READ : Colossians 4:2-17
When people become Christians, they’re not only given a new kind of faith. They’re given a whole new approach to living.
To those of us who have been Christians for a good while, Paul’s letters have become so familiar that we sometimes forget they are just that: personal letters. These writings that make up such an important part of the New Testament are not, first of all, theological treatises. Of course, they are full of Christian principles and say all sorts of important things about God and faith and life. But before anything else they are personal letters written by a real man; so personal, in fact, that we can come to know that man – Paul – quite well just from what he has written. And these letters are addressed to real people, people who had names and who lived in particular places and struggled with questions and issues not so different from ours.
We’re often reminded of this when we come to the end of one of Paul’s letters, for he sometimes adds a number of personal greetings just before his signature. For example, here are the closing verses of his letter to the Colossian believers:
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. . . . Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. . . .
Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. . . . He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. . . .
My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. . . . Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These . . . have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. . . . Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. . . . Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord.”
Colossians 4:2-17, niv
A LETTER FROM PRISON
The first impression I get when reading this chatty paragraph is one of cheerfulness. There’s a warm and friendly tone throughout. Everything is positive and upbeat. These words have obviously been written by a man who is well and happy himself, and deeply interested in the well-being of others. That’s why it’s so surprising to learn they were also written by a man who was in prison and awaiting trial for his life.
We’d never guess this from his letter because Paul, even in this very personal closing section of Colossians, says so little about himself and his own circumstances. He makes only a couple of passing incidental references that clue us in to his situation. In verse 3, he talks about proclaiming “the mystery of Christ,” a key phrase in Colossians. “The mystery of Christ” is Paul’s way of describing the good news that God accepts everyone – Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor – who comes to him through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul asks the Colossians to pray for him so that he will be able to continue to preach and teach this gospel, “for which I am in chains” (v. 3).
This casual reference is the first we hear of Paul’s being in prison at the time of his writing the church in Colossae. Many attempts have been made to determine just when and where this was. We can’t be completely sure what the circumstances were. Most likely he was writing from Rome during the period mentioned at the very end of the book of Acts. Paul had been arrested more than two years previously at the instigation of his enemies in Jerusalem. His only offense was to invite people of every race and nationality to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Aware that he could not get a fair hearing in Palestine, Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal his case to the emperor. So off to faraway Rome he was eventually taken. Luke tells us that while he was awaiting trial before Caesar, Paul was allowed to live in a rented house with a soldier chained to his wrist to guard him (Acts 28:16). He couldn’t go anywhere or do anything without the clanking of his chains proclaiming his continuing bondage and reminding him that his life was hanging in the balance. But even though his captivity must have been frustrating and discouraging, Paul gives little evidence of that in this letter from prison.
Another striking thing in these verses is how full of church business – and busyness – they are. You might think that Paul, having spent many years of hard, demanding ministry in the service of Christ and now facing trial and possible execution, would be thinking only about himself. You’d expect him to be preoccupied with his personal future. “If I ever get out of this prison, I’m going to take some time for me. I’m going to relax and enjoy myself for a bit” – at least, that’s how I imagine I would be thinking if I were in Paul’s place. But that notion seems to be far from his mind. He has hardly a word to say either for or about himself.
Instead, this closing section is full of news about others. There are directions for the churches, instructions for Paul’s assistants, reports on the movements of colleagues, personal greetings back and forth. Instead of the quiet contemplations of a man facing death, or the introspective musings of an apostle who had finished his usefulness, you get all this hustle and bustle and activity. As far as Paul was concerned, his work was far from finished! The thought of retirement seems never to have crossed his mind. Even when he requests prayer for himself, he asks them to pray not for his release from imprisonment, but for God to use him in prison to spread the gospel. Luke, his doctor, companion and chronicler, gives evidence that these prayers were both offered and answered.
“For two years,” he writes in the closing verses of the book of Acts, “Paul stayed in a rented house and welcomed everyone who came to see him. He bravely preached about God’s kingdom and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ, and no one tried to stop him” (Acts 28:30-31, cev).
A NEW AGENDA
I find these closing instructions of Paul to the church in Colossae wonderfully inspirational. What at first glance seems to be just another of those long lists of names in the Bible turns out upon closer inspection to have something important to teach us. Paul’s words here teach us much about the Christian’s approach to living – and dying. When a person becomes a Christian, he or she is given a whole new agenda to occupy the rest of life. Much of that agenda is described here in Colossians. Some of it comes into focus in the concluding section. Let’s look at two things in particular.
