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Jesus. (Period) 10: We Get by with a Little Help from our Friends

Some say Tracey Crouch is the first minister to tackle the problem of loneliness. Crouch was appointed “Minister for Loneliness” in Great Britain this year.

She may be a perfect fit. After giving birth to her first child in 2016 she said that even though she had a “network of friends, family and a wonderful partner, she began feeling cut off from the world.”[1] She also suffered from depression six years earlier when she joined Parliament. She described that time as feeling as if she was “in a very dark place, a very lonely place.”[2]

Prime Minister Theresa May appointed her. A report a year earlier revealed that “more than 9 million people in Britain—around 14 percent of the population—often or always feel lonely. That costs U.K. employers up to $3.5 billion annually…”[3]

Britain may start a trend. They aren’t the only ones who need a Minister for Loneliness. “In a Harvard Business Review article, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States Vivek Murthy, who served from 2014 to 2017, wrote that ‘Loneliness is a growing health epidemic. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.’ He continued by saying that ‘Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.’”[4]

Ever need a Minister for Loneliness? I have. You can be lonely even when you are not alone. You’ve had moments where you felt that no one understood you. No one listened deeply. Like Tracey Crouch you may have had a relational network but still felt cut off from the world. Loneliness does not discriminate. The rich, poor, male, female, old and young can feel its sting.

The Apostle Paul may have some help for us. Paul may not have intended to be a Minister for Loneliness, but he was one. Everywhere he went he built relationships. He did not minister alone. Reading through his writings is like taking a trip through Paul’s book of friends.

It may not have always been like that for Paul. He had been changed by Jesus from a person bent on killing people to one that kept collecting people. In Colossians alone he mentions twelve people. His other letters reveal even more names—e.g. over thirty in Romans 16. Even as he writes final greetings in his letter to the churches including this one in Colossae, Paul tells us something about the gospel: it’s always relational.

And, unlike what some would teach today concerning how to grow a church, Paul did not adhere to the homogenous principle. You can have a network of friends who are diverse. There is a social mix in his list: a householder, a doctor, and a slave. There’s diversity in the unity he has with his friends. Name tags he uses for people include “coworkers,” “fellow slave/servant,” and “fellow prisoner.” Several designations are compound terms using “co” or “fellow”. They are placed with personal family terms like “brothers and sisters” which by itself tells us that these early Christians enjoyed relationships characterized by a mutual bond.

We find all types of people in Paul’s circle of friends starting with Tychicus. Tychicus is probably not the name for your next child but he is someone who can deliver a letter for you. He is also charged with reporting to the Colossians about Paul’s circumstances. This was a common practice in the ancient world. Instead of just giving the letter to someone bound to the same destination as the letter—as some chose to do—many would send a letter with a messenger who could then tell the recipient even more information or explain the letter.

He is described by Paul as “beloved brother,” a “faithful minister,” and a “fellow servant.” These are ingredients that bind people in the church together. Paul loves these terms and loves to see these traits in his friends.

Onesimus is traveling with Tychicus. And Onesimus is also tasked with telling the church more about Paul’s situation. Paul calls him a “faithful and dearly loved brother” and notes that he is “one of you.” He is part of the church in Colossae and owns a unique name, probably given to him by his master. Onesimus’ name means “useful one.”

We discover in the short letter of Philemon that Onesimus was a runaway slave. His master is Philemon. Onesimus found his way to his master’s friend, Paul, while he was in prison. Paul says of Onesimus: “I became his father while I was in chains.  Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you” (Philemon 1:10-12). Paul uses a play on his name to tell Philemon that Onesimus is a changed person. The slave is returning to his master and to the church that meets in his home. But he is returning as a brother, equal to the others.

The next three friends mentioned are Jewish converts starting with Aristarchus. He’s mentioned three times in Acts (19:29; 20:4; 27:2) as a traveling companion of Paul’s. He’s called a “fellow prisoner.” It could be that he is really in prison with Paul or it may be a figure of speech meaning he is a fellow “prisoner of war” in the battle against the powers that be. Aristarchus was arrested in the riot in Ephesus. And when Paul was going to Jerusalem—where he thought he would die—Aristarchus went with him. He then traveled with him to Rome where he was eventually put to death. That’s a special kind of friend who will travel with you to your death knowing his might be following yours.

Mark is mentioned next as the cousin of Barnabas. In Acts we read there was a fracture between Paul and Barnabas over Mark (Acts 12:12; 15:36-41). Mark had deserted them earlier and Paul was not sure he was trustworthy to travel with them to other new churches. Barnabas disagreed and so he and Paul parted ways. Barnabas—whose name means “encouragement”—took Mark with him. But now he has reconciled with Paul and is with him since Paul sends greetings to the church from Mark. In Mark we see that even Apostles had personal conflicts but they also did their best to find ways to resolve the conflict. Mark was back in the friendship fold.

The last of the three Jewish co-workers is Jesus. Not that Jesus. Jesus “called Justus.” Jesus was a common name in that time, a Greek form of Yeshua. Justus is the Latin form. Nothing else is known of him except what Paul tells us here: he is one of three that are the only Jewish co-workers left with Paul. What we know of Justus is that he caught the vision of the mystery Paul has talked about, that the Gentiles too were included in God’s plan for everyone.

Paul then lists Gentiles that he is close friends with. Epaphras is a fellow-prisoner. We know this from Philemon 23. This designation tells us that Epaphras was faithful to God to the point of imprisonment, the kind of person Paul can rely on in the ministry. He is also someone who “struggles” in prayer for the Colossians. The word is similar to Paul’s own struggle to spread the gospel (1:29, 2:1). He prays that they “stand firm” in God’s will which is described as “mature and fully assured.” His will? That the redemptive plan of God includes the Gentiles in the people of God. Wouldn’t you like to have a friend who “struggles” for you in prayer?

Luke is called the “dearly beloved physician.” In a world where doctors were often looked upon as “worthless, promising cures they could not deliver,”[5] Luke had integrity. His name is mentioned only three times in the New Testament: here, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11. But when you add the Gospel of Luke and Acts he becomes one of the most significant voices in the early church period.[6]

Paul then sends greetings to the church in Laodicea, especially the church that met in Nympha’s house. Most likely there was more than one house church in Laodicea, and we don’t know why Paul singles out the one that met at Nympha’s. My theory is she served great Mexican food. Nevertheless, we can assume she was a Christian of some means since she had a house big enough to host a gathering of thirty to fifty people. She may have been instrumental in the teaching and leadership of the house church too. But we do know at the least offering hospitality in your home aided the spread of the gospel. If all you have to offer is your home, it is something God can use in a great way.

Did someone ask, “What about Demas?” I skipped him on purpose. My hunch is Paul reluctantly added him. There is no description concerning his role in ministry with Paul or his friendship. He is mentioned in Philemon 24 as a “fellow worker” and in 2 Timothy 4:10 it is implied he is a coworker. But nowhere is there any praise or commendation for him.

In 2 Timothy 4:10—written maybe 3-4 years after Colossians—Paul writes: “Demas has deserted me, since he loved this present world, and has gone to Thessalonica.” Can you hear the heartbreak in Paul? The disappointment? Maybe even the frustration?

If so, you can relate, can’t you? You’ve had people desert you. Like Paul, you’ve had people who have traveled alongside you in life. People who have ministered side by side with you in church. People who you’ve shared your heart with.

And then they leave. They desert you. They abandon you. They forsake you. That’s what the word means. And more than the meaning you know the feeling, don’t you? It’s often a struggle to know what to say when people leave. Paul helps us. He says nothing. No description. No false praise. It’s like being at a dinner party and the name Demas comes up and Paul just looks at you without any response. Silence speaks loudly.

He does say in 2 Timothy that Demas deserted him because “he loves the present world.” This is not true for all cases, but in many cases, when someone deserts you and the ministry of the particular church you are a part of, it may be that they love the present world more than the kingdom world. Instead of staying and growing, they find a reason to leave and go.

We have all experienced a Demas or two in our lifetime. And when you do you experience loneliness. But when loneliness hits, don’t let it win. Paul kept moving forward with those who stayed with him. His highest value was faithful fellowship in Christ. Be true to those who claim to be part of the fellowship with you. Find others who have learned to be faithful to Christ and they will be faithful to you as a friend.

And find those who have a mutual commitment to the gospel ministry. Serving together—as Paul did with his friends—bonds you with others because you are serving something bigger than yourself. It’s not about you. You cannot serve Christ alone. You can only get by with a little help from your friends in Christ.

Even this letter was not meant for just the church in Colossae. Paul closes by having them share it with the church in Laodicea, about eleven miles away. It was to be read there as the literacy rates were between 10-20%, although 20% is said to be on the high end.

And the word to Archippus, the last person mentioned, is a good word to us. He may have been the son of Philemon. We do know he had a specific personal commission that was not a private matter. The gospel is relational. The church knew about it and Paul calls them to encourage him to complete it.

Paul signs off with his own handwriting, having had someone else write the body of the letter. He ends with a simple blessing: “Grace be with you.” “Grace” sums up his message. Grace is not about Jesus plus anything else. Grace is about Jesus.

Period.

[1] http://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2018/01/21/uk-has-a-minister-of-loneliness-this-is-how-bad-loneliness-has-gotten/#495ac6bf6cc5

[5] Thompson, 106.

[6] See McKnight, 394.