Exhortations to Seek the Things Above, 1-11
3:1 Therefore, if you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
We are very aware these days of our smallness and apparent insignificance within an almost infinite universe; but this placing of the man Christ Jesus at the right hand of the Creator puts things in a very different perspective. So, because Christ in his glory does not consider himself apart from us, so we should not consider ourselves apart from him. Where he is now, we shall one day be, Jn 14:1-3; as he is now, we shall one day be, Jn 17:22-4. But then what we are and should be even now is defined by Christ in his risen and ascended state, Col 3:1,3 Eph 2:4-6.
‘In baptism the Christian dies and rises again. As the waters close over him, it is as if he was buried in death; as he emerges from the waters, it is like being resurrected to a new life. Now, if that is so, the Christian must rise from baptism a different man. Wherein is the difference? It lies in the fact that now the thoughts of the Christian must be set on the things which are above. He can no longer be concerned with the trivial passing things of earth; he must be totally concerned with the eternal verities of heaven.’ (DSB)
Christ is seated at the right hand of God – Cf. Acts 2:33-35; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20.
3:2 Keep thinking about things above, not things on the earth, 3:3 for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 3:4 When Christ (who is your life) appears, then you too will be revealed in glory with him.
Set your minds on things above – or, as the Living Bible puts it, ‘Let heaven fill your thoughts.’ ‘Focusing on heavenly things puts earthly things in perspective. The Christian’s real home is where Christ lives. (Jn 14:2-3) This truth gives us a different perspective on our life here on earth. To “let heaven fill your thoughts” means to look at life from God’s perspective and to seek what he desires. This is the antidote to materialism; we gain the proper perspective on material goods when we take God’s view of them. The more we regard the world around us as God does, the more we will live in harmony with him. We must not become too attached to what is only temporary.’ (HBA)
Your life is now hidden with Christ – The life of the new creature is a hidden life. It is hidden in that it is Christ’s safe-keeping, Jn 3:16; 10:28; Rom 8:31-39. It is also hidden in that the world does not see or understand it, 1 Cor 2:14; 1 Jn 3:2.
‘The nature of that life is not only hidden totally from all carnal men, but in a very great measure it is hidden and unknown life unto spiritual men, though themselves be the subjects of it.’ (Flavel)
Our lives are said to be hidden with Christ in God because Christ himself is ‘in the Father’ and the Father is ‘in Christ’, Jn 1:18; 10:30; 17:21; 1 Cor 3:23; Col 1:15.
When Christ, who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory – our life is not only hidden with Christ, v3, it actually is Christ. ‘As in Rom 8:18 ff, or 1 Jn 3:1 ff, the Christian hopes not merely for the coming of the Lord, but for the full revelation of what he or she already is. Then will it be seen with what faithful diligence and perseverance many outwardly “unsuccessful” and forgotten Christian workers have served their Lord. Paul, the prisoner, an eccentric Jew to the Romans and a worse-than-Gentile traitor to the Jews, will be seen as Paul the apostle, the servant of the King. The Colossians, insignificant ex-pagans from a third-rate country two, will be seen in a glory which, if it were now to appear, one might be tempted to worship. This is how they are to regard their life, and on this foundation they are to build genuine holiness and Christian maturity.’ (Wright)
Kefa was terrified. He thought to himself, “They won’t need to kill me, I’m going to drop dead anyway.” But then, he said, “From far away I heard a voice, and I was astonished to realise that it was my own. “I do not need to plead my own cause,” I heard myself saying. “I am a dead man already. My life is dead and hidden with Christ. It is your lives that are in danger, you are dead in your sins. I will pray to God that after you have killed me, he will spare you from eternal destruction.”‘
That came as quite a surprise to Kefa, but what happened next was even more amazing. The leader of the gang, who a moment earlier had been threatening to kill him, visibly changed. He said to the pastor, “Will you pray for us now?” And suddenly the tables were turned. Instead of Kefa facing death, he was able to offer these men life eternal life. And so he prayed with them, there and then. All five men in that gang went on to become members of Kefa’s church.’
(Coupland, Spicing up your Speaking, 31f)
3:5 So put to death whatever in your nature belongs to the earth: sexual immorality, impurity, shameful passion, evil desire, and greed which is idolatry. 3:6 Because of these things the wrath of God is coming on the sons of disobedience. 3:7 You also lived your lives in this way at one time, when you used to live among them.
