August 28, 2022
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
The Reading of the Word
We come this morning to the final passage in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossian church.
Between this summer and last, we will have spent 16 sermons considering this book. And we now come to the last section, which is focused on personal greetings.
And so please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning – Colossians 4:10-18.
The Apostle Paul writes:
4:10 Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him), 11 and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. 12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. 13 For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. 14 Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas. 15 Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. 16 And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea. 17 And say to Archippus, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.”
18 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Prayer of Illumination
Lord, we rejoice at your word,
like one who finds great spoil.
We hate falsehood,
but we love your commandments.
We know that those who love your law have peace,
and nothing can make them stumble.
And so help us now to keep your testimonies from the heart,
and to love them exceedingly.
Help us to pursue a life of faithfulness,
knowing that all our ways are before you.
Grant this, we ask, for Jesus’s sake. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:162-163, 165, 167-168]
Our text this morning, like our text last Lord’s Day, is one filled with greetings, and one which we often tend to move through pretty quickly when we read the Bible, rather than stopping and reflecting on it.
But like last week, it is also one that has a lot of instruction for us if we pause and dig just a bit deeper into the kind of people Paul is speaking of and to, and the ways he sees them related to one another.
What we see when we consider this text is that the church is meant to be a paradigm-busting community, because the gospel is a paradigm-busting reality.
Now what do I mean by that?
Well, let’s begin with a paradigm. A paradigm is a framework for how we view the world, and our own lives. It is a set of assumptions we have about how the world works, and how our lives work. A paradigm-buster is something that challenges, and ultimately breaks our default paradigm – our assumptions about how life and how the world works. [I first heard this phrase in a sermon by Tim Keller.]
What we see in our text is that the Church is meant to be a community that, by its nature – by its very make-up – challenges, and even breaks people’s paradigms – their assumptions about the world. And it does this because the gospel – the truth claims about Jesus Christ – on which the church is built, is itself a paradigm-busting reality. It upends how we think about life and the world.
How is the church supposed to be a paradigm-busting community? Well, what we see in this particular text is that the church, as a community, brings people together that the world says should be apart. And it does this in ways that challenge non-Christian assumptions about life and the world, and that are rooted in and built upon the claims of the gospel itself.
This morning we will consider three ways that Paul shows us in this text that the Church is meant to do this – to combine people that the world says should be separated.
The Church Is Meant to Combine People of Different Cultures
First, we see that the church is meant to combine people of different cultures that the world says should be separated.
We see the most significant example of this in the fact that Paul emphasizes that the community gathered around him – his traveling companions – included both Jews and Gentiles. We see this in verse eleven, when he distinguishes those with him who are “of the circumcision” from the rest of the men with him.
Paul’s point seems to be that the first three men he mentions – Aristarchus, Mark, and Justus – were Jews traveling with Paul, while the other three mentioned – Epaphras, Luke, and Demas – were Gentiles. [Moo, 337, 340-342; Arnold, 2,300; Wright, 161-162]
And we can be prone to miss how significant this was. In the ancient world, Jews viewed as especially religious did not associate with Gentiles. They looked down on them religiously and politically. Similarly, most Gentiles did not particularly like Jews. And this was so much the case that the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, and the question about whether they could dwell together in one Christian community (without the Gentiles first becoming Jews) – that was one of the biggest controversies in the early Christian church. But Paul tells us here that Jews and Gentiles were coming together in the Christian community around him.
A second example of the church bringing together people of different cultures that the world would typically separate comes up in the relationship between Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis, mentioned in verses thirteen, fifteen, and sixteen.
Colossae was twelve miles from Laodicea, and thirteen miles from Hierapolis. And Colossae’s history was largely tied up with the history of those two cities. Centuries earlier, Colossae had been a city of great importance. But then, as the cities of Hierapolis and Laodicea increased in importance, Colossae’s importance decreased … quite a bit, actually. [Banks, 1.732] And that’s significant. This wasn’t just like a friendly sports rivalry between two neighboring towns, but this was a relationship in which the rise of Hierapolis and Laodicea had meant financial and political decline for Colossae. There was likely a real regional cultural divide. They likely saw themselves at odds – as if success for one would mean loss to the other.
