"God Works Through People"
(Delivered Sunday, September 23, 2001 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
God alone does His work. He Himself decrees it, plans it, empowers it, and sees to its ultimate success. His mighty hand is in all His work, from beginning to end. Yet, in His great wisdom and grace, He has designed His work to be accomplished perfectly through using imperfect people. (That's where you and I come in, by the way!)
Few people have made as great a study of God's work through human beings as the Methodist preacher and devotional writer E.M. Bounds. He wrote these words in another century; but he might just as well have written them last week.
We are constantly on a stretch, if not on a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organizations to advance the Church and secure enlargement and efficiency for the gospel. This trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man or sink the man in the plan or organization God's plan is to make much of the man, far more of him, than anything else. Men are God's method. The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men. ... This vital, urgent truth is one that this age of machinery is apt to forget. The forgetting of it is as baneful on the work of God as would be the striking of the sun from his sphere. Darkness and confusion, and death would ensue.
What the Church needs to-day is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Ghost can use - men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men - men of prayer. (From E.M. Bounds, Power Through Prayer [Baker Book House, n.d.], pp. 5-7).
God Himself does His marvelous work; but He does it through people like us who surrender to His use - people who entrust themselves to Him through prayer. He has ordained no other way for the work of the gospel to be done in this world than through people - people who are faithful to His cause, available for His use, open to His instruction, and set-apart unto His holiness.
That's why we should never treat lightly a portion of Scripture like this morning's passage. We should never pass it by simply because "it's just a list of a bunch of people"; because using "a bunch of people" is God's chosen method in this world. Our passage - the closing portion of Paul's letter to the Colossians - is a list of the kinds of people through whom God worked, and of some of the ways God used them. Through it, we gain insight into the ways God can use people like you and me.
* * * * * * * * * *
Paul's letter has been on one great theme: the full sufficiency of Jesus Christ as our Savior. He argues in it that, if anyone is saved by Jesus, they are saved by Him all the way. They have been made perfect and complete in God's sight through faith in Him. There is nothing more that is needed to bring them into God's complete favor; because Jesus is an all-sufficient Savior. And now, God's call is for us to help one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to grab hold of all the fullness that is already ours in Christ - to increasingly become, in practice, what God has already made us to be by faith in Jesus.
It's very appropriate, then, that at the close of a letter about the sufficiency of Christ, our focus should be about the ways God uses "people" to advance the all-sufficient work of Christ in one another's lives. At the close of his letter, Paul writes;
Tychicus, a beloved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord, will tell you all the news about me. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that he may know your circumstances and comfort your hearts, with Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will make known to you all things which are happening here. Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, with Mark the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are my only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are of the circumcision: they have proved to be a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has a great zeal for you, and those who are in Laodicea, and those in Hierapolis. Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you. Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea, and Nymphas and the church that is in his house. Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea. And say to Archippus, "Take heed to the ministry which you have received from the Lord, that you may fulfill it." This salutation by my own hand - Paul. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. Amen (Col. 4:7-18).
Can you see it? This letter is about God's perfect and complete work; but we find that, in the end, the work has got the hand-prints of people all over it.
* * * * * * * * * *
Think with me about the apostle Paul. I believe that Paul was the most brilliant, most energetic, most dynamic preacher and missionary that the church ever had. There's never been a man quite like the great apostle Paul. And yet, as great, and talented, and wise, and energetic, and as full of the Holy Spirit as he was, even he was dependent upon other people in God's family to do his work. It was never God's plan that the spread of the kingdom of Christ be brought about by one man - even a great man like Paul. Rather, God designed His work to be done by a variety of redeemed men and women in Christ who ministered to, and were ministered to by, other redeemed men and women in Christ.
And that includes you and me. One of the great miracles of the Church is that God does His great work through mere people like us. Let's look at this passage together and see, first of all, what kind of people God uses.
Paul didn't deliver this letter or explain its contents personally. In fact, it's apparent that he never even met the Colossians (2:1). He simply knew about them through the reports of others (1:7-8). Paul loved them; but couldn't come to them at this time because he was in prison (4:3). And so, this letter was delivered to the Colossian believers through other faithful hands, who ministered on Paul's behalf. We begin, then, by looking at those who delivered this letter to the Colossians and ministered to them directly.
First, Paul introduces us to Tychicus. You might call Tychicus Paul's faithful "delivery-man". He appears several times in the New Testament; and each time, he's either traveling somewhere with Paul, or he's traveling somewhere on Paul's behalf.
