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Lesson 27: Christ: Lord of the Workplace (Colossians 3:22-4:1)

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June 12, 2016

A master of ceremonies said to the guest of honor at a retirement dinner: “As a token of our appreciation, we have created this special gold watch to serve as a reminder of your many years with us. It needs a lot of winding up, it’s always late, and every day at a quarter to five, it stops working” (Reader’s Digest [6/83]).

Good help is hard to find, isn’t it! Have you ever wondered how a slogan like that ever got started? It must be because good help is hard to find!

Of course, good jobs are hard to find, too. Imagine an ad reading: “Help Wanted: Menial job; no pay except for board and room; no chance for advancement; no benefits; no days off; no vacation; on call 24 hours a day. Once accepted for employment, the management has the legal right to beat or even kill you as it sees fit.” Any takers?

Some of you may be thinking, “I already work there!” But that job description fits the situation of many of those in the church in Colossae to whom Paul wrote. They were slaves, owned by their masters, regarded in the Roman world as a piece of property, not as human beings. They had no rights. In our text Paul shows how Christian slaves and masters should relate to one another.

Interestingly, Paul devotes more space to this topic than he does to the relationships between husbands and wives or parents and children. He probably did this because, along with this letter, he was sending the runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul had led to Christ in Rome, back to his master, Philemon. No doubt there were many other slaves in the Colossian church as well. Slaves were considered part of the household, so Paul deals with them in the context of family relationships. He wanted to make sure that no Christian slave mistook Onesimus’ conversion to mean that he could rebel against his master; and, that no Christian master abuse his authority over his slave.

But why didn’t Paul attack the institution of slavery as being evil? Why didn’t he encourage slaves to resist evil masters? Why didn’t he denounce those who called themselves Christians and yet owned slaves?

I can only answer briefly. We need to be careful to approach the issue from the perspective of the first century and not read our own time back into that scene. Slavery was a widespread institution in the Roman world, woven into the very fabric of society. It is estimated that about half of the population in the Roman Empire were slaves. As J. B. Lightfoot observes (Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon [Zondervan], p. 323; I am indebted to his treatment of this subject, pp. 319-329), “To prohibit slavery was to tear society into shreds.” It would have resulted in a bloody slave war, with much loss of human life and a dubious outcome.

At this point in history, Christianity was not a powerful public force. It was an almost unheard of splinter sect off Judaism. If Paul and other early Christian leaders had associated the faith with an antislavery movement, and had that movement been defeated in a bloody slave rebellion, it would have been the death knell for Christianity. Even if such a rebellion had won, it may have created mass social chaos, where suddenly emancipated slaves may not have been able to find work to support themselves.

Paul’s approach was to lay down universal principles which undermined the evils of slavery and eventually led to its demise. Roman slave owners had come to view work as low and degrading. Paul elevates all work, whether manual labor or management, by saying that whatever we do, we should do it heartily as unto the Lord, not for men. He taught the radical principle that in Christ there is “no slave and freeman, but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11), thus establishing the personhood and equality of the slave with his master. The slave in Christ is a brother to his master (Philemon 16). Paul didn’t stop by telling slaves to do their work well, but went on to giving masters the countercultural command to treat their slaves with fairness, reminding them that they have a Master in heaven to whom they are accountable.

History has proven Paul’s approach to be wise; these Christian principles have toppled the evil of slavery. Based on his Christian faith, William Wilberforce waged a decades-long battle against slavery until it was officially outlawed in England in the early 19th century. It took our Civil War to get it outlawed in the United States in 1865. But although it is outlawed around the world today, sadly there still are many slaves, such as women and children in the sex industry, even in America. Hopefully through Christian efforts, this evil will be exposed and eradicated, too.

While Paul’s commands are to Christian slaves and masters, they also apply to Christian employees and employers. He’s showing how Christ’s lordship affects relationships in the workplace:

When Christ is Lord of the workplace, employees will work heartily and employers will be just and fair.

