On Being a Slave of Christ

We often overlook important truths when reading the opening and closing statements of Paul’s letters thinking, perhaps, they contain only customary formalities without much in the way of edifying content. But we would be mistaken to think this. The opening line of his letter to the Romans is a case in point.

“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God...”

Romans 1:1

Here Paul asserts three things about himself: (1) that he is a servant of Christ Jesus, (2) that he is called to be an apostle, and (3) that he had been set apart for the gospel of God. Each of these tells us a great deal about him that is vital for us to know.

First, he was “a servant of Christ Jesus.” The Greek word (doulos) is variously translated in the ESV as “servant” (most often), “bondservant,” or “slave.” It refers to someone who is under another person’s authority. It is used both literally and figuratively in Scripture, of both voluntary and involuntary service. It is used most often in its literal sense, of a slave who is owned by a master and thus thoroughly at his disposal. This was Paul’s self-understanding. He was a slave of Christ Jesus. This was not something he viewed negatively, however. On the contrary, he saw it as a high and noble calling. “This phrase,” Luther writes, “expresses both modesty and majesty.”[1] He was right. It expresses modesty in that he did not claim more for himself than what he was, only a slave; but it expresses majesty in that he was a slave of such a one as the Lord Jesus Christ. As a slave, he was not his own; as a slave of Christ, he possessed all things.

We can learn an important lesson here. Though we are not all apostles, as Paul was, we are all slaves of Jesus Christ. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19b-20a). We are under the command of an absolute Lord. Yet this is not at all troublesome. If we had a harsh master who was difficult to please, it would be; but “Christ’s service is more noble than any freedom.”[2]  Paul uses the title “slave of Christ Jesus” as a title of dignity. It is a great honor to be the slave of a great master. Our service, like Paul’s, is one of loving submission (cf. Ex. 21:5-7).

Second, Paul says he was “called to be an apostle.” This was the specific nature of his service as a slave of Christ Jesus. The term “apostle” refers to someone who has been commissioned to act as a messenger, delegate, or envoy, and is authorized to speak and act on behalf of the one who sent him. As the term “slave” signifies Paul’s submission to Christ, the term “apostle” signifies his authority in the church. “It was his office which gave him the right to address the believers at Rome, and elsewhere, with that tone of authority which pervades all his epistles.”[3]

Paul makes clear that he was called to this office. He was neither appointed to it by men (Gal. 1:1, 11-12), nor did he presume to take the office to himself. Rather he was appointed to it by Jesus Christ himself (Acts 26:16-18; cf. 1 Tim. 1:1; 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11).

Paul’s calling as an apostle assures us of the obligation we are under to pay heed to his teaching. His words are not merely his own, but those of his master (1 Cor. 14:37-38; 1 Thess. 2:13). When we receive his words, we receive the words of Christ himself; if we reject his words, we reject the word of Christ.

Third, Paul was “set apart for the gospel of God.” Different slaves are assigned different tasks. Paul’s task was to be about the business of preaching the gospel. Like Moses, who was “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians…and was mighty in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22), Paul was a learned man, well acquainted with the traditions of the elders (Gal. 1:14), as well as the wisdom and learning of the Greeks (Acts 17:28; Tit. 1:12). He could easily have spoken about many things. Still, he determined to speak of nothing else than the “gospel of God” (cf. 1 Cor. 2:2). He was set apart for this very thing before he was even born (Gal. 1:15; cf. Jer. 1:5). In time, while he was still a “blasphemer and persecutor and insolent opponent” of Christ (1 Tim. 1:13), he was called by him to carry his name “before Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15; see also 13:2). He laid all his considerable learning in tribute at the feet of Jesus Christ.

In the same way, we must lay our all before him: our time, talents, energy, resources, and even our very lives. We are not all apostles, as Paul was, but we are all called to serve Christ as our gifts and circumstances enable us, and to do so with all our strength. The mechanic, the banker, the farmer, the doctor, the oil-field worker, the soft-ware designer, and the stay-at-home-mother all serve him as honorably as an apostle, if they fulfill their callings for the sake of his glory.

[1] Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, translated by J. Theodore Mueller, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1954), p. 31

[2] Origen , Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, edited by Gerald Bray, general editor, Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 3

[3] Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, [1864] 1994), p. 14


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