The first time we read of him is in the Book of Acts. In his missionary efforts, Paul ministered through the regions of Macedonia; and after a while, he felt led to return through that region a second time. And we read that Tychicus was among those who accompanied him on this second trip as far as to Asia; and then, Tychicus was among the group that went on ahead and waited for Paul in Troas (Acts 20:3-5). Tychicus always went where he was sent. Later on, in his final letter to Timothy, Paul outlines some closing instructions and adds this bit of news: "And Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus" (2 Tim. 3:12). He wrote to Titus, who was a pastor on the island of Crete, "When I send Artemas to you, or Tychicus, be diligent to come to me at Nicopolis ..." (Titus 3:12).
Tychicus wrote no books that we possess today; nor did he preach any sermons that we have recorded in the Bible. All that we know of him is that he faithfully went wherever Paul wanted him to go, and faithfully did whatever Paul commissioned him to do.
Incidentally, he has been your servant even today. Though we don't have anything that he wrote, it's because of him that we have three books in the New Testament. He faithfully delivered the books of Colossians, Ephesians (Eph. 6:21), and most likely the tiny letter of Philemon to their intended recipients. You would only entrust such precious treasures as these to a faithful man; and faithfulness as Paul's "delivery-man" was the main characteristic of this man Tychicus.
Paul used Tychicus to minister to the Colossians on his behalf by keeping them informed. He wrote, "Tychicus, a beloved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord, will tell you all the news about me. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that he may know your circumstances and comfort your hearts ..." (vv. 7-8). Other Bible translations have it - probably more accurately - that Tychicus came so that the Colossians believers would know about how Paul was doing rather than the other way around. Paul was in prison; and they, know doubt, were deeply concerned about him. But in either event, Paul wanted Tychicus to go and convey important personal information to them, so that their hearts would be comforted.
You can see that Tychicus was a very important man, used by God to bless the church in some very crucial ways. And his qualifications were things that you and I can possess. First, Paul said he was a "beloved brother" - a man who had placed his faith in Jesus and who had cultivated a love for Jesus and for those who had also trusted Him. This made him a welcomed representative of Paul. Second, he was a "faithful minister" - a man who could be entrusted with a task of ministry, even one that involved many miles of hard travel, and could be expected to fulfill what was entrusted to him. This made him sufficiently trustworthy to take on important tasks for Paul. And third, he was a "fellow servant" - a man who considered himself, above all else, the slave of Jesus Christ; and who could be expected to work lovingly in the service of His master under the direction of another of Christ's slaves. This made him a very valuable co-laborer with Paul.
Now; the believers in Colossea had never met Tychicus. That's why Paul had to introduce him. But notice also that Tychicus didn't come alone. As it turned out, Paul was able to send a companion along with Tychicus that was, himself, a fellow-Colossian. Paul wrote, that he sent Tychicus "with Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you" (v. 9).
Onesimus' story is a remarkable one. His story is explained in one of the other letters that Tychicus probably delivered at this time - that of Paul's tiny letter to Philemon. Paul - who was in prison at the time - met an escaped slave; one who had either also ended up in prison, or who had known Paul already and came to him. In either case, Paul led the young man to Christ. This slave had belonged to the household of Philemon - a prominent member of the Colossian church.
Apparently, this slave had caused a lot of heartache and damage to Philemon and his family. It may be that he even stole from Philemon's household. But now, Paul was sending the slave back to his master; and Paul wrote to urge his dear friend and brother in Christ to receive this repentant slave back - no longer as just a slave, but now as a fellow believer. That slave's name was (Have you already guessed?) Onesimus!
Onesimus' name means "profitable"; but he had proven to be anything but a profitable slave to Philemon. But Paul wrote to Philemon and said that he "once was unprofitable to you , but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel" (Philemon 11-13).
Formerly, Onesimus was a failure as a slave; and I don't know how much more of a failure you can be than to be a failure as a slave! But even he became immeasurably useful to the cause of Christ; so much so that Paul would have kept him nearby if he could.
And so; here are two very different men: a man who had gained a proven reputation for faithfulness over time to the cause of Christ, and a man who had proven very unfaithful, but who had now been transformed into a faithful servant of Christ. Paul sent them together. He says, "They will make known to you all things which are happening here."
That's the kind of people God uses, if they will but let Him.
* * * * * * * * * *
Next, we read of those who ministered to the Colossians from a distance. First, Paul writes, "Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you ..."
