Big Idea: We need people to encourage us, serve with us, and serve.
I know we’re not even past Christmas yet, but in just 98 days, we’ll be watching the Oscars.
You know the drill. They’ll appoint an emcee or two who will try to entertain us. There will be performances and awards, lots of awards. And the awards will be followed by speeches, most of which will go something like this:
I can’t believe I’ve won. Wow. What an honor to be chosen amongst all the other people who were also nominated.
I want to take this opportunity to speak about the evils of plastic straws…
And finally, I want to thank my mom, my kindergarten teacher, my dog, my cousins, my Uber driver, my chiropractor…
And eventually, the orchestra begins playing, and the speech is over, to everyone’s relief.
Why do actors spend a good chunk of their speech thanking people? Because they realize that nobody makes it on their own.
And that’s exactly what we find as we finish our series through Colossians.
First a little background.
Paul is writing this letter to a church that he’s never visited. As he writes this letter, he’s in prison, probably in Rome. Paul had received word that the Colossian church was struggling with what’s called the Colossian heresy: this weird mix of beliefs: Jesus plus a blend of Jewish thought plus a blend of pagan elements mixed in.
And Paul writes to them to tell them: Jesus is enough. You don’t need to add anything to Jesus because Jesus is better than anything or anyone else. If you have Jesus, you have everything you need.
You’ve really got to be careful, Paul says, of people who undersell Jesus, who don’t capture the mind-blowing reality of who Jesus really is.
So that’s the letter that Paul has written. And he’s done now, except he does something that he does in only one other letter, also a letter to a church that he didn’t visit. He devotes a good chunk of the letter to naming messengers, passing on greetings, and giving final instructions. The only other time he does this is in Romans 16, also to a church that he hadn’t visited.
John Piper says of Paul:
Amazing … This personal connectedness is rare. From the most influential Christian leader in the first century — a man at the top — we see a relational connectedness that fills us with wonder … Here is a man who did not let his authority, or his being at the top, choke off the affections that he felt for these friends. You cannot help but feel … that these friends were precious to Paul. This was not politics. This was personal affection and love. The kind of love that two thousand years later draws out the same in us — for him.
If I were to summarize the message of this Scripture, it would be this: We need people to encourage us, serve with us, and serve.
Let me break this down by making three observations.
First: We need people.
This may seem obvious, so let me unpack this a little.
I mentioned that Paul only includes a large section like this in two letters. What do these two letters have in common? They’re written to churches he’s never visited. So why does Paul include a list of people in letters to churches he’s never visited?
Here, I think, is the answer:
A comparison with Paul’s other letters shows that the Colossian epilogue is unusually rich in personal messages and greetings. Only the conclusion of the Roman epistle can be compared with it.
Its purpose is self-evidently to strengthen the apostle’s ties with the Christian people in Colossae as well as with the churches in the neighborhood (15–16). Paul clearly believes that his imprisonment is not dangerous for himself alone; it involves real perils for the churches from which he is forcibly separated. (Dick Lucas)
In other words, the farther Paul is from the church, the more he goes out of his way to make a personal connection. The more disconnected we become, the more we must lean into connection. The less possible it is to be present in person, the harder you have to work at connecting relationally.
In 1989, I served as a student pastor at a church here in Toronto. We could see that technology was really advancing. We had cassette answering machines. I owned a typewriter that could hold a whole line of text in its memory. Some people even had computers and dot matrix printers. It seems silly now, but we could sense that technology was really going to change our lives in the coming years.
The pastor I worked for said something that I’ve never forgotten: the more the world becomes high-tech, the more people need high touch. As good as letters and phone calls and Zoom meetings can be, we need people: real people in the same room that we can see and touch. We need real people.
Paul knows that he can’t be present in person, and he doesn’t just send a letter. He sends messengers, real people who will show up in his place to be present with them.
Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has taken place here. (4:7-9)
Paul knows that no letter can take the place of real people who are in the room, who can convey what can’t be conveyed from a distance.
