Sunday 3 June 2012

Significance through submission (Ephesians 6:1-9)

Combined Sunday

Today is Combined Sunday.

On the first Sunday of each month, the Chinese Church does two things. Firstly, we gather as one church family. This includes the various language groups - the Cantonese, Mandarin and English-speaking congregations; together with the various age-groups - from the Sunday school kids to the Poh-Poh’s. We do this to encourage one another in Christ and to worship together as one body in Christ. Secondly, we celebrate communion, that is, we share in the bread and the cup, remembering the body and blood of Jesus on the cross offered up for the forgiveness of sins. Gathering as God’s people and celebrating God’s sacrifice of his Son reminds us that Jesus Christ is Lord over each of our lives and over all of our lives. We approach God individually by faith in his Son, and we approach God corporately as we gather as the church. (The word “corporate” simply means “body”. The bible calls Jesus the head of the church, “his body”.)

Today’s bible passage speaks to us on two levels: individually and corporately. It addresses specific individuals - kids, parents, dads, slaves and masters - but it also speaks to the church as a whole - kids sitting next to their parents; slaves worshipping alongside their masters.

That is a staggering thought. Some of us long for God to deal with us one-on-one. We have a personal issue, a particular problem, a sensitive situation that needs immediate attention. So, we seek counselling. We meet with a friend to pray. We take advantage of the long bank holiday weekend to get away and to be alone. Yet here we find the bible speaking into unique circumstances, into sensitive situations, into our personal lives, and at the same time, addressing the entire church. Meaning, what you really need to do is not to get away. It’s not even to be alone with God. What you need to do is to listen to God’s voice. His word cuts to the heart, dividing soul and spirit. It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. What you need is to do is listen to what the bible says.

On a combined Sunday like today, it is all the more important to ensure that the bible has central focus. When choosing the songs, when doing the translation, even while making the announcements, our focus isn’t simply on making sure everyone feels at ease and that no one gets left out. Our purpose is to make sure that God’s voice is heard - that the bible is read and that Jesus Christ is proclaimed - because our confidence lies in the power of the gospel to cross the cultural boundaries, to bridge the age-gaps, and ultimately, to penetrate our hearts in order to reveal Jesus Christ.

In this sense, Combined Sundays share the same purpose as non-combined Sundays. We are gathering around the preaching of God’s word. When we need to translate the message, our number one concern is not to translate the same joke into Cantonese, then Mandarin, then English (after which, different segments of the church start laughing in sequence - the Cantonese congregation first, followed by the Mandarin congregation, ending with a whimper by the English congregation), but that Jesus Christ is proclaimed in every tongue, to every tribe. And when we meet separately as the English Congregation, and there is no need to translate the sermon, we still want every person in the room to know that Jesus Christ is Lord: we want the kids to know that Jesus is their personal Lord and Saviour; we want the adults to repent and turn to Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour.

Last week, we began this section of Ephesians addressing wives and husbands. Their relationship was characterised by submission and sacrifice. “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Today’s passage continues along that same lines, exploring the relationship between kids and their parents together with the relationship between slaves and their masters. Yet right from the beginning, the apostle Paul makes clear that he is speaking to every single one of us about our relationship to Jesus, calling upon believers to submit to Jesus Christ as Lord. We encountered this key opening verse back in Chapter 5, verse 21, where Paul writes:

Submit to one another out of reverence for (literally, ‘fear of’) Christ.
Ephesians 5:21

I say this because the two relationships we are looking at today - in the family and in the workplace - may be uncomfortably familiar to some (“Obey my boss? Do you know what I have to put up with in the office?”) yet blatantly obvious to others (“Of course, my kids should obey me. I work all day to put food on the table!”). If so, I wonder if it is because we read these words and think: psychology (Ethics in the workplace). Or we think: sociology (How to bring up well-behaved kids). Neither is what Paul is talking about. Paul is teaching us theology. It is not our relationship to one another that is so groundbreaking in this text, rather, it is our relationship to Jesus Christ. Paul is calling us to submit to Jesus as Lord, and it is our submission to him that overflows into our submission to one another.

