So, we have come into dangerous territory in Colossians. It is dangerous because I think that this section of Paul’s letter to the Colossian believers can be all too easily divorced from the foundation that Paul laid in the first part of the letter. There is a temptation to go to the commands of Scripture and compile a list of instructions as if the really essential thing for our lives was the perfect list of do’s and don’ts.
But it is not.
This morning we enter the portion of Paul’s instruction where he gives what has been called, “rules for Christian households.” But we are not simply talking about “rules” as if Paul is holding up the perfect list by which we will become acceptable people.
No, we need to be clear that in Paul’s mind these are NOT the engine and power for the Christian life, they are in fact the fruit of the Christian life. Paul does not consider external conformity the cause of life; it is the result of life. Paul has made it clear that his chief concern is that the Word of Christ dwells richly in the church (Colossians 3:16). The gospel is the power of God for salvation from beginning to end.
Paul is not looking down from his self-righteous perch and teaching the rules by which he has attained to the abundant life and by which he will help others to attain it as well. No, in fact, he has labored in this letter to dismantle and destroy that kind of thinking.
If we jump to this section in Colossians and forget the gospel of Christ, which Paul has labored to lay out, we will miss how this section functions in Paul’s instruction to the church. It is all too easy to replace the power of God in Christ with man-made philosophies and then to cram Paul’s words into our own preconceived framework.
What Paul has labored to explain is that something radical has happened to us and in us when we received Christ by faith. If we have come to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ we are a new creation. We have been set free from sin and death and darkness and condemnation because of Christ. Now we are to live (to walk) in the light of that freedom and out of that freedom.
I worked in a state prison for 8 years. There is a certain phenomenon that takes place when people are incarcerated that I think will help us get a handle on how Paul wants us to think about the Christian life. There is a pretty typical process that takes place when freedom is taken away from a person.
This is what it looks like:
A young man, convicted of a crime, will come to the prison for the first time filled with a variety of emotions: fear, anger, guilt, depression. He comes in and is dealing with the severity of what he has done and the severity of the consequences he now faces.
If he is facing a very long sentence he is forced to come to grips with the fact that life in prison is now his reality. The life he had planned and the hopes and dreams he had looked forward to are ripped away from him. Steel, concrete, barbed wire, the inmate pecking order, constant surveillance by “the cops”, always being told what he can and can’t do, what he can and can’t wear, what he can and can’t eat, what he can and can’t say, the extreme restriction of ever part of his life is now his reality and there is nothing he can do about it.
This can feel unbearable and the reaction is often violence toward staff, toward other inmates, and especially toward himself.
But if this man survives the initial nightmare, typically, something will happen to him: he will begin to resign himself to the facts and learn to live in prison. He will learn to do this simply because he realizes there is no other choice, but truly he is boiling inside. He is still screaming inside, even as he has learned to conform on the outside.
But there is yet a further stage. When this young man is no longer so young and has been incarcerated for a long time and he has survived the initial shock and then learned to survive in his nightmare, something else tends to happen given enough time: he becomes what has been called institutionalized.
He stops boiling inside. He stops merely conforming externally. He actually embraces this life of restriction as his own, as his one proper role in this world. He stops dreaming of what life might be like and he plans the rest of his life as a prisoner. All his hopes and dreams and ambitions reach no further than the prison walls. He becomes dependent upon the routine and culture and the way of life in the prison. He feels safe there. It is his prison. It is his home. He so embraces his identity as an inmate that you no longer need to lock the gates. You could literally fling the gates open and he would not leave.
Now, from an officer’s prospective, it is a relief to deal with these men, because they have stopped fighting you. In fact, in many ways they want what you want: peace and quiet and safety in these walls. This is their home and they hope for no other.
Now, I am telling you about this sad process because I believe you and I can be like that institutionalized inmate. And the Apostle Paul has been trying to help us (us…who have been set free in Christ by faith) open our eyes, shake off our old imprisoned identity and live in this world as the holy, chosen, and beloved children of God that we truly are in Christ.
Like a person who has become institutionalized, we were all born enslaved to sin, it is all we knew; it was our identity, our home. The human condition is not that people are walking around free and simply decide to make mistakes and act like “criminals” sometimes.
The human condition is that we are born in this world in “the domain of darkness”(Colossians 1:13). We are born enslaved in the realm of darkness and our lives and hearts embraced that domain. We were born into this world enslaved to sin, alienated from the life of God, hostile in mind, doing evil deeds (1:21) and loving it.
But, the glory of the gospel is that God has delivered us from that domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son in whom we have redemption the forgiveness of sins (Col 1:13-14)! We, who have believed upon the Lord Jesus Christ, are no longer in prison because of what Christ has done for us! We are those who have been given the very Spirit of Christ who lives in us! We are qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in light! We are a new creation!
Now, the false teachers in Colossi came along and were teaching all kinds of different things to deliver people out of prison: you need to do this and do that. You need to write to the unit Sgt. You need to avoid all disciplinary actions. You need to go to education classes and impress the unit manager. You need to shave and speak politely. You need to write to the commissioner, you need to write to the governor and on and on. This, these teachers were saying, is how you will achieve deliverance, or maintain deliverance, or improve upon your deliverance.
