The Fullness of Christ in the Details of Life

Colossians 4:7–18,

Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. 8 I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, 9 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.
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), 11 and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. 12 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. 13 For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. 14 Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas. 15 Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. 16 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. 17 And say to Archippus, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.”
18 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

One of our common emotional experiences as humans is the feeling of emptiness. No matter how rich or poor, how heathy or sick, whether in success or in failure, we all have tasted the feeling of emptiness. We wouldn’t all describe it the same terms, but we have felt that internal emotional sense of emptiness or inadequacy — that haunting, gnawing ache that I’m not what I should be, or that some highly anticipated experience didn’t live up to its billing.

It is as if we all know we were made to be filled by something. That’s the meaning of empty: containing nothing when you would expect it to contain something — like an empty glass, an empty parking lot, an empty stadium, an empty house, or an empty heart.

Into this common experience of emptiness, Christianity makes a bold offer: fullness, satisfaction, true contentment. And in particular, the promise of fullness to empty humans is especially pronounced in this letter to the Colossians. Paul uses the language of “all” and “every” and “whole,” and especially “fullness,” over and over again. Leaving out the three dozen references to all and every and whole, just take the half dozen mentions of fullness:

  • 1:10: “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him”
  • 1:19: “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”
  • 1:25: “I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known”
  • 2:2: Paul labors “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ”
  • 2:9: “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily”
    4:12: “that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God”

All the fullness of God is in the God-man, Jesus Christ (1:19; 2:9), and through him this fullness flows to fill us: as his message is made fully known (1:25), we’re able to enjoy the riches of full assurance of understanding him (2:2) and stand mature and fully assured in his will (4:12) and live fully pleasing to him (1:10).

In other words, Colossians is about our fullness of soul in the fullness of Christ. And now here in this final chapter we get a glimpse of the fullness of Christ in the details of life. We could point to at least five significant glimpses here, but let’s just focus on three this morning — and I’ll briefly mention the other two as we pass by them.

1. Community (Full House) (verses 7–14)

We want relationships. We were made for other people, to be part of a team, to belong to a group. Beginning with family, then to the teams and troops of our youth, to cohorts and societies in education, to collectives and consortiums in adulthood. We are empty without community and team. But one aspect of the fullness that Christ provides is the fullness of community, of spiritual family.

Jesus had his twelve disciples, and the apostle Paul has his team, which is perhaps especially evident here at the end of Colossians. He mentions eight specific individuals here who are part of his team. Two are coming with this letter to Colossae, while six remain with him.

Look at Paul’s full house in verses 7–14:

Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. 8 I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, 9 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. 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), 11 and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. 12 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. 13 For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. 14 Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas.

Two observations about Paul’s team:

1. He commends his teammates.

Essential to a healthy team is meaningful commendation — not flattery, or unconvincing, not-over-the-top praise, but true, believable, specific, and meaningful commendation:

  • Tychicus in verse 8: “beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord”
  • Onesimus in verse 9: “our faithful and beloved brother”
  • Epaphras in verses 12–13: “a servant of Christ Jesus . . . always struggling on your behalf in his prayers . . . . For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis” [I said I’d quickly mention two other fullnesses here in passing; we could do a whole message on Epaphras and verses 12–13 and the fullness of prayer (which is not just peaceful communion with God, but also struggle and toil) and fullness of assurance or confidence that he prays the Colossians would have in knowing God’s will]
  • Luke in verse 14: “the beloved physician”

What effect does it have for Paul to talk like this? It encourages and strengthens his teammates internally for them to hear him commend them in public like this. But also it helps them externally in opening doors for them in ministry. In commending his teammates like this, Paul is sharing his influence and empowering his team members for ministry among all who read this letter. He is taking his hard-earned relational capital — and his God-given relational capital — and leveraging it to help his teammates in ministry flourish. He is sharing his influence, and thus multiplying it.

What a model not only for us as pastors but for all of us as we seek to minister together in our community groups. And even beyond our church. I want to be like this. I want to lean in my speech and be quick to say commendatory things about other Christians. Let’s seek to increasingly be a people that is ready to share our commendations and steward what influence we have to bless others, rather than just stay silent, or tear them down.

So, first, he commends his teammates.

