The Impact of Words
Romans 1:1 (ESV) 1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God . . .
In only eighteen words in the English text of Romans 1:1 the apostle Paul summarizes his whole life. Those eighteen words can be further condensed to four (three in the Greek text):
- servant (doulos = “slave)
- called (kletos = “selected and assigned”)
- set apart (aphoridzo = “separated”, “set apart”).
Do you remember that old saying from when you were a kid? “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? I usually heard myself using those words when someone else’s words were hurting me. Was it like that for you?
The reality of life in the world is that words have a tremendous impact. Whether that impact is negative or positive in our personal experience rests a great deal on the intent of the speaker and our understanding of the words being used. The questions are, do we understand the motive of the speaker and do we understand the meaning of the words? We are forced by Paul’s use of these three words to ponder his heart and the meaning of these specific words in order to judge the impact they can and should have on our own hearts and spiritual development. At the moment we are focusing on the word doulos. Doulos means “slave” and Paul uses the word in an unusual context to provide a uniquely deep insight into the functional relationship between Christ and His disciples.
The context is unusual because almost no one, who wasn’t a slave, would have an immediate affection at being called a slave, not by Paul or anyone else! Slaves were barely human. They were consumable property, without any right or purpose beyond service. And Paul identifies himself and his fellow believers as sharing a common relationship with those below the lowest rung on the social ladder of the time! There’s no getting around it. Paul uses this word to reveal that the relationship of one who is “all in for Jesus,” is one of utter surrender to Christ’s will and ownership.
Two questions remain for us to explore. First, how does one come to be a doulos of Christ Jesus? Second, what does it mean, in a practical sense, to “belong to Jesus Christ,” as Paul describes the spiritual, relational state of the Christians in Rome in verse six? Let’s tackle the first question first and save the second question for the next post.
See those three words in the list at the beginning of this post: doulos, kletos, aphoridzo? There’s the answer to our first question, how does one become a doulos of Christ Jesus? A doulos is kletos (called) and aphoridzo (set apart). The last two words modify the first word. The last two words tell us how the first word comes to be in a person’s life.
We typically think of being called as a verbal address. When my mom would stand on the front porch of the house on Marlboro Lane and holler loudly, “DALE CARLETON MCINTIRE, YOU GET OVER HERE RIGHT NOW!” I knew I had been called. And when someone dials one of my three phone numbers, and my phone rings, announcing someone’s interest and invitation to a conversation, I know I am being called.
There are Greek words for those kinds of calling, entreaty and invitation, but the word Paul uses here is not one of those words. Instead, he uses a relatively rare word. Kletos is used only 10 times in the New Testament (of the 299 times the English word “called” in used in the NT in the ESV.) Jesus uses this word when he says, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Paul uses the word most frequently. He uses it four times in Romans (three times in 1:1-7 and once in 8:28) and three times in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. Jude uses the word once of his audience:
Jude 1:1 (ESV) Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
and the apostle John uses it in Revelation 17:14 of those who accompany Christ on the final battle and his victory over all His enemies:
Revelation 17:14 (ESV) They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”
This word kletos means one who is selected and appointed. It is more than entreaty or invitation which the recipient of call can refuse or ignore. I could ignore momma when she called (though I quickly learned that was an unprofitable strategy.) I can decline a call that comes in on my cell phone with a simple swipe downwards. But the call of which Paul speaks here, the call that makes a person a doulos of Christ Jesus is an authoritative and empowered conscription into service of Christ. This kletos, this call, is the sovereign work of God in a believer’s life accomplishing God’s will for His purpose and His glory. This call is irresistible and irrefutable. It cannot be ignored or declined. It is non-negotiable.
One becomes a doulos of Christ Jesus through the sovereign grace of God who works His will in the lives of those whom He chooses to transform them from slaves to sin and fear and death to slaves of righteousness and of Christ. The selection and assignment come from God and are not self derived. One cannot “call” himself or herself in the sense of kletos. This is what makes a doulos of Christ Jesus a position and condition of divine grace and mercy. God has done this for His glory and for our good. Thus Paul uses kletos in Romans 8:28:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
What is God’s purpose for those whom He calls? To engage them as douloi in His mission, which we already know is to fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord through the proclamation of the gospel and faith in Jesus Christ. This calling to faith and mission is specifically stated by Jesus Himself in John 15:16:
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
“Chose you and appointed you,” is another way of saying the true Christian is called to serve, kletos.
Many Christians today seem to think that God invited them into faith so they could be served by Christ. They seem to think that He died for them so they could appropriate God’s blessings for themselves. They seem disappointed, and even rebellious, when they hear a message that beckons them to real faith and real service. Is that you? Are you one who thinks Jesus came to serve you but has no thought of you serving Him?
My friend, God calls us to makes us douloi (slaves.) We are slaves who are loved and tenderly care for, and for whom the Master plans the utmost joy and delight in His glory, but we are slaves nonetheless. For this we are “called” and “set apart.” More on being “separated, set apart” next time. For now, think carefully about your service to the Christ. Are you living up to your calling (kletos)? How might your life change if you undertook to live and serve not as a peer of Christ but as a slave of Christ?