Having now given the Colossians some details about the movement of Tychicus and Onesimus and their purpose amongst them (though the attempted reconciliation of the latter with his master, Philemon, isn’t so much as hinted at to the congregation), Paul turns his attention to record the greetings of those who were present with him as he does on a number of other occasions in the outro to his letters (Rom 16:21-23, I Cor 16:19-20, Phil 4:21-22, Col 4:10-14, I Tim 4:21, Philemon 23-24).
Just what sort of penal set up the apostle found himself in that both his colleagues and fellow prisoners could converse to the point of dictating letters and issuing instructions is far from clear but there certainly appears to be nothing even remotely resembling present day imprisonment - I will briefly discuss Roman prison below.
These greetings are split in two in this letter, something that only occurs in Colossians and nowhere else. Paul begins by recording the greetings from those present with him who were Jews (Col 4:10-11) before he takes some time to record those from non-Jews or Gentiles (Col 4:12-14).
Why he should do this is puzzling - it’s as if he went through all those present and asked the Jews only, one by one, whether they wanted to send their greetings to Colossae before turning his attention to all the others. What his intention was of doing this doesn’t seem to be explained by anything which appears in his earlier writings and Epaphras, the one who seems to have begun the fellowship (Col 1:7), was definitely a Gentile (Col 4:12), also imprisoned at the time of writing - though it’s only in his short note to Philemon that such a fact is observed (Philemon 23). We might think, therefore, that some of the other men mentioned in this list are also fellow prisoners but that Paul has not felt it necessary to note them as such.
That Aristarchus and Epaphras are both mentioned as being imprisoned alongside Paul is a problem to the theory that Colossians and Philemon were both dictated by the apostle while he was imprisoned in Rome awaiting trial (note Paul’s freedom when in Rome - Acts 28:17-31). Therefore, some commentators have interpreted the statements that the apostle had fellow prisoners (the more literal translation of the Greek word is ‘prisoner of war’ but, even though some commentators make much of the word, it means very little difference to ‘fellow prisoner’ except to emphasise that the apostle was aware that his proclamation of the Gospel was also able to be explained in terms in which God was seen as advancing forcefully against the powers of darkness, using His servants to fight the battles that confronted them) to mean that they’re ‘prisoners of Christ’ and, as Colcar writes,
‘...that the reference here is to spiritual bondage’
that is, that they were committed to follow Jesus leadings and to obey Him - that they were imprisoned by a choice of freewill to do all that He required of them. But this is a wholly unnatural way to interpret the text and a purely natural imprisonment appears to be what’s required by Paul’s words.
Roman law gave the prisoner a fair amount of freedom of access with people not imprisoned even though the testimony of Acts 16:24 indicates that there were more severe punishments for those who were thought to be non-Roman (Acts 16:37-39) - this took place in the Roman settlement of Philippi so a variety of treatment was available to the penal authorities.
As FCS (volume 3) points out, access to the prisoner by those on the outside was largely dependent upon the favour of those who were holding them and, sometimes, by the size of the bribe that was presented to them. But, leaving out the latter of these two reasons for access, it’s entirely possible that the various city jailers often viewed Paul with favour and allowed access that was enough for him to be able to dictate letters, instruct workers to travel to fellowships needing their ministry and, even to some extent, able to convene meetings during the day to teach and proclaim the Gospel (Acts 28:17,23,30-31 - all specifically related about his time in Rome awaiting trial before Caesar).
If we were to assume that the testimony of access in the letter to Colossae (for example, how Paul was able to have a letter dictated for delivering to a city) bore witness to a Roman imprisonment, we’d still be no further forward in identifying the place of origin because Roman settlements and control of the judicial system was widespread throughout the Empire.
All these three Jews mentioned here are fellow workers (Col 4:11), taking part in the advancement of the Kingdom in whichever area Paul had now found himself imprisoned, the first mentioned also sharing in the incarceration that the apostle was experiencing.
I have already dealt with the lists of personnel contained in this letter in my introduction to the letter. Here, I intend to rework those notes and to expand them slightly - even so, we know so little about some of the people here mentioned that the observations will rarely run to more than a few lines. A few lines, that is, so long as we don’t take traditional opinions about who the people were and expand the descriptions beyond the bounds of the NT witness.
The ‘greeting’ that’s mentioned (Strongs Greek number 782) as being extended by those listed is a word which seems to mean ‘embrace’ as the underlying concept and, when used in Paul’s letters, Kittels notes that it was
‘...very important as an expression of affection’
so that those who are recipients of one of the apostle’s letters can be assured of the strong feeling with which not only he but those with him hold them in.