Christianity is not just a nice Sunday theory; it applies directly to our work. Whether you’re an employee or an employer, if you will practice what Paul spells out here, you will have many opportunities to bear witness of our Savior.

1. We all must make Christ the Lord of our work.

Paul underscores this point by repeating the word “Lord” five times: “fearing the Lord” (v. 22); “do your work heartily, as for the Lord” (v. 23); “from the Lord you will receive the reward” (v. 24); “it is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (v. 24); “you too have a Master [same Greek word, “Lord”] in heaven” (Col. 4:1).

Clearly, Christ is the Lord of the workplace. Our relationship with Him should transform the way we act on the job, whether as employees or employers. Consider four implications:

A. Making Christ the Lord of your work is important because your workplace is your mission field.

Paul tells these slaves, who were often regarded as a piece of property or a disposable tool, “It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Col. 3:24). When and where did they serve Him? They probably put in 80-100 hours a week serving their masters. They had no free time as we know it today. They were probably restricted in attending church, much less in serving. So when did they serve “the Lord Christ”? Answer: They served Christ while they were fulfilling their duties on the job as slaves. By their distinctive work habits, and perhaps occasionally by verbal witness, they were Christ’s representatives. Their workplace was their mission field.

Do you remember the story of Naaman, the Syrian general who had leprosy (probably not the same disease as modern leprosy, but a serious skin disorder; 2 Kings 5:1-14)? He had a young Hebrew girl as his slave. She suggested to Naaman’s wife that Elisha the prophet in Israel could cure him. He went to Elisha and, after initial resistance, submitted to the prophet’s simple direction to dip seven times in the Jordan River. He was instantly cured. So even a little slave girl was a missionary for the God of Israel in this influential Syrian household.

Chuck Swindoll (You and Your Child [Thomas Nelson], p. 85) tells about speaking at a family camp where he emphasized the importance of God’s hand in every calling or profession. He encouraged each Christian to realize that his or her vocation is their ministry. At the end of the week, a man came up to share how much the week had meant to him and his family. The director of the camp asked the man what he did for a living. He replied, “What’s my work? I’m an ordained plumber!” Swindoll points out that before Jesus was a teacher of God’s truth, He was an ordained carpenter.

Wherever you work, you have opportunities to be a witness to people that no pastor or missionary has contact with. Many of your co-workers never read the Bible, but they read you every day. Even if they don’t yet know that you’re a Christian, they should be able to see that there’s something different about you. You don’t laugh at the dirty jokes. You don’t join the guys in commenting on the finer points of a woman employee’s anatomy. You don’t join the gripe sessions. You don’t run others down behind their backs. You’re honest and trustworthy. It’s because you view yourself as a missionary and your job as your mission field. Pray for opportunities, whether through your work habits or your verbal witness (not on company time!), to tell your fellow workers about the Savior.

B. Making Christ the Lord of your work is a matter of the heart, not of outward show.

Paul instructs these slaves (Col. 3:22) to do their work “not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” For emphasis, he repeats (Col. 3:23), “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” They were not just to put on a good show when the master was around, while grumbling with the other slaves the rest of the time about how insensitive he was. They were not to impress their masters while they were looking, and then goof off when the masters were out of sight. Rather, they should enthrone Christ as the Lord of their hearts. That reality would manifest itself in their work.

True Christianity is a matter of our hearts before God. It’s not pasting Christian virtues on an unchanged heart. Rather, it’s practicing Christian virtues because God has changed your heart. As Paul instructs Titus (2:9-10) regarding Christian slaves: “Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith so that they will adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect.” If God is truly our Savior, our behavior on the job will change from the heart.

C. Making Christ the Lord of your work means that you work primarily for Him.

Christ is the “big boss” over every earthly boss. So while your earthly boss is your immediate supervisor, even if he owns the company, he isn’t the ultimate supervisor. Christ is.

One of my seminary professors, Dr. Howard Hendricks, told of being on a flight where an obnoxious man was raising a stink about every minor grievance he could think of. Even though most people would have told the guy where the exit door was, each time the stewardess responded with kindness and grace. After watching this for some time, Hendricks called her over and complimented her on her good attitude with this difficult man. He asked for her name so that he could commend her to the president of the airline. He was taken aback when the stewardess responded, “Thank you, sir, but I don’t work for American Airlines.” She looked like she worked for American Airlines. She had on their uniform and nametag. “You don’t?” Hendricks sputtered. “No,” she explained, “I work for Jesus Christ. American Airlines just pays the freight.” Wherever you work, if you see that you work primarily for Jesus Christ, the job takes on new dignity and meaning as you see yourself serving Him.

D. Making Christ the Lord of your work means focusing on the eternal perspective, not the temporal.

Paul says (Col. 3:24), “… knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance.” He’s referring to the rewards which the Lord is storing up in heaven for those who are faithful to Him (1 Cor. 3:14; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Tim. 4:8). For a society where slaves had no legal or property rights, this was a radical concept! Even though they were disenfranchised on earth, they could know that the Lord would reward them richly in eternity.

Scholars debate about the application of verse 25: “For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality.” Is he warning the slaves, the masters, or both? There may be a warning for both sides here. But in the context, Paul is encouraging slaves who were mistreated to do what was right in spite of it. It seems more natural to take this verse in the sense of, “Don’t worry about those who mistreat you and seem to escape any consequences. The Lord will repay them someday, and He won’t be partial just because they’re important in the eyes of men.” He’s saying that we need to focus primarily on the eternal perspective, not on this world.

Some critics would dismiss this as “pie in the sky when you die.” They would say, “How cruel! Tell slaves, ‘Endure harsh, unfair treatment now, and someday you’ll be rewarded!’” But the Bible clearly teaches that we may suffer for the sake of righteousness in this world, but God will right all wrongs in heaven. We’ve got to “put all our eggs in the heaven basket”! Otherwise the suffering of the martyrs and their families makes no sense at all.

Years ago, I was preaching through 1 Corinthians when I was hit by 15:19, where Paul says, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” I thought, “That’s not true in my experience or in the experience of most American Christians.” We’re into having our best life now. We want to know how being a Christian can give us happy homes, successful careers, and help with all our problems now. Heaven? That will probably be a nice bonus, but it’s not central.

Why don’t we emphasize heaven? Because we’re not being persecuted for the sake of the gospel. If like some of our brothers in Syria, Muslim extremists had taken my daughters as sex slaves, killed my son, and confiscated my property and all my belongings, heaven would not just be nice; it would be absolutely necessary in order to make sense out of this life.

Are you in a dead end job? Is your boss unfair? Does he mistreat you? There’s nothing wrong with trying to better your situation by getting a better job (1 Cor. 7:21). But in the meanwhile, be the best employee that you can be as a witness to your boss and to your fellow workers. Your reward awaits you in heaven. Thus …

2. When Christ is Lord, employees will work heartily.

What does it mean to “work heartily” (lit., “from the soul”)?

A. Working heartily means obeying your employer.

You may be thinking, “Obeying? But I’m not a slave! Do I have to obey my boss?” I read about a company that has lunchtime seminars for employees on different topics. A memo promoting the next session read, “Lunch and Learn Seminar: Who’s controlling your life? (Get your manager’s approval before attending.)” (Reader’s Digest [9/98], p. 24.)

Of course, Paul does not mean that you should obey your boss if he asks you to lie for him or to falsify records to cover up an illegal operation. If he does that, you should tactfully explain why as a Christian you can’t be dishonest. You may lose your job, but you will keep a good conscience. But apart from doing things that displease the Lord, you should obey your employer.

