Jesus amid Our Closest Relationships (Col. 3:18–4:1)

I recently came across a new interpretation of Genesis 1–2, the passage where God creates the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve. This interpretation, with no loss of humor, asks the reader: “Do you know what God said after he had created the first man, Adam?” He said, “I can do so much better.” And of course, having learned from his first attempt, He then succeeded in creating a far superior creature, Eve.

There is no end to jokes about men and women. We need each other, we can’t understand each other, and we range from loving to fighting with each other. 

This dance between men and women is most vividly on display in marriage, and in the ensuing makeup of the home. You may find it a relief to learn that even in the first century Mediterranean world, even in Paul’s little churches, men and women needed lots of advice for how to make marriages, and the household relationships that ensued, work.  In other words, if you feel like you’re not always getting the relationships within your home perfect, you are in good company—neither were the Colossians.

Our passage today, Colossians 3:18–4:1, is all about the intimate relationships within the home. Not only Paul, but many other ancient writers addressed these household relationships. The typical household of the Greek and Roman involved three types of relationships: husband and wife; parent and child; servant and master. Some of what Paul has to say strikes our modern ears as out of tune. Especially the call for wives to submit in v. 18, and the apparent endorsement of a type of bond service, or even slave-system, in vv. 3:22–4:1. However, when we read these passages within their historical context, and better understand what Paul is doing, they become profoundly transformative of our view of human relationships.

We’ll take a look at each of these relationships in a moment, but first let me situate this passage in the letter. In our series in Colossians, we are now entering the second half of the four-chapter letter—so we’ll be focusing mostly on chapters 3 and 4.

As Paul moves from chapters 1–2 into 3–4, his focus zeroes in on the individual lives of the Colossians.  He has told us that Christ is over all things, the creator and redeemer of all things (1:15–20). In chapter 3, Paul begins to bring Christ into our personal lives. In 3:1–17 (which we’ll cover in two weeks), Paul tells us how Christ impacts our individual lives. In our passage for today, 3:18–4:1, Paul tell us what happens when Christ comes into our home. Or, as the title of our sermon indicates, Paul tells us what happens when “Jesus is amid our closest relationships.”

Let’s follow Paul and take these relationships one at a time.

I. Husbands and Wives

In verses 18–19, Paul treats the relationship at the center of the home—husband and wife. He says the following:

“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.”

Ouch! To our modern ears, Paul doesn’t come out of the gate so well. Beginning a teaching on marriage by telling wives to submit is like being asked to sing the national anthem at Yankees stadium and opening with a Red Sox Nation chant. It’s not going to go over so well. Is Paul this backwards? Is Paul merely relegating women to quiet kitchen duty in an otherwise male-centered drama?

Over the centuries and millennia, we’ve witnessed far too much abuse of women in the name of male authority. So we are perhaps right to cross our arms and take a cautious approach to this passage. But we need to be good readers, which means probing a little deeper to better understand Paul’s thought here.

There are three keys to better understanding Paul’s point here.

Notice what Paul is not saying. He is not telling wives to obey their husbands. In the two relationships that follow, children and servants are told to “obey” parents or masters. The word “submit” can mean a subservient obedience. But it is crucial to see that Paul switches to a different word to describe the relationship of child to parent, and servant to master. This means the wife is not like a child, or servant. Rather, she is a peer, an equal, to the man. She is not being called to blind subjection, but a voluntary trust. She puts herself in submission; she is not put there by her husband.

Secondly, We need to be reminded of what Paul actually believes about women, and how shocking it is in this context. Based on Genesis 1:26–27, Paul believes that both men and women are created in the image of God. The importance of this for shaping all of Paul’s thought can hardly be overstated. This means that although different, men and women are equal: they are equal in value, dignity, and importance. They both bear the image of God, both are integral to God’s purposes in the world. 

Paul makes this clear elsewhere, in Galatians 3:28, that in Christ there is no distinction in value, worth or importance between a man and a woman: 

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ.”

Our world has been so shaped by these Christian notions of equality that we take them for granted. But notice the air Paul’s churches were breathing in the ancient world:

When the origin of woman is brought up in the ancient world, it is often to paint them as inferior by nature.  In his work on the origin of humans and animals, Aristotle taught that, “the female is a misbegotten male.” In The Politics, he likewise states: “ . . . as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior.” Notice the phrase “by nature.” The male is by nature superior; the female is by nature inferior.

In the decades following the life of Jesus and Paul, certain Rabbis were known to thank God for not making them a Gentile, a slave, or a woman during their morning prayers.

When Paul says that in Christ, “there is not male and female,” meaning the two are perfectly equal in standing and value before God, he is lifting women up to amazing heights in the ancient world. Paul is not operating from the assumption that women are by nature inferior, but rather from the belief that by nature, they are equal as creations and image bearers of God.

The third thing to notice, which helps us understand Paul’s words for wives, comes at the end of 18, Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

This is the great qualifier of this verse: submit, “as is fitting in the Lord.” This means that submission is only in the context of a collective submission to Jesus. If the woman’s husband would ask her to follow him in worshiping a pagan god, she would not be required to submit to such a thing—for this is not “fitting in the Lord.” 

