A Word to Servants
Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men; knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality. (3:22–25)
The final relationship in an ancient home was that of masters and slaves. Again Paul, in Ephesians 6:5–9, parallels this text. In our day, that relationship can largely be compared to that of employer and employee. It should be noted that although the Word of God never advocates slavery, it does recognize it as an element of society that could be beneficial if both slaves and masters treated each other as they should. Far from seeking to abolish slavery, the Lord and the apostles use it as a motif for spiritual instruction, by likening the believer, one who belongs to Christ and serves Him, to a slave. So New Testament literature accepts slavery as a social reality and seeks to instruct those in that system to behave in a godly manner. Certainly in the letter to Philemon (delivered at the same time as Colossians), Paul upholds the duties of slave and master. He was sending the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master, Philemon. Paul asked Philemon to treat his returned slave with kindness and forgiveness—restoring the relationship to its divine design.
Rather than commanding slaves to rebel and overthrow slavery, Paul says, In all things obey those who are your masters on earth. It really is irrelevant what the social form may be, slavery or freedom—if the relationship is godly. As in the relationships between husbands and wives and parents and children, the principle of authority and submission is central to Paul’s thought. In all things is a comprehensive phrase referring to both enjoyable and distasteful duties. The obedience required of slaves is not external service, doing a duty with a reluctant attitude, as those who merely please men. Rather, Christian servants are to please the Lord by working with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Holding God and His will in high regard is the right motive. They are to work heartily (putting their whole inner man into the effort), as for the Lord rather than for men, serving their master as they would the Lord Himself.
Paul stresses to Timothy that such obedience and honor given by slaves to their masters keeps “the name of God and our doctrine” from being evil-spoken of (1 Tim. 6:1).
Paul gives two reasons for slaves (or employees) to obey their masters. Positively, the Lord will repay them for their faithfulness. They can endure inequity now, knowing that from the Lord they will receive the reward of the inheritance. The earthly master or boss may not give the servant what he deserves, but the Lord will. He is the One who will assure the eternal compensation is what it should be (cf. Rev. 20:12–13). Christian slaves are also heirs of eternal reward. As an employee on the job, or a servant in the home, it is the Lord Christ whom believers serve. He will pay them back with grace and generosity.
Paul then gives a negative reason for obedience. The one who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality. The warning is that the Lord will discipline without partiality in cases of disobedience (cf. Gal. 6:7). Paul acknowledged that the Christian slave Onesimus was responsible to repay Philemon (Philem. 18). The Christian servant is not to presume on his Christianity to justify disobedience. Even if we are God’s children, we will reap what we sow, because God is impartial (cf. Acts 10:34).
23 In 3:17 Paul enjoins the Colossians in general to do all things in the name of the Lord Jesus. At the outset of v. 23, the apostle admonishes slaves in particular to work heartily (lit., “from [your] soul”; NIV, “with all your heart”) in whatever they do. Slaves are to not only obey their masters with singularity of heart but are also to perform their given duties with all the energy they can muster. A slave characterized by integrity and productivity would be a valued commodity for any master. That being said, this is not what ought to motivate their work; rather, Paul directs slaves to expend their energies as to the Lord and not their masters, who are, in the final analysis, mere mortals. Even though they work for their lords, they are to do their work for their Lord.
22–24 Christian slaves are next addressed. Within the context of a household code household slaves are primarily in view, and slaves in a Christian household at that. But the directions given would be applicable to slaves whose duties were not within the household (slaves employed in agriculture or industry, for example), and to slaves of pagan masters.
Both in this letter and in Ephesians the injunctions to slaves are more extended than those to masters, and are accompanied by special encouragement. This, it has been suggested, is “a reflection of the social structure of these churches” (the implication being that they contained more slaves than masters). That may well be so. On the other hand, it has been pointed out that “the content of the admonitions would certainly be more readily approved by owners than by slaves.”200
The companion letter to Philemon affords an illuminating commentary on the mutual responsibilities of slaves and masters within the Christian fellowship, and on the transforming effect of this fellowship on their relationship. The relationship belongs to this present world-order; it is “earthly” (lit., “according to the flesh”).202 In the higher and abiding relationship which is theirs in Christ, believing slaves and masters are brothers. The slave/master relationship might persist in the home and business life: within the church it was swallowed up in the new relationship (cf. Col. 3:11). Paul treats the distinction in status between the slave and the free person as irrelevant in the new order (which perhaps was easier for him than it would have been for one who was enslaved to an earthly master). He sees the advantages of being free rather than enslaved, and the slave who has an opportunity of gaining freedom is encouraged to make use of the opportunity; but if there is no such opportunity, “never mind.… For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord; likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ” (1 Cor. 7:21–22). If a Christian slave came to be recognized as a leader in the church, he would be entitled to receive due deference from his Christian master.204 But the Christian slave would not presume on this new relationship or make it an excuse for serving his master less assiduously; on the contrary, he would serve him more faithfully because of this new relationship.
