It was the day that I lifted eight large bags of concrete that I noticed something change in my lower abdomen. A lump that had not previously been part of my physiology was now clearly present, and it was causing some measure of pain. Over the following weeks, I saw doctors, who all agreed that I had an inguinal hernia. It was distressing because I don't like asking for help. I like doing as much for myself as possible. This change began to force me in a new direction.
When she found out, my grandmother called to tell me her father, who was a poor farmer in Blooming Grove, Texas, wore a hernia belt for forty years as he worked on the farm. They had no other choice in previous centuries, though now we have new options. surgery, surgery, and/or surgery. That's pretty much it. If you want to fix a hernia, it's got to be operated on. If it was going to be operated on, I knew there was going to be a period of time that I was going to be helpless.
So, toward the end of the frightening COVID quarantine, I scheduled a hernia surgery. The experience of that surgery is a set of stories for another day, but from the time of me coming out of surgery until this very moment, whilst I sit on my back porch writing this line, I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude, excitement, and hope. There has been some pain to contend with, but overwhelmingly, the thing that I've had to get used to was that I needed help. I couldn't be the rugged individualist that I usually was. For the week following surgery, I had to rely on my wife and family for everything. I'm learning the value of a team.
It was the day after my surgery that I got interested in the book of Colossians. I was sitting on my porch, trying to get my mind off of the pain, when I pulled out my Bible. Opening to Colossians, for a reason I'm not sure I know, I found the words refreshing. I've read it before, probably multiple times, but this time it stuck to me like honey. I read it through a handful of times that day, as the pain medicine quieted the whine of my recent incision. I was struck by its poetic beauty and theological power. This little book, a letter really, has loads to teach us about a range of subjects.
There was something I noticed as I read it. Paul was at a point when he was almost completely helpless. He was locked in a house in Rome under arrest. The last chapter, which we will look at in a moment, hints that Paul had to learn the same kind of lesson I was learning the week after my surgery. He had to rely on others. He had no other choice. For Paul, it took a team to accomplish God’s work.
On the road to Damascus, a powerful individual named Saul was on his way to torture the members of a new religious cult. Popularly called The Way, its adherents claimed that the prophesied Messiah had indeed arrived. Though in an unexpected turn of events, the would-be Christ was killed, only to stay dead a short time. At least that's what they said.
This was not the Messiah Saul had long envisioned since he was a child. Saul was named for a former king of Israel, who stood a head taller than any other man. Saul himself was similar, although his stature was demonstrated by his rigid devotion to God. He was an important character, climbing the competitive ranks of the Jewish hierarchy. Later in his life, he would describe this period of his life in this way:
If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; regarding the law, a Pharisee; regarding zeal, persecuting the church; regarding the righteousness that is in the law, blameless. (Phil. 3:4-6 CSB)
Saul lived in a world of famous Rabbis, all vying for the grandest stature. Saul had studied under the greatest individual of them all, Gamaliel. Thus he stood to inherit the ruling reigns of Pharisee leadership one day. His was a way of rivalry. The rivalry was his means of personal advancement. Advancement was his path to rule.
What kind of Messiah would pick out a group of uneducated weaklings, then disappear into heaven, leaving his dubious disciples to do all the work? Saul was a man of individualism, rivalry, and power. This so-called Christ was offering to share his throne with co-rulers, those who showed kindness instead of rivalry, compassion in place of advancement, and service in place of rulership. Saul could not stand the idea of a Messiah who used such deplorable people on his team.
Now all of Judea was in an uproar about a resurrected savior named Jesus from none other than little reeking Nazareth. This horrendous falsehood was now spreading from the epicenter of Jewish life to its more fragile edges, where abhorrent and deviant views often took root. Saul, and Saul alone, had to stop this terrible shift in the Jewish world he planned to reign over one day.
With blinding light and frightening sound, Saul's world was changed. The Lord, whose message of free eternal life Saul sought to stanch was before him on the road in magnificent array. Saul was blinded by the incandescent blaze and shortly thereafter pressed into service by the risen Lord. Over time, Saul's growing ministry to spread the good news of the resurrected Messiah would lead him to some unexpected places.