Whatever in your nature belongs to the earth – Keener (IVP Bible Background Commentary) thinks that Paul is being ironic. The errorists who were influencing God’s people had adopted a Greek view, according to which one’s soul was heavenly and one’s body was earthly (and therefore of no importance). Using their own language, Paul asserts that what one does with one’s body is important.
There appears to have been an antinomian tendency within the ‘Colossian heresy’, and led to people thinking lightly of chastity and similar virtues.
‘Let no man think to kill sin with few, easy, or gentle strokes. He who has once smitten a serpent, if he does not follow on his blow until he be slain, may repent that ever he began the quarrel. And so will he who undertakes to deal with sin and pursues it not constantly to death. Sin will after a while revive, and the man must die. It is a great and fatal mistake if we suppose this work will admit of any remissness or intermission.’ (John Owen)
‘Be killing sin or it will be killing you.’ (John Owen)
Cf. Rom 8:13.
The wrath of God – Attempts have been made to interpret ‘the wrath of God’ as an impersonal process of cause and effect. Barclay (DSB), for example, says, ‘The wrath of God is simply the rule of the universe that a man will sow what he reaps and that no one ever escapes the consequences of his sin. The wrath of God and the moral order of the universe are one and the same thing.’ But this is not what Paul says.
Wright comments on the nature of divine wrath and its present and future aspects:
‘”The wrath of God”, it hardly needs saying, is not a malicious or capricious anger, but the necessary reaction of true holiness, justice and goodness to wickedness, exploitation and evil of every kind. This wrath begins to take effect in the squalid and degrading effects of sin itself (Rom. 1:18–32). But that process is not the whole of ‘wrath’: it leads to the final judgment (see Rom. 1:32; 2:1–16). The present tense in Colossians 3:6 refers, perhaps deliberately, to both these senses of God’s wrath, though ‘is coming’ (NIV, RSV) emphasizes the future aspect.’
(Wright, it should perhaps be noted, expounds in his commentary the notion of hell as the end result of a process of dehumanising. He has more to say about this in his later work, Surprised by Hope. He may be correct in claiming that this idea makes ‘the difficult doctrine of hell’ more comprehensible today; but it is less clear that this is quite what is actually taught in Scripture.)
3:8 But now, put off all such things as anger, rage, malice, slander, abusive language from your mouth. 3:9 Do not lie to one another since you have put off the old man with its practices 3:10 and have been clothed with the new man that is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the one who created it.
(Coupland, Spicing up your Speaking, 52.)
…according to the image of the one who created it – Adoption, says Thomas Watson, is more than a name. ‘A man adopts one for his son and heir that does not at all resemble him; but whosoever God adopts for his child is like him; he not only bears his heavenly Father’s name, but his image.’
3:11 Here there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all.
Christ is all, and is in all – Or, as J.B. Phillips renders it, ‘Christ is all that matters.’
Christ is all and in all – in his divine fullness, Col 2:9; his creative power, Col 1:16; his superintending providence, Col 1:17; and his redemptive achievement, Eph 1:7.
‘Within this new humanity there is no inferiority of one class to another. Men and women of completely different origins are gathered together in unity in Christ, sharing a common allegiance to their Lord. Christ is all that matters; he lives in all members of his body, regardless of race, class or background, giving them life and power.’ (NBC)
Exhortation to Unity and Love, 12-17
3:12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 3:13 bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if someone happens to have a complaint against anyone else. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also forgive others.
Cf. Eph 4:32.
3:14 And to all these virtues add love, which is the perfect bond.
Over all these virtues put on love – Over all these other articles of clothing, put on love. Cf. v12 for the beginning of the clothing metaphor.
Love, which binds them all together in perfect unity – See how comprehensive and all-embracing is Christian love!
3:15 Let the peace of Christ be in control in your heart (for you were in fact called as one body to this peace), and be thankful.
This is a widely mis-interpreted verse. It is often taken to refer to personal guidance – ‘Let a feeling of peace be the guide to personal decision-making.’ However, the context (vv12-17) determines that it is relationships within the church – how to get on as Christians – which is in view here.
