“Christ Alone” at Home
Onesimus—well, his life was a mess. His story is told in the little letter that Paul sent alone with the letter to the church of the Colossians. He had lived with the raw end of the deal his whole life. He was born a slave, and was given a demeaning slave name: “Onesimus” means “Useful”, as if he was expected to be a tool like a hammer or a saw or a plow for his whole life.
His master was Philemon, a modestly successful man of Colossae. As Onesimus served there, something new came into the lives of Philemon, his wife Apphia and some of the other people living in the little backwater town of Colossae. That something new was the message about a risen teacher, a man-god named Jesus: a Jew who’d been crucified by the Romans in Judea, but who appeared to witnesses alive three days later.
Onesimus saw people come to his master’s house he’d not known before: there was Epaphras, who’d first brought the message about Jesus; there was Archippus, who became the leading elder and shepherd of the group, as well as other relatives and townspeople. They’d gather early on the first day of the week at the house of Philemon. They would sing, listen to the reading of some ancient Jewish scrolls. Most Sundays Archippus would have a message about this Jesus, who was also called the Christ.
Onesimus listened half-heartedly. But his mind wasn’t on tales from the east, from the land of the Jews; his mind was on tales from the west, from Rome. He daydreamed of escaping life as the slave of Philemon, of going far away from Colossae, to Rome—a city so vast that escaped slaves could easily disappear into it to make new lives for themselves.
And one day, he did it. With a bag of Philemon’s gold, he left. Christian or not, no doubt the master fumed at this evil, useless slave named Useful.
Time passed, and an amazing report came to Philemon’s ears. Onesimus had been found, in Rome, by no less than Paul, a man famed as an apostle of the Lord Jesus. Even more: Onesimus now had placed his faith in Jesus. Even more: an associate of Paul named Tychicus was on his way; he bore not one but two letters for the church—and one was addressed to him, as the master of Onesimus—for Onesimus himself was coming back to Colossae, and back to the household of Philemon.
Now you’ll have to read the fascinating little letter of Paul called Philemon for more of the story; but that is the background that will help us as we finish this letter, Colossians, today. In the latter part of chapter three and then through chapter four, Paul continues and completes the theme of “Christ Alone”—Christ alone, as Master, now as master in the home.
In Jesus Christ, we have a new life. When He reigns in a life, the richness of His presence changes us; in Him we willingly put aside anything that comes between us and Jesus, and become thankful, worshipping people. Life becomes the way it’s supposed to be.
But a faith that does not reach into our homes, including how we conduct ourselves as a family, how we speak, how we pray, how we treat one another, isn’t much of a faith. When the full reality of “Christ alone” comes home, it changes all those relationships as well.
Greco-Roman families did not just consist of mom and dad and kids; a full household—a full Oikos—started with the father, the paterfamilias, who was all-powerful. He was the kurios, the lord, of the home. Under Roman law, he had the power of life and death in the home. That meant that he could literally slay his wife, a son or daughter or a slave if he so choose, if they had done wrong in his sight. That was very rare, but it was actually allowed under the law. Next came his wife, the lady—the kuria, of the home. Together that acted as pateres, parents of the children. Attached to the household may be other relatives—widows were the most common—and at the very bottom of the Oikos were slaves.
What happened when the message of Jesus came into homes like that? Many people read the household instructions in the New Testament and think that Paul and Peter just rubber-stamped the rules of the culture of the time: men dominant, women treated like dirt and—to top it off—approving of slavery. How backwards can you be?
That is a complete misreading and misunderstanding of the words of instruction that Paul gives here. All relationships are recast in terms of adding a new Master—the Lord Jesus. He now rules over the home. The paterfamilias has been dethroned and only Jesus is crowned as Lord. Let’s read this…
“Christ Alone”—in the Household (3:18-4:1)
18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. 20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. 22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism. 1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
There are some dramatic changes that happen when Christ becomes Lord of the home. The first is, now everyone bows before the Lordship of Jesus.
Wives render respect to husbands, not because he owns her, but because “it is fitting in the Lord.” Children obey parents in everything “for this pleases the Lord.” Slaves obey with sincerity of heart “and reverence for the Lord.” They are called to work “for the Lord.” And masters are reminded “you also have a master in heaven.”
The second big change is this: every time someone is told to live under the authority of another, the one in authority is called to limit the reach of their authority out of reverence for the Lord.
So husbands are told to love their wives, and not to treat them harshly. “Parents” (which is probably a better translation than “fathers” in 3:21) are told not to aggravate their children. Masters are told “be just and fair” to their slaves, because they are answerable to the Master in heaven.
Does this change the way you hear this passage? I hope so. Maybe you wish that Paul didn’t tell wives to “submit to husbands.” OK, but can I mention that the word “submit” (hypotasso) is actually a far gentler word in Greek than in English, meaning, “follower the leadership of”, or “respect” the husband—it does not mean to grovel at his feet.