Saul's world was a divided one. The vast majority of the empire was fractured by spiritual darkness. Temples to filthy foreign gods dotted the hilltops of every Roman and Greek city. The entirety of civilization was in a stranglehold, fastened tight by the demonic powers that rested in the temples of Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis, and the whole lot. The pagan system was one of personal advancement and was largely based on an individual's ability to bargain with the gods.
Though the method was different, the pagan world shared similarities with Saul’s; the cruel persecution of powerful men taking advantage of the masses. There was little semblance of harmony and partnership in the Jewish or pagan world of Saul's time. It was but only servitude. It was subjugation. The pagans and the Jews of the age abused their people in a way similar to each other. No hate was spared between Saul and the pagan world. He would have never imagined that he would one day find himself charging into that pagan world alongside a band, a team, a partnership of wild-eyed weaklings, with God's voice pouring from his every word. In the years that followed Saul's conversion, it became clear that he was chosen by God to carry the message of the Messiah to the pagans. In the gentile world, which was Latin and Greek-speaking, Saul's name was transliterated to Paul.
To do what God had called him to, he could not remain a rivalrous solo act. Though he was often the spokesperson, he was constantly surrounded by an eager group of believers who looked to him for guidance as they worked toward God’s goal.
We often think of him alone, but he wasn't. He was working with a skilled team that he himself built and God-empowered. Paul and his companions began roaming farther afield in the years which followed. In all, he would lead four major missionary journeys. These were vast traveling adventures through Roman cities, with magnificent sounding names like Apollonia, Antioch, Athens, Attalia, and dozens more. These trips relied on the hospitality and kindness of people he met along the way. His team covered thousands of miles, brought the gospel to city after city, and saw the shift of culture and religion in the places where they went.
On the third one of its kind, Paul's missionary journey took his team to a place called Ephesus in Asia. This sits at the western edge of modern-day Turkey. At this point, it would have been about twenty years since he'd seen the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. He's no longer an individualistic maverick but a team leader. Let's take a look at what Dr. Luke, one of his traveling companions, has to say about Paul's visit to Ephesus.
…Paul… came to Ephesus. He found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
“No,” they told him, “we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
“Into what then were you baptized?” he asked them.
“Into John’s baptism,” they replied.
Paul said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people that they should believe in the one who would come after him, that is, in Jesus.”
When they heard this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy. Now there were about twelve men in all. (Acts 19:1-5)
The last line in the passage is important. "Now, there were about twelve men in all." (Acts 19:15) Notice anything familiar? Maybe not so different from Jesus, Paul just built a twelve-man ministry team. It's this team that he will now use to grow the work in the area. This is why I'm saying, “It takes a team to do God's work.”
Paul leads these twelve Jewish men to the Lord, and something amazing began to happen. Just like he had planted in many other cities of the empire, this was the beginning of the church in Ephesus. Luke goes on:
Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly over a period of three months, arguing and persuading them about the kingdom of God. (Acts 19:8)
It's significant that Paul goes and speaks at the synagogue only after he has converted a whole team of new believers. How do you think he got the invite to the synagogue? I strongly suspect that his new team of disciples had something to do with that. These twelve members of the synagogue likely plied their influence to get Paul a speaking spot. See, it takes a team. Let's see what happens next.
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. (Acts 19:8-10)
Notice that when things go poorly at the synagogue, Paul doesn't abandon his team. Instead, Luke tells us, "taking the disciples." He moved, with his team, to a new location. He did this because he needed them. What he was about to do was going to take a team to accomplish.
This region of Asia was intensely religious. Both philosophy and paganism were deeply rooted in the area. A man named Tyrannus had a lecture hall, which was probably a place for philosophical lectures to take place. Apparently, Tyrannus became a believer and offered up his location for the spot of this new church plant to sprout. That's teamwork at work. One of Paul's new team had the resources needed. See: it takes a team.
