Life at Work

Week of May 14, 2017

The Point:  Your work is a reflection of your relationship with Christ.

The Christian at work:  Colossians 3:22-4:1.

[22] Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. [23] Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, [24] knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. [25] For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. [4:1] Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.   [ESV]

The good news of a Christ who came to set us free [cf. Luke 4:18] is seldom far from Paul’s mind as he writes his Colossian letter. At the start he had explained that deliverance from the domain of darkness [Col. 1:13-14] was an essential part of the meaning and experience of forgiveness. And as we know, it was because the visitors to Colossae had taken hold of this exciting concept of spiritual freedom, and presented it in an exaggerated and potentially harmful way, that the apostle was alert to protect the gospel from misunderstanding and the Colossian Christians from misguided action in the pursuit of a fuller ‘liberty’.  You cannot preach freedom from the old inequalities as Paul did (Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all [Col. 3:11]), without being asked how in practice this works out in a society where these inequalities continue unchanged.  If it seemed necessary to say a word to Christian wives and husbands lest their newfound ‘freedom in Christ’ drive a wedge between them, and between them and their neighbors (thereby discrediting the motion of spiritual liberty), how much more urgent to say something to slaves and masters! It must have been bewildering at times for both sides, and threatening too, not only for those within the little Christian communities, but also for those who anxiously looked on, deeply disturbed at what seemed likely to overthrow the stability of their social order. The cause of liberation for the oppressed appeals to us today as deeply, and probably more widely, than at any time in history. Understandably, in some parts of the world there is a demand for ‘liberation theology’. Against this background even Christian readers of Paul have expressed feelings ranging from uncertainty through embarrassment to downright disappointment that the apostle appears so content with the status quo, and so apparently unwilling to call for some measure of social change. Even the haste with which his defenders point out the sheer impossibility, if not absurdity, of attempting to alter the economic base of a vast empire, or point with some justification to the eventual triumph of the gospel in the abolition of slavery; even this haste only serves to show that they are conscious of the weight of the attack. Of course Paul has other things to say on this sensitive topic apart from this brief paragraph of instruction before us: notably there is his letter to Philemon which vividly preserves for us some early evidence of the impact of the gospel on the slave/master relationship, and leaves us very much aware that a new spirit was being let loose in Roman society which could not be contained in the old forms. At first glance it seems that, far from removing the yoke of slavery, Paul has fastened it more firmly than ever. Christian slaves are told to obey in everything those who are your earthly masters [3:22]. Can this really mean to place them on the level of childhood for ever, with its inevitable limitations (note the parallel between verse 20 and verse 22a), and yet without that great hope of childhood, that one day adult estate will be attained? A closer look, however, tells quite another story; it reveals the development of a remarkable insight that Paul would share with the believing slaves. He wishes them to understand that, in a very real sense, they are now not serving men at all. This is explicit in verse 23; in their work they are serving the Lord, and not men. This negative statement is supported by the other negative of verse 22: not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers: together they clear the way for the positive teaching that everything the slave now does is part of his new work for the Lord. From his miserable servitude he has been rescued, at a stroke, to become a full-time servant of Christ. With this clue in our hands we can now appreciate the force of each succeeding verse, setting it out in this way.

