Last night we continued our study of Paul’s letter to the Colossian church, looking specifically at the small section of verses from 3:18 to 4:1. Below are the notes..
When we read Colossians 3:18-4:1, We can acknowledge, right off the bat, that some people will have some problems with this passage.
Two Things to help us understand the passage:
- Establish the kind of thought world these commands exist in.
- See the context of the letter—what kind of people and what kind of community got these commands?
1: First: Basic Ideas to understand the passage in our current climate:
- God created us, God tells us how to live.
- God’s instructions only make sense in God’s universe. (God exists (1:16-18); Jesus has come, died, and is risen (1:14, 20); Eternity is real (1:12-14); You have a whole new power (2:13, 3:1-17); You become a person of love and strength (1:9-12, 3:12-17).These commands are part of this whole. They make sense in no other way.
- The people who can enact these commands are the people of 3:12-17.
- You serve the Lord Christ (3:23-23). You will receive a reward.
Key: If you don’t live in this thought world, if you don’t breathe this air, there’s a good chance that you might get scared or angry or confused by these commands. So we don’t just pick these verses up, and drop them on people like random laws. The bible doesn’t do that. And you can’t even really begin to understand these verses if that’s how you encounter them.
2: What Paul’s saying: The Details of each instruction in 3:9-4:1.
9 Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, 10 and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, 11 where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.
First things first…do we even have any sense for how big this all is? We’re talking about a world, in verse 10 and eleven, where Jesus is everything… now, one thing that means, right off the bat, is that the old ethnic barriers, and socio-economic barriers, are torn down. And that’s exactly what you saw happen in the first generation of Christianity, you had these little communities of Christians springing up, and the people involved were crossing those old societal lines. Oh, and like it says in verse nine, you could trust everyone, because they were learning to stop lying. So let’s ask this before we even really get started: can you trust people out there? Is the world, with all of its diversity speak, getting more or less divided? These are valid questions.
We’re going to see that the kind of community Paul describes, (and that he spent his life building), starts to look better and better, the more we understand the Bible’s teaching, and the more we get realistic about the world everyone else is creating.
12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. 15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.
This is the kind of people God was calling the Christians to be. People who were “clothed with love”—and they were bound by love. It’s that kind of strong community where the commands we’re studying tonight are supposed to be lived out. And it’s a community ruled by kindness, humility, peace, thankfulness.
Imagine going to visit someone, and realizing that he or she lives in this group of friends and family where people are bound together by love, they’re all ruled by peace, and they’re each individually thankful for their lives. What would that community be like? What would it be like to be with them? To work with them? To celebrate things with them? I mean, think about it. And it just gets better the more you read…
16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
So, the community of Christians is called to have the message about Jesus and the things he taught… as its beating heart. Right at the center, holding everything together and being the source of life for everything they were doing, is the gospel—this message that God loved the world and sent his son, that Jesus was God himself living with us, and that by dying and rising again he paid the penalty for our sin and made it possible for us to turn back to God—that was there center. And they had the things he actually spoke—his teachings—they had those too. So think about what that that kind of commitment to the message of Jesus does to this central area of life—our speech. Paul says that the christians’ conversation is shaped by these things—so hearing these people talk to each other and sing their songs is like hearing Jesus talk and teach and sing—their conversations are all flavored with the scriptures. God’s word is their currency. And so there’s this constant, mutual upbuilding…where each person’s weakness is compensated for by someone else’s strength, and each person’s area of stupidity is corrected by someone else’s wisdom. They can even afford to confront each other when someone’s off, and their relationships can survive that, because their relationships are flexible with the health of real love. Their relationships are resilient because of their commitment to each other and affection for each other.
And this bleeds into every area of life. And that’s why we get verse 17…
17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
Finally, every aspect of life, down to the smallest detail, takes on new significance. A community of people like this has come to the place where they see that that this constant drum beat of our culture—that life is pointless, stupid and meaningless—is a total lie. Worse than that—it’s a depressing, oppressing, murderous lie. This idea that nothing matters is ripping people off, it’s killing people, and it’s not even true. No, in the community of believers, there’s this new understanding, that all of life matters.
Everything we do is significant—Because everything is done to the honor of our Lord, and to his glory, and in his name, the name of the greatest person who ever lived, who also happens to be alive, and who we happen to know. So whether we’re sitting down to a meal or throwing a protein bar down on the run—we eat in the name of Jesus and thank him for it. Whether we’re working, or studying, or playing—whatever, it all matters, and we do it in his name. We’re pointing up to him the whole time. He’s looking at us. He’s with us. We got this thing going on with him…and we’re all about the world knowing about it, because you always rep what you love. Right?
And if we can’t do it in his name (the logic goes)… we don’t do it. And that saves us a lot of pain, and it saves us causing a lot of pain. Because Jesus doesn’t direct us to hurt others or waste our time.
Now…It’s into that world, this kind of community, that Paul writes these directions. They’re working here as like case studies—how do these general directions we just looked at in v.12-16 actually look in practice, when they’re lived out in regular daily life?
