Sunday’s Sermon — Colossians 3:18-4:1

16 Aug

The truths we are going to look at today are among the most controversial in Scripture. They are often dealt with in extremes, either ignored as a remnant of a past culture or used as a weapon of power of men over women or in the case of slavery, used as an argument against Christianity.

These are the household codes, a term used to describe the instructions often given in New Testament letters to govern the life of the home. In the ancient world, the family was foundational to society and the family often was not simply mother, father and children but extended family and sometimes, for wealthier people, slaves. The New Testament writers often made a point of giving instructions to the members of the household. Paul gave these instructions in several of his letters. Peter highlights these same things in the book of 1 Peter. The big point of this is not all the specifics of how we relate to each other in the household. The big point of this passage this morning is that Christ touches all of life including the home.

There is a clear progression from chapter 3, verse 1 through chapter 4, verse 6. We grow in Christ by seeking Him and setting our minds on Him. We set our minds on Christ by putting off what is earthly in us and putting on godliness. Having individually set our minds on Christ, we then love the family of God, walking in patience and forgiveness toward one another, working toward unity with one another, building each other up in the faith. Then we see the passage we are looking at today. Having been seekers of things above, having set our minds on things above by putting off and putting on, having loved the brethren we love our families, we love those closest to us. then we see in the last section, chapter 4:3-6, that we love the lost.

So let’s look at this passage today to see what it says about the Christian life at home. From the beginning we need to put out of our minds what our culture has said and is saying about the family. The family in the Bible is not represented by 1950’s America or by the mix of peoples and groupings we have in our culture today. The Bible picture of the family is one of husband, wife and children and the extended family. And each is called to this: sacrificial love in Jesus’ name. What the Bible says about the family is not acceptable to our culture. But the greatest impact Christianity has had in history seems to be when it has been least acceptable to culture. The unacceptable to culture things starts right away in this passage with the very first verse . . .

 Colossians 3:18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

You see, this is why we preach straight through books of the Bible, it forces us to face the hard issues. This idea of wives submitting to husbands is all through the New Testament but it is often laughed off in our culture. It is a good test of whether we are shaped by our culture or by Scripture as to whether we believe commands like this are to be followed.

Before we get into the specifics of what this means, we also need to note here that the relationship that is highlighted is the relationship of husband and wife. Even though polygamy and homosexuality were known in Bible times and some people in the Bible had more than one wife, the ethical instructions of the New Testament always center on one man and one woman. So there is no place in the Bible where God endorses the kinds of relationships our culture has endorsed in recent days. In saying this I am not demanding our culture change, our government flows from the will of the people. I do believe, of course, that walking outside of God’s established pattern brings great harm to individuals and to cultures, but even there if those outside of Christ want to engage in things that are outside the will of God they have that right. My problem is not with those outside the church. Those outside of Christ will naturally act like those outside of Christ. My problem is with professing Christians who bow to culture or deny the clear teaching of Scripture because it is not want they want to hear. These household instructions are pretty simple but they are difficult because they don’t satisfy our fleshly desires. In our flesh we are naturally selfish. We will seek the easy way, the comfortable way, the way that is least demanding. So when Paul comes to us here and says, “Wives submit to your husbands” we need to understand that though it is not easy, it is right. Notice this is wives to your husbands, not women to men or women to someone else’s husband. This word “submit” gets a bad rap, as if it means being a doormat. It doesn’t. To submit doesn’t make you automatically less than the one you submit to, as submission is a voluntary act of the will, not an explanation of one’s status. The Greek word for “submit” means to put yourself under another’s authority or leadership. It is used in a lot of contexts in the Bible. We are to submit to governing authorities in Romans 13 and 1 Peter. We are to submit to one another in Ephesians 5. And we see most significantly in Luke 2 that Jesus as a child submitted to His parents. Jesus was God in flesh, yet He submitted to His parents. So this makes it clear that submission has nothing to do with being inferior of less than. His submission didn’t make Him inferior to His parents, it showed that He was obedient to the fifth commandment to honor one’s parents. In the same way, the wives submission to the husband is not some way for men to have power over women, it is something that is “fitting in the Lord.” It is right and good. We need not shy away from it or explain it away. But we do need to understand it properly.

The Bible makes it clear that women and men were created in God’s image and that they have equal worth and opportunity in the kingdom of God. The Bible also makes clear that wives should submit to their husbands. It is significant that the word submit is used rather than the word “obey.” Submission is not first and foremost following the directives of the husband, it is first a sacrificial and voluntary thing intended to honor God as is fitting in the Lord. Men are not the masters of women but husbands are to be caretakers of their families and wives are to submit to the roles God has assigned. This is fitting in the Lord. Of course, there are times when the roles can’t be carried out fully. A single parent home, a disabled spouse, there are lots of exceptions, but the rule, the fitting thing in the Lord, is wives who graciously submit to their husbands.

And along with this, we have verse 19 . . .

19 Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.