We live in a very tech world. You can livestream almost any church you want. Some churches are planning for life in the metaverse. But Paul teaches us something important: we need people, real people in the same room. There’s no substitute. As Jay Kim writes:
in the digital age, one of the most upside down things the church can offer is the invitation to be analog, to come out of hiding from behind our digital walls, to bridge our technological divides, and to be human with one another in the truest sense—gathering together to be changed and transformed in real time, in real space, in real ways.
The more disconnected we become, the more we need to lean into relationships. We need people.
That’s the first thing this passage teaches us. Here’s the second.
Second, we need people to do things.
This is why we need actual people. We need them to do things. Look at the things that people do in this passage:
- People bring updates — In verses 7 to 9, Tychicus and Onesimus bring personal updates about Paul. “I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are…” (4:8) They need more than facts; they need actual people to fill in the picture so they know what’s really going on.
- People encourage — “I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts” (4:8). Tychicus is more than a news reporter. The Colossians need encouragement, just like we do. Paul sends him on his behalf to encourage them.
- People comfort — Paul was in prison. He must have been discouraged some of the time. In verses 10 to 11 he mentions three men and says “they have been a comfort to me”. It seems they were able to help and comfort Paul in his imprisonment.
- People pray for us — “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (4:12). We need people to pray for us — not only to pray for us, but to struggle for us in prayer. We need people like this, who are struggling and working hard for us in their prayers.
Where would any of us be without these things?
We are not self-sufficient. We need others to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. We need other people to update us, encourage us, comfort us, and pray for us.
James K.A. Smith says:
It is not only sin that makes us dependent upon others; our very finitude, as creatures, impels us to relationality because we need the gifts, talents, and resources of others. And such dependence is part of the very fiber of God’s good creation. Worship is a space of welcome because we are, at root, relational creatures called into relationship with the Creator, in order to flourish as a people who bear his image to and for the world.
God made us for relationships. God made us need the ministry of others. We need people. We need people to do things for us.
Finally, we also need to serve others.
Here’s the flip side of this. Not only do you need people. Not only do you need them to do things for you. You also need to serve them.
Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea. And say to Archippus, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.” (4:15-17)
Paul gives them three ways they can serve others.
First, they are to share this letter with the Laodiceans, who will also share Paul’s letter with them. Paul doesn’t want this letter to end with the Colossians. He wants it shared with other churches too so they can benefit from it as well. I’m glad he did. Here we are thousands of years later still benefiting from this letter. It’s good to share what we’ve received from God’s Word with others so they can benefit from it too.
Second, they can encourage Archippus to fulfill the ministry he’s received from the Lord. Who was Archippus? We don’t know. Philemon 2 calls him “our fellow solider.” What is the ministry he’s received from the Lord? We don’t know. It could be any kind of work, but was probably something to do with spreading the gospel. Whatever it is, he asks the Colossians to encourage him to carry out his ministry — something we get to do as well. We get to encourage each other as we serve the Lord.
Finally, they can remember Paul’s chains. “Remember my chains” (4:18). This is probably just a request that the Colossians pray for him. Paul knows he needs their prayers too.
Christianity is highly relational. We need people to encourage us, serve with us, and serve.
That’s actually what Jesus has done for us. As we celebrate the second Sunday of Advent, we celebrate that God loved us so much that he came to us in person.
I love how Augustine put it:
God became a man for this purpose: since you, a human being, could not reach God, but you can reach other humans, you might now reach God through a man…
God became a man so that following a man — something you are able to do —you might reach God, which was formerly impossible to you.
From Jesus to Paul to right here in Liberty Village, God has given us relationships that will guide the rest of our lives as we prepare to enjoy our eternal relationship with him.
Father, thank you for this letter. Thank you for how Paul shows us here how much it matters to be in a relationship with others. Help us to live this out as a church, so that we would realize how much we need others and how much they need us.
Thank you that Jesus loved us so much that he himself came to be one of us. We worship him today. Amen.