The Expository Files

"And say to Archippus..."

Colossians 4:17

The letter that Paul wrote to the church at Colossea and the private letter Paul wrote to Philemon are companion letters. The common cast of characters Paul mentions in each shows that they were written together. Paul wrote both letters with Timothy, (Col. 1:1; Phile. 1) Epaphras, (Col. 4:12; Phile. 23) Mark, (Col. 4:10; Phile. 24) Aristarchus, (Col. 4:10; Phile. 24) Demas, (Col. 4:14; Phile. 24) Luke, (Col. 4:14; Phile. 24) and most importantly Onesimus, (Col. 4:10; Phile. 10) all together. Certainly a number of these were with Paul at various times, but that all seven would all be together with Paul at the same time more than once is highly unlikely.

But not only did these letters come from the time same and place, they also dealt with a common theme. This is most easily seen with the little letter to Philemon, as it deals with only one subject, the return of Onesimus to his master, Philemon. Everything else in the letter is only polite form and set up for the main theme. The letter to Colossians deals with a number of other topics necessary to the church there before Paul makes the safe return of Onesimus a matter of general concern to the whole church. The Apostle did not leave this as a private matter between Onesimus and his master, or even Paul and Philemon.

But calling the church to aid in this was only a part of the protection that Paul was seeking to provide for Onesimus. In every possible way Paul went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that this man, formerly a useless and rebellious slave, but now a reformed and highly loved brother in Christ, was returned safely to his master, Paul's friend, Philemon. Paul did not seek just safe transport across the Empire, but reception as a true brother at home. Paul wants him to be received as well by his Christian master as the prodigal was received by his father. As Paul said, "accept him as you would me." (Phile. 17)

These provisions were necessary because of the dangers that Onesimus now faced. He was a runaway slave in Rome. If captured he could be returned home in chains to face horrible consequences - punishments limited only by the imagination of his master.

Paul pulls out all the stops to make sure nothing bad happens to him. Paul didn't just send him home with a letter. Paul sent him in the charge of one his most faithful companions. "As to all my affairs, Tychicus, our beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bond-servant in the Lord, will bring you information. For I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts; and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your number. They will inform you about the whole situation here." (Col. 4:7-9) Tychicus was one of those who helped take the great collection to Jerusalem. (Acts 20:4) He took the Ephesian Letter to Ephesus (probably at this same time, Eph. 6:21,22). Later he would go on additional missions for Paul. (Titus 3:12; 2 Tim. 4:12) So here is one of Paul's most trusted helpers on this important mission of bringing the church a letter and Onesimus home. Paul makes sure to tell the church that this slave is "our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you." Don't shy away because he is a slave. Don't hold back because formerly rebellious. "He's restored and he's yours," is Paul's message.

Consider Paul's additional steps to looking out for Onesimus' welfare. "And when this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea." (Col. 4:16) Now what does this have to do with Onesimus you might ask? Let me ask you in return, "Where is the letter to the Laodiceans?" I don't have a letter entitled "To The Laodiceans." Many think that this letter was lost. But why was the letter to the Colossians kept and this one, that would be known to at least two churches, be lost? With the care that Christians took in preserving the writings of the apostles this is inconceivable. So then, where is the letter to the Laodiceans? It is the letter to Philemon.

The letter of Philemon is the only strictly personal letter in the whole Bible. Yes, Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus, but those letters concerned the work of preaching, problems in the church, matters of church organization and doctrine. The evangelists would have readily shared their letters. But how did this very personal letter become known to the churches? It was read in the churches from the beginning because the Colossians were told to ask for it and read it. Why were they told to ask for the letter? Because Paul wanted the Colossian church to be concerned with Onesimus' welfare. After everyone knew what Paul expected of Philemon by reading his very personal and pressing exhortation, what could Philemon do but follow it? No matter that Onesimus had behaved so poorly in the past and so displeased his master. With the letter to Philemon public knowledge and Paul exhorting the whole Colossian church to look at Onesimus as "one of you," (Col. 4:9) Paul had made sure Onesimus was well protected.

Yet Paul does not stop even there in his efforts to protect Onesimus. Paul next addresses Archippus. Paul closes the Colossian letter by instructing them, "And say to Archippus, "Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it." (Col. 4:17) What would this do to help? Consider the greeting of the Philippian letter, "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in thy house" (Phile. 1,2) Archippus was almost certainly part of Philemon's house. Why else the mention in the greeting of a personal letter? As a part of Philemon's house (probably a son), he would be as likely as Philemon to want to receive Onesimus harshly and punish him severely. But could he do that now? Absolutely not. Paul's personal appeal by letter is now public, and the Colossian church is to encourage him to do his Christian duty as a minister. Even if Philemon does not want to receive Onesimus back, a member of his house now has the duty, and an apostolic reminder, and the eyes of the Colossian church, to make sure that that doesn't happen. Paul has protected Onesimus as much as he can by using every bit of his influence and office.

Let us notice the closeness of brethren though they are of different congregations. Often Philemon and Onesimus are thought to be members of the Colossian church because Paul says of Onesimus, "he is one of you." (Col. 4:9) But this is better understood, in context, to mean that he is a brother in the Lord, and worthy of honor and, especially in this case, protection. Paul is saying to look out for this man, though a slave, as he is fully your brother in the Lord. He is not saying look out for him because he has membership in your congregation. Secondly, Paul calls on the Colossians to encourage Archippus, though he is at Laodicea, to make sure Onesimus is cared for. Many today would tell the Colossians to go home. They argue, "That's not your congregation, you have no right to butt in." They would say, "How we receive and treat our members is our own business; we're autonomous don't you know." But the apostle Paul did not feel that way. Notice all that the Colossians are told to do with the Laodiceans: 1.) Go to the Laodiceans - presumably with Paul's messenger and the returning slave in hand, or at least just after their coming. 2.) Make sure they read the apostle's letter to them - including the commendation of Onesimus and charge to Archippus. 3.) Read the other letter of Paul that is there. So they come expecting to find a letter from Paul and what letter would the find? Only the one to Philemon. (Again, this is the best explanation for Paul's private letter to Philemon becoming publicly known to all the churches.) 4.) They are to tell the preacher there to do his work in the Lord, in this case, to make sure Onesimus is properly received.

Can you just imagine the conniptions that the Laodicean brethren might go into if they had the attitude of some modern brethren? They might object, "How dare you tell us what to read?" Or, "What business is it of yours what letters we read?" Imagine this scornful reply, "Are you telling our preacher what to do?" Or just, "Why are you even here?" But it was the manifest desire of the apostle Paul to have brethren look out for each other and to have all live up to the requirements of the gospel. What happened in Laodicea was a concern to the Colossians, even though they were a few miles away. Many today think that their conduct should be of no concern to other Christians and they castigate those who would even speak their concerns, much less offer a rebuke. How would they react if the apostle Paul sent the Colossians to read them a letter, read their letter and tell something to their preacher?

By Jay Horsley
From Expository Files 9.7, July  2002