So there are two different types of thinking that our brains do. One is easier and requires less energy, and the other is more difficult and requires more energy. And I think you all know what I mean. There is a whole psychology to how this works, and the energy our brains use and all that, but in short, we all know that there is a certain pace or task that we can maintain that doesn’t require all of our mental attention.
For example, imagine you are you’re going on a walk with a friend. So it’s a beautiful spring day and you’re out with a buddy, or you and your spouse are on a date, and you’re walking around Lake Harriet. And as you walk, you get into a certain kind of walking pace that allows you to walk and talk at the same time. We can call this a stroll. So your strolling along and you’re talking, but then your friend asks you, “I need to know right now, what’s 23 x 78?”
And what do you do? The first thing you do is you stop walking. That’s because the math problem takes so much mental energy that it requires you to transfer energy from your stroll to do the math. So you stop strolling, you stop walking, you get still, and then you figure out the answer (or pull out your iPhone, 1,794).
There are two types of thinking, one is stroll and think; the other is stop and think. There’s a difference.
Our Passage Today
And this is relevant for our passage works today. Because we’ve been strolling through the Book of Colossians. We’ve had a good, friendly pace, and we’ve been having a good, friendly talk.
So we’ve been on a stroll, but then today we come to verse 18, “Wives, submit to your husbands…” and now, wait a minute, we have to stop. Now we have to stop walking. We stop strolling, because now we’ve got some hard work to do. We have to get still and try to understand what Paul is saying here. It’s going to take a little more energy — because Paul is getting more specific.
He’s not just giving general character instructions to all Christians any more, but now he’s speaking directly to Christian wives, and Christian husbands, and Christian children — which means that there are particular ways that Christlike character gets lived out in our different roles and relationships. So this requires hard work for us because it gets specific.
But also, this requires hard work for us because it gets a little strange. And when I say “strange” I do not mean totally weird or wrong, but I mean “strange” as in not the way our society thinks. There are a couple things in this passage that will sound puzzling to us, and I just want to say that now, and want you to know that we’re going to talk about those when we get there.
But first, let me tell you where we’re going and what to expect. There are really just two parts in the sermon: First, there’s our relationships; and then there’s Jesus. And that’s it.
Our relationships and Jesus — and let’s get started, first, by looking at our relationships.
Beginning at verse 18, there are six different roles mentioned that are part of three different relational contexts: Marriage, Family, and Work. And the specific instructions that Paul gives us for these relationships flows from what he has said in the previous passage.
And this is reaching back to Pastor Joe’s sermon last week. Joe gave a good summary of how to think about this part of Colossians. The summary goes like this: what Jesus has done changes who we are, and therefore changes how we live. This is what the previous verses are saying. Joe has given this a name he calls “Gospel Presence” (and I like that). By Gospel Presence we mean a Jesus-founded, Jesus-fueled love for others that works like a soundtrack of the heart. So we’re talking about atmosphere — ambience. Gospel Presence is like the background music that pervades the spaces where you live. That’s what’s happening in verses 12–17, and now as this background music is playing, Paul gets more practical and says, Okay, wives and husbands, listen up.
Marriage is the first relational context.
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.
And I just want to say right away that there’s a strange word here. It’s the word “submit.” And it’s strange not because of the concept itself but because when it comes to marriage we lack positive categories for this word in our society. On one hand, we submit all the time. Submission must exist in a world that has a sense of authority in its structure. The reason you don’t drive 100MPH on West River Parkway is because you submit to the speed limit. The reason, this past week, that I submitted an application for an electrical permit for my house is because I submit to the authority in our city that doesn’t want me to burn my house down. So “to submit” is not a bad thing. We do it all the time. It’s part of the stroll.
But the idea of wives submitting to husbands is what makes us slow down and stop our walking. When we start using the word in relation to marriage, on a societal level, we tend to see it more in terms of aggression and force, and we immediately think of all the ways that it can be misused. And if you’re new to Christianity, I mean this especially for you: Please know that this is not what Paul has in mind. This is not what the Bible is saying.
If, when we hear the word “submit,” we imagine husbands forcing their wives to do things against their will, that is our problem, not the Bible’s. Because the Bible does not say that, and for a husband to do such a thing is to be so against the ways of Jesus. So know that. This is not what “submit” means, and we may need to change the way we think about this word — because really, it’s not negative at all.
When Paul says submit he means submit as in respect; or submit as in trust. And do it in a way that is fitting in the Lord, which means, do it in a way that fits with the leadership of Jesus, because, first and foremost, it’s the leadership of Jesus to which the Christian wife submits — the Christian wife follows Jesus. And she submits to her husband not because her husband says so, but because Jesus says so. Because the Bible says so. And when this happens, it’s a beautiful thing.
But rather than give illustrations for how this might look, I think it could be more helpful (and easier) to give some illustrations for how it does not look. So I’m just going to give you two scenarios. And just so you know, I had Melissa look over this part of the sermon to make sure it works, and she gave me the thumbs up. [We need our wives!]
This is what not submitting looks like. . . .
Scenario #1 — As a wife you desire a certain thing that your husband has not provided. It could be a piece of furniture, or a result of some kind, or a certain situation. There is something you want; and you want your husband to do it; but he hasn’t done it yet for good reason. Now, what does not submitting look like here? It’s when the wife nags her husband until he can’t take it anymore, and he gives her what she wants whatever it takes, or whatever the consequences. It’s when he’ll do whatever he’s gotta do to make her stop nagging about it, and she knows that, which is why she nags. Another word for this is manipulation. It’s an example of not submitting.
Scenario #2 — As a wife you tend to only express things your suspicious of and negative about when it comes to your husband’s leadership. I mean in terms of: he didn’t get enough mild salsa on your burrito bowl, so you let him hear it; or he forgot to switch out the laundry for you, so you let him hear it; or he had to get to the office early again, so you let him hear it. Now this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t express a negative feeling. By all means, you need to be honest about how you feel, and you need to tell your husband. He’s a big boy, he can handle it. But what I’m talking about here is just negativity and criticism all the time, over and over. The Book of Proverbs calls this kind of wife a quarrelsome woman. Because she always complains and continues to beat down her husband with her words, which eventually will make her husband prefer to sleep on the roof rather than be around her. That’s what Proverbs 21:9 says: “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.” This is another example not submitting.
So wives, if you do it this way, you are doing it wrong. Paul says to submit to your husbands, to support them and trust them, to be on their team — as is fitting in the Lord.
Now, to the husbands, Paul says, simply and profoundly, love your wives. Love your wives, as in, give yourself up for your wife. Lead in self-giving, sacrificial love for your wife (and we talked very practically about that two weeks ago). “Love your wife” means to care for her. Celebrate her. Go out of your way to make her feel cherished and appreciated — which is the very opposite of harshness.
We as men should love our wives so well that they feel loved by us. And this is important, because there is a lot that we do as men that we’d say is because we love our wives. Last summer got new tires put on our van because I love my wife. Last Mother’s Day I got Melissa a really nice battery-operated toothbrush because I love my wife. All of this is because I love her, but the question is: Does it make her feel loved? There’s a difference. Do everything you do out of love, but what are the things that make her feel loved? Find that out; do those things.
Okay, so this is the relational context of marriage. And the best way to put it all together, I think, is how I heard Tim Keller say it recently. The goal of a Christian marriage is a “You first” kind of marriage. In marriage if either spouse says “Me first” then it’s going to run into trouble. But if both the husband and the wife say “You first,” and the husbands lead in this way, then it will be stunningly beautiful. And I pray that God give us marriages like this at Cities Church.
The second relational context is Family.
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
I’ll have to do this more quickly. But, first, for the children. I want to tell you something really important, and then you can tell your friends. Here it is: the Bible tells us that the reason you should obey mom and dad is because when you obey mom and dad it makes Jesus happy.
Now, let me ask the parents something: Do you believe that?
Because the Bible says that when our kids obey us it makes Jesus happy — but how many times as parents do we work out of this logic when we train our children?
Most of time, if I am honest, I want my kids to obey because it makes life easier for me. I want my kids to obey because correcting and correcting and correcting takes so much time and energy, and this wouldn’t be so hard if they just did what I said.
But the Bible says that my kids’ obedience results in pleasing the Lord. Which means, what’s mainly at stake when my children are asked to obey is not the convenience of dad, it’s the happiness of Jesus.
And understanding this will change the way we parent, because I want them to obey not mainly for what it means for me, but because I want them to make Jesus happy. I want them to participate in bringing delight to the heart of Jesus. When I say it that way — when it’s put that way — there’s nothing more I could want for my children’s lives than that. What I want more than anything for — Elizabeth and Hannah and Micah and John Owen and Noah — is for them to please Jesus.
And this changes things for us, mom and dad. It means, at the very least, that we don’t provoke our children so that they become discouraged, or embittered. And verse 21 here is just general enough that it’s perfect. It means that whatever model of parenting you adopt, don’t sow seeds of bitterness and resentment in your children’s hearts. At Cities we like to say that parenting means being the smile of God to our children. And if we had to paraphrase what Paul is saying in verse 21, it might be “Parents, don’t be the frown of God to your children.”
Okay, so that’s family.
The next relational context is work. But it is more puzzling than that because the text says slaves and masters, and slavery, as we conceive of it, is bad. And this is one of those moments when we feel the distance between the world of the Bible and the world in which we live.
We’ll talk more about this when we get to the book of Philemon this summer, but briefly, in biblical times, here in the First Century world, slavery was part of the social structure, and it was not like the evil, race-based slavery of 19th-century America. What Paul says here applies today more to employee-employer relationships. What Paul says to slaves, or to servants, applies to anyone who is under the authority of someone else in a work environment. And therefore, these instructions have the widest application of all. Paul actually has the most to say in the instructions he gives here, because, I think, it has the broadest impact.
We are all of us, in our work, under some kind of authority. Speaking horizontally here, in terms of people, we are all accountable to other humans. Most everyone in here will go to work tomorrow and you have to answer to somebody. You have deadlines you must meet. You have emails you must return, meetings you must attend, numbers you must hit, inspections you must pass. There are things you must do, that if you fail to do them, there will be consequences.
Which means, normal work environments are environments not of grace, but of merit. That’s why you have performance reviews. You keep your job not mainly because your boss is nice — they may not be — but you keep your job because you are fulfilling, in a satisfactory manner, a need that your company has. So when you don’t fulfill the need in a satisfactory way, or when the need no longer exists, you will have to do something different. This is just the reality of work. This is just how it goes. Which means, work, on multiple levels, is around people, and with people, and for people — it very much about people. But then Paul comes here and says: Actually no, you’re not working for people, you’re working for Jesus.
Look at verse 22.
Slaves, 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. 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.
Now I hope that, on one hand, that sounds a little crazy to you. When you go into work tomorrow and your boss gives you a task, or a deadline, or a demand, and you do it, you’re not mainly doing it for your boss, you’re doing it for Jesus. So on one hand, that sounds a little crazy.
And I hope, on the other hand, that you know that if you don’t learn to work for Jesus like this, your work will not last. Because work itself — no matter what kind of job you have — work itself will become boring and there will be parts of your work that will not be your favorite. If work itself is what it’s all about for you then you will consistently be disappointed, and you’ll always be looking for something else, and you’ll never do more than what’s required — which means, if the work itself is what it’s all about, you’ll never going to sweep floors.
