Apostolic ministry teams
Your love in the Spirit

Paul has previously noted that the Gospel message has come to the Colossians and paralleled it with the declaration throughout the world (Col 1:5-6), showing them the universality of the move of God that they’ve joined themselves to. Here he turns his attention to the method of conveyance through Epaphras, but the verse is unclear at one point which we must address before we can deal with the Scriptures.

The RSV interprets Paul and Timothy to say (my italics) that Epaphras was

‘...a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf

but notes as a footnote that other manuscripts bear the phrase

‘on your behalf’

Both make equal sense here and neither should be thought of a preferable to the other simply on the grounds of what we see recorded for us in the Book of Acts and others of Paul’s letters. If the former is correct, it would hint at the possibility that Paul was in the habit of training and sending followers into areas which either he had no intention of going, could not go or to which others had a greater desire to minister in.

If the latter, Epaphras could be seen to be someone sent by the fellowship to support Paul in the work of proclaiming the Gospel or just that he was the instrument which God had been using to minister to themselves. Either way is possible.

While I was trying to think about which was the most likely, I was thumbing through the commentaries for some inspiration and read Colbruce’s statement that

‘In a context where either reading gives good sense, the weight of the textual evidence should be decisive’

and had to agree with the sentiments expressed. He then opts for the interpretation ‘on your behalf’ based, as it is, on the reliability (subjective, of course) of the manuscripts in which this occurs. Colcar seems to agree with this method for he notes at the outset of his comments on Col 1:7 that

‘The weight of the manuscript evidence is in favour of reading “for us” rather than “for you”’

(Both Colwright and Colbrien agree with this conclusion though on what basis they’ve arrived at it, I don’ know). In other words, he uses the same theory to arrive at the opposite viewpoint! What that means for the present day reader is that we’re unlikely ever to be able to determine what the original was meant to be. Colbruce also adds a very puzzling - and ultimately illogical - note by commenting that the two variations are confusing

‘...because of the identity of pronunciation of the two pronouns in later Hellenistic Greek...’

going so far as to bewilder me by stating that

‘In a case like the present one, the confusion may well go back beyond our earliest textual evidence - even (conceivably) to the author’s dictating the one form and the copyist’s writing down the other’

What he’s actually saying is that, even if Paul meant the amanuensis to write ‘on our behalf’, for instance, he might have genuinely misheard him and wrote ‘on your behalf’. While that’s possibly true, Colbruce forgets that when there’s one manuscript - and one alone - there’s no confusion as to what the writer recorded. It’s only when there’s two that conflict that a decision has to be made.

It also means that, even if we had the original, no one could say with any certainty that what was written was what was intended - and where would that leave us in numerous other places?! We should pause here for one moment to think about how manuscripts were transmitted in the ancient world. BM notes that Codex Sinaiticus shows a great many variations in spelling and that these

‘...are not only useful as a test for distinguishing the scribes [who were responsible for the Codex - accepted as being three in number], but they enable us to draw one most important conclusion, namely, that the manuscript was written from dictation

Couple this with their earlier statement that

‘In Greek, as in English, pronunciation continued to develop after the spelling had become fixed and, in consequence, correct spelling had to be learned in the main by sheer force of memory’

and you have a license for just about any and every variation that’s likely to develop within any text from history that’s copied by men whose first language isn’t Greek, who possibly never used it as a second language and who, by the time the manuscript was being copied, were using a Greek language which had undergone natural change through the years. BM further notes that

‘...the errors of spelling are nearly all phonetic, such as one would expect to find in a dictated manuscript, but which are inexplicable if the book was copied by eye’

Let me add one aside which I found puzzling. BM notes some characteristics of the three scribes who are noted as having worked on the manuscript and comments (my italics) on scribe B

‘...whose literacy is so startling that it is indeed a puzzle to understand how he can ever have been chosen to work on a manuscript of this class

Perhaps the manuscript, then, was never considered to be ‘classy’ and that it’s only been regarded as such by modern scholars? That it was destined for the fire when Tischendorf discovered it may also lend weight to the regard the owners held it in before it was bought for the west.