‘The word rule comes from the language of athletics: Paul wanted the believers to let Christ’s peace be umpire or referee in their hearts. Peace would arbitrate, decide any argument, and thereby restrain any of the passions of the old nature that might threaten. Peace would settle any friction and strife so the believers could remain strong and unified. Peace must rule hearts. As in Col 3:1, the heart is the center of a person’s being, the center of spiritual and moral life. If peace rules there, it rules every believer’s entire life and, by extension, the life of the church.’ (Life Application Bible Commentary)
Moo summarises: ‘Without sacrificing principle, believers should relate to one another in a way that facilitates and demonstrates the peace that Christ has secured for them (cf. Rom. 14:19).’
3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and exhorting one another with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, all with grace in your hearts to God. 3:17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
This verse connects with the whole context (vv12-17), which is about relationships within the church, and answers the question (which arises from v16, ‘What kind of peace is required, and how is this established.’ It is not, for example, the kind of outward peace which is achieved by church union which lacks agreement on essentials.
The word of Christ – This exact phrase occurs only here. Elsewhere, we have ‘the word of the Lord’, 1Th 1:8; 4:15; 2 Thess 3:1, or, yet more frequently, ‘the word of God’. Paul is particularly concerned to exalt Christ in this letter.
Sing – Indicating ‘lyrical emotion in a devout soul.’ (Robertson)
Psalms – The Psalms of the OT were originally sung with musical accompaniment.
Hymns – Praises to God composed by Christians, as in 1 Tim 3:16.
With gratitude in your hears to God – Or, ‘with grace’ (Gk ‘chariti’). Only those are fitted to lead in the worship of Christ as Saviour who have God’s grace in their hearts.
‘It is interesting to see that from the beginning the Church was a singing Church. It inherited that from the Jews, for Philo tells us that often they would spend the whole night in hymns and songs. One of the earliest descriptions of a Church service we possess is that of Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia, who sent a report of the activities of the Christians to Trajan, the Roman Emperor, in which he said, “They meet at dawn to sing a hymn to Christ as God.” The gratitude of the Church has always gone up to God in praise and song.’ (DSB)
According to Stott, this verse teaches that I am to treat other people as if I were Jesus Christ. For that is the meaning of doing everything in his name, of doing it as his representative. I must learn to treat other people as Jesus would treat them. But verse 23 gives the other side of the coin: to ‘do everything as to the Lord, and not to men’ means treating people as if they were Christ. What a difference it would make to my relationships if we were to treat other people as if they were Christ and as if I were Christ!
Exhortation to Households, 18-25
3:18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 3:19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be embittered against them.
Paul moves from a sublime picture of the worshiping church to the seemingly mundane matter of Christian behaviour in the home. But it is in the home that one is most truly oneself, and it is here, before anywhere else, that Christian faith must be real and authentic. We may see this entire ethical section ‘as a sustained exposition of the rule of Christ.’ (Lucas)
‘In Col 3:18-4:1 we are shown how the general principles of Christian behaviour laid down in Col 3:12-17 are to be applied in the special relationships of the Christian home…It is in the closest and most familiar relationships of daily living that the reality of Christianity will be manifest, if at all.” (Bruce)
Similar codes of behaviour are found in Eph 5:21-6; Tit 2:2-10; 1 Pet 2:18-3:7. F.F. Bruce thinks that such summaries of Christian behaviour formed part of a body of catechesis in the early church. Similar codes are also found in a number of early post-biblical writings. Jews and pagans also compiled such rules, but those of the NT are not merely imitations of these. It is true that common grace has led many to formulate many good and wise principles, and these are not to be scrapped by Christians. But Christian principles of conduct will contain unique elements, not only appealing to ‘the Lord’ but also establishing a Christian balance with regard to the duties and responsibilities of the various members.
The ‘household code’ of Col 3:18-4:1 could in some ways be regarded as the climax of Paul’s argument in this epistle. If Paul has earlier been using language that subverts the empire and its oppressive practices, this would be to no avail if he were now to affirm a patriarchal household structure with its oppressive control. Keesmaart (Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible) argues that Paul subverts the hierarchy of the household in three ways:-
- He addresses not only the head of the household – the husband, father, master – but also women, children, and slaves. They are given ‘the dignity of participation’ to those who would seldom have been given that dignity.
- He plays on the word ‘kyrios’ (obscured in most English translations), especially in v22 – ‘masters in the flesh’/’the Master’.
- He assures slaves of their ‘inheritance’, v24. This evokes the language of the year of Jubilees, Lev 25, and suggests that in the story of Jesus, slaves are to be set free.