People came from far and wide from all over Asia. I believe that it was at this time that a man named Epaphras came to listen to Paul's daily lectures. More about that in a while. At this point, I want us to remember this. If Paul had insisted on being a solo act, then he would not have received this opportunity. He was able to excel because he was willing to rely on the resources of the local team he was building. Luke continues in Acts 19:
God was performing extraordinary miracles by Paul's hands so that even facecloths or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, and the diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them. (Acts 19:11-12)
It's easy to focus on Paul in this verse because it's the hankies that touched Paul's skin, which were used to do miracles. However, that's missing what the verse says. Luke said, "facecloths… were brought to the sick." God wanted Paul's team to reach more people than Paul could physically interact with on his own. So Paul's team was employed to carry power napkins to the sick. This was a team-minded approach that allowed the message to spread farther than Paul would have been able to accomplish on his own. It takes a team. Let's take a look at some folks that don't understand the team mentality. A few verses later, Luke tells us this:
About that time, there was a major disturbance about the Way. For a person named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis… said, "…Not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia, this man Paul has persuaded and misled a considerable number of people…" (Acts 19:23-27)
Paganism fights back! Paul's teamwork has had a wide-ranging effect. It's not just in Ephesus but in Asia as a whole. A near-riot follows this speech. The town comes together, and they want to rip Paul apart. They want blood. Once again, in the story, we see the strength of the team that Paul has built. There was an amphitheater filled with an angry shouting mob. Luke says:
Although Paul wanted to go in before the people, the disciples did not let him. (Acts 19:30)
Notice that Paul is not a dictator. Sure, he was an apostle, but there were things his team kept him from doing. Even an apostle needs the good sense his team members sometimes offer. Eventually, the situation calmed down.
After being there about two and a half years and ushering in a new wave of Christianity in the region, Paul determined that it was about time for him to leave. Luke explains:
After these events, Paul resolved... to go to Jerusalem. “After I’ve been there,” he said, “It is necessary for me to see Rome as well.” (Acts 19:21)
Paul would soon ride on to Jerusalem. There he would be arrested and shortly thereafter sent to Rome, but what happened in Asia after Paul left? Did his team dissolve, or did they go on doing the work?
There are some gaps here, which I will attempt to fill in with as much as we know. Apparently, while in the area of Asia, Paul met a man named Epaphras. We don't know much about the man himself, but Paul did. In fact, Paul called him:
Ephphras, our dearly loved fellow servant. (Col. 1:7)
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus. (Phim. 1:23 )
Paul was fond of Epaphras, not the least part because he worked with Paul in the ministry. He was a team member. Working relationships, especially when the work is important and passionate, are some of the strongest. Paul clearly considered Epaphras, a dear fellow worker. We know another thing about Epaphras, though. We know where he was from. Paul says:
Epaphras, who is one of you… (Col. 4:12)
Epaphras is from Colossae. Colossae is in Asia Minor, not far from Ephesus. Ephesus was a neighboring city to Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. Somewhere along Paul's journey's in Asia Minor, Epaphras met Paul. Epaphras joined Paul's ministry team, and they worked together while Paul was present.
Where did Paul and Epaphras meet? I don't know, though I suspect that it may have been in Ephesus. Ephesus was within a few day's journey from Colossae, where Epaphras was from. Now, I believe that Epaphras probably met Paul during those two years that Paul was doing his daily lectures at Tyrannus' venue.
Once Paul left, what did Epaphras do? We have more certainty on the answer to this question because Paul says it:
…you heard it and came to truly appreciate God's grace. You learned this from Epaphras, our dearly loved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has told us about your love in the Spirit. (Col. 1:6-8)
We don't have any evidence that Paul ever visited Colossae, Hierapolis, or Laodicea. Yet, churches sprouted there none the less. This could only happen if Paul had a team in place to continue and expand the work. After getting to know Paul, Epaphras planted the church in Colossae.
Apparently, Epaphras didn't just start a church in Colossae, but he spread the word beyond his own town to the cities nearby. Paul explains in the same letter:
Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you greetings… For I testify about him that he works hard for you, for those in Laodicea, and for those in Hierapolis. (Col. 4:12-13)
So Epaphras is a local boy. He started a church in Colossae, and now his work has expanded beyond Colossae to Laodicea and Hierapolis as well. Though it would grow, First Church Of Laodicea was still a house church. Paul says:
Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea and to Nympha and the church in her home. (Col. 4:15)
Nympha is a homeowner who hosts a house church. The minister of the home church in Laodecia was a man named Archippus. Right after mentioning the home church in Nympha's house, Paul says:
And tell Archippus, "Pay attention to the ministry you have received in the Lord so that you can accomplish it." (Col. 4:17)
In addition to Nympha and Archippus, apparently, Onesimus is also a local believer.
