It is rare that Paul is described as being alone. Despite the initial, understandable reluctance of the early church to accept him after his conversion, his ministry was one of partnership in the gospel.
You may recall that Paul had a serious and painful falling out with Barnabas following disagreement concerning John Mark. When relationships break down – particularly between Christians, where the disappointment can feel crushing – it is tempting to think we’re better off on our own. Safer, perhaps; more straightforward. But the image Jesus gives us of being grafted into the vine shows us the fruit: clusters of grapes growing together, not individual, single fruits.
Unless you know that God has called you into a solitary role, it is much more likely you will have companions on your journey. This is so that partnership “may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ” (verse 6). Sometimes it is only through this sharing that we can go more deeply into our own faith.
However, commitment from others can only be invited, not demanded. We don’t know much about Onesimus, only that he was a former slave whom Paul valued. The phrase, “Formerly he was useless to you” (verse 11) involves a pun in the Greek. Useless is “achrestos” and useful is “euchrestos”, both words having what sounds like Christ in the root. Paul is clearly emphasising that Onesimus is a changed man, and those changes are due to his relationship not only with Paul but with Jesus himself.
Verse 18 implies that Onesimus had made mistakes and may even have owed money – which might explain the reluctance to accept him! Paul, though, knew better than most how hard it is to leave a poor reputation behind. We, too, can find that previous bad decisions and character flaws haunt us. Sometimes it is others who struggle to forgive us and accept that we’ve changed; but other times it’s we ourselves who can’t let go. We might believe that we cannot shake off a bad reputation but Jesus truly does wipe the slate clean.
At the heart of the gospel is the message of new birth and freedom from the past. Let’s be sure we are those who live out this truth: accepting forgiveness for ourselves and extending it to others we minister alongside.
Lord, thank you for the people in my life who help me serve you. Show me how to forgive readily, love more sincerely and live more honestly among them. For your sake, Amen.