Colossians 3:18 – 4:18
© Rosemary Bardsley 2014
Paul now moves onto some general instructions. We can group them under three further principles.
Principle #4: the principle of submission – that in all of our roles and relationships we should put aside our own perceived ‘rights’ and make our choices with  what pleases the Lord as our first priority, and  the well being of the other as our second priority.
In the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:18-21 Paul includes ‘submitting to another’ as the last of five present participles expressing what being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ will look like. In Colossians, where he describes what letting ‘the word of Christ dwell in you richly’ will look like, he omits ‘submitting’ as a present participle. However, he gives us an identical list of relationships as examples of how ‘submitting’ to each other works out in the practicalities of life [Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1].
Paul applies the biblical principle of submission to the three most common human relationships: the husband/wife relationship, the parent/child relationship, and the boss/worker relationship.
As we read through his application of this principle in these three contexts we realize that behind his commands about submission in these six human roles is a greater submission: our submission to the Lord:
‘as is fitting in the Lord’ – verse 18.
‘for this pleases the Lord’ – verse 20.
‘with … reverence for the Lord’ – verse 22.
‘… as working for the Lord, and not for men …’ – verse 23.
‘It is the lord Christ you are serving’ – verse 24.
‘you also have a Master in heaven’ – 4:1.
Ultimately our submission is to Jesus Christ. He is our Lord. He is our Master. Paul says that the way to express the principle of submission in the context of our various human roles and relationships is to do whatever we have to do, whatever our various roles require of us, as if we were doing that for the Lord – with all our heart – and not just for the people involved.
If this principle operates in our lives it gives every thing we do significance: we are doing it for Jesus, whether it be washing floors or building a church, or whatever it is. This principle can put commitment and enthusiasm into even the most boring or menial of tasks. As Jesus said, even a cup of water given in his name receives its reward [Mark 9:41]. When we put our own significance and our own rights aside in order to serve the other, we are pleasing the Lord, and demonstrating in our own person that same self-sacrificing compassion that he demonstrated towards us. It does not go unnoticed by him. So here Paul exhorts us to serve one another, to seek the other’s well-being ‘since you know you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward’. [In contrast, Paul warns us that if we do wrong to the other people in our relationships we ‘will be repaid’ for that wrong [3:25].]
If this principle operates in our lives it will make us treat all people, irrespective of our role and our relationships to them, with dignity, respect and love. It will mean that we will relate to them with two things in mind:
That we are doing this, first of all, for Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the most important. He is our first priority.
That we are doing this because the well-being of the other is our second priority. We actually care about the other person. We want the best for them, even if it is at the expense of our perceived ‘rights’.
Paul gives a series of commands about the way this principle of submission will express itself on both sides of these three most common human relationships:
Wives – are instructed to ‘submit to’, that is, to ‘arrange themselves under’ [Greek = hupotasso] the headship of their husbands. This is not about inequality; it is not about subservience or servility or a fearful cringing attitude in the presence of a domineering, autocratic, unpredictable husband. It is about the God-ordained roles and functions in the marriage relationship. Note that the verb ‘submit’ is in the Middle Voice – the ‘submission’ is something the wives do to themselves: though equal, they voluntarily put themselves under the authority of their husband. This is not the husband demanding and exacting unquestioning obedience to puff-up his self-importance; it is about the wife willingly enabling the husband to fulfil his God-given responsibility of headship.
Does not negate or over-ride the equality, reciprocal responsibilities and inter-dependence of the man and the woman [1Corinthians 7:3,4; 11:11,12].
Does not exclude discussion towards mutual agreement [1Corinthians 7:5].
Will be evident in a public way [in the New Testament cultural context this meant wearing a head-covering in public – 1Corinthians 11:6-10.]
Parallels submission to the Lord [Ephesians 5:22].
Recognizes the God-ordained role/responsibility structure [Ephesians 5:23].
Parallels the submission of the church to Jesus Christ [Ephesians 5:24].
Can be defined as ‘respect’ [Ephesians 5:33].
Is the opposite of usurping the husband’s authority [1Timothy 2:11,12].
Contributes to the public reputation of the Gospel [Titus 2:5].
Should parallel the submission of Christ in his incarnation and suffering [1Peter 2:21-3:1].
Has the well-being of the husband as its motivation [1Peter 3:1].
Is evident in a gentle and quiet spirit [1Peter 3:4].
This, Paul states, is to be done ‘as is fitting in the Lord’. That is, because it is proper, because it is appropriate, because it is a moral obligation, for those who belong to Jesus Christ.
