Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: and whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ. But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons. Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.
Work has existed since the beginning of time. In fact, God was the original worker, though His work of breathing creation into existence in six days was seemingly effortless. The difficulty of labor came with the fall. That is why work on this fallen planet is ultimately dissatisfying. Ecclesiastes teaches that we can enjoy it, but there will be a sense of futility at times, and certainly pain and difficulty. But though we still feel the effects of the fall, we now work in the present in light of redemption. We work as unto the Lord. It matters whether we bring God glory in our work, just like it matters whether we meditate on God’s Word. In fact, the latter must lead to the former. In his application of new life in Christ, Paul addresses this very important issue of our work.
The Issue of Slavery
COLOSSIANS 3:22 & 4:1
Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; … Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.
The fact that Paul addresses servants (3:22) and masters (4:1) introduces the issue of slavery. Unfortunately, some segments of the Christian church have been very wrong about slavery. For example, there were Christian advocates of slavery in the United States prior to, during, and even after the Civil War. Thankfully, there have also been standout opponents to slavery, such as William Wilberforce. He waged a 20-year battle in British Parliament against the slave trade that ended in its being outlawed in 1807. Then, just three days before Wilberforce died, Parliament abolished slavery itself in most of the British Empire in 1833. Greatly influenced and encouraged by John Newton, Wilberforce charted a bold, biblical path forward as a result of his evangelical beliefs.
But slavery is not just a historical phenomenon. The modern-day manifestations of it are often grouped together under the heading human trafficking. It is a fast-growing criminal industry in many parts of our world. Human trafficking includes, for example, the commercial sex trade that destroys adults and children alike. There is no doubt about the wickedness of this industry. God clearly condemns “menstealers” (1 Tim. 1:10).
Unlike marriage (Gen. 2:24) and male leadership in local churches (1 Tim. 2:11–14), slavery is not grounded in Creation but in the fall. That is why a person’s status in the church is Christian, not slave or free (Col. 3:11). Racial prejudice has no place in the church either because God has reconciled ethnicities into one body (Eph. 2:13–16). Racism certainly does not exist around the throne of God above, where saints from “every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” are gathering to worship the Lamb who was slain to redeem them to His Father (Rev. 5:9).
When we read Paul’s words to slaves and masters in Colossians, we need to realize that slavery was an integral part of the Roman Empire in the first century. Perhaps one-third of the people in Colossae were slaves. Although it may seem counterintuitive, a radical push for liberation would probably have meant great risk for them personally. Furthermore, Christians were a small group without social significance who viewed their calling as cultivating a new reality in the midst of the still existing old one. As one commentator puts it, “The issue was not that of the acceptance of an institution sanctioned by law and part of the fabric of Graeco-Roman civilization; nor was it a question of how to react to a demand for its abolition. … Rather, it concerned the tension between the freedom given in Christ (cf. 3:11) and the ‘slavery’ in which Christian slaves are to continue to serve their earthly masters.”
In fact, Paul’s teaching pointed to the termination of slavery. Paul sent this letter to the Colossians in the hands of two men, Tychicus and Onesimus (Col. 4:7, 9). The latter was a slave of Philemon who had run away to Rome, perhaps after robbing Philemon (Phm. 1:18). When Paul wrote the Colossians, he also wrote Philemon appealing that he should receive Onesimus back as a brother in Christ.
For perhaps [Onesimus] therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him forever; not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? (Phm. 1:15–16)
In other words, while Paul’s agenda in Colossians is clearly not a social revolution, the apostle does lay the groundwork for abolition by his strong appeal on behalf of Onesimus.
Though most of us have had no personal experience with slavery, there is plenty of application in these verses for us. Work is an integral part of our everyday lives, and usually, we are a boss, an employee managed by a boss, or both. If our new life in Christ is supposed to shape how we live now, we must consider our jobs. In this passage, the Holy Spirit confronts us with this question: Who is my lord when it comes to labor? Paul uses the title Kurios throughout this letter to refer to Jesus Christ, including five times in this section (Col. 3:22–4:1). His point is that regardless of whether you are slave or master, entry-level laborer or millionaire, Jesus is the Lord of your labor.
Mandates to Serve
Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh.
It is noteworthy that the section addressing slaves is four times as long as the one to masters. There are probably two reasons for this. First, the Colossian church’s demographic was undoubtedly weighted heavily toward slaves, not masters. It makes sense that Paul would focus more application on them. In addition, because Onesimus accompanied Tychicus with this letter, Onesimus’s relationship with Philemon would have been a point of interest for the Colossian church. They probably wondered what counsel Paul had for them since he had taken a particular interest in Onesimus’s situation.
There are two inseparable commands (3:22, 23) in these four verses of instruction to subordinates. In verse 22 Paul tells servants to “obey.” This is the exact same word he used two verses earlier to instruct children. There is no question of whether or not a subordinate worker should obey the directives of his or her superior. The exception to this comprehensive command would be when a boss tells his employee to do something sinful. We know this because in verse 24 Paul says “ye serve the Lord Christ,” and we cannot do this by sinning.
The second command is to “do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men” (3:23). Faithful, hard, honest work honors the Lord, not because of self-effort but because He is our true Master and we live for His pleasure. Therefore, the two-fold command to those working for another is to work with integrity and ultimately to serve the Lord Christ. By comparison, the reality of serving Christ by working faithfully is like the reality of loving Christ by demonstrating love to someone in need. In Christ, we can and we must glorify God at work.
Means to Serve
Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: and whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men.
