God’s Word for You
Colossians 4:1 You also have a Master
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, September 14, 2019
4 O Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
Compare Ephesians 6:9. According to the U.S. Census, during the peak of American slavery in 1860, about one-eighth of all Americans were enslaved and considered to be property. In the peak of Roman slavery, that statistic was reversed: about three-quarters of all Roman citizens were slaves and were considered to be property, the absolute property of their owners.
The King James Version translates “that which is just and equal,” but I have translated the same words as “justly and fairly.” You might recognize the iso- prefix of isotes (ἰσότης, “equal, fair”) in words like isosceles (a triangle with two equal sides) or isomorphic (an exercise which strengthens both hands or arms at the same time). In 2 Corinthians 8:13-14 this word means “equal” in context, but here in conjunction with “justly” it corresponds more to our idea of “fairly.” Paul isn’t saying that slave owners should treat all their slaves as Christian brothers; how could Paul read all of their hearts? This was a different matter from the one he covers in Philemon 10-18, when he urged Philemon to consider his runaway slave Onesimus “as a dear brother” (Philemon 16). This was a call to be fair, equitable, honest, and just with slaves.
We would say the same thing about employees. Do you employ men and women who, because of the work they do for you, require protection? Should they have dust masks, overalls, special boots or gloves, or better heat, ventilation, or even security? This should be supplied by the employer without making any additional demands of the workers, as if it is “their fault.” Entry-level workers should be paid the minimum wage. Their health should be insured. There should be a fair practice about time off, leave for illness or pregnancy and maternity care, and in some cases for fathers to care for newborns. An employer should be civic-minded and support families with school needs or special needs, since attention to these things is good stewardship. An employer who is cynical or unkind or miserly will cause his workers’ health to suffer and may cause spiritual problems in their lives.
What kind of motivation is Paul using when he says, “you also have a Master in heaven”? Remember that the Scriptures are divided into law and gospel. If this is a law statement, then Paul is only warning masters that there is Someone watching them and that they will be punished someday for wrongdoing when it comes to the treatment of their servants. But law motivation only goes so far, and it doesn’t really fit the context. It’s far better to take this as motivation from the gospel. At the very least, Paul’s words are an application of the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12). But think of the motivation we have in all of the excellent ways our heavenly Master treats us. He is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6). Also, he forgives wickedness, rebellion, and sin (Exodus 34:7). How useful has a master been to his servants if he does nothing but fire them, one after another? In the end, his reputation will be a parody of himself. What he once did to create fear and respect will be the subject of ridicule and mockery. He will not be respected or even pitied. But a master who corrects his workers with compassion and good discipline will create an environment where people will do anything to work there, to work for him, and to be a part of his business. His business will be thought of as a team, and even as a family.
Here is an excellent place to remember the wisdom of Job. Notice his attention to the law and also to the gospel in his application. “If I have denied justice to my menservants and maidservants when they had a grievance against me, what will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account? Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?” (Job 31:13-15). In the words of the old Concordia Study Bible (1947): “Manifest towards them the spirit which you ought to wish Christ to manifest towards you.”
Paul uses the word “heaven” literally, as he always does. Remember that Paul had been a Pharisee and there was a profound disagreement between the liberal Sadducees and the pious Pharisees. “The Sadducees say there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all” (Acts 23:8). This carries through in the distinction today between groups that believe the Bible and those who reject it. There is truly a heaven, with our Master, Jesus Christ, sitting at the right hand of God. Orient everything you do with that in mind. By the grace of God, you have a place in heaven with Christ. Respond with joy, with love, with kindness, and even by being fair.
Pastor Timothy Smith
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