In this morning’s passage Paul’s love for the Colossians—and again, this is a church comprised of people whom he has never met—is front and center. I continue to be struck by the warmth and closeness Paul feels for these believers despite his never having visited their church. He’s met Epaphras, of course, whom we met in the first week of our study. Epaphras is probably the one who began this local church. But I do think it’s extraordinary that Paul is able to feel so attached to and burdened for this family of believers whom he only knows by reference.
In his final admonitions, Paul exhorts the Colossians to “devote [themselves] to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (v. 3). For Paul, prayer isn’t a throw-away matter or act to do only when we have no other recourse. No, for Paul, prayer is where our lives as believers begins—is sustained—and will end. Loving the Lord our God with all of our hearts, soul, mind, and strength must occur before we can love our neighbors as ourselves. In fact I don’t think we can properly love our neighbor unless we know and love God first, bringing all of our requests to him, and acknowledging our full and utter dependency upon him.
Paul’s further urging the Colossians to be watchful is appropriate given that, as we’ve seen, there are false teachers who have been leading some of them away from the true teaching they had received about Christ from Paul. As believers we should ever be evaluating cultural, and especially religious or spiritual, claims for truth and weighing these against what the Scriptures teach. Further, watchfulness is an appropriate stance for all believers because, as Peter reminds us, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8). Satan would like nothing better than to sidetrack us from following Christ to following what passes for truth in our society and so destroying us in the process.
And in this second verse we see yet again an admonition for the Colossians to be thankful. This is not the first—or the second—or the third—or the fourth—or the fifth time Paul speaks of being thankful. No, this is the sixth time in four chapters that Paul has brought up the importance of being thankful. I think that thankfulness—a sense of gratitude—a readiness to express our appreciation to God—is a fundamental virtue for us to cultivate as believers because thankfulness helps us see our lives through the eyes of God’s providence—it enables us to appreciate his love, and see his presence, and understand that he is always with us. This is not to say that we have to thank him for evil or suffering or painful things we may be going through. We’re never expected to be grateful for evil but what Scripture says is that for those who know him God is able to bring good even out of evil circumstances. In Romans 8:28 we read “28 And we know that in all things—[that is, the good, the bad, and the ugly]—God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Scripture never says that evil is good but rather it’s more the sense that even if we are going through trials, an attitude of thankfulness enables us to know his love and care whatever our circumstances may be.
Though perhaps not the best example of this, this past Tuesday I was feeling a little overwhelmed since I began teaching my first class for the semester at the seminary. It’s a class I hadn’t taught in a while and though I had prepared, I was feeling anxious about how well and clearly I would be able to present the material to students. I mentioned during the Adult Education class last week, that I have always loved animals of all sorts and that spotting animals—for which I believe I have some kind of spiritual gift!—has always been a means the Lord has used to comfort and delight me. Well, as I was driving to go teach Tuesday evening, fretting and feeling anxious, about 20 yards ahead I saw five wild turkeys making a mad dash across the road. They looked so comical and cartoonish that I smiled and thanked God for these wacky birds. Again, though no doubt a trivial example, these silly running-for-their-lives-like-there-was-no-tomorrow turkeys reminded me of the wonder of God’s creation and of Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 10 that not a sparrow falls outside of our heavenly Father’s care (verse 29). “31 So don’t be afraid—[he tells them]—you are worth more than many sparrows”—or turkeys! If our Father in heaven cares about even a sparrow that falls, how much more does he care for us who are made in his image? Our experience with nature can remind us of the God who made and cares for us and therefore can become an occasion for expressing our thankfulness to him. And it’s good for us to express our gratitude to him—and others—on a regular basis. I read somewhere that “feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like receiving a gift and not unwrapping it.” To feel gratitude and not express it leaves us incomplete. We should avail ourselves of every opportunity to thank our Lord and others for small and large kindnesses alike.
Paul next presents a prayer request to the Colossians in verses 3 and 4. He asks the Colossians to pray for him even as he is praying for them. His relationship with these believers isn’t one-sided. He is encouraging a relationship that has already begun. Specifically he asks that God would “open a door for our message” not only to proclaim “the mystery of Christ” but that he would do so “clearly, as [he] should.” Here we find Paul in jail—in chains, not for the first time—because of having proclaimed the mystery of Christ to others and yet his one prayer request isn’t for his own freedom and comfort. No, it’s that he would have even more opportunities to share with others the truth of who Christ is and what he has done for us and for our salvation—and that he would be enabled to proclaim this message clearly. I find it touching and humbling that Paul is so full of God’s love for him that all he wants is to share that love with others.
