Tonight we conclude our series of evening sermons on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Before moving on to something else, we’ll spend two Lord’s Day evenings considering the related letter of Paul to Philemon, one of the members of the Colossian congregation, a letter sent at the same time and by the same hand as this letter to the Colossian church itself. We are reading one of those typical concluding sections of Paul’s letters that includes greetings from various individuals and personalia, information about this person or that who was known to the people to whom Paul was writing. We are apt to skip over these sections as having nothing of any importance for us, but they are grist for the mill of the students of the sociology of early Christianity. There is more here than meets the eye and a careful student of such details can tell us a lot about the early Christians and much of what they tell us is in fact highly relevant to our own Christian lives and the life of the church today. Dr. J. Oliver Buswell, late president of Wheaton College and founding professor of theology at our Covenant Theological Seminary, preached a number of times a sermon he entitled “The People of Colossae.” He obviously thought there were important lessons to be drawn from what we know about the individuals who made up that congregation or who were related to it in some way. A number of the people mentioned in the verses we are about to read were not part of the Colossian church, but some of them were and all of them are representative of the congregations of Christians then proliferating in the cities and towns of the Greco-Roman world. Interestingly, only Romans has a longer list of persons in Paul’s concluding paragraph than what we find here.
What a passage like this was intended to do was to strengthen the ties between various parts of the early Christian world. In it Paul makes it clear that there were a number of prominent Christian workers who were very interested in what was happening in the Colossian church and that he wants the Colossian believers to be interested in what was happening elsewhere, to feel themselves part of something much larger than themselves.
The word the ESV translates “minister” is our “deacon,” though clearly here not an official title but the ordinary word for servant; the word it translates “fellow servant” is sundoulos, a form of the same word translated “slave” in v. 1. Again, every Christian is the Lord’s slave. Tychicus, however, seems to be more than that, but though akin to what we would refer to or think of as a Christian minister nowadays, in these early stages that technical vocabulary had not yet developed and more general terms were used. Sometimes it is not entirely clear what sort of calling a particular individual may have had by the words used to describe him.
Two things are interesting about this short paragraph. One is that it is very like Ephesians 6:21-22, evidence that the two letters — Ephesians and Colossians, so like one another in a variety of ways, — were written and sent at the same time, carried by the same Tychicus to their respective destinations. The other is the evidence it provides that much more information was transmitted by word of mouth, by emissaries, than was communicated in letters. Would that we could know all that Tychicus told the Christians in Colossae as he stood before them and told them what was happening in Rome, what news they had received from other churches, what Paul’s expectations were in regard to his imprisonment, and what he planned to do upon his release. No doubt people asked him questions about this and that. No doubt he had more to say about the visiting teachers who were troubling the church
Onesimus is, of course, the runaway slave who, somehow through the offices of Paul himself — he calls himself Onesimus’ spiritual father in Philemon 10 — became a Christian in Rome, and the man Paul is returning to his master, Philemon, a member of the Colossian church. Imagine the first conversation in Rome between Paul and this new convert as Paul realized that he actually was personally acquainted with the slave’s master. How likely was that?
There is a question whether Aristarchus, a convert from Thessalonica who had accompanied Paul for some time and who is mentioned in Acts 27:2 as one of Paul’s companions on his voyage to Rome, was literally a prisoner or if this is another of the figurative uses of the term: that is, Aristarchus was, as was Paul, a prisoner of Christ. How the Colossians had received instructions regarding Mark we do not know.
So those three men — Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus, called Justus — were the only three Jews in Paul’s entourage in Rome. They were certainly not the only Jewish Christians in Rome but they were the only ones who were part of Paul’s inner circle. This is, by the way, how we know for sure that Luke, mentioned later in v. 14, was a Gentile. [Moule, 137] Luke will be mentioned later in this same paragraph.
