that if the child is a boy to let him live, but if a girl to throw her out! This kind of thinking was common. However, in the ever-growing minority group of Christians, this behavior was not tolerated. Christ’s example set a new standard for the Gentile world. Mutual submission in the Lord was the new order of the day for both children and their parents (6:1-4).
In ancient Rome the institution of slavery was alive and thriving. Slavery was embedded in the very fabric of society. It was like a plague from humanity’s early beginnings that stretched across millennia well into the 19th century! Israel had known slavery and had slaves themselves. God acknowledged the presence of slavery as he had polygamy, but never condoned either! It was the way the fallen world was, and it would take time for the world to mature and understand the fuller implications of the gospel.
The Roman Empire had more than 60 million slaves! There were more slaves in Rome than free persons. Obviously, slavery would not disappear overnight, but it eventually did! And as odd as it may seem, the seeds of freedom were sown in the benevolent treatment of Christian slaves by their Christian masters, and vice versa (vv. 5-9).
Perhaps the greatest New Testament account of the principle of equal treatment and mutual submission is that of Philemon and his slave Onesimus. Paul’s epistles, such as Philemon, which he wrote while in prison, helped forge the abolitionist movements in 19th-century England, America and other parts of the world. Unfortunately, slavery is still present in the world today, but it is no longer the worldwide institution it once was, thanks to Christ’s perennial example and the maturing of the Christian faith.
Questions for Bible Study
Read the following verses and respond to the questions:
1. Ephesians 6:1-4
a. Who does Paul directly address? v. 1a. What instructions does he give to them, and in what manner are they to obey? v. 1b. Why? v. 1c.
b. What old covenant commandment does Paul appeal to? v. 2a. See Deuteronomy 5:16 and Exodus 20:12.
c. What is so special about this commandment? v. 2b. What promise did the original commandment refer to? Note: The original commandment was the heart of the old covenant made with Israel concerning the Promised Land in Canaan.
d. By apostolic authority, what change does Paul make to the commandment as now applied to the new covenant church? v. 3.
e. Who does Paul address next? v. 4a. What imperative does Paul give them? v. 4b. What does Paul mean by “do not exasperate”? Explain and illustrate with real-life examples.
f. How should fathers help in bringing up their children? v. 4c. Whose teachings are children to be given? Note: Here the words “of the Lord” are referring to Christ’s example and teachings. This also brings new light to a favorite old proverb, Proverbs 22:6.
2. Ephesians 6:5-9
a. Who does Paul address here? v. 5a. What instructions does he give them, and in what manner are they to obey? v. 5b. What pattern are they to imitate in this regard? v. 5c. How difficult would this be, knowing in your heart that slavery is wrong?
b. What superficial manner of work did many slaves display? v. 6a. How was this to be different for a Christian slave? v. 6b.
c. What kind of service are they to render? v. 7. Why?
d. What motivation does Paul give to Christians bound in slavery? v. 8. How would you answer the charge that the rich have their heaven on earth at the expense of the poor in the here and now?
e. Who does Paul address next? v. 9a. What imperative does Paul give them? v. 9b. What are they admonished not to do? v. 9c. Why? v. 9d. What does Paul mean by “no favoritism with him”? v. 9e.
3. Philemon 1-25
a. From this brief description, who do you think Philemon is? vv. 1-3.
b. From the following description, what kind of character does Philemon have? vv. 4-7. How well does Paul know him?
c. On what basis is Paul making an appeal to Philemon? vv. 8-9. What is Paul’s physical condition that prompts Paul to communicate by letter?
d. On whose behalf is Paul making this appeal? v. 10a. What does Paul mean by a certain person becoming his son: Did Paul have a biological sonwhile in prison, or is Paul writing of his newly adopted son according to Roman custom, or does Paul mean his new spiritual son via personal evangelism? v. 10b.
e. What former connection is Paul acknowledging between Onesimus and Philemon? v. 11. Note: Philemon was a wealthy slaveowner turned Christian. Onesimus was Philemon’s runaway slave. He apparently stole something valuable and fled to Rome, where somehow he met Paul in prison and was converted to Christ!
f. What does Paul tell Philemon that he is about to do? vv. 12-16. What reason does Paul give concerning God’s providence and Onesimus?
g. What is Paul’s appeal to the Christian master Philemon regarding the treatment of his Christian slave? vv. 17-20. Would you not say that this was radical for the times?
h. What are Paul’s expectations of Philemon concerning Onesimus? v. 21. Note: What Paul implies, although he does not say so directly, is that he wants Philemon to free Onesimus.
i. How does Paul show his resolve to make sure that Philemon does what Paul has asked him to do? v. 22. How does Paul conclude? vv. 23-25.
Respond to the following questions:
1. What is your assessment of Christian parenting in the 21st century? How well are Christians instructing and training their children in the Lord?
2. Although there is an enormous cultural difference in Paul’s instructions to salves and masters, how may the principles be applied today?
God’s ultimate purpose is to gather all things under the headship of Jesus Christ, and this includes our attitudes and responses across family and social barriers. May our way of living with family and others reflect his grace and glory!
Author: Lorenzo Arroyo