In the Jewish culture, someone who fell on hard times could choose to sell himself as a slave to someone. If a person was deep in debt, he could sell himself to the person whom he owed money. It was often a wise and logical choice because your master was required to take care of your needs and treat you well.
This was not slavery as we have imagined slavery; masters treated their servants as family. Many viewed selling themselves as servants as a viable option to provide for their family and survive.
God instituted a law among His people that the seventh year all debts would be completely forgiven. People who sold themselves to wealthy businessmen would be freed after six years of service. God gave instructions to His people detailing how to free servants who sold themselves into service.
If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free. But if your servant says to you, “I do not want to leave you,” because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his ear lobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. (Deut. 15:12, 16–17 NIV)
Servants were given the option to stay with their master, to continue in the service of the person who bought them. Many chose to stay because life with their master was so much better than life elsewhere. They loved the master and his family. They could not imagine living elsewhere. They could not imagine working for anyone else. So the servant could say, “I don’t want to leave you. I want to stay.”
At that point a special ceremony took place. The servant would place his ear against a door, and the master would take an awl, which is a small piercing device, and pierce the earlobe of the servant. Through this special ceremony the master and the servant entered into a special relationship, a bond that lasted their entire life. The servant was marked for life as the willing and grateful servant of his master.
The marking was important so that everyone who saw the servant and the master together would know that the servant chose to stay and serve. The servant was with his master out of love and gratitude, not obligation.
Like Paul and Timothy, as a Christian you are a bondservant of Christ.
Before Christ you were ruined, bankrupt, and without hope. Yet Christ in His mercy purchased you and made you His own. He bought you not with silver or gold but with His own blood (1 Pet. 1:18–19). He gave you a new life, a home with Him, and a reason to live. He marked you as His own through the deposit of His Spirit into your life (Eph. 1:13).
And you stay with your Master because you love Him. While you serve because you love, you also know that true greatness is found in serving your Master.
Adapted from Identity (2008, B&H Publishing Group)