Servants - ̔́ ͂ hoi douloi . The word used here denotes one who is bound to render service to another, whether that service be free or voluntary, and may denote, therefore, either a slave, or one who binds himself to render service to another. It is often used in these senses in the New Testament, just as it is elsewhere. It cannot be demonstrated that the word here necessarily means "slaves;" though, if slavery existed among those to whom this Epistle was written - as there can be little doubt that it did - it is a word which would apply to those in this condition; compare notes on I Corinthians 7:21; Galatians 3:28, note. On the general subject of slavery, and the Scripture doctrine in regard to it; see notes on Isaiah 58:6. Whether the persons here referred to were slaves, or were those who had bound themselves to render a voluntary servitude, the directions here given were equally appropriate. It was not the design of the Christian religion to produce a rude sundering of the ties which bind man to man, but to teach all to perform their duties aright in the relations in which Christianity found them, and gradually to modify the customs of society, and to produce ultimately the universal prevalence of that which is right.
Be obedient to them - This is the uniform direction in the New Testament; see I Peter 2:18; I Timothy 6:1-3; notes I Corinthians 7:21. The idea is that they were to show in that relation the excellence of the religion which they professed. If they could be made free, they were to prefer that condition to a state of bondage I Corinthians 7:21, but while the relation remained, they were to be kind, gentle, and obedient, as became Christians. In the parallel place in Colossians Colossians 3:22, it is said that they were to obey their masters "in all things." But evidently this is to be understood with the limitations implied in the case of wives and children (see the notes on Ephesians 5:24; Ephesians 6:1, note), and a master would have no right to command that which was morally wrong.
According to the flesh - This is designed, evidently, to limit the obligation to obedience. The meaning is, that they had control over "the body, the flesh." They had the power to command the service which the body could render; but they were not lords of the spirit. The soul acknowledged God as its Lord, and to the Lord they were to be subject in a higher sense than to their masters.
With fear and trembling - With reverence and with a dread of offending them. They have authority and power over you, and you should be afraid to incur their displeasure. Whatever might be true about the propriety of slavery, and whatever might be the duty of the master about setting the slave free, it would be more to the honor of religion for the servant to perform his task with a willing mind than to be contumacious and rebellions. He could do more for the honor of religion by patiently submitting to even what he felt to be wrong, than by being punished for what would be regarded as rebellion. It may be added here, that it was presumed that servants then could read. These directions were addressed to them, not to their masters. Of what use would be directions like these addressed to American slaves - scarce any of whom can read?
In singleness of your heart - With a simple, sincere desire to do what ought to be done.
As unto Christ - Feeling that by rendering proper service to your masters, you are in fact serving the Lord, and that you are doing that which will be well-pleasing to him; see the notes on I Corinthians 7:22. Fidelity, in whatever situation we may be in life, is acceptable service to the Lord. A Christian may as acceptably serve the Lord Jesus in the condition of a servant, as if he were a minister of the gospel, or a king on a throne. Besides, it will greatly lighten the burdens of such a situation, and make the toils of an humble condition easy, to remember that we are then "serving the Lord."
Other Barnes' Notes entries containing Ephesians 6:5:
1 Corinthians 7:21
1 Timothy 6:1
1 Timothy 6:1
1 Peter 2:18
1 Peter 2:18
1 Peter 2:18
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