“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. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 3:22-4:1).
Let me say again, as I did in the previous meditation, that it would be a mistake to think there is a one-to-one correspondence between the slave/master relationship in the first century and the employee/employer relationship today. I won’t take time to point out the obvious differences, but common sense alone would call for caution in our movement from the ancient context to a modern one.
Still, though, there are spiritual and ethical truths that inform and shape Paul’s counsel to both parties. These principles may well have application in a variety of contexts and relationships today, and we would do well to take note of them.
Let’s begin by observing how Paul envisions the service slaves are to render to their masters. They are to obey them in “everything” (language similar to what we saw in v. 20 with regard to children and their parents). It goes without saying, of course, that this assumes the master does not require his servant to sin or to deny Jesus.
His work is not to be done “by way of eye-service” (v. 22b), an interesting phrase that translates one word in the Greek text. Paul has in mind an approach to one’s work designed either to attract attention or to avoid punishment (or both). Perhaps he has in mind work discharged only when one’s master (employer?) is present and observant, together with the tendency to trifle and piddle when he’s absent, hoping that one’s sloth won’t be detected.
A television commercial from several years ago beautifully illustrates what Paul has in mind. It portrayed an office where several employees took advantage of the boss’s absence: they played games, took naps, and generally shirked their responsibilities. They received advanced warning of his return to the office from the smell of an obviously unpleasant after-shave, providing them with time and opportunity to resume their duties and give the impression of having been diligently at work all along. When the boss switched to Mennen’s Skin Bracer, he returned unannounced and caught them in the act.
The point is this: Christians are to fulfill their responsibilities (whatever they may be and to whomever they are obligated) based on principle, not pragmatism. We work regardless of who may be present, conscious that another eye is upon us. Or as Paul says, “you are serving the Lord Christ” (v. 24b). He is always watching. And whatever wage you may or may not receive from another human, remember that “from the Lord” you “will receive the inheritance as your reward” (v. 24a; it’s important to remember that under Roman law a slave could never inherit anything).
We labor and serve and discharge our obligations ultimately to please Christ, not people (v. 22b). We must avoid a merely perfunctory and mechanical performance, and do all things “with sincerity of heart.” Reverence (or, fear) for the Lord, says Paul, must govern our actions. Yes, even work is worship!
As difficult as it may be, we must labor in God’s grace to look beyond mere earthly payment or praise as the motivation for our efforts. There is something inherently spiritual in all that a Christian does, whether that be the digging of a ditch, the preaching of a sermon, or the changing of a diaper. It is for Christ that we work. It is from Christ that the reward will come.
John Eadie, with dated prose, well sums up the point of v. 24 – “Your masters on earth have no absolute right over you: the shekels they may have paid for you can only give them power over your bodies, your time and your labour, but the Lord has bought you with His blood, and has therefore an indefeasible claim to your homage and service” (266). That certainly applies to all of us, regardless of social or economic status.
Is verse 25 addressed to slaves or masters (“for the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality”)? Probably both. Together they should remember that God takes no note of cultural achievement or fame or fortune when it comes to assessing right and wrong. Class distinctions are irrelevant.
Finally, Paul is quick to point out that if slaves have duties, so also have masters: they must treat their servants “justly and fairly” (Col. 4:1). They may have the upper hand in this life, but Christ is their Master too! Therefore, let them treat their servants with the same consideration and equity they themselves hope to receive from the Lord Jesus.
So what’s the ultimate takeaway from a passage that seems so irrelevant to conditions in the twenty-first century? Simply this: all of life, whether in work or family or ministry, be it immensely significant or utterly mundane, . . . all of life, I repeat, is subject to the sovereignty and governed by the lordship and ultimately lived to the glory of Jesus our Lord!
Christ Jesus is your Master in heaven (4:1)! Fear the Lord, not man (3:22b)! All you do is ultimately “for the Lord” (3:23a). It is he whom you serve (3:24b)! It is from him that your eternal reward is coming (3:24a)!
Whatever our lot in life, wherever we may live, for whomever we may work, to whomever we owe allegiance, let us never forget that we do it all for Christ.
Serving one Master,