Now would you please take a Bible in your hands and turn with me in the Scriptures to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Colossians chapter 3:18-4:1. You can find that on page 984 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. Since about the middle of chapter 2, Paul has been giving us some broad, general exhortations about the nature and character and motives and means of Christian holiness, of growing in sanctification, likeness to Jesus in our lives. Now, beginning in this second half of chapter 3, Paul already actually has been pressing into some particulars. We saw last time his concern for the life of the local church, and he had some exhortations about how we would treat one another in the local church. Now he presses even further down into what we often consider to be our private lives, into the life of the Christian family. Now, as you might be inclined to say, “He gets to meddling.” Doesn’t he? He gets right into our personal lives here in 3:18 and following. And he has some things to say that are difficult to hear from our particular cultural perspective and we’re going to have to work hard to be sure we’re not filtering Paul’s words through the lenses of our own prejudices but actually hear them as he intends for us to understand them.
And to help us with that, I want to come at the teaching of these verses under two headings. First I want you to think with me about how Paul displays and sets before our gaze Christ as the Lord of the family. So for Paul, Christ, very clearly in this text, is the Lord of the family. And that’s going to challenge some of our assumptions about how our families will operate. The Lordship of Christ in our families. So Christ, the Lord of the family. And then secondly I want us to think about the family, in Christ the Lord. So Christ, the Lord of the family, and then we’ll think about the family, in Christ the Lord.
Before we do that, before we begin to unpack the teaching of the text, let's pause again and pray and ask for God to help us. Would you pray with me, please?
O Lord, please give us ears to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church from this precious text of Your holy Word. For Jesus’ sake, amen.
Colossians 3 at the eighteenth verse. This is the Word of God:
“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.”
Amen, and we give thanks to God for His holy, inerrant Word.
Well, let me begin again by acknowledging frankly and right away that at first glance at least this text does not sit terribly easily with many people in this age of heightened sensitivity to the abuse of power. Paul says, "Wives, submit to your husbands." He says, "Slaves" – actually our version, I suppose given our cultural moment, cleans up the text; it's not bondservants, it's slaves. "Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything." In the age of #MeToo and of abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church and in the Southern Baptist Convention recently, for many people, Paul sounds terribly, alarmingly repressive here. Doesn't he?
And there are some scholars who read Paul in precisely that way. For example, the feminist Biblical scholar, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza writes that the only way a contemporary pastor, someone like me, could ever preach safely on texts like this one where we have Paul’s view of the family, is “critically, in order to unmask them as texts promoting patriarchal violence.” So she thinks Paul is promoting patriarchal violence in this text. Or listen to another scholar, David Horrell, who suggests that Paul’s agenda here is “to convince the dominated, the subordinate that is it right and proper or inevitable or in everyone’s best interests for them to remain willingly and voluntarily in their place and to fulfill their duties.” And then he goes on to say, “Of course everyone’s best interests may actually mean in the ruling class’ best interest.” He’s riffing on a common idea that, you can trace it back to Karl Marx, that religion is the opiate of the masses, designed to keep the subordinate in their place so that the superior and the people with power can benefit. And so there’s all of that.
And then add to that the tragic experience of too many, particularly women and children, perhaps even some of you here today, the tragic experience of domination and abuse, made possible by distorted notions of male authority in church and in the home that may even cite a text like this one in Colossians 3 as justification for an abusive approach. So we have a massive challenge on our hands to understand Colossians 3:18-4:1 well, to clear aside all of those interfering ideas and really to hear what Paul says. Let me plead with you, given all of those challenges, to hold your fire. Will you do that? Hold your fire and let’s acknowledge the possibility that what we think Paul is saying and the righteous indignation we feel at what we think he’s saying may not actually be what he is saying. And let’s come at the text giving it the permission to say what it actually says. If we will do that, I think we’re going to discover that instead of abuse there is here real beauty. Instead of control, we’re going to find real comfort. Instead of an attempt to maintain the ugly status quo in a culture of patriarchy and power, we’ll discover a subversive invitation into a new kind of family life, a subversive invitation into a new kind of family life. You can’t find it anywhere else except in Jesus Christ.