I can’t think of a more important lesson to bring this home to than to the kids in our church; to say to the kids with us here today, “This is God’s word to you.” Yes, even kids need to read the bible for themselves!


Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.
Ephesians 6:1

“Obey your mum and dad,” the bible says. Kids hear this and go, “Aww, I knew it. Just another grownup telling us what to do and how to behave.” Actually it’s much more than that. This is God’s word and he is speaking to you about your obedience to him. God’s word says to you as kids, “Obey your parents in the Lord”, meaning, as a kid, listening to your mum and dad is one of the primary ways of living as a Christian. It is your service to Jesus. In case you are sitting there, thinking, “That’s tough!” I want you to notice this: The bible says the exact same thing to the grownups. Slaves are told to in verse 5, “Obey your masters.” I’m sure they found it tough as well. If you love Jesus, the bible says to you, “Love your mum and dad. Listen to and obey everything that they say.”

But don’t just stop there. Read on to verse 2, because there we learn that Paul isn’t just talking about kids. He quotes a verse where God speaks to kids and grownups alike.

“Honour your father and mother” - which is the first commandment with a promise - “that it may go well with you and that you may have long life on the earth.”
Ephesians 6:2-3

This is from the Ten Commandments. It is serious stuff, because God himself speaks these words from his mountain to his people, the nation of Israel (You can look it up in Exodus 20, verse 12). “Honour your father and mother,” God says. That pretty much covers all of us, whether you are a kid growing up at home with mum and dad, or if you’re a university student living on your own away from mum and dad. Or even if you moved out ages ago - you now have a job, your own house, your own family, your own kids - God’s command still applies. Honour your father and mother at whatever age, in whatever life-situation you are in. For children, this means listening to and obeying the words of their parents. Adults, however, are called to “honour” our parents, meaning, we still respect them and we still love them. In the Old Testament, this involved the practical care for your mum and dad in their old age.

Yet that’s not all the commandment says. This command is tagged with a promise of blessing: “that it may go well with you and that you may have long life on the earth”. At first glance, it seems to imply that God will bless us with a happy life - with old age, even - for taking mum and dad out for dinner at HK Fusion every weekend after church. It’s much more than that. He is painting a picture of our relationship with God. You see, back when God gave these Ten Commandments to Israel, he had just saved them from slavery in Egypt. He saved them, then he gave them these Ten Commandments. Now, the order is important because salvation precedes obedience. God saves us in order that we might have a relationship with him. Christians obey God not to earn his love, but as a response of having received his love; of having received his salvation.

This is where the promise comes in. Where it says, “that you may have long life on the earth”, the Old Testament Israelites would have heard, “that you may have long life in the land.” It is looking forward to the Promised Land. How does this translate for us today as Christians? In a way, the Promised Land could be a way of referring to heaven in the future. But I think it would be better to think of the fulfilment of this promise in terms of a present relationship here on earth. Paul is saying that our relationship with our parents ought to reflect of our relationship with God. More than that, I wonder if it means that our relationship with our parents is transformed by our relationship with God as our Heavenly Father. That is, while parents are meant to be blessings to their children - they provide for them and they care for them - the gospel enables the reverse to be true as well. By trusting in Jesus, the blessings we receive from Jesus overflow to our parents. We learn to be more obedient and thankful. We learn to appreciate our parents even more. In this way, our relationship with God our heavenly Father transforms our earthly relationships with our parents.

In other words, how do we honour our parents? By trusting in the promises of God. I think that is a revolutionary thought and here’s why: The gospel does not say that good little boys and girls get to go to heaven. It simply doesn’t. It says that those who humble themselves as children, having turned away from God their heavenly father but now returning back to him in repentance and faith, trusting in the forgiveness and love that comes through the cross of Jesus Christ, will be transformed by his Spirit. That’s the promise. It means that as Sunday School teachers we must never give up on any kid, no matter how difficult he or she may be, but continue trusting in the transforming work of the gospel - we keep reminding them of Jesus. It also means that as Sunday School teachers, we must be careful not to teach what the bible does not say - telling kids that, “If you are good, Jesus will take you to heaven,” but rather, “If you trust in Jesus, he promises to forgive your sins. God loved you so much that even when you were a bad kid, Jesus died for your sins. Why not say sorry to him and ask him to change you?”