This is because the husband is not the wife’s Lord. Jesus is her Lord. She is called first and foremost to follow Christ. If Christ has called her to marriage, then as her husband brings the relationships and household into following Christ, she can follow this lead.

Finally, to fully understand Paul’s message for wives and husbands, we need to consider the call for husbands to “love” their wives in v. 19, Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. 

In the ancient world of Paul, there were other lists of how wives and husbands should interact. But there is no other example of this call for husbands to love their wives—not with this word for love, agape.  Husbands were called to manage and rule their household, because a well-ordered marriage and home were good for one’s reputation and for society. But they were not called to agape-love toward their wife. Agape love is the love Christ shows us. It is a selfless and sacrificial love that puts the other first. This is utterly unique. 

We can perhaps summarize what Paul is saying like this: As his peer, the wife volunteers her trust in the husband by what Paul calls “submitting.” The husband offers Jesus-shaped love to the wife, selflessly seeking her wellbeing. And all of this is done in mutual submission to Jesus as Lord. 

What does this look like in a marriage? It looks like a dance.

As a minister, I officiate many weddings. Some of the most interesting conversations I have are at the wedding receptions following services I’ve led. You get people from all different perspectives spiritually, and they often are loosened up at the reception or emotional due to the subject of marriage. I’ve had folks who’ve been through a tough divorce come find me an hour or so into the night and share their struggles. And I’ve had many, many couples who’ve been married for a long time share their stories with me.

Once, while the majority of wedding goers attempted the electric slide, an older couple joined me at a quieter table in the back. They’d been married for decades and were reflecting on their own wedding day. I asked them what lessons they’ve learned.

The overwhelming sense was that they were a team. They had grown together, and grown together in Christ. This was a couple who together did what was “fitting in the Lord.”  However, there was a subtle dance between them, as the wife put it. He nudges us in a direction, she said. And if I sense it is in accord with the tune the Lord is playing for us, I am happy to follow. When it seems out of tune, I hesitate, waiting for him to get on the right note.  Eventually we get on the same page, and keep dancing.

The wife told me that by allowing the husband to lead, she was offering him respect.  She was trusting him, but not without thinking and offering her own opinion.

The husband told me that by leading, he had learned again and again that he needed to be like Christ. What does that mean? I asked. He gave me one example, without hesitation. He said it meant to always make her wellbeing and the family’s flourishing, his main priority. Even when it meant sacrificing some of his own desires, he said he took responsibility for the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of the home. 

To the observer, you could never tell one partner was leading and the other following—they were just dancing. But to the couple, there was a subtle balance; the man nudging in a direction, the woman deciding, volunteering, to follow—but not without thoughtfully asking if the man was in step with the music. And sometimes, she had to help him get back in step.

And then just before we parted, the couple got up and looked at me with a grin. They said there is one more thing that’s key: don’t stop having fun! And with that, they were off to the dance floor! 

II. Parents and Children

The second relationship Paul moves to is the parent and child.

“Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Colossians 3:20–21).

Children, listen to and obey your parents. Parents, discipline and guide your children, but not out of your own unchecked temper or immaturity, but out of wisdom.

We lack space in this sermon to get into the ins and outs of parenting. But I want to stress one thing this passage teaches us that I think is partially being threatened in modern culture. Due to our obsession with individual rights and the erosion of any notion of absolute truth, parents are increasingly nervous about giving their kids real guidance about their identity, about who they are. Instead, it is assumed that both the parent and child are on a journey of enlightenment together—both teaching each other.

An example of this thinking can be found in a North Carolina school’s mission statement, which reads:

The . . . multi-age classroom experiences inspire teachers and students to alternately act as instructor and pupil, leader and follower, ultimately cultivating students’ ownership of their distinct self-worth and appreciation of the inherent worth of others.  From this effective and encompassing preparation . . . graduates advance with serene self-assurance to their next schools and into adulthood as agile thinkers, poised communicators, and gracious collaborators— docents of their own learning and engineers of authentic and fulfilling lives.

This notion, that students and teachers “act alternately as instructor and pupil,” spills over into the home, where parents are often intimidated out of guiding their children toward certain values or worldviews.  While the culture would tell us that children are “docents of their own learning and engineers of authentic lives,” the Bible has a different message: Children are not yet wise enough to engineer their own lives, but are meant to be cared for, lovingly, by parents who can guide them into fullness of life.

So children, those of you under 18, assume your parents know a thing or two. Obey them.  Parents, God has entrusted you with care of these children. Do not provoke them, but lovingly guide and cultivate them.

III. Servants and Masters

Paul devotes the most ink to the relationship hardest for us to understand, that of bondservant and master.  He instructs:

“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” (Colossians 3:22; 4:1).

Those who gave instructions about how households should be ordered in the ancient world, almost always included this relationship between bondservants, or slaves, and masters.