Epaphras gets the most ink because he was the founder of the church in Colossae, as we learned in 1:7, and was known to and beloved of the saints there. Many of them owed their spiritual life to Epaphras. They had in all likelihood never met Aristarchus, Mark, or Justus, but they knew Epaphras very well. Epaphras had moved on from Colossae to establish other churches.
This is a fascinating window on the interrelatedness of the New Testament writings and of the apostolic leadership in the first century. Present with Paul in Rome in the early A.D. 60s were Mark and Luke, writers of two of the four Gospels. Mark’s gospel was deeply indebted to the influence of Peter but here he is assisting Paul. In the 19th century German scholarship presumed that there had been a very deep and lasting rift, between Peter and Paul, but the fact that they shared assistants is one of many pieces of evidence to the contrary. Mark may have already written his gospel or be in the process of doing so; Luke was still to write his or perhaps in the process of writing his as well.
It is not possible to tell for sure whether this Nympha was a woman or a man. The spelling of the name itself does not decide the point and the manuscripts disagree as to whether the pronoun after “house” is his or her, no doubt precisely because one can’t tell by the spelling of the name whether it refers to a man or a woman. The editors of the standard Greek New Testament have chosen the feminine form, but in rating their choice they admit that there is “a considerable degree of doubt concerning the reading.” [cf. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (3rd ed.), 627] Assuming Nympha is a woman, she was probably a wealthy widow who had offered her home as a meeting place for one of the Colossian congregations.
We have here fascinating insight into first century church life. First, we are reminded again that Paul’s letter would have been read out loud to the church at its gatherings. Individual Christians would not have had copies. [When you are thinking about reading the Bible through in a year or two years or whatever you are planning to do, don’t forget that throughout the whole course of human history in the world, it has been relatively recently, really comparatively very recently, that the ordinary Christian has possessed his or her own Bible to read for himself or for herself. We enjoy a great privilege!] The fact that it was read in the hearing of the church is some further indication that such a letter was, from the beginning, taken to be Holy Scripture. It was read as the Law and Prophets were read in the synagogue service. [O’Brien, 257] Second, the letter Paul wrote to the church in Colossae would then be copied and sent to the church in the nearby town of Laodicea. Those Christians in Laodicea likewise had received a letter and they were to send it on to Colossae and, no doubt, to other places as well. By this means, by two-thirds of the way through the first century, but only a third of a century following the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, many churches and especially the more sizable among them, would have had a nearly complete set of the texts we now know as the New Testament. But what was the letter that Paul had sent to Laodicea and where is it now? It is probably a letter that is now lost — we have no reason to believe, in fact the New Testament teaches us not to believe, that Paul wrote only 13 letters during the time of his life as a Christian and that all of them are now in the New Testament. We know, for example, of another letter written to the Corinthian church which we do not now possess. But there is a remote possibility that the letter to the Laodiceans was in fact the letter we now know as Ephesians. However less likely, for a variety of reasons we don’t need to go into now, it remains a possibility that this is another name for that letter that we know as the letter to the Ephesians.
This sounds abrupt. Why? Did Paul have some reason to think that Archippus was not fulfilling his obligations? Was he in some way complicit in the influence that the visiting teachers had gained in the Colossian church? He is also mentioned in Philemon 2. Why he is singled out in this way is a question to which a number of scholars have devoted a great deal of ingenuity, but we simply can’t say. Too bad Tychicus isn’t here; we could ask him!
Again the term for “ministry” is the Greek diakonia. This could be a reference to him as a deacon. If so it would be one of the few references to the actual office in the New Testament.
Paul typically dictated his letters to a secretary but signed them himself (not so unlike a modern letter that is printed but then signed by the sender).