Having said that, the real application in these verses are not for Sunday School teachers, but for Sunday School kids. Do you attend Sunday School every week? Are you in primary school? Do you come to church each Sunday and think to yourself, “Here are all these grownups singing to Jesus and reading about Jesus in the bible, I wonder what I’m doing here?” Here’s the answer from the bible: God wants you to know that he loves you and that his promises are specially for you. I’m not just saying this, it’s right there in the bible, do you see? Obey your parents as you obey Jesus. That’s the right thing to do. Love them and honour them and God will bless your mum and dad abundantly through your obedience. God is making a promise to you, and do you know what? I think it’s a promise God wants keep.

It is as if the phone rings at home, you pick it up and the voice on the other end says, “Hello, this is God.” Whoa! You’re shocked. You say to God, “Do you want me to get my Dad? My Mum?” “No,” God answers, “I’m calling to speak to you.” Kids, I want you to know, that each time you open the bible, that phone call is for you. Pick it up. Listen to God’s voice. He has good news!

And notice this, right after God’s spent three verses talking to the kids, he says, “OK, now you can pass me over to your Dad.” That’s verse 4. It’s just one verse, but it’s an important message. So Dads, now it’s your turn!


Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
Ephesians 6:4

To exasperate means to make someone angry. Paul says the same thing in Colossians, “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21). Why does it say this? The bible is recognising what a tremendous influence fathers have over their children, and it seems to be saying to fathers, “You cannot help but leave a deep impression on your kids.” Even when you don’t realise it, even when you don’t intend to, your role and responsibilities within the family as the leader, as the provider and as the pastor, will have a profound effect on your kids that will be with them for the rest of their lives. That impression can be immensely positive or it can deeply negative. Do not take it for granted and do not exasperate your children, the bible warns the Dads.

How might fathers exasperate their children? How might they make them angry? I have heard very helpful illustrations from other preachers suggesting that fathers ought to be patient with their children, urging dads to be generous with their praise towards their children and advising them to be careful with their rebuke when correcting their children. Still, I suspect that the passage is leaning towards one direction in particular. I’ll let you decide if what I’m going to say next is justified from the text. The fact that Paul begins with children, calling them to obey (literally, to listen) to their parents, implies that kids are inclined to rebel against the authority of their parents. After all, that’s what we did with God. Even though God is described as the most loving and perfect Father there is, all of us have turned our backs on him. How much more then, with our earthly fathers? The bible is preparing the fathers among us, and the potential fathers among us, by saying, “This is the reality of fatherhood. Expect it. Be prepared for it. And respond to it with the gospel.”

“Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” In other words, the remedy is God’s word. Now this is talking about more than just bible study (though it’s not less). This is not a one-off solution on dealing with kids when they mess up (“Don’t you know the bible says...?”), but rather a constant application of the gospel. Bring them up, Paul says, literally, “nourish” or “feed” them. It’s something that needs to be done over and over again. After all, you don’t feed your kids just once a week, they need nourishment every day, at every point of their lives in order to grow and to mature. It’s saying to fathers, make the bible a part of your daily lives; don’t just pull out off the shelf whenever you want to make a point. You know, they say that young children need consistency in their lives; whereas older teenagers are always looking out for authenticity. As a Christian father, the gospel empowers you to be both consistent and authentic as a parent to your children, because as your kids look to you, you are constantly pointing them to Jesus. To the dads among us, the gospel gives you the room you need to be gracious and loving, the freedom to be firm yet forgiving, the privilege to be respected and honoured by your children.