If a Christian slave had an unbelieving master, he would serve him more faithfully now because the reputation of Christ and Christianity was bound up with the quality of his service. Slaves in general might work hard when the master’s eye or the foreman’s eye was on them;206 they would slack off as soon as they could get away with it. And why not? They owed their masters nothing. Far more culpable is the attitude of modern “clockwatchers,” who have contracted to serve their employer and receive an agreed fixed remuneration for their labor. But Christian slaves—or Christian employees today—have the highest of all motives for faithful and conscientious performance of duty; they are above all else servants of Christ, and will work first and foremost so as to please him. Not fear of an earthly master, but reverence for their heavenly Lord,208 should be the primary motive with them. This would encourage Christian servants to work eagerly and zestfully even for a master who was harsh, unconscionable, and ungrateful; for they would receive their thanks not from him but from Christ. A rich recompense is the assured heritage of all who work for Christ;210 and the Christian servant can work for Christ by serving an earthly master in such a way as to “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in everything” (Tit. 2:10).
23 Verse 23 largely repeats what was said in Col 3:17; in fact, the opening clause is nearly identical to 3:17 but focused now on slaves: “Whatever you do.” The “whatever” is whatever the slaves do. Verse 23 turns quickly and tersely from doing everything “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (3:17) to a reworking of 3:22, with one major shift: instead of working for their masters, their efforts are transcended by learning to work for Master Jesus. Three brief expressions are used here: (1) work at it with all your heart, or enthusiastically, or more literally, from your God-vivified body;302 (2) their efforts are refocused into working for the Lord Jesus; and (3) they are not to see the focus of their labors as done only for human masters. Three clauses, the first reworking what is just said in 3:22, the second repeating what is found about living before the Lord Jesus in 3:17, and the third reworking again what is found in 3:22. But the verb is new. “Work” (ergazomai) is often used negatively in Paul for those working “works of the law” (Rom 4:4–5) but sometimes also positively (Gal 6:10; 1 Cor 16:10; 2 Cor 7:10; Rom 2:10; 13:10). Here the second sense is in mind.
Servants (vv. 22–25)
The Scriptures do not give slavery the stamp of divine approval. In Genesis God ordains and approves of such things as marriage (2:18, 24), the family (1:28), the Sabbath (2:3), and human government (9:6; see also Rom. 13:1–13), and he made all men free and equal. He did not create a slave or hint at slavery as an acceptable practice. In Paul’s day the laws of Rome allowed slavery, but in Old Testament times slaves were not so oppressed ‘and did acquire various rights’ such as to own property and conduct business. Hebrew slaves were treated under a somewhat complicated set of biblical rules, one of which commanded that they be kept in bondage for a maximum of six years only, in order to pay off the debts they owed (Exod. 21:2–6; Deut. 15:12–18).
‘Bondservants, obey in all things your masters … not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God’ (v. 22b). Christians are to work not simply out of duty, with self-preservation and self-interest in view; rather they are to work ‘as to the Lord’ (v. 23). Two things motivate believers to obey their employers:
fear of god (vv. 22, 25). Holy and reverential fear of God, together with respect for one’s employer, is good and healthy. This is not repressive, rather it takes into account that God is almighty and that men are answerable to him at the day of judgement for all that they have done or said (2 Cor. 5:10–11). So the Bible teaches obedience in matters pleasant and unpleasant (Eph. 6:5–8; 1 Tim. 6:1–2; Titus 2:9–10; 1 Peter 2:18–21a), but not absolutely in all things (Acts 5:29).
rewards (v. 24). ‘… knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward’. The quality of service must be such as would please Christ. Let there be no jobs half-finished, no shoddy workmanship or work of poor quality. Slaves were not rewarded as a rule, but were called to do their duty. Here, however, Paul reminds the believers that there are rewards to come for the good and faithful servants of Christ (Eph. 6:8; Matt. 25:14–30). Christians are to work as if they are in God’s service: they ‘serve the Lord Christ’. This is their calling, so they are to do the best they can and pray for grace and protection (Matt. 6:13). Whatever believers do for their Saviour here on earth it will not be regretted; in fact, when they reach heaven they will wish that they had given more to him who gave everything for them (John 21:15–17). Ultimately, we do not work for our employer but for the Lord Jesus Christ. Understanding this principle will help produce a better and healthier attitude to work and allow us to do the unpleasant tasks with patience. There are rewards promised and waiting for believers in heaven after a lifetime of faithful service (Luke 19:11–27; James 1:12; 2 Tim. 4:7–8).
3:23 / Second, slaves have a new center of reference. This is implied already in the last phrase of verse 22, which the thoughts of verse 23 amplify somewhat. Paul wants them to understand that, in spite of their position, they are serving Christ and not men. As a result of their relationship to Christ, they have been freed from viewing work as an obligation and performing it methodically and unenthusiastically for human approval. Thus Paul states that they are to work heartily, as though they were working for the Lord, not for men.
Ver. 23.—Whatever ye be doing, work (therein) from (the) soul, as to the Lord, and not to men (ver. 17; Eph. 6:6, 7; 1 Cor. 7:21–23). (On the first clause, see ver. 17.) In the Revised Text, however, the turn of expression differs from that of ver. 17, πᾶν being cancelled. The writer is thinking, not so much of the variety of service possible, as of the spirit which should pervade it. “Do” is replaced in the second clause by the more energetic “work,” opposed to indolent or useless doing (comp. Eph. 4:28; 2 Thess. 3:10; John 5:17; 9:4). “From [ἐκ, out of] the soul “indicates the spring of their exertions—inward principle, not outward compulsion; the servant must put his soul into his work. “Soul” implies, even more than “heart,” the engagement of the man’s best individual powers (comp. Phil. 1:27, as well as Eph. 6:6). The slaves’ daily taskwork is to be done, not only in sight and in fear of the Lord (ver. 22 b; Eph. 5:21), but as actually “to the Lord.” Him they are serving (ver. 24 b), who alone is “the Lord” (ch. 2:6); every mean and hard task is dignified and sweetened by the thought of being done for him, and the commonest work must be done with the zeal and thoroughness that his service demands (comp. Eph. 6:7, “with good will doing bond-service”). The word “not” (οὐ instead of μὴ) implies that their service is actually rendered to One other and higher than “men” (1 Cor. 7:22; Gal. 1:10).
