A bondservant is a slave. In some Bibles the word bondservant is the translation of the Greek word doulos, which means “one who is subservient to, and entirely at the disposal of, his master; a slave.” Other translations use the word slave or servant.
In Roman times, the term bondservant or slave could refer to someone who voluntarily served others. But it usually referred to one who was held in a permanent position of servitude. Under Roman law, a bondservant was considered the owner’s personal property. Slaves essentially had no rights and could even be killed with impunity by their owners.
The Hebrew word for “bondservant,” ‘ebed, had a similar connotation. However, the Mosaic Law allowed an indentured servant to become a bondservant voluntarily: “If the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life” (Exodus 21:5-6).
Many prominent men of the Old Testament were referred to as servants. God spoke of Abraham as His servant (Genesis 26:24; Numbers 12:7). Joshua is called the servant of the Lord (Joshua 24:29), as are David (2 Samuel 7:5) and Isaiah (Isaiah 20:3). Even the Messiah is called God’s Servant (Isaiah 53:11). In all of these instances, the term servant carries the idea of humble nobility. Being God’s servant is an honorable position.
During the time of Jesus and the first-century church, as much as one third of the Roman population were slaves, and another third had been slaves earlier in life. It was common for freeborn men and women to work side-by-side with slaves as street sweepers, dockworkers, doctors, teachers, and business managers. Convicted criminals became bondservants of the state and usually died working in the mines or on galleys.
Historical records reveal that it was not unusual for Jews to own slaves during the New Testament period. Because slavery was a familiar part of the culture, Jesus sometimes referred to slaves and owners in His parables (e.g., Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 12:41-48). Also, Jesus taught that the greatest in God’s kingdom would have to become “the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Such a concept was unthinkable to a Roman citizen, who prided himself in his freedom and would never identify himself as a bondservant. But Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and the selfish values of earth are of no consequence in heaven.
Throughout the New Testament, the word bondservant, slave, or servant is applied metaphorically to someone absolutely devoted to Jesus. Paul, Timothy, James, Peter, and Jude all describe themselves as “bondservants of Christ” (Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1:1, NKJV).
Believers today should still consider themselves bondservants or slaves of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22; Ephesians 6:6; 2 Timothy 2:24). He is our Lord, and our allegiance is due to Him alone. As bondservants, we renounce other masters (Matthew 6:24) and give ourselves totally to Him (Matthew 16:24).
Being a bondservant of Christ is not drudgery. His “burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Also, we have this promise: “Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (Romans 6:22).