The Godly Mailman
It was time—time for the runaway slave to return home to face whatever consequences awaited him. He had been away long enough.
Onesimus was a fugitive. He had fled to Rome where he had placed his faith in Christ through the ministry of the apostle Paul, who was under house arrest at the time. The apostle watched as the Lord dramatically changed the once-useless slave into a servant of great worth, both to the gospel ministry and to him personally. Paul discipled Onesimus, and now it was time for the wayward servant to go home if his journey toward Christlikeness was to continue.
Details of Onesimus’ return are not documented. However, complementary biblical texts shed some light on it. Onesimus was not left to travel and face the consequences alone. According to Paul’s letter to the Colossian church, Tychicus became his traveling companion (Col. 4:7–9)—and therein lies the story behind the story.
The trip would have been lengthy and tedious. Traveling throughout the ancient Roman Empire was treacherous and not to be undertaken alone. After leaving the magnificent city of Rome behind, Onesimus and Tychicus faced a formidable journey that included trekking across the Roman and Greek peninsulas, boarding multiple vessels to cross the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, and trudging inland to Colossae once they arrived on the coast of Asia Minor. They covered hundreds upon hundreds of miles—many of them probably on foot.
The major cities overflowed with every form of debauchery and temptation. Thieves and charlatans prowled the roads and trails. Magnificent stadiums, theaters, and temples dedicated to emperors and false gods were everywhere. The false worship and demonically inspired rituals practiced behind the gleaming marble walls and statues silently proclaimed Christians were not welcome in that culture.
Perhaps the men found a Christian brother or sister who provided hospitality and fellowship, giving them a respite from the danger all around them.
Onesimus’ willingness to embark on such a daunting journey was a testimony to Christ’s redemptive work in his life and the sincerity of his repentance. Every day he traveled and every step he walked moved him closer to the end of the journey and his unknown fate, which seemed to lie in the hands of the master whom he had wronged.
Paul knew Philemon, Onesimus’ master, well; and his confidence in the noble Christian character of his longtime friend stirred Paul to write an inspired letter seeking grace on behalf of the returning, guilty servant. Passionately vouching for the vibrant transformation in Onesimus’ life, Paul nevertheless recognized that Onesimus had done wrong and offered to take personal responsibility for any financial loss the servant had inflicted on his master.
An Extraordinary Life
Although the book of Philemon focuses on Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, a more in-depth study of the account unveils a story behind the story and the extraordinary life of an ordinary man named Tychicus, the godly mailman.
Paul called Tychicus a “beloved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord” (Col. 4:7). Writing to the Colossians, his words abounded with warmth and camaraderie for his treasured teammate. Tychicus was a man worthy of trust who discharged his duties faithfully. As a fellow servant, he was wholeheartedly committed to serving the Lord.
The Gentile churches in Asia had chosen Tychicus to join Paul in collecting and delivering an offering for the suffering Jewish believers in Jerusalem (Acts 20:4). Renowned biblicist J. B. Lightfoot said he believes it was Tychicus to whom Paul referred in 2 Corinthians 8:18–19 when he mentioned “the brother whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches . . . who was also chosen by the churches to travel with us with this gift.” (See verses 16–24.) From that time forward, Tychicus continued ministering with and to the apostle.
Tychicus’s heart for ministry encouraged and blessed many. He was the faithful messenger sent to the churches at Colossae and Ephesus with the express purpose of coming alongside believers there to strengthen and encourage their hearts in Christ. Life was difficult. Disappointments and hard times abounded. Doctrinal confusion proliferated, persecution was commonplace, people couldn’t be trusted, and Christians were apprehensive about Paul’s imprisonment.
Tychicus’s firsthand reports on the beloved apostle’s well-being and the ever-expanding impact of the gospel bolstered and energized believers across Asia Minor. God was at work despite the hardships. (See Ephesians 6:21–22 and Colossians 4:8.)
At one point in his ministry, Tychicus was considered as a possible interim pastor to step in for Titus. Instead, he was selected to accompany Onesimus back to Colossae. That trip also was to include a strategic stop in Ephesus.
Toward the end of Paul’s second and final imprisonment in Rome, some of his companions forsook him or moved to other areas of ministry. Paul yearned to have his son in the faith, Timothy, visit him. So that Timothy could be away from both his pastorate in Ephesus and his leadership role over the churches in Asia Minor, Paul sent Tychicus ahead of time to fill in for him (2 Tim. 4:9–12; Ti. 3:12).
Imagine Philemon’s and the Colossian church’s disbelief and amazement when Tychicus and Onesimus arrived in town. Paul had called Onesimus “one of you” (Col. 4:9) when he wrote to the church that met in Philemon’s home. The believers in Colossae knew Onesimus and probably the circumstances surrounding him. When Paul’s letter was read openly, the stunned assembly may have gasped. The presence of a highly regarded eyewitness, such as Tychicus, would have convinced the church that Onesimus’ conversion to Christ was genuine.
Delivering the Mail
Tychicus fulfilled his role from behind the scenes. By all accounts, he never wrote a book, started a church, or founded a great ministry. As a “faithful minister,” he carried out the commands of another (v. 7). As a “fellow servant,” he served alongside others (v. 7). He was willing to step forward to meet whatever need he could for the cause of Christ.
Throughout his life, the most impressive task he undertook was probably the most overlooked. During the daunting journey from Rome to Colossae, Tychicus carried three letters of enormous importance. He was the godly mailman entrusted to deliver Paul’s original epistles to the Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.
Those God-breathed manuscripts are God’s revelation of Himself, His will, and His gift of salvation for all to hear, accept, and follow. Read and reread, copied and recopied, and passed down through the ages, those epistles have been protected by God—every trustworthy word from the originals to what we have today.
God is sovereign, and every detail involving the preservation of those scrolls was under His care, as was the salvation and selection of the godly mailman who would deliver them.
God’s truth was placed in the hands of an ordinary man whose diligence and care provided an opportunity for the Word to be accurately communicated on Earth for thousands of years to come.
Many who follow Christ aspire to follow in the footsteps of Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, and other great leaders whom God used. But how many aspire to be a Tychicus, willing to minister behind the scenes in God’s unfolding drama of redemption?
“God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints. Do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:10, 12).
We serve a God who uses ordinary people in extraordinary ways; and He will use us too—as long as we make ourselves available to Him.