The Gospel-Inspired Family (Colossians 3:18-21)
I. The Variety of Legs
When it comes to human beings, there are many different kinds of... legs: short legs, long legs, weak legs, strong legs, hairy legs, smooth legs, fat legs, skinny legs, brown legs, black legs, white legs, young legs, old legs... and the list could go on. We could also talk about legs that have been altered by disease or injury: legs without a foot, legs with nothing below the knee, legs with bum knees, legs with muscular dystrophy, legs suffering from some vascular disease, prosthetic legs, and throughout the Caribbean three-hundred years ago... peg legs.
But all of these differences don't change the fact that God designed the human leg (and every other kind of leg), and he designed our legs to function a certain way. Some of the differences between our legs don't really affect how they function. But some do, and when that's the case, that impairment can be incredibly difficult. Such instances should inspire understanding and support from others, not strange or condescending looks.
Now, even though most people would agree with these observations about legs, sometimes different reasoning is used when it comes to the human... family. Are there many different kinds of families? Of course. But that doesn't change the fact that God designed the human family, and he designed it to function a certain way. Where can we learn more about his design? Look with me at Colossians 3, verse 18-21.
II. The Passage: “As is Fitting in the Lord” (3:18-21)
The book you have before you is actually a letter, a letter sent to Colossae (1:2), a city located about 120 miles east of Ephesus in the Lycus River Valley of what is today western Turkey. Interestingly, the other two cities in this valley are also mentioned in this same letter, in 4:13. Those were the cities of Laodicea and Heirapolis. So what do we find here about family? This is what the Apostle Paul told followers of Jesus living in the city of Colossae (3:18–21)...
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.  Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.  Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
Obviously Paul is speaking here to the family members of a First Century household. In verses 22 through 25 of this same chapter, he also addresses the servants in those households. But this morning, we'll focus on the four family members or family roles Paul highlights here: wives, husbands, children, and fathers (or parents). This group has been called, in more recent times, the nuclear family (that doesn't mean the family glows with radiation; it means this group is a 'kernel' or basic unit). In fact, the nuclear family is the most basic social unit, one that includes a man, a woman, and their offspring. As you would expect with this most basic of social units, the nuclear family is found all over the world, both today and throughout history.
And Paul's instructions in 3:18-21 affirm this reality. He doesn't address grandparents here, does he? He doesn't speak to aunts or uncles, or provide guidance for some other group of adults. He speaks to wives, husbands, children, and fathers (or parents). A woman, a man, and their offspring. This is the basic unit of the family that we find reflected throughout the biblical record. And it isn't simply reflective of those ancient cultures. No. In the opening chapters of the OT, God creates humans as male and female, he then calls them to be fruitful and multiply, and he established marriage as the context in which this multiplication takes place. This is God's design.
To be clear, just like human legs, human families, all over the world and throughout history, have also looked different at times. Death, divorce, dysfunction and a variety of other factors can alter the look of any given family. Some of those factors are beyond our control. Some of those reflect less than ideal, but nevertheless, necessary choices. And some are purely expressions of human selfishness, deception, and/or human hubris, that is, the desire to alter God's design because we believe that we simply know better.
Whatever a family or your family looks like, God's call is that we would let his design be our guiding light when it comes to family healthiness. His desire is that each of us does what we are able to do, given our circumstances, in terms of living by the principles we find here in 3:18-21.
So let's talk about these principles. In order to do that, this morning I'd like us to first consider the context here, and then the specific commands we discover in this passage.
1. The Context
When we talk about the context, we're not only talking about what came right before our main verses, but the major themes we find throughout this letter. When we think about the letter as a whole, it's almost impossible to miss the singular emphasis that dominates the first half of this book, that is, chapters 1 and 2. That emphasis is Christ. Paul begins the book by confirming for them that he and his team “always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus” (1:3). He then goes on, starting in 1:15 to paint this astounding picture of the greatness of Christ, and God's plan that (1:18) “in everything he might be preeminent.” Paul's plans flow from God's plan and Christ's greatness (1:28): “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”
In chapter 2, Paul declares that in Jesus Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (2:3), and that we “have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” (2:10) In light of this, we shouldn't get distracted by practices that “are a shadow of the things to come, [for] the substance belongs to Christ.” (2:17) Instead (look at 3:1), “If [we] have been raised with Christ, [we should] seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. What does that mean for each of us practically? It means we should (3:9) “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” What does this “new self” look like? It means be a people defined by (3:12) “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience...”
More broadly it means (3:17) that in “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus”. So how might we summarize the context here, that is, Paul's emphasis in everything that came before our main passage? I think we can say that Paul is decidedly focused on the importance of both our Redeemer and the redeemed life.
2. The Commands
So with that context in mind, let's look at these household directives, these family commands. The first thing you may have noticed about these instructions is just how simple and straight-forward they are. Paul could talk at length about God's design for husbands and wives. He could talk at length about the instruction of children; about Christ-centered parenting. But his encouragements here are terse and to the point. Why is that?
I think one of the reasons may be that he had limited space and wanted to focus on what he knew were the pressing issues in Colossae. I think another reason may be that he knew these believers already had instruction in this area. So his words are simply simple reminders. But I also think, in providing these simple reminders, Paul is encouraging each family member to keep 'the main thing the main thing'. Let's briefly touch on those 'main things':
First, wives are are called to “submit to [their] husbands”. In the Roman world, some of Paul's readers might have been more used to the word “obey” rather than “submit”. But this idea of submission was familiar to all Christians and deeply grounded in God's design. For example, in addition to submission to our heavenly Father (Hebrews 12:9), believers are called to be submissive or subject to the governing authorities that God has instituted, in our civil society (Romans 13:1; Titus 3:1; I Peter 2:13), but also in the church (I Corinthians 16:16; I Peter 5:5).
