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First Corinthians 7--On Being Free Slaves

Apr 14, 2017

In his discussion about circumcision, Paul concludes in 1 Corinthians 7:20,

20 Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called.

In other words, believers ought not to feel obligated to be circumcised, if motivated by the belief that this will put them into a covenant relationship with God. And, of course, if a Jew renounces the Old Covenant and adheres to the New, he has no way of reversing his physical circumcision, so he ought not to be concerned with his condition.

Paul then uses this conclusion as an introduction to his next discussion regarding slavery. In fact, he ends with the same kind of statement in 1 Corinthians 7:24,

24 Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called.

But before we study Paul’s recommendation on slavery, we must see that there is a logical progression from circumcision to slavery. These topics were closely related and should not be viewed as a patchwork of unrelated subjects.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians shows clearly that those who adhere to the Old Covenant are in bondage—that is, they are religious slaves. In Galatians 4:22-25 Paul likens the Old Covenant to a bondwoman (Hagar), whose children are in slavery. He then says in Galatians 5:1,

1 It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore, keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.

In other words, do not subject yourselves to the Old Covenant through physical circumcision, and do not reckon the earthly Jerusalem to be your spiritual mother. As for one’s view of prophecy, one should not believe that the earthly Jerusalem is chosen of God to be the mother city (or capital) of Christ’s Kingdom. Instead, it ought to be “cast out” (Galatians 4:30), even as God told Abraham to “cast out the bondwoman and her son” (Genesis 21:10).

Those who side with Hagar in this matter show that they are also her children who are enslaved to the Old Covenant, whether they know it or not. Such believers need to study the distinctions between the two covenants and conform their minds to the divine plan. The children of Hagar will not inherit the promises of God, because they adhere to the promises and vows of men, having entered into Israel’s vow in Exodus 19:8.

The New Covenant (Sarah, “the free woman”) is based on the promises of God, and of such Paul says, “you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise” (Galatians 4:28). Yet, he says, if you are like Isaac, you should expect to be persecuted by those who are “born according to the flesh” (Galatians 4:29). So it was in Paul’s day, for the Old Covenant Jews, especially those in Jerusalem, rejected the Messiah and persecuted the church.

Some mistakenly thought that Paul recommended circumcision, but Paul refuted this in Galatians 5:11, saying,

11 But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished.

In other words, Paul says, “If I had been preaching an Old Covenant gospel that recommends physical circumcision, then I would not be persecuted by the Jews, for I would be agreeing with the religious system in Jerusalem, abolishing the stumbling block of the cross.” Obviously, Paul did not agree with Judaism—except in his former life when he was the chief persecutor of the church.

Keeping the Commandments

Of interest to us, then, is Paul’s choice of words in 1 Corinthians 7:19, where he renounces physical circumcision, while yet telling the believers, “what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.” Paul did not reject the law when he rejected physical circumcision. There is a difference between the law and the covenant. The law is found in both covenants, for the promise of the New Covenant is this: “I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Hebrews 8:10).

The promise of God is to take the laws that had been written externally on tables of stone and transfer them to the internal tables of the heart. For what purpose? So that He may be our God, and we may be His people, even as we read in Deuteronomy 29:13. This is the meaning of heart circumcision. It cuts off the flesh from the heart, so that we no longer think carnally. True heart circumcision means that we no longer believe or act as if our old man (Adam-Israel-Flesh) has merit with God or that our old man can make a vow and actually keep it sufficiently to warrant being “chosen.”

In short, the New Creation Man that has been begotten by the Spirit is the evidence that we are like Isaac, son of Sarah, the New Covenant. Our old man, born of our natural parents, ruled by the fleshly soul, can only fail in his religious attempt to fulfill his best intentions. Death works in his flesh, and this disease or weakness causes him to sin.

So Paul sees the commandments of God, not as something that the old man ought to keep, but as evidence of God’s work in the New Creation Man. Commandments put the old man into bondage to laws that he is incapable of keeping; but the New Creation Man—that is, the spiritual man within—keeps those laws by nature. He is free to keep the law. As long as we walk according to the New Man, we keep the law. Those who despise the law, then, are living by the old man of flesh, regardless of how spiritual they may appear to religious men.

When Paul says that “the keeping of the commandments” is what matters, he uses the Greek term teresis, which means “to watch, to watch prisoners, and obey.” It is derived from the Greek verb tereo, which means “to observe in order to obey.” Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words defines it as:

“a watching, and hence, imprisonment, prison, Acts 4:3 and 5:18.”