Onesimus, a faithful and dearly loved brother, who is one of you… (Col. 4:9)
Not only did Paul build a team which included Epaphras when he was in Asia, but I believe that Epaphras did the same by building a team that included Nympha, Archippus, Onesimus, and others. Success in the Christian endeavors takes a team, doesn't it?
By the time the Laodicean and Colossians churches were off the ground, Paul's life had drastically changed. In the years that those churches grew, Paul found himself under house arrest waiting for his trial in the massive city of Rome. While under house arrest, Paul would have visitors from all over the world. He had made three missionary journeys by that point and had met hundreds if not thousands who loved and supported him. His team of ministers was absolutely massive.
It seems that while Paul was under house arrest, his good friend Epaphras came to visit, probably seeking guidance and for an extended stay. After all, that's what team members do; they support each other. In the ancient world, the provisions of prisoners had to be paid for and delivered by loved ones. The state didn't provide food, clothing, or arrangements for those in jail. This might have been part of the role Epaphras came to take care of for Paul while he was under arrest. Even in jail, it takes a team.
When Epaphras arrived, Paul would have been elated, ecstatic, overjoyed. It wouldn't be long before Paul wants to hear about what's happening in Epaphras' neck of the woods. Paul knows that Epaphras is a pastor for three towns in Asia Minor. As they catch up, Paul hears some disturbing news.
We don't know how this conversation went. It's speculation at best. However, the letter that results from Epaphras's visit clues us in on some of the problems in Colossae and Laodicea. I imagine it might have gone something like this:
“It’s so good to see you, Epaphras. Thank you for coming!” Paul says.
"You came to Asia; I thought I should return the favor," Epaphras says as he looks around at the accommodations. "Is Rome treating you well?"
"Ahh, I get into trouble everywhere I go, you know that." Paul jokes. "Otherwise, they wouldn't have to keep me under lock and key."
“Yours is the kind of trouble the world needs.”
"Yes, well, what's the news from Colossae?" Paul says as they find their way to two chairs near Paul's small cot and collection of writing materials.
“The church is strong, but there are some problems,” Epaphras explains.
“Tell me what’s going on.”
"It's hard to keep the message clear. It seems like every week there is a new idea that muddies the water,” Epaphras says.
“What are some of the things they are saying?” Paul asks.
"The few Jews we have are always pressuring the gentiles to follow the law. It's a constant argument. The gentiles feel guilty and often start to give in only to get frustrated, feeling as if they can't live up to the expectations. Then it decays into bickering about which laws, if any, need to be kept,” Epaphras explains.
“What else?” Paul says.
"Well, those who grew up pagan, as I did, constantly seem to be tempted to dethrone Christ."
“What do you mean?” Paul asks.
"Coming up in paganism, it's easy to go back to that old way of thinking. Some of the believers keep bringing up the idea that Jesus was just another god among many gods. Some say we should worship angels along with Christ. There's a huge argument going on about it right now. Was he God, or was he just a man?" Epaphras says.
“Is there anything else?” Paul asks.
"Yes. There is a new philosophy that is cropping up everywhere in Asia. It claims that there is this mysterious knowledge that we don't have access to unless we… do something or other. I don't know. It's not clear. It comes from a group that is very secretive, and they do things behind closed doors. Though their ideas are seeping into our meetings, it seems like every week I'm having to squash arguments about whether or not there are more mysteries that only the elite have access to."
"Yeah, all of that bothers me," Paul says, stroking his beard.
“I wish you could come and straighten us out,” Epaphras says, knowing that Paul is unable to leave.
“No, God has me here for now.”
"I know, but if they could only hear you in person…" Epaphras says, trailing off.
"I will write a letter," Paul says. "I'd like to address the things you've mentioned."
“That would be great! I was planning to stay here for a while, though.”
"Once I'm done, I could send it back with Tychicus and Onesimus. Onesimus is a hometown boy; he's going home to face Philemon." Paul says.
“Oh, wow!” Epaphras says, knowing the potential consequences.
