To Masters and Slaves
Colossians 3:22-4:1 22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism. 4:1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
In Colossians 3, Paul tells us how union with Christ changes our relationships to one another. You have died with Christ, and you have been raised with Christ, and your life is now hidden with Him in God. So now Paul applies this teaching, here in the end of chapter 3, to the family. Since you are a new creature in Christ, let your lives show forth his transforming power in your family life. Wives, willingly submit to your husbands. Husbands, love your wives. Children, obey your parents. And parents, don’t exasperate your children. Now, from vs 22, Paul talks about slaves and masters.
Many people see this as a new section in Paul’s teaching, but Paul is still talking about family relationships here. The master/slave relationship is still a household relationship. Paul’s concern was that the Colossians live as those who are in Christ. Some at Colossae were slaves, and some were masters.
Now let me say that because Paul does not come right out and say “masters, let your slaves go,” he is not promoting or endorsing slavery. Slavery was very common in the Roman culture. But what Paul does do, is to apply the Gospel to the culture, so that all relationships (husband-wife, father-child, master-slave) are now guided by the Gospel.
Paul called Christians to live as citizens of heaven in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. If they were raised with Christ to newness of life, then their attitude and behavior needs to reflect that in everything.
The translators of the New Testament seem to not like the thought of translating the Greek word doulos as “slave” and seem to shy away from anything that would hint at such a thing being spoken of.
The KJV, out of 127 occurrences of the word doulos, chooses to translate it 120 times as “servant.” The New American Standard translates this word doulos as “slave” fifty times. And as offensive as it may be to 21st Century Americans, Paul is talking here about slaves and masters.
The apostles never went around trying to change the culture by campaigning against slavery and preaching against the social evils that viewed other men and women as property. Instead what they did was to teach both slaves and masters what their conduct should be towards one another in that cultural framework.
The early Church was concerned not to bring about political or cultural change to make society a better place, but to change the heart of man through the preaching of the gospel. And that preaching and teaching of the Gospel would then bring about a change of heart that would change the way people would think and behave. The influence of the Gospel would bring about change, not by law, but by the Spirit. The message of the Gospel isn’t about altering a man or woman’s natural, or physical circumstances, but in altering a person’s relationship to God.
Historians tell us that there may have been from 1/3 to one half of the Roman Empire that existed as slaves. There was a proposed law in Rome that slaves wear distinctive clothing that set them apart, and it was defeated because they feared the slaves would realize how numerous they were. The Roman Empire was in many ways similar to the United States. They considered work beneath their dignity. Slaves did the majority of the work, and that included medical, teaching, domestic work, and farming. And the relationships of slaves to masters went from one end of the spectrum to the other. Some were treated with respect, while others were greatly abused. Slaves were objects whose masters had absolute authority over their lives, to the point of death if that was desired. For slaves who were strong, lots of demanding work was given them. They had no property or inheritance rights.
In New Testament, Paul refers to himself as a doulos of Jesus Christ. Peter, James, and Jude called themselves doulos. I think that showed their absolute dedication of their life to the cause of the Gospel.
So how did people become slaves?
1. By Being Purchased – foreigners came to Israel and sold themselves as servants. Buying and selling of slaves was okay according to Lev. 25:44-46.
We should also expand the idea of “purchase” to realize that it wasn’t just those who would sell others into slavery for a price (though this occurred by parents, relatives and even partners who might sell another to pay off debts or to gain some food to avoid immediate starvation through famine) but men and women might sell themselves into slavery to pay off their own personal debt.
2. Captive of War – Being a slave by being captured was considered humane, since it was a better alternative than death:
Deuteronomy 20:14 “Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the LORD your God has given you.
God sometimes allowed Israel to take what was conquered in war. And it went both ways. Daniel and his friends were made slaves as captives of war of the Babylonian empire.
3. To Pay Off Debt –
(Ex.22:3). Defaulting debtors were sold into slavery (Lev. 25:39; Matt. 18:25). Children of defaulting debtors were sold into slavery (2 Kings 4:1-7).
The apostle Paul does not condemn slavery, but he does not endorse it either:
1 Corinthians 7:21-22 Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. 22 For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave.
He says even if you’re a slave, don’t worry about it, but allow God to use you right where you are. Be a sanctifying influence right where you are. God needs Christians in every walk of life to be an influence for Him. He says if you have the opportunity to become free, then do it. Your occupation is to be serving the Lord, being an influence for Him in whatever position you find yourself.
