Little Church, Big Lie: Part 12 – A Picture of Gospel Culture: Colossians 4:7-18

Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has taken place here.

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.i

The thrust of Paul’s letter to the little church of Colossae is that Christ is to be the focus of the individual believer and of the collective life of the the church. The Christian life is Jesus-focused, not ME-focused. So, Paul writes (1:15-20):

[Jesus] is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. ii

Despite the programs sold by the spiritual gurus around Colossae, the believer’s life is NOT to be our individual spiritual achievements for the sake of becoming personal winners; our focus is on life in Christ within the new humanity, the church. The new humanity reflects the love of Christ, not bitterness, gossip, complaining. The new humanity is ruled by the peace of Christ. New creatures in Christ speak lovingly and graciously to one another and to outsiders, as Paul has commanded over our last few passages.

“Our Buddhist cousins, Muslim neighbors, and burned-out church-goers need to encounter disciples of Christ who point away from themselves, witnessing to Christ as the Savior of sinners—even hypocritical Christians. And, ironically, when we are seeking Christ rather than a generic social and moral impact on the society that we could have apart from him, something strange happens. A communion emerges around the Lamb, drawing people together ‘from every tribe, kindred, tongue, people, and nation’ into ‘a kingdom of priests to our God’ (Rev. 5:9). From a justifying and sanctifying communion with Christ that they share together emerges a foretaste of genuine peace, love, and justice that can orient our ordinary lives and animate our activity in our worldly callings.”iii

In these final verses of Paul’s letter we see a diverse, close, Jesus-centered culture on display. They provide a practical example of the gospel culture Paul defined in 3:12-17 and show us how the life Paul has commanded for the church works out among ordinary Christian believers. Remember, Paul wrote the congregation was to:

12 Put on …compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. …giving thanks to God the Father through him. iv

TRANSFORMING POWER

Onesimus

This last passage of Colossians displays the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ on a group of individuals. In verse 9 Paul writes, “and …Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.”v You may recall that Onesimus was a runaway slave about whom Paul wrote his letter to Philemon. In that letter, Paul sends Onesimus back to his master saying Onesimus has become Paul’s spiritual son (Philem. 10) and that Paul was sending back, “my very heart” (12).

Onesimus worked in a home that hosted local church meetings. Rather than come to faith, he fled. But by God’s providence, he found himself in Paul’s presence and came to faith in Christ through Paul’s ministry. What an amazing testimony to the power of the gospel to work in the most unexpected ways (humanly speaking).

The Circumcised

Look at 4:11 where Paul says of Aristarchus, John Mark, and Jesus Justice, “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.vi This small group of Jewish Christians is gathered with a group of Gentile believers who also send their greetings. That’s an example of the power of the gospel to transform relationships. Two groups of people who would not normally associate with one another are both together with Paul sending their greetings to this little church full of people from both Jewish and Gentile heritage.

The gospel breaks through the walls of racial division. It leaps over barriers of social division. There in the same room with Paul was a circumstance that must have confounded the ancient world: two groups from radically different backgrounds, from peoples with deep prejudices against one another, are united together in the fellowship of gospel culture. Jews and Gentile embracing one another as brothers in Christ are a testimony to the transforming power of the gospel.

Among the three circumcised men Paul lists is John Mark. “10 Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him).vii You might recall from Acts 15:36-41 that Paul and Barnabas split up after a sharp disagreement over whether to take Mark on their second missionary journey since Mark had abandoned them on their first journey. Now, about 12 years later, Mark is in Rome ministering with and to Paul.

In his final imprisonment, shortly before his death, Paul will write to Timothy and ask him to bring Mark with him to Rome because “Mark … is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11). The transforming power of the gospel turned a failed minister into a useful minister who wrote the first gospel. The transforming power of the gospel healed a broken relationship. Recall Paul’s instruction to the Colossians:

if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

This man who had once abandoned the apostle Paul, who was the sole cause of Paul’s split with Barnabas, now appears headed to Roman Asia on a tour of duty. And he is headed there with Paul’s personal recommendation and Paul’s command that John Mark be welcomed.

