A person’s last words can sometimes be significant. Let’s listen today to Paul’s last words to the Colossians.
It was the custom in an earlier era to pay close attention to the last words a person spoke before dying. Nowadays the interest in people’s last words has waned somewhat. In a technological society, dying has become so complicated and mechanized that most people don’t even get a chance to utter them. Still, we continue to think there’s something significant about a person’s final statement. Occasionally these words have special importance, in which case they become “famous last words.”
Sometimes these are ironic, as in the case of an American general named John Sedgewick whose last words at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse (1864) were, “Don’t worry, boys, they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance!”
Sometimes last words are stirring and inspiring. When the English reformer and martyr Hugh Latimer was burned at the stake in Oxford on October 16, 1555, his last words were addressed to his fellow martyr Nicholas Ridley: “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man. By God’s grace, we shall this day light such a candle as shall never be put out.”
And sometimes they are deeply moving, as are Paul’s last words to the Colossians. They may not have been his last words in life but they were his last words to this young church: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.”
A POIGNANT REMINDER
In this brief close to his letter, the apostle draws attention to his personal signature. This guaranteed the authenticity -and therefore the authority – of the epistle. Paul’s normal practice when writing to a church was to dictate his message to an assistant. Indeed, there is some evidence that he suffered from poor eyesight and that writing was difficult for him (see Gal. 6:11). But sometimes at the very end of the epistle Paul himself would take pen in hand and add a line or two along with his signature to reassure the recipients that what they were reading was genuinely Pauline. Paul also closes his letter with a simple benediction or word of blessing. “Grace be with you.” But in between the greeting and the blessing are what I think of as Paul’s last words to the Colossian believers. There are just three of them: “Remember my chains.”
That simple statement is first of all a poignant reminder of how much Paul had suffered and was still suffering for the sake of the gospel. He was in prison when he wrote this letter, or at least he was under a kind of house arrest, probably in the city of Rome. The chains to which he refers were real ones, binding him to a Roman guard who watched his every move. That imprisonment was only the last in a long line of hardships and persecution Paul had suffered for the sake of Christ and the gospel. He never got into trouble for wrong-doing. His only crime was that he proclaimed the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord, and he invited people to put their trust in him. For this he was beaten, stoned and shipwrecked, thrown into jail, chained in prison, harassed and hounded from place to place, and in the end executed. “Let no one trouble me,” he had written years before to the Galatians, “for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6:17). Think of what Paul’s body must have looked like after decades of hardship, injuries and toil. Every scar, every lump, crease and wrinkle, every misshapen joint, every line on his face was a badge of honor, a “mark of Jesus,” and a token of his love for the Lord.
We must not imagine that Paul is looking for pity from anyone when he mentions his imprisonment here in Colossians 4. He’s already explained what his attitude is toward the suffering he has experienced in the service of Christ. Back in chapter 1, he exclaimed, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the sake of his body, that is the church” (Col. 1:24, nrsv). When Paul states that his suffering completes or fills up what is lacking in Christ’s suffering, he does not mean to imply that Christ’s suffering is somehow deficient. He’s not saying that the cross was an insufficient sacrifice for sins and that we have to add our own sufferings to Christ’s in order to pay for them. No, Paul is not talking here about Jesus’ atoning suffering. He is talking about the way Christ still suffers with us now. He’s referring to the fact that whenever Christians suffer, Christ identifies with them and makes their suffering his own. “What is lacking in Christ’s affliction” is the full amount of the sufferings of his body, the church.
Christ takes upon himself all the sufferings of Christians everywhere. When any part of the body is struck, the Head feels it. Paul learned this truth when he was still Saul, the persecutor of Christians. Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus Road and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Paul rejoiced in all the hard and painful things he endured for the sake of the gospel because he knew that suffering for Christ is also suffering with Christ, and it brings ever greater intimacy with the Lord. More than that, being persecuted for the faith of Christ is also “for the sake of his body, the church,” as Paul writes. So he knew that his hardships and afflictions were in some way helping the church to grow. And for those reasons he thought that suffering was an occasion for joy, not pity.