Aristarchus might be characterized as Paul's faithful traveling companion. We first read of him in Acts 19. where Paul's preaching in the city of Ephesus had caused a riot. (Most preachers would be thrilled if they could just provoke a little interest; but then, Paul was not like most preachers.) And Acts 19:29 says, "So the whole city was filled with confusion, and rushed into the theater with one accord, having seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians, Paul's travel companions." It was only by a miracle that these two men survived this dangerous situation.
Now; for some, that would be enough to make them leave the mission field! But from then on, we read of Aristarchus as Paul's travelling companion in his missionary journeys. He had apparently been converted to Christ during Paul's turbulent ministry to the Thessalonians (Acts 17:1-9). And we find that he was among those who traveled with Paul through Macedonia and on ahead to Troas (Acts 20:4-5). And when we read of the beginning of Paul's harrowing ship-wreck adventure near the close of the book of Acts, we read, "Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, was with us" (Acts 27:2).
Aristarchus stuck with Paul when, perhaps, fleshly common sense would have suggested that it wasn't safe to do so. But I believe that's what Paul meant by calling him "my fellow prisoner"; which, in the original language, really means, "my fellow prisoner of war". You hang around Paul long enough, and you just might share a prison cell with him. But Aristarchus stayed with Paul through thick and in thin; and that may be why Paul said that he had proven to be a comfort to him.
Another man who ministered to the Colossians from a distance was Mark, the cousin - or probably, the nephew - of Barnabas. Mark was another former failure story.
Paul and Barnabas worked together on the same missionary endeavor. And early on, they had agreed to take Mark (also called John) along as an assistant (Acts 13:5). But it didn't take long in their work before they had met with harsh opposition and had to engage in fierce spiritual warfare. God proved the greatness of His power in this particular situation; but it had so scared young Mark that - unlike faithful Aristarchus - he got scared and called it quits. He went back home before the work had barely begun (15:13).
Later on in their ministry, we read that "... after some days Paul said to Barnabas, 'Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.' Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work" (15:36-38). Barnabas - whose name means "Son of Encouragement" (Acts 4:32) - wanted to give Mark a second chance; but Paul felt that the work was far too important to risk on someone along whose commitment couldn't be trusted. The disagreement between them was so strong that they agreed to part company. Paul took Silas and went one way; and Barnabas took Mark and went another.
Who was right? I tend to think they both were. Paul was certainly right that the work of spreading the gospel demands commitment and endurance. But as the years went by, we find that Mark proved more and more faithful; and Paul's heart had greatly softened toward him. Near the end of his life, Paul wrote to Timothy and said, "Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry" (2 Tim. 4:11). And even the apostle Peter - who had been a pretty big failure once himself - was able to send greetings to his readers, adding this note: "... and so does Mark my son" (1 Peter 5:13). In fact, it's been the tradition of the church throughout the centuries that Mark carefully wrote down the gospel story as Peter had preached it; and that his writing is found today in your Bible as "The Gospel of Mark".
It was this same Mark that Paul conveyed the greetings of to the Colossian believers; writing, "about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him". Perhaps he had to add those words because folks were a little hesitant to put confidence in Mark. And perhaps there are times when we've blown so badly that people might be hesitant to put confidence in us. But God isn't. He is able to make fabulous success stories out of people who blew it big - if they'll just let Him.
Finally, we find another man who ministered to the Colossians from afar. Paul adds; "... and Jesus who is called Justus." "Jesus" is a Greek form of the Jewish name "Joshua"; and "Justus" was a common Roman surname that means "The Just One". A few other people in the Bible had this Roman surname. There was "Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus". He was proposed as a replacement for Judas among the twelve (Acts 1:23). And there was a believer named Titus Justus who lived next door to a synagogue, and who gave Paul a temporary place to stay (Acts 18:7). Jesus, who was called Justus, was apparently a Jew who had a strong Roman influence; which probably made him effective in proclaiming the gospel of the Messiah to the non-Jewish world. He - along with Aristachus and Mark - stands out as receiving this good commendation from Paul: "These are my only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are of the circumcision [that is, of Jewish origin]; they have proved to be a comfort to me" (v. 11).
* * * * * * * * * *
These three were Jewish believers who helped Paul in his work. And they all sent their greetings to the Colossians. But three others sent their greetings as well - three others who were Gentiles. Paul writes, first, of Epaphras the Colossian. "Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has a great zeal for you, and for those who are in Laodicea, and those in Hierapolis" (vv. 12-13).