Next Paul exhorts the Colossians in verses 5 and 6 about their outreach to those outside of the community of faith. He tells them to “5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Our deeds and our words are important, aren’t they? One thing Ron and I have begun to pray about more intentionally is for outreach to our neighbors. And I was struck by the fact that the day after Ron first prayed for this, as we were taking our morning walk, two sweet little dogs belonging to a neighbor ran after us and this provided an opportunity, albeit brief, to say ‘hello’ to the owner and introduce ourselves. This past week we saw the same neighbor and this time a skunk—notice the animal theme!—scurrying across his lawn was the occasion of making contact but it offered us a chance to ask about the health of a family member he had previously shared about. Now we don’t know whether or not this man is a believer, but Paul is reminding the Colossian that as believers we should seek God’s wisdom in reaching out to those who are outside of our community. As I’ve indicated before, contra what many of us have been taught, we don’t have the ability to save anyone—only God can open spiritual eyes to the truth of who Christ is by means of his Holy Spirit—but we can ask God to use us to make meaningful contact with others. And this contact should be evident in both our actions, as indicated in verse 5, and our speech—our conversation—which, Paul says, should always be “full of grace.” Our conversation should always acknowledge God’s goodness in drawing us to himself, despite our blindness or even perhaps our resistance. It should also be “seasoned with salt.” Paul is taking Jesus’ teaching that we are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13) and indicating that even our speech should cause others to thirst for Christ—to ask questions about him—and that we should be prepared to answer everyone who asks about him.
The next section includes a kind of who’s who of some of the people we know from other parts of Scripture. A little background will help us better appreciate the web of relationships between Paul and the churches to whom he is ministering: As I indicated when I first introduced Paul’s letter to the Colossians, both Laodicea and Hierapolis are towns near Colossae. Hierapolis was about six miles from Laodicea and about fourteen from Colossae. Though at one time Colossae was a leading city in Asia Minor—present-day Turkey—by the time of Paul’s writing it’s a 2nd-rate market town long-ago surpassed in power and importance by both Laodicea and Hierapolis. Christian churches may have been established in these two towns due to the efforts of Epaphras, as had occurred in Colossae, or other converts of Paul. Most of these were house churches (4:15; Phm 2). Most likely all of them were comprised primarily of Gentiles, or non-Jewish, believers. Too, Colossians (~AD 60–62) is written about the time Paul wrote Philemon and Ephesians and all three letters are sent from him to these churches via Tychicus (Eph. 6:21) and also Onesimus. All three were written while Paul was in prison, probably in Rome.
In verse 7 Paul first mentions Tychicus, “a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord,” who is going to the Colossians on Paul’s behalf. If you look up Tychicus in the New Testament, you learn that he has been Paul’s co-laborer and –traveler for some time. He’s mentioned in Acts 20:24, and Paul also makes reference to him in his letters to the Ephesians (6:12), 2 Timothy (4:12), and Titus (3:12). In verse 8 of Colossians Paul states he is sending him “for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts.” Again there’s a beautiful reciprocity taking place between Paul and these believers. It may be that they are concerned about Paul’s imprisonment even as he’s expressed concern about the Colossians so he wants to put their minds at ease.
But, following on the heels of our passage last week in which Paul addressed masters and slaves, I want to point out something that we too often overlook. The word translated “servant” in verse 7 actually means “slave” in the Greek, not servant. There are other words Greek uses to speak of servants, but this one—doulos—isn’t one of them. It always means “slave”—it never means servant. This is an important difference. As John MacArthur notes, “A servant is someone hired to do something. [A] slave is someone [who is] owned” <http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/GTY129/servant-or-slave> The most likely reason the English translating committees have translated this Greek word for “slave” as “servant” is probably, as I mentioned last week, due to our horrific history with slavery in both the United States and England. Yet changing the meaning from slave to servant makes us miss the point that we are not our own—we belong to Christ, our Savior—our Lord—our Master. But, unlike earthly masters at the time, he is a Master who will ever and always act for our good because he loves us more deeply and profoundly than any other person ever can or will.
Paul understood the profundity of this. He refers to himself as a slave (or fellow slave) of Christ Jesus in Romans 1:1—and 2 Corinthians 4:5—and Galatians 1:10—and Philippians 1:1—and Colossians 1:17—and Titus 1:1. But it’s not only Paul who refers to himself as Christ’s slave. Other inspired New Testament authors do the same—James, Jesus’ brother, does so in James 1:1—as does Peter in 2 Peter 1:1—as does Jude in Jude 1:1. Brothers and sisters, if we have placed our trust and lives in Christ’s hands, we are his slaves; and he is our Master. Our lives are no longer our own, but we have been bought with a price (I Cor. 6:20)—the precious, immeasurable price of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But again being his slaves ought not cause us concern because he is a Master who will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). And we are invited to enjoy his fellowship—his presence—now and forevermore. And the great gift Jesus gives to all of his slaves—to all who have given their lives over to him, to know and follow him—is that we have the incredible privilege of being not only his slaves but also his friends. As Jesus says in John 15:15, “I no longer call you servants”—and again, the word is slaves in the Greek—“because a servant”—a slave—“does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” Unlike slaves who don’t know why their masters act in the way in which they act, Christ’s slaves are also his friends—people with whom he shares our heavenly Father’s will even as we share out lives with our friends. Knowing Christ just gets better and better, doesn’t it??!