‘By showing that the “stronger” and “weaker” parties in every relationship are equally accountable to Christ, Paul here lays bare their mutual obligations towards one another, for in a one-sided world it would come as a great surprise to some Christians to learn that wives, children, and slaves had rights as well as husbands, parents and masters.’ (Wilson)
Having stated, in Col 3:11 that ‘here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all’, it may be that Paul is urging them not to misuse their freedom in Christ. In the wife’s case, ‘it is precisely because, in Christ, the Christian wife has been set free from the age-old downgrading of her kind in pagan societies, now to enjoy equality with her husband as “joint heirs of the grace of life” 1 Pet 3:7 that she must take special care in her behaviour not to cause unnecessary and harmful reactions among her non-Christian neighbours.’ (Lucas)
‘Paul arranges his discussion so as to list in each instance the subordinate figure first (wife, child, slave, 3:18, 20, 22) with admonitions to submit to or obey their counterparts (husband, parent, master)…In each case, he mentions the subordinate member of the relationship and then addresses the responsibility of his or her counterpart. Significantly, Paul never reverses these. Paul never says “husbands be submissive to your wives, parents obey your children, or masters obey your slaves.” This kind of “reciprocity” was never intended in Eph 5:21, nor is it implied in Colossians.’ (Evangelical Commentary on the Bible)
‘Society’s standards were altered, not abrogated, by the church. “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect… Those who have believing masters are not to show less respect for them because they are brothers.” (1Ti 6:1-2) This was true even if the master was harsh. (1 Pet 2:18) Even in the church masters are never told to be submissive to their slaves. This aspect of the relationship is not reciprocal, nor is it for husbands and wives or parents and children. Relationships did not change just because of conversion. If one was converted while a slave he did not become free just because his master was a Christian.’ (1 Cor 7:21-22; 1 Tim 6:2; 1 Pet 2:18) (Evangelical Commentary on the Bible)
‘Paul’s teaching in these verses in Colossians seems to be that submission to appropriate authority is no problem where that authority figure is Christ-like. No one who gazes at the cross has any problem in submitting to the lordship of Jesus Christ. And no slave of Paul’s day would have trouble acknowledging his master’s authority when that master treated him fairly and justly, knowing that he, too, has a Master in heaven. (Col 4:1) No wife should have a problem accepting her husband as head of the house when that husband loves her as Christ loved the church, giving himself up for her.’ (Col 3:19; Eph 5:25) (Evangelical Commentary on the Bible)
Wright quotes C.S.Lewis: ‘If the home is to be a means of grace it must be a place of rules…the alternative to rule is not freedom but the unconstitutional (and often unconscious) tyranny of the most selfish member.’ And Wright adds: ‘As in improvised music, spontaneity and freedom do not mean playing out of tune.’
Wives, submit to your husbands – It is tempting to some to react to this by suggesting that Paul is teaching an application of Christian love that was relevant in his own day, but that we must find our own, different applications. In other words, there is a temptation to relativise this command. But, as Wright says, it would be a bold person who would assert that the model of marriage which is prevalent in the contemporary non-Christian world is superior to that suggested by Paul.
Paul’s thought on the relationship between wives and husbands is wonderfully elaborated in Eph 5:21-6:4 as reflecting the relationship between the church and Christ. ‘Hence Christian wives must understand that equality within the sphere of grace, Gal 3:28 1 Pet 3:7 does not set aside the God-given order for marriage.’ (Wilson)
Note Eph 5:21, where Paul places the specific subjection of the wife to the husband within the wider context of all being subject to one another.
‘All ancient moralists insisted that wives should “submit” to their husbands, but few would have stopped short of using the term “obey,” as Paul does here (cf. Col 3:20, 22).’ (NT Background Cmt’y)
The ‘submission’ here ‘is not that of the slave, or the doormat’. (Wright) It certainly does not mean inferiority. (see Gal 3:28) Nor does it mean identity of role or function (Wright again). The wife must not usurp the husband’s rule in here life.
But if ‘subjection’ does not mean servile bondage, what does it means? ‘In the New Testament vocabulary it describes the normal obligations laid upon all men and women as citizens, and upon some men and women as soldiers, young people, workers and wives, Rom 13:1; Lk 7:8; 1 Pet 5:5; 2:18; 3:1. It implies that God has so providentially ordered human affairs that a measure of authority must needs be exercised and recognised if human society is to hold together…What the apostle is teaching, then, is that the family unit is no exception to a universal rule. Even within this small social unit, marked as God intended by love, care and encouragement, there must necessarily be a recognition of a divinely given order.’ (Lucas)
The submission of the wife to the husband does not imply that she is anything less than his equal. Gal 3:28 makes this clear enough. And, ‘if the Son is simultaneously equal with the Father and submissive to the Father, then equality and submissiveness can co-exist also in human relationships’ (Lucas).
