Colossians 3:17–4:18. In Conclusion, Relationships.

Key Notes: Husbands and wives. Parents and children. Masters and servants. Slavery. Work. Witness. Ten around Paul.

3:17–4:1 Contrary to our social conventions,  Paul addresses wives before husbands, children before fathers and servants before masters. Further, he admonishes wives to be subject “as is fitting in the Lord.” Children are to obey “for this pleases the Lord.” Servants are to obey, “fearing the Lord. This implies the greater responsibility of the dependent party. We would expect the opposite. We hold leaders to a higher standard than followers. Paul does not. This holds true for instructions in Ephesians as well as Colossians, a point we  missed in studies of Ephesians.

Wives are to be submissive to their husbands. “As is fitting in the Lord” excludes submission on issues that Scripture forbids. Children are to obey their parents in everything. The word for "obey" is different from the word to "submit". Wives are not commanded to obey their husbands. Children are commanded to obey. Servants are likewise commanded to obey.

When Paul addresses servants, he urges them to work hard, using many expressions. It is a nine-piece exhortation.
Slaves obey in everything, even if some rules are trivial;
            not with eye-service--working hard when the boss is not looking;
            not as man-pleasers--steady, not obsequious or dramatic;
            with singleness of heart --without cynicism or insincerity;
            fearing the Lord --more than the boss;
            whatever the task, work heartily--feet off the desk;
            serving the Lord and not men --the Lord has a higher standard than the master;
            expecting a reward from the Lord --whether paid or unpaid;
            knowing that wrong-doing will be punished by the Lord --whether the boss knows it or not.

Husbands are to love their wives and are not to demand their subjection.
Fathers are reminded that their expectations must be kept within reason. Our ambitions are usually well ahead of our children’s ages and abilities.
Masters are admonished to be fair and just.

4:2–6  The next topic moves to people on the outside of the church.
Prayer is crucial, and requires steadiness, alertness and gratitude, always.
Paul asks for prayer for an open door, perhaps release from house-arrest to go on with his church-visiting and planting.
We are to declare the mystery of Christ. The heart of the mystery is “Christ in You, the hope of glory."
Our conduct precedes our witness and governs what we can say. We should take every opportunity for witness, speaking graciously, with wit and intelligence.

4:7–18  Paul has perhaps ten people around him in Rome.
*Timothy, his protégé, will stay with him.
*Tychicus will be the courier of this letter and the letter to the Ephesians. He will take Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave back to Colosse to his master. Later he may go to Crete.Tit.3:12
*Aristarchus is a fellow prisoner for unknown reasons. He had been with Paul during the riot at Ephesus. Acts’:29
*He, Mark and Jesus Justus are three Jews who minister to Paul, perhaps providing home cooking. Mark had previously abandoned Paul on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:13) and had been rejected for the second journey (Acts 15:37). He is back in Paul‘s good graces and may soon visit Colosse.
*Epaphras did the original evangelistic work at Colosse, Hieropolis and Laodicea. He is not ready to return home.
*Luke, the beloved physician, stands by.
*Demas, otherwise unknown, will later defect. IITim.4:10
He greets Nympha who has a house-church in Colosse. He admonishes Archippus to complete his spiritual ministry. It is unusual for Paul to rebuke one of his workers.

Paul is not a “lone ranger". He needs his staff around him, in prison or not, to get the work done. His staff varies considerably in ability and temperament. Epaphras deserves more recognition than we give him. Some are true to the end; others will drift off. We can expect the same from the group we are in.

Finally Paul signs off on the letter, written with his free hand. The chain is always there, a symbol of his situation and God’s sovereignty.

