Onesimus, along with Tychicus, was carrying Paul’s open letter to the assemblies in Colossae. And in that letter was a warm endorsement Paul had written of Onesimus and Tychicus both—this was standard procedure, in that day. Couriers needed credentials to authenticate both the letter and the one who carried it. Often, couriers would read the letter aloud to the recipient, and even explain its contents, if necessary.
We see at the end of several letters, Paul following this protocol.
- Paul’s treatise on Christian faith, his letter to the believers in Rome, was sent in the care of his benefactor and patron, Phoebe.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.Romans 16:1-2 (NRSV)
- Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was apparently delivered by “brothers,” those well-known to the Christians there. A quick flip to the front of the book reveals they were people from Chloe’s house church.
Paul had intended on sending Apollos, but because of the great rifts that had divided the assemblies over who was the better teacher—Paul, Peter, or Apollos—Apollos no longer wanted to minister in Corinth. However, Paul managed to persuade Apollos to visit Corinth at some later, undisclosed time. Perhaps he did, and he was the one who carried Paul’s other letters there.
Paul did promise to write letters of recommendation for all the brothers who would carry their love gift to the churches in Jerusalem.
Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come. And when I arrive, I will send any whom you approve with letters to take your gift to Jerusalem.1 Corinthians 16:1-3 (NRSV)
- At the end of the Ephesians circular, Paul put in a good word for Tychicus who would be delivering that treatise on unity and Christian living. Perhaps Paul intended Onesimus and Tychicus to go together first to Colossae, drop Onesimus off with Philemon, then have Tychicus travel alone to deliver Paul’s epistle to the assemblies in Ephesus, 120 miles due west.
- It seems Epaphroditus delivered Paul’s letter to the Philippian believers, and Paul explained why,
I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.Philippians 2:25-26. (NRSV)
- So it was, in the letter Paul was sending to the believers in Colossae, protocol required Paul giving Tychicus and Onesimus some credentials.
Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; he is coming with
Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.Colossians 4:7-9 (NRSV)
Tychicus and Onesimus were evidently already from Colossae, but it is possible no one knew they had become followers of Jesus. They were now not only fellow Colossians, they were also brothers in the faith.
There was a catch, here, though.
Philemon and Onesimus were not on good terms.
Reading between the lines, it seems Onesimus had been a part of Philemon’s household and had secretly left. This, in some way, had cost Philemon dearly. There is a sense that Onesimus may have been derelict in his service to Philemon, he may have embezzled funds, or stolen property, or at the very least left Philemon holding the proverbial bag as Onesimus had unexpectedly defaulted on his duty.
Paul used the word δοῦλος | doulos to describe Onesimus’ former relationship to Philemon, meaning in bondage to, or subject to, and usually translated as slave or bondman, and occasionally as servant.
We will get more into it later, when the time comes; but for now, suffice it to say, Paul needed to smooth things over. Hence this personal note to his beloved brother in the Lord, fellow coworker in Christ, and respected church leader in Colossae.
Paul, a captive of Christ Jesus and brother Timothy, to Philemon, beloved (agapeto) and our companion in labor, and Apphia [our] sister and Archippus our co-campaigner, and the assembly in your house.
Grace to you all and peace from God our Father and Lord Jesus Christ.Philemon 1:1-3 (my translation)
So, Paul and Timothy were together, and possibly Timothy helped to do the actual writing. Some commentators hold that Paul’s eyesight had progressively worsened, perhaps exacerbated by at least one bout with malaria, contracted in the region of Phrygia. Clues in Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia leave the impression they nursed him to health when he first arrived, and were greatly concerned about his eyes.
In any case, even this personal note was not written solely by Paul, but also involved Timothy.
Apphia and Archippus
Who were Apphia and Archippus?
Because Paul includes them all together, they most likely were part of Philemon’s immediate family—mother, wife, sister, daughter, and Archippus his brother or son. Just because it feels tidy, and based upon the typical household of that day, I am guessing Apphia and Archippus were Philemon’s grown daughter and son.
Paul greeted Apphia as sister, meaning she had put her faith in Christ. Her name meant “That which is fruitful,” and was surely meant as a blessing to her, that she would bear and raise a large, healthy family. Certainly God was making her fruitful in her ministry to the church that met in Philemon’s house.
Paul called Archippus, whose meant “Master of the Horse,” a co-campaigner, so it seems Archippus had done at least one turn with Paul as an evangelist. In fact, Paul mentioned Archippus in his open letter to the Colossian Christians.
When this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. And say to Archippus, “See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord.”Paul to the Christians in Colossae, Colossians 4:16-17 (NRSV)
According to the Apostolic Constitutions (7.46), recorded in the fourth century, Archippus was the first bishop of Laodicea, and an eastern church tradition holds he was among the 70 (they would say 72) disciples Jesus sent out as missionaries.
It is thought all four—Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and Onesimus—were stoned to death during Nero’s reign.
[Depiction of the Archangel Michael ministering to Archippus | AnonymousUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]