23–24. Second, whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men. The task may appear unimportant or trivial, but the person doing it is never that, and he or she has the opportunity to turn the job into an act of worship. This attitude cannot be motivated by earthly reward, and so cannot be distracted if such prospects seem remote: since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. One should properly read ‘the inheritance’; the reference is clearly to the life of the age to come. This is ironic, since in earthly terms slaves could not inherit property. Here, then, is the third point: the ‘master’ in heaven will reward you. The fourth one is perhaps not to be taken (with niv) as a statement (It is the Lord Christ that you are serving) but, as is equally possible in the Greek, as a command: ‘Serve the Lord Christ!’ The force of this unusual phrase (Paul nowhere else allows the titles ‘Lord’ and ‘Christ’ to stand together without the name ‘Jesus’ as well) could be brought out by a paraphrase: ‘so work for the true Master—Christ!’
Ver. 23. Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as unto the Lord.—
Servants of Christ:—The apostle was speaking to slaves, who must have felt their condition to be irksome and degrading, but he applies a principle which altogether transforms it. They are to feel and act as servants of Christ. This principle is of far-reaching application. We are to serve Christ by discharging all the duties of life so as to please Him. This suggests a train of thought which has a special suitableness to young men. Note then the things which are essential to the realization of this lofty ideal of Christian service.
- There must be a full surrender of the whole being to Christ. “No man can serve two masters.” “He that is not with Me is against Me.” Alas! how many act as though they bad made a bargain with Christ; that part of their nature should be given to Him, and part retained for the world and self. In certain circumstances they seem devout and earnest believers, in others frivolous and worldly. Such a course is dishonouring to Christ, and injurious to their own souls. There are families in which the children having been asked to do something, refuse or delay; then a struggle ensues, involving discomfort to both parents and children. In others the first intimation is followed by prompt obedience. In the one case is love, order, and happiness; in the other the reverse. Why? In the one case the children had learned to obey, in the other they had not. So some of God’s children have not learned to surrender their wills utterly to Him; hence every act of obedience involves a struggle; but some have learnt to make the struggle once for all, and are now happy in that service which is perfect freedom.
- Strive to be efficient in your worldly calling. “Whatsoever,” whether the work of master or servant, prince or peasant, “do it as to the Lord.” When we can recognize Christ as our Master, and our work as rendered to Him, it should make us faithful servants, whoever may be our immediate employer. Unfortunately this has not been always acted on, and religion has been regarded as a disqualification for efficient service. A lad once said, when urged to decision, “I would like to learn my business before being converted, for I notice that the pious men in my father’s employ are not generally good workmen.” I want you to wipe out this reproach, and try to excel in everything for the sake of Christ—whether in school, workshop, or counting-house, &c. The influence of Christian character and effort is greatly enhanced when connected with superiority in business. A working man who had recently come to reside in a northern village, was asked, as he was strolling in the fields one Sunday, to attend a cottage service where the speaker was going to preach. The invitation was rudely declined, and on mentioning the matter to an acquaintance who came up immediately, he was asked if he knew who the preacher was. “No.” “Why that is Thompson, the best forgeman in the district.” “Oh, indeed, I have often heard of Thompson’s work; I will go and hear him preach.” He did so and became a new man.
III. Strive to acquire mental culture and general intelligence for the sake of Christ. 1. It will open to you many avenues of enjoyment. 2. It will enable you to discover riches and beauty in the Divine word which would otherwise be concealed. 3. It will help to keep you free from the religious crotchets by which the Christian life is now weakened and disfigured. 4. It will give you greater power to serve Christ. Edward Irving had in his Glasgow congregation the wife of a shoemaker, who was a determined infidel. Irving visited him day after day without producing any impression. But one day he sat down beside him and began talking about his work and the material he was then handling. The man became interested, for he found that the minister knew as much about his trade as he did himself. Next Sunday he went to church, and when taunted by his former companions, replied, “Mr. Irving is no fool, he kens leather.”
- Have some special work to do for Christ. The field of Christian usefulness is wide, and there can be no difficulty in finding suitable work. To help you in this—1. Be regular and faithful in your devotions. 2. Try to do every day something simply for Christ’s sake—repress your temper, speak to some friend about salvation, practise some self-denial, for Christ’s sake, and with the help of the Spirit. Conclusion: Are you serving Christ or Satan? You must be one or the other. (G. D. Macgregor.)
