Who’s who in the early church

The apostle Paul’s letters often conclude with lists of greetings from or encouragements to particular people.  The list of generally obscure names in Colossians 4 is typical and reveals the kinds of people God uses to accomplish his purposes.

Consider Aristarchus, a captive man.  He was from Thessalonica and went with Paul and Tychicus to take a financial gift to Jerusalem church.  Though he is called a fellow prisoner, it is unlikely he was imprisoned with Paul, but more likely that he willingly served Paul in Paul’s imprisonment.  Like Paul, he was a captive (servant) of Christ.

Then there is Mark, a restored man.  Acts 15:36-41 is the sad story of the decline of the relationship between Paul and Barnabas; this passage hints why.  Barnabas was not only defending a protégé, but also a cousin.  Somewhere in the succeeding 12 years, those two relationships with Paul were restored, perhaps through the ministry of Peter (1 Pt. 5:13).  Mark’s restoration was such that he was useful to Paul (2 Timothy 4:11), and he ultimately wrote the second gospel.

Then there is Jesus Justus — an uncommon “common” man.  We know nothing about this man except his name (both of which were very common), which was literally, Joshua (“God Saves”) the Righteous.  While a “common,” ordinary man, his ministry was a distinctive encouragement to Paul — he, along with Aristarchus and Mark were an encouragement to Paul (v. 11) — a healing balm to his hurting soul.  When others deserted and rejected Paul, these offered Biblical strength and help to Paul.

And there is Epaphras — a praying, discipling man.  He was likely the founding pastor of this church, who continued to serve them, though separated from them by distance.  How did he serve them?  Hew served with diligent prayer for their spiritual maturity and care for their spiritual condition (vv. 12-13).

Luke also is mentioned as a serving man.  There is much tradition about Luke, a frequent companion of Paul’s.  But much of the speculation about him is unverifiable.  While he wrote gospel of Luke and Acts, he was a doctor who served — a prominent and spiritually gifted man, his ministry was still willingly subservient to Paul.  He was a beloved physician — perhaps the sense is, “my beloved physician.”  There was a mutual affection for each other.

In contrast to most of the others on this list, Demas was an empty man.  Here he is mentioned in a positive manner, as he also was in Philemon 24 (“my fellow worker”).  But within four or five years his sad epitaph is written: “Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica…” (2 Tim. 4:10).  Whatever his spiritual accomplishments were, they were not rooted in love for Christ; like man who built on sand, his house was washed away.  He was a double-souled man, unstable in every way.

Paul also mentions Nympha, a hospitable woman.  Nothing else is known about this woman, other than her love for Christ and His church led her to hospitably open her home regularly for the corporate worship of Body (perhaps daily; Acts 2).  Interestingly, women were prominent in the early church.  It is a lesson not to dismiss people’s spiritual impact on the basis of their external circumstances (cf. 3:10-11).

Finally, Paul mentions Archippus, a careful man.  He was the son of Philemon and was also likely the pastor of the Colossian church.  Paul’s encouragement (v. 17) was not a rebuke, but a public affirmation of his ministry and a reminder to continue in that which he was doing — to continue to move forward, progressing in faith.

What shall we think of all these people?  Let me offer four summarizing observations:

  1. God is glorified by using all people to minister for Him.  Note the different kinds of people mentioned here:  Jews and Gentiles; men and women; slaves and slave owners; pastors and laymen; professionals and laborers.  This is always the way God constructs His churches.  As one writer has noted, “God must delight in using ordinary people with ordinary gifts since He made so many of us!”
  2. God is glorified by transforming people through the prayers of His people.  It is no accident this epistle begins and ends with an emphasis on prayer (1:3, 9; 4:12).  Prayer is the power of God that transforms people.  Prayer reminds us of our inadequacy and God’s sufficiency (Eph. 6:18f).
  3. God is un-glorified by ever-present, lurking sin.  We can’t live in sin and glorify God.  Just as with the failure of Demas, my sin (my every sin) has impact on my soul and my relationships with others.
  4. God is glorified by forgiven and restored relationships.  Mark’s life is a testimony to the ability (and nature) of God to use failures.  For the believer who confesses sin, the path of the future “is like the light of the dawn, that shines brighter and brighter until the full day” (Prov. 4:18).  For the believer who forgives sin, he demonstrates God-like grace and character.

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