In our passage today, Paul is continuing to show to the Colossians what it looks like to “seek the things that are above” in their church, but then also in their homes. He wants the fact that their lives are renewed in the image of their creator to be made evident to all around them. Christ was the image of the invisible God. Paul now wants them to image the risen Christ who is already in them to the watching world.
Here, he encourages them to re-center their worship and family life on Christ. We saw a similar argument from Paul last semester in Titus 2 with instructions for different groups in the church. He wanted young and old men and women and slaves to give evidence of the goodness of God and the gospel through their lives. It seems that Scripture sees the church and the home as the primary places where we walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, where we live out the new life that Jesus has given us.
But knowing how to understand and apply some of these rules can be confusing and controversial, so I’d like to take some time now to put some flesh on them.
My way of interpreting isn’t the only way; scripture doesn’t give us gospel clarity on these. But I have been blessed to have been discipled by godly families who have lived out the essence of these commands. They weren’t perfect, but they feared the Lord, served the Lord, sought to please the Lord. And they all did it very differently! Praise God there isn’t one way to be a faithful church or home. But the point is, through God’s Word and living out his commands in church and in the home, we get to taste and see the goodness of our Lord Jesus.
Looking back to chapter 2, it seems the Colossians had developed a taste for things other than Christ in their churches. Man-made traditions had captivated their hearts – angel worship, people sharing visions, asceticism (religious denial of good things). I’m sure to the Colossians these things seemed new and exciting, maybe more relevant than the same old story. Self-denial had the appearance of wisdom and the false teachers even had some plausible arguments for their teachings. But those things were false teaching, they threatened to divide the church and had no power in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (sin). And they took the glory and attention away from Christ and His Word.
This Word of the truth, the gospel, is what Paul says should be at the center of their worship – it should, he says, dwell in them richly. I like how John Piper puts it – they should always be singing one note, not chasing after this or that fad. The Word, Colossians tells us, should be in their teaching, their exhortations. Also their songs, hymns, and spiritual songs should be rich with with the word of the truth. The gospel should not be relegated to the fringes of our programs, but permeate church life. It also shouldn’t be relegated to the leaders. Note there that the teaching and admonishing (or earnest urging) command is given to the church as a whole. The word of God should dwell in us richly.
He also says to let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts as one body. I like how one commentator put it, “the peace of Christ rules where the Word of Christ dwells.”1 It can be easy to unite with people around things other than Christ – similar stage of life, interests, family connections, etc. But if we want the unity and peace of Christ in our body then we must unite around Him. Let’s ask God to continue to change us by His word. Then we might see the real gospel fruit of loving one another as ourselves. Of not seeing our differences as big as what we have in common. Of doing everything in the name of Jesus which means being submitted to Him and conscious of His commissioning and His enabling. I was helped by that definition.
So if we Christians are submitted to Jesus in “whatever we do in word or deed”, why is it SO difficult to talk about submitting to our husbands?
That brings us to the more controversial/confusing section of our text. While verses 15-17 contain elements of Christian worship that are applicable in all churches at all times, I would argue this section is less prescriptive. After all, we’re not going to recreate the Greco-Roman slave system in our households in order to follow Paul’s commands here. But there are principles we can apply.
Did you notice how Paul always addressed the groups submitting first: wives before husbands, children before parents, slaves before masters. That’s significant. He is giving them honor. Remember in the kingdom of God the way up is down, those who humble themselves will be exalted, the first will be last. Those who submit to human authority have a unique privilege of imaging Christ who submitted to His Father all the way to the Cross.
This doesn’t mean that those submitting are unequal in value to the leaders. Paul says in this letter (and other places) that there is no Greek/Jew, Male/female, slave/free, but we are one body of Christ. Jesus himself was equal with God, but did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself, taking on the form of a servant, etc. So godly submission isn’t an act of deficiency, but actually of maturity.
A wife’s submission to her husband is a picture of Christ’s voluntary submission to the Father. The word “submit” here with regard to wives is different than the word “obey” that’s used for the children and bondservants. It implies a voluntary action. Children and servants must obey. A wife willingly, even delightfully, gives herself to her husband. (And as we saw in Eph 5, a husband should love his wife in such a way to make it a delight!). They are one flesh, imaging the union of Christ with his bride the Church in a unique way, unlike any other human relationship.
So I wanted to take a moment to talk a little bit about what submission is and what it isn’t. There is so much more I could say than what I have here, and I do know godly Christians who think of it differently. But I wanted to share with you ways I’ve seen it lived out by women who adorn the gospel.
When we think of submission, I think we can tend to think of it like, “my husband makes all the decisions and I just say ‘yes sir’”. That is not it. Wives are helpers fit for their husband using all their gifts and capabilities in making family decisions. Furthermore, husband and wife are one flesh, and this type of subservience essentially cuts her out of the one-flesh union.
A few years back, Dan was at a gathering of some very godly pastors, some of whom had been married a long time, and the question came up among the men, how often have you had to ask you wife to submit to a decision she didn’t agree with. They were issues like: he thought they should move but she didn’t want to, or she wanted to have another baby but he didn’t think it was the right time, things like that. The answers were: never, once or twice, etc. The point is that unity, not one person’s will, should be the norm in marriage.
Submission also doesn’t always mean the husband makes the final decision. I know there have been times in our marriage when my husband and I haven’t agreed and he’s said “I trust your wisdom in this area, let’s do what you think”.
Submission is less about “making decisions” than it is about sharing a common vision. When I am one with Christ, I am about His work, His kingdom in a variety of direct and indirect ways. Our marriages are a picture of that. I am also one with my husband, so my orientation is toward helping him, fulfilling our vision. Submission is also about cooperation, respect, about a willingness to renounce my own will and desires for my another person’s. In the end, submission is not all that different than the sacrificial love a husband must display.
