Christ’s Lordship and My Work Ethic
Topic: Expository Passage: Colossians 3:22–4:1
I’d like you to imagine the stir in Colossae when Tychicus arrived with an epistle from the great Apostle Paul. And with him was a man named Onesimus, whom 4:8 calls a “faithful and beloved brother.” This would have created quite a stir because Onesimus was from Colossae, and many of the people in the church probably knew him. You see he was a slave to Philemon, one of the more prominent members of the Colossian church. Philemon was a personal friend of Paul. Apparently he was wealthy, and he owned a large house, because Philemon 2 says that a church met in his house.
Therefore, many of the believers had probably met Onesimus when they gathered at Philemon’s house. But they didn’t know him as a “faithful and beloved brother”; they knew him as an unbeliever, who committed a serious crime by running away. But incredibly, Onesimus ended up with Paul, and he got saved.
And now Onesimus had come home willingly with Tychicus and with two letters from Paul—Colossians and Philemon. And Paul’s letter to Philemon makes a stunning demand of Philemon (Phil 15–20). The Greeks considered slaves to be less than human, and by law, Onesimus deserved severe punishment. But Paul asks Philemon to withhold punishment saying that he will repay whatever damages Onesimus had done, and he even asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as a “beloved brother.”
You can imagine the stir this would have created in a church that probably included a lot of slaves and at least a few slave owners. These groups always struggled to coexist, and now with the arrival of Onesimus and Paul’s appeal, people were wondering how do we adapt as Christians to the institution of slavery. And then they sat down to hear Colossians read for the first time, quite possibly in Philemon’s home. And our text for today gives no indication that it is addressing the situation with Onesimus, but I have to imagine it was on the minds of some of the listeners as they heard our text for the first time (read).
Slavery was an emotionally charged, divisive topic for the Colossians, and we have our own strong opinions. But we are going to see today that Paul was far more concerned about our response to the lordship of Christ than he was with the institution of slavery. And God declares in this text that the lordship of Christ must transform all of life but especially how we work, how we submit to authority, and how we manage those under our authority. My outline today is built around 3 major challenges that God gives in this text. First…
I. Obey your authorities (3:22). Let’s begin with…
The Setting of the Command: Since this section falls within the household code that began in v. 18, he is primarily thinking of domestic slaves who served in their master’s homes, though he gives no indication that his instructions wouldn’t also apply to other kinds of slavery.
And there are various kinds of slavery. Greek slavery was not racially charged like the slavery in our nation’s history. And not all masters were harsh and abusive. But the fact remains that all forms of slavery involve one person owning another. And any form of slavery is asking for serious abuse of the slave.
I’m sure that many of these Christian slaves endured terrible conditions, since most Greeks considered slaves to be sub-human. And as we hear this text, we need to feel the weight of oppression on their shoulders before we jump to applying it to our setting today, because no matter how bad your job is, it’s not slavery. With that being said, we do need to touch on…
The Elephant in the Room: In other words, if slavery is so inhumane, then why does Paul command these slaves to submit rather than to rebel? And why doesn’t he command slave masters to let their slaves go free? These are complicated questions that we don’t have time to fully answer today. And I already addressed these questions when I preached 1 Timothy 6:1–2 and 1 Peter 2:18–20, so you can look up those messages on our website to get a fuller answer. But for today, I’d just like to point out several indications in Colossians 3 that Paul firmly believed in the dignity and ultimate equality of all people as equally bearing the image of God.
#1: Verse 11 explicitly states that all people are equal in the gospel. This verse is clear that no matter what distinctions exist in the world, they have no place in the church. We are all equal in Christ and equal recipients of grace. This was a radical statement for Paul’s day, and it demonstrates his assumption that slaves are people who deserve equal treatment.
#2: Paul addresses slaves as responsible people who are accountable to God. Paul talks to slaves in our text like they are grown ups who need to make a wise, voluntary choice. This doesn’t catch our attention, but it would have meant a lot in Paul’s because it was not normal because slaves were considered sub-human.
