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Rooted in Christ: Paul's Letter to the Colossians

Date: April 14, 2019

Speaker: Jeff Breeding

Series: Rooted in Christ: Paul's Letter to the Colossians

Scripture: Colossians 4:7–4:18

In the Company of Faithful Ministers

And so, we come to the end of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. For the last several months, we’ve had the privilege of listening as the apostle Paul unfolds for us the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ. We began in chapter 1, with Paul praying that God’s people would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that we might walk in a manner worthy of the Lord. Then we listened as Paul quickly proclaimed Jesus Christ as the fullness of that spiritual wisdom. Christ is the image of the invisible God, Paul exclaimed, the one who holds all things together. And through Christ, believers have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, where sinners like us receive the blessings of redemption and reconciliation.

Then we moved to chapter 2, where Paul labored to show us how Christ is sufficient for the Christian life. Those who are in Christ lack nothing, and there is, therefore, no need to look anywhere else for spiritual maturity. In Christ, Paul declared, we find all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and therefore, believers must be vigilant against any human teaching that would lead us away from Christ. As the church has been taught in Christ, so must the church live in Christ, rooted and built up in him, established in the faith and abounding in thanksgiving.

As we entered chapter 3, Paul began to focus on how the supremacy of Christ affects everyday life. The apostle reminded believers of their union with Christ – how they have been raised with Christ. And in light of that glorious union, the Christian’s calling is to seek the things above, where Christ is. Believers must set their minds on Christ’s kingdom, putting to death what belongs to our old nature and putting on what belongs to the new nature in Christ. And all of this – both killing sin and growing in godliness – must be done in community with God’s people, as the Word dwells in us richly and as we admonish one another through the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

But Paul continued and reminded us that it is not only the church’s worship that must reflect Christ’s lordship; it is also every aspect of life. Whatever you do, Paul declared, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus. Even our specific relationships – from marriage to parenting to our vocation – every area of life is meant to proclaim that Christ is Lord.

And then, as we began chapter 4, Paul showed us how this kind of Christ-centered life flows out in faithful, winsome witness to the world, as believers steadfastly pray and humbly minister with gracious words pointing others to Christ.

You can see, then, why I say it has been a privilege to listen as Paul unfolds the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. There is no One who compares to the Lord Jesus, and for those who trust in Christ, we can say with great joy, “This is our Lord. He is our Savior, and we are glad to use our lives to make much of him!” Week after week, brothers and sisters, I pray, that you have seen Christ.

And today, we come to the final passage – Paul’s closing greeting to this beloved church. But let’s be honest. Considering the richness of the letter so far, it would be easy to view these verses as a bit of a letdown, maybe even an anticlimactic way to finish such a powerful letter. There is no soaring doctrinal declaration like chapter 1, and there’s no piercing pastoral application like chapter 3. It is primarily the formal close to Paul’s letter.

And yet, if we were to breeze through Paul’s closing, we would miss something important. It’s true these verses formally close the letter, but they also give us a series of living examples, real-world pictures of Christian life and ministry. I’m sure you noticed as we read the number of people whom Paul mentions here by name. Ten people to be precise show up in this text, making it one of the longest conclusions to any of Paul’s letters. And these specific people help put flesh-and-bones on Paul’s ministry to the Colossians. They illustrate the Christ-centered life, and they remind us of the truths Paul has taught throughout the letter.

This is actually a great blessing to us. By concluding in this way, Paul reminds us that the truths of this letter are not merely theoretical. These truths connect with the real lives of real Christians living in the real world. Is this passage as rich and full as some of the previous chapters? No, but that doesn’t mean we should breeze through. Instead, we should slow down and pay attention to the example we have in the lives of the believers mentioned here at the end.

In terms of an outline, we won’t focus on all ten of the people listed in Paul’s greetings. Some of them will be grouped together. But overall, I do want us to note three pictures we get from the lives of the people mentioned. From Paul, we see a Model of True Ministry. From Epaphras, we see Encouragement to Stand Firm. And from the group as a whole, we see a Call to Exalt Christ Together. Three pictures that illustrate, in some way, the truths of the letter. Let’s look briefly at each picture, beginning first with a Model of True Ministry.

 

A Model of True Ministry

With so many people listed in the passage, we might be prone to overlook the one writing – the apostle Paul. But there is an example here from his life that we should take note of.

First of all, notice Paul’s current situation. He is in prison, most likely in Rome. You see it there in v10 and then again in v18. This is why Paul had to write a letter and send other people in his place – because he is physically unable to visit the Colossians. His freedom is limited, as he has been imprisoned for preaching Christ.