I come from a blue-collar family. My dad and my granddad started a drywall business years ago, and in the summers, during high school, I’d work for them. And my dad used to hire me to go into houses or commercial buildings and sweep the floors after all the drywall was hung. There’d be a lot of dust and drywall pieces on the floor, and I’d sweep it up — and I remember doing it because I thought it was easy. It was easy money for me. But my dad, who’s been doing it for over 30 years, he does it because he thinks it’s important. And I asked him about it one time: “Dad, why do we need to sweep the floors now? There is still a lot left to do on this job. The floors will get dirty again. You don’t really have to sweep the floors. Why sweep it?”
And he told me that it’s just part of doing good work, that it’s just what he does. And I remember that, and I asked him about this a few days ago, and he told me more about how he thinks it sets a good tempo on the job site, and he talked about reputation, and his witness as a Christian, and the more he talked about it, the more spiritual it became. And he commented, “You know, I want to serve my Master.” (talking about Jesus)
And as I’ve tried to wrap my mind around this, the best explanation I’ve got for how you sustain sweeping floors for over 30 years is that ultimately you know you’re working for Jesus, not man. Your work is about more than just your work, and therefore, whatever your job might be, whichever part of your job it might be, your work is always meaningful, because it’s mainly about Jesus. And I’m so serious about this.
So heads up for a second, all of you who have jobs, whatever those jobs may be. This is for you: Working for Jesus, not man, is the only way your work will last, and it’s the only way you will last in your work.
Nothing else will be enough. Your paycheck will not be enough. Your boss will not be enough. Your customer will not be enough. Ultimately, the only reality that will provide the endurance you need in your work is that your work is serving the Lord Christ. Which means, in other words, Jesus is your true boss. Your work, whatever it is, is not about you, it’s about Jesus.
And you know what, the same thing goes for your family. And the same thing goes for your marriage. All of these relational contexts are about Jesus. Notice how many times he is referred to in this passage. In and around everything Paul says, it has to do with Jesus. Wives are to submit, as is fitting in Jesus. Children obey their parents because it pleases Jesus. Slaves work in reverence to Jesus, for Jesus, serving Jesus. Bosses treat your employees justly, 4:1, because of Jesus.
Over and over again, Paul is tying it all back to Jesus. And this should make sense to us. Remember chapter 1, Jesus is the one by whom, in whom, and for whom everything exists. Everything that was made was all made by him and for him. Everything from the creation of the world to the new creation of the church, all of it is by Jesus and for Jesus. And so it should make sense to us that Jesus makes a difference in our relationships.
It goes like this — and this is the logic that changed my life in college when me and some buddies were studying the book of Colossians together — it’s this . . . put in a question:
If Jesus is preeminent in all of creation here, and he is preeminent in all of the new creation to come, shouldn’t he also be preeminent in my little life?
Jesus is supreme over everything that is. Over everything about the world, over everything about the new world to come. And therefore, since he has that kind of supremacy, he has to be supreme over me. Over the details in my life. Over how I love my wife and parent my kids and meet my deadlines. And the good news in this is that it’s only when Jesus is supreme over these things that they are transformed from burdens to gifts, and from drudgery to freedom. Apart from Jesus, the temptation in every relational context is make it about me. Without Jesus, marriage becomes the means through which my selfish desires are met. Without Jesus, family becomes just the photo stream I use to fill my Instagram. Without Jesus, work becomes the place I seek my validation in what I do.
But when Jesus steps in, when the supremacy of Jesus takes hold, we are freed to love our spouse out of the love Jesus has for us. We are freed to be tender and patient with our children out of the tenderness and patience Jesus has for us. We are freed to do any job with meaning because our meaning isn’t found in the work itself but in the one we serve.
It’s freeing because our relationships have actually less to do with us, and more to do with Jesus. And that’s what brings us to this Table.
Because at this Table, as we receive the body and blood of Jesus, as we remember his death, we are reminding ourselves that he is the most important thing about us. We are saying that indeed, by his grace, we want him to step into our details and free us from ourselves. When we eat this bread and drink this cup we are bowing to the supremacy of Jesus in our lives.