Paul is writing to the Colossian believers and he is saying,
“Brothers, sisters, you’re not in prison. Don’t you remember that you believed upon the Lord Jesus Christ? Why are you submitting to those foolish teachers? None of the things you’re being told to do would have gotten you out of prison and none of the things you’re being told to doing are going to improve upon what you have already been given. Don’t you remember that God Himself delivered you from the domain of darkness and transferred you to the kingdom of His beloved Son? All charges against you have been dealt with at the cross. There is no more condemnation. You are a citizen of glory. You will never be imprisoned again. You are free.
“Instead of following lists and technics and schemes, open your eyes to the glory of who you are in Christ and where you are in Christ! Get your mind out of inmate thinking. Clear your head of that identity and set your mind on things above. Your life is hidden with Christ. Your hopes and dreams and ambitions are to be radically reoriented to Him and His kingdom because you have been delivered and raised with Him. Put away what is natural for an inmate, because your not one! You used walk in those things when you were an inmate, but you are not an inmate anymore. Embrace and pursue the life that is now yours, citizens of glory. You are free in Christ and chosen in Christ, holy and beloved in Christ.”
And so we come to our section of Colossians and Paul is not scolding these believers or threatening them or giving them “rules for Christian households”, as if their main problem is that they need a longer more detailed list.
Rather what Paul has been doing is gently shaking them awake, “brothers and sisters – look! Look around you! Look where you are because of Jesus! There is a feast before you from God! There is peace and rest and hope and light, not war and anxiety and despair and darkness. There is warmth and love and joy. Christ has conquered, established peace with God, and has won your freedom. Open your eyes”
And upon this foundation Paul writes,
“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.
Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”
The life of a Christian is gloriously connected to Christ’s victory. Out of that victory flows a life fitting in the Lord. In light of the freedom we have in Christ, live. When you received Christ Jesus you were given a place in His kingdom and that cannot be taken away from you. He loves you, He died for you, He reigns over you, He lives in you, He will pay back the wrong done to you, He will give you the eternal inheritance promised to all the holy ones, you possess in Christ far more than you could every dream (Acts 20:32; Hebrews 9:15; 1 Peter 1:4).
What we deal with as Christians is re-orienting ourselves everyday to the new reality of freedom. It is work to stop thinking about ourselves as prisoners of sin. You are not! If you have Christ, you are a citizen of glory, a child of God, an everlasting tribute to God’s grace, even today.
Are we tempted to live like slaves? Yes. Are we tempted to think about ourselves as prisoners and pursue hopes and dreams that make sense in that realm? Yes. Are there times when we are tempted to think we must work and scheme to be delivered? Yes. Therefore, we must constantly pinch ourselves and remind ourselves of who we are, what kingdom we belong to. Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly (Colossians 3:16)!
We need to remember our Savior, cling to Him, believe the glorious gospel and live in reference to Him and His perfect work for us and in us.
Paul’s instruction in this section is simply a call to live in reference to your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His gospel, to live out of your new birth and out of your heavenly citizenship as you await the eternal inheritance, the appearing of Our Savior. You are serving the Lord Christ.
Children, Fathers, Servants, Masters.
So, let’s unpack some of the details of this passage and wake up to who we are in Christ.
First of all, notice that each of these roles starting in verse 18 are roles in relationship and are either roles of authority or roles of submission.
Now, I am not saying that wives and children and slaves have identical roles. Nor that husbands, fathers, and masters share identical roles. But, I think it is significant that Paul is explaining that in this present age we still have roles of authority that are related to roles of submission.
These roles have not been eradicated by our connection to Christ, rather in these roles we are to understand that we belong to the Lord Jesus, our Savior who is reigning over us and living in us and will be appearing soon – and that reality transforms how we will relate to each other.
Last time we were in Colossians we looked closely at the relationship of husbands and wives. This time we will briefly consider the relationship of parents and children and the relationship of bondservants and masters.
Children to Parents:
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
First of all, notice that there is no specific age given here for children. It is probably best to understand this as referring to all children of any age who are still under their parents’ authority.
Notice, though, that children are considered by Paul to be responsible individuals in the church. Children ought not think that they are separated from the Body of Christ until they become adults. Children are addressed here. If you are child and you claim to be in Christ, to trust Christ, you are an heir of eternal life, you have the Spirit of God in you and you are a citizen of glory every bit as much as the elders. Live like it and obey your parents.
Fathers to Children:
Paul says (vs. 21), “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”
It is important to note that the word, translated father, was used at times to speak of both parents (as in Hebrews 11:23) so Paul could have both parents in view here.
Mark carefully that Paul is not here writing a detailed treatise on parenting. He is simply calling fathers, and I think also mothers, to wake up to who they are and to watch out for a certain kind of temptation that would not be fitting in the Lord.