But despite Paul’s imprisonment, notice the focus of his concern. He doesn’t begin with his situation or his needs. No, Paul’s concern is for the Colossians’ well being, for their growth in the faith. You can see this very clearly in v7, where Paul sends Tychicus to the Colossians. Tychicus is a valuable co-worker with Paul. Catch how Paul describes him in v7 – a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. That’s a fitting summary for this brother. Tychicus accompanied Paul throughout his missionary work in Greece. What’s more, at the end of Paul’s life, it is Tychicus whom Paul sends to the important church of Ephesus, and Paul may have even sent him to relieve Titus in Crete. All of that to say, Tychicus is more than a companion. This brother is a trusted, valued co-laborer in the gospel. Whatever the situation, Tychicus has proven trustworthy.

And yet, what does Paul do in v7? He sends this trusted co-worker to the Colossians. Think about that. Paul is willing to face prison without this trusted brother, and he does so in order to care for a group of Christians he has never actually met. Paul puts their interests ahead of his own, and he does so even though he could have easily insisted that his situation was more pressing. It would not have been a hard argument for Paul to make. He is the apostle to the Gentiles, and therefore, perhaps the most strategic plan for ministry would be to make sure that Paul’s position is well served, that Paul has all he needs to carry out his work. It’s not a hard argument to make. It would be easy for Paul to justify keeping the best people for himself.

But that’s not what Paul does. Instead, Paul gives of himself in order to serve his brothers and sisters in the Lord. Paul would rather go without if it means his fellow Christians have what they need to grow in the truth. In fact, notice Tychicus’ mission in v8. Listen to what Paul says – “I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts.” In the ancient world, a letter carrier was an authorized messenger. He was often responsible to interpret the letter he delivered. This is why Paul so clearly commends Tychicus – because Tychicus will encourage the Colossians with the truth! Remember, the Colossians are besieged by false teachers, claiming new insight and unique access to the truth. But instead of leaving the Colossians to face that challenge alone, Paul sends them a faithful servant of Christ who will encourage them. Don’t miss that connection. As Tychicus delivers Paul’s letter, he would also confirm to the Colossians the very truths Paul has written.

But where does that encouragement begin? It begins with Paul giving of himself to serve his brothers and sisters in the Lord. And that, I take it, is part of the point for us. In sending this trusted co-worker, Paul models the attitude that is necessary for true ministry. It is an attitude of putting other people’s interests head of my own. It is an attitude of seeking their well being, even if that means I must go without.

Now, here’s the question that I find myself asking as I witness Paul’s selfless ministry to others. How does Paul do this? Where does this kind of attitude come from? It can’t be that Paul is some sort of superhero Christian that does things us normal Christians can only dream of. That can’t be the reason because of how often Paul tells us to imitate his example. The question remains – how does Paul do this?

The answer is because Paul believes Jesus Christ is worth the cost. For Paul, loving Christ’s church is to love Christ himself. And since Jesus Christ is supreme and worthy of all praise, then Christ’s church is valuable and worthy of our service. It’s actually the theology of chapter 1 that enables Paul to love the Colossians like this. It is an exalted view of Christ that sustains us in the work of true ministry.

I pray that Midtown Baptist has a ministry like the one Paul models here – that each of us would be willing to go without in order to serve each other in the truth. Oh, how I pray for that kind of selfless ministry to be present in our hearts! But that kind of ministry cannot be conjured up out of thin air. The hard truth is we can’t force ourselves to serve in this way. This kind of service only flows from hearts that are captured with the glory of Christ. This kind of service happens only when we see that in everything Christ is preeminent, and therefore, serving his people is worth it, because Christ is worthy.

Let’s labor to know Christ, brothers and sisters. Let’s continue to ask God to enlarge our view of the Lord Jesus – not so we can boast in how much we know, but so we can gladly put the interests of others ahead of ourselves. Paul the prisoner sends Tychicus the trusted, and in doing so, we see a Model of True Ministry.

 

Encouragement to Stand Firm

Let’s shift from Paul to another familiar figure in the letter – Epaphras. His life gives us an Encouragement to Stand Firm. V10 marks a new section in the passage, as Paul begins to pass along greetings from those brothers who have remained with him in his imprisonment. Here we meet Aristarchus, whom Paul calls his fellow prisoner. This brother stood with Paul through the riot in Ephesus, Acts 20, so he’s already demonstrated his commitment to the gospel. And here he is, still standing firm with Paul even in prison. Aristarchus is a faithful servant for the kingdom of God.