Well, returning to our passage, as I mentioned last week, Tychicus is being sent along with Onesimus, verse 9, who is described as “our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you”—in other words he’s from Colossae. And as I also indicated last week, Onesimus is the run-away slave—not servant!—of Philemon to whom Paul addresses a one-page, one-chapter letter, encouraging him to treat this slave not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Paul tells the Colossians that Tychicus and Onesimus “will tell you everything that is happening here.”
And it’s interesting that in Philemon 23–24, we see some of the same names grouped together that are mentioned at the end of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. There we read “23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.” In this final chapter in Colossians, all of these receive mention as well.
In Colossians Aristarchus is mentioned in verse 10. He is also mentioned three times in the book of Acts (19:29, 20:4, 27:2) where we learn he is from Macedonia. He, too, has a long-standing relationship with Paul. He is a “fellow prisoner” with Paul and is sending his greetings to the Colossian branch of his family in Christ, as does Mark, the author of the second Gospel, who is also Barnabas’ cousin. It is interesting to note that about twelve years earlier, Paul had a serious falling-out with Mark (Acts 15:39) but the two have now been reconciled and Paul encourages the Colossians to welcome him should he come to them.
Next to be mentioned as one sending greetings is “Jesus, who is called Justus” in verse 11 about whom we know nothing else in the New Testament. He, along with Aristarchus and Mark are the only Jews—literally the only ones of the circumcision group—with Paul. Paul may be making note of this fact because in Galatians 2:8 he writes that God “…who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised”—in other words the Jewish—“was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles” (also Romans 11:13). Regardless, these Jewish Christians are Paul’s “co-workers for the kingdom of God” having “proved a comfort to” him. Whether they are Jewish or Gentile converts to Christ doesn’t really matter. As Paul states in Galatians 3:28, in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female but we are all one in Christ. Christ breaks through all barriers society may set up, leveling the field, and reminding us that God is no respecter of persons, but desires for all of us to be one in Christ no matter who we are or what our background may be.
Next, having begun his letter with Epaphras, Paul again mentions him in verse 12. Like Onesimus, he is one of them—that is, a Colossian—and a servant—and again the Greek word means slave—of Christ Jesus and he, too, sends his greetings. Paul clearly esteems Epaphras highly for he goes on to say that Epaphras “is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.” No doubt Epaphras’ contagious love for his fellow-Colossians has spread to Paul. Paul further says that he vouches for Epaphras “that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis”—again, an indicator of the proximity of Colossae to these neighboring towns.
In verse 14 we have a mention of another author of one of the Gospels, “Our dear friend Luke, the doctor.” He was probably a Gentile and, though a doctor, he probably wouldn’t have been held with the same esteem we hold doctors today—as we learned last week, even slaves were trained to be doctors. Luke had accompanied Paul on some of his journeys (Acts 16:10) and was apparently with Paul during his two-year imprisonment in Caesarea as well as his two-year imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28; 2 Tim. 4:11). Being also the author of Acts, he chronicled many of Paul’s missionary journeys.
And though Paul’s once strained relationship with Mark ended happily, though here Demas (along with Luke) sends greetings, we sadly learn from 2 Timothy 4:10 that Demas later deserts Paul during his Roman imprisonment and the reason given is “because [Demas] loved this world.” Tragically we as believers aren’t always able to maintain the holiness and unity God calls us to.
In verse 15 Paul extends his greetings to “the brothers and sisters” at the church in Laodicea and specifically he singles out one of the sisters, Nympha—who is only mentioned here in the NT—and those in the church she hosted “in her house.” Again house churches were common during this period. They were the rule, not the exception. Churches didn’t begin to own separate property for worship until the middle of the third century.
The proximity of Colossae to Laodicea leads Paul to tell these believers that they should pass along this letter to the Laodiceans and that the Colossians should, in turn, read the letter—now lost—that Paul wrote to the Laodiceans. This comment bears witness to the practice of circulating Paul’s letters among churches so that all could benefit—hence Paul’s letters are often called “circular” letters. They were shared between churches.
The last person Paul names is Archippus, about whom we know little. In the opening verses of his letter to Philemon, Paul states he is writing “To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home.” Again, house churches would have been the norm at this time. Archippus receives a special word of exhortation from Paul to “complete the ministry [he has] received in the Lord.”
And Paul closes as he often does, writing the final verse of the letter in his own hand which bears witness to the letter’s authenticity. Paul probably used an amanuensis, possibly Timothy, to whom he dictated this letter. And Paul ends simply by asking that they remember his chains and he extends God’s grace to them.
Brothers and sisters, as we have now sat at Paul’s feet for the past two months, listening in and learning from his loving relationship with the Colossian believers, may we take to heart at his teaching, and seek to live our lives as God calls us to live—praying continuously, being watchful at all times, and being filled with gratitude knowing that because of Christ’s sacrifice for us, we can fulfill our purpose in life to love and enjoy him and each other now and forevermore.
Let us pray.