In different places in the New Testament, writers would refer to themselves as a “slave” or as a “bondservant” of Jesus Christ. For example, I’m reading through the Book of James in my daily reading right now, and James opens his letter by saying in the NKJV, “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ…” The word ‘bondservant’ is the one I’d like to focus on in this post.
In the early days of the Church, people who heard this term knew exactly what it meant. A bondservant was a person previously ‘owned’ by another who had been set free by his/her master. Their freedom could have come as a result of their debt being paid off by their labor. It could have come as a result of the traditional holidays that gave slave owners a set time to set slaves free. It could have been for any number of reasons. But the bottom line for us in our understanding is that a bondservant was someone who had previously been a slave but who now could enjoy liberty as a free man or woman.
But there is more.
There were those relationships that existed between slave and master that were actually really good relationships. There were good masters who genuinely loved and provided for their slaves. There were masters who treated their slaves with dignity and integrity and who provided well for the slaves and even the families of the slaves who worked for them. When the time came, and for whatever reason, the slave was set free, there were those who, because of their master’s trustworthiness and love, chose to remain with their masters. (See Exodus 21:1-6)
A slave by choice.
Whenever this happened, the slave, now a free man or woman, would go before the authority of the land (i.e. a judge) and present him/herself as one making the choice to serve his/her master for life. And, in addition to this public vow, the master would give his bondservant a physical sign of this commitment. He would pierce the ear of the servant with an awl. This was an outward symbol of an inward commitment—much like a wedding band signifies a commitment between one man and one woman.
From this point onward, the slave was no longer a slave by circumstance, but was now a slave by choice. It was his decision to become a servant for life to the master who had proven his goodness over time. Anytime the bondservant began to question his own loyalty or decision in becoming a slave for life, he had the outward symbol, which was a visible reminder of his reason for making that commitment in the first place.
As believers in Jesus Christ, we are given this same opportunity—but one that will never be forced upon us. Jesus Himself told His disciples,
I, for one, have found God to be a very good master. He is a very good provider. He is far more trustworthy and reliable than anyone else I’ve ever known. I never have to worry that He will lead me into anything that is harmful for me or for those I love. Obeying Him provides a place of rest and security—not because He’ll get me back if I don’t, but because He loves me enough to lead me into the right places to begin with.
Anytime you see someone serving by choice, rather than compulsion, you’ll find a person full of joy and peace and zest for life. It’s amazing!
It is an honor to be a bondservant of the Most High God. And, in those times when I begin to wonder if I made the right decision, I can reach up and feel the “awl” in my ear and remember why I made this decision in the first place.
What about you? What helps you remember why you’ve chosen to serve rather than be served?