Do all for God:—1. When we remember that our destiny is to live with Christ and glorified beings, and that any work that does not fit us for that is a great impertinence, it is alarming at first sight to note that the great bulk of our occupations are of the earth, earthy. All professions and trades are for the purpose of supplying defects in the existing order, and, therefore, when that order is no more, and is superseded by one in which there are no defects, the occupations of this life must necessarily die a natural death. Is there not, then, something which seems inappropriate in the circumstance that all this short life should be taken up in doing what has no reference to eternity, and will be swept away like so much litter? 2. It was just this feeling that gave rise to Monasticism. Men assumed that eternity would be given up to prayer and praise; these, therefore, must be the earthly occupations of religious men. Let us not rail at their mistake, for it is a common assumption that a secular pursuit is an obstacle to a religious mind. Hence a seriously disposed young man is pointed out as destined for the Church. 3. As the pushing of a false theory to its extreme point is one method of showing its fallacy, imagine it to be God’s will that all Christians should have a directly spiritual pursuit. What then? The system of society is brought to a dead-lock. Take away the variety of callings, reduce all to that of the monk, and civilization is undermined and we revert to barbarism. This assuredly cannot be the will of Him who has implanted in us the instincts which develope into civilization. 4. But if this cannot be the will of God, then it must be His will that this man should ply some humble craft; that this other should have the duties of a large estate; that a third should go to the desk; a fourth minister to the sick; a fifth fight the battles of his country. Now if this be the case the greatest harm is done when a man thrusts himself out from his proper vocation. Each man’s wisdom and happiness must lie in doing the work God has given him. So thought St. Paul. He did not urge his converts to join him in his missionary journeys, but to abide in his calling with God. 5. “With God.” This wraps up the secret of which we are in search, how we may serve God in our daily business. How can this be done? By throwing into the work a pure and holy intention. Intention is to our actions what the soul is to the body. As the soul, not the body, makes us moral agents, so motive gives action a moral character. To kill a man, of malice prepense, is murder; but to kill him by accident is no sin at all. A good work, such as prayer, becomes hypocrisy if done for the praise of men. 6. Now the great bulk of life’s work is done with no intention whatever of serving God. (1) The intention of some in their work is simply to gain a livelihood: a perfectly innocent and even good motive, but not spiritual and such as redeems the work from earthiness. (2) Others labour with a view of gaining eminence. The effects of work done in this spirit, if it does not meet with success, are sad to witness. (3) Others mainly work from energy of mind. They would be miserable if idle; but that work has of course no spiritual character. (4) Another class work from the high and elevating motive of duty; but if the intention have no reference to God’s appointment it has no more spirituality than might have been found in the mind of Cicero or Sepeca. (5) A great mass of human activity has no intention at all, and so runs to waste from a spiritual point of view. Multitudes work mechanically, and by the same instinct of routine as a horse in a mill. But man is surely made for something nobler than to work by mere force of habit. 7. Now what is the true motive which lifts up the humblest duties into a higher atmosphere? This—“Whatsoever ye do,” &c. The primary reference is to the duties of slaves, the lowest imaginable. The a fortiori inference is this, that if the drudgery of a slave admits of such a consecration, much more does any nobler form of business. No man after this can say, “My duties are so very commonplace that they cannot have a religious dignity and value.” 8. Practical counsels. (1) Before you go to your task fix it in your mind that all lawful pursuits are departments of God’s harvest-field in which He has called Christians to labour. (2) Pursue your own calling with the conscious intention of furthering His work and will. (3) Then put your hand to it bravely, keeping before you the main aim of pleasing Him with diligence and zeal. (4) Imagine Jesus surveying your work as He will do it at the last day, and strive that there may be no flaw in it. (Dean Goulburn.)
Working:—Were I to ask, “What was the purpose for which you were sent into the world,” I should get a variety of replies. But the right answer would be, To work. So the Bible tells us, and Providence and the world around. Work is not an evil, but a good. There is work in heaven. Adam unfallen was a working man. If there had been no sin the world would not have been a world of idleness. And what is true of us is true of all God’s creatures. Take water; it never stands still. Take horses, or even the birds, how soon they have to work for a living. Our text tells us how to work and for whom to work. Take then its instruction as a guide for—
- School work. Many wish there were no such thing. This is foolish, for schools make all the difference between us and heathens. How hard it is for a man to get on in life who has had a poor education. School work is hard, but it will be made all the lighter if done heartily and to the Lord; and then there would be no need for the coaxing and bribing and threatening that are so common.
- Home work. Young people should make themselves useful at home, and not expect that everybody should be attending upon them. Home work is an important part of the training for after life; and there is nothing in it beneath the dignity of any girl. And what a comfort it would make you, and what a saving you might be to mother’s cares. And the reason it is repulsive is because you do not take to it in a right spirit. Throw heart in it, and it will soon be enjoyable.
III. Business work. Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well—the work even of a message-boy, crossing sweeper, or shoeblack. It is often when people are busy at their work that God comes with a blessing. Moses, Gideon, Elisha, the shepherds, the apostles were all called when at their work. Is yours humble? You can exalt it by taking it as Christ’s, and by doing it with all your heart.
- Soul work. This is done more for us than by us. And yet we have to “work out” what God works in. This will have to be done heartily and unto the Lord, or literally not at all. We have to escape—which surely involves earnestness—to Jesus.
- Christian work. Every work is Christian if done for Christ, but there is work more especially done for Him. When a little girl’s mother comes to visit her at school, she wants to introduce all her friends to her. Your work is to introduce them to Jesus. You need not be a missionary to do this. (J. H. Wilson, M.A.)