Another thing this passage seems to be saying is to fathers is this: Your kids need you to be a Dad. They will make lots of friends and they will prefer to hang out with their mates on the weekends. They will cry out for Mum and play favourites with their uncles and aunties. They will go to movies with their brothers and sisters and deny all your Facebook requests. They will idolise TV personalities and fall in love with Korean pop stars. But they will always need you to be their Dad. Yours is a position of great responsibility, tremendous influence and abundant joy. In particular, Dads are responsible for leading their families to Jesus. In this regard, notice how Paul singles out the Dads, leaving aside the Mums. This is not saying that mothers shouldn’t teach their children about Jesus. It’s not even saying that mothers can’t do a better job of teaching their kids about Jesus because many do! What it is saying is that Dads are the ones who are held accountable by Jesus - for leading their wives in the love of Christ; for bringing up their children in the instruction of the Lord. Paul singles out the men and speaks to the Dads saying, “It is your job as the head. It is your privilege as the husband. It is your joy as the Dad.”

So, to recap, the bible speaks to children and to Dads. God’s word speaks directly to kids calling them to obey their parents in the Lord. God’s word challenges fathers to bring their kids up in the instruction of the Lord. Both are commands from God, both are responses to Jesus Christ as Lord - to submit to his authority and his word. Yet, the first results in obedience. The second is seen in responsible headship. We saw this last week in the relationship between wives and husbands. We see this today in the relationship between children and their parents, and their Dads in particular.


We are going to see the same pattern in this last comparison, between slaves and masters. But before we do so, I just wanted to highlight one important point about context. The first relationship is within the context of marriage. The second is within the framework of the family. That is, submission has a clear context within God-ordained relationships. Some of us who are more timid by nature, who are more naturally submissive in character, may need to pay attention to the context in which we practice submission. For example, women are not called to be submissive in all things to all men. Here in Ephesians, the command is for wives to be submissive to their own husbands. Similarly, the command is given to children to obey their own parents, not all grownups without discrimination.

As we approach the final relationship of the submission of slaves to their masters, I want to say that the context here cannot be immediately applied to the modern working world. There is relevance, and we will explore the applications in a moment, but there are also great distinctions. Slavery in the Roman world was not simply a profession, it was a status. The slave was owned by the master. He wasn’t simply doing a job, he was his master’s property. As such, some masters were cruel to their slaves and could even execute them according to law.

How did someone become a slave? Some were prisoners of wars taken captive and put to work as an alternative to imprisonment or execution. Some were sold into slavery because of debt. It is estimated there were two million slaves in Italy out of a population of six million. At one time, the city of Rome had more slaves than it had citizens. The whole Roman economy was built on the slave workforce. This is just to say that slaves were everywhere, and here we see in Ephesians, slaves were worshipping in the church.

It is also important to realise that there were various kinds of slaves. Some slaves were wealthy and owned property. Their slavery even enabled them to gain status and recognition, especially in Rome. Furthermore, slavery was not a permanent condition. You could work your way out of slavery and you could buy your freedom. Slaves could get married and have children of their own.

With this in mind, we turn to Paul’s command to slaves in the Ephesian church.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.
Ephesians 6:5-6

Paul’s command to slaves is for them to obey their masters, serving them with sincerity and integrity. His key motivation for them is that they are serving Jesus Christ, their true master (the word translated “Lord” in verses 7 and 8, is the same word as “master” in verse 5), knowing that Jesus, their Lord, will reward them irrespective of their status.

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 slave or free.
Ephesians 6:7-8

As I mentioned earlier, the context of slavery is not to be immediately equated with the modern-day working world. When you hold a job, you are not owned by your employer. You have rights under the law. You can leave for another position. You might be “slaving away” at your employment, indeed, you work conditions might be more severe than some of the slaves in the ancient world. Still, you have your freedom. Still, you can look for another job. Not so the slave.

