The Christian Work Ethic: Ephesians 6:5-8
Back in chapter 4, we noted that the apostle commends and commands labor. In other words, he speaks to the morality of labor: “Let him that stole steal no more, but rather let him labor, working with his hands that thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (4:28). In the verses before us this morning, Paul speaks to the manner of and the motivation for our labor.
Now it is true that he is speaking to bondservants in verses 5-8. However, there are principles here that apply to all of us who, like the bondservant, work for others. And even if you are self-employed, these principles still apply. On some level, all of us are working for someone else. If you are not self-employed, that someone else is your boss. If you are self-employed, that someone else is your customer.
But these verses don’t just apply to you and me because we, like the bondservant, are working for someone else. The main reason they apply to us is because we belong to Christ and all our work is ultimately to be work for Christ. It is not just the slave who must be conscientious of this fact; it is something that all who embrace the Lordship of Christ over their lives must live out on a day to day basis. These verses are a specific application of the general principles laid out in verses like 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” Or Romans 14:7-9, “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.” And so the apostle commands the servants to do their work, “as unto Christ” (5), “as the servants of Christ” (6), and “as to the Lord” (7). In other words, the underlying principle here is that believers, as the slaves of Christ, are to do their work to and for him. It is that principle we want to explore this morning. In particular, we want to explore how this should affect how and why we do our work.
How does being the servant of Christ affect how we do our work? Well, first of all, it means we are to do our work by respecting the authorities that God has placed over us. I take this from the overarching exhortation of verses 5-8: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh” (5). Now you don’t have to be a slave for this verse to apply to you. If you have a boss to whom you are accountable, the same principle applies to you. He or she is over you and you are to respect that authority. You are to carry out their instructions, you are to obey their commands. Of course, this doesn’t mean you obey unlawful or wicked directives. But it does mean that you are not at liberty to do whatever you please on the job. You are not at liberty to disregard your boss’s instructions just because you think they are ludicrous or because you think you know a better way to do something. You may in fact know a better way. In that case, you share (respectfully) your ideas with your boss; if he or she agrees with you, great. If not, you drop it and do what they want you to do. The bottom line is that you are obligated to obey your boss even if you don’t like what they are telling you to do. It is a terrible witness to your employer and your fellow employees to disregard the wishes and directives of those who are over you. Such an attitude does not spring from godly principles. More likely, it springs from pride, and it poisons not only your relationship with your boss but also your witness to them.
Even if you are self-employed, there is a principle here that can apply to you. Every time you enter a contract with someone, you are effectively binding yourself to the person through certain promises and expectations. As a Christian, you are obligated to follow through on those expectations. You are not to back down from your obligations or to renege on your contractual promises. Again, it is a terrible witness when a Christian does something like this. We are to be men and women of our word.
We must always beware of interpreting our freedom in Christ to mean that we can or should do whatever we want. That is never what Christian liberty means. We are always to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Pet. 2:13). Nor does freedom in Christ mean that we are free from responsibility. It does not mean that we are free to pursue our every whim and desire. It is no indication of spirituality that we are free to do whatever we please. Nor is it any indication of a lack of spirituality that we are bound by certain earthly responsibilities and obligations. Obedience to earthly masters is not a hindrance to spiritual flourishing; neither will being self-employed necessarily promote godliness. I say this because there is in certain quarters of the church an idea that to be tied down in any respect to external authorities is antithetical to spiritual advancement. Such an idea finds no place in the Scriptures. Obey your masters!
Now how does this work itself out in our respective areas of employment? This leads to the second point. We are to do our work, the apostle says, “with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ” (5). Whether or not you have an earthly master, whether or not you report to a boss or employer or board, the Christian ought to do his or her work “with fear and trembling.” What does this mean?
When you compare this to other verses where this phrase appears, it is clear that it refers to what Charles Hodge calls “conscientious solicitude.” In other words, we are to care about the quality of our labor. The effort we put into our work is not something we are throwing away. We are not to look at it as something that does not matter. It matters: we are to do it “with fear and trembling.”
The apostle is not referring here to the servile fear that many slaves had of their masters. This again, is clear from a comparison to similar passages. For example, Paul uses this phrase when he exhorts the Philippian believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). He is not saying that the Christian is to grow in grace because they are afraid God will squash them if they don’t dot every “i” or cross every “t” to God’s satisfaction. That would be servile fear. But that is not what the apostle is commending there. Rather, he is saying that they ought to show a great deal of concern and care about their spiritual condition; they are not to take spiritual growth lightly – they are to work at it with fear and trembling.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the apostle should use this same phrase with respect to spiritual growth and service rendered to earthly masters! It shows just how abominable it is to think that it is mark of spirituality when we abandon our earthly responsibilities in order to pursue spirituality. God does not command us to go out of the world; he commands us to be in it though not of it, and part of being in it means doing our work well. We are not to do our work in a slipshod manner; we are to do it with fear and trembling.