A MOVING APPEAL
If Paul is not asking for pity when he urges the Colossians to remember his chains, what is he asking for? What is the nature of his appeal? I think he’s asking for two things. First, this is an appeal tolisten to him. Paul’s chains bear witness to the authenticity of his ministry. They underscore his authority. They are a reminder that he has paid the price of his convictions and has earned the right to be heard. Paul is no ivory tower theologian. He has laid his life on the line time and time again for the sake of the message he preaches and teaches. His body bears the marks of his courage and integrity. On the infrequent occasions when Paul did make direct reference to his suffering for the sake of Christ, it was often to underscore and appeal to his listeners to do what he asks of them. For example, in a personal letter to a man called Philemon, written at the same time as Colossians, he writes, “I, Paul, an old man and also a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son Onesimus” (Phil. 9). To the Ephesians Paul says, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph. 4:1). And here when he asks the Colossians to remember his chains, he is reinforcing the message of the whole letter: Remember what I’ve been telling you, he is saying. Remember that Christ is the Center, Christ is the Lord, the Creator, the Sustainer, the Redeemer. Set your mind on him and the things that are above. Clothe yourselves in holiness and live in love. Remember and follow my message.
The second thing Paul is appealing for is prayer. “Remember my chains” means: Remember where I am. Remember my circumstances, my situation, and pray for me. “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful, and pray for us too that God may open a door for our message so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly as I should” (Col. 4:2-4). Paul tells them frankly that he needs their prayers. He was never embarrassed or ashamed to admit that and to ask people to pray for him. Sometimes we are ashamed or embarrassed. We don’t want to mention our real needs, our deepest needs, not even to those who are closest to us. Maybe we should ask more people to remember our chains, tell them what they are, and ask for their prayers. But amazingly Paul doesn’t ask primarily for his personal needs or even for his release from prison. He asks them to pray for his work. Paul didn’t say, “Pray that the prison doors would be opened.” He asked them to pray that God would “open a door” for the gospel, so that he would be able to walk through it and continue to speak the message clearly and effectively.
Paul himself, of course, no longer needs our prayers. He has long ago exchanged his prison chains for a crown of glory. But there are many, many Christians throughout the world who do need our prayers and who urge us to remember their chains. You may be one of them. Are you willing to ask others to pray for you in your need, not just to be delivered from trouble, but to be used by God in it for his glory and for the sake of Christ’s church? If fear of suffering is holding you back, look to the cross of Jesus and the example of Paul. The same Lord who helped him will support you too.
And what about all the others who are “in chains” today? Are you willing to pray for suffering and persecuted Christians around the world? Many of us, myself included, don’t really know what chains are like. I would be hard pressed to identify any real or serious suffering that I experience because of my witness for Jesus. That is not true for many thousands of Christians in other countries! They know exactly what Paul is talking about, for they have shared his experience. Do you know about them? Do you remember them? Do you pray for them? Christians in places like China, the Sudan, the Middle East. Believers, for example, on the Indonesian island of Java whose churches have been burned in recent months, or in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico where they have been repeatedly harassed and attacked, their homes, property and church buildings destroyed, sometimes their lives taken.
Are you praying for Christian leaders and their families who are suffering right now because of the gospel? People like 34-year-old Pastor Ravanbaksh of Iran who was kidnapped near his home on September 27, 1996. Shortly thereafter his body was found hanged in a nearby forest. Ravanbaksh is the seventh evangelical pastor murdered in Iran in the past three years. Writes another Iranian Christian leader:
Another martyr in Iran, persecution continues. Jesus is worthy of every sacrifice, and these persecutions are just the evidence that we are moving in the right direction. Please pray for the comfort of the church in Iran, especially the family, the wife and two young children, of the martyr Ravanbaksh.
Remember their chains!
Christian discipleship is a costly business. Is it worth it? A retired pastor was telling me about an evening he and several other young pastors spent many years ago in the company of Dr. Paul Harrison, a veteran missionary to the Persian Gulf. One of them asked this godly man what he had learned in a lifetime of hard service about living by faith in Christ.
Dr. Harrison replied with these words: “I’ve learned that living by faith means that nothing is too high to be attained, or too good to be hoped for, or too hard to be endured, or too precious to be given away.” God grant that you and I may learn that same lesson.