First, Christians are given a new concern in life: to glorify Jesus Christ. There are so many concerns that call for our attention. Most of them are important and worthwhile. Our homes, families and jobs, our communities and schools and neighborhoods, our hobbies and special interests – these all demand time, energy, work, and money. Then there are the bigger, more far-reaching concerns: our countries and their problems, politics, economics, world conflicts, damage to the environment, issues like poverty and hunger and homelessness.
Paul’s supreme concern in life (and that of every other Christian believer as well) was to tell people about Jesus Christ:
When you are with unbelievers, always make good use of the time. Be pleasant and hold their interest when you speak the message. Choose your words carefully and be ready to give answers to anyone who asks questions.
(vv. 5-6, cev)
This does not mean we ignore or dismiss all those other concerns. It does mean, though, that we make everything else subordinate to our interest in glorifying Christ. More than anything else, we want his name to be known, believed in and worshiped by everyone, everywhere on earth. That’s why Paul is still so eager to continue to proclaim the gospel even though he is imprisoned. When someone asked E. Stanley Jones, the great missionary to India, why he still worked so hard in his old age, he replied, “Because with my last breath I wish to commend the Lord Jesus.” I think Paul would have approved that sentiment, and echoed it as well. “For me to live is Christ,” he said (Phil. 1:21). That statement needs to be written across the top of every Christian’s new agenda.
A person’s supreme concern in life is whatever she thinks and cares about the most, whatever he is investing most of himself and his resources in. Whatever is your supreme concern is also your true God. It’s the thing you are really worshiping.
Many people are worshiping themselves. “Know that you are God,” says a proponent of New Age philosophy. Others are worshiping the creation instead of the Creator. Just this morning I saw a man wearing a shirt that had a map of the globe on it along with the phrase, “Earth: Worship the Ground You Walk On.” Still others worship as trivial a thing as their favorite sports team; at least that seems to be their greatest concern. But Christians worship Jesus Christ. So the name and the cause of Christ become our supreme interest.
In addition to this new concern, the Christian agenda in the second place includes a new emphasis on relationships. We are not only committed to Jesus. We learn also how important it is to be committed to his followers, to his body, the church. When we live the way Christ wants, we live as if people mattered most – because they do! Becoming a Christian involves us in a whole new approach to living, in which we place the needs of others ahead of our own. We begin to adopt what C.S. Lewis called “Christian Grammar”: first person “He”: second person “them”: third person “me.”
How rich these closing words are in relationships. They’re all about people. Some of what Paul writes has to do with what he liked to call “partnership in the gospel.” He mentions co-workers like Tychicus and Aristarchus and Mark and Justus and Epaphras. (We know nothing more about most of these people than just their names.) Paul also exhorts some individuals; Archippus must finish the job the Lord has given him to do. He has general instruction for the whole church, especially about how they are to pray – with devotion, alertness, and thankfulness, for the advance of the gospel, and also for maturity and faithfulness in doing the will of God (vv. 2-4, 12). He teaches them how they are to witness to unbelievers (making use of every opportunity which presents itself, but always graciously, in an interesting way, and with a willingness to respond honestly to the questions people ask, vv. 5-6). In addition, Paul’s comments emphasize the qualifications for Christian ministry: devotion, sensitivity, wisdom, loyalty, the gift of encouragement, perseverance, the willingness to suffer.
But there is much more here than just instructions for Christian workers. What really comes through is genuine friendship: how much Christians care about each other. Some who don’t know Paul very well think of him only as a gigantic intellect who was all brain and no heart. Paul was actually a lover of people. He had a huge capacity for friendship. He was greatly loved – notice all the people who voluntarily shared captivity with him – because he loved greatly! Over and over he uses words like “beloved, fellow servant, friend, dear brother, co-worker.” Paul loved and valued people for their own sake, not just for the work he could get out of them. Relationships within the church are more important than the work of the church! Actually, the relationships are the work, because institutions and organizations come and go, but people are forever. The way we relate to each other in the church speaks more loudly than all our sermons.
Wouldn’t you like to enter this relationship in the body of Christ? You may not have a family of your own. Or maybe like Paul you’ve been estranged from your family. It doesn’t matter. Christ intends his church to be a new family for everyone. The beauty of it is, unlike a human family, you don’t have to be born into it to belong. The church isn’t like the world’s clubs and cliques and social elites where you have to work or buy your way in. No, the only way into the body of Christ is by faith. To enter it, all you need do is trust in the Lord Jesus. Once you belong to him, you belong to everyone else who also belongs to him.
Why don’t you come join the world-wide Christian family today?