So Paul was telling the Corinthians: “Do not be enslaved or imprisoned by the law through the Old Covenant. Instead, you should enslave or imprison the law by embracing it and keeping it.” The old man, which functions as a slave to the Old Covenant, is enslaved by the law. The New Creation Man, however, is set free by the New Covenant, so that he may in turn apprehend the law and keep it, not as a slave, but as a free man.

 The New Covenant turns the tables on the law, not by rejecting or despising it, but by fulfilling it through the power of God, not by the power of flesh. With this in mind, let us see how Paul moves on to the related topic of slaves and slavery.

How Slaves Can Be Free

1 Corinthians 7:20-22 says,

20 Let each man remain in that condition in which he was called. 21 Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. 22 For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise, he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave.

Slaves to men are freedman to the Lord, if, indeed, such slaves are under the New Covenant. Paul does not recommend that slaves should run away, at least not under normal circumstances. If somehow a slave is able to purchase his freedom, or if his master offers it to him out of love, then he should certainly do so. No doubt if God had given Paul the resources, he would have bought the freedom for many slaves. But Paul was not rich in money, though he was rich in spirit and in truth.

Paul says that some are “called in the Lord” while they are slaves. In other words, they hear the call of God and become believers while they are the slaves of men. Others are called and become believers as free men. Both slaves and free men are equal in the sight of God, for Paul says elsewhere in Galatians 3:28,

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Obviously, Paul was not speaking carnally of the various conditions of the flesh. There were certainly Jews and Greeks, slaves and free men, male and female in the world of flesh. But insofar as God is concerned, all fleshly distinctions do not exist, because believers have become new creations having an entirely new identity.

The New Creation Man “is the Lord’s freedman,” but he is also “Christ’s slave.” Paradoxically, we have found freedom as slaves of Christ, because “if therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).

Principles of Slavery

The law does not abolish slavery, but it regulates it so that it serves a righteous purpose. It is used to force sinners to pay restitution to their victims. If they cannot pay what they owe, they are to be sold into slavery to work off their debt (Exodus 22:3). This ensures that their victims are recompensed justly for their losses.

But such slavery is not perpetual, for the Jubilee ends all slavery every 49 years (Leviticus 25:10). Whatever debt yet remains at that time is cancelled, so that there is no perpetual liability for debt (i.e., sin). This is the law of grace.

Meanwhile, slaves were not to be mistreated. If someone mistreated a slave, the slave was to be set free (Exodus 21:26, 27). His debt was cancelled on account of a lost eye or tooth.

We also read of perpetual slaves in Exodus 21:5, 6,

5 But if the slave [being set free] plainly says, “I love my master, my wife and my children, I will not go out as a free man,” 6 then his master shall bring him to God or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.

Paul says that “the law is spiritual” (Romans 7:14). This is the law that describes how a slave can be “the Lord’s freedman” and how a free man in Christ can be “Christ’s slave.” It is a paradox. A man who loves his master is a slave, but he serves willingly, not against his will. Hence, the slave is not really a slave at all, for he does what he wants.

So also it is with those who are under the New Covenant. We are not unwilling slaves who seek freedom from Christ. We do not chafe under His laws and commands. We are not oppressed by His yoke, for His yoke is easy and His load is light (Matthew 11:30). Our labor is a delight, not a drudgery. If we are happy and joyful as Christ’s slaves, then we are truly under the New Covenant. But if we feel oppressed and depressed, it is because we are yet under the Old Covenant in some manner.

The old man is under the Old Covenant; the New Creation Man is under the New Covenant. Since both “men” are yet in the same house, we usually find ourselves dealing with both of them at different times. We identity with our discontented slave (old man) one moment and with our contented free-slave at other times. But Paul admonishes us to identify with the New Creation Man and consider him to be “the real me.”

Paul concludes in 1 Corinthians 7:23, 24,

23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brethren, let each man remain with God in that condition in which he was called.

Christ redeemed us from the house of slavery. The price was His own life, which He gave freely on the cross. The law of redemption says that a man had the right to purchase his near kinsman from slavery, and when he did so, the kinsman was to serve his redeemer (Leviticus 25:53). Redemption did not set the slave free; he merely changed masters to one who would love him and treat him kindly.

Christ purchased us by the law of redemption. Hence, we are no longer slaves of men, but are Christ’s slaves. For that reason, we are not free to sin (or transgress the law). We cannot “sin that grace might increase” (Romans 6:1). We have a new Master whose commandments are “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Our old fleshly master commanded us to sin, but our new Master rules us by the law of God (Romans 7:22, 25) and conforms us to His image.


This is part 31 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in First Corinthians


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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones