Sermon Notes: Colossians 3:22-4:1: Maturity In Human Systems

Colossians 3:22-4:1 (Ephesians 6:5-9)

Maturity in human systems

When Paul addresses slavery in the New Testament, I have to confess it used to come across as too little and underwhelming to my immediate perception. I have been one who wrestles with how the Bible addresses this issue.

Then I read African American theologians, like Dr. Esau McCaulley as well as the testimony of former slaves from the 19th century who received Christianity in spite of their owners precisely because of the Scriptures I see as underwhelming, and it causes me to look at Paul’s Holy Spirit inspired words, and the words of the Old Testament on slavery, in a new light. 

Listen to Dr. McCauley: “… But there is a second testimony possible more important than the first. That testimony of black Christians who say in that same Bible the basis for their dignity and hope in a culture that often denied both.” – Reading While Black, p. 8

It’s this reading of the Bible from former slaves that led to their shrewd and fierce resistance in the underground railroad and other means that would help lead to the abolition of slavery in North America. 

The problem might not be how God goes about addressing it. The problem might be me missing exactly what God is doing. 

What God says here is powerfully subversive to the dark kingdom. 

The reason is God addresses more than enslavement of humans for labor. He strikes a death blow to the heart of this evil and others like it because humans can be enslaved to more than other humans for labor. Humans can be enslaved to ideas and trends in culture that are propagated by an evil and unseen master. 

Colossians 2:8 (ESV) 8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.

Let’s read it together. If you would, please stand.

Colossians 3:22-4:1

Why would Paul choose to address slavery in the section about maturity in the home?

  1. Paul gives instructions about how a slave was to act in their current situation, and it answers the question of “what to do right now while one is still enslaved?”, and he will get to the death blow to slavery soon thereafter.
    1. While still enslaved, obey reasonable instructions. (There is never in the Bible a demand to endure injustice and evil forever without resistance.)
      1. Verse 22 does not mean they were to just take evil without resistance.
        1. See Romans 13 in light of Romans 9. 
        2. This paradox is there for us to learn to live with the Lord’s instructions between these two tensions. 
    2. While still enslaved, work like working for Jesus, because they are under the direct oversight of Jesus, for whom they actually work. 
      1. As working for Jesus, they will receive the reward of an inheritance in the full establishment of the kingdom of God. 
        1. This is quite a subversive assertion to the system of slavery.
          1. Why? Because the idea that the slave was not ultimately under the master’s ownership and would in fact be compensated at some point by God begins to undermine the slave system by asserting the slave will be rewarded by God as though they are somehow deserving equals when the system saw them as only property.  
    3. But, the question is why? Why address this issue in the section on domestic maturity?
      1. There is a practical reason that comes from a theological reason. 
        1. Why address slavery right here?
  2. Theological Reason: Human beings are all image-bearers of God.
    1. Since masters and slaves are both image-bearers, God shows no favoritism, and wrongdoers are going to receive judgment. 3:25
      1. Verse 25 is really the forerunner for 4:1, not a post-script threat to the slave for rejecting poor treatment. 
      2. The subversive assertion is that the wrongdoer is the one who is involved in the dehumanization of other humans in the family setting in which they should be treated like family not a tool for others’ comfort. 
        1. This is also evident in Paul asserting that there is no favoritism in verse 25, and the very essence of enslavement is that there is a favorite in the system and the others are just human tools for the favorites. 
    2. Paul reminds the masters they too have The Master, God, to whom they are going to give account. 4:1
      1. What Paul does, which is subtle and devastatingly effective, is remove the underpinning that slaves are less than human by putting them on the same footing as the master.
      2. This Scripture, as well as others, would be the undoing of the evil of slavery wherever the gospel of the kingdom went, and it is still slavery’s undoing.
        1. This is a historical reality. 
          1. From the Roman empire to the colonies in America. 
          2. From Wilberforce to Harriet Tubman. 
          3. It took time, and in so doing brought transformation to entire systems. 
            1. God was doing more than ridding his world of slavery. 
            2. He is uncovering the heart of such evil: that other humans are less than other humans and may be treated as property. 
  3. Practical Reason (this is in the section on the home): Some historians estimate that up to 60 million humans were slaves in the Roman world…One of them is a member of this church, Onesimus, and his former owner, Philemon is a member also.
    1. There is likely more, we don’t know. What we do have is the book Philemon, and we have Paul sending Onesimus, one of his traveling companions, back to Colossae to report on their work, and he expects Philemon to receive him as a brother, not a slave. 
    2. This number, and Onesimus is one of them,  is roughly half the population of the Roman Empire at the time. 
    3. Slaves were considered less than human and property. 
    4. Work/labor was not viewed as holy and good by Roman society, so even doctors and educators might find their vocation being one of that fell into the role of a slave.  
      1. Slavery was woven into society as a set of evil presuppositions that were unquestioned, and thus the slave system was propagated unquestioned.
    5. For these families who are first-generation Christians, they are living in this system of presupposed acceptable practices. Totally unquestioned. Totally blind.
    6. The truth of human equality has not yet dawned on their hearts as a theological truth that affects their current practice. 
      1. They are having to learn to integrate their new faith in Jesus as practice.
      2. They are having to unlearn their old and unquestioned practices. 
      3. Thus, Paul made it his aim to see them grow into maturity in Christ, and that maturity is not just theological orthodoxy. 
        1. This maturity is theology put into practice from the home extending to the transformation of society.
        2. This practice and hosts of practices coming from the same evil root of inequality, created systems and social structures that were unquestioned and its propagators were blind to it all or complicit with it. 