Aristarchus (like Tychicus and Onesimus, it’s noted as being another common name in the first century by Colbrien) was one of Paul’s fellow workers (Col 4:10, Philemon 24) even though Luke only records for the reader in his work of Acts that he was one of Paul’s fellow travelling companions (Acts 19:29, 20:4, 27:2). Where it was that he joined Paul’s company of travellers isn’t mentioned in the NT but, as he was from the city of Thessalonica in Macedonia (Acts 27:2), it may have been that he was one of the long-standing companions who had begun working with Paul as early as his first visit to the city in Acts 17:1.
Between this point in Paul’s journeys and his first mention in Acts 19:29, the apostle had gone back to Antioch in Syria (Acts 18:22) before returning once more to his activities and spending the two year period in Ephesus (Acts 19:10). Paul never visited Thessalonica after his initial ministry there until Aristarchus’ first mention so it seems the more logical to assume that he joined Paul’s travelling band of apostles and ministers when they first visited his city.
The fellow worker is not only mentioned as having been one of the two who were dragged into the theatre in Ephesus when the uproar began (Acts 19:29) but is confirmed as a travelling companion in Acts 20:4 throughout Paul’s journey into Greece and back via Macedonia (a route which could quite easily have caused him to revisit the city of Thessalonica) and appears on board the first ship which left Syria to bring Paul to appear before Caesar in Rome (Acts 27:2).
He seems to have been a travelling companion who continued with Paul for a number of years and who functioned not just as a support and encouragement to him but as a fellow worker as previously noted.
Using the presence of Aristarchus on its own to attempt a date of composition for the letter to Colossae is impossible because of the extensive period of time that he appears to have been with Paul. Apart from these very brief points, little can be said about Paul’s fellow companion.
The second Jew that Paul mentions is
‘...Mark, the cousin of Barnabas...’
which gives the reader more questions than it does answers (even though many commentators have provided the answers!). Because the name is so common in the first century world and the occurrences of people named ‘Mark’ are scattered far and wide in the NT in various different contexts (Acts 12:12,25, 15:37,39, Col 4:10, II Tim 4:11, Philemon 1:24, I Peter 5:13), it’s almost impossible to come to any firm and categorical statement regarding whether the Mark mentioned by Paul is the same one as that named by Luke in Acts as being ‘John whose other name was Mark’.
We can almost certainly discount I Peter 5:13 as being a reference to either Luke or Paul’s ‘Mark’ as the mention of him as being the son of the apostle Peter seems to preclude the possibility and likelihood that he should be identified with the son of Mary (Acts 12:12) or the cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10). We should also note in passing that the ‘Mark’ attributed with the writing of the third Gospel should be left to one side as being impossible to definitively prove that they can be identified with any of the others.
To begin with the ‘Mark’ mentioned by Luke in Acts, we should initially note Acts 12:12 where he’s mentioned in passing only because Mary, who owned the house in which the Jerusalem church was praying for the release of Peter, is stated as being his mother. That Mark’s mentioned here is surely significant when coupled with the other, later verses for it would seem to indicate that he was well-known amongst the early Church.
The first reference which directly mentions something he did is in Acts 12:25 where Luke records for us that
‘...Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem...bringing with them John whose other name was Mark’
so that he appears to have been deliberately taken from the fellowship in Jerusalem to be with the two believers for whatever reason. We have to assume that Mark then became a travelling companion on Paul and Barnabas’ missionary journey from Acts 13:4-14:26 because Mark is next mentioned in Acts 15:37 where, on the second journey, Barnabas is recorded as wanting to take him with them but Paul objects because he
‘...thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work’
where the reference must surely be to one of the first of the cities to which Paul and Barnabas had come after leaving Cyprus (Acts 13:13). Luke records that there arose a ‘sharp contention’ (Acts 15:39) so that Barnabas took with him Mark while Paul opted for Silas and each went to their own chosen destination, the former to Cyprus, the latter to Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:39-41).
This is the last we hear of John called Mark in Luke’s writings and we nowhere learn that he either left the work that Barnabas was doing or that he waited until its completion and then joined himself to Paul’s apostolic band with his permission and blessing.
Having said that, the Mark that Paul refers to is each time associated with Luke, the author of Acts (Col 4:10,14, II Tim 4:11, Philemon 24), and one wonders whether Mark’s notoriety at this point in his life was the reason why Luke chose to mention him in his work. If this identification of Mark with the one of Acts is correct, we should also observe carefully that he’s referred to by Paul (Col 4:10) as
‘...the cousin of Barnabas...’
a demarcation which would offer us a good explanation of why Barnabas might have been willing to overlook or forgive his error at Pamphylia - that is, he was his own family and was making allowances for a momentary weakness because of what he knew about him rather than Paul who had little familial history to fall back on in his assessment of the situation (it would also make the Mary of Acts 12:12 to be Barnabas’ aunt - or else an ‘aunt-in-law’ if that’s an accurate description of the non-blood relationship!).
