The Lord of the Household
Passage: Colossians 3:18–4:1
The Lord of the Household
What comes to your mind when you hear the word authority? I think it is fair to say that few concepts in our day are more misunderstood than authority. For many people, authority represents something that must be thrown off in the quest to find true freedom. We think about the silly example of the bumper sticker that proudly declares, “Question Authority.” Or we think of the serious example of the cultural pressure to redefine what it means to be male or female. All around us, it seems, are those who believe authority is something to be rejected.
At the same time, there are also those who see authority as simply a means of getting what they want. We think of the self-centered boss who takes credit for his employees’ hard work, so that he gets the reward. Or worse, we think of the harsh husband or father, whose heavy-handedness sucks the life of the home. Instead of denying authority, those examples distort it, and those distortions then contribute to our cultural confusion. Because we’ve all seen authority misused, it becomes easier to think, “You know what, perhaps authority is something to be rejected. Perhaps authority itself is the problem.”
As Christians, however, we must recognize that this confusion misses the purpose and, honestly, the beauty of how God intended authority to work. Central to the gospel message is the declaration that Jesus is Lord, which is absolutely a statement of authority. We believe that Jesus Christ possesses all authority in heaven and on earth, and therefore, we are not free to cast off authority in the quest for personal liberation. And yet, at the same time, the gospel message also tells us that the authoritative Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. It’s here – in the person of Jesus Christ – that Christians find the answer to our cultural confusion on authority. It’s in light of Christ that we understand why submitting to rightly-established authority is a good thing. And it’s also in light of Christ that we understand why exercising authority is more about others than it is about me. On this question, the overall message Colossians holds true – Jesus Christ is supreme, and the world, including authority, makes sense only in connection with him.
It is this Christ-centered focus that should get our attention in the passage today. There can be no denying that this text deals with authority and our response to it. In these verses, Paul addresses a number of relationships in a first-century household – husbands and wives; children and parents; masters and household servants. And in each relationship, Paul is clearly concerned that authority be rightly exercised and then given the right response. That much is clear.
But what can be easily overlooked is the central importance of the lordship of Christ in these relationships. Maybe you heard it when we read. Seven times, Paul references Jesus Christ as Lord. And it happens in every set of relationships – marriage, parenting, work and service. Seven times and in every sphere, Paul declares that Jesus is Lord, and therefore, authority – both how its exercised and how it’s received – is ultimately about the Lord Jesus.
And that truly is the grand point of this paragraph, brothers and sisters. Since the beginning of chapter 3, Paul has urged us to live with a heavenly mindset, to seek the things above where Christ is, seated at the right of God. And here in this text, Paul makes clear that this includes the relationships of day-in, day-out life. It includes our home and our work. The way we act in these daily relationships matters because it is telling the world something about Jesus Christ.
In terms of an outline, we’re going to keep it simple. Paul addresses three different relationships, so we’ll have three points to consider, each connected to Christ – Christ’s Lordship in Marriage, vv18-19; Christ’s Lordship in the Family, vv20-21; and Christ’s Lordship in Our Service, vv22-4.1.
Now, before we get to the details, let me offer two brief reminders that I hope will prevent any misunderstanding about Paul’s teaching. First of all, Paul addresses three different relationships in this passage, but these are not the only relationships that matter. Paul is not saying you must be married or you must have children or you must have a certain kind of work in order to live for Christ. This is important. We are saved by faith alone in Christ alone – not by marital status, family status, or work environment. Paul’s focus, then, is representative but not exhaustive. These spheres are important, but they are not ultimate. Christ is ultimate.
The second reminder is this – Paul’s strategy is radically counter-cultural. In the first century, it was common to find these kinds of household lists, but interestingly, these cultural lists addressed only the rights of husbands, fathers, and masters. But notice what Paul is doing. He doesn’t address the rights of husbands, fathers, and masters. He addresses their duties – how they are under obligation to honor Christ. What’s more, Paul does something no first-century list ever did – he addresses wives, children, and servants. The cultural practice in Paul’s day was honestly to ignore that side of the relationship. But Paul turns that practice on its head. Paul addresses each person, and he does so because each person stands equally before the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s teaching is counter-cultural in a subversive kind of way. You’ll often hear someone say, “Oh, Paul just went along with the culture of his day. His teaching is just culturally-conditioned by what people already thought.” Not true, not in the least. What Paul presents here is a counter-cultural view of life that turns the ways of this world upside down, and he does so with the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Christ’s Lordship in Marriage
With those reminders in view, let’s tackle this paragraph together, beginning in vv18-19 with Christ’s Lordship in Marriage. Paul jumps straight to the point in v18 with a command to wives. Notice what he writes, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” The idea here is a willingness to follow the husband’s leadership, and that willingness implies loyalty, devotion, and respect. As Paul makes clear in a number of other letters, God has established the marriage relationship with a certain intention, a certain design. And that design has been present from creation. God calls husbands to lead, and he calls wives to submit to, to willingly follow that leadership.