2. His team is diverse.

We get a glimpse here — but it is pronounced — that Paul’s ministry team is not monolithic, but diverse, made up of different nationalities and backgrounds. And Paul isn’t blind to this, but sees it as a positive good to be highlighted and commended and pursued. He draws attention to it.

I remember studying this chapter seriously for the first time about ten years ago and reading in verse 11, “These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers,” and thinking, Really, Paul, do we need to draw attention to their circumcision? Is this a case of apostolic TMI? No, this is not too much information, but theologically meaningful information. It is very significant, and worth drawing attention to, that Paul has both Jews (the circumsized) and Greeks together in his team — because this demonstrates the beauty and power of his message. The gospel brings people together who otherwise would not be together. And today, there is great potential to demonstrate the beauty and power of Christ when he draws together people who otherwise would not be inclined to be together — whether that is across ethnicities, or classes, or generations, or backgrounds. We value the diversity God has given us, and we pray for more. What the world sees as barriers, let’s see as opportunities.

So, the first glimpse of the fullness of Christ in the details of life is the full house — the community and team — created by virtue of our life together in Christ. But mere community is not enough. We ache for something more. In the end, we will be empty if we have community but do not have something solid and enduring on which our community is based. Commending each other is important, but good teams are not mutual-admiration societies. We need something strong and firm deeper and bigger than ourselves and deeper and bigger than our community. Truth outside and more foundational than our community gives life and purpose and mission to it. And Christianity offers us not only community, but also authority.

2. Authority (Full Inspiration) (verses 15–16)

We long to base our lives on something solid. We will be empty without some truth bigger and deeper than ourselves. We know deep down that we are not the sum of truth, but derivative creatures made to lean on something stronger and more durable and more stable than ourselves. And verses 15–16 give us a sightline of what that final source of truth is — and how it comes to us in the twenty-first century.

Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. 16 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.

It’s easy to get distracted by this mention of a letter to Laodicea and miss something even more significant in this text. The mention here of another letter from Paul has prompted all sorts of speculation. Is there a letter from Paul that was lost? What if we found it today? Would it have the same level of authority as Colossians and the rest of the Scriptures? Would we add it to the Bible? I wonder what he said to the Laodiceans. How amazing it would be to know what he said!

Sadly, it can be more riveting for us to speculate about things we don’t have than to marvel at the glories we do have. And it is remarkable how many biblical questions are answered, or at least significantly helped, by careful attention to the context.

Given what Paul says in verse 16, it seems to me that it is unlikely that Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans would have been lost to history — because Paul tells the Colossians to make sure they have it read to them. This means at least two churches are involved, and two copies of the letter (more on that in a minute). And this gives us two looks into the source of authority for first-century Christians, and for Christians today.

First, note Paul’s authority as an apostle.

It is no small thing that Paul would presume, and direct, that his letter be read in the Colossian and Laodicean churches. Paul is writing with a level of authority here that is very important. By instructing his letter to be read publicly in the gathering of the church Paul is not only saying that what he writes can be understood by ordinary Christian, but also that he has a special authority in the church as an apostle. He speaks for the risen Christ. Reading his letter in the gathered church carries the full authority of Christ himself. The very authority he has an apostle (to speak for the risen Christ) he intends his letter to carry for the churches.

Second, note the process.

The Colossian letter is to be read in the Laodicean church, and their letter is to be read in the Colossian church. Which gives us a glimpse into how the New Testament we have today began to be collected. These churches that received letters would make copies of these letters for other churches to read. And city after city would collect as many copies of the apostles’ authoritative writings as they could, until eventually we have the collection of 27 New Testament books we have today.

So, back to the lost letter question. I think that it is unlikely that Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans has been lost to history, because of this instruction for the Colossians to get a copy. This would mean that from the beginning the Colossian and Laodicean letters would have been preserved together (along with Philemon). Then where is it?

Many careful scholars have observed that it is the letter we call Ephesians today. Ephesians seems to be a circular letter, not written to a particular church, but written to be copied and sent to multiple churches. This is why some ancient copies of Ephesians don’t actually say “who are in Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1). Also, it’s important to note that Tychicus is mentioned in Ephesians 6:21–22, in strikingly similar language, as the letter carrier for what we know as Ephesians:

So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord will tell you everything. 22 I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage your hearts.