If the identification is certain, even more significant is II Tim 4:11 for the apostle here urges Timothy to get Mark (who seems to have been ministering alongside him) and to bring him with him when he comes to see Paul because
‘...he is very useful in serving me’
something that’s echoed in his attribution in Col 4:11 as being a ‘fellow worker’.
From one who Paul found it impossible to trust, the apostle now turns to see in him all that Barnabas had envisaged (though, as Colbruce points out, between twelve and fourteen years had elapsed between the two incidents). The only problem, of course, is that we can’t be certain that Luke’s ‘Mark’ is one and the same person as the ‘Mark’ mentioned by Paul, even though the commentators are unanimous in their identification.
Paul’s rather enigmatic explanation that the fellowship had received instructions concerning Mark (which would imply an earlier note of correspondence from the hand of the apostle himself or, at least, from someone close to him so that he knew it was being sent) and that
‘...if he comes to you, receive him’
can only realistically be understood in any context that’s known if Luke and Paul’s ‘Mark’ are one of the same person. In this context, we might assume that some warning had already been given to the fellowship which corrected an earlier statement (as Colwright) or, perhaps, still wary of the fellow worker’s weakness that had raised it’s head in Pamphylia, Paul was careful to define the parameters within which he was to be accepted to work on their behalf amongst them. Colbrien theorises that
‘Perhaps Mark at this stage was only slowly winning back his reputation in the Pauline churches and needs Paul’s special plea...’
Of course, this reason may not be the one behind Paul’s words at all but it seems to be the only one which could plausibly explain his comments from other places in the NT.
There are just three references to individuals named ‘Justus’ in the NT and each one of them relates to a totally different person. In Acts 1:23, ‘Justus’ is mentioned as being the surname of a Joseph who was one of the two disciples who were put forward to take the place of Judas Iscariot. And, in Acts 18:7, a man by the name of Titius Justus is mentioned in the city of Corinth who was a ‘worshipper of God’, a title which seems to be a betrayal of him as being a non-Jew.
Finally, in Col 4:11, we have a man by the name of Jesus - or, more correctly, ‘Joshua’ in the Aramaic which would have been translated into the Greek as ‘Jesus’ - who was nicknamed ‘Justus’ for some fairly practical reasons that they found it either distasteful or uncomfortable to refer to him by the same name as that of the Saviour. Colbrien notes that the new name was a common first century one amongst both proselytes to Judaism and natural born Jews.
All we know about him is that he was both a Jew and a fellow worker of Paul’s in the proclamation of the Gospel. Indeed, if Paul hadn’t made it an issue to speak of those workers with him who were fellow Jews because of the scarcity of them around him, we might never have known of his existence. Whether he was a local believer who’d been converted or one of his travelling companions who goes without mention is impossible to say - but we might theorise that he departed soon after the letter was written or arrived shortly before it had been begun because his name doesn’t appear in the list of those present with Paul in Philemon. This is a total stab in the dark, of course, and shouldn’t be accepted as even remotely based upon ‘fact’!
Finally, we should note Paul’s summation of the three men mentioned as being
‘...the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God and they have been a comfort to me’
We’ve already commented on the first couple of descriptions of them as being both Jews (some would see Paul’s descriptor of them as referring to their presence amongst the ‘denomination’ of those called ‘the circumcision party’ but this needn’t be pressed as the apostle seems to have had a great deal against such a group of men when Galatians is consulted) and fellow workers, but we need to say a few words about Paul’s last observation that they’d been a comfort to him because the implication is that it’s as Jews that the comfort has been extended.
The Greek word behind ‘comfort’ (Strongs Greek word 3931) - a word which occurs only once in the entire NT - is noted by Vines as being employed to denote
‘...medicines which allay irritation’
and so gets the meaning of the word used as being ‘a soothing, solace’. Colcar interprets Paul’s meaning as inferring a comfort in the apostle’s affliction where he seems to have imprisonment in mind but, as there’s no direct application of what ‘affliction’ is being described, we might think of it not only as being intended to refer to his incarceration but even to the events which had befallen him in the city in which he was now imprisoned through his work in proclaiming the Gospel.
The idea of pain or discomfort being present which they had gone a great way to alleviate seems implied by the word, however. Perhaps we might think not so much of the comfort being given to Paul as being a product of their depth of feeling that others failed to have but because they were fellow Jews who had a similar upbringing and so could associate with him in a much deeper way than any Gentile was able to do in that place.
Perhaps it’s because they ‘spoke his language’ that they were such a benefit to him in much the same way as travellers take great delight in encountering men and women from their own particular nation and of conversing with them about the concerns of their own culture. In that case, we might envisage the apostle as being a little ‘home sick’ for his fellow countrymen and finding it allayed by their presence around him.
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