Husbands – are to be loving and gentle with their wives. The verb Paul uses for ‘love’ is agapao. He does not define the husbands’ love for his wife in terms of sexual love, nor in terms of the love of friendship. He requires of husbands the highest form of loving – that same love with which God has loved us. This love outlaws bitterness – ‘do not be harsh’ translates pikraino – do not be embittered towards them. It is Passive Voice – meaning that this forbidden bitterness is something stirred up in the husbands by a person or circumstance. In context, the husband is here commanded not to let anything about his wife make him bitter towards her. There are a great number of things that can, in the normal course of life, cause a husband to feel bitterness towards his wife – sometimes even the fact that he is tied to her, or has to support her, or she has needs that he feels inadequate to meet can cause him to feel bitter. He is no longer free. He has the responsibility of leading the household. Any of these, in addition to annoying attitudes and behaviours of his wife, can cause bitterness. Paul’s instruction is ‘don’t let that happen’. Rather he is to love her.
This ‘love’ that Paul commands – this action of the husband, the head, in which he puts the well-being of his wife above his own comfort:
Recognizes her rights as his wife and meets her needs [1Corinthians 7:2,3].
Engages in discussion leading to mutual agreement [1Corinthians 7:5].
Is considerate of his wife’s spiritual needs, above his own perceived rights or needs [1Corinthians 7:12-16].
Recognizes the equality of his wife and their interdependence [1Corinthians 11:11,12].
Is available to lead her into deeper spiritual understanding [1Corinthians 14:35].
Parallels the self-denying, self-sacrificing, saving love of Christ for the church [Ephesians 5:25-27].
Parallels the husband’s love and care for his own body [Ephesians 5:28-30,33].
Overrides his prior primary responsibilities [Ephesians 5:31].
Outlaws harsh treatment of his wife [Colossians 3:19].
Demonstrates the attitude of Jesus Christ in his incarnation and suffering [1Peter 2:21-25; 3:7].
Is considerate and respectful, taking into account both his wife’s weakness and their common identity as heirs of eternal life in Christ [1Peter 3:7].
Children are commanded to obey their parents in everything. The word used for ‘obey’ – hupakouo – is also used to command slaves to obey their masters. It is a different word from the ‘submission’ required of wives to husbands. ‘Obey’ has reference to listening to [and heeding] verbal instruction and orders. It assumes that the parent has the right and the responsibility to instruct and order the child. The child, because he is a child, does not have the capacity to determine and decide for himself what he ought to do to survive and to succeed in life. He is dependent on his parent’s word. Whereas the wife, though equal with her husband, voluntarily puts herself under his headship, the child must obey his parents, of necessity. [See Ephesians 6:2,3 and Deuteronomy 5:16].
Paul teaches that the motivation for this obedience to parents is that it ‘pleases the Lord’.
Fathers are commanded not to ‘embitter’ their children because such treatment will make the children ‘discouraged’. In the parallel Ephesians passage Paul commands: ‘Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord’ [6:4]. The word translated ‘embitter’ in Colossians 3:21 – erethizo - means to stimulate, excite, stir up, provoke. The KJV inserts the words ‘to anger’. The word used in Ephesians 6:4 – parorgizo - means to provoke to anger. In Colossians 3:21 the stated result of this wrong parenting is that children become ‘discouraged’ – the word used means to lose their spirit, to be without spirit, to be disheartened. Paul is here commanding fathers to resist the temptation to be harsh, to be unjust, to make impossible or arbitrary demands. Such treatment robs children of any desire to willingly obey their fathers.
Servants are commanded to persistently well work for their masters as if they were working for Christ. They are given several commands:
‘obey your earthly masters in everything’ – the same command that is given to children in respect to their parents. This obedience is to be ‘not only when their eye is on you’ and not ‘to win their favour’. Rather this obedience is to be sincere [with undivided heart] – the same whether or not it is seen, and whether or not it gains a word of approval from the master. This consistent, sincere obedience to earthly masters is given ‘out of reverence for the Lord’, that is, for the divine Master.
‘Whatever you do …’ Although in context it applies directly to servants, Paul here gives a command that has application to every believer, not just servants. No matter what our task is, no matter what we are doing –
‘work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men’. This is an exceedingly heavy command that reaches into every corner or our lives. The reason for working with this perspective is that we know that we ‘will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward’, regardless of whether or not men reward us for what we do for them. The Greek text reads ‘knowing that you will receive the reward of the inheritance’. Note the definite articles. The reward for this consistent, sincere service is the inheritance. Not ‘a’ reward. Not ‘an’ inheritance. But the inheritance - the inheritance that every believer has as heirs of God and co-heirs with Jesus Christ [Romans 8:17].