And remember, this is not about abilities or personhood. The creation account is clear that both husband and wife bear the image of God, and therefore, both stand accountable before their Maker for how they conduct their lives. The point here is not about abilities or personhood. Rather, this is about the wisdom of God in the design of his creation, and even more, it’s about Christian marriages submitting to and displaying that wisdom in how they live with one another. Whatever else we might say here in v18, at a minimum, a wife’s submission to her husband means a willingness to follow his leadership.
And yet, it means so much more than that as well. This is where many discussions of submission go off the rails. We focus on the specifics of what can or cannot be done, and we miss the beauty of what God intends. Notice Paul’s next phrase in v18 – “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” Paul’s point is that the wife’s response to her husband must be offered in view of the Lord Jesus. She responds to her husband in a way that tells the truth about Christ and his gospel. Even more, a wife submits to her husband because she is submitted to the Lord himself. It’s not finally about her husband; it is about her Savior, the Lord Jesus.
There’s a beauty and depth to this that we often miss. This is why Paul, in the similar passage in Ephesians 5, connects marriage with Christ and the church. The way a wife responds to her husband gives powerful testimony to the gospel grace that binds the church to Jesus Christ. That’s key. Marriage begins with God’s creation design, but it doesn’t stay there. It extends also to the lordship of Christ in the gospel.
And so, I offer this encouragement to the wives among us this morning – consider this high calling that God has given you to testify to the grace and glory of his Son. There is gospel testimony happening in how you follow, submit to, and respond to your husband. Embrace that testimony. Embrace this Scriptural call, seeing the important way your life, including your home, is meant to magnify Christ.
And if this Scriptural call seems rather small or insignificant to you, let me remind you of what the Lord Jesus taught over and over again about the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom does not work the way the world does. We should not expect our homes to look like world or even make sense to the world. God takes seemingly small and insignificant things, and he uses them to reveal the greatness and glory of Christ. In fact, in God’s kingdom, it is precisely through the small and quiet work of submission to God’s Word that Christ’s gospel advances and spreads. Is Paul’s command to wives counter-cultural? Yes, and praise God it is, for it reminds us that we belong not to this world but to the kingdom of God, where Christ is Lord.
Paul moves to address husbands in v19. Again, the command is straightforward. Notice what the apostle writes, “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” In Paul’s day, this was a revolutionary command. Husbands often heard about their rights in the home, but here, Paul flips the script and calls them to focus on the one they are called to serve. Specifically, Paul says love is the husband’s expression of leadership. The idea here is to cherish someone, to treat your wife with appropriate value.
But here’s the key,. Paul does not view love as primarily an emotional or physical response. For the believing husband, love is ultimately Christological. It’s about the husband using his life to display the truth that Christ loves his church, even to the point of laying down his interests, putting aside his preferences in order to serve his bride. The command to love here is the command to put away the self-centered life, and to take up in your marriage the Christ-centered life.
In fact, this is why Paul specifically tells husbands to not be harsh with their wives. I want you to hear me on this, brothers. When a husband is harsh, he is essentially saying, “My authority is ultimate. I am the lord, and I’ll do whatever to protect that position.” Harshness is a denial of the lordship of Christ. And that means a harsh husband not only sins against his wife, but he also tells the world a lie about Christ.
If I can exhort the husbands among us today – brothers, ask your wives, “How am I doing in cherishing you, in loving you as my bride?” Ask her, and then listen to her response. Growth in your marriage tends to begin with honest conversation, and Christ-like leadership calls you to initiate that conversation. Remember, brothers, the church didn’t move toward Christ first. No, Christ initiated and pursued his bride. Let’s do the same. Initiate that conversation, and ask her how things are going.
And along with that, brothers – and this really goes for anyone who wants to grow in exhibiting love – along with that conversation, study the life and ministry of Christ. I remember hearing John Piper say once that he read through the Gospels noting every instance where Christ was tough and every instance where Christ was tender. They often occur in the same chapter – Mark 5 is a good example – and that combination shows us what love without harshness looks like in action. Study the life of Christ, and in doing so, let the Savior teach you what it looks like to love in this way.
Marriage is not ultimate, but both husbands and wives are called to treat one another in way that reveals who is Ultimate. And that is the Lord Jesus himself.
Christ’s Lordship in the Family
That is Paul’s first area of instruction – to husbands and wives in the context of marriage. Next is v20 and the second relationship – Christ’s Lordship in the Family. Again, Paul gets right to his point with a command to children, v20 – “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” Now, the command here mostly likely refers to young children who are still living under the care of their parents. In that sense, this call for obedience is also an exhortation to parents to train their children in obedience. For the children here this morning, by all means, I pray you hear God’s Word calling you to obey mom and dad. And I hope you also hear God’s Word calling you to trust in Christ, so that your obedience to mom and dad is a fruit of Jesus’ work in your heart.
