The Gospel Produces Well-ordered and God-centered relations

I. A life that reflects what it means to have risen with Christ includes stable, orderly, and productive domestic relations. Sometimes these instructions are called household codes. Paul gives instruction as to the principles that the gospel infuses into normal daily living. cf. Ephesians 5:22-6:9; 1 Timothy 5:8; 6:1, 2; Titus 2:1-10; 1 Peter 2:13-3:7. These instructions included husband-wife relations, children-parent relations, slave-master relations, relations to governmental authorities with implications for “outsiders” in general. What do we find in this passage?

A. Within each of these relations Paul sets out a principle of reciprocity.

  1. Each of these shows a certain order. Paul first gives instruction to those who are under authority and then to those who hold the responsibility of exhibiting authority. For those whose calling is one of submission he incudes wives, children, and slaves. Included as those who have the task of authority within the framework of godliness, he includes husbands, fathers (probably parents as in Ephesians 6:1, 2), and masters.
  2. What is to be the attitude of those who have the responsibility of submission? (18, 20, 22).
  • Wives are to be subject to their husbands. Paul refers to the order of creation in using the phrase, “as is fitting in the Lord” (18). After Adam had named all the animals (Genesis 2:19. 20), he saw clearly that no one of them was comparable to him. There was not a help that was “meet,’ or “fit” for him (Genesis 2:18, 20). Paul is not saying that because of sin women should be subject but because of the unique place of humanity in the created order and the way in which the image of God is reflected (Genesis 1:27).
  • Children relate to the Law, fulfilling the law written on the Heart. The fifth commandment says, “Honor your father and your mother,” as those under whose authority God himself has placed you for protection, nourishment, and instruction (Exodus 20: 12; Deuteronomy 5:16; 6:1-6). The fifth commandment is the last commandment of the first table of the ten, for it represents the authority of God himself in the lives of children and is the means by which God’s authority is communicated from one generation to another.
  • Slaves – Your true owner is Christ – “It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (24). This relationship, unlike to first two, has come into existence as a result of sinful relations between nations. The other admonitions apply specific implications of the moral law of the Ten Commandments. This relation arises from a specific violation of one of the commandments, “Thou shalt not steal” as it is applied by Paul in 1 Timothy 1:10 – kidnappers, or men-stealers. Paul considers an existing situation, redeeming it into a fraternal relation and an opportunity for growth in perspective and holiness. He establishes right and wrong in this relation only within the manner in which each party performs the relative roles of slave and master. He does see freedom as a superior personal position to be gained if done lawfully (1 Corinthians 7:21-24), but Paul does not condemn masters or encourage rebellion or revolutionary postures toward the historical condition. He does, however, give such instructions as will transform the character of the relationship and will lead to a sense of humility and equality. In Old Covenant Israel the Old Testament narrates at least 9 ways that a person could become a slave reduced to two basic causes: poverty in times of peace and plunder in times of war (ISBE). There were an equal number of ways that a slave could receive his or her freedom. New Testament writers, however, are addressing those who are slaves under the laws and traditions of Rome, a harsher reality, in principle, than that in the nation of Israel. Paul instructs slaves in four increments of admonition: (Compare these to Ephesians 6:5-9). It is informative as we read through these instructions to realize that Paul has with him at this time a runaway slave, Onesimus, who was converted in his flight to freedom by the witness of Paul.
    • They are not to balk at any task given them by their master (the same word translated “lord” in other contexts). Neither are they to do the work in a merely external display of obedience, “eye service,” or perform it in a resentful and perfunctory manner, but with sincerity, with a sense of delight in the duty of obedience. Such a service comes from a worshipful fear of the Lord, not from mere, but begrudging, subjection to a mere man (24). The Christian, slave or free, sees his stewardship of every duty that befalls him, unless unlawful and immoral, as given him as an act of worship to the Lord.