Maybe you wish that Paul had taken aim at slavery as an evil institution. OK; point taken. Does it mean anything that in Philemon, the master is told to accept the escaped slave back as a brother? (Philemon 1:16) The Christian faith had no political clout in Paul’s time to overturn slavery—but the faith had the spiritual clout to begin to undermine it.
Along those lines, I am reminded of the old story where a communist says to a Christian, “Do you what really bugs me about Christianity? It took you 1,900 years to get rid of slavery!” The Christian replied, “Do you what really bugs me about communism? It only took you one generation to bring slavery back—for everybody!”
So when the Christ alone faith “comes home”, it transforms all relationships. But Paul takes it further in 4:2-6.
“Christ Alone”—in Prayer and Witness (4:2-6)
2 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. 3 And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. 4 Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. 5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
In these words, Paul urges all believers to direct their words—upward to God in prayer, and outward to non-believers.
Upward, Paul says, pray. Pray for yourselves “being watchful” (that’s defensive—“deliver us from evil”) and thankful (that’s offensive—“give us today our daily bread”). And pray for us too, says Paul. The “us” would be Paul and Timothy (go back to 1:1 to see that).
What does he ask for prayer for? It’s all about Christ—he asks them to pray for open doors, he asks them to pray that they’ll boldly and clearly proclaim the Jesus message. Paul does not lord it over the Colossians. He’s clear that he’s just another man like them, a redeemed sinner who doesn’t have it all together, who sometimes needs prodding to open his mouth on behalf of Jesus, who needs help saying it right. He needs their prayers.
Does that encourage you? I know that when most believers are urged to bear witness to Jesus, the duh-duh-duh syndrome sets in. “I don’t know what to say.”
That’s OK, and that’s where tools like the Four Spiritual Laws can come in handy (you can even get it as an app for smart phones and tablets now). My friend Tom Mercer says that his church has heard him do the ABC invitation (Admit/Believe/Commit) so long now that they all have it memorized.
Now, asking then to pray for his witness triggers Paul to urge them to be good witnesses too—these are the outward words:
5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Paul says that in a positive manner—can I turn it around and say the same thing in a negative manner? Listen:
Don’t act like a nut around non-believers. Don’t waste good opportunities to tell people about Jesus. Don’t talk like some uppity holier-than-thou dweeb. And don’t talk about God without being mindful how it sounds to people.
Look here’s the temptation: to be all hot for Jesus on Sunday and around other Christians, and then not to let that show around non-believers. That’s just not an option for us if Christ really is Lord—if we really have made Him the real Master of our lives and our homes.
Boy, we have a lot to learn about witness from our brothers and sisters in the third world. They don’t hold back. Angola has suffered under a left-wing communist regime for decades. Back in the early 90s, Methodist Bishop Emilio de Carvalho spoke at a church in Illinois, and said,
Jail is a wonderful place for evangelism…in jail, you have everyone there, in one place. You have time to teach and preach. Sure, 20,000 of our Methodist pastors were killed during the revolution, but we came out of jail a much larger and stronger church.
Don’t worry about the church in Angola; God is doing fine by us. Frankly, I would find it much more difficult to be a pastor in Evanston, Illinois. So many things. It must be hard to be the church here.
Wow. What can you say after that?
Christ Alone—Living examples (4:7-18)
Now in the last verses of Colossians, 4:7-18, it’s tempting to just see this as the meaningless fine print at the end of the letter. But as I read this, I want you to just consider two things. First, Paul mentions a lot of people—by my count, eleven by name. Paul is no loner. He is part of a team. You can’t do the Jesus-following life on your own. That’s why you need to be connected to other Jesus-followers on an on-going basis. The model was set for us with Jesus and the twelve. We live by that model when we study, pray and work in small groups.
The second thing is this: the people he mentions are all examples of people who were living the Christ Alone, the Jesus-centered life. One of the eleven here—Demas—later bailed, and you can read about that in 2 Timothy 4:10. But the rest are people living the life that God’s called us to. It’s a reminder to us that, yes, you can really do this. Look, these weren’t people living in monasteries. These were people who worked, had families, had problems—like us all. And they lived the life, they lived the Jesus-filled life.
OK, here’s the passage:
7 Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. 8 I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. 9 He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.
10 My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) [That’s the Mark who would write the gospel that goes by his name.] 11 Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. 12 Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. 13 I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. 14 Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. 15 Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.
16 After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. [That’s probably the letter to Ephesians]
17 Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord.”
18 I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.
We can live the life described here. God’s grace—as the old song says—will lead us home. Let me close with a quote from a letter that C.S. Lewis never intended to publish in which he describes this perfectly:
No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out and the clean clothes are in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us; it is the very sign of His presence.
Church, may God’s grace be with you, with all of us, as well.