How many times have we seen in a missionary newsletter or on the screen as part of some missionary’s slide show at prayer meeting a picture of a congregation of people somewhere in the world. Gathered in front of some structure or another, some kneeling or sitting, some standing, they are a congregation of Christians. Perhaps their pastor is pictured among them. We may look at those faces and, for a fleeting moment, wonder about their lives, what they are like, and what the life of that congregation is like: how much like our own we may wonder. Well, it is something like that that Paul has given us here: a snapshot. Not a video; just a snapshot. A group of Christians gathered not in a photograph, but in a paragraph, and just enough information about them to whet our appetite for more.
Question after question rises in the mind. How did Onesimus come to meet the Apostle Paul? Had he fallen among some Christians in Rome — having gone there to lose himself in the big city and find work where no one would know him — who steered him to the great apostle? Who can say? Wouldn’t we love to have been able to listen in on Paul explaining the gospel to Onesimus? Do you suppose he used the EE questions or the Romans Road or the Four Spiritual Laws? What prompted the curt remark about Archippus? What was Epaphras like? He was obviously an evangelist or church planter extraordinaire, having established more than one thriving congregation from virtually nothing. What was it about Tychicus that made him Paul’s choice to deliver his letters to Ephesus and Colossae? He must have been a man Paul could trust to make a good impression and not to create further problems by inadvisable remarks. What was Luke doing with his time? He had perhaps spent a good portion of the last two years — while Paul sat in prison in Caesarea — gathering material for what would become his Gospel and the Book of Acts, his second volume, That second volume, Acts, would conclude with this imprisonment in Rome. Paul was under house arrest in Rome when Acts ends in chapter 28, the very imprisonment from which Paul is writing this letter now. Was Luke working hard on his manuscript, running his drafts by Paul and Mark and others? Most Biblical scholars think that Luke had the text of the Gospel of Mark in front of him when he wrote his Gospel. Was that now? Were those two men closeted away working on a second gospel? Hardly anybody thinks that they were actually talking about section after section between themselves. “I did it this way,” Mark says, “because….” “Well, you left out this other material, should I put it in?” “By all means,” says Paul. “I like that parable, let’s call it the parable of the Prodigal Son. Let’s stick it in your fifteenth chapter,” Mark says. What was going on between those two men? We’d love to know. How did the Jews in Paul’s entourage get along with the Gentiles? On and on the questions occur to us.
But like Christians in any place at any time, we may observe some things about these ten men, or, perhaps more likely, these nine men and one woman, that we can observe as easily about Christians today.
- First, observe how different they are from one another.
Paul was a Roman citizen with all the rights and privileges that such citizenship conferred on those fortunate enough to possess it. He was a man possessed of the finest education. Onesimus, on the other hand, was a runaway slave with no such rights or privileges. Philemon was a slave owner, a man of substance, as was Nympha, a woman who owned a home large enough for a congregation of Christians to meet in it Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day. She may have, probably did have, slaves as well. Some of these men were Jews, others were Gentiles. We have already noted that there were both Jews and Gentiles in the Colossian church as there tended to be in all the new churches of the Greco-Roman world. This difference does not strike us as terribly important, but in the first century Jews and Gentiles looked daggers at one another for a variety of reasons. Overcoming the deep suspicion that separated Jew from Gentile was a problem so significant that it surfaces repeatedly in the New Testament as a subject needing to be addressed.
You have differences of class, of wealth, of ethnic background, vast differences of personal freedom and opportunity all jostling together in this single congregation. Philemon was a married man; Nympha was a widow. There were children running about the house before and after the service, nursing mothers and single maidens, young men waiting to move out from under their fathers’ shadow, male slaves perhaps in love with female slaves and hoping for marriage. On and on it goes. Every demographic, every kind of human situation represented, and if not every one, enough of them to represent every one.
Just imagine a Sunday service at Nympha’s house as slaves walk in her front door and are greeted by slaves and freemen not as slaves but as members of the same congregation as the woman who owns the house. The Lord’s Supper is served to Philemon and to his slaves in the same act of worship. Jews who traditionally had shunned close contact with Gentiles were sitting next to them at worship and eating with them both the Lord’s Supper and, in all likelihood, a fellowship meal as well. Probably pot luck, with a lot of casseroles, though fortunately some of the better off in the church brought Colossae Fried Chicken.
