Colossians 4
William Kelly Major Works Commentary
Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.
Colossians Chapter 4

It is evident that the first verse of chapter 4 belongs to the special exhortations which occupy the close of chapter 3. Consequently, chapter 4 ought, if the division were accurate according to subjects, to begin at the second verse.

The exhortations to wives and husbands are correlative, also to children and fathers, and to servants and masters, making three pairs of such appeals. There is the difference to be noted that husbands and wives existed from the very first; not so the relation of master and servant. It is clear also, that though children were contemplated from the beginning, in point of fact they did not exist in Paradise. God took care there should be no race, no parent and child, before the fall.

It was when Christ had glorified God perfectly, that Christ became the head of a family. The contrast in this respect is very interesting and beautiful. What confusion, if some had been born in a state of innocence, and others in sin! God ordered things that there should be no family till man was fallen. To increase and multiply, however, was the intention and word of God even then. The relation of masters and slaves (as they are here supposed to be) was solely a result of the entrance of sin into the world. We do not hear of bondmen before the flood, though Noah predicts it of Canaan soon after. I presume that the mighty hunter, Nimrod, was the first that essayed his craft or violence in this direction.

If this be so, there is a remarkable gradation in these relationships; husbands and wives in Paradise, children born after the fall but before the flood, servants not heard of till after that. I do not mean at all that Scripture does not recognize this latter relationship - far from it - only it is well to see that it was one which followed not only the fall, but even the great judgment of God executed on the earth. Thus it is a condition of things very far from being according to God, that men should have their fellows as their property or slaves. And yet even so, "masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal." v. 1. In our countries it is a relationship voluntarily entered into on both sides, and there are corresponding privileges and duties; but here, though it was a case of slaves, the call to masters is to be impartial in their ways with them. And this refers not only to equity as a matter between the master and a slave, but between the slaves generally. There might be much confusion and injury in a household by disturbing the equilibrium between the slaves. The wisdom of God thus provides for everything, even for what respects the despised bondmen. It is here said, "just" - not grace.

You can never demand or claim grace. In writing the epistle to Philemon, the Apostle brings motives of grace to bear upon the case; he does not dictate what Philemon was to do, but reminds him of his heavenly relationship, and leaves it to Philemon's grace. Though the runaway slave was justly liable to be put to death, Roman and indeed any other masters having the right to punish them thus, yet would he have Philemon now receive him again no more as a slave, but as a brother.

Here, however, it is a question of what was "just and equal." For the expression, "just," shows a sense of right; grace in this case would not have been suited, as it would have left the door open more or less. Justice maintains obligations. In Ephesians it is said, "forbearing threatening." It was wrong even to threaten a slave with violent measures. The Colossians, being in a lower condition, are plainly dealt with, and told to be just and equal; it is the recognition of certain responsibilities in which the masters stood to their slaves. Do not you, masters, imagine all duty is on one side; you have yours toward your slaves. This, often forgotten, seems implied in the word "just"; and "equal" forbids the indulgence of favouritism.

The rationalistic philosophy is mainly founded on the endeavour to blot out the word "duty." I have known persons even in the Church disposed to deny anything in this shape as obligatory on the Christian. But it is a fatal error. Grace no doubt alone gives the power, but moral obligations ever remain binding.

The broad-church class talk of holiness, they do not like righteousness. That bias of mind ever tended to explain it away from Scripture. So Grotius used to say that the righteousness of God means His mercy - an idea as dreadful in its way as the common error that the righteousness of God means the law fulfilled. Such entirely deny the standing of the believer; for the law was not made for the righteous, but for the ungodly. Thus theologians are infected by a double error, either that of confounding the righteousness of God with the righteousness of the law, and making this to be both the standing and the rule of the Christian, or that of denying all righteousness in any shape by making it to be merely divine mercy. Both are quite wrong, and one error leads on to another; as truth hangs together, so does error. "Grace reigns through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord." "This is the true grace of God wherein ye stand."

