Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
—John 8:34-36, NIV
Notice that Jesus has the slave living in the house, albeit temporarily. We normally think of slaves living in shacks out back. This points out a cultural difference between us and the New Testament.
The New Testament talks a lot about being a faithful slave of Jesus Christ and about being, through Jesus’ grace, an adopted son of God. It sounds as if the New Testament is mixing metaphors, so let me explain.
First off, the Greco-Roman institution of slavery was quite a different institution from what you might think, especially if your knowledge of slavery is derived mainly from American history before 1865. The events in the New Testament took place 1,800 years before then and in a completely different part of the world.
In America, a person entered slavery by being kidnapped in Africa and shipped, chained to the deck of a ship, across an ocean. Upon arrival in America, the slaves who survived were carefully sorted out so that they had no language in common with each other, except what broken English they picked up from their taskmasters. This made rebellion impossible until their spirits were broken. They were forced into hard labor under conditions that are considered unfit for animals today, and in many situations they were used for sexual purposes and prohibited from forming family units. In the beginning, some slaves were educated and were used as tutors of children, but as the social implications were realized, that was changed. In my state, it became a criminal offense to teach a slave to read and write. Since slaves were also a different race from free people, so it was possible for fallacies of racial inferiority to arise, which made the abolition of slavery a difficult process that has had social ramifications that have lasted until the present day.
Some slaves were freed for meritorious service or because their owners had second thoughts about the institution. In fact, long before the Civil War there was a local slave owner in Virginia who freed over 700 slaves after he became convinced that slavery was morally wrong. According to the Washington Post, that episode in history was deliberately obscured by biased local historians who felt the incident was ill-befitting the dignity of our state. It was only recently discovered.
In the late twentieth century, the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia was the grandson of a slave, so we’ve come a long way since then.
If this is your picture of slavery, it is accurate for the United States of the nineteenth century, but it is not a good picture of slavery in the world of the New Testament.
Roman slavery corresponded most closely to contract employment in our day. Slaves were hard laborers, educators, personal advisors; they filled all occupational niches. Sometimes people sold themselves into slavery in order to pay off debts (this situation is depicted in the New Testament), and sometimes people saved up money to buy their own freedom (Paul commended slaves who did this).
Slaves were legally part of the family, although on a secondary level. The law required masters to provide their slaves with food, clothing, and shelter. There were legal penalties for mistreating slaves (although we might think them inadequate, they did exist). We think of slaves living in leaky shacks in the fields, but in Roman days, slaves lived in the house with the family, but not permanently, because if the master died, the family remained, but the slaves had to go. If a master fell on financial hard times, he had to sell or free the slaves; and if he freed the slaves, he was legally responsible to make sure that they could make a go of it in the world. A slave who had spent his whole life tutoring people in philosophy might need to be taught the realities of the marketplace and be trained in a trade, for example.
There were incidents of slave rebellions for better working conditions, there were incidents where slaves begged not to be freed, there were incidents when slaves defended their masters the same way you or I might defend our employers so that we can keep our jobs. The New Testament epistle to Philemon is interesting in this context. In many cases, if a slave were a trusted friend and companion and had a good sense for business, he would be adopted as a son, because under the legal system, sons inherently possessed the power of attorney of their fathers and could conduct business on their behalf. Adopting a capable slave as your son was a quick but expensive way of acquiring a good and loyal business manager, and it was by no means an uncommon event.
If a master died, the slaves left the household, as I stated above, but as you can tell from some of Jesus’ other parables in which the slaves plotted to kill the son for his inheritance, slaves had rights at probate time.
So here’s what we mean by slaves and sons in the New Testament:
We are creatures of God who have sold ourselves, like so many football players, into life-time contracts to serve sin. Some of us did this knowingly but foolishly, others of us did this without realizing what we were getting into. We were deceived. (In this mess, Satan is not our master, just the fast-talker who persuaded us to do it. Satan is a liar who has no legitimate claim to anything.)
Jesus sees this, takes pity on us, and purchases us with His blood. That is to say, He buys our life-time contracts by paying the penalty of sin (that is death) not to Satan, but to the Law (according to Hebrews). We were slaves to sin, not Satan, however much he might flatter himself otherwise.
Here’s another way of looking at it: Suppose Jesus owns an football franchise, but He doesn’t have a team yet. He notices that another team is suffering under very bad conditions and they’re going nowhere fast. The players are all under contract to an owner who cannot provide for them properly, but they aren’t free to leave, because of their contracts. So Jesus, moved by compassion, makes a big sacrifice and risks everything to buy their contracts. This disposes of the inept owner, but it doesn’t make the football players into free agents! No, if Jesus bought their contracts, their obligations are merely shifted from their old owner to their new owner! Then, in an act of further mercy, Jesus makes them all co-owners of the team! They become the first player-owned team in the football league, but Jesus retains the controlling interest. So the players are employees and owners at the same time.
In the same way, Jesus found us as slaves to sin; He bought us, which made us His slaves. Then He caused us to be adopted as sons of God. That means that we become God’s business agents in this world; we are each given a distributorship of God’s love, grace, and providence in this world. We are the instruments through which God will answer people’s prayers. But Jesus retains the controlling interest, so we are slaves and sons at the same time.
Jesus bought us, which made us His slaves, then He adopted us into His family. Therefore we remain in His household forever. So when Jesus sets us free, we are free indeed!
So the metaphor isn’t really mixed at all, viewed from the first century. We can glory in the fact that we are sons, but it is probably more strategic to be grateful for the sonship, but to work as if we were only slaves, so that our service will please our Benefactor. I doubt there is much reward for the adopted sons of God who take up a playboy life and live off of room service! This appears to be the tack that the apostles took, counting themselves slaves, while proclaiming our sonship!
This is a far cry from the old sacrificial system, which set no one free from sin; it just sort of hosed off the muck from time to time.
So what about us daughters?
The New Testament is concerned with the legal status of sons, not their anatomy. That is why Paul refers to female believers as sons of God in Galatians 3:26-29. He means ‘son’ in the legal sense and not the biological sense. In the legal world in which Paul lived, if he had said ‘you are all sons and daughters of God,’ he would have been giving the women an inferior status.