You may remember that a few years ago a controversy flared up about what was called in missiological circles the homogeneous unit principle or HUP. Some missiologists were saying that it was easier for non-Christians to consider converting to Christianity if the Christians they knew and saw meeting together were people like them rather than a mixture of people, some of whom they were not used to being around or, indeed, might historically be positively hostile toward. There is certainly some truth to that. Arabs are much less likely to become Christians if the only Christians they know are Jews, just as a white planter in the American south would have been less likely to become a Christian if the only church in his town were a church of black slaves. Poor people are likely to feel uncomfortable in a congregation of wealthy Christians and so on. The HUP is alive and well in American Christianity: there are churches almost exclusively of old people and churches almost exclusively of young people, there are churches of single people almost exclusively and churches of married people with children almost exclusively, black churches and white, rich and poor churches, educated and uneducated churches, and on and on.
I remember thinking about this in regard to a very famous sermon preached by Alexander Whyte which finished with a soliloquy that began with a contemplation of the bloody robe of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the middle of that soliloquy broke off into Marc Anthony’s soliloquy which in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar he delivers while holding the bloody robe of the murdered Julius Caesar. Alexander Whyte of course did not need to tell people what he was doing. Everybody in the congregation immediately knew where he had gone and why and of that sermon a number of people said afterwards, in fact years afterwards, it was the sermon they remembered the best of all of the sermons they had ever heard. It was the sermon that affected them most powerfully of all the sermons they had ever heard. But you couldn’t preach that sermon in a great many churches in the United States today because nobody would understand what it was the preacher was talking about. Not because they don’t know the Bible but because they don’t know Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. Congregations are different.
But God is sovereign and the fact is, in early Christianity and often since, the very nature of the gospel has been illustrated beautifully by churches that gather believers from every tongue, tribe, and nation, and where faith in Christ transcends every barrier to human love and fellowship. It was crucial to the mission of the apostolic church that the gospel prove itself a power to overcome the alienation of human life and it did prove itself as such a power. If the gospel can’t bring men back together, how can it bring men back to God, the far greater alienation to be overcome? The Christian church in its origin and its early life knew nothing of the homogeneous unit principle and it insisted on the abolition of such distinctions between human beings. The Christian church abolished the HUP in its life and work and insisted on its abolition and the world was changed as a result.
But these people were different in other ways as well: not the ways that would be so immediately obvious if you were just looking out over a congregation or if you knew something about some of the folk in the church. Think of the force of personality that separated Paul, for example, from Mark. You remember this Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. He is almost certainly the unnamed man in the narrative of the Lord’s arrest in Mark’s Gospel, who in fear of the soldiers there in the garden ran from Gethsemane leaving his clothes behind him. That detail is Mark’s own signature on his Gospel, like John’s signature on his Gospel is the fact that he is the only one of the twelve who isn’t named and that he is always referred to with some circumlocution, never his actual name. Why else would Mark record such a minor fact about someone who wasn’t even identified in the story? Mark is also the fellow who chickened out on Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. Paul puts it bluntly in Acts 15:38: Mark deserted them. Mark thus became the source of an argument between Paul and Barnabas when it came time to depart on their second missionary journey. Barnabas wanted to take Mark along again; Paul didn’t trust him. It was a breach significant enough that the two friends parted company! Thankfully by this time the breach had been healed between Paul and Mark, but all of that personal history reminds us that Mark was no Paul.
He who can part from country and from kin,
And scorn delights, and tread the thorny way,
A heavenly crown, through toil and pain, to win —
He who reviled can tender love repay,
And buffeted, for bitter foes can pray —
He who, upspringing at his Captain’s call,
Fights the good fight, and when at last the day
Of fiery trial comes, can nobly fall —
Such were a saint — or more — and such the holy Paul!
But no one ever wrote such a verse about Mark. Indeed, we may wonder if the remarks within the parenthesis in v. 10 were made precisely because Mark’s reputation may have preceded him and the Colossian believers would not have been inclined to think well of him or to trust or respect him. Paul engendered great respect and loyalty among many people; but Mark needed someone like Paul to tell others to treat him with respect. Mark was more like Archippus who, apparently, needed from time to time a kick in the rear! That is not to disparage Mark. Paul loved Mark as his remarks here and in 2 Tim. 4 indicate. Some of the finest believers in Christian history, some of the most brilliant, some who have made some of the most sterling contributions to the live and worship of the Christian Church have been timid or retiring souls. My simple point is that Mark was not Paul.
Now the point of all of this is simply this: our church is to be like this, chock full and happily so with differences of every kind. The more the better: cultural differences, economic differences, racial and ethnic differences, differences of social background, of age, of marital status, of education, of employment, of personal history and of personality and even of character. Does it sometimes bother you that so many people are not like yourself? You find it harder to get next to them, to be one with them, to enjoy their company. Well listen to the Apostle Paul here: it is your Christian duty, your obligation before God not only to get over that, but to revel in such differences. The gospel is for everyone and every type of person. We ought to be eager to love and live with people who are different from ourselves in all these ways. Only in that way do our lives together as a congregation become the demonstration of the power of the gospel. If everyone is like everyone else, a church is not only defective in an important way it seems to others an entirely natural, not a supernatural thing. People always associate with people like themselves. There’s nothing special about that. Indeed, the more a church is not homogeneous, the more diversity that you can find within it, the healthier it is. We have come some of the way; but we have most of the way still to go as a congregation. Look at Colossians 4 as our marching orders! The gospel is to be a power in the world and one of the most obvious ways to demonstrate its power is for it to form a close, affectionate, loving community out of people who differ in all the ways that ordinarily separate human beings from one another rather than drawing them together. Do you need a New Year’s resolution? You want an assignment for 2013? Bring somebody to this congregation who isn’t like the rest of us. Enfold him or her in this congregation fully aware that he or she will have some getting used to do and all of us will have some getting used to do as well; exactly as we ought to. human beings differ from one another and for which human beings remain apart from one another.
- In the second place, however, observe how much these people — different though they were in many ways — had in common.
For all their differences in social and economic condition, in ethnic background, and in personality they were so much the same! They were engaged together in a great cause. They were linked together by shared associations. All of these people — even those who had never met the man — were confidants and associates of Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles. They had embraced a way of life that in that time and place was utterly revolutionary. They had set themselves apart from their culture, their society and their time. They shared at the deepest level the same experience of salvation, of the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the hope of everlasting life. They could have said and would have said of one another what Augustine said of his Christian brother and friend Alypius: “they were washed in the same blood.”
They shared a higher commitment that utterly transformed their lives and in the same way. Here was Onesimus returning to his Master — a dangerous thing for a runaway slave to do — because he knew it was what the Lord Christ would have him do. And he expected Philemon, his aggrieved owner and now his fellow Christian brother, to receive him with love and forgiveness, which most slave owners of the time would not have done or thought to do. When Onesimus returned Philemon brought out his best robe and put it on his runaway and probably held a feast in his honor and invited some of his non-Christian slave-owning friends. Some of the men of Philemon’s class would have been aghast at what they would have taken as virtual incitement to other slaves to run away as well. Perhaps there was a banner over the front door of Philemon’s villa welcoming Onesimus with the words that C.S. Lewis wrote to Sheldon Vanauken on hearing the news of his coming to faith in Christ:
“Blessings on you and a hundred thousand welcomes!”
