Friday, July 01, 2011

Colossians 14: Fellow Prisoner, Restored Rebel, Just There

Scripture Text: Colossians 4:10-18

Introductory Comments

Last week we focused on the first two names Paul mentions in this concluding section of his letter, Tychicus and Onesimus. Tychicus was a trusted confidant and friend whom Paul entrusted with the important task of personally delivering his correspondence to the churches. Onesimus, the slave of Philemon, a Colossian, is mentioned as well, as is commended to the Colossians using the same gracious terms as Tychicus and Epaphras, as a “faithful and beloved brother.” Onesimus shows us how the gospel brings liberty from slavery to sin for all who hear the good news, no matter what their background or social standing.

This week, we’ll begin looking at the last six individuals Paul mentions by name. These six people can be broken down into two groups. The first three are all Jews, whom Paul refers to as “men of the circumcision.” The three following are all gentiles. And if the tradition of the church has been accurately reported, it is likely that there are two gospel writers in this list of six, one from each group.

Aristarchus – Fellow Prisoner and Man for All Seasons

Let’s begin with the first of the three Jewish Christians:
[10] Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you
Aristarchus is described as a fellow prisoner, literally translated “my fellow prisoner of war,”1 and is likely intended to be read as a term of honor. This reference to Aristarchus as a fellow prisoner may viewed in a figurative way, as in “a prisoner of Christ” or, as one commentator put it, “one who has been taken captive by Christ to become a Christian and a fellow worker of Paul.”2 Some also believe that Aristarchus may have voluntarily shared in Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. I think this reference to Aristarchus may be taken both ways. The latter view is certainly possible if you look at his life as shown in other places in the Scriptures.

So who was Aristarchus? He’s mentioned three times in Acts and once at the conclusion of Paul’s letter to Philemon. In Acts 19:24 and 20:4 we learn that he was a native of Thessalonica and one of Paul’s traveling companions. What we learn in Acts 19:24 is particularly interesting. You may remember that one of the big stories in Acts was a riot that occurred in Ephesus. The reason for the riot was pretty straightforward. Paul had come to Ephesus to preach the gospel. After a brief visit to a small group of disciples who had not yet been baptized in the name of Jesus, Paul went to preach to the Jews in the Synagogue. He did this for three months. Luke records in Acts “when they [the Jews] became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew and took the disciples with him.” Paul’s preaching continued for two more years in that place. As it turns out, Paul’s preaching was having a huge impact on the city. We read that many people who “had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver” (Acts 19:19). The big tourist attraction in Ephesus was its famed temple of Artemis. There was a man there named Demetrius who made silver shines of the temple for sale, and he noticed over time that sale were plummeting because of the Paul’s preaching. Demetrius called a meeting of the silversmiths and told them what was up. Here’s what Luke records in Acts:
[28] When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” [29] So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul's companions in travel.
So there are poor Gaius and Aristarchus, dragged unwillingly by an angry mob into the theatre, and in great danger. Only the intervention of the town clerk prevented the situation from getting worse.

The next time we see Aristarchus is with Tychicus and others as Paul travels to the church in Jerusalem. His next appearance is in Acts 27:2 during Paul’s famous trip to Rome, a trip plagued by violent storms and shipwreck, where we read: “And embarking on a ship of Adramyttium, which was about to sail to the ports along the coast of Asia, we put to sea, accompanied by Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica.”

Who is Aristarchus? I like the way another Pastor, Alistair Begg, put it. He called Aristarchus “a man for all seasons,” and so he was. He was with Paul in thick and thin, he was with him during the riot in Ephesus, and he was with him in the stormy waters and shipwrecks as Paul was traveling to Rome for an appeal before the Emperor. The church desperately needs Aristarchus types in this day and age - men and women who will travel unswervingly with the faithful amid the culture’s riots against the faith. Men and women who will dare to travel with others amid the incredible storms and shipwrecks of dissolving families, deep depression, desperation, political divisiveness, and denial. Men and Women like Jesus, who suffered death for us so that we might receive forgiveness and eternal life amid life’s storms.

John Mark – A Restored Rebel
[10] Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him)
Paul's reference to Mark as "the cousin of Barnabas" tells us without question that this Mark is the same person called John Mark whom we first encounter in Acts 12. Paul and Barnabas, having just dropped off the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, depart from that place, bringing with them "John, whose other name was Mark." John Mark was a child of the Jerusalem church, which met in the home of his mother, Mary. This was the same house the to which the apostle Peter went after his miraculous liberation from prison. Mark, therefore, was on the inside of some big events in the early church.

