By Gordon Franz
Queen Victoria, the longest reigning monarch of the British Empire during the 19th century, reportedly said: “I thank God for the letter M”. As a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, she knew I Cor. 1:26. It says: “For you see your calling brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.” The verse did not say not any noble, but rather, not many. Because there was an “m” in front of “any”, she was included in those who were called to Christian service. She was used of the Lord during her lengthy reign.
Aristarchus’ name hints at a noble birth or an aristocratic upbringing. Yet he was one whom God called to a nobler pursuit, the work of the ministry, and was used mightily for His glory.
Aristarchus the Thessalonian
The name Aristarchus was a common Macedonian name and means “best ruling”. The word “aristocrat” is at the root of his name (Thomas 1983-84:150). One gets the distinct impression that he was born into a noble family and would have been part of the ruling class.
Aristarchus was a Diaspora Jew living in the free Greek city of Thessalonica in the Province of Macedonia. His name appears three times in the Book of Acts. The first time Aristarchus appears in Scripture, he is identified as a Macedonian (19:29). The second time he is mentioned, it is stated that he is a Thessalonian (20:4). The final time he appears, he is identified as a Macedonian of Thessalonica (27:2). The Apostle Paul, when he wrote to the church in Colosse states that Aristarchus was “of the circumcision”, i.e. of Jewish heritage (Col. 4:10, 11; contra Thomas 1983-84: 150).
Scripture is silent as to when and how Aristarchus came to faith in the Lord Jesus. The first record of a gospel witness in Thessalonica was around AD 50 when Paul, Silas and Timothy visited the city during the second missionary journey of the Apostle Paul (Acts 17:1-9, 13).
Dr. Luke recounts that there was “a synagogue of the Jews [in Thessalonica]. Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ was to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.’ And some of them were persuaded” (Acts 17:1-4). Those persuaded included Jewish people in the synagogue as well as devout Greeks and leading women, apparently part of the aristocracy of the city (17:4).
It is quite possible that Aristarchus came to faith in the Lord Jesus as his Messiah during the ministry of Paul, Silas and Timothy; or, if his mother was one of the “leading women”, she could have shared the gospel with him and he trusted Christ as his Savior.
Aristarchus is an example of a believer exercising spiritual gifts
One individual has speculated that the person going to Corinth with Titus in AD 56 was Aristarchus (Redlich 1913: 217-218). Paul describes this un-named brother as one “whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches, and not only that, but who was also chosen by the churches to travel with us with this gift” (II Cor. 8:18, 19). The words “to travel with us” is the Greek word “sunekdemos“. This word appears only one other time in the New Testament and that is in Acts 19:29. In this passage the two Macedonians, Gaius and Aristarchus, are described as “Paul’s travel companions”. While the connection with Aristarchus is based on the rare use of the word, if this logic is followed, Gaius could also be the unnamed brother.
But let’s assume for a minute that the unnamed brother is Aristarchus. What could we learn from this passage? His praise, or proclamation, was in the gospel. In other words, he was an evangelist. About seven years after he had come to faith in the Lord Jesus he was actively involved in the work of the Lord and exercising his spiritual gift of an evangelist (Eph. 4:11).
The Spirit of God has given each believer in the Lord Jesus Christ at least one spiritual gift (some may have more). These gifts were given to the Body of Christ in order to profit all in the Body and to build up the Body of Christ numerically and spiritually (Rom. 12:3-8; I Cor. 12:4-14:40; Eph. 4:7-16). Each believer should seek to determine what spiritual gift they have and to exercise that gift to God’s honor and glory.
Aristarchus is an example of a believer being persecuted for righteousness’ sake
The Lord Jesus instructed His disciples when He gave the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11, 12). The Apostle Paul would later write: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (II Tim. 3:12). These words would become personal to Aristarchus and his fellow Macedonian, Gaius.
The Apostle Paul had a very effective ministry in Ephesus for two years and three months during his third missionary journey (AD 52-55). It began in the synagogue of Ephesus, but moved to the School of Tyrannus where he, Timothy and others discipled younger men in Biblical theology, evangelism and church planting (cf. II Tim. 2:2). This ministry was so effective that Dr. Luke reported, “that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10).
It is at this point that Aristarchus first appears in the Book of Acts. He and Gaius, his fellow Thessalonians, are described as Paul’s “traveling companions.” One wonders if they had come to faith during Paul’s visit to their hometown during his second missionary journey and then traveled with him as disciples in Paul’s “seminary on the road” with “on the job training” for three or four years. Or, were they laboring with Paul in the School of Tyrannus and traveling with him when he made short trips outside the city. Scripture is silent with regards to their travels.
The city of Ephesus was one of the major trade centers in the ancient world. It was also the location of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis / Diana. Tourist and pilgrims would flock from all over the Greco-Roman world to visit this magnificent edifice to the goddess of the hunt. As with any religious tourist attraction, people would be hawking their wares and trying to make money off the shrine. The gospel, the power of God (Rom. 1:16), began to affect the economy of this tourist attraction. So much so, that the silversmiths who had a lucrative idol-manufacturing business making silver trinkets and shrines to sell to the religious pilgrim / tourist began to lose money because people were following the Lord Jesus and not worshipping Artemis. This defection occurred not only in Ephesus, but throughout the Province of Asia Minor.
The shop foreman of the silversmith trade union, Demetrius by name, organized a mob action in conjunction with other craft unions. They met in the large theater of the city, with seating capacity for 25,000 spectators, in order to protest their economic downturn. Demetrius incited the mob by reminding them that they made their lucrative livelihood off the tourist that visit the Temple of Artemis. He pointed a finger at the apostle Paul for turning people away from the temple because he said that those things made with hands are not gods. Demetrius ratcheted up his rhetoric by defending the honor of the goddess and saying the Temple of Artemis would be despised throughout the Greco-Roman world (Acts 19:24-27). The crowd in its frenzy shouted with one accord for two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians”.1
During the uproar in Ephesus, the union thugs manhandled Gaius and Aristarchus and dragged them into the theater (Acts 19: 29). Paul, in his holy boldness, wanted to confront the mod in the theater. His disciples, and friendly government officials (the Asiarchs), thought otherwise and strongly advised Paul not to venture forth into the theater for fear the mob might do him bodily harm. It took the city clerk to quiet the mob and finally disperse them (19:35-41). Presumably Gaius and Aristarchus were released after cooler heads prevailed.
One writer has observed: “When the gospel begins to have a real impact on people and society, as it was beginning to do at Ephesus, their opposition from those who have vested interests is likely to be aroused. As someone has cryptically put it: ‘You cannot be the salt of the earth without smarting someone.'” He went on to say, “Whenever the Christian ethic challenges social evils it will meet with opposition from those who stand to gain from them” (Thomas 1983-84: 151). Another example of opposition to the gospel because of economic considerations is when Paul cast the demons out of the slave girl at Philippi. Her handlers were very upset because they were losing money in that she could no longer tell fortunes (Acts 16:16-24).
After the uproar, the Apostle Paul realized the severity of the situation and its dangers, and departed from Ephesus (II Cor. 1:8). His first stop was Macedonia. Most likely Aristarchus and Gaius left with him and returned to Thessalonica. Paul probably went to Illyricum before he went to Greece for three months (Acts 20:1-3; Rom. 15:19).
Aristarchus is an example of a believer who is entrusted with responsibility by the people of his assembly
Aristarchus, along with six other men from Macedonia and Asia Minor, accompanied Paul and Luke to Jerusalem with the collection from the Gentile churches in that region to the saints in Jerusalem (Acts 20:4; Acts 24: 17; I Cor. 16: 1-4; II Cor. 8 and 9). Aristarchus and Secundus were the representatives from the assembly in Thessalonica and both were esteemed and trusted brothers.
Trust is something that is earned, and not arbitrarily bestowed upon somebody. Amongst Christians, when a person proves his character by demonstrating integrity, honesty, faithfulness, hard work, trustworthiness and so forth, more responsibility is bestowed upon him by the local assembly. It must have been a great honor for these two brothers to accompany the collection to Jerusalem and to see the joy on the faces of the believers in Jerusalem when the gift arrived.
Aristarchus is an example of a believer who followed Jesus’ instructions to work in teams
Aristarchus apparently stays in the Province of Judea for the two years while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea by the Sea (Acts 24:27). When Paul appealed to Caesar and his request is granted by King Agrippa II and the procurator Festus he is placed on a ship of Adramyttium, Dr. Luke and Aristarchus book passage on the same ship as well (Acts 21:1, 2).
What did Aristarchus do while he was in Judea for these two years? I believe there were two things. First, he probably was traveling with Dr. Luke as he was interviewing the eye-witnesses to the earthly life of the Lord Jesus so he could write his gospel (Luke 1:1-4). The second thing he and Dr. Luke would do is visit the Apostle Paul while he was in prison. The procurator, Felix allowed Paul to have friends visit and provide for his physical needs (Acts 24: 23).
The possibility that Dr. Luke and Aristarchus were working together during these two years makes sense in light of Jesus command, recorded by Dr. Luke, that the disciples go forth “two by two” (Luke 10:1). This team concept allowed for accountability and mutual encouragement towards one another.
Sir William Ramsay opined that Dr. Luke and Aristarchus went on the ship as Paul’s slaves in order to raise his status with the centurion (1905: 316). Most likely this is not the case. It would make more sense that Dr. Luke went on as the ship’s doctor, and Aristarchus was his assistant so they could follow the “two by two” pattern of missions and accompany Paul to Rome.
Lightfoot thinks Aristarchus joined them because he was heading home to Thessalonica and Paul and Luke parted company with Aristarchus at Myra when the centurion found an Alexandrian grain ship going directly to Rome (Acts 27:5, 6; Lightfoot 1927: 35, 36, footnote 2). Scripture is silent on whether Aristarchus was going home or not. When we see Aristarchus next, he is in Rome with Paul (Col. 4:10).
Aristarchus is an example of a believer who puts his life on the line for a friend
The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). The Apostle John gives us the motive for this command, “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (I John 3:16). The Lord Jesus demonstrated His great love toward us by dying for all our sins. That is the motivating factor for believers laying down their life for a fellow believer.
When the Apostle Paul wrote the letter to the church at Colosse, as well as the personal letter to Philemon, he sent greetings from Aristarchus along with other brethren. Somehow Aristarchus was known to the believers in the Lycus Valley. Perhaps he knew Philemon and Epaphras, two leading brothers in the churches there, from the School of Tyrannus, or Aristarchus could have traveled to the Lycus Valley sometime when he was in Ephesus. Scripture is silent on this matter, but he was known to the churches in the valley.
In these two letters, Paul describes Aristarchus as a “fellow prisoner” (Col. 4:10) and a “fellow laborer” (Philemon 24). The word “fellow prisoner” literally means a “prisoner of war”. That identification can not be taken literally because he had not engaged in any physical combat. However, it could be taken metaphorically because he was engaged in spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:10-17). The Apostle Paul was confined to house arrest hindering him from actively traveling and preaching the gospel to large crowds. It could be that from Satan’s perspective, Paul, Aristarchus, and Epaphras (Philemon 23) were his prisoner’s of war in this spiritual conflict. Paul uses this prisoner metaphor in his epistle to the Philippians (1:13, 14; 4:22) yet it did not prevent him from boldly proclaiming the gospel to the Pretorium guards or those in Caesar’s household. Nor did it hinder him from writing letters to churches that would eventually make up the New Testament. Paul, Aristarchus and Epaphras may have been chained as prisoners of war, but the gospel was not hindered and the work of the Lord continued (Acts 28:30, 31). While Paul was under house arrest in Rome, Aristarchus proved to be a comfort Paul (Col. 4:11). What he did, we are not told. Yet just his presence would have encouraged the apostle.
Church tradition affirms that Aristarchus was martyred in Rome at the command of Nero (Hippolytus 1994: 256). The Pseudo-Dorotheus states that Aristarchus, Pudens and Trophimus were all beheaded in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero (Redlich 1913:211).
Granted, some of my historical reconstruction of the life of Aristarchus is speculative, but the principles and applications that I draw from the speculation are Biblical. There are at least five applications that we can draw from the life of Aristarchus for our own life.
The first application we can draw from the life of Aristarchus is that he exercised his spiritual gift. In his case, it was the gift of evangelist. Believers in the Lord Jesus must discern what their spiritual gifts are and exercise them in order to build up the Body of Christ. It would help to ask spiritual mature believers, or elders in the assembly, what they think the individual’s spiritual gift might be (McRae 1976:103-138).
The second application for the life of the believer is to understand that we will be persecuted for righteousness sake. Dr. Luke does not record how Gaius and Aristarchus responded while being manhandled by the union thugs. Perhaps they knew of Jesus’ teaching and rejoiced and were exceedingly glad (Matt. 5:12), or as James put it, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (James 1:2).
The third application is that trust is earned and not bestowed. When that trust is earned, the individual will be given more responsibilities because they can be trusted.
The fourth thing we learn from Aristarchus’ life is that he followed the divinely ordained pattern of Christian work, the “two-by-two” principle, or team concept set forth by Jesus and reaffirmed by the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1; Acts 13:2; 15:39, 40).
The final application we learn from the life of Aristarchus is that he put his life on the line for his friends. Aristarchus was not afraid to identify himself with his friend and mentor, the Apostle Paul.
Aristarchus was a man of noble birth who could have been part of the aristocracy in Thessalonica, but he chose to follow a nobler pursuit: the ministry of the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Because of his life on earth, he received the noblest reward from the King of Kings at the Judgment Seat of Christ, at least two crowns: the crown of rejoicing because of his work in the gospel (I Thess. 2:9) and the crown of life for enduring trials, even to the point of death (James 1:12; Rev. 2:10).
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1 The Greek text of the Book of Acts records the Greek name for the goddess of the hunt, Artemis. Some English translations give the Latin name, Diana, for the same goddess.