Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Colossians 13: Together for the Gospel - Tychicus and Onesimus

Scripture Text: Colossians 4:7-9

Introductory Comments

Last time, we reviewed Paul’s concluding exhortations or appeals to the whole church at Colossae. We remember that they were encouraged to engage in prayer steadfastly, with alertness and thanksgiving. We also learned that prayer is an essential component of the evangelical mission of the church to spread the gospel to those who have not yet heard or grasped it. Finally, Paul gave instructions on how Christians are to walk with outsiders, those who are not in the faith. We are to walk in wisdom with them, “making the best use of the time.” Our speech is to always be “gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know now your ought to answer each person.” (4:5-6).

The body of the letter’s text has now been considered, and here we are at verse 7, where Paul sends forth a series of greetings and commendations on behalf of those who are with him in prison and in the ministry. It is not unusual in studies of this sort to overlook introductions and conclusions, but there is much to be learned from what at first glance might seem to be nothing more than some straightforward list of personal greetings.

What can we say about this closing section? In summary, this concluding section of the letter gives us some practical wisdom on how we, you and me and everyone else in the church, are involved in the ministry of Christ together. What I’d like to do with these individuals is give a brief overview of what we know about them from the scriptures, along with a brief summary of what we can learn by how Paul describes each individual.

Tychicus – A Beloved Brother and Faithful Minister

The first person mentioned in this final section is Tychicus. Here’s what Paul says about him:
[7] Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord.
Who is this Tychicus? We know some things about him because he is mentioned in two other places in the scriptures. He was one of two individuals from the province of Asia who were in the traveling team that accompanied Paul on his journey to Jerusalem in Acts 20. Tychicus is also mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:12, where Paul tells Timothy he has sent Tychicus to Ephesus on an unspecified mission.  Given how Paul refers to him, Tychicus is the likely bearer of this letter. Tychicus was also likely the courier of two other letters, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and as well as the private letter Paul wrote to Philemon about Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus (a name we’ll return to shortly).

What can we say about Tychicus with just these biographical bits from Colossians and elsewhere? I think we can say three things at least. First, Tychicus was a trusted friend and co-worker. We know he was highly trusted because Paul assigned him the critical task of personally transporting important apostolic letters to multiple churches. Second, Tychicus was very close to Paul and knew much about Paul’s personal circumstances. This is why Paul tells the Colossians “Tychicus will tell you all about my activities.” The major doctrinal teachings and exhortations where delivered in writing by Paul to the whole church via a letter that was to be read publicly to the entire congregation. But there certainly were personal details about Paul’s life and experience that were better reserved for direct oral transmission through a trusted confident. That trusted person was Tychicus. I keep thinking how wonderful it would have been to be present in that community as Tychicus related Paul’s state of mind, his faith, his hope for the future and for the churches under his apostolic care. Before the era of modern postal service, the telephone, e-mail, and now internet video chat, people longed for a personal word about the welfare of those they loved and cared for. Even with all of this new technology, things like Twitter and Facebook, we still long for this kind of news from loved ones.

Don’t we all long to be in acquaintance with individuals like Tychicus, someone who is trustworthy and faithful, who can be entrusted with important tasks and personal information? Someone who can give an accurate account of our circumstances because they are close to us? What would this church family be like if it were filled with men and women such as this?

Finally, Tychicus is described as “a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord.” What warms words Paul uses to describe Tychicus! He also uses these words to describe the Colossian church’s native son, Epaphras, back in chapter 1 of the letter. Tychicus is a man of deep faith who is faithful in his work of ministering to the churches. Paul gives the Colossians, and us, a way of assessing Tychicus’ level of total dedication. Paul says that Tychicus is a “fellow servant in the Lord.” The word that is translated “servant” in many English translations is doulos, which is more accurately rendered “slave.” Tychicus is, like Paul, totally devoted to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

May these words devoted to the beloved Tychicus be true also for us. May we all have such devotion for such a beloved savior as Jesus, who even gave up his life even for those who are untrustworthy, unfaithful, who prefer to be masters over others.

Isn’t this what we all desire from ministers in the church: Trustworthiness and friendship; a deep and abiding companionship with others; and deep, steadfast commitment to the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ? When I use the word “ministers,” I am not just referring to people like me who have specific callings in pulpit ministry. Presbyterians and other Christians who are creatures of the Reformation believe in something called “the priesthood of all believers.” We are all called by our Lord from death to life by Christ in order to love the Lord our God and our neighbors as ourselves. We are called into spiritual battle with each other and are fellow soldiers under the command of a gracious and loving Lord. And that calling is not just the responsibility of the preacher, but of every Christian. As you think of your lives of faith, certainly you can think of men and women, pastors and elders and deacons who were like this man Tychicus. Saints who took an interest in your life, who demonstrated genuinely concern for you, knew what you were about, who, like Tichycus, encouraged your hearts, and in their lives and their words exemplified a deep faithfulness to the Lord. The church has and always needs people like this! People with dedication, courage, commitment, faithfulness, and love. I hope all of you can think of people like this, like Tychicus, people who are worthy of honor for the sake of their faith, and who were and are influences in our own lives of faith as fellow-slaves of our Lord Jesus Christ. Tychicus is the first in this list of names who teach us that the ministry of the church is shared.