So Paul goes to the most basic, normal, and important place where these directions need to be practiced—he goes to the home. He gives his instructions in three pairs: Wives-Husbands, Children-Fathers, Servants (or Slaves)-Masters. These kinds of lists were used regularly in the culture. It was a common way of passing on cultural norms and teaching people what was expected in society.
18 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
The NT calls people to voluntarily “order” themselves “under” others. But the reverse isn’t true…so it never directs or allows some people to dominate others. So, we read, wives…submit, but husbands…never dominate. In other words, God has established an order in creation, including human relationships, and everyone is now invited to voluntarily join that order. So…“Wives, choose to embrace a certain place in God’s order, and allow your husbands to be the head” (that’s how Paul phrases it in Ephesians 5 and 1 Cor 11). But husbands aren’t ever directed or even permitted to “demand” this or “enforce” it. Instead, husbands are consistently directed to do one thing, as it says in verse 19…
19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them.
Husbands are called to love their wives. Paul uses the greek word “agape” here. What’s interesting about that is that even though these kinds of lists were common in Paul’s day, we don’t have any record anywhere else of this idea being used in directing husbands how to treat their wives. One scholar I read said that requiring wives to submit to their husbands matches the typical teaching of the day, but requiring husbands to love their wives does not. It just wasn’t part of how the culture thought about marriage. So this is really a distinctly Christian thing here—and Paul spells it out in Ephesians 5, where he makes Jesus’ love for the church the standard the husband’s love is judged by.
You should really go read the end of Ephesians 5 on your own if you’re not familiar with it—it will give you a fuller picture of what the God is showing us here. The whole point in that letter is that marriage is this totally unique thing, where the story of God’s love for humanity in the sending of Jesus for the church—that story, and that reality, it what marriage is all about. Marriage is supposed to be a living, daily picture of the love and order between Christ and the church. So I almost always say something like this at weddings:
“When people see you, Groom, pursue and win your bride’s heart, marry her, and then daily lay down your life in love for her, they see the thing they most need to see—they see a flesh and blood reminder that Jesus Christ came to rescue humanity and take us to himself forever. They get to watch the quality of his love for people. It’s a message that can’t be denied. And, Bride, when people watch you submit to Groom’s headship—they get to see the joy and freedom the Christian church feels, all of us, when we bow to Jesus as our Lord—we find life when he’s our king, and the world will see that by how alive you are under Groom’s covering.”
And Paul tags on one other direction for husbands here—he says don’t be bitter against your wives. Your bible might says here, “don’t be harsh.” And it seems like the word Paul uses covers both ideas. Peter O’Brien just says—“Christian husbands are not to become angry or incensed against their wives either in thought or in word or in deed.” And when you’re first falling in love, I think a note like this can seem really unnecessary. But God knows better than us, and if it’s in here, you can bet it’s because we men need to hear it. Just to get personal for a second, after 13 years of marriage, the times when I’ve hurt my wife the most have been when I’ve failed in exactly this area. I wouldn’t have thought it would have been an issue for me, but there I am, in what seem like to me random, odd moments, there I am being harsh and speaking out of what, really, if I’m honest, could be called bitterness. And the word of God confronts me here, it confronts us men and says—nothing about being a husband gives you the right to have a bitter heart or harsh words for your wife.
And there’s similar types of things going on as Paul moves to speak to fathers and children.
20 Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
The direction to children in the bible is very simple. Children have one job—learn to obey your parents. I think the point of this is that we humans need to learn to listen to the voice of the Spirit of God, who we can’t see and who isn’t typically audible, and the best way to do that is by learning to obey a seen, heard person who, when we’re small, can pick us up and put us in our crib if we can’t figure things out. So, yeah, children—one job. Obey. But here again, Paul says, this doesn’t give fathers some kind of dictatorship in the home. No—God is the only king in the house. And he directs fathers to not to “provoke” their children.
This is a pretty interesting word Paul uses here, my lexicon gave me this definition it: “to cause someone to act in a way that suggests acceptance of a challenge.” Usually in a bad sense, like “irritate,” or “make resentful,” or “embitter.” So we have this check put on fathers’ authority—know your kids, and know what will make them bitter and discouraged, or feel like you’re challenging them to tear them down, or feel resentful, and don’t do those things. Pretty profound.
And so this brings us to the last few verses of this section.
22 Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. 23 And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. 25 But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality. 4:1 Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.
Now if we thought verse 18 might rub people the wrong way… you know, it’s clearly even more dicey here, right? But again…Christians, there’s nothing to be ashamed of…all we have to do is remember the world these people were living in, and the community Paul was working to create, and kind of people these Christians were supposed to be.
First, the world they were living in was not pre-Civil War America. It was the First Century Roman Empire. Slavery there wasn’t race-based, it was economic and military. You became a slave to escape economic disaster, or as a consequence of war. Also, they weren’t living under a democracy, they were living under what was essentially a military dictatorship, and a lot of the empire was really just people under military occupation. There were no avenues for social change—certainly nothing like what we have in our modern western democracies. So Paul wasn’t writing to address the issue of how Christians think things should be, or even what God thinks about it, for that matter—no it’s more like, “given that this is the situation, what now?”