The Lordship of Christ Over the Family
But before we get to those details, I want you just to notice with me how Paul asserts the Lordship of Christ over the family. Christ as Lord of the family. That's where I want us to start. Paul has been talking all through the letter to the Colossians about the great doctrine of the believer's union with Christ. He's said we have redemption "in Him, the forgiveness of sins," chapter 1:14. "In Him, all the riches of wisdom and knowledge are hidden," in chapter 1:19. "As we have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so we are to walk in Him, rooted and built up, in Him," chapter 2:6-7. "We are filled in Him," chapter 2:10, "circumcised in Him," chapter 2:11, "buried with Him and raised together with Him," chapter 2:12-12 and verse 20, and chapter 3:1-5. Over and over again it's clear – union with Christ is a note that sounds throughout the letter. It is the final column that holds the whole letter together. It is the central truth Paul consistently returns to. And so it's not really a surprise, if you pay attention to our text, to discover that union with Christ is still in view here. Only now, he brings the particular nuance that the Christ to whom we are united by grace is Jesus Christ who is Lord of all.
So look at verse 18 and the instruction to wives to submit to their husbands. Paul tells us that it is “fitting in the Lord.” Or children, they are to obey, notice – literally, our translation slightly obscures this, but literally “because it is pleasing in the Lord.” So since you are in the Lord, this is the kind of life that is fitting and that is pleasing, that’s what he is saying. And chapter 3:22-24, slaves, notice, they are to obey “fearing the Lord…working as for the Lord and not for men.” Verse 24, they are “serving the Lord Christ.” And masters likewise, chapter 4 verse 1, are to be just and fair because they have a heavenly Master, literally “a Lord in heaven.” The Lordship of Christ, do you see, to whom every Christ has been joined by the grace of God, now determines the shape and character of our lives, in every facet and in every area – the Lordship of Christ.
And if you think about that for a moment, if you let it begin to percolate through and you see its implications, it really begins to pinch – the Lordship of Christ – over every area of our lives. I think it actually begins to challenge some of our unexamined assumptions, particularly about the family and about the intersection between family life and the life of our culture and society at large. So let me put it this way. Paul’s teaching on the Lordship of Christ in the Christian household smashes at least three common idols, three of our contemporary idols.
Idolatry of Family
And the first idol that it smashes that I want us to think about is the idol of the family itself. Paul’s teaching on the Lordship of Christ smashes the idol of the family itself. Look at verses 18 through 22 for a moment, and allow me, if you would bear with me, to quote from Kevin DeYoung on this point because I think he helps us grasp what I’m after here. He says:
“Virtually every pastor in America can tell you stories of churchgoers who have functionally displaced God in favor of the family. Parents who go missing from church for entire seasons because of Billy’s youth soccer league or Sally’s burgeoning volleyball career. Committed Christians who would never dare invite a college student or international over for Thanksgiving or Christmas because the holidays are for family. Longtime members who can’t be bothered to serve on Sundays or reach out to visitors because the whole family gathers at grandma’s for lunch. Kids and grandkids who think they should be accepted into membership or be in line for baptism because their parents and grandparents have been pillars of the church. Churches that implicitly or explicitly communicate that marriage is a necessary step of spiritual maturity. Christians of all kinds that will jettison their theology of marriage or their convictions about church discipline once their children come out of the closet or embrace other kinds of unrepentant sin. The idolatry of the family can be a real problem either from the church that ignores singles and gears everything toward married people, married couples with children, or from the individual whose practical commitments underscore the unfortunate reality that blood is usually thicker than theology.”
