Wholehearted Obedience
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Wholehearted Obedience

Ephesians 6:5–9  (ID: 3296)

Man’s chief end is “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” By nature, we don’t do that—but the Gospel creates within our hearts a longing to do the good works that God has prepared for us. Within the workplace, this change is evidenced by transformed relationships and transformed work. Alistair Begg reminds us that the Christian standard for employees requires sincere, wholehearted obedience. When we realize that all of our work is done for Christ, it reorients our perspective from our own performance to the glory of God.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Ephesians, Volume 9

Life Together Ephesians 5:21–6:9 Series ID: 14909

Sermon Transcript: Print

Well, let’s turn again to Ephesians, this time to the passage which is before us now, in Ephesians chapter 6, and we’ll read from verse 5:

“Bondservants,” or slaves, “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as [slaves] of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”

Father, grant now that as we turn to the Bible, that we might not only understand what it says but that we might live transformed by grace in the light of its truth. Help us to this end, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Well, as I say, we came out of this week thankful for the opportunity to gather these men from various parts of the country—indeed, from around the world. And the reason that the conference is still called Basics after nineteen years is because we’re still focused on the basics. And we were trying to say to one another a number of things that are foundational to the task to which we are called in pastoral ministry and therefore are central to what it means to gather as a church family when we do, as this, as we do on the Lord’s Day. And we were reminding one another, in the words of one of our speakers, that “the reason we gather in church is first that we may hear and submit to the voice of God in his word. He assembles us by his command, and we assemble to listen to his word. The word of God is the driving force that shapes authentic church life,” so much so that “unless our first desire when we gather is to hear and heed the voice of God in his word, we have missed the foundation point of the church.”[1] And then in the one to whom that individual was curate, in his words, in preaching, “the primary aim is not to achieve increased biblical understanding along with a few practical ideas for applying it to life.”[2] Often, that’s what people would say: “Well, why are we studying the Bible?” Well, so you can find out some things, and then, hopefully, the pastor—the teacher—will be able to give us some practical pointers. No, says the author, the aim is rather that, after the text is proclaimed, we will encounter God himself in a life-changing way.[3] In other words, that the Word will make a difference—will produce change. In Paul’s case, he is seeking to see his listeners re-created in the image of God.

So, with that as a foundation as we return to our studies and we go verse by verse and track by track along the way, I found myself challenged by the very things that I’ve just passed on to you. And I found myself standing back somewhat from the text for that very reason. And as I sat down to write my notes for this, I found myself beginning, actually, way back with the Shorter Scottish Catechism and the very familiar question, and in many cases an equally familiar answer. Question: “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”[4] The first, the foremost commandment is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”[5] So when we get up in the morning, if we pay attention to the Catechism and we say to ourselves, “Now, what am I supposed to be doing today? It’s Sunday, and I have the day before me,” the answer is, “My chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him.” And how will that glorification take place? Well, in the gathering of God’s people, in the hearing and heeding of his Word, in the confession of my sins, in the singing of his praise, in my encouragement of those around me.

And then how will that translate into Monday? Well, of course, on Monday I won’t be in this place. I’ll be somewhere else. What am I supposed to do on Monday? After all, I have all those appointments to keep, I’ve got the places to go, I have so much cleaning to do, and so on. Well, on Monday I’m going to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Of course, it raises an immediate problem, doesn’t it? And that is because, by nature, we’re not really interested in doing that. Some of you are listening to me, and you’re saying, “What a strange thing. I never once have thought about that.” Well, don’t be perturbed; you are surrounded by a great company.

I think if we went out from here today—we all scattered and said, “Let’s go out and see if we can find one person in the entire greater community who will be able to answer the question, ‘What is the chief end of man?’”—how many do you think we would find? Very, very few. And of those who were able to answer the question, there might be many who said, “I haven’t the foggiest idea what it means, and I’ve never really tried it.”

