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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Small Church, Precious to Jesus


"Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea,and to Nympha and the church in her house. After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.” I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.” Colossians 4:15-18

I’m encouraged by the closing verses of Colossians because they remind me that the church that Paul is writing to is just like Riverside. It’s small; it’s weak, and it’s precious to Jesus. We can be deeplyencouraged that God’s chosen instrument - Saul/Paul - who our very own Pastor Paul has been chronicling for us these past weeks - was moved by the Holy Spirit of God Almighty to write to a church like Riverside. It shows that God cares for us. He wants us to flourish. He wants us to spot danger and navigate it. He wants us to be effective for his kingdom, on earth.

Now, it would be easy to tail off with these final verses, and conclude that there’s nothing more to be had from the letter. But we don’t want to do that. There’s more than we think - in all of scripture, there’s more than we think.

In verse 15 Paul wants his greetings to be conveyed by those at Corinth to the brothers and sister at Laodicea - a commercial town to the north-west of Colossae. He also wants them to deliver his greetings to a church that was meeting in the house of a Laodicean woman called Nympha.

Then in verse 16, Paul wants the Colossians to ensure that his letter is read in the church of the Laodiceans. And that, they themselves read the letter from Laodicea.

Then in verse 17, he wants the Colossians to tell Archippus – who we know from Philemon 1 was a family member of Philemon; most likely Philemon’s son – to complete the ministry task he had been given.

And finally, in verse 18, he wants the Colossians to pray for him on the frontier mission in Rome because of his chains. And for them to be reminded that he himself is praying for them that they would be given the grace that they need to complete their race.

So, Paul has final instructions for the church at the end of his letter. And because Paul was always seeking the spiritual benefit of the Christians who he wrote to, it’s reasonable to think that he has designed these instructions to shape the church and benefit the people. And, not losing track of why Paul is writing to the Colossians, that by these final instructions they may also escape the traps they are seemingly falling into.

In AD60, some time around the time the letter to the Colossians was written, a regional earthquake dealt a heavy blow to the centres of Laodicea, Hieropolis and Colossae. Laodicea, however, was rebuilt without a single penny of aid from Rome, such was their wealth.

And when we come to Revelation – most likely written some time after AD70 – Laodicea is the church from that location that is addressed as one of the seven golden lamp stands. Laodicea was very wealthy, and interestingly, when it comes to the assessment of the one who walks amongst the lampstands – Jesus – it is a church renowned for its lukewarmness. Colossae, has been reduced to a little town by then, and the Laodicean church is on the verge of being spat out – unpalatable to God.

So, that’s a reminder of how quickly things can change and how churches can slide into the world and into heresy. Paul didn’t want that for Colossae or for Laodicea. So, he’s keen that they both receive the benefit of his letter, not only Colossae.

And in order to make that happen he encourages some inter-church letter swapping.

Now it’s not unreasonable to think that Paul assumes that the Colossian church and the Laodicean church are close – and not just geographically close; close relationally. For him to say in verse 16, ‘make sure you share your letter with them over at Laodicea’, assumes a relationship.

I’m sure the two churches had differences. But whatever those differences were, the churches didn’t allow them to stand in the way of them having some sort of regular contact with each other that Paul could rely on to make sure his letter got air-time in Laodicea as well asColossae.

I wonder, if we received a letter from the Apostle Paul and in it he said ‘make sure this letter is read at Thornhill Baptist Church, Grace Church Wakefield and Hope Fellowship too’, whether we would feel like that would be an easily accomplished thing because our relationship with those churches is already well established. I’m not so sure. But I think we’re working to achieve that.

I would encourage us to take our cues from Colossians here, and to press into fellowship with other local churches who love Jesus and are servants for his kingdom in this region.

This week’s inter-church prayer meeting at Dewsbury Evangelical Church is a great opportunity to do that – 7:15 we’ll be meeting with 5 or 6 other regional churches to pray for each other, which will be mightilyencouraging, I’m sure.

But according to verse 16 there isn’t just a letter to be shared with the Laodiceans but one to be shared by the Laodiceans with them. So, encouragement is to flow in both directions which is something to be mindful of when we engage with fellow churches.

This letter ‘from the Laodiceans’ has led to some extensive conjecture as to what it was and where it came from. We don’t have all of Paul’s letters in our bibles for the simple reason that he wrote many that weren’t inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The two best explanations for this unaccounted for letter are that it was either a letter written by Paul to the Laodiceans and sent with the postman Tychicus who deposited it with them on route to Colossae. That’s one option.

Or, that this was the letter Paul wrote called ‘Ephesians’ which was designed to be a circular letter. Ephesians is not a very personal letter, it lacks the normal greetings and probably was written for the churches of Asia Minor at large, but became associated with Ephesus because of the importance of that city and the church there too.

