The other night a group of us were studying Ephesians 6:1-9; when we came to the words in verse 5, “Slaves, be obedient to those who are you masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ,” some of the group indicated that they didn’t like the words “fear and trembling” and indeed their translation (a NIV version) used the following: “Respect them and honor them with a heart that is true.” There is a stark difference between “fear and trembling” and “respect and honor”.
A quick check of the Greek New Testament showed that “fear and trembling” are the words Paul used, meaning that once again the NIV group of translations was dumbing down the Biblical text – this is like going to a gym and all the weights are made of light plastic – no one will ever build muscle in such a gym. One of the group made the comment, “In most translations I have one issue per page, with the NIV I have an issue with every verse.”
But why “fear and trembling”? I never gave much thought to those words, or perhaps I should say that they never struck me the way they did this particular night.
I think that there is an ever-present temptation in slavery for the slave to despise his master, in bitterness for the heart to be poisoned, and for a rebellious nature to take root and grow and the fruit of the tree become toxic. This does not mean that the slave should not desire freedom and it does not mean that the slave should not differentiate between righteous and unrighteous treatment, nor does it mean that the slave should not desire equity in treatment – there are likely many other such things that this does not mean – but “fear and trembling” are there for a purpose, as a stark warning against the possibility of bitterness and a rebellious nature. The result that Paul desires is that the slave be obedient (another word that some of the group did not like) in sincerity of heart, as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. “With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men.”
Paul also warned masters to “do the same things to them”…”knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven…”
The Gospel brought unimaginable freedom to those who accepted it; the recipients were “heirs of God and coheirs with Christ”, they were free from guilt and condemnation, there was a dimension in which there was no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, but all were one in Christ Jesus. The Gospel brought not only an unshackling of the heart and conscience, but it opened up the mind to possibilities and realities seldom, if ever, conceived – certainly not conceived of by most people.
But liberty in Christ did not mean an opportunity for the flesh (Galatians 5:13ff), including an opportunity for rebellion, for liberty in Christ was meant to free us from the rebellion of sin – and all sin has its Satanic roots in rebellion, slander, destruction, and murder. The enemy comes to steal, to kill, and to destroy. To drink the cup of rebellion is to drink the cup of Satan and it was not for the Christian slave to partake of the communion cup at one moment and then to drink the cup of rebellion the next; rebellion would perpetuate slavery – the slavery of the soul.
And so slaves were warned, masters were warned; the entire church was warned beginning with 5:21, “...be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” And guess what the word translated “fear” means in the Greek New Testament? Why it means “fear”, isn’t that something?
Why did Paul use the word “fear” in this extended passage? And why are we so uncomfortable with this word?
To be continued…