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Under Rowers for Christ

John A. Baugh
July, 2008

In his letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul made a simple statement that upon close inspection becomes very interesting - as if anything Paul ever wrote was less than interesting!

He wrote that he and his team wanted to be regarded as “servants”.

So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted
with the secret things of God.

(1 Corinthians 4:1)

Most anyone with a maturing relationship with Christ has at one time or another used the word “servant” to describe their standing with our Lord. Depending on how many times anyone has used the word; they might allow it to roll off the tongue with ease, and perhaps with little thought.

“With ease and little thought” were never appropriate words to describe any statement Paul made.

The Greek Word Translated As Servant

The Greek word Paul used that we translate as servant is huperetes. It is literally translated as "under rowers." For Paul to have written “Men ought to regard us as under rowers for Christ” means little to most of us, so we use the word servant, but for the Corinthians of the first century, and to anyone with any sea experience in that time, it was a serious term that they understood very well.

In those days, the city of Corinth sat on the isthmus, joining the southern peninsula to mainland Greece. In Paul's time it was a very cosmopolitan, wealthy and important Greek city. A ship tramway existed in the Corinth area that moved vessels overland across the isthmus to the opposite shore, rather than requiring them to make a lengthy sea voyage around the isthmus. Seeing ships moving across that tramway would have been a familiar sight to all people in the Corinth area. Like today’s Panama Canal, that overland transport system was in constant use and saved days of travel time for all who used it.

The most common boats of that day were the triremes or galley slave ships. These ships were equipped with anywhere from one to three banks of oars in three levels, one above another if there were multiple levels. The oars and those who pulled the oars functioned as propulsion for the vessels. The slaves on the lower levels who sat chained to the oars were called huperetes, the "under rowers".


The huperetes' job at the bottom of the ship was grim and it was permanent. There was little relief from the demands placed on these slaves. Most of these slave rowers died in service and the chains about their ankles served as a constant reminder of their servitude to the vessel’s captain.

There were five aspects of the work of the huperetes that Paul and his companions could identify with when they referred to themselves as "servants" of Christ.

·        First, the galley slave rowed “to the captain's beat”. In order to keep as many as 150 oars together, a rhythmic beat was sounded on a drum by the rowing mate. Each slave in the galley had to pull on their oar in time with the beat.

·        Second, the slaves had to row together. On larger craft, the oars were up to thirty feet in length and were pulled by up to three rowers per oar. The huperetes slaves quickly learned that one could not lean on the oar, another push, and another pull! They had to work as a team.

·        Third, they had to trust the captain. In the gloomy depths of the boat a slave had no idea where he was, where he was going, or the time of arrival. The life of the rower was one of total faith and obedience. As the captain's beat grew more and more rapid it might signal an impending enemy attack, a storm to be avoided, or a hurried schedule. The slave was not allowed to question which. His job was only to obey the beat of the captain’s drum and to row.

·        Fourth, the galley slave was committed for life. His was always a one-way trip. The damp, hard benches were no relief to his weary bones after a day's labor. Comfort was not a concern and the leg chains bound every slave to the ship with deadly certainty. And if the ship went down in a storm or in conflict, the slaves were tied to the fate of the ship with no way of escape.

·        Finally, the slave received no honor. Only the captain of the vessel was visible to the outer world. Although there were many men who gave their lives and very breath to keep the ship going, they were never seen. They rowed on and on, day in and day out, invisible to and unrewarded by the world. If an under rower was ever seen, it was because he was not doing his job.


In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul provided a portrait that was vivid to the people of Corinth and remains meaningful to us, many years later. He said it was a description of himself and his team in their service to the Lord. Likewise, it needs to describe us as disciples, today

Paul wanted to be known for five things (and we should, too):

1 - He was submissive. He rowed to the Captain's beat.

2 - He was sensitive. He worked in harmony with those about him.

3 - He was trusting. He had no concern where he labored for the Captain.

4 - He was dedicated. He was willing to labor at his post until death.

5 - He was humble. He wanted none of the glory to go to himself, but all to the Captain.

Although our motivation for serving Christ differs from the rowing slave’s relationship to their Captain, like the rowers, we need to:

1 – Remain obedient to our Master.

2 - Cooperate with our fellow servants.

3 - Trust the LORD to take us where we need to go.

4 - Remain in service to the Lord for a lifetime.

5 - Give Christ Jesus all the glory.

The galley slaves did these things out of fear, but we can do them with confident trust in a loving Captain whose plans for us are good.

"’For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’ '’ (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV).

Like the galley slaves of the seas of Corinth’s day, disciples of the Lord belong to someone else. Paul described this well when he wrote to the Corinthians, "You are not your own," … "you were bought at a price" (1 Corinthians 6:19, 1 Corinthians 6:20 NIV).

There is an important difference in our bondage from that of the Huperetes. The under rowers were held by the shackles and iron chains of a slave and we are held in Christ's service by a different kind of chain that Paul described when he wrote, "For Christ's love compels us. . ." (2 Corinthians 5:14).

As we give ourselves to the Lord, we need to have the goals of the Huperetes - Under Rower:

1 – To become truly submissive, rowing to the beat of the Lord.

2 - To pull together with our fellow servants in Christ Jesus.

3 – To be willing to go, trusting, wherever He leads (steers the ship).

4 - Our commitment to him needs to be a lifelong commitment.

5 – We need to have no expectation for glory in this world, only a desire to do all for Him.


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