The last paragraph of Colossians 3 contains instructions about proper behavior in both the home and the “workplace” of the ancient world. It also speaks to the master/slave relationship, which was an inescapable fact of that era. The important point to note in these instructions is that they are based on the fact that Paul is addressing Christians, whose motives and actions are expected to spring out of our desire to please the Lord (vv. 20 & 23-24).
Much to the chagrin of those who contend for “modern definitions” of the family, in Colossians 3:18- 21 Paul describes very specific and “traditional” roles for wives, husbands and children. As in Ephesians 5, wives are instructed to “submit” (this word actually means to bring under firm control) themselves to their husbands. In the original Greek language the verb submit is expressed in the “middle voice,” meaning this is something the wife does herself, of her own will – not something her husband enforces on her! No biblical passage authorizes a man to subjugate a woman, even though the world portrays Christian manhood as domineering, controlling and insecure. In contrast, Paul’s very next inspired instruction – directed to husbands – commands them to love their wives and to avoid embittered or exasperated attitudes and actions toward them! Building on his earlier comparison of marriage with the relationship of Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:22-33), what we see reinforced here is the idea that a wife should willingly “be subject” to her husband just as the church/individual Christians are willingly, voluntarily subject to Christ, and that husbands should be as loving and solicitous of their wives’ feelings and needs as Christ is toward His church!
The parent/child relationship has aspects of this “two-way street” character as well, in that fathers are forbidden to “provoke” (maliciously agitate, exasperate) their children even as those same children are commanded to obey their parents in “all” things because this pleases the Lord. Study upon study has shown that harsh words from fathers can have lifelong negative effects in the lives of their children. Paul’s instruction here is designed to prevent such spiritual injuries. Turning next to the relationship between slaves and masters, Paul emphasizes in verses 22- 24 that the ultimate motivation for honest efforts (even by a slave) lies in the fact that one is a Christian, and is in reality, therefore, serving the Lord – not merely a “master” (“…for ye serve the Lord Christ”).
Chapter four opens with Paul’s instruction to masters, where he points out that they also serve a “Master,” Who inhabits heaven. The location of this verse should remind us that the division of our bibles into numbered chapters and verses is a relatively recent study “aid,” which can sometimes actually hinder, rather than help our understanding! This first verse of chapter four is actually the last line of the previous (chapter three) paragraph, and the “break” between chapters 3 and 4 should really come between verses 1 and 2.
Notice the clear distinction Paul makes in Colossians 4:5 about those who are “without” (lit. outside, out-of-doors): He is emphasizing that Christians ought to be aware of having limited time and opportunities to influence these “outsiders” with the gospel. His purpose is to remind us of our responsibility to reach out to them with the message of eternal hope! THIS is why we are told to “season” our speech (“discipline” it, cf. Proverbs 15:1) – so we may be able to guide these lost souls to know the Lord and thus be saved while there is still time.
The balance of chapter four concerns various individuals and their circumstances, which would have been familiar to the Colossian congregation. Notice the instruction at verse 16, however, telling the Colossians to “trade letters” with the church at Laodicea! This tells us that Paul wrote other messages that the Holy Spirit did not preserve for us, AND that the congregation best-known to us as “lukewarm” (Revelation 3:16) had received inspired guidance that could have prevented that fate.