Why is that? Well, Paul explains why it is when he writes to the Romans. He says, “You see, the reason that God made you is so that you might know him, glorify him—and by nature you don’t want to do that. By nature, when you look at humanity, men and women decide they’d rather glorify themselves, please themselves—turn over the idea of a God to whom they’re accountable, to whom they ought to say, ‘Thank you for everything,’ and instead create little substitute gods for themselves.”[6]

In Rome, of course, there were lots of little gods. That’s what they had in the Pantheon, and there were various places in shrines and metal objects and creations of man’s imagination. We probably are not engaged in that at all, but we do have our own mental gods—substitute gods—that we have to go and do something with to try and unscramble the riddle of our lives, to make sense of who and what we are. And just as it led to futility in Rome, so it leads to futility in Cleveland. It leads, actually, to futility everywhere. Because what it does is, it explains who and what a man or a woman is before God. And what is that? Well, it’s an unpalatable word, but it’s the word the Bible uses: man is, by nature, a sinner.[7]

Some time ago now, in the earlier months of the year, I was in a group setting where they were having what they referred to as a “Bible study.” You could never have guessed, because nobody had a Bible at all. And they were talking about different things, but they got into a huge discussion about the nature of sin. And it was absolute chaos. If you had taken all the men and laid them end to end, they couldn’t have reached a conclusion between them. And eventually, although I was not there to give any kind of direction at all, I couldn’t contain myself. I know you’ll be surprised by that, but that’s just the facts. And I had to stand up and say, “Now, listen, a sinner is not simply a person who does things that he shouldn’t do. But a sinner is primarily a man or a woman who does not live for the glory of God.” Who doesn’t live for the glory of God. Who doesn’t even think about it. Every so often, he may think of God because of some happenstance, but by and large it’s not even a consideration. Why is that? It is, as Luther says, because we by nature are curved in upon ourselves.[8] We are focused on who we are, what we are, what we want to be, where are we going to go, what we can achieve, and so on. It’s perfectly understandable. And it is challenged by the Scriptures.

Now, you see, Paul is writing here to people who had come to an understanding of the fact that they were in the wrong with God. They had then discovered that in Jesus they were put in the right with God, and having been put in the right with God, they were no longer in the wrong. It was really quite logical.

As we take our rest and our trust and our confidence in Jesus, so we find ourselves in God’s family.

If you turn, actually, to Ephesians 2 for just a moment, let’s remind ourselves of the way in which Paul puts this. He’s writing to those, at the end of chapter 1, who have, he said, heard the word of truth, the gospel of their salvation, and they have believed it.[9] So there has been a message proclaimed that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,[10] that Jesus has come and borne the punishment that we as sinners deserve, and he has lived the life in perfection of God’s law that we are supposed to live but cannot live. And as we take our rest and our trust and our confidence in Him, so we find ourselves in God’s family.

But that wasn’t the case. Chapter 2, verse 1:

You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived…

No exceptions: “All have sinned and fall[en] short of the glory of God.”[11]

…in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind … by nature children of wrath…

Again, notice:

…like the rest of mankind.

Well, then, we were stuck. Yes.

But God…

Here’s the gospel:

…being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us…

even though we didn’t love him,

…even when we were dead in our trespasses…

and therefore could not make ourselves alive, he then

…made us alive together with Christ—[so it’s] by grace you[’ve] been saved—and [he’s] raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you[’ve] been saved through faith. … This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, [it’s] not a result of works…

If it were, then you could go out and boast about it. No:

We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.[12]

Quite remarkable, isn’t it? It’s an amazing account of life without Jesus and then life with Jesus.

In sort of contemporary terms, he describes the fact that we were all “living on Dead End Street.”[13] Those of you who are of my vintage know the song “[Dead End Street]”—the Kinks, and Ray Davies, you know, he wrote that; he said it was a social comment on the lower classes of England and a statement regarding their physical and financial poverty. Which, of course, I guess it was. But unwittingly, he made a classic statement of the spiritual condition of man outside of Christ. Because outside of Christ, we’re dead men living on Dead End Street, trying to make sense of the whole journey of life.

Spiritual poverty, you see, is classless. Ray Davies, I think he thought, “You know, if we could only fix the poverty—the physical poverty—then everybody’ll be much better off, will be much happier, and things’ll become swimmingly beautiful in England.” I lived in the ’60s there. I go back there in where we are now, and the knife killings in London are epidemic. And the problem is not financial poverty. The problem is, these guys are living on Dead End Street. They don’t know where they came from. They don’t know why they’re here. They don’t know where they’re going.