B. Working heartily means doing quality work.

Paul says that our work should not be with “eye-service” (lit.), “as those who merely please men.” In other words, a Christian employee should not just work to impress the boss or work when the boss is looking. God is always looking, so do your best, even if it never shows to men.

A cartoon showed a perfectly straight Tower of Pisa. The builder, standing in front of it, remarks to a friend, “I skimped a little on the foundation, but no one will ever know it.” (Reader’s Digest [4/85])

C. Working heartily means having a positive attitude on the job.

“Sincerity of heart” means singleness of purpose, undivided service. It refers to a worker who concentrates on his work because his heart is in it. As I said, the word “heartily” means “from the soul,” and points to inner motivation. It would have been easy for slaves to gripe about their working conditions and about the unfair treatment they received from their masters. But if they did their work “heartily, as for the Lord, rather than for men,” they would have a positive, cheerful spirit that would radiate the difference Christ makes in a life.

In Philippians 2:14-15, Paul says, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.” Having a positive attitude on the job, free from grumbling or complaining, will make you stand out as a light in this dark world.

Before I leave the subject of Christian workers, I would urge you to think through biblically whether or not as a Christian you can belong to a trade union. It’s a controversial topic, but one you need to grapple with. There are sincere Christians on both sides, so I think we should not judge those who may disagree, but rather let each person have his own conviction before God (Rom. 14:22). I offer some questions to help you wrestle with this practical matter:

By joining the union, can I maintain a cooperative relationship with the management? Unions, by their very nature, tend to be adversarial towards management. Can you join the union and still obey your employer and have a good working relationship with him?

Can I join the union and still maintain my accountability toward God? Am I being wrongfully yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14)? Are the union’s values so out of sync with godly values that I compromise by joining it? For example, what if part of your union dues goes toward supporting groups that promote abortion or the LBGT agenda?

Is the motivation for collective bargaining greed or basic fair treatment? It is legitimate to lobby an employer for safe working conditions and fair pay. But it would be wrong to go on strike if your wages, benefits, and working conditions are fair and reasonable.

You can probably come up with more questions. But it’s an issue you need to wrestle with as a conscientious Christian employee. But Paul doesn’t just address the slaves. He also says,

3. When Christ is Lord, employers will be just and fair.

Colossians 4:1, “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.” Justice gives what is legally due; fairness doesn't necessarily abide by some written law, but it grants what reasonable minds would agree upon as proper treatment. The Golden Rule is fair—employers should treat their employees as they would want to be treated if they were in their place.

The Christian employer should remember that he too is a person under authority. He must stand before God and give an account of how he handled the responsibility given to him as the boss of others on the job. Was he arrogant or humble? Did he abuse his authority for his own advancement or was he careful only to use it to give good leadership to the company? Did he listen compassionately to the needs of his employees or did he put the goal of making money ruthlessly above people? Did he set an example of integrity or did he compromise and then try to cover up? Has he been honest with customers and employees, or is he deceptive? Every Christian employer or manager needs to remember that he has a Lord in heaven to whom he must give account.

Conclusion

Whether you’re a Christian employee or employer, making Christ the Lord of your workplace is at the heart of your witness for Christ. In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More, who eventually was executed because he would not consent to King Henry VIII’s divorce, urges a restless underling to become a fine teacher. “If I was, who would know it?” asks the ambitious young man. More replies, “You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.” (In Reader’s Digest [12/83])

Who will know if you are a conscientious, hard-working employee or a sensitive, fair employer? You, those you work with, those you live with, God. Not a bad audience, that! Take Christ to work with you. He deserves to be the Lord of your workplace.

Application Questions

  1. Is it wrong for a Christian to stand up for his rights on the job? Why/why not?
  2. Where is it most difficult for you to maintain Christ as Lord in your work? How can you prepare yourself to do this?
  3. Discuss: Should a Christian tell others about Jesus on company time?
  4. What should a Christian do if getting a job requires joining the union? When (if ever) is it right for a Christian to go on strike?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life

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