March 11, 2008 on 9:31 am | In REVELATION FOR BEGINNERS | Comments Off on “SLAVERY” IN REVELATION?–1:1

In verse one it says that a purpose of the book is to show His “servants” things which are shortly to come to pass. And then John is listed as one of those “servants”. Just who are they, anyway? Are they the only ones who can understand it? Do they have an advantage in grasping the concepts of the book? When we think of the word “servant” perhaps the vision of a person hired to work in someone’s house comes to mind, maybe to be the cook or stand fanning a perspiring head of household. But in the original language (Greek) the word translated “servant” (Gr. “doulos”) actually means “slave.” For probably most of us, that has all kinds of negative connotations. We think of slaves as property, frequently abused by their owners. And we are reminded of the ugly history of slavery in the United States and elsewhere. So why is that word used here and what does it have to do with end-time living? Stay with me.

One of the critical principles in interpreting Revelation, or any other part of the Bible for that matter, is that the Bible is its own best interpreter. While history may help us validate the fulfillment of prophecy and archaeology may shed light on cultural customs, when it comes to spiritual issues and explaining symbols, it is best to see what the Bible itself has to say about it first rather than impose our 21st century perspective. So let’s take a look.

While the term “slave” can certainly be used in the Bible in the traditional understanding (see Philemon 16 and Revelation 6:15 for example), it is also used in a symbolic spiritual sense as one of several metaphors illustrating the Christian’s relationship to God. Other metaphors are used in the Bible, such as “friend,” “saint,” and “disciple.” Let’s see how the Bible uses the slavery concept in the spiritual sense. By the way, Paul (Romans 1:1) and Peter (2 Peter 1:1) apply the same term to themselves also.

In Romans 6:16 the Bible says, “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin to death , or of obedience to righteousness?” Verses 20 and 22 continue, “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness….But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.” In other words, we are all slaves one way or the other, whether we like it or not. We are either slaves of sin (the devil) or righteousness (Christ)—there is no neutral ground. This passage indicates that our default position is as slaves to sin, but through Christ another choice is available to us. Joshua in the Old Testament once invited the people to “choose you this day whom you will serve.” In Revelation 3:20 Jesus is represented as standing at the door of the last-day church and knocking—He does not force His way in, He awaits our decision, He respects our choice. We are not saved apart from our choice to respond to His initiative. Serving Him doesn’t mean we become heavenly robots or never make mistakes. But it does mean we are absolutely committed and loyal to Him. If we make mistakes, we seek forgiveness and power to do better. And why would we want to become His “slaves”? We will see more about motivation in verses 6-8.

This brings up another major theme in Revelation, what is sometimes referred to as “The Great Controversy Theme.” In essence it is with regards to an intense spiritual battle going on right now, not over Mid-East oil, not even the war on terrorism, but over the allegiance of our minds. What happens in our minds is far more important than what happens in the world—in fact it is a life or death matter as far as eternity goes. 1 Corinthians 6:20 reminds us that “you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” This text invites us to dedicate ourselves totally (mind and body) to God. If we do not accept that invitation, we remain in the default position—slaves to sin, a slavery from which there is no escape apart from the power of God. And the price paid to open up the salvation option was immense. More about that later.

We sometimes pride ourselves on our independence and of course in the United States we celebrate Independence Day (4th of July) with a great deal of fervor. But in the absolute sense, there is no such thing as total independence. We are dependent on a power outside of ourselves to sustain life and there is a great deal of interdependence in society. Imagine what it would be like to try to survive totally alone in this world. The prophet Daniel once reminded a king in rebellion “the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified.” Daniel 5:23. The only absolute independence we have is in our power of choice—we have absolute freedom to choose whom we will serve. God will never force the will when it comes to personal salvation and the one we choose to serve. While we are free to choose, we are not free from the consequences of our choices, and the Bible tries to point those out so we can make intelligent choices. In Deuteronomy 30:19 God pleads with His people, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.”

To come back to the original question—who are the servants and does it make any difference in understanding Revelation? In summary, the servants are those people who in loving response have submitted their lives to the sovereignty of God, who are absolutely loyal to Him. They actually enjoy being His “slave.” Does that give them an advantage? Of course. Because they know Him and are in communication with Him, He can give them special insights to what He is revealing to them. When the book was first written, one reason there were so many symbols was so that hostile opponents of the Christians couldn’t understand it and use its messages against the followers of Christ. But the Christians could interpret it because they knew the Bible and the principles of interpretation. Those who are not Christians can learn from those who do know the Bible, yet unless they submit to Christ personally, they can never know the true blessings of studying this amazing book.

There is an old story I read a number of years ago that to me helps illustrate this concept. During the ugly days of slavery in America, an auction of slaves was being held. They were treated just like property, and usually not very well at that. But one man, called “Old Joe,” was being auctioned off. The auctioneer was pointing out what a good workman he would be while Old Joe was muttering under his breath, “I won’t work.” One man seemed bound and determined to purchase Old Joe and the bidding went up much higher than usual. But Old Joe still kept grumbling, “I won’t work.” Finally the high bidder was successful in purchasing Old Joe. Yet as they rode out to the man’s plantation, Old Joe kept saying, “I won’t work.” He had come to the end of his rope and he determined not to yield to the usual demands no matter what the consequences. When they arrived at the plantation, the owner took Old Joe to a comfortable cottage and told him this was where he could live. Thinking perhaps that the owner was just trying to bribe him, Old Joe responded, “But I still won’t work.”
“That’s ok,” the owner responded. “You don’t have to. You see, I bought you to set you free.” As the story goes, Old Joe, dumbfounded at the kindness showed him, replied, “Master, I’ll work for you the rest of my life.” What made the difference? No longer was it a matter of force—Old Joe now had a choice, and as he recognized the love and care the plantation owner had for him, he became a willing worker—because now he had the freedom to stay or leave as he wished. There was no coercion and he decided he would be happy to spend his life working for someone who demonstrated that kind of benevolence toward him. We, too, have been “bought with a price.” How do we respond?

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