What is the chief end of man? What is the reason for our existence? That we might glorify God and enjoy him forever.

You see, Zacchaeus was on Dead End Street. Clever little businessman; nobody liked him. In fact, they hated him so much he had to climb up a tree for his own safety, apart from anything else. And Jesus brought him off that street. Nicodemus, a religious man, knowing all the right kind of questions, living on Dead End Street. The lady who’d had five husbands and had a live-in lover, living on Dead End Street. Saul of Tarsus, proud, arrogant, Jewish, intellectual, living on Dead End Street. “But God, who is rich in mercy, loved.” Loved!

I begin in this way this morning because, you see, one of the great dangers in the very practical nature of what we’re dealing with is that some may come diligently, interestedly, and misinterpret or at least misapply what we’re doing when we’re studying the Bible in this way—might be tempted to think that what Paul is doing here is, he’s providing a kind of ethical code which relates in marriage and in the home and now in the workplace, and if we could just get ahold of this and apply it, as it were, from the outside in, then perhaps God, if he is a good God and exists, he will reward us because we’re nice people and we’re trying our best.

Well, no, you see, we’re dead people, and we need to be made alive.

When Paul, in a summary statement, put it to the Philippians, he said, concerning what it meant for him, “To me, to live is Christ.”[14] Six words: “To me, to live is Christ.” “To me”: something personal, in my acceptance of Jesus, in my allegiance to Jesus. “Is Christ”: it is something practical; every matter may be shared with him, every moment may be spent with him. “Is Christ”: it is something possible.

Now, I address you in this way this morning because I fear that some of you are not at all in Christ—though you have a nice car and a nice home and a nice job, but you’re a dead man, or a dead woman. And only Christ can make you alive. And until in Christ we are made alive, then we remain in that condition, and then we do not have the dynamic that is required in order to live the life that is described for us here in the passage to which we now turn.

Well, you say, “Well, hurry up and get to the passage to which we turn.” All right. I understand that entirely.

Now, what Paul has been saying, really, since chapter 4 is that being a Christian makes you different. Being a Christian makes you different. I think we ought to just acknowledge that now for once and for all. Some of us are at great pains to explain to our friends, “No, we’re not different at all.” And our friends, if they’ve concluded that that is an accurate statement, find themselves saying to themselves, “So what’s the whole point of the Christian thing in the first place? I mean, if it leaves you exactly as you were as a dead man or a dead woman, why do you do this stuff?”

So, we have to say that what the Bible says about us is what we must acknowledge about ourselves: that we are different, that we are peculiar, that we are no longer what we once were. In Jesus, we are different. And that that difference is then manifested not because we all wear funny clothes or a plastic nose but because in engaging in the everyday events of life—in marriage and in family and in the workplace—there is a dimension that is ours in Jesus. And that that difference, although it may only be embryonic in many cases, is nevertheless a real difference. And that the whole program of the Christian life is that we would be increasingly conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus, so that hopefully, in Jesus we’re going to be better tomorrow at work than we were on Friday when we left work; that I’ll be a better husband to my wife today on Mother’s Day than I was yesterday, when I didn’t hardly help her at all; that I will be a more obedient boy to my mom than I was when I told her, “I don’t want to make my bed, and you’re a horrible mother,” and then it was Saturday, and today’s Mother’s Day, and you feel so wretched, don’t you? And so you should, you little rascal. The fact of the matter is that if you’re professing to be a Christian boy or a Christian girl, then you realize God has made you different, and you are to be different, by his grace.

You see, what is being worked out here is the grace of the gospel. What does the gospel do in a marriage? What does the gospel do in a family? What does the gospel do in a workplace? And if it doesn’t do anything, then it’s irrelevant. It’s transformative.