Later, however, there was trouble. Paul, still traveling with Barnabas, wanted to visit the churches where they had proclaimed the gospel. Here’s what we read in Acts 15:37-39:
[37] Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. [38] But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. [39] And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, [40] but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. [41] And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
It seems, then, that John Mark bailed out on the mission, and Paul, understandably I think, is greatly reluctant to take John Mark with them. John Mark’s cousin, Barnabas, wanted him to come along. There was a “sharp disagreement” and Paul and Barnabas separated. [Incidentally, this means that it is possible for there to be sharp disagreements in the life of the church.] So John Mark is on the outs with one of the most important leaders of the early church.

But something happened, because now here in Colossians John Mark is spoken of quote favorably (“if he comes to you, welcome him”). It seems as if John Mark has had a change of heart and has come back into the good graces of the Apostle. The instructions about John Mark are a mystery, but it is easy to imagine that word might have gotten out about John Mark’s previous behavior, and the instructions were regarding his restoration. Latter letters make it clear that John Mark was totally restored in his service to Christ. Peter, who certainly knew about bailing out on Christ, concludes his first letter with greetings from “Mark, my son.” Finally, Paul, in one of his final letter prior to his execution in Rome, says this about John Mark in 2 Timothy 4:11:
[11] Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.
What does John Mark teach us? Have any of you, in your own lives, ever experienced a time where you were away from the church? Perhaps the departure was due to a conflict, or a death, or an attack by Satan on your faith. In any case, you left the church, but desire to be restored. The lesson of John Mark is that restoration to useful ministry is always possible. John Mark’s story is in some ways close to the story of Israel. They rebelled against the God who showed them such grace by liberating them from Israel. Even so, God always promises to restore them if they repent and turn to him.

There was a time in my own life when I was absent from ministry, having become consumed with sleeping in, or play, or school, or career or some other selfish enterprise. A convenient excuse was always readily available. And then, years later, God moved in such a way that I was brought back in. First, I was called to be a deacon. Then I was called to read the scriptures in worship, then I was called to distribute food on Saturday mornings to the poor. Then I was called to seminary. Then to marriage. Then to ordained ministry in Jackson, Minnesota. That’s my journey thus far. If you have been on the outs with Jesus, know that he’s always waiting for your repentance and return with loving arms of grace and comfort. Oh how great is our God, that those who fall away for a time can be fully restored and valuable in ministry! That is only possible because of grace, and our understand of grace is found in the mystery of the Cross of Christ, who restored us to God’s favor by giving himself for us.

Jesus Justus – Present

The last person Paul mentions is known only in this place in the bible:
[11] and Jesus who is called Justus.
The only thing we know about him is that he was simply there. He was present with Paul and it must have meant much to him because Paul thought it worthy to mention him. He was likely unfamiliar to the Colossians because Paul has to tell them that this Jesus is the one “who is called Justus.”

So Jesus Justice stands alone at the conclusion of the letter. He is just there. Many, many people think that “just being there” is insufficient in some way. It isn’t. In fact, I know of a person in this church who shared with me a profound story. This person experienced a very discouraging season in life, and in a moment of deep darkness reached out for someone who would listen. It turns out that such a person was provided by God. This person, a deacon, exercised the ministry of “just being there” and listened as the person who is now in our church poured out all of the grief, worries, and miseries of the heart. In that act of “just being there,” this person was brought back into the church and deeper into faith and fellowship with Jesus. We need such people in the church, men and women who are like Jesus Justus, who are willing to be present with others and share their burdens, who will listen and pray on behalf of those in need. Perhaps God is calling you to such ministry now.

All three of these men were, like Paul, Jews. Paul must have been happy to have them, as he was so often frustrated by the resistance to the message demonstrated by his very own people. About these men, Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus Justice, Paul says, “they have been a comfort to me.” The word translated “comfort” is paregoria, from which we get the English word paregoric. Do you know what a paregoric is? When I was a child, on occasion I would suffer tremendous stomachaches, probably a result of my sweet tooth. If they were particular painful, my mother could go to the cupboard to get a brown prescription bottle which she called “paregoric.” After taking some, my pain would go way. A paregoric is something that alleviates pain, and Paul refers to these men this way – they are a comfort to me, that is, they relieve my pain.

Do we not all need such people in the church? Are we not all called by Christ to be such people, to tend to those in need, to be present with the sick, with those who are in trouble, with those who are experiencing pain? Is this not what Jesus did for those whom he served in ministry on earth? And does he not also alleviate the pain of our guilt and sin by so graciously shedding his own blood for our sakes? Did he not become incarnate among us to be our paregoric? Oh beloved in Christ, may we be known as those whose presence relieves the pain of other, just like Aristarchus, the man for all seasons, John Mark, the restored rebel, and Jesus Justice, who was simply present, did for Paul. Amen.

1 So O’Brien in his commentary Colossians, Philemon, 249.
2 Ibid., 250.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
June 26, 2011
13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew