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“Roles Overruled by a Gracious Sovereign Judge”

Nov.6/16 - Col.3:18-4:6


A chief in Africa called all his men to come to his hut in the centre of the village. It was his fear, he said to them, that there were no longer any real men in the village. He had the impression the men were being ruled too much by their wives.

      To find out if this were true, he asked all the men who felt their wives bossed them around to leave the hut through the door on the right. Those who felt they were in charge at home should leave through the door on the left. Lo and behold, all of the chief’s men left through the door on the right, except one who stood all alone. He finally left through the door on the left.

      So the chief called the men together again and gave a speech of praise to the lone wolf. He said, “At least we have one real man in our village.Could you please share with us your secret?” The man looked rather sheepish and at last he muttered, “Chief, when I left home this morning, my wife said to me, ‘Husband, never follow the crowd!’”


The balance of power between husband and wife is a touchy subject. Fallen humans love to “lord it over” each other, so married men can quickly distort Scriptural teaching to use it as an excuse to take advantage of their wives, put them down, or think they can take liberties as the “preferred” partner in the relationship. Recently no less than a presidential candidate was justifiably criticized for what he tried to dismiss as “locker-room banter” – talking about groping women and making moves on a married woman. Biblical truth has been distorted in the past and made into an excuse for husbands to treat their wives with disrespect, making them feel lower than the proverbial doormat. So we need to approach today’s passage with extreme care and sensitivity lest it be twisted by base lust for power.

      In this section, the Apostle Paul offers guidelines on how believers should conduct themselves in five different sorts of relationships. There is a theme running through the passage of how the Lord is supreme and sovereign in each one. Back in chapter one, you may recall, Paul clearly set forth the pre-eminence of Jesus Christ, identifying Him as the supreme authority in terms of all created things. Col 1:16-18 “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”

      When it comes to power structures or questions of authority and submission, who’s “boss”, obviously the Holy Spirit is pointing us through Paul’s words to Jesus as our Head and our Judge. Now, when it comes to these five sets of human relationship, Paul points out with each one the significance of Jesus’ being sovereign.

      Let’s back into this passage, starting at 4:5f, so we come to what’s probably the most contentious relationship - marriage - after looking at the others. In 4:5f Paul describes how Christians should interact with non-believers. Col 4:5f “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Being “wise” in how we relate to those outside the church involves “redeeming the time” (KJV), trying to “make the most of every opportunity”. How? “Let your conversation be always full of GRACE.” How do we know what ‘grace’ is? Who has defined ‘grace’ most definitively for us? 2Co 8:9 “For you know the GRACE of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Jn 1:16 Jn 1:16 “From the fullness of his GRACE we have all received one blessing after another.”

      When we let Jesus be Lord of what we say, when we give Him control of our tongue, what comes out will be gracious – “that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness”. Paul says it’s like it will be “seasoned with salt”. That expression may not mean much to us today because we’re so used to our food coming with salt already in it; but salt is used to highlight the flavour in something so it’s no longer insipid or bland-tasting. Think of a bare chicken nugget compared to dipping it in BBQ sauce or honey-garlic sauce – YUMM!

      In 4:3-4 Paul describes another relationship involving power and authority over which God reigns. This one’s very personal to him – he’s talking about his own captivity, being a prisoner in Rome. Col 4:3f “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.” Paul’s acknowledging God’s in charge of his being in custody: he wants prayer – NOT that he should be released, strangely enough! – but prayer that he has an opportunity to preach the Good News about Jesus, to unpack the “mystery”. If the Lord weren’t sovereign over Paul’s chains, what would be the point of praying?