“Not unto men”:—It is related that when Phidias, the great sculptor who carved statues for one of the temples of antiquity, was labouring with minute fidelity upon the hair on the back of the head of one of the historic figures which was to be elevated from the pavement to the very apex of the building, or placed along the frieze, some one expostulated with him, saying, “Why do you take such great pains with the hair? It is never to be seen.” His simple reply was, “The gods will see it.” So he laboured thoroughly in the minutest things, not for the eyes of men but for the eyes of the gods. (H. Melvill, B.D.) Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the inheritance; for ye serve the Lord Christ.
Christian Socialism:—Christianity, though altogether opposed to those levelling theories which disaffected men industriously broach, places the highest and the lowest on a par in the competition for eternity. Christianity is the best upholder of the distinctions in society; and he can have read his Bible to little purpose who does not see the appointment of God that there should be rich and poor in the world, master and servant; who does not perceive that want of loyalty is want of religion, and that there is no more direct rebellion against the Creator than resistance to any constituted authority, or the endeavour to bring round that boasted equality in which all shall have the same rights, or to speak more truly, in which none shall have any. But if Christianity makes it sinful to repine against servitude, it gives a dignity to the servant who would still remain in servitude. It tells the servant, that if faithful here, he may rank with his master hereafter, even though the employment of the master has been the advancement of Christ’s cause on earth. And oh! it should be a surprisingly cheerful thing to those who have to wear away life in the meanest occupations, that, as immortal beings, they are not one jot disadvantaged by their temporal position, but they make as much progress in the Christian race as those placed at the very highest summit in the Christian office. (Ibid.) Living for Christ:—
- Unity of purpose is necessary. 1. For the development of character. 2. For success in life. Glory, self-interest, benevolence, each gives unity and force, whereas a man without any such governing principle becomes weak; and it is only by making one object predominant and seeking that object that great results are achieved.
- That which gives unity to the Christian life is Christ. 1. He is the unifying principle of Christian theology. 2. Of the inward life of the Christian. 3. Of his outward and active life. We have an illustration of this in Paul, in his theology, experience, and work. Negatively he did not seek wealth or honour, either as his main or subordinate object. He simply sought the glory of Christ.
III. The glory of Christ should be our aim. 1. Because it is our duty. This is the highest thing we can do. Whatever else we do will, in the end, be regarded as nothing. 2. Our inward holiness and happiness will thereby be best advanced. 3. Only thus can we be really useful. Thus only do we associate ourselves with the saints and angels. The extension of Christ’s kingdom is the only thing worth living for. 4. Christ has died for you, redeemed you. You are not your own but His. Serve Him, then, under the constraint of His love. (C. Hodge, D.D.)
The perfect service:—It would be truthful to say that all “serve the Lord Christ.” Some against their will—Pharisees, Pilate, Judas, &c. Some unconsciously—all who spread the true refinement of art, the researches of science, the charities of philanthropy. But Paul is not now speaking to such, but “to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colossæ.” And these words indicate about the life service of all true Christians.
- Its motive. The constraint is “for Christ’s sake.” Such motive is—1. Deep enough. It has its hands on all the hidden springs of purpose and love. 2. Abiding enough. To please others who may change or die, or please self, which is fickle and disappointing, cannot ensure the prolonged service men can render to the eternal and unchanging Christ.
- Its pattern. In some warfare the commander says, “Go”; in this He says, “Follow Me.” “He was in all points tempted,” &c. “He has left us an example.”
III. Its help. The fishers after their night of bootless toil, Peter walking on the waves, Paul receiving grace to endure a hidden sorrow, are specimens of men needing and receiving help from Christ.
- Its comprehensiveness. It includes all circumstances, whether of artizan or statesman; all ages, whether of child or patriarch; of all spheres, whether of the inward or outward life. “Whatsoever ye do.”
- Its consummation. It has now the approval of conscience and the Master; it will ultimately receive “the reward of the inheritance.” (U. R. Thomas.) The service of Christ is—
- Honourable service. We serve the Lord Christ—King of kings, and Lord of lords. The servants of royalty are nobles; so we are kings and priests unto God.
- Reasonable service. The master had a claim upon the slave as his property won in war or purchased by money. We have been bought with a price. Christ has a right based upon His service of love; we should respond with gratitude.
III. Entire service. The slave was his master’s altogether—self, family, belongings, &c. So Christ claims all we are and all we have—time, money, secularities, and not merely Sabbaths, worship, &c.
- Happy service. Sometimes the road is rough, but the motive for treading it makes it smooth, and the companionship of Him we love relieves its tedium and lightens its darkness.
- Easy service. “Take My yoke upon you … and ye shall find rest.” Love is the magic power which makes what is irksome pleasurable.
- The service of friendship (John 15:15). It is the badge of true Christian discipleship—not creeds, professions, sentiments, &c.
VII. Lucrative service. 1. It is its own reward here. 2. It has an exceeding great reward by and by. (A. C. Price, B.A.)
How difficulties in Christ’s service are overcome:—Sometimes when a man’s limb has been broken, and long weeks of rest are necessary in order that the fractured bones may reunite, there is danger lest the limb should become permanently contracted; so as soon as it is safe to do so, the patient is ordered to exercise the limb. At first the exercise gives acute pain, but after awhile, as vigour and strength return to the limb, in the thrill of health that he feels, the man forgets the pain and is glad. Now sin has dislocated man’s moral nature, and though by grace it may have been reset, still God’s wise exercise of it is exceedingly painful; but then this exercise begets spiritual health, and that health sends such a thrill of pleasure through the soul that the very act of obedience to, and service of, Christ, gains strength to obey and serve; and with increasing strength difficulty after difficulty disappears, pain goes, pleasure comes, and the Christian is master of his work, and delights in it. (Ibid.)
