Summary: Christians have the only truly satisfying and fulfilling reason to go to work: It’s to worship God.
Please turn in your Bibles to Colossians 3:22-4:1.
We are continuing our study of the letter to the Colossians. In verse 17 where Paul said that we are to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, which means to do it in a manner that is influenced by the gospel of Jesus Christ and which draws attention and honor to him.
We’ve looked at passages where Paul has applied this command to our marriages and our parenting. Today we look at the third and final relationship that Paul says must be lived in the name of the Lord Jesus. That is the relationship between a slave and a master. In the first century Greco-Roman world when this was written, it was common for a household to have one or more slaves doing work. And because Paul is addressing relationships particularly within the home, he addresses this common relationship of the time as well.
We’re going to have to address the issue of slavery and how this relates to our modern context. But let’s begin by reading the passage and then let’s pray for the Lord to bless the preaching and hearing of his word.
READ COLOSSIANS 3:22-4:1 / PRAY
We need to answer two questions before we can start to apply this passage to our 21st Century experience. Here is the first question.
1. Why is slavery regulated in this text rather than condemned?
Paul wrote to slave-owners who are Christians, “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly.” He gives guidance on how a Christian slave holder should treat his slave, rather than condemning the practice of slavery.
And that creates some difficulty for believers who read God’s word. Isn’t slavery a bad thing? Isn’t this letter to the church of Colossae a good opportunity for Paul to say to Christian slave owners something like this: “Masters, free your slaves. Only God owns the world and the people in it, so you should not be playing God by owning someone. The gospel is about freedom from slavery, so demonstrate that by giving your slaves their freedom.”
Wouldn’t that be a good thing for Paul to say here? The fact that he doesn’t say that can be perplexing to believers. And some who want to disbelieve the Scriptures use this as an opportunity to criticize the Bible and Christianity as hypocritical or even immoral.
So what’s the answer? Why did Paul regulate slavery rather than condemn it in this passage?
Here’s why. It’s because God regulates undesirable relationships without approving of them as permanent ideals. It’s a fact of our fallen humanity that we enter into all sorts of situations and relationships that are not according to God’s perfect will. Sometimes these are forced on us. Sometimes we pursue them. And God in his grace provides guidance on how to honor him in the midst of difficult circumstances that are not easily changed or even beyond our control.
Let me give you an example. We know from Ephesians chapter 5 that God’s will for marriage is that a man and a woman honor God together by showing a picture of Christ and the church in their marriage. The wife demonstrates the church’s submission to Christ by submitting to her husband. The husband demonstrates Christ’s love for the church by loving his wife. Both husband and wife are to be motivated by the gospel in their marriage.
Now take a husband and wife who are unbelievers. The wife becomes a Christian. Now she sees what marriage is supposed to be about, but she knows she can’t have God’s ideal for marriage as long as her husband remains unsaved. So should she divorce her unbelieving husband so she can find a believing husband and seek God’s ideal?
Well, God answers that question. 1 Corinthians 7:13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.
God regulates an undesirable state of affairs. She should remain in the marriage and honor God by submitting to her husband in everything that is not sin. By giving that regulation God isn’t saying that marriage between believers and unbelievers is his will. He isn’t giving Christian singles a reason to marry a non-believer. He’s simply providing guidance on how a woman can honor Christ in the midst of a situation that isn’t ideal but is beyond her control.
And so it is with slavery. In the first century Greco-Roman world, slavery was part of the fabric and economy of the empire. And if a slave-owner became a Christian, freeing his slave may not be easily done and may not be the best thing for the slave. He might free his slave but the slave has nowhere to go and has no means to provide for himself or his family if he has one. Or the slave may end up the slave of someone else who is a cruel taskmaster and his condition is only worsened.