Submission, a word politically incorrect, almost taboo, continues to annoy those of us who have grown up in a liberationist culture. The interesting detail about the word “submit”, which means “to be under the arrangements”,  is that it almost always is expressed in the middle voice. The active and passive voices are well known but the middle voice is more unusual. The middle voice is active but with the sense of doing it for oneself. To illustrate the voices:
        A four-year-old boy: “My face is being washed.” (passive). I have no control.
        A ten-year-old boy: “ I am washing my face.” (active). I am obeying mother.
        A traveler in the Serengeti, late in the day: “I am washing my face”. (middle). She is washing her face for relief and pleasure, doing it for herself.

This idea is conveyed in submission: I am doing this for myself. If that sounds less than likely, consider the symphony orchestra: eighty proud musicians subordinate themselves to the conductor in exchange for the gorgeous sound that is produced. Or think of the woman who carries a child, and must subordinate her needs to that of the fetus and its demands; she is doing it for herself. She wants the child. The basketball team submits to the coach’s teaching to win the tournament. The actor, the student, the employee all practice subordination for their own sake. We are all subordinates in one setting or another,  so the teaching applies universally. We submit to Christ for our own relief and pleasure.

The word obey (to put the ear under) is not used in the middle voice. “Obey” is usually imperative. So is the word  “forgive." You may forgive for your own sake, but you are obliged to in any case.

On witnessing. We may try to make the Gospel too simple, as if it were a box of popcorn that you can easily chew down. Paul tells us that it is at its heart a mystery. Be a little bit cagey, gracious but salty. Be careful how you cast pearls. Yet make it clear. Jesus never told the whole story, but tailored his words to the immediate needs of the person.

Some are critical of Paul for not denouncing slavery. He wrote to Philemon as a slave-owner and teaches him how to treat his runaway slave Onesimus, who was converted in Rome. He also encouraged slaves to gain their freedom if they could. (ICor.7:21). But he is not a revolutionary.

Our greater concern is for slavery in the Americas. Some of the slave owners in the colonies claimed Scripture as the basis for owning slaves, but slavery in the New World could not have existed if Scripture had been conscientiously read and applied.
*Slavery in the Americas was economic: cheap labor was needed for cotton, sugar-cane and tobacco plantations. It was  based on kidnapping-- “man-stealing” from Africa, which  is forbidden. (ITim.1:10). OT slavery was based on incidental captures in war. The  incentive was quite different.
The conditions for OT slaves were more humane. Hebrew slaves were automatically released after 7 years. (Ex.21:2-). All servants and slaves had one legal day of rest a week. (Deut.5:14–15). They were not to be oppressed. Deut.24:14
*Moses forbade returning a runaway slave to his master. (Deut. 23:15). That provides an automatic safety valve for slavery. No underground railroad would be required. Israelites regularly escaped to Moab, or Ammon.
*Paul insists on justice and fairness for slaves. (Col.4:1). Justice would advise that if a slave were  purchased for $200,000, and was worth  $20,000 per year,  he should have earned his freedom in ten years.

The “Protestant Work Ethic” has been disparaged, but hard work has a sound biblical base.
"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might. " (Eccl.9:10). But why? We are inclined to separate our work from our service, our spiritual work from our daily labor. We work to earn a living; we serve the Lord in our spare time. Paul tells the slave to do his daily labor with the Lord as his overseer. Who is looking over your shoulder as you work?

“Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward, for you are serving the Lord Christ.” (3:23–24).
Can we believe  that there are spiritual rewards for “secular” labor? The poor slave Paul is addressing doesn’t have a minute of his own to serve the Lord on any account. What a consolation to think that he can wash pots and clean toilets to the glory of God. Paul is sanctifying all our labors.
          (Read Brother Lawrence’s “Practicing the Presence of God.”)

However, we must not set up a false identity between witnessing by our work and witnessing in our conversation. If I teach mathematics but my students only know that I love mathematics, have I done right? Paul makes witnessing a separate issue in Colossians. (3:18; 4:5,6). We witness and glorify God by our work—and everything else we do. We witness and glorify God by our conversation. May it be seasoned with salt. May it be light to our surroundings.