It seems likely to me, and others, that the same letter was sent to Ephesus and Laodicea, especially since the Colossian and Ephesian letters are so similar, and because there is this explicit instruction in Colossians 4:16 to get a copy of the Laodicean letter (along with the matching mention of Tychicus as letter carrier).

But before moving on, let’s make explicit the authority of Paul’s writing as an apostle that would mean we can lean on the Scriptures not just as a good authority, but as our “full authority.”

According to John 1:1, Jesus is the divine Word. He is the fullest and final and decisive revelation of God. He alone as the God-man is final authority of God’s word to humanity. Jesus has the final say in the church. After his death and resurrection, when Jesus ascends to heaven to sit at his Father’s right hand, he leaves the apostles as his appointed, specially commissioned representatives. In the early church, with the risen Christ no longer on earth to directly give his final say, the apostles have the final say on his behalf. Their spoken and written teaching had the final say in the church while they lived. But what about once Jesus’s inspired spokesmen were gone?

When the apostles died, the church no longer had their spoken teaching, but it did have their written words in four Gospels and Acts, and 13 letters from the apostle Paul, and 8 other general letters from written by apostles, and in the book of Revelation written by the apostle John. During his apostles’ lives, and after their deaths, Jesus intends their words to serve as the final rule and authority — not only authority, but final authority — in his church from the early second century until he comes back. And Jesus himself, and his apostles, say many things to this effect.

He is the fullest and final revelation of God (John 1:1; Hebrews 1:1–3). He has the words of life (John 6:68). He rules his church, and has final say (Matthew 16:18), and his sheep hear his voice and follow him (John 10:27). And now his authority is mediated through his apostles who he said would have help from the Holy Spirit in bringing to mind his words (John 14:26). The apostles are Jesus’ authoritative spokesmen for the church after his ascension. (Ephesians 2:19– 20; Hebres 2:3–4; 1 Corinthians 2:12–13; 4:1; 7:17; 14:37–38; 2 Thessalonians 3:14). And we have many clear places in the apostles’ writings where they show that they are self-consciously speaking the binding, authoritative word, with the full authority of Christ, in their role as apostles. Here are two that are especially striking from Paul:

1 Corinthians 14:37–38: If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.

2 Thessalonians 3:14: If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame.

And then, of course, we have our passage in Colossians 4:16: “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 this is how the risen Christ continues to lead and govern and build and nourish his church today: through the written words of the apostles, preserved for us in the Bible. The prophets of the Old Testament, and the apostles of the New. And this is part of the fullness we have in Christ — not only the riches of community and with it the guidance and opinion of fellow followers of Jesus, but also access to the fully authoritative and decisive written revelation of Jesus himself in the words of his apostles. The full inspiration of the Scriptures is a precious and indescribable gift we have as Christians.

But the fullness of Christ goes even further. It not only give a full house and a full authority on which to stand, but also a purpose and mission and calling to fulfill. So, we had community, and authority, and finally ministry.

3. Ministry (Fulfilled Calling) (verse 17)

We want our life and labors to count. We want our expenditures of energy and self and life and breath to reach their intended completion. We don’t want the emptiness of living and laboring in vain.

And yet it may be harder to be happy in life and ministry than it’s ever been.

From our earliest days, we have lived in an echo chamber, to varying degrees, of the voices of self-actualization. You can do whatever you set your mind to. Pursue your dreams. Find your passion — and make it profitable.

The voices speak in every sector of society, in casual conversation, in books and articles, on screens big and small, and sadly even in some quarters of the church. Work-life, and even ministry initiatives, become about peeling the onion of your heart to locate your passion, and then foist it on the world.

Such quiet and all-pervasive expectations destine us to be discontent in the work and ministry we already have, as we dream idealistically about the role we want.

The very nature of the Christian gospel, however, would have us orient on work-life and ministry in strikingly different terms.

Rather, than first putting a finger on our own passions, often discerned in isolation, and then foisting it onto the world, we learn to find our vocational satisfaction in meeting the real-life needs of others. Ministry is not about self-actualization, but self-sacrifice in the service of others. The joy of ministry comes in helping others precisely where they need it, not in convincing them to buy what we personally find most satisfying to sell.