Paul now turns to husbands. The call to a husband is to love his wife and to not be harsh with her. We see these very same callings all through the New Testament and most notably in Paul’s longer passage about marriage in Ephesians 5. Wives submit, husbands love. In this way both husband and wife sacrificially serve one another. The focus of this passage is not some kind of spiritual organizational chart. Instead, and this really comes into view in the Ephesians passage, the order of these relationships comes directly from the way we have been transformed by Christ. Because we have died with Christ and been raised with Him, we seek the things above, we set our minds on things above, and that means Christ changes everything. Because we are in Him, everything is different. We are caught up in Him. He is our treasure. He is everything to us. So everything in our lives is different, including our home life. Husbands are not tyrants, getting wives to do their bidding. Husbands are not out there pulling the leadership card to get their way. Husbands are not ruled by anger and harshness and a desire to have what they want when they want it. Husbands love. Husbands give of themselves to out of love for their wife and children. Husbands are not harsh. Are you a harsh husband this morning? Today would be a good day to repent because that harshness does not reflect Jesus. If you have a wife or children that are afraid to interact with you because they fear you are going to fly off the handle, you need to repent because you are not loving them, you are damaging them. Are you overly critical of your wife, demanding that she conform to your expectations? You need to repent, because you are not fulfilling the God-given calling of marriage. Have you just dropped out of family life all together? Worn out by work or stressed out you just veg out in front of the TV and never help your wife and never talk to your kids? Husbands, today is a new day, you can start again. But I want to say to you that if you are not seeking the things above, setting your mind on things above, you will never truly change. You will go back to the same old patterns eventually. Reform rarely works in any lasting way. But Christ didn’t come to reform, He came to transform. And as you set your mind on Him day by day and put your focus on Him in every area of your life and treasure Him above all things you will begin to see His transforming power in you. You will begin to see day-by-day God changing you. You will begin to see the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience) rather than the fruit of the flesh (anger, harshness, stress, impatience).

This is exactly what we see in 2 Corinthians 5. When Paul speaks there of our life in Christ, he says, “He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.” So we see that Christ dead and raised, when we trust Him, we don’t live for ourselves any longer but for Him. So now we don’t regard people according to the flesh. So what does it mean to regard others according to the flesh? I think we must relate it to what we read right before. Those who live in Christ no longer live for ourselves. So to regard people according to the flesh must mean that in some way we used people to live for ourselves. But now in Christ we are not to do that anymore. We don’t relate to people to get things from them, we relate to give, because we have all we need in Christ. And of course there is still a giving and receiving in relationships but it is no longer about using people, it is no longer about us, life is about Jesus.

So when we keep this view in mind, the commands about marriage make sense. Husbands and wives, live for the benefit of one another. Don’t be consumed with your rights. Don’t keep score. Focus on the good you can give rather than what you can get. That is a happy marriage. It comes in all shapes and forms but husbands and wives that relate to each other in this submission/love model display the relationship of Christ and the Church and bring glory to God.

Next, Paul turns to children . . .

20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.

When we get to children, we do get obedience rather than submission. There is a difference in the relationship of husband and wife and the relationship between parents and children. Parents are to be obeyed. Notice it says “in everything.” Now obviously this doesn’t mean that children should obey parents in things that violate the Word of God, but otherwise, children should obey parents. Why? Because this pleases the Lord. As a wife’s submission is fitting in the Lord, so children’s obedience is pleasing to the Lord. Why does a child’s obedience please the Lord? Well, I can think of several reasons right off hand. First, one of the Ten Commandments relates to honoring one’s father and mother. So a child with an obedient heart pleases God because obedience is dear to the heart of God. The Lord is pleased with the obedience of children because a child who is obedient is learning the practice of obedience, and God wants these children one day to obey Him. They are learning to obey Him by obeying their parents. This relationship of obedience to parents models the life of obedience we are to live before God. But this is not raw, white knuckle obedience. True biblical obedience always flourishes in the context of relationships. Having been saved by grace we obey God by the power of the Spirit not to earn favor with God but as a response of love to God. And so the command to children to be obedient comes with a word to fathers . . .

21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.

I don’t know for sure why the fathers are spotlighted here but it may be because they were more likely in Paul’s day to be harsh, or it may be because he views the father as having special responsibility before God to guard his children’s hearts. Or Paul may be emphasizing the father’s role of leadership in the home. Regardless of the reason what we should see here is that Paul is clear that it is not only children who have the responsibility to obey, it is also fathers who have the responsibility to not provoke. So what do we have here? A relationship. Just as there is a relationship between Christ and the Church, just as there is a relationship between husband and wife, so there is a relationship between parents and children and this relationship is to be a matter of mutual self-giving love. Children obey, and parents do not provoke their children. So we don’t push their buttons, purposely irritate them, lay demands on them we wouldn’t put on anybody else. Fathers, if you find yourself giving grace to other people’s children but no grace to your own children, you need to change.  Yes, children should obey parents but we also must acknowledge that like us, children will fall short. How we handle them when they fall short is important. It can push them away from us and the Lord or it can draw them near. In a similar way, we can provoke children not only by being ungracious to them when they fail but also by laying demands on them that are more than they can bear. I fear for the current generation of teenagers because many of them live under a crushing weight of expectations. Many of these come from culture but some come from parents too. All of us hope our children will turn out to be good and productive citizens but sometimes we as parents have hopes for our children that go beyond what God has for them. Our children are just as limited as we, just as needy. When we push our dreams of success on them, we may discourage them. I’m sure there are girls here who are struggling this morning because they do not fit cultural images of beauty. There are boys struggling because they are not athletic or outgoing. Our children have enough challenges from our culture. As parents we don’t need parents to make it worse. And as a church, we need to be an encouraging place for children. Be careful about being overly critical of children in church. If you see a teenager not paying attention or looking at their cell phone, don’t go yell at them. Get to know them. Show them how precious Jesus is to you. There is a reason they are not paying attention and your yelling isn’t going to change their heart. It is a heart issue. Reach out to the hearts of our children and teens. They need us, church. Let’s be there for them. And don’t forget your own children most of all.