It seems strange, however, that, as the discoverer noted, there were 14,800 places where a secondary corrector had taken the time to emend what had been copied. Whether we regard Sinaiticus as a poorly written and unreliable manuscript or as an accurately corrected one will, no doubt, have many subjective positions as well as objective ones!

What this tells us is that the variation of Col 1:7 is never going to be resolved - and probably doesn’t need to be - so that either translation can stand as being ‘original’ without the need to deny the other on theological grounds. Personally, I’d prefer the version ‘on our behalf’ simply because there’s enough evidence in the NT writings (which we’ll look at below) to show that, in the first century, there were apostolic ministry teams (for want of a better phrase) who travelled as they felt led to bring the Gospel to those who hadn’t yet heard the message and to strengthen the men and women who’d already responded to it.

All that can be said at this point is that Epaphras was the first messenger with the Gospel to reach those parts around Colossae or, at the very least, that he was the one who God used to establish a church at Colossae (Col 1:7) and, presumably, at Laodicea and Hierapolis as well (Col 4:13). But he’s also linked as being a co-worker of Paul when he notes that he’s

‘...our beloved fellow servant’

and there’s no doubt concerning the reading of this part of the text. Therefore Paul allies Epaphras closely with his own ministry and, should there have been any doubters within the fellowship who were undermining his position (about which there’s no definitive evidence), their situation becomes one which is seen to oppose the much more regarded apostle. But perhaps the real reason for such an association is, as Colbrien notes, that

‘Paul draws attention to his reliable associate who guarantees to the church at Colossae that they received the true apostolic gospel’

so that they could be assured that what they at first believed was the genuine article and that, even though Paul might be writing to them with words of correction, it doesn’t spring out of the error of that first proclamation to themselves.

Apostolic ministry teams

We’ve seen above that a definitive conclusion as to whether Epaphras was considered to be sent out by Paul while, presumably, at Ephesus is impossible to arrive at. Even a simple assertion about what the best manuscript evidence points towards is disputed by scholars and, as Colbruce points out, even if a good consensus of opinion was achieved, the doubts about the transmission of the word would undermine being certain one way or the other.

What is certain, however, is that there’s evidence to show that something approaching ‘ministry teams’ were active throughout the Mediterranean area during the middle of the first century and that they were responsible for the move of God in that area.

Before present day fellowships get overly excited that their own ‘team ministry’ in their local fellowship mimics the first century ones, we should note that these went about into areas where they generally arrived unannounced to establish the Gospel where there were no believers and to build in other areas where believers already met together.

If an ‘apostolic ministry team’ arrived on your local church doorstep, the chances are that they’d first have to prove their allegiance to your own denominational hierarchy before they would ever be allowed to minister ‘from the front’! Therefore, let’s not think that our own set ups are anything to do with what took place back in the first century - we may strive towards such times, but the reality in the majority of cases is that we don’t move with the same purpose nor with the same power.

The evidence is substantial for these teams, especially in the Book of Acts.

Acts 13:4-12 notes the going out of Paul, Barnabas and John to Cyprus and, though we might think that there were just three in that group, Acts 13:13 (my italics) notes that

‘...Paul and his company set sail from Paphos...’

indicating a much larger group than a literal reading of the first text would indicate. It may be, therefore, that the mention of only a couple of men who ‘went out’ is Luke’s way of denoting simply the leading characters within the band as in Acts 15:40 where Silas is mentioned as going out alone with Paul and, in Acts 16:1-3, where Timothy joined with them - that they were leading characters in any band which was present seems to be shown by the salutation of I and II Thessalonians where just their three names are mentioned together as authors of the letters.