Remember what the apostle said to the Thessalonians: “Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labor and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an example unto you to follow us. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess. 3:8-10). You see how the apostle worked: “with labor and travail” – that is the outcome of doing it with fear and trembling. Now the reason he had to say this to them was because “we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies” (ver. 11). For whatever reason, some were simply not working. Far from being Christian, it is wicked: “Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread” (12). Refusing to labor in this world is never commended to the Christian, even under the most spiritual of pretenses.
It doesn’t matter where you work, how long you plan to work there, or what your particular job is, as long as it is labor that is consistent with the Lordship of Christ over your life. You are to do it, whatever it is, with fear and trembling, with conscientious solicitude. You are to do your work well, to the best of your ability, whatever you or others may think of it. You are to care about what you do.
Third, the apostle says that we are to labor “in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ” (5). Have you ever known someone who couldn’t do their job because their mind was always someplace else? We are to be single-minded, not double-minded, in our work. I think the apostle is referring to people who are so discontent with their position and work that they are always dreaming about being somewhere else and doing something else; as a result, they are simply unable to do their work “with fear and trembling.” It would have been easy for a bondservant to fall into this mindset, but it is equally easy for you and me. If we will do our work well, we must give our full attention to our tasks, we are to be single-minded.
We must at this point ask: why do all this? Paul is not talking to missionaries on the mission field – he is talking to slaves many of whom were laboring at menial tasks. What was the point? Why give your full attention to such things? Why do it with fear and trembling? Surely such earthly and menial tasks are not worthy of the Christian’s full attention! The reason is given at the end of verse 5: we are to give our obedience to our masters and attention and care to our work, because all our work is rendered ultimately for Christ. All work can and does have eternal significance when it is done as a servant of Christ and when it is done for him. You don’t have to preach a sermon or go on a mission trip to serve Christ. You can wash cars and serve Christ. You can collect garbage and serve Christ. You can serve on a city council and serve Christ. You can teach or mow lawns or do art and science and a million other things and serve Christ. This is why the care and concern we have for our work is not a function of its cultural value, whether that culture is defined by the church or by the wider secular society in which we live. It is a function of the one we serve: Jesus Christ. He doesn’t just call preachers; he also calls electricians.
Of course we need men and women who are willing to do explicitly Christian work, who are willing to go to the mission field and labor and die there. The church needs pastors and teachers. But the fact of the matter is that we may not be gifted for such work, and then it is no lack of spirituality when we go into a job that is not explicitly tied to Christian ministry. In fact, like the slaves to whom Paul was writing, there may be circumstances beyond our control that dictate the avenue we take in life, an avenue that was not one that we wanted. But that does not mean that God, in his providence, has no purpose for you there, or that you have failed in life. I think of John G. Paton’s father in this connection. He desperately wanted to be a missionary, but for whatever reason, was unable. Instead, he spent his life as a humble weaver, laboring at this work day in and day out in what must have seemed like menial labor compared to the mission field. However, it was his godliness at home that certainly played an enormous role in the spiritual formation of his son, who later went on to be a missionary in the New Hebrides, leading an entire island to the feet of Christ. Over and over again, Paton calls attention to the role his father played in his own spiritual development. His father wasn’t called to go to the mission field – instead, God called him to so live his life as a weaver that his son would go to the mission field with God’s great blessing and success.
It is also a poisonous and completely unchristian idea that unless you get your dream job, you have failed in life. It is wrong to assert that unless you have achieved the “American Dream,” are making lots of money, have a large retirement, you have wasted your life. That is completely false. You have only failed in life when you fail to serve Christ in whatever place he has put you. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that much what you have done in this life, but rather how you have done it, and to whom you have done it. Are you living your life for Christ and to Christ? That is the mark of true success.
Thus the apostle goes on to that we are to work, “not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (6). This is a consequence of serving Christ; our aim is to please Christ in our work. The idea is more than that we are to do good work at all times; as if what the apostle is condemning are those who work just when the eye of the master is upon them. Of course this should never describe the way the Christian does his or her work. But what the apostle is saying here is that we are to work in our job, knowing that ultimately our master is in heaven, not in the office down the hall. We are to seek to please Christ in our work, whether or not our boss acknowledges us or not.
There are some people who will only labor well and do excellent work as long as they are acknowledged by the people over them and around them. If they don’t get that plaque on the wall, that trophy, or that raise, their productivity goes down. The apostle is saying that the disciple of Christ ought never to approach their work in that way. It’s not about recognition from men; we are to work knowing that we owe our Lord excellence in all that we do. We don’t do it to please men; we do it to please the Lord.
