Monday, June 06, 2011

Colossians 11: Live for Christ

Scripture Text: Colossians 3:18-4:1

Introductory Comments

Last week, we looked at the second of two word-paintings which shows us what the characteristics of life lived in and for the world and the satisfaction of the self, and the characteristics of the life lived in and for Jesus for the glory of God. The text for last week concluded with these words: “[3:17] And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

This week, Paul will demonstrate how the celebration of the cosmic, sovereign Jesus Christ translates into everyday life in the family and in the community. I like these parts of Paul’s letters because they show us clearly how Christian faith is not just some kind of pie-in-the-sky idealism. Being a disciple of Jesus has radical implications for all of life, including the most intimate spheres of life, like the home, marriage, sex, etc.

What this section shows us is that Christian faith is displayed through acts of deliberate sacrifice, service, submission, kindness, and love after the life of sacrifice, service, submission, kindness, and love revealed perfectly to the universe through the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So the “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” has real-world implications, and they begin right in the home of the Christian.

What Paul will do in these verses today is show us how the cosmic sovereignty of Christ translates into the ordering of a godly home. He will do this by using three types of relationships common in ancient Hellenistic households: Wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters. You need to know a few things before we get into the details of these verses, because for many of you it will sound odd or wrong-headed to think of a wife as being in submission to her husband. It may seem strange to you that Paul would encourage almost total obedience of a child to his or her parents in this age of teenaged-enabled social networking on mobile devices. Finally, it may strike you as totally odd or even offensive that Paul will talk about the relationship between slaves and masters of slaves, particularly given the shocking and horrible history of slavery in our own country and in the West. So I want to acknowledge those potential anxieties right up front, and ask you to watch and listen for the principles of Christian household and family life that are underneath the surface of the words here in the text.

The first thing I want to tell you is this: For each set of relationships mentioned in this section of the letter, both parties have responsibilities because both parties, in the Christian household, acknowledge Jesus as Lord of the Universe. For Christians, personal responsibilities and behaviors in the home will reflect the reality of Jesus as Lord.

Second, certain scenarios are assumed in this section. Paul is writing to small congregation where there are married people, and the first two of the exhortations in today’s text are for those who are married and who have children. Paul speaks in other places about single people in the church, for example in 1 Corinthians 7. But here married Christian couples are in view, along with their children, all of whom are considered to be part of the body of Christ. We need to acknowledge up front that this text does not deal with other family configurations, like single-parenthood.

Third, the existence of slave/master relationships in society is assumed in this section. Slavery, which is the ownership of one human being by another, was an accepted practice engrained in the social and economic structures of the time. What is interesting to note here is the existence of a significant tension that many folks sometimes miss. While Paul is clear that there are slaves and that slaves have certain responsibilities, he also says that masters have a Master themselves (Jesus) and should conduct themselves accordingly. So while Paul is teaching about how slaves and masters should behave toward each other if they are both in Christ, both slaves and masters are present in this church. We cannot discount this, because I believe that this bringing together of people of such dissimilar social strata sowed the seeds of emancipation for slaves and set the stage ultimately for the elimination of slavery as a social institution.

Wives and Husbands

And now, to the text:
[18] Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. [19] Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.
The Greek word which is translated in the ESV has “submit” is hupotasso, which is in the middle voice and imperative case. I use this technical language because it is essential in understanding what “submit” means here. As an imperative, the word "submit" is an exhortation: Christian wives, do this. But we also must look at the middle voice. Why? Because the middle voice changes the interpretation of the verb. If this were an active verb, it would mean, “place under” or “subordinate.” But in the middle voice, the meaning is more like “subject oneself,” or “acquiesced in.” So this word implies the willing submission of a wife to her husband. But the interpretation does not stop there, because we have to also consider the phrase at the end of verse 17, that this submission to a husband should be done “as is fitting in the Lord.” I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase The Message, “Wives, understand and support your husbands by submitting to them in ways that honor the Master.”

So this isn’t a submission based on inferiority with a command to obey no matter what. This is a self-giving submission to a husband intended to honor Christ first and foremost.

I stand before you as a married man. And as I prepared for the sermon I decided to ask Sara if she would think and reflect on this text for a few minutes to give me her thoughts. She did so, and rather than read them myself, I thought it might be helpful for you to ask Sara if she would offer her thoughts on the application of this scripture.

[Sara presented her application of the text.]

