Sometimes it’s easy to forget that ‘the church’ is made up of individual people. Everyone has their own story, and their own connections. This little section in the letter, when Paul – whose piece of papyrus is probably running out of space – is firing off some quickfire messages, is a great reminder that what we are dealing with here is not just ‘an apostle’ and ‘a church’ but an intricate fabric of friendships and connections. As such, they give us a wonderful insight into the personal world of the early Christians.
Of the six individuals named in today’s passage, only Justus is mentioned nowhere else (this is a different Justus to the one in Acts 18:7). The other five appear in other places, all connected to Paul in significant ways. Aristarchus and Tychicus are both close associates and fellow ministers with Paul. They act as representatives of the early church communities, journeying with Paul to Jerusalem with the financial aid collected from around Paul’s missionary work (Acts 20:4).
But their importance to Paul goes further: Aristarchus was with Paul when he was seized by the Ephesian mob (Acts 19:29) and Tychicus is the one tasked with bringing this letter directly from Paul to Colosse (v7), commended by Paul here in the warmest possible terms – a task he also fulfilled taking Paul’s famous letter to Ephesus (Ephesians 6:21-22).
Onesimus is a freed slave who became the unwitting subject of Paul’s letter to Philemon. In that letter, Paul testifies to how much Onesimus has helped him while he was in prison – no doubt the same spell in chains that Paul refers to in this letter to the Colossian believers.
Most intriguing of all are the references to Mark and Barnabas. Barnabas is a major figure in the church and was instrumental in launching Paul’s ministry. It was Barnabas who commended Paul to the apostles in Jerusalem after Paul first came to faith (Acts 9:27) and then found Paul living quietly in Tarsus and took him to Antioch, where Paul’s ministry of preaching and evangelism first took off (Acts 11:25-26).
Paul and Barnabas then set off on what became Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3) and they planned again on a second, but Paul refused to take Mark as he hadn’t lasted the course on the first journey, while Barnabas – ever the encourager – wanted to give him a second chance (Acts 15:36-41). It led to Paul and Barnabas parting ways, but this little snippet (v10) gives us two special insights: first, Mark was Barnabas’ cousin. Given what we know of Barnabas, I think it’s likely he would have stuck by Mark anyway – but the fact that he was family makes it easier to see why he backed Mark even at the risk of falling out with Paul.
Second, whatever had happened in the past was clearly healed. Mark was now visiting Paul in prison, and Paul instructs the Colossian church to welcome him (v10). It’s an affirming story of grace and restoration. Indeed, these personal snippets complement the heavy-duty teaching of Paul’s letters, revealing a group of believers who love and support each other, and face great challenges together. Take a moment today to remember your Tychicuses, Barnabases and Marks – and may those memories and relationships prove a comfort (v11) to you, too.