#3: Paul undercuts the authority of slave masters by pointing both slaves and slave masters to the ultimate lordship of Christ. The Greek word kurios occurs 7 times in these 5 verses, and it is translated as either master or lord. It’s the key word to understanding the text. Notice in v. 22 that slave masters are only masters (kurios) “according to the flesh.” Their lordship or authority is limited. Rather, slaves must ultimately be motivated by the fear of the Lord (kurios). As such we must do all work “heartily as to the Lord” because the “from the Lord you will receive the reward,” for “you serve the Lord Christ.” And 4:1 addresses masters, or lords, but even they “have a Master (kurios) in heaven.” Therefore, slave masters do not have ultimate authority because Christ is supreme Lord of all people.
Therefore, while Paul doesn’t directly address the evils of slavery, he is very clear that all people are equal recipients of grace, that we have equal standing in the church, and that Christ is the lord of all people. And I think it’s fair to say that the reason Paul doesn’t go after slavery is because he has bigger fish to fry, which is something a lot of modern evangelicals need to hear. Yes, we should absolutely be concerned about social issues, and as we have opportunity, we should address them. But Paul was far more concerned about the unity in the church, the glory of God, and the advance of the gospel than he was with fixing culture. That being said, let’s move on to…
The Heart of the Command: Again, when we read v. 22, we need to feel the weight of oppression that some of these slaves were most likely facing. And yet God commands them, “Obey in all things your masters according to the flesh.” Again, that last phrase takes a serious swipe at the authority of masters, but God still command slaves to obey.
This is the same verb that was used in v. 20 for children. It’s a strong verb that demands obedience. And again like v. 20, God says obey in all things. No matter how evil their masters may have been, they were the God-ordained authority, and slaves were responsible to obey them at all times, of course unless they demanded them to sin against God. If I’m a slave living under a harsh evil master, that’s heavy stuff. But Paul’s not done.
He goes on to say, “not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers.” I think we all know what he’s talking about, because we’ve all been guilty. We work one way when the boss is looking or when there is a selfish advantage to be gained by working hard. But if there’s nothing in it for me, or I can get by with cutting corners and slacking off, then why not? Christian, if that’s how you approach your job or any command given by an authority, you are disobeying God, even though our culture says that it’s very acceptable.
This is because God demands (as the text goes on to say) that we obey with “sincerity of heart, fearing God (or better the Lord, because there is a textual variant here). The word translated “sincerity” literally means single-minded, which is significant here, because how we do our jobs or respond to other authorities is often clouded by multiple ambitions. We aren’t just focused on honoring his desire; we want to impress him or at times we even want to hurt Maybe we want to drive home a point that he isn’t hearing, or maybe we just want to do the minimum and take home our paycheck.
But God says that we need to strip our minds of all those distracting motives, and have a single focus on obeying the authority and ultimately on obeying the Lord. This is because Paul assumes here as in many other places in Scripture is that God stands behind authority structures, and he is sovereign over them. Even when they are corrupt (like slavery), but they are still there by the sovereign, good hand of God.
Therefore, even though our culture is very accepting of resisting any bad authority, God says that your response to your boss, or students to your teachers, or Christian, to any God-ordained authority is ultimately a response to God. And when you are two-faced to a human authority, you aren’t just resisting him or her; you are resisting God.
I know it can be very difficult to honor some authorities, but we’ve got to trust the Lord that he knows better than us what is good, and because we fear the Lord and we want to honor the Lord, we must obey sincerely. And so the first challenge is “Obey your authorities.” The second challenge is…
II. Serve the Lord in everything you do (3:23–25). Let’s begin with…
The Scope of the Command: These 3 verses are still addressed to slaves. Paul is still primarily concerned with their obedience and service to their masters. But when 23 opens by saying “whatever your do,” it’s clear that Paul is communicating a principle that has broad application to any arena of life. The principle is very similar to v. 17.