Paul is also linked with Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18:18, with Luke and Aristarchus in Acts 27:2 and Luke’s change of writing to ‘we’ in Acts 16:10 also suggests that he joined the team at this point as they tried to come to an understanding of where God wanted them to preach the Gospel. Acts 20:4 is also a place where we might suppose that a full list of those who travelled with Paul were being mentioned. Luke mentions

‘Sopater of Beroea, the son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus’

a total, with Paul, of just eight. Big enough to support one another but not so big as to cause a group of believers significant problems should they need feeding when they arrived to minister into the area.

The postscripts of the letters are also noteworthy for they indicate that a team were around him - not just those who were present in the local fellowship but, because their names appear time and again, that they were fellow travellers with him (Rom 16:21-22, Col 4:10-14, Philemon 23-24, II Tim 4:9-12). The latter Scripture is the more significant because he urges Timothy to come to him and notes that

‘...Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia...Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus’

making one think that they’d departed with the sole purpose of advancing the Kingdom of Heaven in new areas. He also notes that

‘Luke alone is with me...’

so that, at times, Paul seems to have been almost deserted where he found himself. But these ‘teams’ don’t seem to have been limited to ‘men only’ if we’re right in reading between the lines of I Cor 9:5 where Paul asks the Corinthians

‘Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?’

The staff of these ‘teams’ seems to have been rather fluid and rarely remained static for very long, men coming and leaving as directed (II Tim 4:9-12, II Cor 8:18, Col 4:7-8), but the purpose of taking the Gospel into all parts of the world was in the process of being achieved.

When the teams eventually moved on, fellowships had been established that continued the work of the apostolic team, receiving continued help and aid in the form of both letters and men sent to them to amend what was defective and to encourage them to move into more of the truth - for example, Titus 1:5 shows plainly the reason for Paul’s leaving of Titus in Crete and the letter to the region of Galatia is a specific correcting word for the legalism which had begun to penetrate the church’s ranks.

In this way, the Church grew rapidly.

Reading between the lines, therefore, Epaphras may well have been a part of the apostolic team and that it was during Paul’s two year ministry in the hall of Tyranus (Acts 19:8-0) that he was sent into the Lycus Valley, founding the fellowships of Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col 1:7, 4:13). From Ephesus, the Gospel was carried to the surrounding area so that Luke is able to write in Acts 19:10 that

‘...all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks’

but, although this scenario does fit the situation, we have no definitive way of knowing whether it’s correct.

Your love in the Spirit
Col 1:8

The reader should turn to the previous web page under the heading ‘Faith’ for a discussion of the unusual construction of the Greek here and what it causes the reader to infer.

In summary, one further aspect of the Colossians’ love is here outlined, first mentioned in Col 1:4 - it is ‘in’ the Spirit, where the meaning is that what they have is a demonstration of the love that resides in God Himself. It’s not a natural love that springs from their human nature, but it’s God’s love which has been (Rom 5:5)

‘...poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us’

God’s love is evident in all believers when it demonstrates itself by flowing through them to produce works inspired by faith (Gal 5:6). It was Epaphras’ own testimony, however, that witnessed to the success of the message of the Gospel and it’s this which prompts Paul to go on to note that he continually prays for them to progress ever since it was made known to him (Col 1:9).

Epaphras, therefore, becomes both the bearer of the message and the witness of its acceptance.

The foundation of the letter has now been completed. Paul and Timothy have begun with the positive aspects of the fellowship which have been made known to them (Col 1:3-5a) and then moved on to declare that their readers’ response is only what’s happening all over the world wherever the Gospel is being preached (Col 1:5b-6a).

He then goes on to once more speak of the Colossians’ part in something universal in scope (Col 1:6b) before upholding the truth of the message preached initially by Epaphras amongst them (Col 1:7-8). Whatever else the Colossians might think about their own situation, they’re left in no doubt about the purity of the message, the believer who brought it to them and of their own initial response.

As Paul will now go on to write, such a foundation causes him to pray continually for them (Col 1:9a) that they might now go on into the fulness of Christ (Col 1:9b-12). But, as an opening statement, Paul and Timothy have summarised the ‘story so far’ and have laid out a good basis for their following observations.