Nobody else would do such a thing and yet it was the most natural thing in the world for Onesimus to go home and for Philemon to welcome him as a brother in Christ. Here were Paul and Mark working cheerfully together who had once had a falling out so serious that it had interrupted their missionary work. Here was Aristarchus who had been some years away from home and family because he had joined himself to the work that Paul was doing for the gospel’s sake. A Gentile representative from the Gentile church who had brought an offering, a collection for the poor among the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. These were people who whether at home or far from home were busily engaged in a great work of which their neighbors had no understanding at all. They were all the prisoners of the Lord Jesus Christ and had you asked these different people the basic, most fundamental questions — Where did you come from? Why are you here? Where are you going? What is the meaning and purpose of your life? – they would all have answered in precisely the same way. They were brothers in the same family; they were servants of the same master; they were soldiers of the same army.
This unity of life and purpose and love and loyalty was as fully characteristic of the church as was the differences that distinguished one Christian from another. Think, for example, of the fabulously interesting and beautiful development of very recent years in which wealthy American episcopal churches have repudiated their unbelieving bishops and placed themselves under the authority of poor African bishops in Rwanda or Uganda. The poor now rule the rich at the request of the rich? Why? Because their commitment to the Word of God, to the Lordship of Christ, and to the gospel so profoundly transcends their economic status, or their race, or their nationality or their social position. That is the power of the gospel on display and it is wonderful. It is our calling to practice such unity in defiance of the superficial differences that so often keep human beings apart and by so doing demonstrate that the gospel really is the power of God to salvation. To share Christ is to make all other differences nothing more than the spice of life.
Don’t take this for granted. There are reasons why most churches don’t succeed very well at this. It is a supernatural thing. Only God can unify human beings in love across all the divisions and separations and alienations of human life and only God can keep them in that love.
We are reminded of this by the name we have not yet mentioned: Demas. He too was a member of the Pauline circle, an associate of the great apostle. He too was one of Paul’s valued aides de camp. He traveled with Paul, assisted him in various ways, even endured hardship with him. But, as you remember, the last mournful word we hear about Demas is from Paul himself at the end of his life. We read in 2 Tim. 4:10:
“For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone…”
Demas, unlike most inhabitants of the Roman world, had experienced the power of the gospel. He had made friends of and been loved by Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, the powerful and the weak. He had seen the gospel transform life after life. He had before him days on end the example of a sterling and remarkable Christian man the Apostle Paul himself. He may well have seen Paul perform miracles! But when push came finally to shove Demas preferred the world — with all its antagonisms, all its only temporary pleasures, all its creature comforts — and so he forsook the calling of a Christian man and the fellowship of the Christian church and went back into the alienated, divided world from which he had come.
There is a very real sense in which, however beautiful and appealing to us the effects of the gospel may be in our own hearts and lives and in the community of the saints, however much the gospel may prove itself in human life again and again by bringing to pass what human beings never seem to manage on their own, without the grace of God and the working of his Spirit human beings will never choose the gospel or the unity it creates. Bad as life in the world is, disjointed, divided, hostile as it is, and futile as its hopes always prove to be, human beings will prefer the badness and the futility. Even the evidence of their own eyes will not suffice. This world is their home and home is where the heart is.
Demas reminds us that a truly gospel life in church and individual is always going to be a struggle, always something we must protect with might and main, always something in danger of being lost. It must be one of the great intentions of our lives, one of our sacred commitments, in our life individually as Christians and in our life together as a congregation, that we foster a community of love that transcends all the superficial differences of human life; that we be ourselves together the demonstration of the love, grace, peace, and power of God. And for that we must live together always looking to the Lord for grace and help and for forgiveness when we fail to love one another in, under, around, and through our differences. The community to which we are introduced here in Colossians 4 is one only God can create. It struggles to preserve itself precisely because every aspect of its life is so much against the grain of the sinful human heart, so contrary to the tendencies of human beings, so unnatural to them. But what is impossible with men is possible with God. Our marching orders for 2013! That is to be our motto and our marching orders!