This is why Paul speaks in verse 18 about what “is fitting in the Lord”. God has designed spheres of authority, responsibility, and accountability in our world for the purpose of realizing the kind of order that promotes human flourishing. And this design extends to the home, where the husband is placed in this position of authority, responsibility, and accountability. Of course, whether in the civil society, church, workplace, or home, this position does not signify superiority (and thus, inferiority). No. No one is such a position is somehow 'better'. Bu again, all Christians are called to submit in various ways, this includes wives to their husband's leadership.
Second, these husbands, these leaders, are not called in v. 19 to 'rule well' or 'lead wisely' or 'manage mercifully'. They are called to “love [their] wives”. Only a few verses earlier, the Apostle called every follower of Christ to a life of love. 3:14... “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” In light of the teaching we find in the letters of the NT, undoubtedly, these disciples already understood the importance of love in the Christian life, both the love we've received and the love we're called to practice. For these husbands, it was critical that they, as a matter of first importance, apply this in their marriages as well.
As we see in verse 19, this was especially important in light of that sinful default obvious in so many men. “...Love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” What a sad distortion when it comes to leadership, that tendency to be harsh with those entrusted to our care; as if harshness could really create the kind of flourishing we desire in our relationships. But that's what sin does. It distorts. As Paul makes clear here, to be a leader in the home is to be a man of love.
Third, Paul presents in verse 20 another sphere of authority, responsibility, and accountability, this time related to children and their parents: “Children, obey your parents in everything...” I think Paul is speaking here, not to adult children, but to actual children, those who live within the household, under their parent's authority and nurture. While obeying one's parents is a struggle for all kids, in all places and time periods, Paul may have been correcting any misguided thinking about freedom in Jesus, that somehow it meant freedom to do whatever you want. No. To obey one's parents was the true mark of spiritual health, for (v. 19) “this pleases the Lord.”
Finally, after mentioning parents in verse 20, we find one more qualifier or corrective in verse 21. Like Paul's corrective in verse 19, this one also speaks to the reality of the leadership temptations a man will face. If God has called a man to lead his family, then that leadership should not be characterized by a provoking, aggravating, antagonizing spirit. Just as many men can default to harshness with their wives (when things are not going their way), that harshness can also be directed at their kids. Paul warns us about this, and corrects our thinking about the effectiveness of yelling and pressuring and badgering and belittling and dominating our children. Oftentimes, the only result of this approach is what we find in v. 21, “they become discouraged”.
Now, having looked at each command, think with me about how the context should inform our understanding here. For example, it is abundantly clear in this passage that Paul knows he's writing to Christians, who like the rest of us, struggle with sin (or who are, at the very least tempted to be... domineering wives or harsh husbands or unruly children). Why is this important to note? Because as sinners we know our only hope is... our Redeemer and the redeemed life. Do you understand what Christ's redemption means for your marriage and family? You see, the directives Paul details here are not simply a call to submission, love, obedience, and gracious nurture. No. This is a call to gospel-inspired submission... to gospel-inspired love... to gospel-inspired obedience... to gospel-inspired nurture.
What does 'gospel-inspired' mean? It means a Jesus-motivating, a Jesus-imitating, and a Jesus-empowered perspective. The gospel 'connectors' in our passage are phrases like “as is fitting in the Lord” (that's the Lord Jesus!) and “for this pleases the Lord” (that's the Lord Jesus!). In the companion letter to Colossians, the book of Ephesians, Paul spends more time unpacking what is, in many cases, assumed here in Colossians in light of the context. In Ephesians 5:24-25 we read that “as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” How do we submit to Christ? In humility, with love and joy. We also read, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”. Do you see how all of this is informed and inspired by the gospel?
III. Growing in God's Good Design
Brothers and sisters, friends, no matter what your family looks like, every family works best when it works according to God's design. Though all of us are guilty in the 'family failures' department, there is hope in light of the gospel. Not only is there forgiveness for our 'family failures', but there is power, power that transforms. Ladies, that means power to submit with a heart of Jesus-like service. Husbands, that means power to love with a heart of Jesus-like sacrifice. Children, that means power to obey with a heart of Jesus-like submission. Mom/dad, that's power to parent in light of your heavenly Father, the Father who gave us his only Son.
Clearly, there is so much we could and should talk about in terms of what it means to be a godly wife or a godly husband, or to be godly parents. But those conversations must begin with and be rooted in the gospel, rather than popular concepts like “traditional roles” and “family values”. In a society that is morally and relationally adrift, our mission as the church is not to 'lobby' for such things. Our mission is to help people to taste the goodness of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and then, subsequently, the goodness of his design for marriage and the family. And in some cases, it's that gospel-inspired family that points others to the gospel. Is your marriage, is your family growing in God's good design? If it is, give thanks and press on. If not, how might the Good News about Jesus speaks directly to your struggles? And if you aren't married, or are not a parent or child, please pray. Pray for the marriages and families around you. Whoever you are, let's rejoice together in God's design for all of life!
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)
September 18, 2022How to Conquer the Dragon (Revelation 12:11)
September 11, 2022The Heart Where Jesus is Knocking (Revelation 3:20)
September 4, 2022New Heavens, New Earth (II Peter 3:11-13)