It differs slightly in that it’s the husband who is setting the vision for the family, who is leading and taking the initiative relationally and spiritually in the family. Submission means accepting and supporting that leadership.
Confession: I think one of the hardest aspects of submission for me is receiving my husband’s attempts to lead me relationally, to initiate some kind of intimacy, to draw me out. I can respond coldly to a hug because the kids have been touching me all day and I don’t want anyone else touching me. Maybe I don’t feel like answering his questions or participating in a conversation he wants to have at the moment. It would be submissive to ask respectfully if we can talk/hug/etc., another time, but my heart should respect that he is wanting to draw us together into our one flesh union and to support this godly pursuit.
I think this can be especially difficult for newly married people. Your husband doesn’t know you well yet, and maybe he isn’t very skilled at drawing you two together or finding a way to lead you together spiritually. Part of submission means helping him by sharing your perspective and giving him the kind of grace you’d like to receive.
With the way our husbands are called to sacrificially love and serve their wives, it should go without saying that there is no place for harshness, let alone abuse (physical, mental, emotional, sexual) in a marriage. Spouses are one flesh and no sane person would hurt his own body. The best way for a wife to help an abusing husband is for her to get help and put a stop to the abuse. If you or anyone you know is being abused, please talk to someone and get help – talk to an elder at your church or seek a trusted counselor who can help you.
This brings us to children and parents. Our children are learning from us what it looks like to obey the Lord. We don’t always understand God’s ways, but we obey. Same goes for the kiddos. I think it’s interesting that Paul highlights Fathers and their responsibility to their children. They must imitate their heavenly father who loves us, who disciplines us for our good and who doesn’t embitter or exasperate his children.
I’m not exactly sure what Paul had in mind when he talks of the kids losing heart or becoming discouraged, but I wonder if the danger is they stop obeying out of discouragement. I’m not exactly sure what Paul intends but the best way to get my kids discouraged is to give them commands primarily meant to serve me. Commands not intended for their good, but for my convenience.
A good husband and father (or mother) isn’t looking out for his own interests, but for the interests of others. Think of the way you flourish under Jesus’s Lordship in your life. It should be no different in our households.
In the Greco-Roman world, slaves were a part of the household. Whitney covered this a bit when she spoke on the parallel passage in Titus last semester. The slaves or bondservants talked about here were more akin to the servants in Downton Abbey than the slaves of the American south. They were an integral part of the functioning of the household so it makes sense that Paul includes them here.
Some of the slaves were skilled professionals who had sold themselves into slavery to pay a debt or to support their families. So it makes sense that, as our homework directed, we can apply this passage to the workplace now. However, many of the slaves were spoils of war. Either way, they weren’t employees, they were human beings owned by other humans living in the same household. And that’s where the controversy of this passage comes in, right? Paul doesn’t condemn slavery here. He encourages slaves and masters to adorn the gospel within the institution of slavery? So is the Bible promoting slavery?
I don’t think so. I think when modern people condemn passages like these, they are interpreting it through their own modern lens. If Paul had told the slaves to be freed, most of them would’ve had no means of supporting their families outside this institution. There was no social welfare system. Furthermore, it would not have occurred to Paul to incite a futile rebellion. Unlike in our democracy, most of the Christians then would have had no possibility of changing the institution of slavery. They didn’t have the political voice that we do today.
Many see this passage and the passage in Philemon where he urges Philemon to free his slave Onesimus as Paul sowing the seeds which would eventually dismantle the slave system. The fact that Paul speaks to the slaves about their moral, gospel-driven duty to faithfully serve their masters is radical for that time, not backward. By doing this, he is humanizing the slaves.
Last summer I read a book by a modern secular philosopher. He says this,
“The Greek world was fundamentally an aristocratic world [think Downton Abbey], a universe organised as a hierarchy in which those most [gifted] should in principle be ‘at the top’, while the less [gifted] saw themselves occupying inferior ranks. And we should not forget that the Greek city-state was founded on slavery. In direct contradiction, Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity – an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.”2
So today, we as Christians should continue to champion the humanity of those our society deems subhuman – the unborn, the frozen embryos, the disabled, the enslaved, the refugees, the elderly. Paul encourages them and us to remember that we should justly and fairly care for the least of these because we also have a master in heaven. Masters and slaves, leaders and dependents are all one in Christ, and there is no partiality.
In equalizing all people before God, Paul is pointing them past their earthly relationships. By serving and obeying and loving one another they are serving the Lord Christ, fearing Him, pleasing Him. I think that perspective can put some energy and joy in our service.
Paul gives us another tool here for energy and joy in our service of others. It’s remembering the riches we have in Christ. I think as a slave, it would be tempting for me to think I got a really bad deal in life. “Yeah, we’re all one in Christ but how come other people get to have all the fun in this life?“
Paul helps them here by saying, from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as a reward. They had no inheritance, but now they will have an even better one – from God! Paul mentions this a number of times in this letter – we are qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in light, we have the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in us, we will reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
What are ways you’re tempted to think you got a bad deal in life? Maybe it’s your marriage, an issue with your children, your financial situation, your health. The pain in this life is real, but so are the riches and the treasure of Christ. No matter what our situation here is, we are rich!
So let’s pray for each other and encourage one another to seek the things above in our churches, in our homes, in our relationships. Let’s let the word of Christ dwell in us richly so that His peace would be evident among us. Let’s serve the risen Christ by serving and loving one another in His name.
 Dunn, J. D. G. (1996). The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 237). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: William B. Eerdmans Publishing; Paternoster Press.
2Ferry, Luc (2011-12-27). A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (Learning to Live) (p. 72). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.