Now that we’ve all heard that, I need to get to the husband. “[3:19] Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” The love Paul speaks of here is a self-giving, sacrificial love that lays it all on the line for the sake of the spouse. Such a love will never, never, never find its expression in harsh or abusive treatment. Paul is saying here, in effect, be wholly devoted to your wives. Go all out! Never take advantage of them or mistreat them. The unspoken assumption underlying these words is the loving sacrifice of Christ. In fact, in Ephesians 5:25, Paul goes even farther, addressing husbands this way: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Husbands, be prepared to part with everything, including your own life, for the sake and for the welfare of your wife.” Is your job destroying your marriage? Get a different one. Are your recreational activities taking too much time from the responsibility of tending the garden of your marriage? Then find some things you can do together. Healthy marriages show forth the glory of Christ, and husbands have particular responsibilities for tending, fostering, and leading. Every time I read this text, I’m convicted that I have not done enough to show my own wife the love this text commands. I pray that Christ will further sanctify me to become more and more like him in my own marriage, so that I can be a source of joy and support and love for my wife.

Children and Fathers

[3:20] Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. [21] Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
The first thing to note about verse 20 is that children are addressed by Paul a persons with responsibilities in the congregation of believers and therefore also in the family. Again, this is something we can skip over easily and not realize how important this is. Children are very important in the family of faith, so much so that an Apostle address them directly in this letter, which was read publicly. They are not skipped over.

Children are called upon here to obey their parents in everything. The use of the word “obey” alludes to the obedience owed to parents who have more experience by virtue of age, but also because God has ordained and commanded that children honor their parents. “In everything” assumes, I think, that the parents are Christians and will conduct themselves with their children accordingly.

Paul then addresses fathers in particular. Children are to obey their parents, but fathers have special responsibilities for their children. At the time this letter was written, fathers had basically unlimited power and authority over the household. You can imagine a household where a father with that kind of power could willfully abuse a child without any worries or consequences. Paul command fathers, “Do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”

What this means is that a pastor should never hear words like these, which I have heard from more than one child in the course of conducting release time and in other situations: “I was told that I would never amount to anything” or “My parents think I’m useless.” I am very worried that, even here in Jackson, children are increasingly viewed a pawns, tools, or servants by their parents, and by their fathers in particular. I have personally witnessed the discouragement this produces in a child and it breaks my heart. Fathers, do nothing to provoke your children and bring them to discouragement. If you do, you run the risk of destroying, destroying the emotional and spiritual well-being of your children.

Slaves and Masters

[22] Slaves, 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.

[4:1] Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven
The final pairing is the longest in this section of Colossians. Again, we cannot overlook a couple or important features of these verses. Paul is not making a direct social commentary on slavery, which was widely accepted and practiced in the Hellenistic world. But he is articulating how the Christian faith changes even these widely accepted relationships. In so doing, Paul is here, and also in his letter to Philemon (who was a Colossian!) revealing the tension of the liberty and freedom from sin granted to all who are in Christ with a social institution characterized by complete power in the case of the master and complete submission on the part of the slave.

What we see in this part of the text is that salvation relativizes all other relationships. Every human relationship is to be marked first of all by submission and obedience to Christ. And so slaves are to serve their masters, but they are to do so in the interests of honoring or “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.” Christian slaves serve Christ first, and that obedience shows through in their obedience to earthly masters. Moreover, the slave knows that they are actuality the beneficiaries of a divine estate. They are promised an inheritance, which is something no slave in antiquity was ever entitled to. Can you see how the tension is building against slavery because of the gospel?

With this in mind, Paul says to the slave, "Do good, honest work. Your freedom in Christ cannot be used as an excuse for wrongdoing. Live honestly, work hard, and please the Lord first and foremost in your earthly service to a master."

Once again, Paul doesn’t stop there. He concludes by commanding the masters in the church to “[4:1] treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” You see, in Christ the masters have actually becomes slaves of a new Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ. This slavery paradigm is all over the New Testament. This is why Paul is able to say to the Corinthians, “[1 Cor. 6:19a-20] You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Christians have a new master, including those in the church who are earthly masters.

Everyone in Christ at one time was enslaved by sin and death, including you and me. But Christ bought you with the great price of his blood to liberate you from that eternally fatal condition. That is what Paul is alluding to here in this passage. The same holds true for you. You were bought with a price. It makes no difference who you parents are, who you work for, or who you serve here on earth. Your first allegiance to the Lord who, at great expense to himself, purchased you from slavery to sin in order to make you joint-heirs of an internal inheritance in God’s kingdom, where, we are promised, we will judge the angels (1 Cor 6:3). All of your relationships in the church, at home, with your spouse, your children, your parents, who you work for, all of them are altered when Christ is Lord. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
June 5, 2011
Seventh Sunday in Eastertide
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew

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