But rather than allowing them to stay separate, Paul here seems to repeatedly try to push the Christians in each city together. He highlights their connection through Epaphras in verse thirteen. [Moo, 347] Then he tells them in verse sixteen that he wants them to bring a copy of this letter to the church at Laodicea (rather than Paul sending it himself), and he also wants them to request a copy of the letter that Paul sent to Laodicea from the Laodiceans. [Moo, 351] And then, in verse fifteen, Paul pushes them further, to pass his greeting on to the church in Laodicea. Of course, if Paul had sent a letter to Laodicea, they would already have his greeting. And so Paul’s purpose, once again, seems to be focused on fostering connection and fellowship between the Christians in Colossae and the Christians in Laodicea. [Moo, 349]
In both cases – whether we’re thinking of the Jews and the Gentiles, or the Colossians and the Laodiceans – Paul is reminding us, in concrete ways, that the Church is meant to combine people of different cultures and different cultural groups, that the world says should be separated.
Now on what basis does Paul think that this bringing together of people is possible?
Well, what we see throughout the Bible is that such hopes are founded on the basis of the gospel. The gospel does not cancel out the reality of cultural diversity. If anything, it preserved it – it did not require Jews to live like Gentiles, or Gentiles to live like Jews. But at the very same time, it fostered a deeper connection between people from those two different cultures. Because in the gospel, while cultural diversity remains, our unity is deeper and more powerful than that diversity.
The gospel tells us that all humanity is made in God’s image, and so bears God’s image. The gospel tells us that it was part of God’s creational intent for humanity to fill the earth, and spread to different regions, and so, by implication, to develop different cultures. The gospel tells us that sin has infected every human heart, and so every human culture. The gospel tells us that all people and all cultures need redemption. And the gospel tells us that all cultures of the earth will bring their redeemed treasures into the New Heaven and the New Earth [Revelation 21:24]. The gospel therefore tells us that cultural diversity is real and it is valuable – it was part of God’s intention as he made humanity. But it also tells us that the fact that we bear God’s image, that we have fallen into sin, and that we, as Christians, have been redeemed by Christ, is an even deeper source of identity for each of us, and so an even deeper source for unity with others across cultural boundaries.
The unbelieving world doesn’t have that. And so the unbelieving world must either keep other cultures at bay, seeing them as a sort of threat … or it must embrace a false kind of multiculturalism that more often seeks to co-opt and even plunder other cultures rather than appreciate them in a deep way.
I was listening to several theologians discuss this recently, and the point one of them made was how thin – how superficial – secular multiculturalism really is. He noted that secular culture is usually okay with accepting the more ornamental aspects of other cultures – especially if they are things like art, music, or food, which those in the dominant secular culture would like to enjoy. But it doesn’t usually want anything deeper. He said that what secular Western culture says to other cultures is: “Come and give us a song and dance from your native culture, […] bring us your national cuisine, we’re happy for you to dress in colorful things […] but don’t bring a fundamentally different way of viewing the world. Don’t bring an epistemology that’s not a secular individualistic Westernized one.” In short, don’t bring any perspectives that would be uncomfortable to our Western secular sensibilities, or our cultural assumptions. [Eglinton, 26:50-29:40]
There’s often something condescending and even a bit imperialistic in secular Western culture about this – including progressive secular culture. Secular cultures often want the spoils of other cultures – their food and art which can entertain and delight us. But if those from another culture want a real seat at the table in a secular society, then they’ll be required to accept Western individualism, and Western consumerism, and Western political philosophy, and a Western epistemology, and a Western view of religious pluralism, and a secular Western view of gender and sexuality, and more. Other cultures are welcome to clothe that Western secular perspective in the trappings of their native cultures … but they must, at heart, become Western.
By contrast, you don’t have to become culturally Western to be a Christian. You don’t have to accept Western individualism, or consumerism, or political philosophy. You don’t need to become a Western person to become a Christian, which is good, because today there are far more people who identify as Christians outside of Europe and North America than there are who identify as Christians within Europe and North America. [Noll, 22] And it’s not just that – it’s also that, like the first-century Jews and Gentiles, Christians do not need to share a cultural background in order to be brought together, in real relationships, and real community in Christ.