What are we to do with systems and structures that are out of step with the gospel of the kingdom? 

  1. We should be willing to evaluate everything in light of the kingdom of God. 
    1. Colossians 2:8 (ESV) 8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
  2. We uproot the evil systems of our hearts, overturn them, and then follow suit in our world. 
  3. We do this because God’s word reveals God’s intent for society as a place for human flourishing, not human oppression and destruction. 
    1. This applies to the abolition of slavery and the right and fair treatment of employees by employers (which is how this Scripture is often applied). 
    2. Genesis 1 and 2 remind us that we are made in God’s image, coequal with one another, sent on a divine mission to multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it as God’s co-regents, not as a hierarchy of important people and expendable resources. 
      1. From the fall, mankind’s bent was to dominate other people for advantage, this sin ends up in slavery and a host of other oppressive systems. 
  4. Paul destroys the underpinnings of such industry in Colossians 3:22-4:1 by exalting creation’s bold and powerful founding truth: all people are created in the image of God and equal before God and each other in importance and value, and all will be accountable to God on that day, not some human master.
    1. As Dr. McCauley states in his book “Reading While Black”, and it applies to all of us, “…biblical interpretation is not a one-sided monologue. The black Christian (and every Christian) brings his or her questions to the text and the text poses it’s own questions to us. We enter into a patient dialogue trusting that the fruit of such a discussion is good for our souls.” McCauley, p. 73
      1. Colossians 3:22-4:1 questions the saint and demands they come in line with God’s kingdom.


  1. Growing up into maturity involves us practicing our theology by questioning and reforming every system.
    1. We look with clarity back in history at those who came before us, and we thank God for apostolic women and men who saw with biblical clarity their times and were agents of the kingdom of God. 
    2. What do we need to see today and speak God’s word to?
    3. This is why history and study are vital. 
      1. How will we be judged for what we allowed or gloriously brought down?
  2. Be aware that human enslavement takes more forms than labor and service systems. 
    1. 2 Timothy 2:24-26 (ESV) 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
    2. Enslavement to rebellious human relationships. (we have kids present, so I’m going to keep it G rated)
      1. Same-sex relationships. 
      2. Extra-marital relationships are justified with teenage games of “how far is too far?” and renaming the sin from God’s language of “adultery” to “affair”.  
      3. Self-relationship, i.e. sexual identity. (If this were truly a biological issue it would be uniform across all geography, but it seems to be located in certain population centers. Something to think about.)
    3. Enslavement is one of Satan’s strategic initiatives that is as old as Genesis 3, and to be blind to them is to miss part of why Paul hits at the heart of labor enslavement. 
      1. Satan’s metanarrative: Enlightenment/Liberation/Exaltation/God
        1. When we buy this dark story of all things, we are bound and sure to get off the rails. 
          1. Once we become “gods” and define things our own way, we are enslaved to darkness. 
          2. If you can work this framework through, you can begin to identify systems and ideas we may be enslaved to and begin to see that these systems and their disciples are actively “evangelizing” and if we are foolishly quiet and refuse to engage, we will further lose our place in the public square. 
  3. The gospel of the kingdom restores us to God’s order of flourishing.  
    1. The gospel not only reconciles us to God.
      1. The gospel brings a restoration of Edenic perfection and harmony. 
        1. Creation/Fall/Redemption/Restoration

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