    • They are to perform the assignment “heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (23). This means, not only with sincerity, but with energy and focus working so as to perform each task with excellence. When the master gives an assignment, the slave is to consider that it comes from Christ himself. Christ has saved him from the slavery of sin and will also sanctify him according to his own will. Thus, the slave himself will sanctify each order as from the Lord fulfilling the commandments in their proper sphere, “Love the Lord your God . . . and Love your neighbor as yourself.”
    • Their recompense for this kind of service will not come from the master but from the Lord. The Lord who has given the slave saving grace also has reserved for him an inheritance “incorruptible, undefiled, and that does not fade away.” It is reserved in heaven for those who are “kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:4, 5). The “reward of the inheritance” (24) goes far beyond, infinitely so, any earthly recompense or earthly freedom. When service in any earthly situation is seen under this character—“it is the Lord Christ whom you serve”—the entire situation is transformed into a calling given by the Lord himself. This truly is a practical outworking of Paul’s proposition, “Set your mind on things above, not on the things that are on earth” (3:2).
    • If a slave does wrong, he does not receive leniency on account of his being a slave, (25) but must receive the lawful consequences of his action. Also, just as the inheritance from the Lord is the reward of faithful service, so will reprimand and chastening be the result of wrongful actions and attitudes of these children of God (Hebrews 12:5-11). Both in the arena of present law and in the reality of eternal justice, the phrase “without partiality” obtains. Matthews Henry observed, “The righteous judge of the earth will be impartial, and carry it with an equal hand towards master and servant.”
  1. Sense of equity accompanies authority
  • Husbands are given the goal of love for their wives. They should recognize them as a gift from God for the purpose of joint fulfillment and pleasure. They should avoid the immediate response of Adam, blaming both God and his wife: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). “I ate” really is all that matters in the act of sin, not “the woman.” Paul says, live with a pre-fall mentality in a redemptive posture and “so not be embittered against them.” The fall wins if husbands become embittered. If love and gratitude prevail, then creation is affirmed, providence is embraced, and redemption operates effectually.
  • Fathers should not act with a heavy hand of oppression, exasperating heir children and provoking them to anger, but with redemptive discipline and godly instruction given from an affectionate heart (19; Ephesians 6:4). Teaching should serve the purpose of hope, not be a vehicle of despair and anger. Again, consult Deut 6:1-6. If children never sense that their parents authority is wielded for their good, their growth, their maturity, and their eternal well-being, but always is repressive and expressing disappointment, children will indeed “lose heart’ (21). A spirit of correction unmodified by encouragement and appreciation surely will produce bitterness.
  • Masters (lords) should look upon their slaves in a two-fold manner: first, they are seen as humans who are, as divine image bearers, entitled to just treatment under the law and fair or equitable treatment among other human beings. Second, both master and slave have a common Master (Lord) in heaven. Their judgment before him will be according to an absolute standard of righteousness. Both are subject to the same law and find heaven by means of the same gospel.
  1. Authority is delegated, not absolute, meaning that responsibilities are present with the conferred authority. The phrase in 4:1, “knowing that you too have a Master in heaven” indicates that all human relationships are governed, both as to submission and as to authority, by God’s own perfect order of covenantal arrangement. Paul already has given love as the overarching rule of all relationships, of all of his chosen ones, in the church (3:14). Love is a transcendent and eternal virtue that expresses singularity of joy, perfect fitness of personal roles, undiluted unity in strategy, and consummate agreement in final purpose. In this way the triune God carries out his eternal decrees for the praise of his glory, and in emulation of the purpose of the Master, all earthly relationships should be on pilgrimage to that unperturbed balance and mutual joy.

