As we continue our study through Colossians, the section we are in concerns the application of the Christian faith to various relationships. Paul has discussed marriage, children and parents, and now he discusses the relationship between slaves and masters. 

It is estimated that 1/3 of the population under the Roman Empire was in some form of slavery. Some slaves were professional type workers, others house or personal slaves, and others in the worse condition of field or mining slaves. Being under any degree of slavery is demeaning, an appalling thought, and dreadful reality.

Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul says to Christians who are slaves: “Obey in everything those who are your earthly masters.”  Paul doesn’t endorse the institution of slavery; he is teaching Christians in that condition how they must glorify the Lord, who has called them. 

In 1st Corinthians 7, Paul tells Christians who are slaves if they can gain their freedom, to avail themselves of the opportunity, but not to let it concern them if they are unable to. All Christians are free men in Christ, in the sense of no longer being under bondage to guilt, the power of sin, or death. So slavery to an earthly master is temporary, and not a hindrance to honoring Christ.

In 1st Peter 2 we read: “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust… if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ has suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”

The apostles use the extreme case of slavery as a challenge to believers to honor Christ in their lives whatever condition they find themselves in. We ought to put ourselves in that place, to test our own love of Christ above the things of this world. What is it you have in your life that would cause you to trade places with someone who was a slave? 

Paul further instructs slaves to obey, “not by way of eye service, as people pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” A Christian is not to be like actors on a stage, putting on an impressive show in front of his supervisor, then acting differently when he is away. 

A “fear of the Lord” helps rein in our hearts, to have our eye upon him, rather than upon men. We remember that the Lord is everywhere, he is sovereign over men; not a God who is far off, but at hand. Paul is teaching us that in all things we are to be sincere before the Lord. No vocation, however lowly men may esteem it, cannot be made honorable before the Lord, if the eye is upon him.

Paul tells Christians in slavery they are “serving the Lord Christ” in their labors, and will receive the inheritance of the Lord as their reward (verse 24). Paul is criticized by some commentators and academics for not outright condemning slavery in this and other passages. But a Christian’s hope is not in this world, but in the Lord. And God cares for his people; however men of this world treat them.

Paul speaks of the promised “inheritance” of Christians; eternal life in Christ instead of a deserved judgment. That is undeniably of greater worth than anything in the present world which is characterized by tribulations, sorrow, and death.

He is speaking to those who are called by Christ to serve him in this world. The Lord himself will reward his people. Paul is telling Christians who are slaves exactly what they need to hear from the Lord. This promise matters to those who know the Lord. We need to hear it in all our circumstances. 

Paul is writing from prison, not a resort. He has suffered much in service to the Lord. He knows he will be put to death by men at some point. He knows the Lord could have prevented all his sufferings. Yet the Lord had laid down his life for Paul, and now Paul honored the Lord with his life here.

He says in 2nd Corinthians 4: “this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”