"Yes, they are traveling that way soon to deliver some letters I have written, as well, so I'm sure they can carry this one too."
Seeing an opportunity, Epaphras sparks, "I've been talking to Archippus. You remember him, right? He's ministering in the next city over, Laodicea, at the church that meets in Nympha's house,” Epaphras says.
“Ahh, yes. How is Archippus?” Paul says.
"He is getting very tired and frustrated. The same things we see in Colossae are happening there as well, but he is growing impatient."
“I will write a letter to them as well,” Paul says resolutely.
This is fictionalized. Who knows how this conversation went? Maybe it was longer, shorter, or some other adjective that I haven't thought of. Though, it seems very likely that Epaphras explained to Paul the various kinds of troubles that he saw in the churches where he ministered in Colossae and Laodicea.
With an explanation of the heresies that were creeping into those churches, Paul was able to craft a letter that would precisely direct their misconceptions and reconstruct a right understanding of Christ. Here are the opening lines of the letter:
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, and Timothy our brother: To the saints in Christ at Colossae, who are faithful brothers and sisters. Grace to you and peace from God our Father. (Col. 1:1-2)
Even in his opening, he doesn't take sole credit for the letter, saying that it comes from him and Timothy. Paul is a teamwork kind of guy.
I want to skip ahead and take a look at some of the things that Paul says at the end of Colossians. Once again, you'll see how this bit of business demonstrates his teamwork mentality. As you read this, consider the size and scope of the team that Paul is calling on to help the Colossians church:
Tychicus, our dearly loved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord, will tell you all the news about me. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and so that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, a faithful and dearly loved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here. Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you greetings, as does Mark, Barnabas's cousin (concerning whom you have received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him), and so does Jesus, who is called Justus… Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you greetings… he works hard for you, for those in Laodicea, and for those in Hierapolis. Luke, the dearly loved physician, and Demas send you greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea and to Nympha and the church in her home… And tell Archippus, "Pay attention to the ministry you have received in the Lord so that you can accomplish it." I, Paul, am writing this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. (Col. 4:7-18)
Often we get the idea that Paul is a solo character who is slaving away at a writing desk by himself. However, in these kinds of greetings, we see that he has a team of people who are active and passionate about doing the work he's so eagerly trying to accomplish. He's absolutely surrounded by team members. He'd have to be to do what he did.
Getting a letter from Paul was incredibly important. So important, in fact, that generation after generation of believers would hand copy and preserve the letter. Even this took a team of motivated people. Our knowledge about Christ is richer and deeper because of what is written in the letter of Colossians, but that letter wouldn’t be available if it weren’t for a huge group of people who dictated, delivered, circulated, verified, and preserved it. It takes a team to accomplish God’s work.
I want to make this personal for us. How well do we work as a team? Do you resist teamwork? Do you fight to be the sole spiritual act on the stage? Do you resist bothering other people with your troubles?
I do. Since I was young, I have struggled to be a teamwork-oriented minister. I've always tried to do things myself. I'm learning. The church I serve at, in a brilliant move, recognized that I'm a teacher but not a good administrator. They saw fit to hire an administrative pastor, which has made a world of difference. I'm learning to rely on the team.
The same is true in my writing and Bible study ministry. We produce materials. It’s tempting for me to go be alone and produce Bible study books. Though, I’ve found that the work we do is better when we do it together.
In my spiritual life, it's true too. I had years when I refused to be vulnerable and honest with other believers about what I was struggling with. Ultimately I struggled more because I refused to join the team. I believed I could be an individualist and succeed in the Christian life. I was wrong. I've learned that the sins, which were such a burden, I should have shared with other believers.
We need to take a clue from Paul. He started out as a rigid individualist, taking on the world one persecution at a time. Christ changed him, over time, into an international world-changer who worked with a massive team of dedicated believers. He came to understand that it takes a team to accomplish God's work. He allowed loads of people to be involved. He encouraged and empowered them to work alongside him. He allowed his weaknesses to be filled by those who had strength.
What areas of your life do you need to begin to rely on a team of believers? What areas of your life have you tried to go alone for too long? How can you begin to become more like Paul, a team builder who relies on those whom he comes to trust?