Ouch. Doesn’t that sting a little? You see what he’s doing? He’s teasing out the idolatry of the family in light of the Lordship of Christ. The Lordship of Christ challenges some of the ways we think about our rights to do and to live within the context of our own family however we please. Paul is really saying, he’s really saying if Christ is Lord in your life, He’s Lord of your marriage, He’s Lord of your parenting, He’s Lord of how you treat mom and dad, how you treat siblings. We cannot enlist Jesus in support of our family life with an assumption that He’s simply going to endorse whatever we prioritize and whatever we choose. Christ is Lord of the family. We are not. And so the text is challenging. First, the idolatry of the family.
Idolatry of Power
Secondly, the next idol that I think Paul's teaching on the Lordship of Christ challenges is the idolatry of power; so common in our culture. Look at how Paul's speaks to slaves and masters for a moment in verse 22 through 4:1. It's uncomfortable reading today in a culture that rightly views slavery as repugnant and that has largely, at least in terms of institutional slavery, removed it from our midst altogether. Praise God that is so. But because of that, we often miss how provocative Paul really is being here. First, we need to understand that in Paul's day slaves had no rights at all. They were not considered independent, moral agents. If you wanted to address a problem with a slave, you wouldn't speak to the slave; you would speak to the pater familias, the head of the family. He was the responsible moral agent. Slaves were not responsible moral agents. But notice here Paul does address the slave directly, speaks to them as independent moral actors who are responsible before God.
Secondly, slaves could not inherit. They had no inheritance rights in Paul’s day. But look at verse 24. “From the Lord, you will receive the inheritance as your reward.” Thirdly, there was no possibility of being treated unjustly as a slave in the ancient world, not because people were not brutal and controlling; masters often were. But because in the ancient world, if you were a slave you were mere property and the question of justice was irrelevant. A master was free to do whatever he liked with his slave. It would be a category confusion, you see. And so let me cite Aristotle as an example, The Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle was making the point that there’s no sense in talking about injustice when it comes to slaves and masters because there can be no injustice in things that are one’s own. Justice is the wrong category. “I’m free to do whatever I want with my slave.” That was the mindset. But look at what Paul says. He says those who wrong slaves will be paid back by the Lord. Do you see that? And the Lord shows no partiality. So your social standing, whether you’re a slave or a master, really won’t make any difference at the judgment seat of Christ.
And even more startling, chapter 4 verse 1, Paul calls masters to understand they are themselves actually slaves. He says, “You have a master of your own, a master in heaven.” Which means, therefore, that you owe rights to your slaves. He talks in terms of justice and fairness. Do you see that in verse 1? The language of justice and fairness. That was completely alien in the context. There’s no question of justice and fairness when it comes to slave. But Paul is saying that if Christ is Lord both of slave of master, the master is a slave and the slave is a citizen in the kingdom of heaven. So now the slave is free and the master under obligation. And the master owes the slave rights that in law simply did not exist. Why are those rights there? Because they are brothers in a common Savior. You see how Paul is completely subverting the expected patterns of power and authority in His own day.
Actually, that very fact that these texts were not oppressive and repressive of women and slaves but actually empowered them, became revolutionary in the ancient Roman world. Tacitus, the Roman historian, accused Christians of “hating the human race.” Why? Because of the teaching of texts like ours that gave rights to women and children and slaves so that they would refuse to submit to the domination of wicked masters of cruel husbands, even refuse to submit to the emperor himself if obedience to Christ required that prior loyalty of them. They were turning the whole world upside-down, you see, in terms of how the Roman world operated. This was radical stuff. Paul is subverting. Do you see that? He’s subverting the expectations of the Colossians themselves about the usual ways power should work in society.
Here’s the point. The Lordship of Christ destroys domination. The Lordship of Christ destroys domination. It shows masters that they are slaves of Christ, it tells slaves they are fellow citizens of the kingdom of heaven under the Lordship of King Jesus. That’s why Christians who were sensitive to the nuances of the teaching of texts like this one found here the seeds of the eventual destruction of the institution of slavery itself. If Christ is Lord of your conscience, your conscience is free from the commands of men. That’s the teaching of our text. If Christ is Lord of your conscience, then your conscience is free. You are radically free when you come under the mastery of King Jesus. You can’t use this text to validate the oppression of others. That’s not how the first Christians saw it. They saw it as profoundly empowering, and it turned the world on its head.