That means that our churches should bring people together across different cultures and subcultures. It means that there should be real connections between churches across national borders and across the globe. It also means that our local church congregations should bring people together – not just in theory, but in real relationships – across lines of cultural division, and class division, and political division, and racial division, and more. And they should do so in a way that is rooted in the unity we have in the gospel, without a false unity that requires one subculture to adopt or imitate the other in order to be accepted.
That is the first way that the church is not supposed to fit in with the expectations of the world: it is meant to combine people of different cultures in a way that the world sees as impossible. And it is able to do that because the gospel itself provides a unity that is deeper than culture.
The Church Is Meant to Combine People of Different Moral Histories
Second, the church is meant to combine people of different moral histories, who the world says should be separated.
Despite the claims of many, we live in an extremely moralistic age. As Charles Taylor has noted, the battles in our society are best seen, not as a moral side battling with a hedonistic side, but as being a battlefield where competing moral systems are at war with one another, with many soldiers on each side (both secular and religious) being strict moralists of their particular moral system. [The Ethics of Authenticity]
And the moralistic nature of our society is seen especially in the lack of confession and the lack of forgiveness in our culture.
For one thing, our culture lacks confession. Whether on the public stage or in private lives, when caught in wrongdoing, the tendency we see so often in our world is toward denial, explaining their actions away, and attacking those who bring the charge against them. If an apology is offered, it’s usually only done as a last resort, when it seems like there are no other options … and even then, it often seeks to shift blame more than to own it – to paint oneself as just another victim instead of as a wrongdoer. In our culture we rarely see true confession: where someone fully owns the wrong they have done, and requests forgiveness, while knowing they have no inherent right to be forgiven.
That said, there is also very little forgiveness in our culture. Sure, people “forgive” things that they don’t really see as real sin … or as that big of a deal … they “forgive” sins they don’t care that much about. But, whether in the public eye or in our private lives, it is much more rare for real forgiveness to occur: it is much more rare for someone to both grapple with how terrible someone’s sin against them really was … and then choose to forgive them … and maybe even to restore them. (Which might also explain why there is so little confession since real forgiveness is so unlikely.)
And yet, right here, in this text, we see evidence that in the community of the Church – and specifically in the Christian community surrounding Paul – there was both real confession and real forgiveness … and even real restoration. We see that in verse ten, in the relationship between Paul and Mark.
Years earlier, a split had taken place between Mark and Paul. Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on Paul’s first missionary journey, but then Mark abandoned the trip in Pamphylia. Because of this Paul refused to take Mark with him on his second missionary journey … and he felt so strongly about it that when Barnabas wanted to bring Mark, Paul and Barnabas parted ways in their ministry. Paul, in other words, felt so strongly about Mark, that he would rather lose Barnabas, his faithful companion, than have to take Mark with him – that’s how serious the rift was between Paul and Mark, and how seriously Paul saw Mark’s failure. [Acts 15:36-41; Moo, 339] In Paul’s eyes, this wasn’t just a technical failure – this was a moral failure, which reflected a character flaw that Paul had serious hesitations about.
And yet, here in our text, in verse ten, we learn that Mark is back with Paul. After his failures in ministry, and his conflict with Paul, Mark has been restored – not just to ministry, but as a companion of Paul, traveling with him once again. [Wright, 160; Arnold, 2,300] And Paul seems to add an extra line here to make clear that others should receive Mark well. Paul’s past conflict over Mark was not a private thing – it must have been known. But here Paul makes it clear that his forgiveness of Mark should be public too, and that he does not want Mark’s past failure to be held against him any longer – he writes to the Colossians: “concerning [him – concerning Mark,] you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him.” [Wright, 161]
Now there must have been at least two aspects to this reconciliation. One was that Mark must have owned and confessed his failure to Paul, asking for his forgiveness. The other is that Paul must have forgiven Mark and then worked to restore his relationship with him.
As we said, those are both things we actively avoid in our culture. But the mention of Mark here is a reminder that confession and forgiveness is fundamental to how the Christian community is meant to operate, because confession and forgiveness is fundamental to how the gospel operates.