The submission of the wife to the husband is fitting in the Lord. It is clear from this that Paul’s rationale is theological, rather than social. A Christian woman’s relation to her husband is intended to mirror her commitment to her Lord (Lucas). We should all ask, “What does it mean to call Christ ‘Lord’?” The present verse encapsulates what it means for the Christian wife.
This love is not just affection or sexual attraction. The husband’s love for his wife means that he will put her interests first, just as Christ put the interests of the church first. (see Eph 5:21-33)
The teaching of this verse is distinctively Christian. It would not be found in pagan lists of household rules.
‘How characteristic of the New Testament to command love!’ (Lucas)
Lucas expresses the complementary relationship between v18 and v19. ‘How natural to love a loyal wife! And who would not want to remain loyal to a truly loving husband!’
‘He saith not, Rule over them, subdue them if they will not submit, but love them, and so win them to your will; make their yoke as easy as may be, for they stand on even ground with you, as yoke-fellows, through they draw on the left side.’ (John Trapp)
Do not be harsh with them – ‘a salutary reminder that bitterness easily creeps into human dealings and then justifies itself so as to become even more deeply entrenched. A wife can disappoint a man’s hopes and ambitions, failing to live up to his unrealistic ideals for her (which are often an unconscious compensation for his own inadequacies). Tiredness and ill-temper mean that such feelings of disappointment quickly find expression in harsh words.’ (Lucas)
‘Many who are polite to all outsiders, “nevertheless treat their wives and children at home with covert bitterness, because they do not fear them” (Bengel). And, as Lenski observes, this negative is also a litotes which points to the contrary virtue: “ever be considerate toward them in the way described in Eph 5:28, etc.”‘ (Wilson)
3:20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing in the Lord. 3:21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they will not become disheartened.
In addressing children in this way, Paul regards them as members of the Christian community.
With this command to children, together with the following command to parents, Paul summarises ‘in a couple of crisp sentences…what thousands of books on the upbringing of children have struggled to express’ (Wright).
‘Disobedient children are one of the more disagreeable and alarming signs of decay in a Christian culture. It means that biblical sanity is on the way out, and it is particularly distressing when propagated in the name of kindness and progress.’ (Lucas)
Children’s obedience is to be comprehensive: they are urged to obey their parents in everything.
Such obedience pleases the Lord. Paul makes obedience to parents a religious service. This provides the motivation, and also places some boundary around the obedience: children should not obey their parents if it meant doing something that they knew did not please the Lord. But then again Paul has the Christian family in mind, and so this should not be an issue.
Both verses 20 and 21 are necessary. Emphasise the first, and discipline becomes everything,. Stress the second, ‘and the rights of the individual child are allowed to range free, trampling the rights of family, friends, neighbours and anyone else in the way, for fear lest young life be crushed or twisted’ (Wright).
‘History and literature show how often children have received little but curses,while nothing has been asked from them but cringing servility. In such a situation the rule of Christ is as revolutionary as ever.’ (Lucas)
We might ask how interested our children are – any of us are – in pleasing (delighting) the Lord.
Fathers – the word can sometimes refer to either parent, Heb 11:23, although it is likely that Paul is thinking here of the role of the father within God’s created order.
Embitter– or, ‘provoke’. In how many ways might parents ‘provoke’ a child? By harsh punishments, endless criticism, constant nagging, fault-finding, belittling, expecting the child to be a carbon copy of themselves, or of their fantasies. In how many homes does the most common type of communication between parents and children consist of, “Don’t do this…don’t do that?” But Paul here aims his ‘don’t’ against the parents.