So the teaching here smashes the idol of the family, it smashes the idols of power, of how we think of power and authority. It turns it into a question of service in the name of Jesus and gives radical freedom even to the very least of us to follow the dictates of the law of God and leave our consciences free from the dictates of mere men.
Idolatry of Work
And then thirdly, this text smashes a third idol – the idol of work. And we need to be a little careful with this because when we think about verses 22 through 24 in particular, or 25 in particular – which is where I want us to focus here. Paul really is talking about slaves and masters and so there’s no one-to-one correspondence between slaves and masters in the ancient world and the employer-employee relationship in a modern democracy. And so we can’t simply lift and transfer lessons from one to the other in a direct one-to-one relationship. That relationship simply does not exist. These are slaves and masters, not employers and employees.
However, I do think Paul does provide us with some principles here which, understood with appropriate sensitivity and nuance, can be applied to all sorts of relationships even in our context between subordinates and superiors, certainly in the workplace but in other spheres of society as well. Notice what Paul says first of all, negatively, in verse 22. So helpful, the phrasing that he uses in verse 22 – "Obey, in everything," he says, "those who are your earthly masters, not as eye servants and people pleasers." Those are very useful phrases that I need to hear. Don't you need to hear them? Isn't the real pressure to be an eye-servant and a people pleaser when we think about our various responsibilities, particularly in the workplace? Paul is saying when the Lordship of Christ has first place in your heart, when you come to do "whatever you do in word and in deed in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him," as he puts it back in verse 17, when Jesus is first, His pleasure, His glory, His praise, you will not work for the attention and approbation of your superior. You won't live to please men. "Whatever you do," verse 23, "work heartily as for the Lord and not for men." Christians work hard at whatever they do because they're doing it for Jesus. That's what Paul says – verse 24, "You are serving the Lord Christ." We want to do it excellently, even if no one notices and no one is there to see. We want to do whatever we do with all of our might from the heart for the glory of His name because He gave it to me to do. It's my vocation from His hand, and so I'm going to give myself to it for the glory of His name. I'm working not for any earthly master, but for the Lord Christ. That's the enemy of laziness. It's the root of a God-glorifying work ethic.
But it’s also the enemy of workaholism – the Lordship of Christ, when we think about our vocations. Because there are other things that Christ has given for us to be attentive to and we see several of them here – wives and husbands, parents and children, the Christian family, perhaps chief among our various responsibilities. You are called, in your earthly vocations, to work at everything you do with all of your might for the glory of Christ and then you’re called to stop, to down tools for the glory of Christ, because you’re also called to be a daughter and a son and a brother or a sister or a mother or a father or a husband or a wife. And our families need to see us working hard for Jesus’ sake and they need to see us stopping to give them our full attention for Jesus’ sake. Because of the rule of Jesus in our hearts and consciences, we are neither indolent nor are we workaholics. But we find the balance and equilibrium laboring when Jesus is first, laboring for Him not as eye servants and people pleasers. So first, Paul says Christ is Lord of the family. Here’s a truth that subverts the usual structures of power that smashes our idols. It makes radical claims on our lives, on our hearts. And when we bow the knee to the Lordship of Christ, our consciences are set wonderfully, gloriously free. Christ is Lord of the family.