This word provoke is a little bit hard to get at, but it appears that Paul is saying to fathers (and mothers) don’t be so heavy handed with your children that they become exasperated and cry out, “I’m never good enough. I can never win. I can never measure up.” Paul says don’t drive your children to anger or despair.
I think we could tease out of this some good practices like don’t belittle them, pick on them or berate them. Don’t exasperate them by throwing up their failures in their faces. The goal is encouragement, not discouragement. Treat your children, as you want your heavenly Father to treat you. Or better, treat them how your heavenly Father has treated you, that is, with gentleness and patience and sacrificial love. They are saplings not full grown oak trees (thank you Paul Tripp). Give them grace as you have received grace.
But, again let’s not lose sight of the emphasis here: We’re not called to a list. The keeping of a list is not the source and power and engine of our lives. Rather, we need to wake up to what we have and who we are in Christ and to live out of that reality – fix your eyes on Jesus and what He has done for you and in you and then turn to your children and lead them in light that reality.
Bondservants to Masters:
Paul addresses two more roles: bondservants and masters. I am not going to take up a full discussion about how the NT speaks of slavery, slaves, servants, and bondservants. Slavery as we know it from our own American history and human trafficking in our own society and around the world is a stomach churning reality and one which believers ought to concern themselves. There has been and continues to be horrifying dehumanizing practices that should be abhorred and renounced by those who know and love the truth.
But the proper response to these repugnant abuses is not what Paul is addressing here.
Paul is speaking into the context of his day where there were a variety of legitimate and legal relationships of authority and submission. In the times and cultures when the OT and NT were written someone could, for example, willingly enter a legal relationship of submission for financial reasons. We need to be careful that we do not paint all roles of submission and authority with this same ugly brush. I think first of Christ and His bride for example.
Again, without untangling all the difficult questions that may rise in our minds about these things I want to make sure that we see that Paul’s concern is not to incite a social revolution, but to open the eyes of believers to who they are in Christ and who they need to be looking to, whether they find themselves in positions of authority or in positions of submission. And with this I think we can all relate.
And so Paul says (22-25), “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality”
Let’s unpack a few of the phrases here:
Obey…not by way of Eye Service – we are not to be the guy who looks great when the boss is on the floor … diligent, hard working, takes initiative… until the boss leaves. Then his true colors emerge. He cares nothing for doing what is right and just and good, only for doing what is expedient to get him praised and promoted.
Obey… not as People Pleasers – along that some vein, these are the people who judge their own actions and successes upon whether or not people are pleased with them.
So Paul says, Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, but not like the guy who works hard only when the boss is around and not to please him, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.
Sincerity of heart – We are to be honest and absolutely straightforward in our attitudes, speech, and conduct. We should not be artificial or false in anyway, crafting our speech so as to impress or deceive.
Paul says we are to obey, Fearing the Lord – Paul is calling us to fully obey our earthly masters but with eyes and hearts fixed upon our Lord Jesus. Paul is talking about a sober acknowledgment of Christ as our true Lord in every action – a respect and reverence and honor and an exalting of Christ as you obey in everything your earthly masters.
(23)Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality”
Again this is Paul’s point: reorient yourselves heavenward. Yes, serve your earthly masters, obey them in everything, but do it having been made new. Wake up to who you are and serve as one who belongs to Christ in this world. You are a citizen of glory and very soon your Lord the Christ will appear. Embrace your role here with joy as you look to that day of His appearing… Which may well be today!
Masters to Bondservants:
Finally, “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”
We can see what Paul is doing. If you are in a position of authority, exercise that authority with reference to Christ your Lord. Treat those under your authority in the name of Christ and as you want Christ to treat you. Or better, as Christ has treated you.
For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
Paul wrote to the Colossian believers because of false teaching in their midst, which threatened to draw these saints away from the power, sufficiency, and supremacy of Christ and His work. If you have Christ Jesus the Lord you have freedom and life and fullness of joy with God forevermore. You are not who you once were. You are a citizen of the heavenly country and your Master in heaven, who loves you, is coming very soon. Live in these moments before He arrives embracing this new glorious identity and recognize that His Spirit is even now living in you.
The greatest need in our lives is not a list of tips and tactics for living; it is to consider afresh the person and work of Christ and His perfect salvation of our souls.
Our hopes and dreams and ambitions must be radically reoriented to Him and His kingdom because we have been delivered and raised with Him. Let us put away what is natural for those imprisoned in sin and guilt and death.
Put away inmate living because your not one!
We used to embrace those things when we were incarcerated – but we are not incarcerated anymore. Embrace and pursue the life that is now yours, citizens of heaven. You are free in Christ, chosen, holy and beloved in Christ.
It is when we awake to the reality that in Christ we have already been set free and set into the Kingdom where there is, even now, no condemnation, and from which there will never be any separation from God’s love, and it is when we awake to the reality of what God has done for us and the reality that Christ lives in us, that we will be children and parents, servants and masters, husbands and wives who are other-worldly: joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled lovers of God and lovers of one another.