"Persevere in prayer, watching in it with thanksgiving." v. 2. The habit, the persevering habit of prayer, is of immense moment. And as Luke 18, so this chapter presses it strongly, though the Apostle does not look for such far extending and thorough spirit of supplication as in Ephesians 6. Their state did not admit either of like depths of desire or of such large affections for all saints in the bowels of Christ. Legalism, ordinance, philosophy, savour of the creature, not of God rightly known; they are not Christ and are far short of comprehending all that are His. Nevertheless, he does count, here as there, on a mind on the alert to turn occasions of difficulty or blessing, joy or sorrow, anything, everything, into matter for spreading before God; and this in a spirit not of murmuring anxiety, but of grateful acknowledgment of His goodness, and confidence in Him. How blessed that even the groaning of the Spirit in the believer supposes deliverance, and not mere selfish sense of evil! Not of course that the deliverance is complete or evil yet put down by power from on high and actually cleared out of the scene. But we know the victory won in Christ's death and resurrection, and having the earnest of the Spirit, feel the contrariety of present things to that glory of which He gives us the sense in Christ now exalted, the hope for all saints at His coming.

The consciousness of the favour already shown and secured to us in Christ makes us thankful while we ask of God all good things suitable to it now, worthy of it in result by-and-by when evil disappears by His power. Yet it is remarkable to see how the Apostle values and asks for the prayers of saints - "praying at the same time also for us that God may open to us a door of the word to speak the mystery of Christ, on account of which also I am bound." v. 3. The value of united prayer is great; but God makes much of individual waiting on Him and very especially as in the interests of His Church and the gospel - of Christ in short - here below. How little the Apostle was discouraged even at this late day! He writes to the Colossians, from his bondage because of his testimony to that very mystery of Christ which he still desired to be the object of their supplication on his behalf with God, "that I may make it manifest as I ought to speak" (v. 4).

Next, he reverts to their own need of walking wisely, considering those outside, and seizing the fit opportunity, though I doubt not the service of prayer such as we have seen, would have issued in their own blessing as truly as in good to others. "Walk in wisdom with those without, buying up the time. Let your speech be always in grace, seasoned with salt, to know how ye ought to answer each one." vv. 5, 6. Grace gives us the rich glow of divine favour to the undeserving, the display of what God is in Christ to those who belong to this guilty ruined world; salt presents the guard of holiness, the preservative energy of God's rights in the midst of corruption. It is not said, "always with salt," seasoned with grace, but "always with grace, seasoned with salt." Grace should ever be the groundwork and the spring of all we say. No matter how much we may differ, righteousness must be maintained inviolate.

It is this combination of divine love in the midst of an evil world, with uncompromising maintenance of what is due to God's holy and righteous will, that teaches the Christian not merely what but how to answer each one as he ought.

Next come personal messages (vv. 7-18). Observe the remarkable care of the Apostle to sustain and commend true-hearted labourers, knowing well the tone of detraction natural to men who can see the failings of those whose service left themselves far behind. ``Tychicus, my beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow-bondman in the Lord, all my affairs shall make known to you, whom I have sent to you for this very purpose, that he may know your matters and may comfort your hearts; with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is [one] of you: they shall make known to you all things here." vv. 7-9. This exuberance of affectionate commendation is greatly to be weighed. The lack of it tends to loosen and dislocate the bonds of charity among the saints. Remark further, that love counts on the interest of others in our affairs quite as much as it feels a real concern in hearing of theirs. Among men such a feeling is either unknown, or where it exists is but vanity; but then love, divine love, is not there. And love must exist and be known in order to understand its workings and effects. Truly it is called in this epistle the bond of perfectness.

"Aristarchus, my fellow-captive, saluteth you, and Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received orders (if he come to you, receive him), and Jesus that is called Justus, who are of the circumcision: these [are the] only fellow-workers unto the kingdom of God which have been a comfort to me." vv. 10, 11. There is a singular change in comparing the notices here with those in Philemon. Aristarchus is here a sharer of the Apostle's captivity, as there Epaphras is; while there Aristarchus is a fellow-labourer of the Apostle with others, as Epaphras is here spoken of - at least as a bondman of Christ. They may have shared the Apostle's imprisonment successively, as some one has suggested. It is certain that Aristarchus was his companion not only in Asia, but during his voyage to Italy. This would tend to show, I think, that this epistle to the Colossians was written at least a little before that to Philemon, though both may be supposed to have been written at the same general date and to have been forwarded by the same hands from the Apostle, a prisoner at Rome.

How beautiful too is the grace which enjoined distinctly the reception of Mark! Remembrance of the past would else have forbidden a cordial welcome to himself, and so must have hindered his ministry among the saints. Thus, if here we learn the secret of Barnabas's leaning (for he was his kinsman), when the breach occurred with the Apostle in earlier days, we learn that real love is as generous as faithful, acts at all cost for the Lord, and where requisite, spite of paining nature, but rejoices to praise aloud and heartily where the grace of God has intervened to the removal of the impediment. Of Jesus called Justus we know no more than that. Like Mark. he was of the circumcision; and, like him too, consoled the Apostle as a fellow-servant - a rare thing among those who had been used to the law and its prejudices. The Justus of Acts 18:7 was a Gentile proselyte. Barsabas, the candidate for the apostolate, who was a Jew of course, was so surnamed, but not called Jesus like the one in question.