Every week here, we confess our sins, and we have God’s forgiveness declared over us as we place our trust in Christ. Every week we are reminded that confession and forgiveness is foundational to how we relate to God. And as a result, it is also to be foundational to how we relate to one another.
Because of the grace of the gospel – because of the love God has modeled for us, and because every Christian knows that we have been forgiven a debt of wrongdoing against God that dwarfs any wrongdoing that another person could do to us – for this reason we are meant to practice both confession and forgiveness towards one another. We are to own our sins, and confess our wrongdoing to one another, rather than shifting blame or going on the attack. And we are to forgive the sins of others just as we ourselves have been forgiven. And that fact is supposed to make us a fundamentally different kind of community from what is possible in the world.
And so, where do you need to live that out more truly?
Whom have you wronged here? And how might you need to go to them, and confess that, just as Mark did with Paul? If you believe the gospel, you have already owned your sinfulness before your Maker. You should be able to own it before your brothers and sisters as well.
And who might you need to more thoroughly forgive? Whom have you been holding a grudge toward? And how might you need to extend to them just a fraction of the grace that has been shown to you by Jesus?
Mark may have been, at the time Paul was writing, more known for his public sin than Paul was – at least in their lives after they became Christians. In the same way, some of us may be known more for how we have sinned … and some of us may be known more for how we have been sinned against. But we all fall short in the gospel, and the second way that the church does not fit with the expectations of the world is that it is meant to combine people of different moral histories that the world says should be separated. And it’s able to do that because in the gospel confession, forgiveness, and restoration are all possible.
The Church Is Meant to Combine People of Unknown Futures
Third, and finally, the church is meant to combine people of unknown futures in a way that the world cannot account for.
We see this in one way with Demas, and in another way with Luke.
Both are mentioned in verse fourteen as companions of Paul in his ministry and even, in this particular instance, companions with Paul while he is imprisoned. But only one would remain with Paul.
In Second Timothy, written some years later – some years after Colossians Paul writes this – he says to Timothy: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me.” [2 Timothy 4:10]
Demas served along with Paul, even while Paul was imprisoned, for years. And then, he abandoned Paul because he loved the present world more than he loved the kingdom work that he and Paul had been doing.
Now, the extent of Demas’s betrayal is not certain. As several commentators point out, Paul says that Demas abandoned him – abandoned Paul – because he loved the world … not necessarily that he abandoned Christ. [Garland, 290-291; Guthrie, 190; Towner, 621-623] But either way, there is no doubt that Paul views what happened as a serious moral failure rooted in Demas’s heart. We also don’t know the end of the story – whether Demas would eventually, like Mark, repent and be restored, or if he would remain in sin. [Garland, 291] So, much is not known.
And yet, either way, what lay in Demas’s future at the time Paul was writing Colossians, would include serious sin and failure. But here, as he wrote Colossians, the Apostle Paul did not know that.
Now, why does this matter for us?
Well, it matters because it means that the Church must be a community of humility. The tendency in the world – a tendency we far too often adopt ourselves, as Christians – is to see evil as something out there, while goodness resides in here. Some people are the bad guys, and others – people like us – are just good. And so, when one of our own is accused of a major moral failure, our tendency is to disbelief, even when solid evidence is right before us. For worldly communities, the line dividing between good and evil cuts between our communities on one side – on the side of the good – and other communities on the other side – who are more susceptible to evil.
But the gospel tells us that until Christ returns, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has put it: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” The gospel tells us that every human being is fallen, and so each of us is capable of evil. The gospel reminds us that we cannot see other people’s hearts, and so even if they seem to be active and effective in the life of the Church, they may still harbor serious sin in their heart … and they even may not actually know the Lord. And so, the gospel calls us to be a humble community – a community that does not trust in ourselves and does not assume that any of us are incapable of great sin. That is a counter-cultural way for a community to think of itself in our society. It is a paradigm-disrupting way for us to understand ourselves, in the eyes of the world. But it is what the Bible calls for. Because it is what the gospel tells us.