God’s grace crosses barriers of hurtful personal conflicts and ministry failures. Dear hearts, if you belong to Christ he is NEVER through with you. Paul may have once been done with John Mark, but Jesus was not done with him by a long shot because Jesus works in the midst of brokenness and failure. Christ is an artist whose favorite medium is brokenness and failure. So, Paul writes to the Ephesians, “10 …we are his workmanship [artistic creation], created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” viii

The New Testament doesn’t present us a list for how to do evangelism. It was simply the very power of Christ on display in the lives of his people that drew outsiders inside. Think of Paul’s own story as a social climber in the Jewish temple system and the chief prosecutor of the Jesus Movement Task Force. Once he was a willing murderer for his religious cause. But then he was transformed by the Lord Jesus Christ, the master artist who reshapes the broken into his glorious image.ix

SPIRITUAL VITALITY OF THE CHURCH

Tychicus

Not only does this text reflect the transforming power of the gospel, it also reflects the spiritual vitality of the church. “Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant [bond slave] in the Lord.”x

Tychicus traveled with Paul on his third missionary journey from Asia Minor all the way to Jerusalem where Paul was arrested in the temple (Acts 20:4). Now, about four years later, we find him ministering with and to Paul in Rome. He knows Paul so well that Paul entrusts him to speak on the apostle’s behalf to the Colossian church and fill them in on all the things Paul did not have the space to write on expensive parchment. Besides, some things are better spoken than written.

And Paul entrusts Tychicus to carry not only this letter, but also letters to Philemon (Philem. 1, 8-22), and Ephesus (Eph. 6:21,22). Not only that, but Onesimus is to go with Paul’s beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord.xi Tychicus was to be the conciliator between the runaway slave and his master. Paul trusted him to negotiate a very delicate situation. Slaves were property so Philemon would be well within his rights to torture or kill his “property” without any loss of reputation in Roman society.xii

Luke

In v. 14 Paul writes, “14 Luke the beloved physician greets you….”xiii Note that the man who will author the third gospel (and Acts) is there in Rome with the man who will write the very first gospel account, John Mark. Luke was a Gentile (4:11) from Roman Asia. He had been Paul’s companion in travel (Acts 16:10–17; 20:6–16; 21; 27; 28). He had been with Paul on the second missionary journey at Troas and at Philippi.xiv He joined Paul again toward the end of Paul’s third great journey and stayed with him during his arrest and imprisonment, from Jerusalem to Caesarea and all the way through the dangerous trip to Rome.

It’s not certain that Paul needed a personal physician to travel with him. Some commentators make that speculation, but judging by Paul’s many near-death experiences and his remarkable ability to recover and continue his work Paul was not a sickly man at all. And Dr. Luke was not some Middle Ages witchdoctor who cut hair stuck leeches on people to adjust their bodily “humors.” The Romans were far more scientifically advanced than those who followed after them.

The collapse of their empire meant their scientific knowledge was lost, and that is why historians refer to the times that follow as “The Dark Ages” (as opposed to the ignorant claim the time is so called because it was dominated by Medieval Christianity). That little history tidbit is meant to tell you how valuable and educated was Dr. Luke, who abandoned his career track in medicine to devote himself to full-time ministry with and to the apostle Paul for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. Like Paul, Luke experienced a radical career change when his eyes were opened to the one-way love of God in Christ Jesus.

Epaphras & Aristarchus

Paul again mentions Epaphras. “12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling [striving with great intensity; our word “agony” derives from this Greek word] on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.xv Paul gives him the most words in this section. He was the church planter who brought the gospel to Colossae. If you re-read 1:9-12 you will see Paul’s prayer for the Colossians is the same as Epaphras’ prayer.

That’s really the prayer of any true elder. An elder’s chief concern is not for himself and his glory; the elder’s job is not to gain a following for himself, but to exhaust himself to gain a following for Jesus and to see those followers grow in Christ over time through the ordinary means of grace.

Isn’t it interesting that Epaphras is not singled out for his speaking skills, his education, his great “pastor hair,” or his stunning wardrobe? He’s not busy on a speaking circuit plugging his latest book on how to plant small churches in tiny towns. Very few people today would even think about that kind of ordinary, unsung ministry. Epaphras is singled out for his constant intense striving in prayer for his little congregation and his intense labor (he has worked hard for you all, 4:13; or, he has put himself through much trouble for you all).

And if you had any notions that this band of believers, in their loving fellowship and deep bonds with one another, had an easy life of rainbows and fluffy bunnies you need to look at Epaphras, the man who agonizes in prayer. Or, read how Paul described Aristarchus: “10 Aristarchus my fellow prisoner…xvi Like Dr. Luke, Aristarchus traveled on Paul’s dangerous transport to Rome (Acts 27:2), enduring harsh weather and shipwreck. It’s doubtful Paul is saying Aristarchus is also under arrest since Paul merely calls him “my fellow worker” in Philem. 1. And in Philemon, it is Epaphras who is called “my fellow prisoner” (Philem. 23).