The Family in Christ the Lord
And then secondly and very quickly, notice how Paul thinks about the family in Christ the Lord. So first, Christ, the Lord of the family. Then, the family, in Christ the Lord. Look at verse 18 again. “Wives, submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord.” The form of the word “submit” there in Greek gives the sense of voluntary submission. And in the New Testament, submission is the standard default stance of every Christian toward God – James 4:7; of every Christian to every other Christian – Ephesians 5:21; of church members toward church leaders, elders – Hebrews 13:17; of the whole church to Christ – Ephesians 5:24; of Christian citizens to civil magistrates – 1 Peter 2:13; and even of Christ Himself who submits to the Father in obedience for us and for our salvation. So the word “submit” does not imply servitude or inferiority in any way, but it is the posture of humility and reverence that is characteristic of every single child of God toward God, toward one another, and towards those in authority. When he says, “this is what is fitting in the Lord,” he’s simply saying, “Wives, live out the basic characteristic of a Christian in relation to your husband.” Submission is the default setting of the Christian heart. Not standing on my rights but serving. When he says, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” he’s really not saying something particularly controversial.
No, the controversial part, at least in Paul’s day, is what he has to say to husbands. You see, husbands and wives were brought together not on the basis of love but as a prudential and a contractual concern. The main function and basis of marriage in the ancient world was not love, but the production of an heir to carry on the family. And if a couple happened to fall in love along the way, well that was a bonus, but it was not at all the norm. There was no expectation in the ancient world that marriages would be based upon love. We even actually have an inscription on some of the tombstones from those days written by husbands about their deceased wives that read, “She never gave me any cause to complain.” He must have been a charmer, don’t you think? What a wonderful marriage they must have had! That’s a little shocking to us. There’s no sense of grief, loss – “My beloved wife! However will I go on without her!” That’s what we would feel. There’s no sense of that there and that’s not a surprise. Love was not a normal part of the equation. “She never gave me any cause to complain” was kind of a normal sentiment.
But look what Paul says to husbands. If you are in Christ, husbands, the Word of God requires you to love your wives. “Husbands, love your wives.” And he says there’s no place, none, zero, in a Christian marriage for harshness, ever. It can’t be justified. “Husbands, love your wives.” You’re to be a leader in the home, that’s the teaching of the whole Bible, but you’re to lead the way Jesus leads – sacrificing Himself, giving Himself up for her in love, pouring Himself out for her, putting Himself and His own concerns to the side that she may have His heart. “Husbands, love your wives.” Love, the idea that marriage would be founded on love, that’s not the invention of the romantics, much less of Hollywood. It is rooted in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. When Jesus, the Lord, has your heart, He calls husbands to love their wives. That was a radical idea in Paul’s context. Lead like Christ, he’s saying. Who would not gladly submit to such a man who gave himself up for her?
Children and Parents
And look at what he says about children and fathers, children and parents by extension. Verses 20 and 21 – the thing that is, he says, "pleasing in the Lord," is for Christian children to obey their parents in everything, sin excepted of course. And remember, in those days children were understood to be property until they reached their majority. That's how they were regarded in law. And so if you wanted to speak to children or address a problem related to children, you'd never talk to the child directly; you'd talk to the pater familias, the head of the family, which included wives, husbands, children, sometimes extended family, masters, and slaves. That was the family, the household. And the child was not considered a responsible moral agent. So you would never speak to the child with ethical instruction. Paul does it here, though, doesn't he? Directly to the children, "Children, obey your parents in everything, this is pleasing in the Lord."
Boys and girls, Jesus calls you to obey Him in the context of your family life. He speaks to you and views you with dignity and value and worth all your own. And you’re responsible in the context of your home. If you’re a follower of Jesus, you’re responsible in the context of your own home to be obedient to your mother and father in so far as what they ask you to do is not a contradiction of what Jesus wants for you. And you can’t ever say, “You know, my family is really messed up so that gets me off the hook.” There’s no way to pass the buck or to give an excuse based on how your parents behave toward you. You’re responsible in your own right. Christ calls you to follow Him.
