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My Fellow Prisoner

November 7th, 2019

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you greetings, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas. You have already received instructions about him: If he comes to you, welcome him. Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. (Colossians 4:10-11)

These words of Paul have a depth of personal experience and meaning behind them. In fact, the entire meaning is somewhat cordoned off from us, as are the thoughts of every individual heart. While sharing openly about our faith experiences in Christ, there will be, or should be, personal experiences we each have that we keep private. Maybe we can share them with some close confidants, but even then there may be some matters we are unable to share with others simply because we cannot find the words to even explain them to ourselves.

This is what we see in this passage in what seems to be simple words: Paul giving us the facts, but keeping some matters to himself. I am convinced that this is a normal and healthy part of the Christian life.

Aristarchus and Epaphras

We learn quite a bit about Aristarchus from other biblical passages: he was originally from Thessalonica and accompanied Paul to Asia (Acts 20:4) and to Rome (Acts 27:2). He and Epaphras seemed to (perhaps) voluntarily accompany Paul in his imprisonment from time to time. Philemon, which was written a few months after Colossians, mentioned Epaphras as a fellow prisoner, and named Aristarchus as a “fellow worker” (Philemon 1:23-24).  But these were men of character who braved dangers to accompany Paul as he spread the gospel. And by whatever means they shared the title “fellow prisoners for Christ,” embodying the command: “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Tim. 1:8).

And John Mark

John had gone with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, but he left them at Pamphylia, when they left Cyprus, and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). Paul felt that he had deserted them with the job uncompleted. Here we learn that he was the cousin of the big-hearted Barnabas, and Barnabas wanted to include him again on their second journey. Paul would have none of it and they two divided over that issue (Acts 15:36-41). But in this Colossians passage Paul affirms his character and commitment. Some commentators believe Paul was too harsh, and others believe that the apostolic rebuke was proper and worked. Whatever the details that are unknown to us, it is clear that Paul saw the heart of John Mark and once again they served the Lord together. (See 2 Tim. 4:12).

According to 1 Peter 5:13, he became like a son to Simon Peter, and tradition supports that he was his companion through the years. John Mark was the human author of the first gospel and that has been largely seen as having been influenced by Peter himself. Many suspect that John Mark gave a brief anonymous story about himself as the young man who ran naked from the Garden of Gethsemane, when a Roman soldier snatched his garment (Mark 14:51-52). This is quite a journey into adulthood and suffering for Christ — from a scared youth, to an unreliable young adult, to an inspired author of a gospel and a companion of persecuted believers and martyrs.

Paul, the Private Person

Paul always knew that persecution for the Christian faith could come upon him. He himself had been a chief persecutor of the church in its early days. But at Lystra on his first missionary journey it fell upon him violently, as he was dragged outside the city and stoned to death, or so the crowd thought. What is remarkable is the final verse of the event: “But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. And the next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe” (Acts 14:20).

We hear a lot today about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and it is a real malady. I do not in any way wish to make light of this, for we commonly see people emotionally scarred for years if not permanently by traumatic events. How did this not happen to Paul? If it happened to any of us today, we would seek to take weeks to recover, seek treatment from a qualified Christian counselor. But Paul got up and walked back into the city!

Whether he had died and was miraculously brought to life again, or only appeared to be dead, we are not told. There is a divine silence on this matter, almost as if to say that this was one of those deeply private moments between Paul and God and where we are not invited to go. Some people have believed that the event of a “man in Christ” being caught up to “paradise” was actually autobiographical and described Paul’s spiritual experience during this stoning (2 Cor. 12:2-4). That man “heard inexpressible things, things that a man is not permitted to tell.”

Most scholars consider the 2 Corinthians 12 passage autobiographical, but it does not match up with the timing of the stoning at Lystra. (Second Corinthians was written around 57-58 AD, and the stoning at Lystra would have been around 48 AD. The fourteen year distance in time (2 Cor. 12:2 connects more to his coming to Antioch as a teacher, around 44 AD. But it still underscores the issue of a private faith. Sometimes God moves in us in a deeply personal way and we cannot find the words to describe it all. But what we do learn from other passages, is that to be with God is to be in the presence of divine love, and it is God’s divine love that heals our hurts, sooths our fears, and gives courage and endurance to our hearts.

Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us. (Romans 8:3-5 BSB)

We endure here because we are assured of His love for us. If you want more courage, grow in the knowledge of His love. In that moment where he lie on the ground outside of Lystra and the speechless disciples gathered around him — at least, this is the only way I can make sense of it — it seems to me that God did something miraculous in his soul and poured into him a special anointing of the knowledge and assurance of His love. Perhaps God had begun to do this earlier, And that love gave him the courage to get back up and go back into that city.

The violence of the world against the Christian often needs to be defeated through harsh means. It is simply the reality of this fallen world that people are often so evil that only by policing action will innocent lives be spared. But the true healing of the heart that has been scarred through violence against him, is healed through divine love, and not through more violence and retribution against evil — though there may even be a sense of justice being done.

There are only two things that truly change us for the better: to be loved purely and wholly, and to love another like that. It is the knowledge of the love of God that the Spirit pours into our hearts that gives us character to endure sufferings. And by abiding in that love that we find the strength to love others (John 15:9-13).

Colossians