What makes Christ’s service easy and pleasant:—That huge piece of timber which lies there in that quiet creek, from which the tide has receded, leaving it dry and immovable in the sand; try to shift it, and it is only with the utmost difficulty that you can do so. But wait till the tide comes in, and the waters flow around it. Make the attempt now, and with what comparative ease you accomplish it! Even so there are ten thousand things in the way of duty laid upon us by God which, so long as the heart is unrenewed, seem hard and burden-some, but all of which yield when once the love of Christ has once entered and filled the heart, are cheerfully taken up and done with ease and joy to the Loved One. A little child had given to her by a friend a bunch of ripe, beautiful grapes. Just as she was about to eat them her mother said, “My child, will you give me those grapes?” The little one looked at the grapes and then at the mother whom she loved; and then after a pause, as the mother’s love came rushing with full tide into her heart, and overmastering every other feeling, she flung the grapes into her mother’s lap, and with a kiss surrendered them all (Matt. 18:3). The love of Christ makes sacrifice easy and delightful. (Ibid.)
The ruling motive of Christ’s servants:—You cannot serve two masters—you must serve one or other. If your work is first with you, and your fee second, work is your master, and the Lord of work, who is God. But if your fee is first with you, and your work second, fee is your master, and the lord of fee, who is the devil; and not only the devil, but the lowest of devils—“the least erected fiend that fell.” So there you have it in brief terms—work first, you are God’s servants; fee first, you are the fiend’s. And it makes a difference, now and ever, believe me, whether you serve Him who has on His vesture and thigh written, “King of kings,” and whose service is perfect freedom; and him on whose vesture and thigh is written, “Slave of slaves,” and whose service is perfect slavery. (John Ruskin.)
The sure reward of Christ’s servants:—When Calvin was banished from ungrateful Geneva, he said, “Most assuredly if I had merely served man, this would have been a poor recompense; but it is my happiness that I have served Him who never fails to reward His servants to the full extent of His promise.” (C. H. Spurgeon.)
All for Jesus:—The gospel does not barely supply us with directions, but furnishes us with reasons and power for obedience. The apostle knew that the conditions of believers are various, and therefore laid down distinct precepts for masters and servants, &c., but proposed a common motive for all. Our translation is in the indicative and states the fact—“Ye serve the Lord Christ.” Is that so? If not, the original will bear rendering in the imperative—“Serve ye the Lord Christ.” What an exaltation for a slave of Satan to become a servant of Christ. “Thy gentleness hath made me great.” It is a greater honour to serve Christ in the most menial capacity than to occupy the throne of the Cæsars. To serve us He laid aside His glorious array and girt Him with the garments of a servant. In our turn let us serve Him alone and for ever. Ye serve the Lord Christ—
- In the common acts of life. The fact that the text was addressed to the lowest is instructive. He does not address this choice saying to masters, preachers, deacons, magistrates, or persons of influence, but to slaves. He goes to the kitchen, the field, &c., to his toiling brethren. If the poor slave should serve Jesus how much more ought I? 1. Those who are in a low estate serve the Lord Christ. (1) By a quiet acquiescence in the arrangement of Providence which has placed them where they are. While the race is as it is some must serve. When a man can say, “I have learned in whatsoever state I am to be content,” that is obedience and the service of Christ. (2) By exercising the graces of the Spirit in the discharge of our calling. An honest, trustworthy servant is a standing evidence of the power of religion, and preaches in the nursery, workshop, and many places where a preacher would not be admitted, a silent but effective sermon. This was how the gospel spread in Rome. (3) By displaying the joy of the Lord in our service. Many have been won to Christ by the cheerfulness of poor Christians. It was so in Paul’s day. The Christian slave would not join in the jollity of the heathen festivals, but whenever any one was in trouble he was the cheerful comforter. (4) By performing the common acts of life as unto Christ’s self. To the man of God nothing is secular, everything is sacred. “What God hath cleansed, that call thou not common.” 2. This view of things—(1) Ennobles life. The bondsman is henceforth free; he serves not man but God. (2) Cheers the darkest shades. (3) Ensures a reward. (4) Should stimulate zeal. If you serve the Lord Christ, serve Him well. If you had work to do for Her Majesty you would try to do your best.
- In religious actions. Every professor should have something to do for Christ. It would be well if our Church discipline permitted us to turn out every drone. They are of little use in honey making and are at the bottom of all quarrels. But all who work are not necessarily serving Christ. 1. Some serve in a legal spirit. This spirit has a measure of power in it, as the lash drives the slave. But Christians are free and should serve Christ from gratitude and not from fear. 2. Some in a spirit of formality, as a part of the general routine of their existence. It is the proper thing to go to a place of worship, to give their guinea, &c. Christ is not served by such mechanical working. 3. Some in a party spirit, who serve not Christ but their own denomination, and who would almost be vexed at Christ being honoured by any other sect. 4. Some out of the ambition to be thought useful. Our parents or friends wish us to be active in the Church, and therefore we do it. 5. We must rise above all this. What we do we must do for the Master alone.