Such sweeping statements may leave us wondering how far this service should go. Doesn’t everyone struggle at work sometimes? First, Paul speaks unambiguously concerning the extent of our service. He says, “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh” (3:22). In other words, whatever your human boss says to do, listen and submit. The following verse is just as comprehensive: “And whatsoever ye do” (3:23). This paragraph of Scripture indicates that our labor is not merely a physical necessity but an opportunity for worship. If we are to glorify God in whatever we do (1 Cor. 10:31), then we must obey our human employer consistently.
Second, Paul speaks emphatically about the manner of our service. He uses a picturesque phrase, “not with eyeservice” (Col. 3:22). In other words, we must not work superficially or do just enough to get by. He adds to this the idea of being “menpleasers,” which means doing your job only when the boss is looking over your shoulder. However, simply keeping your boss from being suspicious is not the ultimate goal.
In contrast, Paul directs us to work “in singleness of heart” (3:22). This singular focus and unwavering concentration enable us to do more than the bare minimum. Instead of begrudgingly trying to be productive enough to ensure a paycheck, having Christ as Lord of our labor means we will serve “heartily” (3:23). This does not mean we bounce off walls with uncontainable excitement. It does convey a wholehearted commitment and integrity that refuses hypocrisy — the disparity between what we know to do and what we actually do. We serve the Lord faithfully and with a singular focus.
Motivations to Serve
Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ. But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons.
False teachers in Colossae were promoting a Christianity that prided itself in wisdom through spiritual visions and special rules. Apostolic Christianity, however, is focused on eternal life in Christ in such a way that invests our temporal life with true meaning and purpose. In Colossians 3:24–25, God declares not only what we should do and how we should do it but also why.
Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance.
Paul begins in verse 24 with the encouraging prospect of reward. By using the word “knowing” he reminds us of a truth we need to continually bring to mind. Our reward is our inheritance as a fellow heir with Christ. It is “incorruptible, and undefiled, and … fadeth not away, (and is) reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). The Holy Spirit is the down payment and seal of this inheritance (Eph. 1:13). This idea of an inheritance looks back to several previous points in Paul’s epistle to the Colossians: 1:5 (hope), 1:12 (saints’ inheritance), 1:27 (hope of glory), and 3:1–4 (the things above where Christ your life is).
Regardless of how heartless your employer might be, we serve a gracious Lord. Therefore, we work with reverent awe or “fear” for God (3:22). He bought us with a price (1 Cor. 6:20), freeing us from the slavish fear of man. Our participation in the Gospel delivers us from bondage to sin and motivates us to serve Christ gratefully, not grudgingly, even at work.
We have a lot of stuff in the 21st century, but these Colossian slaves would have immediately recognized the striking paradox of having little hope of temporal inheritance but the confident expectation of an unfathomable, eternal inheritance in Christ. So fundamentally, we do not work for a paycheck or a promotion. We work because of a person and His promise.
But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons.
The reminder at the end of Colossians 3:24 leads to a second motivation in 3:25. It may seem strange to warn slaves about doing wrong. What about the fact that they are owned by another person? We are usually drawn to characters like Robin Hood, who rob from the rich to give to the poor. But God is not partial: “there is no respect of persons” (3:25). The point is not so much that slaves are disobeying earthly masters but that wrongdoing in such a relationship is ultimately an offense to God. Slaves who do wrong, though disadvantaged from a human standpoint, are held accountable. Our identity in Christ does not give us a pass in the so-called secular areas of life. We will all give an account (2 Cor. 5:10).
Masters Who Serve
Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.
In Colossians 3:22 Paul speaks of “masters according to the flesh.” Though in other places the word flesh has a wholly negative connotation, here it simply means human or in this temporal world. Christians who oversee fellow human beings must take the initiative to “give … that which is just and equal” (4:1). Those who serve under you may not have an equal position, and being fellow members of the church does not obliterate those distinctions at work (3:11). However, harsh, repressive policies and practices have no place in a Christian employer’s life. Whereas the unsaved world tends to use people and love stuff, those of us who have new life in Christ must love people and use stuff. A Christian who is a manager of fellow human beings is still a servant of Christ. Regardless of our position or status or wealth we “have a Master in heaven” (4:1)
What God requires of us in life is rooted in what He provides for us in Christ. We do not work to earn God’s favor. We work in grateful response to His favor. God is not looking for workaholics, but He does draw pleasure from people who work for His name’s sake — who refuse to compartmentalize His saving grace from their jobs.
Paul’s ultimate point to the Colossians is that Jesus Christ is to be everything to everyone. He is totally sufficient for every need in the Church.
- The word of Christ is sufficient for our preaching (1:28).
- The presence of Christ is sufficient for living (1:27; 2:6, 10).
- The power of Christ is sufficient to overcome sin (3:9–10).
- The fellowship we have in Christ is sufficient for our unity (3:11, 15).
- The peace of Christ is sufficient to rule the church (3:15).
- The relationship we have with Christ is sufficient to build our family (3:18–21).
- The lordship of Christ is sufficient to work faithfully (3:22–4:1).
Our response to this sufficiency is to submit continually and joyfully to His preeminence over every area of our new lives in Christ (1:18).
P. T. O’Brien, “Colossians, Letter to the,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 226.
This post is from Seeking Things Above: A Study in Colossians by Steve Pettit. Copyright 2016 by Bob Jones University.
This post is part of the study designed to correspond with the 2021 Spring Chapel Series. Watch the chapel messages below:
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