Therefore, v. 23 applies to how students complete assignments, to how employees do their jobs, to how you fulfill your ministry in the church, and to how you keep your house and yard. The lordship of Christ must affect how we obey every command and complete every task. In this light notice…
The Spirit of Service: The little adverb heartily is very significant to this verse. In the Greek, it’s actually the word for the soul psuchā. It’s often used in this kind of context to describe doing something with complete devotion, and it especially speaks of the motives in my heart. For a slave it would mean that when his master tells him to clean the house, he attacks the job with a desire to fulfill the vision of his master well. The master’s desire becomes his desire, and in that light he works carefully, quickly, and excellently.
And there is so much significance in this word for our culture today because we are so lazy and so entitled. I’ve observed a lot of people who sincerely think they are hard workers, but they have no idea what it actually means to work hard. Or they think they are too busy, or too tired to go on, but they have no idea what it is to truly be exhausted or how far they could actually go if they pushed themselves. And so they call off work all the time, they show up late and leave early, and their work is slow and poorly done. And then they wonder why they get passed up for promotions or why their boss is always on their back. It’s because they don’t do hearty work.
But the spirit of this text is that we must approach our work desiring to fulfill the boss’s desires. We are to be responsible, do excellent work, and do quick work. Don’t be the guy just looking to collect a paycheck; do your work with zeal, with all your soul.
And I can about guarantee that this kind of spirit will take you a long ways. I figured out a long time ago, that I’m not the smartest guy, the best athlete, or the most charismatic personality. And I can’t make myself more talented, but I can make myself work harder. And by the grace of God, I’ve seen God bless basic grit, determination, sweat, and exhaustion time after time. You might be surprised how far you can go, if you’ll just put your head down and go.
And let me add that it is so vital that parents push their children in this regard. Push your kids to give their all in school, and to be excellent in how they complete assignments and prepare for tests. Make them do hard manual labor at home. Get them involved in sports, so that they learn what it feels like to keep running when you can’t feel your legs. And keep them busy doing productive things because if your kids are dinking around for hours every day, they won’t be ready to deal with the pressure of a real life. Teach them to work heartily. And ultimately we must pursue this kind of ethic because of…
The Focus of Service: God says that we don’t ultimately work hard so that we can get good grades or make more money. No we must work heartily “as to the Lord and not to men.” In light of 22, you could say that we shouldn’t be man-pleasers; we should be God-pleasers. We want to please the Lord in everything we do.
The obvious implication is that God cares about how we work. He notices when we are lazy or cut corners. He cares when we dishonor an authority or perform poorly at work. And the primary reason he cares is because everything we do reflects on him. You are either adorning the gospel well by how you work or you are not. Everything I do is an act of worship.
This means that Christians should be the best employees at work and the best students at school. Someone might be more talented but no one should be more disciplined and harder working. It means that Christians should keep their yard and their house clean. They should maintain their personal appearance. And it means that when you volunteer for a ministry at church, you should be dependable and excellent in your service.
And all of this is not because those over you are such great leaders or because every task makes sense. No we must work heartily because we want to please and honor the Lord, and he has commanded us to work heartily. In light of this notice in vv. 24–25…
The Accountability for Service: Verse 24 would have been especially significant to a slave because slaves had no hope of an earthly inheritance. For many of them no matter how hard they worked, all of the reward belonged to their master. That’s tough, but if they faithfully endured and obeyed God by heartily serving their human master, they knew that their true master would give them a great inheritance as a reward.
And if we are going to serve Christ the way he demands, that’s where our focus must remain, because God calls us to do a lot of difficult things that aren’t worth it from a pragmatic, human perspective. But we don’t do them for what we get right now; we do them by faith. Therefore, keep your eyes on the prize and live down here with a focus up there.
And then v. 24b drives all of this home by again turning our attention to the lordship of Christ. If we didn’t’ get it yet, Paul reminds us again, “You serve the Lord Christ.” We don’t ultimately serve a company, a supervisor, a teacher, or a captain. Christ is my lord, and I must serve and worship him, even in the most menial tasks of life.
