In this section, Paul gives insight to how Christians should behave in the major personal relationships of daily life. In 3:18-19, he speaks of husbands and wives, in 3:20-21 he speaks of parents and children, and from 3:22-4:1, masters and slaves, or today we would say employers and employees. If you think about it, we spend most of our waking lives in one of these relationships, at least most of us do.
We can easily sum up all of these relationships by saying that in each, we are to put others ahead of ourselves. This is certainly true in Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives, even though he uses language in verse 18 that isn’t modern. That wives should put their husbands first may not sound contemporary, but husbands are also to put their wives first. This might be a little clearer in the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:22-33.
The same thing is true of the relationship between parents and children. Both are to put the other first, giving honor where honor is due and giving love and nurture where they are due. In the case of Master and slave, or employer and employees, we have again the idea that both are to consider the other, with workers doing their very best always “as working for the Lord” and the boss is told to always do what is fair and right “because you know that you have a Master in heaven.”
I think that what is really important in this passage is the principle of putting others first. This principle is at the very heart of “love your neighbor as yourself.” All too often, people approach the concept of love looking at what they will get out of it, but this is surely not what Jesus had in mind when He taught us that the first will be last and the last will be first. We love and serve others because we love Jesus Christ, not because we want something; that is what humility is. In short, we serve others because we have been called to serve, and in doing so we are serving our God, because we love Him.
Yes, there are always some who will want to take advantage, but we know that we are serving the Lord, and that “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.” (v. 25)
One final thought, for some this is a hard concept to embrace, but it lies at the heart of Christian discipleship. It is all so normal to expect that we receive something from our efforts, be it money or appreciation or loyalty, and people often disappoint us. The key is that we are not merely serving the other person, we are serving our Lord, and He never disappoints. Seek His presence, seek His love, focus your thought process on your relationship with Him… and follow where He leads. He will lead you to serve where you should serve, and to flee from what you should flee.