All of this will lead to a child becoming discouraged, or ‘dispirited’. ‘Hearing continually, both verbally and non-verbally, that they are of little value, they come to believe it, and either sink down in obedient self-hatred or ever-react with boastful but anxious self-assertion. The parents’ duty is, in effect, to live out the gospel to the child: that, is to assure their children that they are loved and accepted and valued for who they are, not for who they ought to be, should have been, or might (if only they tried a little harder) become…When the parent is obedient to the vocation of genuine love, the child’s obedience may become, like that of the Christian to God, a glad and loving response. Such obedience is “pleasing to the Lord” (as the Greek expresses it), not merely because he desires order but because he wants all his people to follow the often paradoxical, self-denying, Christlike road to true and mature selfhood.’ (Wright)
‘It is no use such a father bemoaning the inability of his children to be strong and self-reliant like himself, since he has used his strength to crush and undermine them.’ (Lucas)
‘Most ancient fathers and educators beat their children as a matter of course; like a minority of ancient moralists, Paul advocates a more gentle approach to child rearing.’ (NT Background Cmt’y)
3:22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in every respect, not only when they are watching—like those who are strictly people-pleasers—but with a sincere heart, fearing the Lord. 3:23 Whatever you are doing, work at it with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not for people, 3:24 because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward. Serve the Lord Christ. 3:25 For the one who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there are no exceptions. 4:1 Masters, treat your slaves with justice and fairness, because you know that you also have a master in heaven.
Paul has just asserted that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, Col 3:11. But how does this work out in a society in which inequalities abound? The answer, for Paul, is not to recommend the wholesale abolition of slavery (to expect him to have done so would be to engage in what Lohse calls ‘unhistorical thinking’). But Paul did envisage a new kind a relationship between slave and master: one which he applied to the particular case of Onesimus and Philemon, and which did lead to the humanisation of the institution of slavery and ultimately to its demise in civilised societies.
Paul makes essentially one point in three different ways:-
- Give yourselves wholly to the work in hand, with sincerity and reverence to the Lord. The slave is set free from ‘men-pleasing’. A great temptation for workers is to do a good job either because the boss is watching them, or in order to impress the boss.
- Work with all your heart, as for the Lord, not for men, v23. The slave is set free to work wholeheartedly.
- Your heavenly ‘master’ will reward you for the good work you do, and indeed with repay for the wrong you do, vv24f. The slave is set free to work for a proper reward.
Obey your earthly masters in everything – At first sight, this seems to nail down the practice of slavery more tightly than ever. But v23 will make it that the Christian slave is not serving his earthly master, but the Lord.
Not only when their eye is on you and to win their favour – ‘Slaves in general might work hard when the master’s eye or the foreman’s eye was on them; they might slack off as soon as they could get away with it. And why not? They owed their masters nothing. Far more culpable is the attitude of the modern “clock-watcher,” who has contracted to serve his employer and receives an agreed remuneration for his labour. But the Christian slave – of the Christian employee today has the highest of all motives for faithful and conscientious performance of duty: he is above all things else a servant of Christ, and he will work first and foremost so as to please him.’ (Bruce)
Paul’s point (which is applicable to all levels of employment) ‘is that the Christian at work must be a whole person, totally given to the task in hand, not merely doing the minimum required to avoid rebuke, with a show of effort when one is being observed. That attitude shows no reverence for the Lord who has called all his people to full, single-hearted human living. Even when they are treated like animals or worse, slaves are still to regard themselves as fully human beings.’ (Wright)
This verse teaches that the performance of the meanest of tasks is for the Christian an act of worship.
‘Here is the secret for all who work for other men, whether they are slaves or free employees: “Throw your soul into the work as if your one employer were the Lord!”‘ (Lenski)
As to the Lord and not for people – See Stott’s comment above, on v17. It is going further than Paul’s teaching in the present verse to say, as is often popularly said, that we encounter Christ in everyone. In fact, Scripture does not teach that at all. Paul is not saying here that we are serving Christ in other people, but rather that we are to serve others as if we we serving Christ. The sense, in context, is that Christian slaves serve their earthly masters precisely because they have a higher Master, who confers on them dignity in their work.
You will receive an inheritance from the Lord – This is ironic, since slaves could not inherit property.
It is the Lord Christ you are serving – An earthly master has paid for you in shekels; but you have a higher Master who has paid for you with his blood.
Several commentators point out that this expression could well be translated as an imperative: ‘Serve the Lord Christ!’
Just as the slave would receive due reward for his good service, v24, so he will be held accountable for any wrong he has done.’
‘As masters are reminded in Eph 6:9 that “there is no respect of persons,” no acceptance of a man’s face, no partiality shown because of his social standing; so here slaves are warned that their low position will not protect them from the same just judgment of their misdeeds.’ (Wilson)
See 2 Cor 5:10. Salvation is according to grace. But judgment is according to works, even for believers. What we sow here, we reap hereafter.