Yet, I can think of one situation where these verses do apply today: scholarship holders bonded to their sponsorship agents. Many overseas students at Cambridge are sent here by sponsors from their home countries. In exchange for the opportunity to study for a degree at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, they have signed agreements to return home upon graduation to work for an average of six years for their sponsors. It is a long-term commitment. For Christians under obligation to their scholarship agencies, the bible is teaching us to honour our commitments wholeheartedly. Not simply because the pay will be good. Not simply because it’s the safe path to a stable career. But as if you were serving Jesus Christ as your sponsor. He holds your bond.

How then does this apply to those who are working out of their own free will, at a job of their own choosing? Well, Paul addresses you in verse 8: “because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether slave or free.” And the question is: The slave understands this verse, but do you? That is, the slave knows who his true boss is. He realises that he is accountable to Jesus for everything he does - the sincerity and integrity of his work. And he looks forward to his true reward when Jesus returns to settle accounts. The question posed in verse 8 is: Do we see the same reality about Jesus Christ as the master over our lives and Lord over our work? Given our work and our freedom to work - are we seeking to serve Jesus? Or do we use our freedom to advance our own agendas; to store up our treasures here on earth?

Look back to the slaves and notice that Paul deals with them in terms of their motivations. He says to them, “Serve wholeheartedly. Obey your masters with sincerity. Do the will of God from the heart.” For Paul, it wasn’t enough to just get the job done. After all, the slaves had no choice! If their earthly masters gave a command to do something, it had to be done. No, Paul wants the slaves to do their jobs wholeheartedly. He speaks to them at the level of motivation and dare I say, even at the level of their passion.

Let me suggest to you, it is at this same level of passion and motivation, that we need to challenge ourselves. Unlike slaves, we have the freedom to refuse job, and I wonder if we use our lack of motivation as an excuse to avoid doing the job. Let me use bible reading as an example. We know we should read our bibles, we should pray over our bibles, and we should do this regularly, yet when we don’t the excuse we often come up with is, “I don’t feel like it.” We say, “After all, I don’t want to be legalistic. I don’t want to be a Pharisee, you know. God looks at my heart, I wouldn’t want to anger him by reading his word insincerely, now would I?” It’s a lousy excuse. Instead of obeying God’s word and asking for God’s help to obey his word, we cop out. We look down on others who try. We call them insincere. We brand them as slaves (that is, slaves to tradition, to routine, to an establishment). When in truth, what we have done is used our freedom to avoid turning our hearts over to God. It is the same issue with giving (“I know it won’t be sincere, so I won’t give”). It is the same issue with serving (“My heart’s not in it and I’d be a hypocrite if I signed up to lead bible study.”) The solution is to obey and repent, not avoid and make excuses. The slave does not have that option, we do. Don’t use your freedom as a cover-up. Rather, use it to explore the endless possibilities God has for you to make your life count for him. To take risks for the kingdom. To mess up even, fall down and get up to try, try again!

If you remember, this was the lesson of the parable of the talents. Jesus told the story of the master who entrusts his fortune not the accountants, not to the generals, not to the golf buddies, but to the slaves. Who were the faithful slaves? The ones who used that fortune to grow the master’s business. They worked hard. They didn’t waste it. And when the master returned, they joyfully returned that fortune back to him. Jesus rewards such slaves, with even more responsibility: “You have been faithful with little, I will set you over much!” More importantly, God rewards such faithfulness with joy. “Enter into your master’s joy,” he says.

Conversely, the wicked slave was the one who despised his master, who used his fear and cowardliness as an excuse to cover up his laziness. Do you remember what he said? “I knew you were a hard man,” he said. “I was afraid,” he said. “So I hid the talent you gave me... Here, have it back.” Now get this. The wicked slave did not spend the money on himself. He returned every cent. In his eyes, he thought he was being faithful, he thought he was being cautious, he thought he was playing it safe. God saw the truth of this servant’s heart. The slave despised his master’s generosity. He rejected the master’s joy. He took advantage of the master’s freedom.