III. In special acts done to Himself. We desire not only to aid our friend in his projects, but to do something for him himself. So we want to do something, personally, for our Divine Benefactor. 1. We can adore Him. We may be doing nothing for our fellows while thus occupied, but Jesus is dearer to us than the whole race. And as we adore Him in secret so we should extol Him in public. 2. We should pray for Him. “Prayer shall be made for Him continually.” It is delightful to pray for sinners and for saints, but there should be special prayer for the extension of Christ’s kingdom, that He may see the travail of His soul. 3. There should be much communion with Him. “If any man serve Me let him follow Me, and where I am there shall also My servant be.” To be near Him is one of the essentials of service. Let no day pass without a word with Jesus. You are His spouse—can you live without a loving word from your husband? 4. You should sit at His feet and learn of Him, studying His Word. Martha prepared a feast for Christ and did well, but Jesus gave Mary the preference. 5. You must obey Him. “If ye love Me keep My commandments,” not simply build chapels, &c. 6. You must be willing to bear reproach for His sake. 7. Care for His Church. “Lovest thou Me?—feed My sheep.” If you cannot serve with your tongue you can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, &c. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these,” &c. 8. Bestow upon Him little wastefulnesses of love—breaking alabaster boxes of very precious ointment on Him. Think of something now and then that you could not justify in prudence. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
To slaves (3:22–25)
It is important to notice that in the gathering of believers in Colossae that day, for whom Paul always gave thanks to God (1:3–8), for whom he prayed (1:9–14), and about whom he has said so much in this letter, there were slaves. Onesimus (who had left Colossae some time earlier as an unbeliever, but had just now returned, as a believer) was not the only slave present. Paul addressed the slaves directly. The fellowship of believers was distinctive in this regard (see 3:11). Slaves were members of the gathering in Philemon’s house, fully recognized and acknowledged, regarded as responsible for their own conduct. While advice for how a household should be conducted was common enough in the world of the time, slaves were not usually addressed on the subject.
Slaves were to obey in everything what their masters required. Paul is not interested here in exploring the very reasonable question as to what limits there might be to that obedience, any more than he does for children’s obedience to parents a little earlier, or wives’ submission to their husbands. That does not mean there would be no limit. That question is simply not his concern here.
His point is to set their obedience in a whole new context that radically changes their situation. Their masters are only those who are your earthly lords (literally ‘the masters/lords according to the flesh’). Slaves no longer live in fear of their masters. They are only ‘lords according to the flesh’. The ultimate and true Lord is Christ Jesus. Although slaves still have an earthly lord, it is very important to know the limited sphere of his power. He is only lord (master) in the realm of the flesh.
There is an important point here. It is all too easy for the Christian believer to think that allegiance to Christ overrides earthly allegiances. At least it is not unusual to feel that my allegiance to Christ loosens my allegiances to mere humans in this world. ‘I am serving Christ—and, I’m sorry, but there are times when I must therefore sit a little loose to other obligations in this world.’
The extreme case of slavery is a challenge to this understanding of the relationship between the Lordship of Christ and merely earthly, this worldly, obligations. If you are a slave, your obedience to your master is not compromised by having Christ as Lord. On the contrary, it is put into good order. It is (if it is possible to speak like this) redeemed. Your obedience is not now by way of eye-service. That is a rather literal translation of a Greek compound word that includes the ‘slave’ word: ‘eye-slavery’. You serve, as a slave, not just to be seen to be serving. You do not obey only in order to appear to be obedient. The quality of your obedience would then depend on whether you were being watched. Your service now is not as people-pleasers. Your obedience (yes, your obedience to your earthly lord and master) is now with sincerity of heart. This is perhaps better rendered, ‘singleness of heart’. It is simply not the case that your allegiance to the Lord Jesus pulls you one way, and your earthly obligations pull you the other. No. The Lord Christ who is reordering the universe does not pull us out of our earthly relationships, but calls us to live in those relationships under him, fearing the Lord. To fear the Lord (if we remember the Old Testament teaching about ‘the fear of the Lord’) includes loving him and trusting him (see Deut. 10:12; Ps. 40:3; 115:11; 147:11).
We must not, of course, lose sight of the fact that these words were addressed to slaves. Yet as we listen to the words to slaves (just as when every freeman in Philemon’s house that day listened to the words to the slaves) we must see that, if this is how Christ works, even with the slave, there are implications for us all.
The new obedience of the slave is now generalized, and the radically new way of life is filled out: Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. There is an echo here of the summary of the Christian life a few lines earlier: ‘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’ (3:17). Slaves (though they are still slaves) are liberated to live in this way. In the flesh they may have limited freedom. We might think that they have no freedom at all. Yet if the slave is a Christian, the slave (though still a slave) is living for the Lord Christ. His or her service, in everything they do, is serving Christ.
This is profoundly radical. Precisely because it is the extreme case of slavery to which these words are addressed, we ought to see how every obligation under which we labour, every burden that life puts upon us, every pressure under which we are placed, is transformed by the wonder of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We are liberated by Christ, but not from those things. We are free now to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (3:17). We are free to work, not under grudging compulsion, but from the centre of our being (‘heartily’ is, more literally, ‘from the soul’!), knowing that we are living for Christ, not for men.