Next, continuing to back up to 3:22, we hear Paul discuss the relationship between slaves and their masters. Today this would be analogous to the relationship between employees and their bosses. Note the New Testament does not outright either condemn or condone the system of slavery: yet within its teaching is concealed a depth charge that would centuries later erupt to bring down the whole scheme of slavery, through the efforts of Bible-guided men like William Wilberforce. The nub of this explosive principle is found in 4:1 - “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” What is right or just, what is fair (the word’s root means “equality”) – WHY? “Who’s gonna make me?” “Because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” The slave-owner is not God: he will hae to answer to God on Judgment Day for how he has treated his slaves. The same slaves who, when they attend church, are accepted as equals with the slave-owner in terms of the waters of baptism and the right to take communion. Totally counter-cultural! As Paul summed it up so pointedly earlier in chapter 3, v11 “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” NO ‘slave or free’ – WOW! People’s New Testament commentary notes on 4:1, “It should be remarked that such a charge as this is not found in all the profane writings of antiquity.Even in the pages of the moralists a slave was regarded as a chattel with which the master had a right to deal according to his will.The Christian rule, at once introduced into the church, was for the master to treat his servants as he wished to be treated by his Master in heaven, and to expect the same kind of treatment that he meted out.”

      Paul’s saying, “Masters, you have a Master of your own in heaven, to whom you must render account of how you treated these others.” No excuse for abuse!

      It also changes things dramatically for the slaves, in terms of how they serve their masters. If you were a slave, do you suppose you might be tempted to try to get by with doing the least work possible? It’s a natural human tendency, isn’t it – to put on a show of working hard when the boss is around, but then to slack off or take extra breaks when they’re not looking? Listen carefully to what Paul tells them their attitude should be – this is really the heart of this whole passage.

      Col 3:22-25 “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.” Multiple times the sovereignty of Jesus is highlighted. They’re to obey not just to perform eye-service or because they’re watched (v22) but “with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord”. NRSV “fearing the Lord”. V23 they’re to work at it “as working FOR THE LORD not for men”. V24 they do this because they know they “will receive an inheritance FROM THE LORD as a reward.” WHOM are they serving? Paul adds for emphasis – just in case there’s any question – “It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Then V25 in case they still haven’t gotten the point – “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong” - by WHOM? It’s implicit here rather than written out – repaid BY GOD with whom “there is no favoritism”. To the Lord, it’s a matter of indifference whether it’s the master or the slave, the boss or the employee, who abuses the relationship: God will deal with each justly and fairly. Imagine what a difference it would make for a slave in the ancient Roman world to realize she wasn’t just working for a human master/mistress, but for a heavenly Lord who saw all she did and was preparing an eternal inheritance for her! Wouldn’t that change your motivation considerably?

      It’s been said, “Integrity is what you are when no one is looking.” Paul suggests having God as ultimate boss will result in us incorporating genuine serving-attitude into our core mentality, our conscious approach to life. V22 “obey...WITH SINCERITY OF HEART...” V23 “Whatever you do, work at it WITH ALL YOUR HEART...” Literally in the Greek, “from your soul”; NRSV “Put yourselves into it.” Making Jesus our personal Lord and Saviour at the work-site results in our adopting a good work ethic in the very fibres of our being. You’re not just doing it for the boss or the owner, you’re doing a quality job because it matters to Jesus, and He’s going to reward you quite apart from any earthly wages.

      It’s a fascinating context in which this exhortation is being conveyed to the church at Colosse. Tychicus, one of Paul’s official aides and representative, is likely delivering both this letter and the one to Philemon, who is a slaveowner attending the church at Colosse. Accompanying Tychicus is Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave who has become a Christian and been helping Paul out in Rome during his captivity. Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, appealing to Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a brother, and offering to repay anything the runaway may be owing his master. So Paul’s not just talking through his hat in this section! This master-slave issue is about to get very real in the Colossian church. Paul’s reminding the slaveowner God will be watching how he treats the returned runaway.


The fourth set of relationships Paul addresses is that of children and their parents. Again, Jesus’ sovereignty is a key factor. Col 3:20f “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.” Why should children obey their parents? Because they’ll get spanked if they don’t? “Do it – or else!!” No, the motivation is different for a Christian child: “obey your parents...FOR THIS PLEASES THE LORD.” It goes all the way back to the Ten Commandments – Ex 20:12 “Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” Paul notes in Eph 6:2 this is “the first commandment with a promise”.

      For the parents’ part – they’re prevented from getting off on a ‘power trip’ by their accountability to God, too. “Do not embitter your children,” Paul writes to dads; NRSV “Do not provoke your children”. Nag, nag, nag...That gets aggravating! Don’t demean them or verbally abuse them til they become discouraged, disheartened, broken in spirit.