Now, that is why we have tried constantly to make sure that we don’t get disengaged from the end of chapter 5—or midway through chapter 5—where Paul is saying to these individuals who are now the followers of Jesus, “Make sure that you are filled with the Holy Spirit; be filled with the Holy Spirit.”[15] It’s the present continuous tense: “Go on being filled with the Holy Spirit.” God the Father has sent Jesus; Jesus has accomplished the work of the Father. He has ascended to heaven. He has sent the Spirit. “I will go away,”[16] he says to his followers, “and the one who comes will be with you and will be in you.”[17] And how will that then be manifested? Well, in love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control[18] and so on. And that will then be revealed in our submissive spirit—a spirit of submission, first of all, to Jesus, and then to the responsibilities within the home, and then to the responsibilities within the workplace.

And so it is that we are here in the passage that we began last time—slaves and masters.

Unique Particulars, Timeless Principles

Now, let me do this one slight reverse: let’s acknowledge that the particulars to which Paul is referring here are in some senses unique. The particulars that he’s addressing are unique. Slaves and masters. We already identified the fact that approximately a third of the Roman Empire was part and parcel of slavery. If you remove slavery from the Empire, it would be like removing machinery from the manufacturing industry in the United States of America. The whole thing would be shut down in an instant. And it is in that context that Paul is addressing… Paul could not have removed slavery even if he’d tried. Christianity was regarded as the offscouring of humanity. It had no influence whatsoever. They could not have brought down a system that was so fundamental to the structure of the Roman Empire. That is not to say that the gospel didn’t affect it, because it did, but it’s just to acknowledge that.

And throughout all of history, everyone who has looked on these circumstances has condemned slavery, and for every right reason. Calvin, in the sixteenth century, referred to slavery in terms of original sin—the whole notion of enslavement. And he said it is “a thing totally against all the order of nature that human beings fashioned after the image of God should ever be put to such reproach.”[19]

When a couple of weeks ago we looked in the evening at the little letter of Philemon, we realized there that the gospel radically altered immediately the relationships between slave and master. And if you don’t remember, then reread Philemon; it’ll only take you a couple of minutes while you are waiting for your soup to cool. Paul says to Philemon, he says, “I am sending Onesimus back to you, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave. I’m sending him back to you as a beloved brother.”[20] So you see, the gospel has already begun to undermine the institution of a context such as that. It took a long time for it to happen, which is a matter of some shame, I think. But we ought to be very, very glad that when eventually slavery is abolished, at the very heart of it is the Bible, is the gospel, and are evangelical Christians such as William Wilberforce. History affirms this. And in most recent terms, in the United States of America, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King was clearly driven by his Christian principles in what he did. But I don’t want to delay any further on that whole issue itself; it will reward your own consideration.

So, the particulars that he’s addressing in Ephesus are unique; the principles are timeless. And we will look at some of these principles. We can only start this morning; we can continue later on.

The Christian standard for work and service is totally different from earthly and secular notions.

The principles apply, as you look at them, to employers and employees in every age. These principles are applicable for you and for me, tomorrow, in the workaday life. This, I say to you again, is the gospel of grace at work, at work. And the Christian standard, as we see here, for work and service is totally different from earthly and secular notions. Some of you work in human resources; some of you are involved in representation of various groups within the structure either of education or of government or of manufacturing life and so on. And you know that there are all of these things that are sent out to us, and the reason that we have them all and have to pin them all up on the wall is actually because of where we started: that we are by nature sinful, and therefore selfish. And so governments and agencies then say, “This is what you’re going to have to do if you all manage to live together properly.” But of course, as you know, you can stick those things on the wall, you can actually wear them underneath your T-shirt, but it will not result in you actually living in the light of those truths.

This is the grace of the gospel at work, which is at work, first of all, internally. You see, it is an internal transformation that dealt with slavery, and it will be an internal transformation that deals with racism. Only on the inside! Only when a man or a woman are changed from the inside. The only real United Nations is a United Nations that is found at the cross of Jesus Christ. And so Paul is making this perfectly clear as he gives his direction.

Working for the Boss

What he does now is, he has a section that goes essentially 5–8, that we could consider under the heading, “Working for the Boss,” and then, in verse 9, “Working as the Boss.”

Working for the boss. What does he say? Obey your earthly masters sincerely; a proper sense of respect; fulfilling responsibility; and doing a service rendered to Jesus himself.