In verse 8, it says, “the Lord will reward everyone.” It is positive reinforcement. The bible says the same thing to children: this is the right thing to do; God promises a blessing for you through your obedience to him. And yet, many will hear these words and despise the Master, because for them, they hate the idea that anyone should be Master over their lives. Because they will only accept themselves as Lord over their own lives; over the lives of others. It doesn’t matter how loving or generous or fair this Master is. They will look upon his blessings with disdain and foolishly think that they have the perfect excuse for their behaviour when they meet him on the last day. Sadly, the foolish servant lived all his life with a huge treasure buried in his backyard: unused, unspent, gathering dirt. There was no joy in his service. And there was no hope in his reward.

What about you? How do you see the Master? The real focus isn’t your work, your status, your wealth but the one who gives you your work, the one who determines your status, the one who blessing you with your wealth, your gifts, your talents, your freedom. How do you see God? For the slaves, Paul can at least say to them, “Know your true Master. Serve him wholeheartedly.” Could he say the same to you? Even the owners of these slaves got that. Look at the final verse.


And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him.
Ephesians 6:9

“Your slaves have a master,” Paul says to the masters, “and so do you.” Notice how he describes God: “There is no favouritism with him.” Literally, he says that God doesn’t Pei Min (which in Cantonese means “Give face”). It’s saying that God isn’t impressed by the kind of car that you drive. He doesn’t give diddly squat how many letters appear after your name on your business card. What he cares about is how you acknowledge him as your Master. Both you and your employees report back to the same CEO. He’s the boss, not you.

Remember that this letter was read out in the Ephesian church, in the same gathering of believers, on a Combined Sunday where masters were worshipping alongside their slaves. They weren’t segregated. There wasn’t a second-class hall, round the back, where the English congregation, I mean, the slaves were tucked away, to read only the bit of the bible which was relevant to them. The kids weren’t led out of the room, out of sight, because all this stuff about God as their Master, Jesus as the Lord didn’t concern their precious little heads. This was Combined Sunday and the entire church gathered around the reading of God’s word. As they did so, God’s word addressed each and every one of them, individually and corporately. In their personal lives and circumstances; in their shared relationships and common faith in Jesus Christ. Each one paid attention to what God was speaking to them; everyone heard what the bible was saying to everyone else - the slave and the master, the kid and his parents, the husband and his wife.

Tonight is the finale of the Apprentice. After a gruelling twelve week selection process, during which sixteen candidates were put forward out of thousands of applicants who applied, to undergo the toughest of challenges designed to bring out the best in their entrepreneurial skills and business acumen, Lord Sugar will choose one candidate as his apprentice and his business partner. Each episode leading up to this finale has advocated one recurring truth: the business world is a fight for survival; only the best make it through. The candidates were split into teams to compete against one another; the winning team made it through the the next stage; the losing team fought among themselves to single out the one to whom Lord Sugar would point to and say those iconic words, “You’re fired!”

Friends, that is the world we live in. Jesus said to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant,” and then he adds, “and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”

Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Matthew 20:28

Imagine that instead of sixteen candidates vying for the attention of Lord Sugar every week on the Apprentice, the reverse happened. Lord Sugar got out from behind his desk and worked hard to serve these young candidates. He gives them his fortune and says, “Here’s the money. It’s yours.” More than that, he says, “I’m going to use all my experience, all my resources, to make your business a success, but also, to make you better businessmen and businesswomen. You will be my partners from day one.” Instead candidates being fired each week, Lord Sugar would hire them, train them, invest in them all at his own personal expense. Friends, that’s what Jesus did for us. He didn’t come to be served, he came to serve. He gave his life so that you could receive eternal life. God sent his Son, the Lord of the Universe to become our apprentice, actually our slave, so that in him we could be partners with him. So that in Jesus, God calls us his sons and his daughters.

God isn’t asking you to do anything he hasn’t already done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus loved us. He forgave our sins. He humbled himself to serve us on the cross. He submitted to the will of his Father. If that is true for you, and you have been redeemed through the blood and sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, what he calls us to do is to serve him as Lord, and to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

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