Paul, it seems to me, speaks in higher terms of Epaphras than anyone in all his letters. This man was certainly precious to Paul, and very dear to his heart. Paul spoke of his powerful influence on the Colossians at the very beginning of his letter; because Epaphras was apparently the evangelist who first brought the gospel to his own people. Paul wrote of the gospel of Jesus Christ, "as you also learned from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, who also declared to us your love in the spirit" (1:7-8). He not only brought the gospel to the Colossians, but he apparently also brought the news about the Colossians to Paul. He truly was a faithful "fellow servant" with Paul.
Look at the ongoing ministry of this man to the Colossian believers. Paul says, first, that he is "always laboring fervently for you in prayers". The word Paul uses for "fervently" is one that refers to strenuous, agonizing labor. Many people lead someone to Christ and then abandon them to their own devises - leaving them like spiritual orphans. But not Epaphras. He not only brought the gospel to the Colossians, but he also continued to labor strenuously for them in his prayers that they might be established; "that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God."
Paul says, secondly, that he "bears witness" of Epaphras - as if he is serving as character witness for him - that he has a great heart of passion for the saints; not only for those in Colossea, but also in neighboring Laodicea and Hieraboplis. He was a man with the true heart of an evangelist and a pastor.
Again, these are characteristics that you and I can possess. What do you suppose God could do through someone who was "always laboring fervently in prayers" for His people; and who had "a great zeal" for his or her brothers and sisters in Christ? I have no doubt He'd have a job for such a man or woman!
Another member of this group of Gentile servants was Luke. Paul writes to bring greetings from "Luke the beloved physician."
Luke was a doctor; and apparently a doctor that everyone loved. (Some of us have had doctors that are like that. The whole town knows and loves them.) But Luke was more than that; because he, too, can be characterized as the faithful traveling companion of Paul. At the end of his life, when it seemed as if everyone else had abandoned him, Paul was able to write, "Only Luke is with me" (2 Tim. 4:11).
But Luke was even more still; because he was the great historian of the New Testament. If it weren't for him, we wouldn't have two very important books of the New Testament; "The Gospel of Luke"; and (the second part, if you will, of this gospel) "The Book of Acts". How poor we would all be if it hadn't been for his faithful labors!
Paul mentions one more man in this group who sends his greetings: "Demus". And sadly, his is the great failure story of this passage. He was an active part of Paul's team when this letter was written; but near the end of his life, Paul had to write to Timothy and say, "Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica ..." (2 Tim. 4:9-10).
Was Demus merely a backslidden believer that we will one day see in heaven? I certainly hope so. Or was he a phony all along? We're not told elsewhere that he repented of his unfaithfulness. We can't know Demus' full story until we're in the Lord's presence. But I believe we can say that even Demus was used by God to serve the church. He certainly served it for a time, along with Paul; and now he serves it forever by providing a lesson to us of the dangers of the allure of worldliness. God uses him even today to warn us that anyone - even a spot-light Christian leader - can be drawn away from the work God has for them through a love of worldly things. We might say that we're learning his lesson, and he paid our tuition. May God keep us from Demus' sin, so that we never have to suffer his loss!
* * * * * * * * * *
Paul has written so far about those who served the Colossians. But now he writes about those that the Colossians are to serve. First, he says, "Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea, and Nymphas and the church that is in his house" (v. 15). Perhaps Paul wanted the Colossians to pass on greetings to this nearby church because he wanted the two congregations to cultivate a healthy, cooperative relationships with one another.
Similarly, he says, "Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea" (v. 16). Many scholars believe that this letter to the Laodicean church is in our Bibles today as Paul's letter to the Ephesians. If you read them together, you can plainly see that they were written at the same time; and that both of them deal with many of the same subjects in the same ways. Paul wanted the two churches to minister to one another by sharing the instruction that he gave both of them. And in a sense, that ministry is going on right now, in that we're being ministered by his instruction to them as well.
One person in all this deserves special mention; and that's Nymphas. This name may be either male or female; and in some translations it speaks of 'him' and others of 'her'. Whatever gender this person may be, Nymphas was apparently wealthy, and had a house that was large enough to provide a place for the church in Laodicea to meet. Churches didn't meet in church buildings in those days; they met in homes. Nymphas served the church by providing from his or her material wealth and resources, so that the people of God had a safe, warm, comfortable place to meet and minister and worship. Nymphas may not have been a missionary or a teacher; but he or she has received special recognition in the word of God for making this provision for the church. We need people like that, who are willing to give of their resources so that the church can do its job.