So, if we ask the question, “What then are we supposed to do?”—number one, obey. Obey. That’s an immediate challenge, isn’t it? I think just about every single one of us has a problem with doing what we’re told. There’s no instruction being given—through here in the nursery right now, there’s no special little group about how to disobey your mom. No, we’re trying to help them to not disobey their mom. Why? Because disobeying their mom comes naturally. Why does it say, “Obey your boss”? Because we don’t want to obey our boss.

You might find yourself saying, “What made him so special? What made her so great? Why is she saying this?” That’s the kind of natural response: “I’m pretty clever in myself. I could have worked this out myself. I don’t have to have somebody come here on a Monday morning tell me, ‘These are the six things you need to do.’ In fact, I don’t want anybody to come and tell me, ‘These are the six things you need to do.’ Don’t tell me which blood tests I have to go through. I’m perfectly trained.”

Well, you’re a Christian. And your boss has got a list for you. Then get ready; you know the list is coming. And the gospel will change the way in which you respond to the list.

You see, because remember, before you were converted, you were part of that band, that rock and roll band that we read about in Ephesians 2: the Sons of Disobedience.[21] That’s where we lived. That’s the music that we played. But now we have been transferred; we’re in a new group. We’re in the Freedom Fighters—not the Foo Fighters, the Freedom Fighters. And so, as a Christian employee, I am supposed to be exemplary in the way I take direction from my boss. I take it that that’s what that means: “Obey your earthly masters.” And he’s going to go on and qualify that and tell us how we obey them. But don’t let’s go to how just immediately. Let’s just go to what. Some of us would make a huge step forward in our witness to the gospel if we would just take direction—if we would just let the person tell us what it is they would like us to do without any immediate feedback, without entering into a discussion group, without coming up with seventeen suggestions: “Just tell me what you want me to do.”

“Sweep the floor.”

“Got it. Thank you. Do you want me to sweep it this way—?”

Don’t start; just sweep the floor. That’s all I had. If I wanted to expand on the directions, I would have done so.

Now, does this mean, then, that the boss can tell us to do anything at all, and we have to obey it, no matter what he tells us to do? No, it can’t be. There are at least three qualifications.

One, we cannot obey immoral directives. We cannot obey immoral directives. Under God, we have no responsibility to do that which is immoral. So, for example, the Hebrew mothers at the time of Moses—the instruction from the authorities in Egypt was, “Kill these boys.”[22] Well, they said, “No, we’re not going to kill the boys.” Why? It would be immoral! And so Moses was hidden in a basket. That was disobedience. It was disobedience to the authorities, because the authorities exercised occult immorality. Some of you are involved in the medical profession, some of you are involved in obstetrics, some of you are involved in gynecology; some of you are involved in all these things. You have got a real challenge in relationship to the question of abortion.

Immoral. Also, secondly, if it is idolatrous. Idolatrous. Think Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel chapter 3: “We built a nice statue here, and we’re going to have all the employees of the household bowing down this afternoon at three o’clock.”[23]

“Well, it says you’re supposed to obey.”

“Yes, I know, but not idolatry.” Why? Because it would be to deny who my real master is.

And the same would be true in terms of suppressing the gospel. Think Acts chapter 4: “Now, Peter, John, the rest of you, we do not want any more of the Jesus stuff. You can go around and do whatever you want to do, but you’re not allowed to do the Jesus thing.”

They said, “Well, you’re gonna have to judge for yourselves whether it is right for us to obey God or to obey you.”[24]

You say, “Well, you’ve gone very quickly to qualify the categorical nature of obedience.” Well, I’m just anticipating the questions: “Does this mean categorical obedience?” Well, no, not in terms of these three factors.

Well then, if that is what is to happen, how is it to happen? Well, we’re going to just begin this, and then we’ll have to break off. First of all, “with fear and trembling.” With fear and trembling: “Obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” Does this mean that when you go in tomorrow morning and you see your boss, you’re supposed to go in like this? No, don’t be silly, for goodness’ sake! No. You may go in like that because he’s a threatening boss, but that’s verse 9, and we’ll have to deal with him, maybe this evening. But that’s not what’s in mind here.