And that means that we don’t just do our work because we have to; we do it because we want to, and the reason we want to is because we are doing it unto the Lord: “doing the will of God from the heart.” As John Murray explains, “It is the same vice [that of men-pleasing] that explains the lack of pleasure in work; labour is boredom and about all that is in view is the pay-cheque. This evil that turns labour into drudgery is but the ultimate logic of eye-service and men-pleasing.” It might perhaps be surprising that a consequence of doing work to the glory of God is finding fulfillment in our work, but that is certainly an implication of what the apostle is saying. Unlike men, God looks at the heart. He cares about our motives. Therefore, if we are laboring for the Lord, we are not going to be content to merely perform well, but are also going to consider the motives behind the performance. If we glorify God when we enjoy him, then we can only glorify God when we find pleasure in the tasks that we do for him. This again does not merely apply to explicitly spiritual exercises like Bible-reading and prayer, but also to our work.
And how can working for God not bring with it its own reward? When we labor for Christ, we have elevated our work and given it “the character of a religious service, because the motive is regard to divine authority, and its object is a divine person. It thus ceases to be servile, and becomes consistent with the highest mental elevation and spiritual freedom.”
This point is so important that the apostle essentially restates it in the following verse: “With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men” (7). The word “goodwill” here also connotes the idea of zeal and enthusiasm. The point is that it is always possible to be enthusiastic in our work when it is done with an eye to the glory of God, and from a heart of thanksgiving for his loving lordship over our lives.
In doing this, we follow Christ, who himself came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many (Mt. 20:28). As Paul reminds us in his letter to the Philippians, he “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). It is “to this infinitely exalted and infinitely condescending Saviour, who came not be served, but to serve, that the obedience of every Christian, whether servant, child, wife, or subject, is really and consciously rendered. Thus the most galling yoke is made easy, and the heaviest burden light.”
But the reward that the Christian eyes is not an earthly reward. We may or may not be rewarded or recognized for our work in this life. That is why the apostle goes on to say: “Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.” I know that some people argue that it militates against the grace of God in salvation to recognize the possibility of rewards in heaven. But I simply don’t know how to interpret verses like this apart from some doctrine of future reward. And the reward is not just that we get to go to heaven when we die. The reward the apostle is speaking of in this verse is specifically tied to things they have done in this life: “whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord.” The Lord will recognize all work done for him in the age to come. Our reward is future, not present.
But that makes it all the more better. Any reward given now can only be temporary and marred by effects of our fallen world. But the reward in the age to come is eternal and unmarred. It is sweetness without any bitterness. It is wealth without worry. It is undiminished good.
Does this mar the doctrine of grace? I don’t think so. Any reward in the age to come is not a reward based on merit; any reward will be a gift of God’s grace. But it has pleased our Father to recognize the labors of his children in this world (which they accomplish in the strength of his grace) by lavishing gifts upon them in the next. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). We do not receive them because we deserve them; we receive them because God has ordained them for us in his mercy and grace.
And this reward does not depend upon your status in this world: “whether he be bond or free.” The reward does not depend on the amount of fame you acquired in this world, or riches, or achievements. It is graciously given to those who faithfully served Christ, whether or not they were noticed by men.
Here is the bottom line: you will work most fruitfully and with more fulfillment, when your eye is not on men (your boss or the customer) but on Christ; when your reward is not the paycheck but the glory of God; when your example is Christ and your Lord is Jesus. He sweetens every task and enlarges every field of labor when we do it for him. For the Christian, there is no such thing a secular work, for all that we do is religious in the sense that it is done for Christ.
If you are a Christian, your labor is not in vain in the Lord. Because he died for us, and because we have eternal life in him, our entire life belongs to the Lord of the universe. Our calling is noble because we serve the King of heaven.
If you are not a Christian, the most you can hope for is for you to find some significance in your work. But that turns your work into a cruel taskmaster, one to whom you must devote everything, without ever being sure that it will not turn on you in the end and cheat you of the meaning you were so desperately trying to find. As the hymn puts it: Nothing of this earth is sure; vain hope soon dies; things of the Lord endure – Christ satisfies. You work cannot give you the one thing you really need: peace with God. Only Christ can give that to you. But the wonderful thing is that he freely offers his grace to all who come to him. So come to Christ, embrace him as your Savior and Lord, and in embracing him, find eternal life and new significance in every earthly task.
 Charles Hodge, Ephesians.
 John Murray, Principles of Conduct (Eerdmans, 1957), p. 88.