It is based on promise, not on works of the law [Galatians 3:18, 3:29].
It is given to all who are ‘in Christ’ [Ephesians 2:11 (see NIV footnote)].
It is guaranteed by the indwelling Holy Spirit [Ephesians 1:13,14].
God himself has qualified us to share this inheritance [Colossians 1:12].
It is grounded in justification by his grace, and consists in the hope of eternal life [Titus 3:7].
It is an eternal inheritance [Hebrews 9:15].
It is an indestructible inheritance, kept safe for us in heaven [1Peter 1:4].
It is ‘salvation’ [Hebrews 1:14].
It is ‘the kingdom promised to those who love him’ [James 2:5].
This glorious and guaranteed inheritance is the motivation Paul puts before us for doing everything we do as if we are working for the Lord. It is, in fact, the Lord Jesus Christ we are serving [verse 24], even when we are working for men. This perspective sanctifies every task.
This verse is equally applicable to both ‘slaves’ and ‘masters’. Where the NIV has ‘does what is wrong’ the Greek has adikia which means ‘unjust’. The issue is not about ‘wrong’ behaviour, but about ‘unjust’ behaviour. Slaves should render to their masters what is just. And masters should treat their slaves with justice. This is in stark contrast to the norm in ancient Rome, where slaves had no legal rights. Justice was not a question in respect to treatment of slaves. But in God’s system of justice, both slaves and masters are treated with the same application and measure of justice – ‘there is no favouritism’.
Masters – will provide for their slaves with fairness and justice [dikaios], even if it costs them to do so. They will not use their position or authority to justify unfair or unjust treatment. The rationale for this equity is that masters themselves have a ‘Master in heaven’.
This principle of submission applies to every believer in whatever relationship we find ourselves: that in every situation we are to act for and to seek the well-being of the other.
Principle #5: the principle of prayer – that the Christian life is one devoted to alert and thankful prayer
Paul sums up this principle in three verses. He instructs us:
‘Devote yourselves to prayer …’ proskartoreo – persevere, be diligent, be steadfast, cling closely, remain constant, persist, constantly attend to. The verb is in the Present Tense, commanding a present and on-going continuity of action. This constancy in prayer was practised by
The disciples [male and female] between the ascension of Jesus and the out-pouring of the Spirit [Acts 1:14].
The newly formed church immediately following Pentecost [Acts 2:42].
The Twelve disciples/apostles [Acts 6:4].
And was commanded by Paul in Romans 12:12 – ‘ be … faithful in prayer’.
‘being watchful …’ watching, keeping awake, being vigilant. A present participle. The Greek is literally watching in the same. That is, watching in prayer. Not only is there to be a devotion to prayer, but that prayer is also to be characterised by continual spiritual and mental alertness. The verb – gregoreuo - is often used in the context of watching for the return of Christ; it is used of being watchful because of the devil’s destructive intentions; and it is used by Jesus when he asked the disciples to ‘watch’ with him while he prayed in Gethsemane, also in that context as he exhorted them to ‘watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation’ [Matthew 26:41].
‘…and thankful’ – literally ‘with thankfulness’ or ‘in thankfulness’. The concept of thankfulness is mentioned five other times in this small letter:
Paul continually thanked God for the Colossian believers [1:3,4].
He joyfully thanked the Father for the amazing salvation provided in Christ [1:11-14].
He encouraged his readers to be ‘overflowing with thankfulness’ [2:7].
He commanded thankfulness in the context of the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts [3:15].
He listed singing with grateful hearts as an effect of the word of Christ [3:17].
And now he commands that thankfulness should accompany and characterize the sustained, alert prayer that he commands all believers to pursue.
‘And pray for us too …’ Paul now moves from the all-embracing command to perseverance in prayer, to a critical specific focus of prayer – the proclamation of the Gospel by himself and his companions. In this he lists three particulars:
That ‘God may open a door for our message…’ – unless he does so, the message will not be preached, no one will hear, no one will understand and no one will be saved. Even though he is under arrest in Rome he still knows that God can open doors for the message to be preached.
‘so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ…’ – this is the mystery to which he has referred at length from 1:25 to 2:4, the hidden meaning of the Old Testament, now brought to fulfilment in Christ. This is the ultimate truth, speaking of the ultimate Saviour and the ultimate salvation. This is the message that must be heard and believed if anyone is to be saved.
‘for which I am in chains.’ – at the time of writing Paul was under arrest in Rome, precisely because of his proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord.