It seems to me odd to think that Paul would ask the Colossians to pass on greetings to the Laodiceans if they had received their very own letter from Paul via Tychicus. So, I’m inclined to think that Paul is instructing the Colossians to get the inspired letter of ‘Ephesians’ from the Laodiceans and to read it, and then presumably the next church in Asia Minor would take it from them.

If Ephesians – as we call it – was the letter to Asia minor then it’s reasonable to think that it would go by the name of the last church that had it in its possession – hence ‘the letter from Laodicea’.

There are other explanations – John Calvin said that people who don’t think Paul was referring to a letter from the Laodiceans to Paul himself are ‘afflicted with double mental aberration’ which is his way of saying they’re out of their minds. So, I guess that’s me. But I’ll leave you decide if Calvin’s right on that one or not.

The point is, fellow churches can be of immense help to one another if they love each other and work to foster relationships with one another.

Verse 15 alludes to this character Nympha. Some translations render this name as masculine – Nymphas, but there seems to be good scholarly support for the feminine rendering of the name and that’s what we have in our NIV, so I see no reason to depart from the translation.

We’re told that, just like the church in Rome that met in Pricilla and Aquilla’s home (Romans 16:4-5 & 1 Cor 16:19), and just like the church that met in Philemon and Apphia’s home (Philemon verse 2) - probably the Colossian church itself – that a church met in the home of this woman called Nympha.

Whereas Pricilla and Aquilla are mentioned in Rome and Philemon and Apphia in Colossae, here only Nympha is mentioned and no word of a husband. Which suggests to me that she was either single or widowed. It could simply mean that she was married to an unbeliever, but to give over her house to the church week by week seems an unlikely stretch for someone with an unbelieving husband.

In very similar terms to our own circumstances, having access to a ready-made church building wasn’t a luxury the early churches benefitted from. Houses were the most readily available venues for the church to gather in. And whilst that tells us something about the sizes of the early churches – relatively small – it probably also tells us something about the size of the houses they met in – relatively large. And then, just as now, a large house cost more money to buy than a small one.

So, it seems that Nympha was a wealthy woman with a large enough house to accommodate the church.

I think it’s unlikely that an unmarried woman at that time in that part of the world would have been a wealthy woman – I could be wrong. But I think it more likely Nympha was a wealthy widow.

If that’s the case, the picture we have is of a woman who is not living for her riches but for her eternal reward. She’s not the widow of 1 Timothy 5:6 who lives for pleasure, she’s the one of 1 Timothy 5:5 who puts her hope in God. She readily opens up her home for the benefit of Christ’s church and receives Holy Spirit inspired greetings from God’s very own Apostle. This is the kind of woman who is worth emulating.

God gives the gifts – riches and widowhood – it’s what you do with the gifts that counts. Do you live for the pleasure of earthly riches, like the Laodiceans became renowned for doing in Revelation 3?

Do you wallow in widowhood? Or, do you live light to riches and press your widowhood into service for the kingdom of God. Nympha knew whoshe was serving and it wasn’t herself, it was Christ first and then Christ’s church. And Paul singles her out, in his letter, for greetings.

Verse 17 mentions the other character Paul addresses by name in these closing verses – namely Archippus. In Philemon verse 2, Archippus is described by Paul as a ‘fellow soldier’ which is a strong commendation. It gives the impression of someone who doesn’t slack, who’s disciplined, and who fights for the cause.

And with that in mind, I think it’s safe to assume that Paul’s word to the Colossians about him here in verse 17 isn’t a rebuke, but rather a resilient encouragement.

Paul is not likely saying to the Colossians ‘tell Archippus, Paul says, “stop slacking and complete the task you’ve been given”’.

If that were the case why would he describe him to Philemon, in the accompanying letter, as a ‘soldier’? That wouldn’t make sense. So, it’s more likely he’s giving strong encouragement to Archippus.

Now when do we need encouragement? It is when, for whatever reason, we find ourselves downcast, or discouraged. In other words, perhaps Archippus isn’t lazing on the job, so much as he’s discouraged in it.

A few things we know about Archippus are, he’s probably quite youngsince he’s still living at home with his parents and they are both still alive. And, that he’s been given a ministry ‘in the Lord’ to complete. ‘In the Lord’ probably denoting that it’s God-given not man-given.

What’s interesting is that these circumstances correlate very closely with those of another young church-man namely Timothy. Listen to how Paul writes to him: ‘But you [Timothy], keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge the full duties of your ministry’ (2 Timothy 4:5).

And we know from elsewhere that Timothy was young – Paul tells him not to get discouraged if people despise his youth, in 1 Timothy 4:12.

So, Archippus sounds very similar to Timothy – young, and therefore vulnerable to criticism, but with a God-given mandate. And that mandate; that ministry - same word in both Colossians 4:17 and 2 Timothy 4:5 – was, ‘to preach the word, being prepared in season and out of season; correcting, rebuking, and encouraging – with great patience and careful instruction’ according to 2 Timothy 4:2.