Onesimus – Faithful and Beloved Brother of Low Worldly Status

Onesimus is mentioned next by Paul:
[9] and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has taken place here.
The name “Onesimus” can be translated “useful” and, as it turns out, the name would have been fairly common among those who were slaves at this time. But given the context of the letter, it is almost certain that the Onesimus mentioned here is the same one who is the runaway slave mentioned in that other letter the beloved Tychicus was carrying, the one addressed personally to Onesimus’ master, Philemon.

Notice a few things about Onesimus: He was a slave, the property of another human being. Slaves had virtually no rights, and therefore had no social status. But although he was a slave, look at how Paul refers to him. It is interesting that Paul would mention a slave at all, but it is extremely interesting that he would be described using exactly the same terms as were used to commend Tychicus and Epaphras, as “our faithful and beloved brother”! Like Epaphras, Onesimus was a native of Colossae, and so Paul adds the phrase, “who is one of you.”

To me, this verse is yet another example of how the gospel placed what one writer called, “an axe to the root of the corrupt human institution of slavery.” It is because of the gospel that proclaims Jesus as Savior and Lord that Onesimus, the slave, the one without any legal rights, is nevertheless commended as “our faithful and beloved brother” in Jesus Christ. Paul commends Epaphras, the freeborn evangelist from Colossae who first brought the gospel to his own people, and Tychicus, a freeborn confident of Paul, using the exact same terms.

What we learn from Onesimus is critically important because it tells us what the gospel does when people believe by faith through grace in the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. Beloved, in the final analysis, this letter implicates one form of slavery, the ownership of one human being by another. But that institution, as evil as it was and, tragically, still is in many places around the globe, by far the worst slavery of all is the slavery to sin into which all are born, and until someone accepts Jesus as savior they remain under the old master, the one who accuses them day and night of their sin, the one who exults by engulfing sinners with guilt, who loves painting a picture of hopelessness and rejoices when eyes are made blind and ears are stopped up in deliberate rebellion to God’s gracious commands. It is by faith in Christ that the chains and fetters of sin are dashed away. It is by faith in Christ that we, regardless of where we come from, are swept out of the kingdom of sin and death and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son Jesus. It is by faith in Christ that the pain and the guilt and the horrors of the past are wiped out and forgotten by God. It is the gospel that utterly destroys the worldly concepts of class and race, removing barriers to fellowship between those who together acknowledge one Lord and Savior. That is why Onesimus is referred to in the same way as his free brothers in Christ. He, and they, have been liberated from the worst slave driver imaginable – Sin.

In the person of Onesimus we see clearly that the gospel is for every creature on the earth. It matters not what your economic background is, or what sin or sins you have committed, or whatever else you might presume to think places you outside the grasp of Jesus’ loving arms.

Onesimus also teaches the church a lesson by implication – there is no one in the city of Jackson, the State of Minnesota, the United States, or anywhere else on the planet, who can be disqualified from hearing and the gospel, repenting, and receiving Jesus as their Savior.

Before Sara and I moved to Jackson, we naturally began examining listens of homes for sale. One of them still stands out in my mind: A nice home on the west end of town. I remember this home distinctly because before anyone could look at it, you had to be “pre-qualified,” meaning, the party selling the home had to know you could pony up the money before you could even look.

Examine your hearts, beloved. See if there is any hidden thing there that might cause you to believe that a certain worldly class of person needs to be pre-qualified before they can receive the good news of liberation from sin in Christ Jesus. I can tell you that everyone in the room will have such a tendency because we still sin. Think back on your own life and your own pass sins, those so graciously forgiven by the blood of Christ even through you didn’t deserve forgiveness. How can any saved sinner who proclaims Christ as Lord try to preemptively disqualify anyone else from hearing and believing the good news? The grace of God is a radical, dangerous thing for those in the world, because God’s forgiveness and love ultimately cannot be defeated by human beings and their petty prejudices. And thank God! If that were the case, not one of us would be saved.

So this is what the slave Paul’s mention of Onesimus teaches us. May there be no church-constructed barriers to God’s grace, and above all may everyone in the Christian fellowship of believers be viewed first as a brother or sister in Christ, as Onesimus the slave was commended in exactly the same way as his free brothers. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
June 19, 2011
Trinity Sunday
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew