So I have a confession to make. Before starting this study on Colossians on July 19th, I have never had the opportunity to preach through an entire book. And although I think it’s a wonderful thing to memorize isolated verses and small portions of Scripture as a means of dwelling and meditating on God’s Word, I have to tell you that working through Paul’s logic from the opening line and chapter-by-chapter has had a huge impact on how I understand the section we’re covering this morning on Christian Household Behavior. Studying the tree of Colossians has helped me better understand how the various branches that comprise this epistle are functioning and how this tree fits into the greater forest of the rest of Scripture. Paul has gone:
From commending the faith the Colossians have in Christ as evidenced by their love for all Christians—
To undergirding their faith by talking about Christ’s supremacy who, because he is God who came to earth in the flesh, is to be the authority of all believers and the source of our faith and understanding in of all of life and the true head of the Christian body—
From there Paul has moved to challenging false teachers who claim to be authorities but yet are dragging away the Colossians from the true faith they received—
To reminding the Colossians that because they are new creatures in Christ because of what he has done, they are to let that reality play out in how they treat one another as part of Christ’s body. Specifically they are to display the virtues of Christ and their new nature and to put away the vices of their old nature. These virtues include both horizontal love-your-neighbor behavior—behavior that we should strive to demonstrate to each other at all times—including showing compassion, kindness, humility gentleness, patience, and forgiveness—and vertical love-the-Lord-your-God-with-all-of-your-heart-soul-mind-and-strength behavior as we look to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whose peace should rule in our hearts and whose Word should dwell in us richly.
In this morning’s passage Paul is highlighting that because Christ is their true authority, the head of his body, the church, then even the way a Christian household is run should reflect his authority. Specifically Paul is going to address relationships between 1) Wives and husband; 2) Children and parents; and 3) Slaves and masters.
As I’ve already mentioned, I’m going to break with my usual custom of covering a longer passage and limit myself this morning to addressing only two verses in Colossians—the relationships between husbands and wives. The reason is that in order to make sense of and do justice to these two unexpanded verses in Colossians, I thought it would be helpful to consider an expanded version of this same teaching found in Ephesians 5. In Colossians, Paul simply exhorts wives to submit to their husbands as is fitting to the Lord, and husbands to love their wives and not be harsh with them but that doesn’t give us a whole lot to go on in terms of helping us understand what he’s saying. So let us consider more closely what Ron read for us earlier in the companion passage of Ephesians 5:21–32:
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[b][Or having cleansed] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[c] [Genesis 2:24] 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Now the first thing we notice in Ephesian 5’s expansion is that the exhortation to submit is given to both wives and husbands—“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” But this doesn’t really settle the matter, does it?
Part of our difficulty is understanding what Paul means by “submission” in the first place. And unfortunately this very fine biblical word can leave authority-challenging, independently-minded N. Americans bristling. “Submission” has become a 4-letter word in our society, hasn’t it? Years ago—and you’ll forgive my dating myself—one of my favorite secular singers at the time, Gloria Estéfan, had a line in one of her songs about romantic love that expressed well this disdain for the notion of submission as she defiantly sang “And giving in sometimes doesn’t make it submission.” But, dear Gloria, you’re so wrong! Understood Scripturally “giving in sometimes” is precisely what constitutes submission. Biblical submission incorporates a whole attitude of mind that includes the new creature virtues we’ve discussed in Colossians as well as not thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought (Romans 12:3)—and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves (Mt. 22:39; Mk. 12:33; Lk. 10:27; Ro. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8)—and having the mind of Christ who though he was God took on the human form of a servant for us and our salvation (Phil. 2).
As I worked through this passage this past week, more than one commentator noted that the middle/passive voice used in the word for “submit” and how this form indicates that as it is used in these passages submission is an act of free agents. It isn’t to be forced on someone. We can’t make another person submit. It “doesn’t involve breaking of will or servile submission to another’s role but rather describes a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility and carrying a burden” (ISBE, “Submission”). So let’s turn to how Paul is applying this voluntary, cooperative, responsible, burden-carrying attitude to the reciprocal submission that is to be displayed by both wives and husbands.