Paul continues this astonishing line of instruction to the slaves in the gathering there in Philemon’s house: knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. Again it is the fact that this is the extreme case of slavery that intensifies what is said. Slaves, by definition, were not normally ‘rewarded’ for their work. They were not paid, at least not more than a pittance. The motivation for much that we do in life is the reward we hope to receive. The rewards that motivate us are not just monetary, of course. There are all manner of ‘rewards’ for our efforts, from satisfaction at an achievement to approval or gratitude from others.
Can a slave be redeemed from a life of rewardless effort? Faith in Christ changes life, even for a slave. Here we see starkly what Paul meant at the beginning of this letter when he gave thanks to God for ‘the hope laid up for you in heaven’, about which ‘you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel’ (1:5). God has qualified believers in Christ (including slaves!) to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (1:12).
Can we, who still live for so many pathetic ‘rewards’ (what is it that really keeps you going?), learn from this word to the slaves in Colossae? Can we share the liberation they were invited to enjoy from bondage to earthly reward? Do you know (really know) that ‘from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward’? It is undeserved, of course—all of grace. It is nonetheless the most powerful and liberating motivation for living every part of life well.
All this is summed up by saying explicitly what has been behind everything said to the slaves so far: You are serving the Lord Christ. The tniv expresses the emphasis of the Greek word order here a little better: ‘It is the Lord Christ you are serving.’
‘Serving’ is the word for a slave’s service. Here is the power that transforms the life of the slave: he or she has become a slave of the Lord Christ: the one who is ‘the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’, by whom ‘all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And 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, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross’ (1:15–20). All of this is implied when we are told that it is the Lord Christ you are serving!
Whatever indignity, shame or drudgery there was in being a slave, it can never be the same once you have received Christ Jesus the Lord. It must never be the same now that you are serving him.
While hearing this word to the slaves in Philemon’s house is deeply moving, its power extends beyond slaves. By hearing something of what the gospel means to a slave, all believers ought to appreciate afresh the wonder: It is the Lord Christ you are serving!
The word to the slaves ends with a surprise. For suggests that the statement in verse 25 supports the immediately preceding words. The Lord Christ (whom you are serving) cares about wrongdoing: the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done. You will answer to him for wrongdoing. This must transform the quality of your serving. Mind you, your earthly master is also answerable to the same Lord Christ and there is no partiality. This must encourage the believing slave to fear the Lord Christ, not his earthly master. The life of a slave who belongs to Christ Jesus is thus profoundly changed.
This word to the slaves, who nonetheless serve the Lord Christ, again illuminates the situation of all believers. Being united to Christ changes everything: we have died with Christ; we have been raised with Christ; our life is hidden with Christ in God; when Christ appears, we also will appear with him in glory (3:1–4). But this does not mean we are taken out of the world, or the obligations of life in this world in whatever situation we find ourselves. Serving the Lord Christ deepens, it does not lessen, our obligations to those we serve in this world.
23, 24. Whatever you do (cf. with verse 17), put your soul into the work (literally, “work from the soul”), as for the Lord and not for men … In spirit people cease to be slaves as soon as they begin to work for the Lord, and no longer in the first place for men. This was, accordingly, the most helpful advice anyone could ever have given a slave. Moreover, by means of his wholehearted cooperation with his master, rendering obedience to him in every way, and doing this while his master was fully aware of the fact that the service was being rendered by a Christian, the slave was promoting the cause and honor of his Lord. The master would begin to think, “If the Christian religion does this for slaves, it must be wonderful.” Paul continues, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the recompense, namely, the inheritance. Even though from his earthly master the slave may receive far less than he should, yet from his heavenly Lord he will receive the full amount which by God’s grace has been allotted to him.
Though salvation is entirely “by grace” and definitely not “of works” (Eph. 2:8, 9; Titus 3:5), yet this gracious recompense of eternal life will be given “according to works” (2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12, 13; then also Eccl. 12:14; 1 Cor. 3:10–15; 4:5; Gal. 6:7). The recompense is, moreover, “the inheritance,” probably implying the following ideas: a. it is a gift (a person does not earn an inheritance), b. it is inalienable (1 Kings 21:3; Heb. 9:15), c. it was willed to the person who receives it, and in that sense, is therefore his by right (cf. Isa. 1:27); and it implies the death of the testator (Heb. 9:16).
Now slaves, as a rule, are not heirs (Gen 15:3; Rom. 8:15–17; Gal. 4:7). But the slaves to whom Paul is here referring do inherit, for their Master is Christ: (It is) the Lord Christ (whom) you are serving. Let them therefore always live “as under the eye” of their Lord! For the expression “the Lord Christ” see also Rom. 16:18. These are the only two occurrences in the New Testament. The anointed Lord is the slave’s employer. What a privilege and honor!
3:22–25. The section on servants and masters is somewhat expanded in comparison to the “family” section. This may be due to the unique situation in the church at Colosse, where the runaway slave, Onesimus, was returning to his master, Philemon (Col. 4:9; Phlm.). The category of slave-master would be equivalent to our modern employee-employers. The arena is the workplace.
Slaves are to obey their earthly masters. Paul reminds those under authority that they have a master in heaven who observes their internal attitude and external performance (vv. 24–25). Christian employees are to render sincere service. The employee is not to work only when the boss is looking. The employee is to recognize that in the final analysis he is working for the Lord, not for men and so do his best. Such work will be rewarded. Remember, God does not play favorites. He “rewards” wrong motives and work as well as good.
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