It’s a familiar phrase for Paul, isn’t it? In Philippians he talks about “work[ing] out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”[25] He says, when he writes to the Corinthian church, that when he arrived in Corinth, he didn’t come in like a bigshot with a big speech and everything; he said, “[No,] I was with you in weakness and in fear and [in] much trembling.”[26]

On what basis was this trembling? It was the trembling… He wasn’t afraid of the people in Corinth! Actually, the word for “fear” is the word phobos, which gives us our English word phobia. Which, if you think on a continuum, on the one hand, at the far end, it would be absolute terror, and on the other hand it would mean reverence or respect or love. Earlier in the passages, in terms of marriage, you see that the word “fear” is far more on this end of the spectrum than it is on this one. So the whole notion of respectfully responding to those who are in authority over us is right here. It’s not some kind of paralyzing fearfulness of my master; rather, a realistic sense of caution about misrepresenting my own Master and Lord, Jesus, or a misrepresenting of the gospel itself.

We may mar our Christian testimony by an attitude of disinterest, rebellion, or antagonism.

So, make sure you obey your boss in such a way that you don’t misrepresent Jesus, who is your Lord and your Master. If you want to have a sense of fearfulness and tremble, tremble about the thought that we may mar our Christian testimony by an attitude of disinterest, rebellion, antagonism. Because after all, remember, our friends and work colleagues have been told by us, presumably, that we have become the followers of Jesus. They perhaps have come to one of the Christmas services with us. And now they’re trying to figure out how this Christmas service stuff has flowed into the framework of the life of their employee, who is now becoming a kind of standout when it comes to recalcitrance, or a spirit of rebellion, or a catalyst for disruption within the office.

You say, “Well, you don’t know much about this. You don’t have a proper job. You’ve never had a proper job.” No, I’ve had a lot of proper jobs. And I think I understand this. And I certainly understand the difference between a sincere heart and an insincere heart—between, if you like, eye-service and heart-service.

In other words, when I worked as a gardener—please do not laugh!—when I worked as a gardener one summer, if you had seen me at any point, if you had seen me very industriously involved, you could safely assume that the boss was somewhere at a vantage point who could see me. If you could see me not particularly industrious, you could pretty well guarantee that the boss had gone off to see his mother-in-law or something. And you would be able to assume, if you looked at me, “His heart is not in it. His heart’s not in it.”

There’s something of that here in this exhortation: a fearfulness lest I mar the testimony of Christ, and with a sincerity of heart that is not concerned simply to impress the individual when they’re present or to do as little as I can when they’re not present but actually is exercising from the very core of my being. And not because I totally love the stuff! But because I love Jesus.

You see, because people say, “Well, it’s okay if you’ve got a nice job and everything. You get to go out, you have business lunches, and things like that. But what about the fact that I’m here, and I’m putting these plastic pots together, and I’m supposed to do eighty-five of them every four and a half minutes? And they come through that production line; it’s just the same. And it goes like this: you get a twenty-minute break, you go over, have a coffee, you come back, and you do it again, again, again, and again. It’s absolute drudgery. It’s mindless. It’s okay for you, it’s okay for her.” Does it apply? Of course it applies. Because that’s the place of God’s appointing. And there’s no ideal place to serve God except the place he puts you.

Now, when we begin to grasp that, then we realize what an amazing thing it is—in just a phrase—when I realize that it is Christ I am serving.

I remember when I would go and do visitation for Derek Prime, way back ’75, ’76, the early part of ’77. And I would go and I would visit people in nursing homes, in hospitals. Some of them were barely compos mentis. I could give you chapter and verse, but—accept that from me. And so, I would go in there in the ward—you know those wards—and I would go down the corridor, and I would then sit at the lady’s bed, and she wasn’t “there.” And so, I would stay for a bit, and then I would read a part of the Bible, and then I would pray, and then I would leave. And I remember one of the staff meetings—we were having a staff meeting—and I said to my boss—I said to Derek—I said, “You know what, I don’t think I’m going to those things anymore. I don’t do any of those.”

He said, “Why not?”

I said, “Well, Mrs. X, she doesn’t even know I’m there. Nobody cares.”

He said, “You don’t get it, do you? ‘Inasmuch as you have ministered to one of the least of these, my brethren, you have ministered unto me.’”[27] He said, “This is for Christ that you do this. This is for the gospel that you do this. This is not related to how much satisfaction you receive from it. Because it is Christ you’re serving.”