Now, we do believe that by God’s grace, Christians are new creations in Christ. And we do believe that the Church is to be the people of God. And at Christ’s return, each Christian and the Church as a whole will be made perfect. But Christ has not yet returned. And, as the Bible tells us, in this life our transformation is incomplete. Both we and the Church remain mixed. Our hearts still contain both good and evil. The Church still contains faithful Christians … struggling Christians … and even false Christians. And often, we can’t see with our human eyes which is which.
Our hope then, for our own hearts, and for the Church, is not in our inherent goodness, but in the goodness of God and the grace of the gospel. He will, ultimately, save his people. He will, ultimately, purify the hearts of all who trust in him. He will, ultimately, purify his Church as a whole. But until that ultimate purification, we remain mixed. And so, we know that sin is not just out there, but it is among us, and in us. Which should humble us to put our trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and not in our own righteousness – either individually, or as a community. The example of Demas reminds us that the gospel should make us a humble community.
But then in the very same sentence, we are reminded that the gospel should not just make us open to the possibility of great failures among our community. It should also open us up to the possibilities of great and unexpected successes. And we see that in the case of Luke.
Luke is mentioned here in the same sentence as Demas, but he had a very different future. To be sure, Luke is described here as beloved, and we know he was very gifted.
And yet, at the same time, I suspect that those who met Paul and Luke when they were together – if they were asked which of the two would write more of the Christian Scriptures, I doubt they would have guessed Luke. But in the end, it was Luke.
Luke wrote the two longest books of the New Testament – his gospel, and the Book of Acts – and they are so long that, taken together, their word-count in Greek exceeds the word-count of all of Paul’s New Testament letters combined. Luke wrote more of the New Testament than Paul.
As we considered last Lord’s Day: the gospel tells us that someone’s final success and effectiveness is ultimately rooted, not in their inherent abilities, but in Christ graciously working through them. And so, by the grace of the gospel, an individual who is mentioned by name only three times in the New Testament – with this verse in Colossians being the longest description of him – such an individual can be used by God to write more of the New Testament than anyone else did.
In a similar way, while worldly communities are quick to categorize people by what we perceive their worth or value to be, the gospel means that the Church must always be open to God using pretty ordinary-seeming people to do extraordinary things.
That is the third way that the Church does not fit with the expectations of the world: It knows that it combines people whose futures are only known to the Lord. Through the gospel, it knows that even the best among our community can fall into sin. And through that same gospel it knows that God can use anyone to do great things. And so, with those truths in mind, we are called on to relate to one another differently than those in the world relate to one another – acknowledging both the reality of sin, and the reality of hope that we have in the gospel.
As we come to the end of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, the last phrase we see in our text is very appropriate. Really it relates back to the entire letter, but it relates to this last passage we have considered this morning as well.
In verse eighteen, in the place that would normally, in a secular letter, be occupied by “farewell,” Paul writes, “Grace be with you.” [Moo, 353]
As one commentator notes, grace has been the subject of this letter – but it has also been the object: the letter itself, and Paul’s relationship to the Colossian church through it, is meant to be a means of grace, not merely a description of grace. [Wright, 166]
And that grace includes the gift that makes the kinds of relationships we have considered this morning … and the kind of community we have considered this morning … possible.
Because such relationships and such community are a gift.
Christians are able to have these kinds of relationships and build these kinds of communities in ways that are not possible in the world, not because Christians are inherently better than everyone else, in and of themselves, but because they have been given, as a gift, the only foundation that makes this truly possible.
In Luke 6, Jesus says: “Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.” [Luke 6:47-49]
Jesus says this to his disciples after he has just given them instruction, not only about how to live their individual lives …. but how to live in relation to one another – in their relationships and in their communities.
Christ is the only solid foundation that can sustain the kind of relationships and the kind of communities that we see in our text, and that we long for in our hearts. And since Christ is that foundation, it is not a foundation we build or establish ourselves, but one we receive as a gift in the gospel.