B. The sphere of operation, therefore, for these mutual instructions is to reflect the sovereign will of the Lord, the triune Jehovah as revealed in the work of the Lord Christ (24). We have pointed to these motivating factors above but must see the insistence with which Paul summarizes each of the relationships. Verse 18 says, “as is fitting in the Lord.” The admonition is precisely congruent with the Lord’s purpose. Verse 20 says, “for this is well-pleasing to the Lord.” This is something done according to the divine pleasure in giving children the opportunity to be led and instructed by more mature, experienced persons who have blood-interest in the outcome of their duties. Verses 22-25 have a consistent refrain, “fearing the Lord,” and then “work heartily, as for the Lord,” and again, “It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.” God made the world, including us, for his own purpose, and surrounds us with witnesses to his power, intelligence, design of all things to serve for the good of the whole, and the dependence of all things on all other things, and finally on his inexhaustible power. This witness should make us receptive to the specific words of Paul about how every relationship we have is to be centered in our obedience to and dependence on our Creator/Redeemer.


II. General Issues of Christian Living for All (4:2-6).

A. Life of Prayer – (4:2-4)

  1. The Christian, understanding the Lord’s presence and strength and purpose, must engage the Lord with a high degree of devotion as an act of continual worship and manifestation of dependence. Paul says that we should be purposefully strong (proskartereite) in prayer, devoted to its efficacy. The prayers of the saints are gathered together as a continual manifestation of well-pleasing worship (“golden bowl full of incense” Revelation 5:8) and will be finally given their answers in the glorious triumph of the Lamb.
  2. Not only must those who pray be devoted, they must be alert. Indolence has no place in prayer for we are opposed by our own flesh, Satan’s hostility, and patterns of temporal concern which substitute worry for prayer. This is precisely what Satan would want, the substitution of its opposite for earnest prayer (Philippians 4:6, 7). By the word, we must “guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” through purposeful devotion to truth-guided supplication, gratitude, and praise. As distractions infuse themselves into our prayers, we must catch ourselves concerning the wandering and refocus by meditating on scriptural examples of acceptable prayer (Colossians 1:12-14; Philippians 1:9-11; Ephesians 3:14-21; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-25; 2 Thessalonians 1:11, 2; 3:16; Philemon 5, 6).
  3. A particularly efficacious aspect of prayer is thanksgiving. This call for a recognition of the benevolent actions of God’s providence toward us in all things. In 1 Thess 5:16 – 18, Paul gives three succinct commands: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” In prayer, we directly address God as our heavenly Father who intends our good, conformity to holiness, in all things. This gives rise to both a spirit and particular words of rejoicing, manifest in thanksgiving in the continual atmosphere of prayer that should surround our consciousness. Paul
  4. A chief part of the content of prayer should be the propagation of the Gospel. Note how many aspects of gospel presentation Paul mentions as items of prayer. This instruction should help us concentrate diligently and work hard in prayer. As those who follow in the train of Paul the missionary, missionary prayer letters should receive serious attention from us.
  • Paul asked that their prayers include the practical matter of opportunities for preaching. Though even in prison, God had given effectuality to his witness (Philippians 1:12-18), he wanted to go to places that had not heard the gospel. He had an “open door” as well as many adversaries in Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:9). He passed by an open door in Troas (2 Corinthians 2:12). Perhaps this occurred before he came to Macedonia compelled by the vision (Acts 16:10, 11). Paul knew that God ordained the places and times of preaching, and even in the face of opposition, or of apparent clear opportunity, God would direct to his chosen place for the sake of his chosen people.
  • The open door was in order that he might speak the word consisting of the mystery of Christ. Paul refers to the mystery as a matter that has been revealed concerning the person and the peculiar work of the prophesied Redeemer and his inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant promises given to Israel (1:26, 27; 2:2; Ephesians 1:9, 10; 3:3-9). Paul wanted to speak that which God had revealed. He had no desire for manifesting philosophical aptitude or supposed mysteries that were only matters of a mind infatuated with its visionary deceits (2:18). His message was Christ.
  • Preaching this message was the cause of his present imprisonment, but that did not deter him from a desire to go at it again. He had been called to it and the task given him by grace was the most glorious of all earthly work. If he died in it, he was well-satisfied (Acts 21:13, 14).
  • Paul still felt the moral obligation (ought) to speak with transparent truthfulness so that his message would be a sphere of pure light in a dark world. He wanted to improve in his delivery, his vocabulary, his analogies, his illustrations and preach with unction on these matters revealed to him. It seems strange that Paul, so thoroughly convinced that his message arose from a revelation, should nevertheless seek prayer for clarity. He makes this same request in the letter to the Ephesians (6:18-20), to open “my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” He knew, by revelation and experience, that should the Holy Spirit not accompany his message, those who heard would stay in darkness (2 Corinthians 4:3-6). God had shone in his heart to give him the knowledge of Christ. Now he was commissioned to speak and had an ardent desire for grace to extend “to more and more people” in order that thanksgiving would increase to the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:13-15). If the apostle wanted prayer that he would present with clarity the gospel revealed to him immediately and that he would do so “as he ought to speak,” how much more do proclaimers of the revealed word need prayer for just such bold and courageous accuracy today.

B. Paul wanted the church to seek opportunity for gospel hearing even as they prayed for his increased opportunity (5, 6).

  1. Paul continues his expression of concern about speaking forth the mystery of Christ by emphasizing how the church can gain a hearing for the gospel from those who are unbelievers, “outsiders” (5). They must conduct themselves with “wisdom.” Their conduct should be informed by the true knowledge of God through Christ, for that is true wisdom. It must be set within the framework of love for neighbor and simplicity of mind toward the truth of God. When Paul described his manner, he wrote, “We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
  2. Conduct should consistently be laying groundwork for redemptive interaction. They must redeem, or buy back, the time. Time spent in trivialities is lost. Time invested in pointing to eternity and preparing for the time of judgment is redeemed. They must make the most of every opportunity.
  3. Again Paul points to speech. One’s life must be consistent with the gospel and present evidence of heavenly-mindedness, but the gospel cannot be presented so as to be a saving power apart from the use of speech. Speech should be calculated to entice conversation about issues of the grace of God. Like salt is sprinkled on food, so grace should be sprinkled in our conversation. So permeated should our lives and minds be with the gospel that we can discern what responses would be helpful and gospel-centered to persons in all kinds of situations.


Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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