We also encounter Mark in v10, whom you may remember from the book of Acts. Mark initially accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, only to turn back soon after setting out. But now, years later, Paul and Mark are together again. Paul holds no grudge, it seems, and whatever the reasons were for turning back, Mark now stands firm with Paul in his imprisonment. Mark too is a faithful servant for the kingdom of God. And then there is Jesus in v11, who is also called Justus. We don’t know any more about this brother, but he is included here as a faithful servant for the kingdom of God.

Now, all three of these men likely come from a Jewish background, and if you know much about Paul’s ministry, you know he was not always well liked by his Jewish kinsmen. And yet, these Jewish brothers have stood with Paul through his hardship, even though it likely cost them something as well. Let’s not miss that. These men in vv10-11 have chosen allegiance to Christ over the allegiance of blood and kinship. Luther was right in his great hymn. The gospel does call us to let goods and kindred go. These brothers, then, have stood firm for the kingdom of God.

But it is Epaphras in v12 that I want us to focus on at this point. His inclusion here at the end of the letter is very purposeful. You may remember that the letter began with a reference to Epaphras. Ch1 v7, Paul commended Epaphras as a fellow servant and faithful minister of Christ. Remember, it was Epaphras who brought the gospel to Colossae and planted this church. And Paul singled out Epaphras at the beginning as a way of encouraging the Colossians to stand firm in what they believed.

Here at the end of the letter, Paul has the same purpose. He again highlights Epaphras as a way of encouraging the Colossians to stand firm. Notice what Paul says about Epaphras, v12 – “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers.” I want you to note that word struggling. That is the same word that Paul used to describe his own ministry in ch1, v29 – “For this I toil,” Paul said, “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” Paul the apostle struggled for the Colossians, and now Epaphras the servant struggles for the Colossians to know the true gospel. Do you see the connection? The same truth that compels Paul to minister is the same truth that compels Epaphras to minister. The two men stand together in faithful gospel ministry. Paul is implicitly reminding the Colossians that Epaphras has proclaimed the truth to them. The gospel they heard from Epaphras is the apostolic gospel. It is the full message of Christ – there is nothing to add.

But this becomes even clearer when we hear what Epaphras prays. Notice the rest of v12 – “Epaphras…greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” That is a prayer for Christ-centered faithfulness. That is what Epaphras longs for this church to have – not a new revelation or fresh insight, but a deep and abiding confidence that God’s people are complete in Jesus Christ. Again, the language in v12 is significant. Paul is purposefully echoing earlier parts of the letter.

Note that word mature. Epaphras prays that the Colossians would stand mature. What does maturity look like? Paul already told us, ch1, v28 – “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” What is maturity? It is knowing and growing in Christ. Epaphras’ prayer is that the Colossians would stand firm in the gospel, that they would not move on from the Lord Jesus.

But note also the phrase fully assured. Epaphras prays that the Colossians would be fully assured in the will of God. What does that mean? Again, Paul already told us, ch2, v2 – “that their hearts may be encouraged…to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ.” What is the assurance of God’s will? It is knowing and growing in Christ. Epaphras’ prayer is that the Colossians would find their assurance in the gospel, that they would know – with complete certainty – that Christ is the fullness of God’s revelation, that there is nothing to add to the gospel.

I hope you see what Paul is doing here with Epaphras’ example. It’s more than mere example. Epaphras’ ministry for the Colossians is also an exhortation, an encouragement to stand firm in the true gospel of Christ. In fact, that’s why Paul begins and ends the letter with Epaphras – because this brother, whom the Colossians already know, was the means through which God gave them the truth. There is nothing to add to the work of Christ. Maturity, assurance, insight, understanding, growth – all of that, brothers and sisters, is found in the gospel of Christ alone. As Epaphras so faithfully modeled in his ministry, Christ Jesus is supreme.

Now, we must recognize that the need to stand firm is a real, pressing need in the Christian life. If we’re honest, it might be easy to dismiss this exhortation from Epaphras. Our church is not besieged with false teachers, like the Colossian church was, so perhaps this call to stand firm is not as pressing for us. It might be easy to think that.

But that would be a mistake. The call to stand firm in the truth is a call that is needed in every generation. The NT is clear – there are some who profess Christ who will fall away from him. There are some who will not stand firm to the end. That doesn’t mean those people lose their salvation. John 6, Jesus says, “This is will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me.” Christ loses no one. Rather, those who fall away from Christ reveal that they did not know him in the first place. The call to stand firm is a real, pressing need for the church.