Next, Paul turns the attention of the Colossian believers to someone named Archippus. He tells the believers to say to him, "Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it" (v. 17). Perhaps he was present among them when this letter was read aloud.
We know just a tiny little bit about Archippus. He was mentioned in the beginning of Paul's letter to Philemon. Paul dedicated his letter "To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house ..." (Phile. 1-2). Apparently Apphia was his wife, and the church met in their home - much in the same way as the Laodicean church met in the home of Nymphas. But it may be, too, that Archippus was a leader in the Colossian church; perhaps even the pastor. Perhaps there was a sense in which he was neglecting his ministry - perhaps neglecting it in such a way that Paul had to write the letter in the first place. Or perhaps Archippus simply felt a lack of confidence in God's call for him. For whatever reason, Archippus needed to be encouraged and exhorted to stay at the work that God had called him to; and Paul called upon the believers in Colossae to publicly affirm him, and to stir him afresh to the work, that he may "fulfill it".
Our church family has many leaders who minister faithfully to it. Praise God for their ministry. But we should never ignore the ministry the church family has to its leaders. They need the thanks, and encouragement, and - at times - the exhortation of the congregation, in order to keep faithful to the work.
* * * * * * * * * *
And this leads us to one last person Paul calls the Colossians to minister to - himself. As he sat in his prison cell, and came to the closing words of this letter, he took the quill in his own hand and wrote the final salutation himself. And perhaps as he did so, he heard the rattling and jangling of the chains on his arm. And so, he wrote, "This salutation by my own hand - Paul. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. Amen."
Paul coveted the prayers of the Colossians in his ministry. In chapter 4, he wrote, "Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak" (Col. 4:2-4). And here, he doesn't hesitate to ask for prayer that he might be released from prison altogether.
So much of the success of God's work, and the success of God's faithful workers, depends on our prayers. The people God uses are only human, after all. The people out in the front lines need for us to be faithfully upholding them in prayer.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hopefully, it's clear from all this that no single person can do all that needs to be done. I read the other day about a job description from a church that said it was looking for a pastor ...
who preaches exactly twenty minutes and then sits down. He condemns sin, but never hurts anyone's feelings. He labors from 8 AM to 10 PM in every kind of work, from preaching to custodial service. He makes $60 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books regularly, has a nice family, drives a good car and gives $30 a week to the church. He also stands ready to contribute to every good work that comes along.
The ideal pastor is twenty-six years old and has been preaching for thirty years. He is at once tall and short, thin and heavy-set, and handsome. He has one brown eye and one blue; his hair is parted in the middle with the left side dark and straight and the right side brown and wavy. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all his time with the older folks. He smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes fifteen calls a day on church members, spends all his time evangelizing the unchurched, and is never out of his office." (From David Haney, "The Idea of The Laity" [1973, Zondervan], p. 42.)
God doesn't create such monsters to serve the needs of His church (and believe me; I, for one, am grateful!) God not only does His work through people; but He does a variety of work through a variety of people. Everyone is needed in different ways.
Look at the passage before us. There are twelve verses in this passage; and I count twelve individuals specifically named. Some were educated and cultured, such as Luke; and some were slaves, such as Onesimus. Some were outstandingly faithful, such as Tychicus and Aristarchus; and some needed a second chance, such as Mark. Some worked tirelessly for the church, such as Epaphras; and some needed to be encouraged, such as Archippus. Some served in faithful anonymity, such as Jesus Justus; others became a lesson in themselves, such as Demus. And some, like Nymphas, had been given the means to make it all possible - just in providing the place to meet.
They were all very different; but review with me some of the ways God specifically used them: indent - Two of them wrote Gospels - Mark and Luke. indent- One of them was a simple courier; and he delivered three New Testament letters that have blessed the church for centuries: Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.
* * * * * * * * * *
So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ; it's very true that God Himself does His work. But let's never forget that He does it through people like you and me. Let's be encouraged by the fact that He doesn't need us to be brilliant and powerful like Paul. Not even Paul could do it all. God can use us just as we are. All He is really looking for from us is that we become faithful in what He calls us to do; available to be in His service; willing to learn on the job; open to working with one another; and sincere in our devotion to personal holiness. He wants to use F.A.I.T.H. Christians - faithful, available, interdependent, teachable, and holy.
What an honor to be used by God! May we become available to Him; and may He us - even you and me - to accomplish His great work. And above all, may He get all the glory.
(copyright 2001 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is prohibited.)
Missed a message? Check the archives!