I noticed something really cool the other day when studying for Philemon to preach it on Sunday evening. (By the way you can listen to a few of my sermons by going here; but the Philemon one is not up yet). In many of the commentaries and sermons that I read through in studying I did not find a ton of people making this connection. So I proceed with caution. I could be way off here, but I don’t think I am…
More than likely what happened to provoke this letter is that Onesimus (Philemon’s slave) had ran away from his owner, somehow ran into Paul, and as many people who “ran into Paul” happened to do—he became a believer in Jesus. Onesimus has now become deeply useful to Paul but he must send him back to Philemon and be reconciled to him.
So here we have Onesimus standing at Philemon’s door with a letter from Paul. Inside this letter (the one we call Philemon in our New Testament bibles), is Paul encouraging Philemon to model the gospel by welcoming back this new convert. Philemon, who is known for “refreshing hearts” (v.7), is now being urged by Paul to “Refresh my heart in Christ” (v.20). What he means by that is clear from verse 12 when Paul refers to Onesimus as his “very heart”.
Here in Philemon, then, we have a story of a runaway slave that is to be welcomed back into his household and now treated as a brother and not a slave. A beautiful picture of the gospel--as Jesus has done the same thing with us wayward sinners and as Paul did (v18-19) asks that every bit of our debt be charged to His account. And a beautiful picture of gospel reconciliation—“receive him as you would receive me”.
Rewind a couple of decades. You can pick the story up in Acts 15:36-40. Here there is a sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over a young man named John Mark. Apparently Mark (as he was later called) had ran away from them on the mission field. Much like Onesimus, we do not know much of the details to his running away. We only know that he ran away from where he should have been.
Paul did not want to welcome him back and let him go on this follow-up mission trip. Barnabas, always the encourager, wanted Mark to go. The two separate: Mark goes with Barnabas and Silas goes with Paul.
Now fast-forward back to Paul’s letter to Philemon. Notice a name in verse 24, “Mark”. Most believe that this is in fact the very same Mark (John Mark) that had left Paul and Barnabas and jetted back to Jerusalem; also the same Mark that would later go on to write the Gospel of Mark.
We do not know the story behind Mark’s being welcomed back by Paul and his now being useful. But we do know from 2 Timothy 4:11 that just like in the case of Onesimus the formerly “useless” Mark has now became “very useful” to Paul “for ministry”.
Here his name comes up in Paul’s letter to Philemon. I do not know that Philemon would have known the story of Paul and Mark’s reconciliation. But it is worth noting that apparently Paul practiced what he admonished Philemon to do.