A Missionary’s Reflection on Paul’s Letter to the Colossians

A Muslim woman shops at the bazaar outside the Jama Masjid of Delhi, India.

Paul’s driving purpose was to proclaim the gospel where Christ was not known. Paul understood himself as a servant who had a commission from God (Col 1:25a), therefore he operated with the authority and responsibility from God to fulfill his commission. In Colossians 1:25, that commission was “to fill up the word of God.” The context clarifies that Paul’s purpose of filling up the word of God among people groups who did not know the gospel. Paul described the word of God as a mystery that had been hidden but is now manifest to God’s people (1:26). The purpose of revealing this mystery is so that God’s people can make this mystery known among all the nations (1:27). Therefore, filling up the word of God meant bringing the word to peoples and places that did not know. 

Modern missionaries do well to emulate Paul’s missionary burden to proclaim Christ among peoples and in places where Christ has not been named. This is the singular purpose that drove Paul’s missionary journeys and propelled him to plant churches in pioneer areas. Since this is Paul’s missionary model, it is shocking that the vast majority of missionaries work in areas where the gospel is established rather than in pioneer areas among unreached peoples.

Paul’s missionary methods were not based only on his own efforts but also the efforts of his disciples.  Paul’s letter to Colossae demonstrates that Paul not only planted churches himself but trained and equipped others to plant churches. Before writing this letter, Paul had never visited Colossae. The believers in Colossae had never met Paul (Col 2:1). Instead, the Colossians heard the gospel from Epaphras, Paul’s dearly loved fellow servant (1:7). It is most likely that Epaphras was trained by Paul in Ephesus and sent out as a pioneer missionary. Paul sent out Epaphras and others like him to plant churches across Asia Minor (modern southwest Turkey). Acts 19:9-10 says,

“But when some became hardened and would not believe, slandering the Way in front of the crowd, he withdrew from them, taking the disciples, and conducted discussions every day in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.”

The seven churches of Revelation (Rev 2-3) and others were likely planted by Paul’s coworkers during these two years. Paul won men to Christ, trained them, and sent them as pioneer missionaries. While Colossians is the most complete picture of a Pauline coworker planting a church, Paul sent other coworkers who also planted churches all across Asia Minor. In this way, “all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.”

Colossians 1:3-8 describes Epaphras’ work. Epaphras shared the gospel (1:7). The gospel caused the Colossians to hope in heaven (1:5). This hope in heaven produced faith and love in the Colossians (1:4). Paul emphasized that the proclamation of the gospel led to a heavenly focus, which produced outward change in new believers. In Epaphras’’ ministry, pioneer evangelism that led into discipleship was the foundation for planting new churches.

Paul’s commission from God was to proclaim the gospel broadly to peoples who had never heard and to train others to do the same. Because of his expansive team of coworkers proclaiming the gospel in many places, Paul was able to say that the gospel “is bearing fruit and growing all over the world” (Col 1:6). And, “This gospel has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (Col 1:23).

In this short letter, Paul mentioned nine coworkers by name.[1] These men acted under Paul’s missionary leadership as part of his team. Modern missionaries do well to head Paul’s example of developing missionaries. By emulating Paul’s model of developing leaders, modern missionaries can evangelize broad geographic areas, like Asia Minor. As Paul modelled, modern missionaries develop leaders best in the trenches, leading by example.

In Colossians, Paul also provided a model of how to transcend present difficulties and remain focused on gospel advance. Paul was in jail when he wrote this letter (Col 4:3) and his disciple, Epaphras, was in jail with him (Philem 23). Although he was imprisoned for the gospel, Paul’s heart was free. No human bond or imprisonment could bar him from Jesus. A hymn about Jesus takes a central place in this epistle, reminding us of how Paul worshipped in jail at Phillip (Col 1:15-20; Acts 16:25). When reading this letter, one can almost hear Paul singing that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. I imagine that Paul’s evangelistic boldness while in jail presented a challenge for his jailers. They were at a loss about how to silence his witness for Christ.

Paul’s only prayer request in Colossians was that God would open a door for him to proclaim the gospel (Col 4:3-4). For Paul, imprisonment was merely one more opportunity to be a witness for Christ. No doubt, Paul was following Jesus’ directions in how to engage in missionary outreach. Our Lord Jesus said,

“They will hand you over to local courts and flog you in their synagogues. You will even be brought before governors and kings because of me, to bear witness to them and to the Gentiles. But when they hand you over, don’t worry about how or what you are to speak. For you will be given what to say at that hour” (Matt 10:17-19).

The irony is that the authorities arrested Paul and Epaphras to stop the advance of the gospel. These men used it as an opportunity for evangelism. Despite their imprisonment, the gospel was bearing fruit and increasing all over the world. The authorities could do nothing to stop the advance of the gospel. Christ was seated on His throne, and Paul was seated with him (Col 3:1).

The imprisonment of Paul and Epaphras became an opportunity for developing more leaders. One purpose of Paul’s letter was to establish Archippus as the leader at Colossae. Paul spoke to him, “Pay attention to the ministry you have received in the Lord, so that you can accomplish it” (Col 4:17). Also, Onesimus became a follower of Christ through Paul during this time. Paul wrote a letter to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus to appeal for Onesimus to be released from slavery to become one of Paul’s missionary coworkers. Thus, the influence and reach of Paul’s team for the advancement of the gospel grew, despite his circumstances.

In summary, Paul’s driving purpose was to fill up the gospel among unreached peoples and places. In order to accomplish this purpose, Paul developed and sent leaders. He grew a team of coworkers who could fight with him for the advance of the gospel. In the same way, modern missionaries must take up their commission to make Christ known among unreached peoples and places and develop others to do the same. 

[1] Timothy (1:1), Epaphras (1:7; 4:12-13), Tychicus (4:7-8), Onesimus (4:9; Philem 10-18), Aristarchus (4:10; Philem 24), Mark (4:10; Philem 24), Justus (4:11), Luke (4:14; Philem 24), and Demas (4:14; Philem 24).

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