Paul finishes by pointing to one other relationship we don’t often consider . . .

22 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.

23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.

25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.

Now we come to this section and many people nowadays will say, “oh, I just can’t believe Christianity, it endorses slavery.” But what we have from Paul is not an endorsement of slavery it is simply a recognition of slavery. For Paul to rail against slavery would be about as useful as me preaching that computers should be abolished from our society. It is just part of our culture. In the same way, slavery was part of the culture of Paul’s day. Paul normally doesn’t oppose the structures of society in his writings. He accepts that there was slavery, that there was a Roman Empire with an Emperor controlling that part of the world. Paul doesn’t actively oppose these things or call for a revolution. And there is a simple reason for this. Paul believe that the Gospel, if truly believed and applied, will result in a steady and subtle revolution against the oppressive structures of society. History has proven that Paul was right. Slavery ended under the Christian conviction of men like William Wilberforce. There was a Christian basis in much of the early civil right movement in our country. The very ideas of democracy at the heart of our nation’s founding flow in part from Christian principles. The gospel of Jesus Christ, if heard and believed, transforms culture over time. In the meantime, Paul tells those trapped in unjust structures to live a Christ-exalting life within that structure, trusting God to bring change over time.

So Paul gives the command to slaves to obey their earthly masters. He uses that word earthly to make it clear that their service to men is temporary. He also gives more encouragement to the slaves than he gives to husbands, wives, children or parents. He gives commands in each case, but for the slaves Paul points to their future inheritance and to the justice that will come to any who mistreat them. So this is a passage of great encouragement.

The command is simple on the surface: “obey your earthly masters.” But it goes deeper. This obedience should not be simply outward. It should not be to be seen or to please people but to please God. Slaves are commanded to work hard for the Lord. The repeated references to the Lord make it clear here that God intends to redeem even the brutal work of slavery and move in it so that slaves can honor God. Each of the relationships we have talked about today is ultimately about God. If you divorce this passage from being raised with Christ and seeking Him, you miss the point. The point of this passage is that the Gospel changes all our relationships, so that we look at things from a different point of view. If anyone would be tempted to think their place in life was worthless or that they had no value, it would have been slaves. But Paul comes to them and elevates them . . . “You have a great inheritance as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Even slavery has meaning in Jesus!

In Ephesians, Paul gives more attention in his instructions to the household to the relationship of husband to wife. In Colossians, he spends more time on the slave and master relationship. The reason for this is probably because of Onesimus, one of the people bringing this letter to the Colossians. Onesimus had run away from his master Philemon. Paul wrote a letter to Philemon, urging him to receive Onesimus back into his household as a brother in the Lord. So Paul has words for both of these men in this section of Colossians as he prepares for them to be reunited with one another.

So Paul ends this section by addressing masters like Philemon and others who owned slaves . . .

Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.

Paul is undermining the institution of slavery even by giving commands to the masters. There were general urgings in society toward kindness toward slaves but Paul’s words go further in two ways. First, Paul is calling not for kindness but for justice and fairness. The word for fairness is derived from a Greek word that has to do with things being equal. So this command has to do with justice and equality for slaves. And if this command for justice and fairness is obeyed, where will it eventually lead? It will lead to freedom for slaves. The second unique aspect of Paul’s words to masters is that he brings a Christian significance to slaveholding. Though you own slaves. you are not the true master. You have a Master in heaven. So take care how you deal with these slaves. You have a Master in heaven. You too are under authority. And again, this reminder subtly undermines the institute of slavery itself. In Christ, the ground is level and all are free because of the grace of God.

But what are we free for? We are free to give ourselves away. We are free because we are fulfilled in Christ. If you are not seeking the things above and setting your mind on things above you will burn out and break down. But a slow, steady, persistent, deep understanding of the riches we have in Christ will set you free to love as never before. And Christ will come to transform every area of your life. No longer will you be a slave to sexual passions and anger and malice and greed. You will be putting off those things. No longer will you be isolated and disconnected but you will be brought into a body of believers where there is warmth and compassion, mercy and forgiveness. No longer will your home be a cold place or an angry place or a place of stress. Your home will be touched by the one you are all seeking. And your whole life will be marked by the presence of Jesus. Not perfectly, but profoundly and deeply. This really can be your life. Seek the things above, seek Christ, and watch Him change everything.

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