On the Plains of Moab Blog
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August 18, 2015, 7:33 AM

A Sermon: Getting Personal

New Life Presbyterian Church
August 16, 2015.
Rooted in Christ: Study in Colossians
Colossians 3:18-4:1
Sermon #6 of 7

By Cameron Smith

As I read this passage, I bet many of you only heard three words: submit, obey and slaves! Wives, submit to your husbands! (3:18 ESV); Children, obey your parents in everything! (3:20 ESV) and Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters! (3:22 ESV).

Provocative stuff for modern ears. There are several ways passages like this in the Bible have been handled in the church. The first way, which happens in some conservative circles is to interpret these household codes like a blueprint with specific family role descriptions. This is the way the Biblical family is to be run – the man calls the shots and everyone else marches to his beat. The husband/father has the authority to say, “My way or the highway.”

The second way goes in the opposite direction. Some more liberal readers see this household code in the Bible as pre-modern, captive to a specific time gone by, even bigoted standard that does not apply to us. This thinking doesn’t reflect God, it reflects a patriarchal culture. They choose to ignore passages such as this.

A third way of reading this passage is clever and probably gets closer to the truth. This view believes Paul is attempting to accommodate Christianity to the Roman way of life. All religions outside the Imperial cult in Rome were viewed with suspicion. The Romans did not want anything subverting the Roman social structure. All people had their place, their roles to play, and it needed to stay that way. Wives submit, children and slaves obey in all things. This standard was codified in written ancient household codes going back to Aristotle and Greek society. Paul has clearly incorporated the Roman and Greek household codes here in Colossians.

In that ancient culture, slaves were considered to be less than human. Children had no legal standing and were to be seen; not heard and women were considered inferior to men morally, physically and spiritually. These perspectives were ingrained in the cultural DNA of the time. As a matter of fact, from a Jewish perspective, the assessment didn’t get any better. A Jewish benediction that was supposed to be prayed three times a day went like this: Praised be Thou, O Lord who did not make me a gentile, an ignoramus or a woman. (Craig Keener, Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul, p.161).

However, I think there is a better way to approach this passage, a fourth way. We must read Scripture as the Word of God. It’s not manipulative. It’s not propaganda. No human ulterior motives masquerading as God’s will. It’s not a detached, irrelevant literary work. The Bible demands hard work and serious study. Taking a cafeteria approach to Scripture isn’t an option for us.

We come to the Bible focusing first on what’s going on in the immediate context and then zooming out with a wide lens to see how it all comes together in the big picture of God’s work. This is what the Westminster Confession (1.9) means when it says, “the infallible standard for the interpretation of the Bible is the Bible itself. And so any question about the true and complete sense of a passage in the Bible (which is a unified whole) can be answered by referring to other passages which speak more plainly.” Doing this, we see Paul clearly using a well-known household code of the day and then bringing the entire Word of God, Old and New Testaments to bear on the code. We see how Jesus Christ rearranges and sets human relationships right as the Kingdom of God moves in ever so subtly as his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Remember well what comes immediately before our passage. Colossians 3:9-14: …Put off the old self with its practices and…put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian…slave, free; [no male and female (Gal. 3:28 ESV)] but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then…compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and…forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you….Above all…put on love…. (ESV).

And then, we have this subversive application of these ways of this new way of life, the Divine pattern, applied specifically to the family:

First, wives, submit to your husbands. You must put aside the temptation to be controlling. There is definitely a tip of the hat here to the curse on the woman in Genesis 3:16, You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you.” (NET).

But Paul doesn’t leave it there, he then adds something foreign to the old household code: Husbands, you must love your wives with a Christ-like love. This means that you must not be arrogant and self-assertive, but self-giving. You must put her interests above your own interests. I love how N.T. Wright describes the command to husbands: You “must scrupulously avoid the temptation to resent her being the person she is, to become bitter or angry when she turns out to be like him, a real human being, and not merely the projection of his own hopes or fantasies.” (N.T Wright, Colossians & Philemon, p.148).

In the parallel passage on the household code over in Ephesians 5, it is telling that before Paul ever says wives, submit to your own husbands (5:22 ESV), he says in v.21, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (ESV).

Paul does a radical thing with the ancient household codes – he makes it about mutual submission. He points to the way things are supposed to be. The way we were created to be before sin entered the equation.

It works this way with our children as well. The code says, “Kids, obey your parents in all things.” And it’s that’s it. Children are unimportant and need to learn their place! But Paul adds the Gospel perspective to the formula: Parents, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. (3:21 ESV). This means putting away constant nagging, belittling and refusing to allow your kids to be people in their own right. Parents, as part of the new creation, are to live out the Gospel before their kids and assure them of their unconditional love and acceptance. To value them for who they are. Not for who they ought to be. Nor who they should have been. Nor who they might become. The Gospel explodes the old household codes!

Now, the issue of slavery is a thorny issue in the Bible. With our modern sensibilities, we have zero tolerance for the institution, even though, sadly, it is still exists under the radar around the world. We want God to say in the Bible: No slavery, period. Abolish it!

And yet, in Scripture, while God never commends it, for some reason only known in the Divine counsel of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he has allowed. He has made allowances for our sinfulness and evil.

Indeed, it was so ingrained in ancient culture, that Paul would have been commanding something that could never happen in that time. However, the entire trajectory of Scripture is from slavery to freedom. Think of Israel in Egypt. Think of Judah in Babylon. Think of our long bondage to sin and death!

That bondage is evil and that it will be ultimately banished from God’s good creation is telegraphed in the words of one of the first sermons Jesus ever preached: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me….He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor….Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk. 4:18-21 ESV). (We will have more to say about this subject when we study Philemon this coming February.)

Paul makes it clear that we are all subject to one another in Christ. We are all bondservants of our Master in heaven. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ….Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Col. 3:23-24, 4:1 ESV).

I do not believe that God calls us to be revolutionaries. But, at the same time, I do believe that he has purposed that we be counter-cultural to be light to the culture. Submission, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and forgiving hearts doesn’t sound courageous or sexy to a modern ears, for the most part. (cf. 3:12-13 ESV). But, that is what God is doing for us and in us for the world. We have been called out of the world to go back into the world for the world. We are here to challenge the fallen status quo by the way we live our lives and the healing word we bring. We are a people who glory in the fruit of the Spirit that is being working into our hearts. We are the ones who point to the way of life in Jesus.

You have heard the Word of God. Please consider it so very well.   Amen.

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