Part of the particularity in both Ephesians and Colossians is that this co-submission plays out differently for wives and husbands. And one thing that was far more true in the ancient world than in ours—especially in current day Europe and N. America—is that the selection of a bride or groom was usually left to the families. Our norm of marrying for love would have been the exception, not the rule, in both Old and New Testament times. And this perhaps helps us better understand the context. Women who married would have left the security of their parents, the only family they had known, to join a husband for whom they may not have felt love, at least not at the beginning of the marriage, and the same would have been true for the husbands. So Paul reminds these wives that their husbands—not their families of origin—are to receive their primary loyalty. Next to submitting to the Lord—to Christ—a wife ought to submit to her husband, i.e., she ought to love him as she does Christ. That’s a high bar, isn’t it? We would do anything for Christ, wouldn’t we? If Jesus were to suddenly appear before us and ask us to, let’s say, do a cartwheel, then even if we didn’t know how—and even as a child I never mastered the cartwheel technique—we would nonetheless try and give it our all just to please him. Our love for him would result in our wanting to do what he asked. But the other side of this, of course, is that because Jesus loves us, he would never ask us to do something that would be harmful for us to do. Regardless, the point is that this is the attitude wives should have towards their husbands—that of wanting to please them. And the fact that Paul is exhorting wives in this manner indicates that there may have been a problem in this area in the early church—that wives may not have been demonstrating to their husbands the care and respect they were called to live out towards them.
Now in this mutual submission role in the Colossians verse, husbands are told to submit to their wives by loving them and not being harsh to them. Let’s stop right here and think about this. Does this admonition strike anyone as odd? If it does, I think it’s because since we who are living in the 21st century United States do seek to marry for love, an admonition for a husband to love his wife and not be harsh sounds preposterous. We in the United States are the beneficiaries of Scriptural teachings that have affected and permeated our society over time. Now I’m not saying that there aren’t any husbands who don’t love their wives or who aren’t harsh with them, but in our culture, we recognize that this isn’t appropriate behavior. And the fact that Paul has to admonish Christian husbands with such a basic truth, again, suggests that something may have been amiss in the way these husbands were treating their wives in the early church.
Last week Jinsook reminded us about the importance of being people of one book—the Bible—and I was thinking about her message as I was preparing this past week. The fact that these admonitions for wives and husbands to submit to one another are fairly widespread in Paul’s writings reminds us of our need for Scripture to teach us what is—and isn’t—appropriate behavior for believers. Many of these now Christians in Ephesus and Colossae and elsewhere were Gentile converts who hadn’t been shaped by Old Testament teachings of appropriate behavior between husbands and wives so Paul is having to teach them how they are to live together now that they have joined themselves not just to one another but also to Christ. Our relationship with Christ is to transform all other relationships.
The bar for both husbands and wives is high because for both our love for Christ is the measure of our submission. Wives are to submit to their husbands as they do to Christ; and in the Ephesians passage husbands are told that their love for their wives should be like Christ’s love for his church—and he reminds them that Christ gave himself up for the church to maker her holy (25–27). So husbands, in this same way (verse 28), ought to love their wives as their own bodies. Paul’s logic here is that for a husband to love his wife is for him to love himself because no one ever hated his own body but he feeds and cares for his body just as Christ does the church.
Don’t you love the practicality of Scripture? When Jesus sums up the law and the prophets, he says that we’re to love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus knows that we all understand self-love. This is the basis of the so-called Golden Rule also found in Scripture. In Luke 6:31 we read “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Again, we all understand self-love; we all have a sense of what is good for us and what we will enjoy. This, Jesus tells us, is how we should love others as well. Love isn’t simply about feeling, it’s about doing. And this is true whether our love is for other people or for Jesus himself. So fill in the blank. Jesus said: “If you love me….” Right—“keep my commands” (John 14:15). If we love Jesus, we will want to do what he commands—and doing what he commands isn’t burdensome because he, in turn, loves us with a love that is so great that he died for us that we might be able to live eternally through and with him.