If you’re a Christian, then it means you must be sure to make use of that foundation. Seek to build relationships here, in this community, that dig down deep, and truly have Christ as their foundation. Because then those relationships can build into the kind of paradigm-busting communities we have considered this morning, that are a blessing to us, and that confound the unbelieving world, and point them to our Savior. What a sad thing it is to have access to Christ as the basis of our relationships, but to neglect him – to build our friendships and our community with one another on the same sandy and superficial ground as the unbelieving world builds their relationships, failing to dig down to the foundation of Christ that we share. We do that far too often, which is why our relationships and communities so often look like those in the world. Instead, we are called to make use of the great gift we have in Jesus – not only for our individual lives, but for our life together. Digging down may be hard. But the results are wonderful and enduring.
And if you’re here this morning, and you’re not yet a Christian, you need to realize that this is what makes building these kinds of relationships so difficult. You may be working so hard at it. You may be striving so diligently in how you build friendships, and relationships, and community. But when the storms and the floods of life come, you watch those relationships falter, and maybe even fall. And the pain can be great. Such relationships struggle because they need a foundation. And the only foundation that can truly sustain them is Jesus Christ. You need Jesus to bring healing to your heart. You need Jesus for the redemption of your soul. But you also need Jesus for a solid foundation on which to build your life – including your relationships with others. He provides what the world cannot.
In any case, now at the end of Paul’s letter, with this series of greetings, Paul reminds us that we are not dealing here with abstract theological concepts, but with real people dealing with real situations, in real communities. [Wright, 158] That is what made up Paul’s life. That is what makes up our lives as well.
And so, let us be sure to build those concrete realities of our lives on Christ.
Appendix: Cut for Time & Focus
Explanation: The following material was part of an earlier draft of this sermon, but was ultimately cut. In this case it was cut for time (the sermon was just too long with it), for focus (it didn’t fit as well with the other points as they fit with one another), and to make room to include more application of the other points. It is also a theme that we have addressed in other ways in previous sermons from Colossians.
But I personally found the theme interesting and helpful for me to reflect on. And so I have included the material here in case anyone else is interested.
The Church Is Meant to Connect People Over Physical Distances
Additionally, we see in this passage that the Church is meant to connect people over physical distances that the world sees as separated.
And we see that first in verses twelve and thirteen with the mention of Epaphras, and then again in verse seventeen with the mention of Archippus.
Epaphras was the one who originally preached the gospel in Colossae (a town that Paul had never been to). Epaphras was also the one who told Paul about the church in Colossae. Epaphras was from Colossae (as Paul says “he is one of you”) – but now Epaphras is with Paul … not with the Colossians. [Wright, 162; Moo, 343]
Archippus, on the other hand, was present there in Colossae at the time Paul was writing. But there is reason to think he previously had been with Paul.
In his letter to Philemon, Paul applies a phrase to Archippus that he usually reserves for those who had served alongside him in ministry. [Wright, 165; Moo, 352; the phrase is “fellow soldier” in Philemon 2]
But in verse seventeen of this letter we see that Archippus’s ministry is now in Colossae, and not alongside the Apostle Paul. There Paul writes: “say to Archippus, ‘See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.’” We don’t really know what specifically that ministry was. But we can be fairly confident that it was a ministry in Colossae.
So, where Epaphras had begun in Colossae and is now with Paul, Archippus had likely previously been with Paul, and was now in Colossae. Separation of those who had previously been together is in focus here.
And yet, Paul also makes it clear that they remain united despite that distance.
In the case of Archippus, it is apparent that though he now has a ministry many miles away from where Paul is, Paul still sees them as part of a shared effort, and still knows that in Christ, he has a role in encouraging and even directing Archippus.
But that connection over long distances is even more clear in the case of Epaphras. Paul tells the Colossian Christians that Epaphras is devoted to them, and working for them through prayer. [Wright, 162] Paul writes: “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.”
Now, we need to be careful here. Paul is not in these verses describing vague spiritual sentiments that Epaphras has for the Christians in Colossae. In our culture we now hear people talk about “prayer” in the same breath as “sending positive thoughts” or “positive feelings” towards someone in need. Paul is not just using a spiritual-sounding way to say that Epaphras thinks about the Colossian Christians a lot. He’s also not indicating some spiritual force in Epaphras that he is working to project in the direction of the Colossian Christians. Paul is saying that despite the distance, Epaphras is still connected with, and can still impact and affect the Christians and Colossae, not because they are connected by a vague spiritual force, but because they are connected by a specific person.