So how do we apply this teaching about slaves and masters to our lives today? What do slaves and masters have to do with us? As with all Scripture, there are always principles we can apply to our own situation. The exhortation that Paul gave us is certainly needed today. And even though this Scripture is not written to us, it is written for us.
In the Roman Empire, slaves were used to perform labor. And did you know that labor was not part of the curse?
Genesis 2:15 Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.
The Hebrew word translated here as “cultivate” means: “to work; to serve, to till;” Even in the perfect world as God made it, he designed it for mankind to be productive. The ideal world is not one of idleness, but one of tending to, and cultivating, God’s creation.
Proverbs 14:23 In all labor there is profit, But mere talk leads only to poverty.
The Greeks and Romans didn’t like manual labor and gave it over to slaves as much as possible. But the Jews thought highly of manual labor. Jewish boys were taught a trade, even in wealthy families. Working with one’s own hands in a way, shows love for the brethren, because a self-supporting person can’t be a financial burden to others.
The relationship of the slave to his master is identical with that of the child to the parents according to the apostle’s terminology. The present tense of the verb “obey” in both cases stresses the continued obedience expected. In verse 22, Paul uses the Greek words “kata sarka” (meaning according to the flesh) when speaking of their earthly master. In other words, Paul is saying to those slaves who believed in Jesus, obey your master on earth, just as you obey your Lord in Heaven.
In 1 Peter 2:18 it says:
1 Peter 2:18 (NASB) Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.
Peter speaks of being obedient even to the “unreasonable masters” who may place unrealistic expectations on them, or who may punish them for failure to meet their expectation. The slaves didn’t have a labor union they could go to in order to file a complaint. Both Peter and Paul essentially tell the slaves to be blameless, so that their earthly master will find no fault in them.
So the teaching of the New Testament, is that the slave should be obedient to the master, whether they be righteous or unreasonable, whether they reward good behavior or only punish those under them through their own whims and fancies.
Verse 22 goes on to say: “Not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” The term for “external service” carries the idea of working hard when the master is looking at them, but slacking off at other times. In other words, the desire to work is not there; instead there is only the desire to keep in the master’s good graces.
This happens everywhere, doesn’t it? Employees will slack off if the boss is not around, then be the best worker ever when the boss is watching.
“As those who merely please men” – We all struggle at times with the sin of pleasing men rather than pleasing the Lord, who is the one we should strive to please.
“with Sincerity of heart” – literally, it means “purity of heart,” which speaks of a singleness of purpose. It means to have the right motive for your labor. It implies that the Christian is so intent on pleasing the Lord in all that he does, that he pursues his work diligently, with a goal of honoring his Lord through all his efforts.
Sometimes people think that they can’t really serve the Lord in their work since what they do has nothing to do with the Gospel. And that is a major misconception. Whatever field or occupation the Lord has placed us in, that is our mission field, that is our ministry. Where you labor, you were there put there by the providence of the Lord. So that is God’s will for your life at that moment.
Paul goes on to say that they are to serve their masters “Fearing the Lord.” Some versions say “with reverence for the Lord.” Sometimes we value the opinion and praise of people more than that of the Lord. Paul commands us to live our lives, not to please men, but to please God.
The word “fear” refers to an attitude of reverence toward the Lord. We often think of fear as crouching in a corner or trembling at the thought of some horrible thing. And if we think in terms of how powerful and just, and holy God is, and think about the depth of our own sinfulness, we might want to cower in the corner with our knees knocking. And there we would be, except for Jesus Christ. Were it not for Him, the guilt of our sin would still be ours. Were it not for Him, we would have no joy, no peace, and no righteousness through the Holy Spirit. Were it not for Him, we would have no hope, and no eternal inheritance.
One online dictionary defines reverence as a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe; Because God is who He is, we have great respect for Him, and because He did what He did for us, we stand in awe of His mighty work of salvation.
So we reverence God because all we are, and all we have we owe to Him.
A slave who was a believer, would have this attitude of reverence for the Lord. A slave might very well fear his master, for the master had power of life and death. But Paul tells the believing slave not to fear the master but “fear the Lord.”
For us it means that we need to always keep in mind that we worship and serve God only. Sometimes we worry more about being a disappointment to man, than we do about pleasing God. What are we thinking? What we do on earth to please man, also dies here. But what we do to please God, lasts forever. Let’s be those who seek His glory, and not our own.