‘Pray that I may proclaim it clearly as I should.’ Paul has prayed that God will open opportunities for the proclamation of the Gospel; now, assuming that those opportunities will arise, he prays that he himself will be able to proclaim the message clearly. He sees this as a necessity, a responsibility – to present the Gospel clearly is something he must do.
This brief instruction about prayer is very similar to Paul’s instructions about prayer in Ephesians 6:18-20.
Principle #6: The principle of witness – that the way we behave in the presence of unbelievers should be decided with, firstly, the glory of God and, secondly, the eternal salvation of the other, in mind.
Paul’s brief statement about our Christian witness in the context of the world includes:
‘Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders ...’ The daily words, actions and attitudes of believers towards ‘those outside’ is to be characterised by wisdom. This calls for a deliberate choice on the part of believers to live, literally ‘walk’, wisely in the presence of unbelievers. How we live either glorifies God or dishonours God in the eyes of the unbelieving world:
‘… let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven’ [Matthew 5:16].
‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’ [Romans 2:24; Isaiah 52:5; Ezekiel 36:22].
‘So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God’ [1Corinthians 10:31].
‘… so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered’ [1Timothy 6:1].
‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us’ [1Peter 2:12].
It is not our reputation that is at stake in the choices we make: it is God’s reputation, and the reputation of the glorious Gospel.
‘… make the most of every opportunity’. The KJV has ‘redeeming the time’; the Greek – exagoridzo - means to buy back, to ransom, to rescue from loss. Lightfoot paraphrases: ‘buying up every opportunity for yourselves, letting no opportunity slip you of saying and doing what may further the cause of God’. We could interpret: ‘maximizing every moment’, ‘making every moment count for the Kingdom’. Paul wrote similarly in Ephesians 5:16: ‘making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil’. In the Greek text, this is not a second command, it is rather an explanatory extension of the command already given: Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders making the most of the time. It explains what Paul means when he commands us to be wise: he means wise use of every moment, particularly every moment we spend in the presence of unbelievers: buying each moment back from its bondage to the world and making it count for God’s kingdom and God’s glory.
‘Let your conversation be always full of grace …’ The Greek is very simple – ‘your speech always in grace’. It would appear that this phrase is not an additional command, but an explanatory extension of the previous command to ‘be wise’ in our interactions with unbelievers. Looking at these two verses as a whole, we have
Paul’s actual command: ‘Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders’,
A descriptive extension: ‘making the most of the time’
A further description: ‘your speech always in grace’
Another description: ‘seasoned with salt’,
And the reason for all of this: ‘so that you will know how to answer everyone’.
Paul’s commands to be wise and that our conversation should always be full of grace forbid us to understand ‘making the most of every opportunity’ to mean that we must hammer everyone we meet with the Gospel, and to see every unsaved person as a ‘lost soul’ rather than as a real, individual person with real emotions and a real story. God’s grace prohibits such a rough-shod approach to evangelism. Here Paul commands that our speech should not be aggressive or offensive, but rather pleasing and acceptable, treating the other person with a respect and compassion that reflect and demonstrate the grace of God
For a living example of what Paul means here we do well to follow the pattern of Jesus Christ himself, who, John tells us, was ‘full of grace and truth’ [John 1:14].
‘… seasoned with salt …’ Salt added to food achieves two purposes: it gives it an acceptable, pleasing flavour, and it preserves the food. This added description prohibits us from thinking that the ‘grace’ that is to characterise our speech makes our conversations insipid, irrelevant and powerless. The opposite is the case. The salt of God’s truth in our conversations is what will, under God’s good hand, draw our hearers closer to repentance and faith. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: ‘You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?’ [Matthew 5:13].
‘… so that you may know how to answer everyone’. Here is the reason that Paul has given these instructions about the Christian’s behaviour and speech in the presence of unbelievers: we need to know how to answer everyone. He doesn’t tell us what we should do and what we should say, but he does put boundaries in place within which we are to live and to speak:
Boundary #!: Is it wise?
Boundary #2: Does it make the best use of this moment?
Boundary #3: Is it gracious?
Boundary #4: Does it either (1) make the conversation palatable to the hearer? Or (3) contribute a preservative/cleansing/saving function in the conversation or situation?
Final greetings and instructions
Paul closes off his letter with quite an extensive list of greetings and references to his fellow believers who were with him in Rome, where he was in prison. He includes also a few instructions in the last few verses, particularly instructions about the reading and passing on of the letter, and a letter he had written to the Laodiceans.