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, that you may know about us, and that he may encourage your hearts. With him I am sending Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here. (Col. 4:7-9 BSB)

God sees and knows what happens on earth, and those people who seem obscure to us, if they are known and used of God have an eternal inheritance and legacy. Jesus said, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is My disciple, truly I tell you, he will never lose his reward” (Matt. 10:42 BSB).

No one is truly obscure if God knows them. We should see each other not in a pure earthly view, but in light of heaven’s opinion. Paul wrote: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view … if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:16-17). And his reminder to us all of our life orientation:

For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:8-9)

Paul, by the Holy Spirit, did not consider the news about himself worthy of placing in the Holy Script, it was passing away, just like our earthly titles and attainments. But what was important was to remember these men plucked from obscurity and unknown earthly existences, had a high place in the estimation of heaven. And the same is true of you and me. It is who we are in Christ and what we have done for Him that is of eternal importance.

Respect for Fellow Workers

Tychicus is mentioned four other times in the New Testament: as a companion of Paul in Acts 20:4 and as a faithful messenger of Paul in 2 Timothy 4:12, Titus 3:12, and Ephesians 6:20. Here Paul called him a “faithful minister” and a “fellow servant.” It shows a progression in Paul’s thinking toward those younger men who served with him. In Acts 13:5, John Mark  went with Paul and Barnabas as their “underling,” a literal translation. Huperetes is the Greek word and in relation to Paul it only appears twice more in the New Testament, and never in relation to another fellow worker. It was used for Paul in relationship to Christ both times: (1) in his Damascus road experience, where Christ said, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant (underling)” (Acts 26:16), and (2) as he described himself and Sosthenes to the church in Corinth, “Men ought to regard us as servants (underlings) of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:1).

Though the practice is not condemned, we never read of Paul having another “underling” in his work, but his writings are replete with references to “brothers,” “sisters,” “beloved,” “fellow workers,” and “fellow servants,” and, that most significant of all titles, “fellow prisoner.” Just reading of his personal greetings at the end of Romans reveals a new love and respect for his fellow servants of the Lord (Romans 16:1-24). He had learned to respect these younger men and women who served so faithfully.

This is a great example for us all. We can imagine that Paul was an outstanding teacher to the believers in Antioch, deserving and receiving much respect, and going out on this first missionary journey he thought that young John Mark should simply do what he was told. But after enduring multiple hardships, seeing God work in numerous people, and thinking further on the meaning of grace, Paul saw clearly the status of all believers. Surely the teacher of God’s word should be respected (1 Tim. 5:17), but he himself should also respect and appreciate those with other gifts.

Respecting the Brother of Low Estate

Onesimus, the escaped “bond servant” or doulos in Greek, who found Christ, of which the letter of Philemon is all about, is also mentioned. Again, Paul used the words “faithful” and “dear” or “beloved” to describe him. God does not show favoritism and despite someone’s status in this life, God sees him for who he is in Christ. And we should, too.

Was Onesimus a slave? Slavery tended to erase one’s identity among men. They were branded as no longer their own person but the property of another person. Their human worth determined not by what they achieved in themselves, but by what they achieved for another. The very idea of slavery is repudiated in scripture on the basis of human dignity, that each human being is created in the image of God and as such is not property to be owned by another. The Biblical authors accepted slavery as an unfortunate social reality of the societies in which they lived, but not as part of God’s plan for the world.

However, the term doulos was also used for someone who was a temporary bonded slave for a certain time by his own choice, similar to the “indentured servanthood” that was present in the American colonies, and not a lifelong status. This is likely because he was described as “one of you” by Paul, or one of the Colossians. If that was the case, it was unlikely that he would have been a foreigner captured in war and forced into slavery. Paul wrote to Philemon, the man whose bondservant he was, and said: “I am sending him back to you … no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:12-16). There are all sorts of possibilities here. For example, Onesimus may have owed money to someone and became a bondservant for a period to pay off the debt. And it could have been that Philemon had purchased the bond from another as an investment. We simply do not know all the circumstances.

Paul appealed to Philemon “on the basis of love” and not by an apostolic command (Philemon 1:8). The church in Colosse, or a portion of it, met in his home (1:2), perhaps because he was wealthy enough to have a large home. But Paul was encouraged that Philemon was a fair man and would, as a new believer in Christ, do right by Onesimus. And it is unclear as to whether Onesimus might have stolen some things from Philemon and needed to go and return them and make it right with Philemon (1:18). And it was quite possible that Onesimus might have had very few options legally, other than to return to Philemon.

Although this is unverifiable, there is some tradition that Onesimus followed Timothy as the bishop of Ephesus. This is certainly within the realm of possibilities. But it also teaches us that we should see all people, regardless of their status in society, or their economic reality, in light of their potential in Christ. And, if they are believers, they are our brothers and sisters, and God sees them for who they are in Christ. They will reign with Him.

God encourages us to think the best of one another and not the worst: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:4).

Questions:

  1. It is very easy to accept the opinions of the world about others. What does the world think of you that you would prefer people to not use as a label when they think of you?
  2. How do you let your reputation or your status limit you today? What does it mean to be a new creature in Christ?
  3. There is a difference between social stigmas and personal failings. Which in your life hold you back the more?
  4. To stand in God’s grace is the Christian calling. It is a position of humility and faith and not of pride and arrogance. How do genuine humility and faith differ in their outward expressions from self pride?
  5. Who do you tend to misjudge or to stigmatize? How does the grace of God in Christ help you to see them differently?

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