But at the same time, I do want to focus here on parents. Why is it that God’s Word, across both testaments, calls parents to train their children for obedience? It must be about more than simply having well-behaved kids who don’t embarrass you in public. That’s hardly a biblical reason. Why this insistence throughout Scripture? There are two reasons to note.
First of all, obedience cultivates wisdom. Wisdom is the skill of living faithfully in God’s world according to God’s Word. And of all the tools God has given parents, it is this one – obedience – that helps cultivate wisdom. We do not come into this world naturally inclined to follow the wise path of God’s Word. We come into this world mired in sin and foolishness. Parents, then, are God’s means of preparing children for wisdom, of teaching them how to live in God’s world according to his Word. Obedience teaches our children that they are not God, and that this is not their world.
Of course, obedience cannot save our children, anymore than our obedience can save us. Only the grace of God, given by the Spirit through the preaching of the gospel, can save our children. But God’s works through means, brothers and sisters, and the parents’ task of training for obedience is one of the Lord’s primary means of giving grace to our little ones. That’s the first reason obedience matters – because it cultivates wisdom.
The second reason is tied to the first – obedience to parents prepares our children to obey God. Put very simply, I want my boys to obey their mother and me because, by God’s grace, I want them to learn to obey God himself. Here again, we encounter the grand purpose of authority. It’s about more than child and parent. It’s ultimately about that child and God. And Paul’s point here is that training for obedience is one of God’s means to prepare children to see that Jesus is Lord. In fact, notice how Paul connects the command with the Lord Jesus at the end of v20 – “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” Again, what is Paul doing? He’s redirecting our attention away from just ourselves, and he’s giving us a grand picture of life defined by Christ’s lordship. Why does obedience matter? Because it cultivates wisdom, and it prepares little hearts to obey God.
But Paul then quickly transitions to fathers in v21. To be clear, Paul is not ignoring mothers at this point. He just mentioned parents – that is, mother and father – in v20, so he’s not ignoring mothers. Instead, Paul is drawing on what is consistent across Scripture – that fathers are called by God to lead in the training of children. And the command here focuses on the right use of the father’s authority. Notice what Paul says, v21 – “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” Fathers have a profound ability to help set the climate in the family. There is a way of treating your children that doesn’t encourage them toward obedience. Instead, it discourages them. It robs them, so to speak, of that spirit that is ready to comply.
And Paul says fathers must put that kind of parenting away. Don’t domineer, Paul says. Don’t treat them in a way that arouses anger. It struck me once, after a heated exchange with one of my sons, that I was speaking to him in a tone that I would never use with another person. No wonder the situation was heated – I was provoking anger in his little heart! Put that away, Paul says. Use your position as father to encourage and cultivate glad-hearted obedience.
For the parents among us this morning, set aside some time, perhaps even this evening, to talk and pray through how you might grow in this area. Talk with each about how things are going with your children, and fathers, initiate that conversation. Talk through how you’re doing as a family in encouraging obedience – again, not so that we are merely well-behaved, but so that we learn to walk wisely in obedience to God. Talk through how things are going, make a plan for how you can grow, and then pray. Pray and ask God to use your home to make much of Christ. Family is not ultimate. Children are not ultimate, but families can, by God’s grace, point to the One who is ultimate, the Lord Jesus.
Christ’s Lordship in Our Service
That brings us to the final section, beginning in v22 – Christ’s Lordship in Our Service. Paul concludes with another common relationship in the first-century household – that of servants to their masters. Now, Paul is not saying this relationship is the same as marriage or family. Those relationships are rooted in creation; this relationship is rooted in fallen human nature. There is a difference here, and contrary to what some might say, Paul does expect the gospel to transform this relationship. Read his letter to Philemon, and you’ll hear Paul’s expectation that the gospel will bring change. Paul wants his readers to understand that the lordship of Christ addresses even this area of life, and in ways that are transformative.
Now, in terms of contemporary application, our focus here will be on how Paul’s instructions transform the way we go about our work in the world. The parallel is not exact, but there is enough connection for us to make application to our work.
In v22, Paul tells household servants to obey their masters, and then he goes on to describe how this attitude should be manifested in the way they work. This is the key. The lordship of Christ demands that we go about our work in a distinctly Christian way. What does that look like? Notice what Paul says.