You see, the radical difference that this transformation makes in an employee—what it argues for is that Christian employers ought to be, on the one hand, fascinated by our testimony if we’re given opportunity to proclaim it, but way and beyond that, absolutely convinced when they go home at night, “There’s not a better worker in this place than Miss X. I don’t know why it is. Her job’s the same every day. She has a spring in her step, she has a light in her eye; she’s the helpful person, she’s first on the thing, she never skips off early. I don’t know what her problem is. Maybe it’s that Jesus stuff.”

See, because let’s not get this upside down, church. Our greatest potential is not when we’re here; it’s when we’re not here. My job and your job is not to live in such a way that when it comes time to invite somebody to a Christmas program, they will actually come. That’s a good thing to do. But have you seen how many of them come back? You seen all the effort that’s involved? In business terms, for what kind of “return”? But it’s good to do; we love to do it. But no, your greatest impact is where I can’t go. I can’t go in your place. I’m not allowed in your lab. I’m not in that library. I don’t have a job in a bank. I don’t make calls on people’s homes. I’m stuck here with this group, for crying out loud. And they’re stuck with me! ’Cause we live in a little bubble. But you’re out there. You’ve got one of those bosses. You got a verse 9 boss? You got a fantastic opportunity. I’m envious. I’m envious! Tell me, what’s it really like going to work?

You think about this congregation: three times over, one more in the evening, scattered in greater Cleveland. Not with a bunch of tracts, not with bumper stickers. Just husbands loving their wives, wives submitting to their husbands. Just children obeying their mom and dad, and parents not provoking their children to wrath. Just employees showing up on time with a smile on their face, and employers who don’t threaten their employees and act like a tyrannical rascal. The people are going, “What the world is this about?” The difference.

Do you know George Herbert’s poem “The Elixir”? With this I close, where he writes,

  Teach me, my God and King,
  In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in [every]thing
  To do it as for Thee.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
  A servant with this clause
  Makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
  Makes that and th’ action fine.[28]

Well, we’ll come back to this.

Father, write your Word in our hearts. Help us in this. Bring us, Lord, from a broad road that leads to destruction onto the narrow road that leads to life.[29] Move us by your grace from Dead End Street into the realm where life, and life in all of its fullness,[30] is found in Jesus. And then help us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to increasingly be conformed to the image of Jesus, who did not come to be served, but to serve, and gave his life as a ransom for many.[31] And it’s in his name we pray. Amen.

[1] Christopher Ash, Remaking a Broken World: The Heart of the Bible Story, rev. ed. (n.p.: The Good Book Company, 2019), 71.

[2] Murray Capill, The Heart Is the Target: Preaching Practical Application from Every Text (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014), 17.

[3] Capill, 17.

[4] The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1.

[5] Mark 12:30 (paraphrased). See also Luke 10:27.

[6] Romans 1:21–23 (paraphrased).

[7] See Romans 3:23.

[8] See, for instance, Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans.

[9] See Ephesians 1:13.

[10] See 2 Corinthians 5:19.

[11] Romans 3:23 (ESV).

[12] Ephesians 2:3–10 (ESV).

[13] Ray Davies, “Dead End Street” (1966).

[14] Philippians 1:21 (NIV).

[15] Ephesians 5:18 (paraphrased).

[16] John 8:21 (paraphrased).

[17] John 14:17 (paraphrased).

[18] See Galatians 5:22–23.

[19] John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Banner of Truth, 1973), quoted in John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: God’s New Society, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1979), 257.

[20] Philemon 1:12, 16 (paraphrased).

[21] See Ephesians 2:2.

[22] Exodus 1:16 (paraphrased).

[23] Daniel 3:4–5 (paraphrased).

[24] Acts 4:18–19 (paraphrased).

[25] Philippians 2:12 (ESV).

[26] 1 Corinthians 2:3 (ESV).

[27] Matthew 25:40 (paraphrased).

[28] George Herbert, “The Elixir,” The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), 640–41.

[29] See Matthew 7:13–14.

[30] See John 10:10.

[31] See Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.