A Word for Parents
And then Paul has a word for parents. I think it's useful, actually, that he speaks particularly to fathers. At least as a father, I found it to be useful to be addressed like this. If you have teenagers in your home you'll hear this exhortation as particularly relevant. Enough said. Here's the exhortation. "Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged." Shepherd their hearts. Encourage them. Don't stay on them all the time. Be careful that your default tone isn't criticism and complaint. Let them see that you delight in them, that you're proud of them, that you celebrate them, you rejoice over them. Don't crush their spirits. The Lord Jesus doesn't do that with us ever, does He? He doesn't crush our spirits. This passage, properly understood, doesn't crush our spirits. It's empowering, encouraging. It takes our responsibility as an actor in a moral and ethical world seriously and says, "Now if Jesus is Lord, let's see you live out a life that pleases Him." And that's what we are to do, fathers, parents, toward our children – nourish them in a path of obedience, not discouraging their hearts but nurturing them to see the value of Jesus Christ so that your children can look at you and say, "Not perfectly, often filled with weakness and yet truly and really, I've learned so much about Jesus not just by the things mom or dad said to me but from the way they treated me, the patience they showed to me, how quick they were to forgive me, their tenderheartedness toward me, how they would weep with me and rejoice with me. They showed me what grace means and I've learned so much about Christ from them in the way they parented me."
And when the world begins to see Christians living under the Lordship of Christ with consciences free from the commandments of men, freed up to serve each other living in a home transformed like this where the usual structures of power and authority are all changed and transformed so that there’s mutual service and mutual patience and love and tenderness toward one another, the world has no way to understand where that come from. The basic building blocks of human society, the family, are transformed, do you see, renovated by the Lordship of King Jesus. What’s happening is that He’s building a new society, a new humanity in Jesus Christ displaying to all the world what grace does in our hearts and between our hearts as we learn to live together for His glory. Part of the motivation here is to make us bright, faithful witnesses. As we bring people into our families, as we share hospitality with them, they get to watch us – husbands loving their wives and giving themselves up for her; wives gladly submitting as Christians do to this man who cares for them; children obeying their parents; fathers, parents dealing with their children patiently, wisely, carefully, tenderly to nurture their hearts. And they see it and they want to know, “Where does this come from? Where do I get this from? I want this for me!”
Maybe this morning you’re here and actually you’ve grown quite weary of the world’s paradigm. You’ve tried it, the world’s priorities, you’ve tried them in your home life, in your working life, and though they’ve promised you peace, they’ve promised you rest, they’ve promised you joy, they’ve never delivered. They’ve never delivered. You’re broken and empty and frustrated. The idols you have pursued have only led you into bondage and not given you freedom. If that’s you this morning, let me issue to you the invitation Jesus issued in His own day and generation. He said, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle in heart and you will find rest for your souls. Come under My Lordship,” He’s saying. “Take My yoke; learn from Me. Let me be King and you’ll find true freedom at last. I’ll smash all the idols that have held such tyrannical sway in your heart for so long. I’ll bring you true freedom. I’ll give you rest.” Jesus has rest for you from a weary and troublesome world. Won’t you come and trust in Him? He’s making a new humanity, a new society in the midst of our broken one. In the midst of our broken homes, our broken lives, He’s doing something beautiful, making something new. Come trust in Him and find it for yourself, discover it for yourself, for the glory of His name.
Let’s pray together.
Lord, we long for homes that are characterized by the beauty of complete obedience to Jesus. The truth is, there’s not one home here that can say they’ve arrived yet. We’re all in process, truth be told; we’re all struggling. And so often, the priorities and the paradigm of the world, the idols of the world still find their way into our hearts. Our hearts are constantly manufacturing them. So we come before You, having heard Your Word, to repent and to believe again the Gospel, to tear from our heart all these idols – of family, of power, of work, of rest and leisure. We want to set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts anew. There may be some here this morning who do not know Jesus, who have been pursuing all of these idols in the hope that in them they would find rest. And now they’re here, broken and burnt out and world-weary. Please grant that they may hear the voice of Christ calling to them at last and may they flee to Him, run to Him, take hold of Him, believe on Him, rest on Him and receive true rest from Him, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.