And then Paul drives this home by saying that while there is a great reward coming for the one who serves faithfully, great loss awaits the Christian who is lazy and disobedient. We are going to give account of our lives someday, down to the details of how we work. And Paul says there’s no partiality with God. He’s not going to do you any favors because your boss was a grouch or because the job was not fair. He will judge by how you obeyed him.
Of course, there’s also great comfort here because some workplaces are partial. Politics and favoritism make them very frustrating. And maybe you’ve been frustrated and passed over by those things. But even if no one sees down here, God sees, and he will be faithful and reward your work.
Christian, keep an eternal focus as you work, and then work heartily by God’s grace, because Christ is going to make all of it worth it someday. He will more than compensate for all of your effort in obeying and honoring him.
And if you are not a Christian, I hope you will see today that you also have a day of accountability You might be cruising along just fine in this world, but it will mean nothing if you aren’t ready to meet your Savior. And being a good employee will not earn you eternal life. But you can be ready because Jesus bore the punishment for sin on the cross, and he offers forgiveness and grace to all who call on him for salvation. If you don’t know that you are ready to stand before the Lord, I hope you will talk with me afterwards about how you can be saved and know that you are ready to meet the Lord. The 3rd challenge in this text is…
III. Masters must practice justice (4:1). Notice first…
The Content of the Command: God commands masters (there’s our word kurios again) to give their servants “justice and fairness.” This is a pretty significant command, because the culture of the day said to use and abuse your slaves. If, as Aristotle said, slaves are just tools that can talk, then who cares if you run them into the ground, beat them up, and never reward their hard work.
But in the Christian worldview, slaves are people who deserve to be treated justly and fairly. They should be paid appropriately for their work, they should enjoy clean, safe, and healthy living conditions, and when they disobey, they should be held accountable, but according to basic standards of justice. It’s interesting that that parallel passage in Ephesians 6:9 commands masters to “give up threatening.” There’s no place for Christians being abusive or harsh. All people deserve to be treated with justice and fairness.
And there’s obvious application here for anyone who owns a business or supervises employees. The fact is that you possess a lot of power over those who work for you, because their livelihood depends on you. That’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of power to wield. You need to be careful not to use that power selfishly or greedily.
Of course, “just and fair” means that you ought to demand good work and discipline, but it also means you shouldn’t take advantage of them or set unreasonable expectations. Following the pattern of Christ, be a servant leader, who creates a productive environment that benefits everyone. You ought to do this out of Christian love, but ultimately because of…
The Accountability for the Command: The paragraph ends by again focusing our attention on the lordship of Christ. Despite the fact that slave masters were called lords (kurios), they weren’t the ultimate lord. No, all of us have “a Master (Lord) in heaven. And based on vv. 24–25, even the most powerful men on earth will be held accountable to him.
Therefore, any Christian authority should live with the constant recognition that my power is very limited, and my own day of accountability is coming. And I want to be able to face that day with joy, not with grief.
Therefore, thinking in terms of this section, husbands, you have a master in heaven, and you need to lead your home in light of your coming accountability. The same goes for parents. You need to lead your children in a way that honors Christ and will earn his approval. All of us need to live in light of the fact that Christ is our judge, and we need to prepare so that this day is a day of joy not a day of grief. And by the grace of God, it can be a day of joy, so live the life that God has called you to live wherever that may be heartily as to the Lord.
And finally, the biggest takeaway for all of from this text is the lordship of Christ over every part of my life. This passage says that Christ is lord not just on Sundays and not just when it comes to obeying the 10 Commandments. He is even Lord over how I function in the quietness of my home and in the mundane details of work. Therefore, all of life must be submitted to his control.
And praise the Lord that by his grace we can do that. He has empowered us through the gospel to live differently because we are different. And praise the Lord that as we do so, we can worship him and show the world a truer picture of our Savior.