And that leads us to the second point. The social arrangement in these verses of servants or slaves and masters, is never mandated in the Bible, and never even commended. So that sets this last pair of commands apart from the first two—marriage and family explicitly are part of God’s good design for humanity in the Bible, and so those family relationships express God’s intention for people. But this economic arrangement of slavery is never spoken of as part of God’s good plan. Quite the opposite—from the freeing of Israel out of Egypt on forward in the bible, God expresses a heart to see people be free of being owned by other people.
Maybe we’ll do a full bible study about this sometime soon, but what you have in passages like this in the New Testament, is that the early church leaders were simply acknowledging that lots of people from the lower classes were becoming followers of Jesus, and those new Christians were trying to figure out how to live their lives as believers even when they were stuck in an oppressive system they couldn’t change. And what God said to them through the first leaders of the church who were writing the New Testament was that they didn’t need to think that their circumstances eliminated their ability to live lives that pleased God. In 1 Corinthians 7:21, Paul tells slaves who are now followers of Jesus that if they can find a way to get free, they should, but if they can’t—they don’t need to worry—they can still please God and they’ll be rewarded like everyone else. I think that’s the significance of verse 23—notice how much like it sounds like verse 17. It’s the Holy Spirit’s way of reaching down to people in what could be very difficult situations and saying to them—”Your lives count, too. Even though it seems like you’re spending all your energy for someone else, your life matters—how you go about your day matters just as much as anyone else. Even if you’re stuck in a horrible situation, don’t get tricked into believing the lie of meaninglessness. God sees you. And you’ll be rewarded for the life you lead just like all the other followers of Jesus.” Because remember—in Christ, the old economic divisions have been done away with. Not in our temporary societies…but in the eternal kingdom of God.
And like the other sets of commands, Paul ends with a word to those in Authority—he reminds them that they will give account to their own Master in heaven, as to whether they were fair and just or not. In total opposition to the way the Roman culture thought about slavery, Paul says that they need to remember they do not have any kind of absolute authority over another human being. Only God has that. And God cares about those human beings who are in compromising situations.
What we see through history, of course, is that the more cultures practiced consistent Christianity in these areas, the more people began to view this economic arrangement as unacceptable, and slavery was done away with.
3: Some Application…
What world do you want to live in? v.5-9? Or v. 10-17? Maybe a word like “submission” cuts directly against all the rebellion and empowerment our culture preaches. But what have they achieved with all their talk of empowerment? For decades now they’ve had the money, the legislation, the media, and the educational system from preschool to post-doctoral studies, and what have they produced? And then, when their system fails, they blame Christians, of all people, for not getting on board.
We’re all familiar, all over the world, with the different attempts to order human life while ignoring Jesus. Communist China. Various Dictatorships. The Islamic state or other Islamic theocracies. The socialist democracies of Europe. And of course, our own American experiment. But especially here, where we act like we’ve found the formula for paradise, what we really see are just the results of living in ignorance of Christ’s commands. And it looks exactly like 3:5 and 3:7. What do we see all around us? Total obsession with exploitative, aberrant and filthy sexuality—and sex is worshiped as if it’s the pinnacle of human existence; we see violent anger, disregard for human life while we always talk about respecting each other, and a torrent of words filled with the worst kind of pride, selfishness, and hatred; we can’t trust each other because of the epidemic of lying and cheating. And for that kind of culture, we’re supposed to pay them money, listen to their media, and dance to their beat? We’re supposed to think they have wisdom about how to live? Look at the fruit of their culture!
Are women really better off when the powerful people laugh at the bible and say we should ignore it? Are they safer on the street, or more respected in relationships, or more honored in the home? Are families better off when we mock what gets called “the traditional family”? Are children better off for all the empowerment talk we give them? Are men better off? What’s the state of the western male? Stronger? More honorable? More able to help build healthy families and communities and nations? And just turn and look—who’s a more noble kind of human—the male the west holds up as a model, or the man of God who’s ruled by the word of Christ and led by the Spirit of Christ?
And so honestly, when we’re told the Bible’s commands are evil or outdated, or when we ourselves get tempted to get squeamish about the bible’s clear instructions, because we know they might offend or confuse some people, we remember that people who reject Christ haven’t offered up anything better. And so we stop…we take a deep breath, we adopt the posture of a learner, and we look into God’s word, to see—if we stop, listen, think, and pray—will God give us insight? If we admit that, while people have failed us consistently, God has never given us a reason not to trust him, and so we’ll trust him this time, that he knows what is best for us—if that’s the ground we stand on, will we learn new things about life? Will we discover a better way to be human?
God knows how to bless humans. He knows what makes us happy and fulfilled. The Spirit of God is calling the followers of Christ to listen to his voice, learn his ways, and discover the joy and strength and freedom that comes from living according to our design. That’s what it means to have Jesus as your lord. And that’s what it means to be in, and on your way to, the kingdom of God.
It’s not a revolution of marches and banners and guns. It’s a revolution of changed hearts and healed relationships. And when you see all this, it makes simply reading these commands even more powerful.