So, putting it together, I think that one of the reasons Colossae was trifling with spiritual danger was because they lacked an over-shepherd to show them from the scriptures the truth about Christ. Not just to be justified, but to complete their race, to grow up in their faith, to arriveat their heavenly destination, and not to be found to have wandered away from Christ.

Archippus has the God-given mandate to be that over-shepherd, but he’s young. Perhaps he’s tried but been discouraged by older believers who despise his youth.

Paul’s exhortation to the Colossians is intriguing for its public nature. What instruction he writes to Philemon in a private letter he writes publicly to Archippus. And he places the responsibility in the hands of the church to tell Archippus what he must to do.

Perhaps the very ones who despised the youth of Archippus in his role as overseer, now had to go to him and say ‘the Apostle Paul, who is Jesus’ special instrument, says you’re to be our over-shepherd’.

Not only would that put them all in their right places – the older church members and the younger shepherd leader – but it would serve to give Archippus great confidence to fulfil his calling to lead and guide the flock at Colossae.

So, what’s interesting now is that Paul has given instructions to the Colossian church to pass on greetings to a widowed woman, and a powerful instruction to a young man. What is that telling us? It’s telling us that godliness counts for everything.

Paul has singled out two people the Colossians should be emulating in their godliness even though they look weak in their circumstances. The Colossians had been getting it so wrong – they’d been listening to the latest impressive voices who were leading them astray, but rejecting the godly amongst them.

They had been failing to look for godliness in their ranks and had started looking at the outward things as an indicator of who they should be listening to.

Paul’s closing comments to the Colossians serve to remind us that it’s notthe outward show of impressive wealth, or impressive words that should compel us.

It’s the godliness of a righteous life lived in the service of the Kingdom of God that should compel us.

The best people in the church are not the one’s with neat homes, flash cars, perfect family’s – 2.4 children plus dog – the best people are those on fire for Jesus. Those other things are incidental, just like Nympha’s large home was incidental – it’s what she did with it that gives the game away.

You can tell when someone’s life is shaped by Christ, it has a beautiful aroma. A life characterised by closeness to Jesus, and thanksgiving, and kingdom focus.

Verse 18, is the last word of the letter. When he says that he writes the greeting in his ‘own hand’ he probably means these last words rather than the whole letter.

Tertius, we know, by his own admission, wrote down Paul’s letter to the Romans, and so it seems here too that someone was secretary to Paul, with the exception of these last remarks.

He wants them to pray for him, and he in turn will pray for them. Their prayer for him is to be as a prisoner for Christ in chains. He knows he needs grace to remain true to Jesus in the face of severe suffering, and he’s asking the church to pray to that end.

So, there’s encouragement here to us about praying for those who suffer for the gospel, not only at home but abroad as well. And that’s why we’re keen as a church, to find that frontier missionary group to support both financially and prayerfully – we want to have those front-line names, and places and situations to pray for.

And, Paul knows that the Colossians will need God’s grace in order to come through the trials they’re facing – the opposition to their faith. So, he will pray for that grace.

You know, it’s not just grace for justification that is needed to be finally saved. It’s grace not to fall foul of a million temptations on route to heaven. We need grace upon grace, not just grace at the beginning.

If God doesn’t pour out his river of grace into our lives continually we won’t make it to the end. So, Paul’s prayer for them is, God’s grace to them. Just as it was in chapter 1, verse 2, ‘grace and peace to you from God our Father’.

These final remarks then, remind us starkly that the whole letter is written to a church. It’s written to a group of believers who identify themselves as, not only individual Christians but as a collective organism.

A living, breathing, spiritual body. And we’re reminded that the only force that Paul’s remarks have on them is, as they identify themselves as belonging to the group. To any believer who had been saved in Colossae and decided to opt out of the local church expression that met in Philemon’s house, Paul’s letter could have zero influence on them. Now imagine if you missed out on the letter of Colossians as a believer, how poor you would be – how endangered you would be.

But it reminds us that the local church is the sphere which God has designed for believers to receive exhortation and instruction and care and nurture and where our gifts are to be exercised. Paul’s letter assumes all of this.

This is the reason why Riverside has been keen to make the door into membership wide.

In fact, just this last week we have adopted an article into our guidelines that makes provision for people who, for unavoidable reasons, might not be able to make it regularly to church.

We don’t want them to be without the care, love and attention of our church. Those people will need to continue to be a part with us even though their circumstances are stacked against them – or else how will they make it to the end?

So, if you’re a believer and you meet with us regularly – you think of Riverside as your home church – I think Paul’s letter encourages you to find yourself committed and accountable in a local church like those at Colossae did, so that you will be helped to finish the race.

All of which brings us to the end. I’m sure that much more could have been said about this whole letter than I have been able to uncover in this short series, but I do trust that God, in his infinite wisdom, has seen fit to shape us as a church by what we have heard.


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