Working unto the Lord
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” If you are a Christian, the odds are that you have had someone recite these words from the Apostle Paul to you. Colossians 3:23 is one of those punchy verses from Scripture that gets posted on social media and quoted by professional athletes. And for good reason, for it is encouraging in its bold assertion of truth. What Christian doesn’t want to serve God well?
But as sometimes happens with verses that are pulled from their context, we can start to lose the full meaning of God’s words and miss the importance of what God is saying to his beloved people. Colossians 3:23 is certainly motivational speech, but we too often let that aspect eclipse its roots in God’s grace and love for us.
Before we can work heartily for the Lord, we first need to understand the work that God has done in us.
Importantly, Colossians 3:23 comes in the context of a larger letter to the Colossian church. From the rest of Paul’s letter we can gather that the Colossians knew the glorious news of the Gospel. Epaphras, Paul’s fellow minister in the gospel, had preached it to them (Colossians 1:7), and they had received it in their hearts, believed, were baptized, and had begun life together in their new community (Colossians 1:9-14).
However, the Colossian church still needed a lot of guidance. Apparently, quarrels had broken out between members of the church over questions about what true obedience entailed. Did it mean adopting a more ascetic life or worshiping angels (Colossians 2:18)? There may even have been questions about issues which Paul elsewhere described as matters of Christian liberty (Colossians 2:20-23; Romans 14:1-12).
Rather than begin with detailed instruction about what to do and what not to do, Paul brings the Colossians back to what Christ had already done for them: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above” (Colossians 3:1).
Earlier, he reminded them how Christ delivered them all from the domain of darkness and transferred them to the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:13). The image is that of a dramatic prisoner rescue. We were enslaved to our sin, servants of the prince of the earth. On our own, there was no hope of escape. But on the cross, Christ purchased our lives and rescued us from our sin. We have been set free, not to live unto ourselves but to live as faithful servants of our Savior and God.
And because Christ has already accomplished these things, Paul says, we are able to put off the dirty garment which was our old selves and put on the white-washed cloak of Christ. Now that power of the word of Christ dwells in you richly, you can serve God well.
Notice Paul’s intentionality in ordering the indicative and the imperative. We don’t serve the Lord heartily in order to secure God’s favor, or love, or salvation; we serve God heartily as a grateful response to what he has already done for us. This is the way God’s grace works and it has been good news for his people since the very beginning (see Exodus 20:1-2).
In other words, our work is an offering unto the Lord to whom we belong. It shouldn’t be a constant source of worry, prompting constant questions like, “Am I doing enough?” or “Does my boss like me?”
Rather, we should see our work as an opportunity to worship God and give him praise. In our work, we have the opportunity to declare our ultimate allegiance to God, content in whatever we are working on at the moment because we are firmly secured in the hands of our Savior.