"Epaphras saluteth you, who is [one] of you, a bondman of Christ Jesus, always striving for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all [the] will of God. For I bear him witness that he hath much toil for you, and those in Laodicea, and those in Hierapolis." vv. 12, 13. It would be a joy for the saints at Colosse to know that Epaphras, himself a Colossian as well as Onesimus, did not stand higher in the love and value of the Apostle (Colossians 1:7) than in earnest remembrance of themselves in his prayers for their blessing before God. Remark too that the doctrine of the epistle (that we are filled full according to all the fullness that is in Christ), far from excluding, is the basis of desire and intercession for the saints, that they may be practically perfect and fully assured in everything about which God has a will. There was no such narrowness as shut him up to a single assembly, though there was the affectionate recollection of need where saints and circumstances were specially known to him.

"Luke, the beloved physician, saluteth you, and Demas." v. 14. The occupation of Luke was not blotted out because he was a saint and a servant of Christ, and even an inspired writer. Demas, I should gather, was even now distrusted by the Apostle, who mentions his name with an ominous silence and without an endearing word - a thing unusual with the Apostle. Even to Philemon, about the same time, he is "my fellow-labourer." In 2 Timothy he had forsaken the Apostle, having loved the present age. The steps of declension were rapid; no testimony tells of his recovery. But a more extensive falling off was at hand (2 Timothy 1:15); for, the ice once broken, many were ready to slip through. As for the Apostle, he had fought the fight, he had finished his course, he had kept the faith. The men who were little known for building up were active for leading astray; as one of this world's sages has said, The hand that could not build a hut can destroy a palace. Nevertheless God's firm foundation stands.

"Salute the brethren in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the assembly in his house. And when the epistle has been read among you, cause that it be read also in the assembly of Laodicea, and that ye also read that from Laodicea." vv. 15, 16. Whether this letter be that commonly known as the epistle to the Ephesians (and having a circular character), or that to Philemon (who may probably have resided in or near Laodicea), or whether it refers to a letter no longer extant (possibly a letter from Laodicea to Paul, literally), have been questions much contested among learned men. Two remarks may be made which seem clear and certain. 1) The epistle from Laodicea would be indeed a strange way of describing an epistle written to the church there. It would be natural enough, if it meant a letter which was then there and intended for the Colossian saints also, to whomsoever it may have been addressed. 2) There is nothing to forbid the view that more letters were written than we possess, God preserving only those which were designed for the permanent guidance of the saints. But that the one alluded to here is a lost letter, addressed to Laodicea, is wholly unproved. It is also obvious that the Colossian epistle was directed to be passed on to Laodicea. The letter the Laodiceans were to forward to Colosse may have been addressed to them, but the description necessitates no such conclusion.

What links of love and mutual profit among the assemblies!

"And say to Archippus, See to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfill it." v. 17. The brethren cannot forego their responsibility and exercise of godly discipline; but ministry is received from and in the Lord. The assembly never appoints to service in the word, but Christ, the Head, though apostles or their delegates (never the Church) acted for Him when it was a question of local charge.

Finally comes "the token in every epistle" - at least in his regular province as Apostle of the uncircumcision: "The salutation by the hand of me, Paul. Remember my bonds. Grace be with you." v. 18.

Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving;
Withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds:
That I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak.
Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time.
Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.
All my state shall Tychicus declare unto you, who is a beloved brother, and a faithful minister and fellowservant in the Lord:
Whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose, that he might know your estate, and comfort your hearts;
With Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They shall make known unto you all things which are done here.
Aristarchus my fellowprisoner saluteth you, and Marcus, sister's son to Barnabas, (touching whom ye received commandments: if he come unto you, receive him;)
And Jesus, which is called Justus, who are of the circumcision. These only are my fellowworkers unto the kingdom of God, which have been a comfort unto me.
Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you, always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.
For I bear him record, that he hath a great zeal for you, and them that are in Laodicea, and them in Hierapolis.
Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you.
Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house.
And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.
And say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it.
The salutation by the hand of me Paul. Remember my bonds. Grace be with you. Amen.
Kelly Commentary on Books of the Bible

Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

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