Even over great distances, both Epaphras and the Colossian Christians are connected through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is with his people – with all who trust in him – he is with them “always” he says – “even to the end of the age.” His presence is real – it is not sentimental. It is spiritual, yes, but it is not vague. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, both God and man, is present and consciously focused on every one of his followers, at all times. Which means that through Christ we are truly united to one another. And through Christ, we can have an impact on one another.
In some sense, all prayer is, in a setting like this, Epaphras speaking to Jesus, who is present with him and hears him, and asking Jesus to do something in the lives of someone else whom Jesus is present with at the same time, and whose hearts and lives Jesus is very much capable of acting in.
That is what we are doing when we pray for other Christians, whether we are in the living room and they are upstairs in their bedroom, or whether we are in Tacoma, and they are on the other side of the world.
And, in fact, Paul himself expects that connection as well over distances – even with the Christians in Colossae whom he has never met. Despite that fact – despite the fact that Paul had never met most of the people there – this letter contains greetings to more individuals than any of his other letters except for Romans. [Moo, 337] And in the same letter Paul stresses not only his ministry to them, but theirs to him, as he asks them for prayer – something we focused on a couple weeks back, and something we see again in verse eighteen, as he calls on the Colossian Christians to remember, and to pray about, his imprisonment. [Moo, 353]
In the same way, in the Church, we know we are connected over great physical distances, and that connection is rooted in the presence of Christ through the gospel.
And that presence should drive us to prayer. It should drive us to pray for Christians we know personally, but who are not now with us. It should drive us to pray for Christians whom we don’t know personally and whom we’ve never met. It should drive us to pray for their protection. It should drive us to pray for the perseverance of their faith.
The content of Epaphras’s prayer for the Colossians we read in verse twelve, is that they would stand firm, and mature, according to God’s calling on their lives – God’s will for them. [Moo, 344] And we should pray for the same thing in the lives of other believers, both near and far.
And Paul also gives us an example here of how engaged we are to be in such prayer. Paul says to the Colossian Christians that Epaphras is “always struggling on your behalf in his prayers.” As one commentator notes, that word translated here as “struggling” can also be translated “wrestling.” He writes that the phrase here “refers to” Epaphras’ “strenuous and consistent intervention with the Lord on behalf of the Colossians.” [Moo, 344]
Prayer is hard for a lot of reasons. But one of those reasons is that we struggle to believe our prayers are effective … which is often rooted in a struggle to really trust that the Lord is both with us and with those we pray for – that he is present with all people, and especially with those who trust in him. But such belief is rooted in the gospel, and such belief is the foundation of our prayers for others.
And so, an additional thing we see in this text is that the Church is meant to connect people over physical distances that the world sees as separated, because Jesus Christ is able to unite people over great physical distances in the gospel.
This sermon draws on material from:
Arnold, Clinton E. Introduction and notes to Colossians in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
Banks, E.J. “Colossae.” In The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Fully Revised. Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988. 1.732.
Borchert, G. L. “Hierapolis.” In The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Fully Revised. Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988. 2.707.
Borchert, G. L. “Laodicea.” In The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Fully Revised. Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988. 3.72-74.
Bork, Paul F. “What Hierapolis Tells Us About Laodicea.” In Ministry: International Journal for Pastors. August 1977. https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1977/08/what-hierapolis-tells-us-about-laodicea
Eglinton, James. Comments on the “Grace in Common” podcast episode titled “Theology of Place” May 10, 2022. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/theology-of-place/id1609942093?i=1000560271143
Garland, David E. Colossians/Philemon. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.
Guthrie, Donald. The Pastoral Epistles. TNTC. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1957 (2009 Reprint).
Hunter, S.F. “Epaphras.” In The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Fully Revised. Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988. 2.108.
Moo, Douglas J. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.
Noll, Mark A. The New Shape of World Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.
Padfield, David. “Colosse, Hierapolis, and Laodicea.” 2015.
Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Towner, Philip H. The Letters to Timothy and Titus. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.
Wright, N. T. Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1986.
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