  1. The slave is set free from ‘men-pleasing’ [22]. The unique word eye-service means either work that is done because the boss has his eye upon one or that which is done with an eye to catch his attention. In other words it is all a matter of external appearances. The slave does only that which is necessary to attract favor or escape punishment. He does nothing more than what is required to satisfy his overseer. This universal practice soon becomes a fine art; the appearance of obedience is there, but the reality is very different. As all human experience verifies, whether the boss is a first-century slave master or an impersonal twentieth-century corporation, much time and thought is then taken up in seeing how personal ends can be served, while yet doing just sufficient to avoid the employer’s wrath. But now, from servility and all these prevarications, the Christian is delivered. And with what result? He is set free to do everything his master asks of him! All prudential considerations and ulterior motives can be set aside, and every wish carried out, not to please or placate a man who cannot be denied, but as the only way in which the rule of Christ can be acknowledged. To call Christ Lord is to fear to displease Him: yet that godly fear sooner or later sets one free from lesser and unworthy fears. While his pagan comrade might obey in everything his earthly master, for fear of him, the Christian slave can now actually bring himself to obey in everything that same master, but for wholly different reasons.
  2. The slave is set free to work wholeheartedly [23]. The transformation described in verse 22 is very great; but can such new obedience be rendered willingly and with the whole heart? This is a serious question which deserves and receives more than a glib answer. If it were a matter of being a slave of another person however kind and fair, then while duty might be done willingly enough in the name of the Lord Jesus (as verse 17 commands), it could not be done from the heart [Eph. 6:6]. For in the depths of our being we know that we were not meant to be the property of another; the heart cries out against such unnatural bondage. No, we can give the allegiance of our souls only to the Lord [Mark 12:30]; and no Christian can give this worship to any other power but God. Negatively there is guidance here also what a Christian slave cannot be, whatever law and custom demand, namely the possession of another human being. But paradoxically, as it may seem at first, this assurance of individual worth and dignity opens the way to a wholehearted service of the slave’s master (whether worthy or not). And this is so because it now recognized that, in Christ, the slave’s worth is such that any task he undertakes for his master, however menial, is fit to be part of his service of the Lord of glory. It is not only that he can do this work as though Christ were doing it (so verse 17); he can do it knowing that it is done for Christ, and that He (of all masters) is willing to receive it [23].
  3. The slave is set free from work without proper reward [24-25]. Though verse 24 is part of the reasoning that began in the previous verse, it is well to consider it separately, and not to overlook its link with verse 25. Once more the Christian slave is reminded solemnly that he is, in truth, serving the Lord Christ. As a result he can know for sure that while exploitation may be his earthly lot, he will yet receive a proper recompense from his heavenly Master. And this cuts both ways. Applied to the slave, verse 25 is a sharp reminder that previous habits of poor service would be poorly recompensed by this new Master who is strictly fair and impartial, and who does not, as human masters will do, unjustly favor the oppressed simply because they have never been favored before – a healthy insight into the lack of sentimentalism in the kingdom of Christ. But is there nothing in verse 25 for the earthly masters? It is true that they are not formally addressed until the next verse [4:1], but it is difficult to avoid the feeling that Paul saw the validity of verse 25 as having application just as clearly to them: probably the very enunciation of the principle led his mind to consider the responsibilities of such slave owners. For who was the greater wrongdoer, the slave who held back his labor as far as circumstances permitted, or the master who held back a proper reward for those labors, because circumstances did permit?
  4. The master’s new treatment of their slaves [4:1]. It is of course a wholly new idea that the master should be regarded as having any binding responsibilities towards his slaves: no doubt where Paul’s teaching was known it caused much indignation in the places where slave-owners met together. Such notions could only be considered reckless and impertinent. But no doubt there were some slave-owners who would listen, and those who became Christians would come to acknowledge that this new relationship to their heavenly Lord must inevitably control all their activities, even in handling their slaves. This new rule of Christ was, above all, just and fair [4:1]. That which Christ had shown in His dealings with them, they in turn must demonstrate to their servants. The extraordinary nature of this quiet command can be appreciated only by recalling the plight of the slave, without recourse to justice and equity in any form. Yet here it is said that he must be given what he cannot claim, and what no one would think of claiming for him. It may well be, in the social conditions of the times, that this brief command, treat your slaves justly and fairly [4:1], was even harder to carry out than anything asked of the slaves, possibly involving their owners in a measure of social ostracism, quite apart from the financial problems.

Conclusion. Looking back over the whole section we are now in a position to consider whether Paul’s teaching opens him to legitimate criticisms for failing to make a more effective protest against the iniquities of slavery, or whether we are compelled to say that he had found a more excellent way. One benefit of this close study is that we can begin to see emerging from this teaching Paul’s priorities. First, the apostle’s paramount concern is not man’s relationship with his fellows, but everyone’s relationship with God. Paul does not attempt to resolve these human problems between slave and master horizontally. It is clear that he assumes that it is only by learning to serve the Lord Christ that each can begin to come to proper terms with the other. For what is it that he wants each to know? Is it not that both have a Lord in heaven (knowing [3:24; 4:1])? This can never be the world’s way of tackling social and industrial relationships; but the church has no commission to preach the kingdom of God without talking about the King (notice how the Lord is mentioned four times in verses 22-24). Furthermore Paul is able boldly to mention heavenly rewards and sanctions, an example we now fear to follow, with an inevitable, if surprising, loss of credibility. It is no use disparaging this approach as pietistic and over-individualistic, unless we can see results like Paul’s. For notice how the Christian slave is now taken up, not with his own needs, but with his Master’s – does He get the labor He has the right to expect? Notice too how the master, when similarly reoriented to Christ, is now taken up, not with his own needs but with those of his slaves – do they get the reward they have a right to enjoy? Is not this an eminently desirable revolution in human attitudes? But by what human power or sociological expertise can it be accomplished? Secondly, the apostle’s great concern is with the present rather than the future. This letter is addressed to the members of a church, not to the leaders of society. It is meant to help the believers with their present problems and rescue them from their present miseries and dangers. It would bring slaves yet more misery if Paul were to tell them to revolt, nor would it be any comfort to think that apostolic protests against social evils might change things in a future too far off to benefit any of them. The glory of the gospel is that it has something to give in the worst situations we experience. Just there and then it is possible to live victoriously. Paul’s message brought happiness and fulfilment into the here and now. The purpose of Paul’s ministry was to set people free in Christ now, and it is doubtful whether he had any visionary dreams of a time coming when slavery would be abolished. When that happened, however, it was the weapons he forged that won the victory.”  [Lucas, pp. 165-170].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How was working as a slave in Paul’s day similar to your own work situation? What are the differences? How do you think Paul’s rules for slaves apply to you? If in your employment you have people who answer to you, how can you apply Paul’s rules for masters to your situation?
  1. What did Paul say was the ultimate motivation for both slave and master [3:23; 4:1]? Note Paul’s commands: not by way of eye-service, sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord, work heartily, for the Lord, not for men, serving the Lord. How should these commands impact the way that you work in whatever situation you are in?
  1. How do the following scriptures broaden your understanding of how slave and master are to be related to one another: Colossians 3:11; 1 Timothy 6:1-2? How should these passages affect the way you relate to your boss and those you supervise?
  1. What are Paul’s priorities in this passage?


The Message of Colossians & Philemon, R. C. Lucas, Inter Varsity.

Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Richard Melick, Jr., NAS, Broadman Press.

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Douglas Moo, Pillar, Eerdmans.

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