First of all, it means we work with integrity. Notice again v22 – “Bondservants, 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.” When I was a kid, Saturday morning was the time to clean up the house, and each kid was responsible for his or her room. But I figured out there was a way to look like I was cleaning up when I actually wasn’t. My siblings would get in trouble, but since I passed the eye-test, I skated by. Paul’s point here is that that kind of eye-service is what we must not do. The reality is that we can often fool those in authority, and we can appear to be serving when we’re really not.
But strikingly, Paul corrects this by pointing us to the Lord Jesus. Notice the reference to fearing the Lord at the end of the verse. When we work as people-pleasers, we’re denying the lordship of Christ. We’re saying there is an area of our lives – our work – that doesn’t belong to Christ. We can just do whatever it takes to get by. But Paul says we must put that away. Christians must be people who work with integrity.
Is that true of you? Does your work reveal a heart of integrity, where what others can see is what they’re actually getting? As Christians, that’s part of our calling – to work with integrity. And so, we must ask, “Is that true of me?”
But Paul is not finished. He also says we must work hard. Notice v23 – “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” Now, notice how universal v23 is. Whatever you do, Paul says. Nothing is excluded. This is the theology of Colossians applied to everyday life. Over what does Jesus reign? He reigns over everything – chapter 1, all things were created through him and for him. And therefore, in what spheres are we to work hard for his glory? In every sphere – whatever sphere God has placed us in. Do you see the connection? Jesus is Lord; therefore, whatever you do, work hard as unto him.
Now, think of the freedom this gives us to live today for the glory of Christ. We’re having a bathroom remodeled at our house, and recently, the shower was re-tiled. A very friendly man named Jesús did the work. I don’t know if Jesús is a believer, but I can tell you this – he worked hard to lay that tile with great skill. The grout lines match up from floor to ceiling. He treated that shower like a canvas. It wasn’t just tile; it was like art. And I thought, “That’s a great picture of v23.” Again, I don’t know if Jesús is a Christian, but that approach to work is what v23 is talking about. It’s working hard, exhibiting skill, because Christ reigns over everything, including tile.
I simply love the image of a Christian craftsman, remodeling a bathroom, to the glory of God. Or a teacher instructing with warmth and skill. Or a mother providing care to the household. Or a doctor laboring for wholeness and health. Or an electrician providing quality work. Whatever it is – all to the glory of Christ. That’s compelling, brothers and sisters, and if I could make a rather bold statement, the world would be better if we approached our work like that. It’s what God has called us to, in fact, in whatever sphere the Lord has given us. By God’s grace, let’s work heartily, as Paul says in v23.
Work with integrity, work hard – there’s one more point to note. We work with confidence in the Lord. Notice v24 – “knowing that from the Lord you will receive an inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” Now, it is striking that Paul would tell household servants they will receive an inheritance. Servants weren’t included in the family estate, but Paul says, “You’ve got a better inheritance coming, a heavenly inheritance with the Lord himself.”
Paul’s ultimate counsel is that we place our confidence in the Lord Jesus. Our circumstances may be difficult. Our work may be hard, unrewarding, or even unjust at times. But instead of growing discouraged or losing heart, Paul points us to Christ. Work for the last day, Paul says. Work with the realization that your work doesn’t actually define you. Christ does. You are in him by faith, and therefore, your future is eternally secure in him. You can labor in light of the last day because already, you are seated with Christ in the heavenly places.
And Paul then drives this home in v25 – “For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.” Earthly authorities are not the final judge. Christ is, and he will make things right on the last day. The wrongdoer – whether he is powerful or lowly – will receive justice. Christ shows no partiality. Master and servant alike will stand before him at the end. Therefore, work as unto the Lord. Work in light of Christ’s lordship.
But before he closes, notice that Paul puts masters under the lordship of Christ as well. Notice v1 of ch4 – “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a master in heaven.” Again, we hear the counter-cultural tone of the passage. Paul does what no contemporary author would have done – he commands masters to show justice and fairness to their servants. The gospel brings change.
But more importantly, notice why masters must do this – because they have a Master in heaven. No matter how powerful you are on earth, you are not ultimate. You have a Master too – the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Sovereign of the Universe. He is the Lord of all people, and everyone, regardless of earthly position, will give account to him. Indeed, those who have been entrusted with authority in this life should recognize that to whom much is given, much is required. The Master is returning one day, and everyone, even earthly authorities, will give an account.
And so, here at the end – notice where the passage leaves us. It leaves all of us under the lordship of Christ. “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” Wives and husbands, children and parents, servants and masters – each of us, regardless of position – must submit ourselves to Christ alone. That’s really the grand application of this passage. It compels us to ask ourselves – Am I displaying the lordship of Christ – not just in what I say, which is important, but in how I live every day, in the relationships that make up daily life.
Jesus is Lord – that’s the message of Colossians, indeed the message of all of Scripture. May God give us grace to live out his lordship in our homes, in our families, and in our work, all to the glory of Christ. Amen.