All of which brings us back to what’s probably the most controversial part of this passage, the dynamic between a wife and her husband. Right throughout this entire passage Paul has been highlighting the difference Jesus’ lordship makes in all our human relationships, and the same applies here.

      A couple of majorly important qualifiers. Paul lays the groundwork for his instruction in the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:22-33 by this sober command: Eph 5:21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” See that same emphasis again? “Out of reverence for Christ” – our submission to one another as believers FLOWS FROM, is a logical consequence of, our revering Jesus as Lord of all. So we are ALREADY supposed to be submitting to one another as Christians even before we start talking about husbands and wives.

      Also, in Galatians 3 Paul declares that through faith in Christ Jesus we are made sons of God (in a culture in which being a ‘son’ conferred legal rights to inherit the family estate). He adds: Gal 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Think about it. That “neither male nor female” part cuts the ground right out from under any claims Christian males might have to superiority. It’s a safeguard against sexism and chauvinism. As persons before God who believe in Jesus, women have just as much inherent worth or value as men. There’s no room for inferiority on the basis of being either gender.

      Now, maybe, with those qualifiers in mind, we’re ready to look at Col 3:18f - “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” Note the overall parameter: Jesus’ sovereignty! “As is fitting in the Lord.” For husbands, the command to “love your wives” is elaborated upon more in Ephesians 5: v25 “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...” Agape-love involves total self-sacrifice. V28 “Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies...” No room there for loving your wife any less than your very self! V29 “After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—” so a husband should nourish and cherish his wife. V33 “Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself...” Again, NOWHERE here do we see any room for the idea that a Christian husband should EVER love his wife any less than his very self. In fact, the Christian husband is called to care for his wife in a way that imitates the way Jesus laid down His life for the church. Marriage is meant to be a pointer to the dear intimate self-sacrificial relationship the Crucified One displays toward His Bride, the church.

      Paul adds for husbands in Col 3:19 “love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” Don’t make them bitter, don’t exasperate them, don’t cause them to become irritated.

      Ladies, would it be so hard to submit to a man like that, who loves you deeply, cherishes and cares for you, lays down his life for you, who never once exasperates you? After all, as Christians we’re already supposed to submitting to each other out of reverence for Christ. You do know your man is going to have to give account at Judgment for how he treats you.

      The Greek verb “submit” means, in a military context, “to arrange (troop divisions) in a military fashion under the command of a leader”; in other contexts, “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.” It is a willingness to put ourselves under another’s charge; same verb as in Romans 13:1,5 talking about submitting to governing authorities.

      In the book Good: The Joy of Christian Manhood and Womanhood, Christina Fox maintains that submission ought not be associated with words such as “inferior, door mat, or controlled”. She cites John Piper’s definition of submission as “the divine calling of a wife to honour and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts.It’s the disposition to follow a husband’s authority and an inclination to yield to his leadership.” She notes the handful of passages which have the specific call for wives to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:21-33, Col 3:18f, 1Peter 3:1-7, Titus 2:5).

      The emphasis Paul has been making in today’s passage, Jesus’ sovereignty over all our relationships, comes through in Christina Fox’s take on this delicate balance of leadership and submission between husband and wife. She writes: “Submission is not about forced control. When a man leads his wife, he is leading her to depend on Christ, not himself. The kind of leadership a husband provides his wife is to encourage her growth in grace and prepare her to be a co-heir in the coming kingdom. As Piper and Grudem point out in their book Fifty Crucial Questions, ‘Any kind of leadership that, in the name of Christlike headship, tends to foster in a wife personal immaturity or spiritual weakness or insecurity through excessive control, picky supervision, or oppressive domination has missed the point of the analogy in Ephesians 5.Christ does not create that kind of wife.’

      “Submission is also not about belittlement, inferiority, or worthlessness... A wife’s submission is also not blind and absolute. Ultimately, Christ is the wife’s final authority. As a part of Christ’s church, she is HIS bride chiefly.”


In closing – a quote from the venerable Matthew Henry, probably reflecting on God fashioning Eve from Adam’s rib: “A woman was not made out of his head to top him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him; but out of his side, to be equal to him; under his arm to be protected; and near his heart to be loved.” Let’s pray.