Which means a particular ministry, whatever it is — whether in the home or at the marketplace or on the college campus or in the church — is not achieved, but received. It is not from you, but from God. We don’t produce the circumstances in which our labors are needed, but in God’s good providence, he gives us his circumstances. Our calling is to see needs and meet them, and find satisfaction in fulfilling that God-given calling.

The backward assumptions of modern society have made us into what likely is the flightiest generation in the history of the world. In the midst this confusion, the apostle Paul’s enigmatic charge in verse 17 has surprising relevance.

Say to Archippus, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.”

Much ink has been spilled speculating what “ministry” it is Paul is referring to, but the surest thing we can say is that we don’t know. “All that we can conclude is that Archippus had been given a particular task related to his ministry, but what that task was — preaching? teaching young converts? — we simply cannot know” (Moo, Colossians, 352). And there is a certain beauty to that. In this inspired epistle, God means for this straightforward charge to land not only on Archippus, but on all of us who have felt the temptation to abandon some difficult ministry before it was time.

It is important to observe that, whatever the ministry is, it was “received” — “fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.” The risen Christ himself, through providence and the confirmation of his people (whether Paul himself or simply the Colossian church), and through nurturing a corresponding aspiration in Archippus’s heart, gave this ministry. It didn’t originate with Archippus, but outside of him, in the needs of others and the grace of God.

Ministry Encounters Real Obstacles

What the charge to “fulfill the ministry” implies, then, is that Archippus has encountered some obstacle (or obstacles). Again, what these barriers are we don’t know — and it is perhaps better that we don’t, so that we draw the line to ourselves. When Christ gives us a particular ministry to fulfill, he emphatically does not promise that it will come easy. In fact, it is often precisely the opposite. You might even say that one way, among others, to confirm the genuineness of some specific calling is that genuine obstacles emerge.

Any ministry truly received from the nail-scarred hands of Christ will not be easy every step of the way. Every work in him worth doing in a fallen and sin-sick world, where the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, will encounter difficulties. Anything really worth doing will meet real frustration and friction.

With resistance like this, though, Paul doesn’t encourage Archippus to seek out greener pastures, to actualize his ministry self in something easier and more “life-giving.” Yes, a time may come to transition, when his particular ministry expression has been completed, when a new specific calling has been plainly revealed. But Archippus is not there yet. For now, he needs encouragement not to find something else, but to stick it out when it’s tough. The breakthrough will come not in retreat, but in enduring under trial. It may even be that the increased obstacles and barriers signal that the breakthrough is near at hand. Every ministry worth doing will have its drags, discouragements, and temptations to jump ship before it’s time.

So this charge to Archippus at the end of Colossians is a word we all need in whatever calling we have received from God. Whatever specific role, big or small, we have from the risen Christ, for the meeting of genuine needs for the advance of his kingdom, will encounter obstacles, and the day will come, if it’s not already today, when we need to hear the clear apostolic charge to stick with it. Stay with something for the long haul, leaning on Christ, rather than fly the coup when it gets tough.

It doesn’t mean that we never transition, never take furlough, never make a career change or midcourse correction, never find ourselves in a new season of life. But it does mean that as we ponder transition, we ask ourselves, and those who know us best, Is my work here really done? Have I fulfilled Christ’s specific calling on me in this context? At this job? In this neighborhood? On this team? The whole work of the team or organization may not be done, but has God made it clear that my part — the ministry I received from him — has been truly fulfilled?

You might say, when in doubt, don’t quit. Buck the trend in our flighty society, and stay with it, for the long haul, in the strength God supplies (1 Peter 4:11). After all, ministry isn’t about self-actualization, but self-sacrifice — about finding joy in being poured out for the actual needs of others.

To the Table

As we come to the Table, we have before us the fruit of our ultimate example of fulfilling the ministry you have received, even when it’s hardest, in Christ himself, who for the joy set before him endured the cross. He didn’t bounce when things got difficult. When the waves of drag and disappointment and devastating began hitting him, this wasn’t his signal to abandon ship, but to keep sailing. This was the precisely the storm for which he was born. He emptied himself, that we might be full. He drank the cup of the wrath we deserve that we might enjoy the cup of blessing and its eternal joy.