The following post is the manuscript of a Sunday teaching I delivered on June 14, 2020.
Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities begins with this famous line, describing the year 1775 and the time of the French Revolution: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
If you go back and look at the year when Dickens wrote those words in 1859. God was doing mighty things. Take China for example, where a religious awakening was taking place, or Northern Ireland, where a revival broke out. Consider the ministries of preachers like Charles Spurgeon or George Muller’s orphanages. But 1859 was also the year On the Origin of Species was published. That year, Stuart Mill wrote an influential essay that weighed moral decisions and valued people based on their usefulness to society. Revivals were breaking out in one part of the world; growing secularism and self-reliance were taking root in another.
It’s in times like these that God’s Words still ring true…and we return to Paul’s progression in his letter to the Church in Colossae. “That it’s in Christ, they have redemption the forgiveness of sins.” That they were once alienated and hostile in their minds because of their evil actions.” That Jesus erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. Finally, we have been raised with Christ.
Live as the kind of human you will become. While marriage and parenting in the first-century world are challenged by the gospel, the final component of the household may be the most challenging to the social norms of the day. If you are watching this and you aren’t a follower of Jesus, as we look at today’s passage, the very change you hope to see in the world begins with people who have differences of opinion existing maintaining relationships and pursuing Jesus together.
In today’s passage, Paul reshapes the dynamics of cultural power through Jesus. What we desire to see in our world-first begins in the church. Let me stress Paul’s emphasis here is on social-economics and class differences. In fact, as Paul closes the letter he will begin to name specific individuals who will be affected by what he has said. There are good reasons to think this concentration flows from Paul’s concern to get Philemon (a master) to embrace as a brother his slave (Onesimus).
What makes this so dicey for us as we attempt to look at this passage with fresh eyes and an open heart is the history chattel slavery in our country which subjugated an entire race to a lower socio-economic class. However, the class struggle that has oft been a battle between black/white is but a piece of the larger class structure in America. The class structure includes those of Asian and Latino descent as well.
First, slavery was an integral part of the social and economic world of the first century. Possibly, one-third of residents in Colossae would have been classified as slaves. Second, it is likely that we think in terms of slavery in terms of the forces subjugation of a certain race of people. Slavery in the Greco-Roman world was not racially based but came from many different ethnic groups. Some people voluntarily sold themselves into slavery because legal freedom wasn’t always the best option. Third, there was no means to change the social structure in the wider society through legislation. Fourth, the early Christians did not understand their calling in these terms. They rejoiced in their identity as the people of the new realm inaugurated by God through Christ. But they also knew the “old realm” continued to exist and that it would exist until Christ returned in glory. No matter the culture around them, they were to be committed to the way of Jesus by expressing kingdom values (Paul summarized these earlier in Colossians, Jesus expresses these in Matthew 5-7).
Slaves are to obey their “Earthly masters” – Relationships should not be grounded in the ontology of the Roman Empire’s system of status and power, but in one’s relationship to the Lord.
We need to jump ahead slightly as we see the “in everything” because Paul will challenge masters to treat “right and fair.” The idea is consistent with other household relationships–Jesus is the ultimate Lord, provisions of disobedience are present only when it’s contrary to Jesus. If your boss asks you to edit your time card, or you exaggerate on a report to receive an advantage. If you are invited into the conversation with another and it’s slanderous, you must obey God rather than man.
As this verse progresses, Paul addresses the temptation to reverse the dynamics of power via unethical means. Whether for master-pleasing, or personal gain, both violate serving God first.
V. 23 – You are to be working for the Lord. Work has a poor connotation. It’s within your work that you point to God. The way in which you work communicates which master you serve. Not every job is glamorous. Not every task is easy or delightful. In some positions, you won’t feel fulfilled, or passion. Do not believe the myth that if you just get out of this position then everything will be better. What makes work meaningful is the direction and scope of your faith in the midst of the work, not your feelings about the work. If they both coincide, that’s amazing!
But remember who Paul is talking to. He is fully aware of their situation and he calls them to faith in Christ that’s evidence in faithful work. To those who aren’t “working” the principle of faith in Christ causes you to have an eternal perspective. Whatever “work” you do, parent, grandparent, helping a neighbor build a fence, the character communicated is representative of Christ.
V. 24 – Because we are so fixed on the temporal. Paul’s words may shock us…meaning, your reward may not be received until your eternal inheritance. This would have been delightful for a slave to hear. He had no “inheritance.” He has no “right” to anything financially in the first-century world. This pushes back against the narrative that we will see a victory…we might not see a “victory” until we see Jesus face to face.
V. 25 – Just as there is a general correlation between obedience and rewards, there is a correlation between wrongs and punishment. This pivotal verse speaks both to the slaves and to the masters. Like electricity, God does not play favorites: stick your finger into the electrical flow of injustice, and judgment is the inevitable outcome.
V. 4.1 – Just as I explained that a slave had no legal right to an earthly inheritance, we see Paul challenge masters to be “right and fair.” Paul says “Provide” – what he has in mind is the intentional establishment of conditions, as well as the provision of something for someone. Masters must look at Jesus for their understanding–some implications would include proper financial compensation and evenhandedness are the minimal requirements, ceasing the exploitation of them financially, verbally, sexually. This may have meant preserving the family structure of slaves rather than selling children or husband or wife off to others for the first century.
While just seems to cover all the bases, Paul adds “fair” making it distributive in the sense of mutual benevolence of social and economic relations. It goes beyond the provision of adequate food, shelter, and clothing and moves into the realm of ensuring equality before God in Christ is to be formed and manifested in each person.
The implication is that you see those of another social class as equals and work for their benefit first in the church, which will then confront the Roman Empire’s exploitative systemic injustices and more “benign” world of status and honor. Paul clearly states that the different classes which were used as justifiable means to divide and dictate treatment are to be replaced with the justice and righteousness the master has first received through Christ.
See your identity not a position in the pecking order. Your identity is received from God through faith in Jesus not achieved.
Your identity isn’t rooted in the group or socio-economic class you belong to…be aware of what is influencing you so that it can take its proper shape under the direction of King Jesus. This will push against norms in today’s culture…Jon and I will talk about that on this mid-week podcast.
What does this mean? When the world wants you to divide with another….find common ground in your identity in Christ. No matter your position—you will serve King Jesus.
Imagine what this might look like…it’s almost unheard of… a group of people who are all different refusing to be divided by social norms and instead of being united because of Jesus.
Christ embodied can be in you when you see your allegiance to him first.