The Prison Letters
Text: Colossians 4:7-18
I. Near the end of Paul’s third journey, he visited churches to gather funds to relieve the famine stricken brethren in Judea. - I Corinthians 16:1-9
A. Several of the churches sent representatives to travel with Paul - II Corinthians 8:16-24
B. Several of these men are named in Acts 20:1-4. Take special note of Aristarchus, Timothy, and Tychicus.
C. While in Jerusalem, Paul is arrested and after spending several years in prison in Palestine, he is eventually sent to Rome for trial. Acts 27:1-2 names Luke (the “we”) and Aristarchus as companions on this trip.
II. From the prison in Rome, Paul wrote three of the letters in our New Testament: Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon
A. These letters were delivered by Tychicus. There wasn’t a regular mail service in those days. You generally sent letters via a trusted messenger. The messenger not only delivered the formal letter, but was able to fill in the details and answer questions from his personal knowledge of the situation.
1. Ephesians 6:21-22
2. Colossians 4:7-9
B. Tychicus is not mentioned in the letter to Philemon, but it is assumed the letter to Philemon was written and sent at the same time because the same sets of people are mentioned.
1. Both the letter to Colossae and Philemon are stated to be from Paul and Timothy. - Colossians 1:1; Philemon 1
2. Both mention Epaphras. The letter to Philemon telling us that Epaphras was in prison with Paul - Colossians 4:12; Philemon 23
3. Both mention Mark, Aristarchus, Luke, and Demas - Colossians 4:10, 14; Philemon 24
4. Both address Archippus - Colossians 4:17; Philemon 2
5. Both mention that Paul is currently in prison - Colossians 4:18; Philemon 9; (Ephesians 6:20 also mentions that Paul is in prison)
6. Both mention Onesimus. In fact, it is Onesimus’s situation that is the primary focus of the letter to Philemon - Colossians 4:9; Philemon 10-21
C. Colossians 4:16 also mentions a letter to the Laodiceans that is to be shared with the brethren in Colossae
1. If you read most commentaries, you will find the general opinion that the letter to Laodicea was lost.
2. This is surprising given the care early Christians took in preserving the words of God delivered through the Apostles.
a. Mark 13:31 - Jesus said his words would not pass away
b. I Peter 1:24-25 - Peter said God’s words would abide forever
3. The idea of losing a letter known to at least two congregations is very disturbing.
III. What happened to the Letter to the Laodiceans?
A. A hint is presented to us in Colossians 4:16-17
1. When the Colossians go to exchange letters, they are instructed to remind Archippus to do his duty as a minister.
2. Archippus is mentioned as a fellow soldier in the house of Philemon where the church meets.
3. Many commentators state that the church of Colossae met in Philemon’s house.
a. If this was true, then Archippus would be the minister in Colossae.
b. He would have heard the words of Paul when the letter was read in Colossae.
c. Why would the Colossians be told to speak to Archippus in Laodicea?
B. Another objection is that Colossians 4:15 mentions the brethren in Laodicea and the church that meets in Nympha’s house.
1. It is assumed that Nympha’s house is in Laodicea.
2. However, notice that greetings are given to two groups: the brethren in Laodicea and the church in Nympha’s house. Either Paul is repeating the same greeting or he is addressing two groups.
3. In Colossians 4:13 there is mention of brethren in Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis.
a. Hierapolis was 6 miles from Laodicea. The two towns were in viewing distance of each other across a valley.
b. Colossae was about 11 miles from Laodicea and 13 miles from Hierapolis.
4. It is more likely that Nympha was in Hierapolis.
C. The closeness of these three towns also explains Paul’s statement that Onesimus being one of the Colossians’ number - Colossians 4:9
1. It is likely that Onesimus was born in the Colossae region.
2. Some suggest that Paul is stating that Onesimus is a Christian and their brother.
a. However, Onesimus became a Christian while on the lam in Rome.
b. He wasn’t a member at Colossae.
D. Another objection is that Philemon is a personal letter.
1. Yet, if you read Philemon 1-2 you will see that the letter was addressed to the church in Philemon’s house as well as Archippus and Apphia (possibly Philemon’s wife?).
2. Philemon is a letter to a church, yet its personal contents explains Paul’s reference to it in Colossians 4:16.
a. Paul doesn’t refer to it as the letter to the church in Laodicea.
b. He just calls it the letter from Laodicea.
IV. Why did Paul make a personal letter public?
A. Onesimus was a run-away slave.
1. By Roman law, his master could do anything he wanted to punish him for running away, including torture and making an example of him by killing him.
2. Onesimus probably ran to Rome (almost 1,200 miles away) to hide by blending into that great metropolis.
B. Somehow Onesimus met Paul and was converted to Christ.
1. Perhaps it was the appearance of Epaphras, who was from Colossae - Colossians 1:7-8.
2. Epaphras was knowledgeable about the churches in Laodicea and Hierapolis - Colossians 4:12-13
3. He probably had seen Onesimus before and knew he was a run-away slave.
4. Perhaps his coming led Onesimus to confess his past to Paul.
5. However it came about, Paul persuaded Onesimus to return to his master.
6. Paul lived in accordance with the laws of man where possible and he urged others to do the same.
C. However, Paul was determined to do everything he could to protect this new Christian.
1. He appeals to Philemon’s desire to do what is right - Philemon 8
2. He appeals to Philemon’s sympathy for the aged Paul who is in prison - Philemon 9
3. He emphasizes that Onesimus was a Christian now and a Christian who has personally gave service to the apostle Paul - Philemon 10-13
4. He appeals to Philemon’s goodness - Philemon 14
5. He asks Philemon to treat Onesimus as he would treat Paul - Philemon 17
6. Paul pledges to repay any debt Onesimus owed Philemon - Philemon 18
7. He pointed out the Philemon owes his own life to Paul - Philemon 19
8. He mentions that he is confident that Philemon would do more than Paul asked and Paul had hinted that he would like Onesimus to be sent back - Philemon 21
9. Oh, and by the way, Paul is planning to come by in the near future and plans to stay in Philemon’s house - Philemon 22
D. Talk about arm twisting! Yet on top of this, Paul addressed this letter to the church in Philemon’s house.
1. Since Tychicus delivered the letter, everyone would know its content.
2. Even if Philemon had the slightest inkling to punish Onesimus, he would have to explain himself to his brethren why he won’t concede to the aged apostle’s wishes.
E. As if this wasn’t enough, Paul made sure that the Colossian brethren had met Onesimus and knew of Paul’s love for the man.
1. He also told the Colossians to share their letter with the Laodiceans and to be sure to ask for Paul’s letter to them (the letter to Philemon).
2. There would be no denying its existence!
3. And as a final stroke, Paul sends a personal message to the preacher in Laodicea via the Colossians to remember to do his duty.
a. A not so subtle hint that Archippus was to make sure that Paul’s will was carried out.
V. The matter between Philemon and Onesimus was a private matter, but Paul made sure that it would be settled publicly.
A. Paul never denied that Philemon had the right to punish Onesimus.
B. He just made it extremely awkward for Philemon to do so.
1. And why not? A man’s life was at stake!
2. Could Paul have done anything less?
3. And how delicately, tactfully, and beautifully Paul boxes Philemon in to only do the right thing.
C. Can you imagine the conniptions brethren would have today with such dealings?
1. The Laodiceans would have told the Colossians to mind their own business.
2. “Churches are autonomous. You can’t tell our preacher what to do!”
D. Brethren have a duty to watch out for each other, even if they are members of neighboring congregations.