That word prisoner is better translated, “my fellow prisoner of war” “the prisoner of war is a miserable person who stands in special need of God’s help (Ps. 79:11 etc.), having been swallowed up by a terrible enemy (Lk. 21:24; Rev. 13:10…).”xvii

Paul is telling the Colossians that ministry is HARD labor; it’s fighting a war that is humanly impossible to win (but divinely certain to be won). Aristarchus, like Epaphras were slaves to the Lord Jesus Christ, willing to endure the hard stories Christ was writing for them for HIS glory rather than their own. Paul may tell Timothy that elders are worthy of honor (1 Tim. 5:17) but he doesn’t promise elders actually receive honor in the Church or the world.

I come from a family of church elders. My father was an elder. My older brother is an elder. I am an elder whose chief duty is a ministry of Word and Sacrament. Since my family has been in the “elding” business for two generations, I can honestly tell you there is no personal glory in. And if like me, you enter into ordained ministry expecting some measure of honor, respect, or glory for yourself you will be sorely miserably disappointed as the Lord Jesus sets about disabusing you of your desire for personal achievement. If he knows and loves you, he will train you in the most severe of ways because ministry is a war. There is a great deal of joy in ministry, but it comes in the midst of agonizing slave-like, prisoner-of-war like, work.

Demas

This list offers more proof of the struggle of ministry. Paul lists Demas in 4:14 along with Luke. Paul mentions Demas again in Philem. 24. What Paul doesn’t yet know as he writes to the Colossians is that Demas will abandon him. At the very end of his life, the apostle wrote in 2 Tim. 4:10, “…Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.”xviii

There is sadness in Paul’s fellowship of fellow believers – not as he writes this letter, but in years to come. Such is the nature of any collection of people who are simultaneously declared saints-but-still-sinners in this present world. Demas didn’t live on the margins of the church, he was on the front lines with Paul. But, ultimately, when the going got too rough, he went back to an easier life to try to write his own story as he saw fit. He didn’t like what Jesus was doing in Demas’ life.

Paul writes just prior to his own execution, “15 You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me….”xix The churches over which Paul labored ultimately turned their collective back on him. Gospel culture can be full of great joy and mutual comfort. But justified sinners are capable of the very same heartlessness as unjustified sinners. You may find yourself pouring your life into other believers who turn against you in a heartbeat. You must be willing to be hated even by fellow believers for the sake of the Lord Jesus.

Gospel culture is not perfect in this life. One of the joys of the New Heaven and Earth will be the perfect fellowship that no sin can ever tarnish. One of the realities of gospel culture now is that anyone can turn on anyone over anything. And our lasting joy comes from the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ never abandoned Paul and he will never abandon you if you are trusting into him this morning.

What bound these men Paul lists into a gospel culture? It wasn’t that they just happened to like each other. It wasn’t that they belonged to the same social class. It wasn’t that they were all members of the same race. It was that they were all involved in the same spiritual warfare to push back the angels of darkness with the glorious light of the message that the resurrected Messiah Jesus lived the perfect law-keeping life you and I can NEVER live in this present life, and that he shed his precious innocent blood to die the death all humanity deserves regardless of our relative morality.xx

That’s what the word “fellowship” means in the New Testament. It doesn’t mean people hanging out together and visiting. It means believers engaged in worshipping and serving the Lord by serving their neighbors as they bring the gospel to lost for the sake of Jesus.xxi

Gospel culture happens when people are drawn to Jesus, not to programs. When we are bound together as people conscious of our inadequacies to fight the battles of the Christian life; when we are drawn together by the need of struggling together in prayer primarily as a means of ministry to others; when we forgive the failures of those around us for the sake of serving Jesus, THEN we are drawn into the kind of gospel culture Paul displayed for us in this letter.

i The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:7–18.

ii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 1:15–20.

iv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 3:12–17.

v The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:9.

vi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:11.

vii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:10.

viii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Eph 2:10.

ix Sinclair Ferguson, The Glorious Company of the Saints, Col. 4:7-18. Accessed 1/14/17 at: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=fpc-102206am

x The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:7.

xi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:7.

xii Ferguson, Op. cit.

xiii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:14.

xiv William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of Colossians and Philemon, vol. 6, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 192.

xv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:12.

xvi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:10.

xvii Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 195.

xviii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), 2 Ti 4:10.

xix The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 2 Ti 1:15.

xx Ferguson, op. cit.

xxi Id.