Throughout Ephesians the analogy Paul develops between the marriage of husbands and wives is the marriage between Christ and the Church, his bride. In verse 31 of chapter 5 he quotes Genesis 2:24 in saying that a man leaving his mother and father and being united to his wife and the two becoming one flesh is a profound mystery not about marriage, but, verse 32, about Christ and the church. The church’s oneness with Christ by means of his Holy Spirit is Paul’s focus time and again—Christ is the head of the church, the church is his body and we, together, are members of his body. The church is Christ’s bride even as Israel was God’s bride in the Old Testament. The church belongs to Christ and is one with him and Christ loves his church and desires for her to be holy even as he is. So the love a husband is to have for his wife, who is his body, is the highest bar possible—that of Christ’s love for his Church, which is also his body. And the wife’s submission for her husband is also the highest bar possible—she is to submit to her husband individually as the church submits to Christ corporately because we are all members of his body. As Paul states in I Corinthians 7:4 “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” Do you see the reciprocity? Husbands and wives belong to—and therefore are to love one another—as Christ and the Church belong to—and also love one another.
I think that one of the things that trips us up when considering these husband-wife passages is that we, too, need Scripture to teach us how we ought to view and treat one another. We, too, misunderstand what biblical submission is, and think of it in terms of power or who is in charge. But we do better if we view our behavior in marriage through the lens of Christ and the church. Wives are called to submit to their husbands as the church does to Christ. This may indeed involve giving in sometimes out of caring for our husbands. But this giving in should be a pleasure in a healthy husband-wife relationship, because if a wife represents the church in this analogy, the husband represents Christ. If that is the case, then a wife is submitting to someone who loves her and looks after her best interest. Her husband loves her so much that to love her is like loving his own body, his very self. And just as Christ will never ask something of his church that will be to her harm, but only her good, so husbands, ideally, will never ask something of their wives that will be to their harm, but only their good. As Paul tells the husbands in Colossae, love your wives—don’t treat them harshly. Ideally it’s a win-win co-submission, isn’t it? Wives and husbands belong together as Christ and the church belong together. Wives and husbands are one body as Christ and the church are one body. So each side is treating the other as though it were their own. Each side is jealously loving and caring for the other as if it were their own.
I think that part of the reason Scripture speaks so strongly against divorce—and in saying this, we need to remember that divorce is a reality of our fallen world and is to be treated with the same compassion with which we should treat all behavior, both ours and others, that falls short of Scriptural ideals—is because in their marriage, husbands and wives are to be a living analogy of the fidelity God has for his church. As we see in the book of Hosea, when God asks Hosea to go after a prostitute, he is demonstrating that God is faithful even when we are faithless—which is another way of saying that God remains committed to his bride, even when that bride goes astray. Marriage isn’t simply about a feeling of love, marriage is also about a commitment to serve.
Now what about those who are single? I think single Christians equally play out the importance of the holiness of the church, Christ’s body, for they, too, are members of this one body for whom Christ died. As Jesus states in Mt. 22:30, human marriage is a good for this life. There won’t be any marriage in heaven. “At the resurrection” he says “people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” So in their lives, single Christians are already playing out the unmarried holiness that will one day be the lot all of us in heaven.
For all Christians, our Christian family, the church—with Christ as our head—is to subsume all of our relationships. One of the last things Jesus did while hanging on the cross was to tell John to care for Mary, Jesus’ mother, as if she were John’s mother and for Mary to treat John as if he were her son. James reminds believers to care for widows because as widows, they would have no real means of caring for themselves so the church family needs to love them and care for them as their family. We keep seeing throughout Scripture how we are all brothers and sisters to one another and so we should treat one another and live as such.
And as we celebrate communion this morning, we have a foreshadowing of the great Wedding Feast when Jesus will again take of the bread and wine and sit at that great celebration with us even as we celebrate his last Supper on earth with his disciples, his brothers and friends. At this wedding feast, we will no longer need these instructions and admonitions about how we ought to live because we will be holy, individually and corporately, even as Christ is holy. Our battle with temptation and sin will be over. Our battle with the enemy who seeks to devour us like a roaring lion will be behind us. Christ will wipe every tear from our eyes and we will have the opportunity to enjoy unstained and pure fellowship with him and one another for we, together, will be presented to our heavenly Father as Christ’s radiant church, his bride, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless because of what Christ has done in and for us by his Holy Spirit within. This is a profound mystery indeed.
Let us pray.