Slavery was built into the fabric of ancient society. “There was no action or belief or institution in Greco-Roman antiquity that was not one way or another affected by the possibility that someone involved might be a slave.” (Finley, 1980: 65).

However, the Greco-Roman slave system was not identical to the American South system we are familiar with. Here is how the Yale Anchor Bible Dictionary puts it:

Racial factors played no role; education was greatly encouraged (some slaves were better educated than their owners) and enhanced a slave’s value; many slaves carried out sensitive and highly responsible social functions; slaves could own property (including their own slaves); their religious and cultural traditions were the same as those of the freeborn; no laws prohibited public assembly of slaves; and (perhaps above all) the majority of urban and domestic slaves could legitimately anticipate being emancipated by the age of 30.  (Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, “Slavery,” VI, 58–72)

There were also great differences within the ancient system. Some slaves were indeed treated like sub-human creatures and abused terribly. Others, however, were more like household servants, who were indeed inferior in terms of a broad class system, but nevertheless seen as human. It is the case that the bondservants Paul is dealing with, in the churches, are more like the servants you might see in Victorian England (picture Downton Abby).

We still wonder, why didn’t Paul call for the immediate emancipation of all such persons? First, Paul knows that a slave sent into a rebellion was sure to be killed or put into far worse scenarios. The new church had no power against the massive Roman Empire. Second, Paul worked from the inside out, aiming to change the hearts of individuals first, which would put in motion a process that would eventually change the larger society.

If you want to know Paul’s heart when it comes to this system of bondservants within the home, read Philemon, his shortest letter. 

Paul is writing to Philemon about the same time he is writing Colossians. He is imprisoned in Rome, and Philemon is a resident of Colossae, and a church meets in his house. Philemon’s household includes bondservants, one of whom has run away. That servant’s name is Onesimus, and he’s found his way to Rome and in Rome found his way to Paul. 

Onesimus has become a Christian, and has become close to Paul. Paul is aware of how vulnerable Onesimus would be in Rome—a runaway servant. So he writes Philemon, asking Philemon to take him back. But in the letter, Paul says two things that are stunning:

First, he refers to Onesimus as his child.

“I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment…. I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.” (Philemon 10, 12).

While for many Greeks and Romans, a slave was ‘inferior by nature,” and a runaway slave was less than nothing, Paul sees Onesimus as a son.

Second, Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not to hurt him, but as a brother. 

“…have him back, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother … both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 15–16).

We lack space to explain why this is so stunning, but against the backdrop of the norms of Paul’s day, making a slave into a son and brother to freed persons was incredible.

So whatever else we take from this passage, know that Paul had something far more ambitious in mind than making the bondservants or slaves in Christian homes legally free. He wanted to make them into human beings.

What exactly is Paul doing in Colossians between bondservants and masters?

First, he is putting them on the same level before the Lord. Recall that in Colossians 3:11, Paul writes,

“[In Christ] there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

Both “slave and free” are one in Christ.

Second, he is calling both bondservant and master to integrity in their relationships. “No eye-service” in the way you work for your boss, Paul says. And for the masters, the employers, they must treat their employees fairly. Why? Because they, too, have a master in heaven.

When in a relationship as an employee, work as though you are working for the Lord. When in a relationship as an employer, be fair, because even though you are a boss here, you are working for God, your Boss above.

We’ve had to cover some complex and touchy material in this sermon. Let me conclude with three principles we can derive from this passage, which are relevant for all of us and for all close relationships we are in.

Jesus cares about our most important relationships, because he cares about us. You can invite Jesus into these relationships. You can cry out to him and ask him to help. Without a shadow of a doubt, this passage tells us that Jesus comes and dwells amid our closest relationships.

In each of our important relationships, we need to see Jesus at the top of the triangle. We need to relate to him, before we relate to the other. We need to view the other in light of how Jesus is relating to them: Does Jesus love them? Does Jesus extend grace, mercy and forgive them? We noticed that in each relationship Paul covers, the particular relationship is brought into a relationship with Christ:

  • 18–19, Wives relate to husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

  • 20–21, Children obey parents, for this pleases the Lord.

  • 22–4:1, Bondservants serve, serving the Lord; Masters treat fairly, knowing they have a master in heaven.

In all your close relationships, invite Jesus to be at the center of them. See the other person as Christ does. Ask Christ what He is doing in that other person’s life, then try to join him in that effort. Feel Jesus relating to you, through the image of each of these relationships.

All three of these relationships act as metaphors for God’s relationship to us. The church is the bride of Christ; Christ the bridegroom. God becomes our Father in Christ; we his children. We become servants of Christ, who is our Lord, our Master.

It may be that in one or all of these relationships you’ve been hurt. Does the marriage relationship leave your heart wanting? Ask Christ to help you experience his spousal love. Does the parent-child relationship elicit bad memories? Ask Christ to help you feel God’s fatherly affection for you. Does the bondservant and master relationship evoke anger, or fear? Ask Christ to help you feel His care for you as your true Boss; and ask Him to help you feel his care for you, as a good Master.