Tychicus and Onesimus
January 26, 2023

In Colossians 4:7-9, Paul tells the Colossian church that he is sending Tychicus and Onesimus to them. It is clear that they are to deliver the letter Paul has written to the church and that they are also to report to the church the details of Paul’s ministry in chains while he is in Rome. However, in Ephesians 6:20-21, we discover that Tychicus is also delivering the letter to the Ephesian church. And although Tychichus is not mentioned in Philemon, it seems clear that he would have delivered that letter as well, since it concerned the return of Onesimus — Philemon’s former slave and Tychichus’ traveling companion.

Though the details of their trip are nowhere set forth, we can see from Paul’s letter to Philemon that Paul is carefully diplomatic in dealing with the situation. We also note that the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians are quite explicit in addressing slaves and masters, with the runaway-but-returned Onesimus present while Tychicus reads the letters to the churches and answers their questions about Paul (Colossians 4:7-9, 16). It was a sensitive situation that required forethought and planning.

Though the time, place, and central issues were entirely different, we might recall Bathsheba and Nathan the prophet contriving carefully how to approach David about Adonijah’s attempt to steal the throne. They “conspired” to speak to David in such a way that he would take immediate action to publicly declare Solomon king. I think that the story in 1 Kings 1:11-31 shows us typical diplomatic planning and execution.

Onesimus’ return, though not a matter of political import, would also require planning. Tychicus and Onesimus could not just arrivie at Philemon’s door with a letter or suddenly show up at the Colossian church with no preparation. How did they proceed? We do not know. We are left to our imagination.

So, let’s imagine. First, the trip from Rome to the seaport Ephesus, mostly by ship, would have been about two weeks according to ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.[i] Colossae would have been another 4 or 5 day walk from Ephesus.

It seems most likely then that Tychicus and Onesimus would have first traveled to Ephesus and delivered the letter Paul addressed to the church in that city, even if it was intended to be a sort of circular letter.

So, how might the visit to Ephesus have worked out? Remember, Paul had ministered in Ephesus for 3 years (Acts 20:31) doing amazing miracles (Acts 19:11-12). All Asia — Jews and Greeks — Luke says, heard the Word of the Lord (Acts 19:10). The population of Ephesus is estimated differently, but in the Roman Empire, it was a large city by any count. It is hard to imagine the church there being less than a thousand members. That may sound like a lot, but in a large city they might be almost invisible — at least most of the time (cf. Acts 19:23) — for they would not own a spectacular building and be meeting together every Sunday morning. First century churches met in people’s homes. Thus, the church in Ephesus would have been meeting in various houses because no one could have housed the whole church — groups of 30 to 50, or as many as 100 in a very large house, would probably have been the norm, though depending on the size of the house, there may have been smaller groups, too. So, when Tychicus and Onesimus visited the “church” in Ephesus, it would have been divided into numerous different meeting places. We should assume, I think, they visited each one, reading Paul’s epistle to the congregated members and answering questions.

This is complicated enough, but there is more. Philemon was obviously a friend of Paul, but also obviously he was from Colossae, a city Paul had never visited. That would probably mean that Paul and Philemon met in Ephesus, perhaps when Philemon was on business or perhaps because Philemon believed the Gospel through Epaphras or someone else and traveled to Ephesus to meet Paul. At any rate, they developed a close personal relationship — which would have required some time. How long did they know each other? Paul calls Philemon his “fellow worker” as well as beloved friend. When and how did they work together?

If we assume that Philemon spent significant time in Ephesus — which Paul’s language seems to require — it might also mean that the Ephesian church would not only have known Philemon but probably also his slave Onesimus. Even if they were not previously acquainted with Onesimus, his presence with Tychicus would require some explanation of who he was.

There is yet another twist to the story. It is clear from Colossians 4:16 that churches shared with one another the letters they received from Paul — and presumably from other leaders, like Peter or John. This would have included the letter to Philemon, I think, since it was addressed to a church and not just to Philemon alone (Philemon 2). Moreover, it addressed a problem — Onesimus — that would have been staring them in the face.

My hypothetical reconstruction runs like this: Tychicus and Onesimus visit various congregations in Ephesus, knowing that some people might well recognize Onesimus as Philemon’s runaway slave. As they visit each congregation, Tychicus will read multiple letters, but in what order? I suggest he would have begun with the letter to Philemon, which would have put everyone at ease about Onesimus — the elephant in the room. Tychicus would have also read whatever other letters he may have had, including, of course, the letter to the Colossians.

After perhaps 2 or 3 weeks visiting various congregations in Ephesus, Tychicus and Onesimus would be ready for the trek to Colossae — at 20 to 25 miles a day, perhaps 4 or 5 days.

Upon arrival, however, they could not go first to the church where the people would all know Onesimus and would require an explanation about him, especially if he were not only a runaway slave, but also a thief, as it seems from Paul’s letter to Philemon.

Perhaps the following scenario is close to what Paul would have advised Tychicus and Onesimus to do. I suspect that, upon arriving in Colosse, Tychicus would have first visited Philemon privately, delivering Paul’s letter — after all, it is hard to imagine Onesimus just showing up at the door to surprise Philemon.. Then, when Philemon had been appraised of the matter and had a little time to digest Paul’s appeal, Tychicus would have brought Paul’s “child” to meet Philemon face to face, for the two of them to be reconciled.

Or, perhaps, Tychicus had someone make a copy of the letter to Philemon and sent it ahead of his arrival in Colossae to let Philemon know the situation and be prepared to meet Onenimus.

At any rate, it seems to me that only after Philemon and Onenismus had been privately reconciled, would Tychicus meet the church — however many congregations it might have been — with Onesimus, of course, but also with Philemon. When Tychicus begins to read to a congregation, I think he might have begun with the epistle to Philemon, which would put the congregation at ease about Onesimus and prepare the way for the rest of what Paul wanted to communicate.

If something similar to that is what happened, it would mean that when the churches in Ephesus and Colossae heard the epistles addressed to them, the sections about slaves and masters would have resonated deeply. The concrete example of how Paul related to the slave Onesimus and his master Philemon would have rendered the instruction powerful beyond mere words or general principles. And Paul’s teaching that in Christ, there are not slaves or free would have had living proof in the lives of Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon.

Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.


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