St Paul’s Letter to Archippus
One of the first Sunday School talks I ever did, back in 1969 began rather like this……
I excitedly produced an old scroll, suitably aged with dust and stained with water, and asked if it was written to anyone here.
Whose name is on it? would come the children’s eager question.
I struggled hard to read the name, finally deciphering it.
Of course there was no child there of that name.
But what book in the bible was I talking about?
Paul’s letter to Philemon might possibly have been written to this Archippus. Sometimes in Greek, the main recipient of the letter was mentioned last, and this letter is addressed to
“Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home.”
So I am going to say that this letter is to Archippus, the owner of the slave Onesimus, though you might want to remember that most people happen to call it the letter to Philemon. Indeed verse 4 in the Good News does mention Philemon by name, but I must point out that this name here is not in the original Greek.
Here’s the background, which we can gather from reading the letter. A slave named Onesimus had escaped from his owner Archippus in Colossae, and had run away to Rome, a distance of over 1,000 miles.
Perhaps Onesimus had been hoping to lose himself in the crowded city. Perhaps Onesimus got arrested. Probably he had been thrown in jail – like Paul. Thus Onesimus came into contact with Paul.
It was here that Paul told him the good news of Jesus Christ.
Now Paul happened to be planning to send a letter to the Colossian church by the hand of Tychicus.
Along with this, from his prison cell, Paul wrote a personal letter to Onesimus’ owner, whom I’m calling Archippus, and he asked Onesimus himself to deliver it to Colossae.
The essence of the letter is that Paul is asking that the slave Onesimus be forgiven for running away. How does Paul try to ask this huge favour?
* He uses some honest flattery (verse 7),
* he asks Archippus as a friend (verses 9-10)
even though Paul says he could have made this a command to keep Onesimus for himself in Rome (verse 7 and 14),
* Paul reminds Archippus of his Christian duty (verse 16) to a fellow Christian,”Yes, he is dear to me, but I suspect he will come to mean even more to you, both in the flesh as a servant and in the Lord as a brother.”
* finally, Paul reminds him at the end of verse 19 that he has saved his life, this likely means spiritually, as in The Living Bible puts: “The fact is, you even owe me your very soul!”
Archippus could have severely punished Onesimus- by Roman law that could even mean execution- this is the background to the earnestness of Paul’s request.
The big question is: Is Archippus prepared to waive his rights in law?
Forgiving others. That’s the heart of the Christian message.
It’s what God has done for us in Jesus. Because Jesus died in my place, my sins are forgiven.
Sadly we must keep on asking God to forgive us for our failings.
And since He always does forgive if we ask, therefore we must forgive those who wrong us. We pray this in the Lord’s Prayer, don’t we?
Jesus tells us we must forgive. “If you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done.” (Matthew 6:15)
But that can be a very demanding command, so difficult to actually put into practice.
Especially when we have been seriously wronged.
How many times must I forgive? “Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him?
Seven times?” Peter asks in Matthew 18:21. You know the reply.
It’s, er, 490 of course. In Luke 19:41 we read that Jesus wept for Jerusalem, for its rejection of Him. We can be sure that Jesus weeps over our rejection of Him, when we sin and fail to ask his forgiveness, or fail to accept a request for forgiving someone.
Dr James Black described how a newly converted man of high birth attended church for the first time. The pastor indicated where he must sit. But I cannot sit there, the great man protested, for it is beside my slave. The pastor simply repeated his order. Finally, the great man sat down, and even gave his slave the Christian kiss of peace.
So imagine the scene at Colossae.
Archippus is at home reclining in his best room. he might have forgotten all about such an insignificant slave.or perhaps he is still seething with anger that such a microbe as Onesimus dare to escape.
From a window he espies, plodding down the road, a couple of men. One he recognises. It is an old friend Tychicus, who is bearing a scroll, Paul’s promised letter.
In Colossians 4:7 Paul wrote:
“Our dear friend Tychicus, who is a faithful worker and fellow servant in the Lord’s work, will give you all the news about me. That is why I am sending him to you, in order to cheer you up by telling you how all of us are getting along. With him goes Onesimus, that dear and faithful friend, who belongs to your group.”
So…who is that man with Tychicus? It looks like the wretched slave, what was his name…. Onesimus, the villain who ran away some months ago?
I wonder what Archippus thought we he saw Onesimus coming back.
What punishment he was deciding for the runaway slave. This disobedient slave- what a stupid name he has. Onesimus in Greek means Useful, as we read in verse 11, even though to Archippus he had been utterly useless. I suspect that when Archippus espied this returning slave, he was mentally preparing something lingering for Onesimus, something with boiling oil.
It must have been very brave of Onesimus to follow Paul’s command to go back to his master. He knew what punishment he might be facing.
He knew what he deserved.
But in jail, he had turned to the Lord, and was trusting Him. And trusting Paul’s letter would secure his forgiveness.
When we have to seek forgiveness, we may not have the back up of an apostolic letter. We may not even be asking forgiveness of someone who is a Christian. So there is no certainty of the outcome.
If you know you have done someone wrong, you must not only ask God’s forgiveness, which is assured, but also, when necessary the person you have wronged.
If you know you need to say sorry to anyone, pray about your response. Pray and ask God to show you what you need to do. What you must do.
It’s hard. But I can assure you it is worth the tremendous effort.
And if anyone asks your forgiveness, like Onesimus had to beg Archippus, what do you say, what do you do? No it’s not easy. Yet Jesus’ command is straightforward. Forgive, and go on forgiving. More than that, what was Archippus asked to do?
In verse 17 he was to welcome back the runaway slave. Welcome, not punish.
In other words, not merely say you forgive, but prove it by your actions.
I wonder how hard Archippus found that. A mere slave forgiven!
Sadly, it is nowhere recorded what was Archippus’ actual response to Paul’s request.
Maybe Paul’s veiled threat in verse 22, to get a room ready for Paul, because he hoped to return to Colossae, might have tipped the balance.
But though we do not know what happened, the fact that this letter was not lost like many others, might suggest that the church kept this short letter because Paul’s request was granted and that Onesimus was treated well.
Though we cannot be sure of this, it is a nice possibility that this slave eventually became Bishop Onesimus, for there was a Bishop of that name in Ephesus towards the end of the first century.
So I think we can fairly guess the scene when Tychicus brought in the nervous runaway slave into Archippus’ presence. It must have taken Archippus spiritual strength to tell Onesimus that he was forgiven, all was forgotten, welcome back!
This is the shortest of Paul’s letters, yet it is the most personal, most enjoyable, and most easy to understand. No long doctrines, merely a simple request to forgive.
Simple… but not always so easy to do.
May we always be ready to forgive, for has not God in Jesus forgiven us, even though we so often let him down?
David 13 Aug 2017