Learning from Paul’s Spiritual Shoutouts

I didn’t realize my muscles were tense until the small pop of the sealed white envelope. The host read the winner silently to themselves, then out loud to the waiting world.

I watch the Academy Awards, in part, to hear professionals acknowledge the best movies of the year. Part of me also watches because I'm fascinated by the speeches and by hearing who winners publicly acknowledge and thank. Who will be listed in their shoutouts—family, friends, co-workers? Winners' shoutouts are usually a combination of the three, because no one makes it to the top on their own.

Though these shoutouts are the best part of the Oscars to me, they're easy to miss. After all, we know who won. Finding out who the winners are is the main attraction. the meat of the show. That makes the simple shoutouts at the end of speeches almost like an afterthought.

The same is true of Paul's letters. The most glossed-over sections of Paul’s epistles are the endings. After drinking from the fountain of rich theology, we fumble to pronounce a long list of names of people we know little to nothing about. I call these Paul’s spiritual shoutouts.

If we're willing to listen carefully, these spiritual shoutouts contain rich principles from Paul's personal ministry and life in the early church.

NEVER GO IT ALONE

When I was six years old, my neighborhood friend Bethany and I followed a cat that appeared to be in some sort of trance into the woods behind our house. When we looked up, we were surrounded by dampened leaves that looked like they were waving to us in the wind. We meandered home, following the creek that led to our house. When my parents asked if I was afraid, I said with surprising confidence, “No, Bethany was with me.”

We instinctively know that “two is better than one” (Eccl. 4:9), but in an individualistic culture, it’s easy to operate as spiritual lone rangers. We try to accomplish the ministry God has given us in our own power. We find it hard to ask for assistance when we need it. Perhaps, if we're in a leadership position, we become nervous to delegate important tasks, fearing the quality of the work will suffer. We revel in the pride of knowing we accomplished something without the help of others.

If there was ever a man who seemed like he could fulfill the Great Commission on his own, it was Paul. His entrepreneurial spirit (see Rom. 15:20), boldness, and zeal made it so that he could have justified (by an earthly standard) doing the work of God alone. However, Paul knew God’s kingdom could not be advanced through the will and zeal of one man or even a few people. Even Jesus himself appointed seventy-two disciples and sent them out in twos ahead of him (Luke 10:1).

In Colossians 4:7-17 and Romans 16, Paul leaves a paper trail of ministry partners. In these and other letters, we indirectly learn he never worked alone. He did God’s work with God’s people. Some of these men and women get a brief mention in the final section of Paul’s letters, though we don't know the extent of their labor and sacrifice for God’s kingdom. Aristarchus was with Paul in prison (Col. 4:10). Paul affirms Epaphras’ prayers for the people of Colossae’s maturity (Col. 4:12). It's clear that Paul had deep relationships with these fellow workers. In Romans 16, he refers to Prisca and Aquilla, Urbanus, and Timothy as his “coworkers” in Christ Jesus, which describes one who labors with another for the cause of Christ.

We cannot and should not do the work of ministry alone. Jesus announced the Great Commission to a group of people, not individually to men and women to fulfill on their own. As God’s people, they were charged together to makes disciples of all nations. And in the early church, as they devoted themselves to teaching, fellowship, and prayer with one another, the Lord added to their numbers (Acts 2:42-47). The mission of God advances through the collective people of God by the power of God.

THE BEAUTY OF EMBODIED FELLOWSHIP

In a time where it’s easier to text someone than sit down for a meal, we can subtly lose the necessity of embodied communication. It's clear in Paul’s spiritual shout-outs that he was with many of these men and women in person and his knowledge of them spanned beyond superficial pleasantries. He spoke specifically to them.

In Colossians 4:17, Paul instructs Archippus to “pay attention to the ministry you have received in the Lord, so that [he could] accomplish it.” And though it’s not in his final greetings, Paul instructs Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach issues (1 Tim. 5:23). He loved and cared for these men and women, and when he was absent from them, he longed to be face to face with them again.

We were created to be with people in person. Embedded in the scriptures is the longing of its writers to be with God’s people (Rom. 1:11; 3 John 1:14; 2 Tim.1:4). When embodied fellowship is our reality, there is deep rejoicing. In these moments, we are comforted (Rom. 12:15), encouraged (Heb. 10:24-25), and challenged (Prov. 27:6). When embodied fellowship is absent, we long for it. We recognize we need one another to flourish and to run with endurance.

We endure by living obediently to Hebrews 10:24 and not neglecting to meet together but encouraging one another. We are commanded to continue meeting together. The original hearers would have known this meant a face-to-face, embodied meeting.

The heartbeat of the Christian faith is that Jesus left his throne in heaven and dwelt among us in bodily form. John 1:14 says, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (emphasis added). God was physically present among his followers; they didn't see him through a screen or a tweet, but they touched and interacted with the God of the universe in person.

DIVERSITY IN THE EARLY CHURCH

If Paul invited his friends and ministry partners to his home for a meal, we have some idea who would have been around the table. Paul's kitchen table would have been diverse because his relationships were diverse.

In our sin, humans build many walls to separate ourselves—gender, ethnicity, class, and more. In Christ, these distinctions don't evaporate at our conversion, but they are no longer to be dividing walls we use to separate ourselves into more comfortable, homogenous groups. The reconciling nature of the gospel unites us to God and his people.

Paul’s relationships were a small picture of this reality. In his spiritual shoutouts, we see Paul had relationships with people of different classes. Onesimus, a runaway slave, is called a fellow brother (Col. 4:9) and is in the same list of names as Nympha, who had a home large enough to hold a church. Paul labored alongside both men and women (Nympha, Priscilla, Phoebe, and others), all critical in his ministry work. In Colossians 4, we learn Paul’s relationships included ethnic distinctions—Onesimus (9) and Epaphras (12) are from Colossae, and Mark (10) and Jesus who is called Justus (11) are of the circumcision party (that is, Jewish Christians). Paul’s table would have been a small representation of the beauty of heaven.

STAY FOR THE SHOUTOUTS

The next time you read Paul’s closing remarks, be reminded of the men and women who have gone before us in advancing God’s Kingdom. Like the Oscar speeches, read them with a sense of wonder as you remember those names.

In doing so, we are joined to a rich heritage of fellow workers, many of whom the world is not worthy (Heb. 11:38).


SharDavia “Shar” Walker lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband Paul. She serves on staff with Campus Outreach, an interdenominational college ministry, and enjoys sharing her faith and discipling college women to be Christian leaders. Shar is a writer and a speaker and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Christian Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can find more of her writings at https://www.sharwalker.com/.