And in God’s providence, we have an illustration of this need right here in our passage. Look at v14, where Paul mentions his faithful co-worker Luke. What a gift Luke was to the mission of the gospel – a trusted brother who stands firm. But notice who else is mentioned in v14 – a man named Demas. Demas is the only person in the list who is mentioned without commendation. Perhaps that is foreshadowing on Paul’s part. Demas’ life is a warning. In 2 Timothy, Paul writes this to Timothy about Demas – “Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” Demas sadly did not stand firm in the gospel. Demas did not embrace the message of Colossians. And did you catch what led Demas away? It wasn’t rational arguments that disproved the Bible. No, it was love for the world. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Instead of setting his mind on things above, Demas loved the things below.

Notice the two pictures we have here in our passage – one positive, one negative – but both giving us the same exhortation. On the one hand, we have faithful Epaphras, who labors in prayer that God’s people would stand firm in Christ. But on the other hand, we have Demas, whose love for the world led him away from the Lord. Two men giving us one exhortation – hold fast to Jesus Christ. I plead with you to hear that exhortation today. Make it your aim to know Christ by faith. Every day, remind yourself of your need for a Savior, and then remind yourself of God’s grace in providing that Savior in Jesus Christ. Every day, confess your sin and remember God’s forgiveness in Christ. Every day, go to God’s Word and plead with the Father to bind your heart to the Lord. Every day, labor in prayer, asking God to deepen your embrace of Christ by faith. In every aspect of the Christian life, brothers and sisters, make it your aim to know the Lord.

And most of all, brothers and sisters, every day, remember that promise from the Lord Jesus in John 6 – “This is will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me.” Christ is faithful. He will not fail to save. He is powerful enough to hold all things together, which means he is powerful enough to hold you and me in the faith. This is the one, overarching application from this letter – Jesus Christ is supreme, there is nothing to add to his gospel, and therefore, may we stand firm in knowing Christ by faith.

 

The Call to Exalt Christ Together

And so, we come to the end. There is one final picture I’d like us to see, this time from the passage as a whole. It is the Call to Exalt Christ Together. You know, it really is telling that Paul lists ten people in this closing. We tend to think of Paul as this solo apostle, who pioneered new gospel frontiers with super-human trailblazing effort. But as this passage reminds, that image of Paul is actually not true. That image of Paul owes more to our cultural idolatry of individualism than it does Scripture. Paul was part of the body of Christ. Yes, Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, so he played a unique role in gospel mission, but Paul by himself was not enough. Like every other believer, Paul was dependent on the ministry of other brothers and sisters in the Lord. Paul’s ministry needed Luke and Aristarchus and Nympha and Epaphras. And their ministry, in turn, depended on Paul.

Just consider the history of the Colossian church. At some point, Paul met Epaphras, and by the grace of God, Epaphras was converted through Paul’s preaching. Paul, then, discipled Epaphras until the day that God, in his providence, called Epaphras to take the gospel back home, back to Colossae. And in returning home, Epaphras took the gospel to a place Paul had not been able to reach. Paul is only one man – he couldn’t plant a church everywhere.

And yet, God used Paul’s insufficiency to spread the gospel where Christ had not been named. Paul couldn’t go to Colossae, but Epaphras could, and he did, and a church was planted in Jesus’ name. And if we use our sanctified imaginations, it is not hard to see other men and women being converted and discipled in Colossae, and then taking the gospel of Christ even further into this lost world.

It’s more than Paul. He couldn’t do it alone. It is the entire body of Christ, dependent on one another, taking the gospel further into the world, all to the glory of Christ. Ten people show up in this passage, reminding us that the mission of the church is truly a concerted effort of Christ’s people working together for the sake of his name.

I’m struck by the fact that this letter, which focuses so clearly on the supremacy of Christ, ends in such a human way. For 3 plus chapters, it’s been all about the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ – nothing can rival him, nothing compares to him, believers are complete in him. For three plus chapters, Christ and Christ alone! And then the letter ends with a list of ten regular people who serve with Paul in ministry. It’s a strikingly human way for such an exalted letter to end.

But perhaps that is the point. Perhaps this very human ending is the final declaration that Christ alone is supreme. Think about it. Here we have a group of limited, insufficient people, untied together to spread the gospel. How in the world can such insufficient people accomplish such a mission? Only because the Christ whom they proclaim is both supreme and sufficient. The insufficiency of the church is one of God’s favorite means for revealing the sufficiency of Christ. In fact, that’s how I would summarize the end of Colossians. The body of Christ as a dependent community displays the glory of Christ as the Sufficient Lord.

Ten regular people – some well known, some not – each playing his or her part to show the world that Christ is supreme. May that be true of our church, brothers and sisters, until the day we join that great cloud of witnesses, including the faithful servants we meet here in Colossians 4. Amen.