Monday, July 10, 2017

Serving the Lord at Work (Colossians 3:22-4:1)

The following message was first preached on Sunday, July 9th. You can listen to it here.

In January, 1995, J. Robert Ashcroft had fewer than forty-eight hours to live, but he was holding on to life, hoping to see his son, John Ashcroft, sworn into the U.S. Senate the following day. As family and friends gathered in Washington for a small reception, J. Robert Ashcroft asked his son to play the piano while everyone sang, “We Are Standing on Holy Ground.”
After the song, the frail old man spoke some powerful words: “John, I want you to know that even Washington can be holy ground. Wherever you hear the voice of God, that ground is sanctified. It’s a place where God can call you to the highest and best.”

Mr. Ashcroft’s words acknowledge a truth that Christians readily affirm: that is, that God has called us to work in this world. And wherever we are in our vocation, if Jesus is Lord of our lives, that place is a holy place of service for him.

Now, I realize that for a great many people in the world, “work” is a four-letter word. It’s something they don’t like at all. And when it comes to your work, perhaps you’re here this morning and are feeling a bit fogged in at the moment. It could be that your work has you simply living for the weekend. Or maybe you are looking for some clearer direction about your work, and you need some timely wisdom to guide you. Whether you really like your present work or you are stoically enduring your job, Paul has something to say to you this morning.

Please turn in your Bibles to Colossians 3, where we continue our study in Paul's great letter. Throughout we have said that believers are complete in Christ and we have seen Paul applying the principle of the Lordship of Christ in a variety of our relationships: our relationship to one another in the congregation, and our home and family life. And now Paul is going to apply the principle of the Lordship of Christ to how we live and operate in our work relationships. Paul begins in this way…

Bondservants, 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.(Colossians 3:22; ESV)

Now, before we jump deeper into the text, I think I need to make a brief comment about Paul and and the topic of slavery. The reason why is Paul has come under criticism in this passage and others for not condemning the Roman practice of slavery. Those who are proponents of social change usually rail against Paul, saying, ‘Paul, you are simply reinforcing the evil status-quo. You are actually endorsing a system in society which exploits people.”

Now, is that what Paul is doing? Not at all. Even though Paul does not attack the institution of slavery directly, Paul is discussing the implications of the rule of Christ and Christian liberty for slavery. And it’s as if the Apostle Paul says, ‘I want you to understand, that even in a reprehensible social institution like slavery, Jesus Christ is Lord.’ And for Paul in this passage, that means at least three things

First of all, Paul tells us Christ has Lordship over our work relations. He says to masters and slaves, ‘Christ is Lord over your work and Christ is Lord over your management of those who work for you.’ What a radical assertion, to those who lived in a society where slaves had very, very, very few rights and masters could exploit those under them.’

Secondly, notice also that Paul treats slaves as persons. Under Greco-Roman law, slaves would have been possessions, things to own. But Paul speaks to them as thinking, feeling, living, breathing Christian human beings here. He gives them instructions as persons.

Thirdly, notice that Paul sets forth a principle that masters must be concerned about those whom they employ, and those who labor must be concerned about the needs of the masters. He expects Christians who are employers and employees to take care of one another. 

So, having said all that, we can be sure that Paul’s teaching here was ultimately revolutionary, because in time it brought the downfall of slavery as an institution. But it was also immediately revolutionary in that it brought fullness to the Christian’s life, whether slave or master. Or in our day we say that Christ brings fullness to our work, whether we are employees or CEOs. So let’s dive into the text, and see what Paul has to say about “Serving the Lord at Work.”
Bondservants, 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.” (Colossians 3:22-25; ESV)
 To begin in this passage, Paul discourages work that is only done when the boss is looking. We all know what that’s like, right? Back in the day, in gym class, when the coach was watching…there were perfect pushups. But when coach looked away…well… “eye service” [as Paul calls it] resulted in half-done jobs.” It’s the equivalent of sweeping the room, but sweeping the dirt under the carpet.

This is not the way it is supposed to be. Rather, Paul says, our work is to be done “with sincerity of heart.” In other words, holding God and His will in high regard is the right motive as we work. With that motive, we are to work heartily, putting our whole inner person into the effort, working for the Lord as our ultimate boss, rather than for men. In fact, Paul says, we are to serve our earthly masters, our bosses, as we would the Lord Himself.

Unfortunately, there are a great many unhappy workers today who are Christians,  and we need this word from the scripture because it reminds us of our responsibilities as employees. This message helps us re-appreciate what we do when we work. 

Remember, work first came to the world as a gift. In Genesis 2:15, Moses writes “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” Now make a note of this: in the garden of Eden, before the Fall, man was assigned work. Work, therefore, is not a result of the curse, but of God’s creative design for the fulfillment of our lives. Of course, work did become more painful and difficult after the Fall. And yet here in Colossians, Paul is reminding us that no matter your vocation, you are to do it as if it is being done for the Lord. That is why Paul writes, “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.” (vv. 23, 24)

Dear friends, I know it may seem as if some of us work “nothing” jobs. Nevertheless, the truth is we are serving God as we work. And this truth transformed the lot of the Christian slave in the ancient world. A slave’s “nothing” tasks actually became noble when done for Christ. The truth is, working hard at our tasks from the heart brings glory to God and ennobles us as we work too.

Of course, the opposite truth is sobering! When we are lazy, rebellious, and slothful employees, we dishonor God. And Paul says in verse 25, the one who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done. In other words, the warning is that the Lord will discipline without partiality in cases of disobedience and laziness at work. The Christian servant is not to presume on his Christianity to justify disobedience. Even if we are God’s children, we will reap what we sow, because God is impartial. 

I say all that to say that a significant and often overlooked way that we serve God is in our everyday tasks. Martin Luther understood this when he wrote, 

"The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays. Not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps, but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”

In his book The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis once wrote

The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a cleaning lady, become spiritual on precisely the same condition: that the work is being offered to God, it is being done humbly "as to the Lord." This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a rooster must crow.“

In other words, whatever it is God has given us to do, let us do it with our best ability. My friends, as Christian employees, we ought to be the best in attitude, the best in dependability, and the best in integrity. All of us who must be faithful, hard workers. Most of all, we must realize that there is intrinsic nobility in our work because ultimately it is being done for our Father in heaven. Our lives will be full when we do our very best at our work.
Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 4:1; ESV)
Paul's say that on the other side of the relationship, masters are to treat their slaves with the justice and fairness they would expect to receive from their Master in heaven. Remember, under Roman law, slaves had no rights at all. So these words had a strange and radical sound to them. Also, given the social conditions of the times, this command may have been more difficult to carry out than what was asked of the slaves. The master who attempted to provide his slaves with “what is right and fair” ran a deep risk of ostracism from his fellow slave owners, much like Christians today.
Nonetheless, as Paul says, the guiding reality for you as an employer is that both you and your employees have the same Lord. Employers, if you truly realize that you must answer to God for the way you conduct yourself with your employees, you will care about what happens to them. You will be concerned that they are paid properly. You will be concerned about their illnesses, their spouses, their children, and their education. You should treat your employees like you desire to be treated by the Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, in doing so, you may have more problems — you may have to make more sacrifices. But dear friend, you will also have the fullness of Christ and you will bring glory to your Father in heaven.


Dear friends, whether you are an employer or an employee, one thing is for sure: disregard the apostle’s advice and you will never know fullness in your professional life, no matter how well you succeed. Disregard his advice and something will always be missing. Most especially, you will never honor God fully as you ought to do.
Jesus, who is the fullness of the universe, wants us to be full in our marital relationships, our family relationships, and our professional relationships. Moreover, he desires that this fullness overflow to the world. As people “do business” with us, may our fullness become their fullness and may our light shine before all men! In the end, our social and economic status as slaves, or masters, or employers or employees…has no eternal relevance. All such roles pass away with the world, so what we focus on is what is eternal. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul writes,

Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. … The form of this world is passing away.” (1 Cor. 7:21–22, 31b)

Let us then, in all things related to work, live by that ancient Christian principle which has inspired believers for many generations: Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone Be the Glory). In your jobs, whatever your role, give God by your witness all the glory, soli Deo gloria. And in doing so, show the world that the grace of Jesus Christ has transformed your life.