Central to Paul’s letter to Philemon is the underlying issue of the reconciliation of Philemon and his runaway servant, Onesimus. Onesimus had deserted his master and fled to Rome where he had come into contact with the great apostle Paul and been converted to Christ. However Paul was also aware that acceptance of the Truth involves the application of its principles in one’s own life. Onesimus’ new birth in Christ required him to return to Philemon and seek his forgiveness. Therefore Paul was intent on sending him back to resolve the unfinished chapter in the lives of Onesimus and Philemon.

Paul also saw in this situation a wonderful opportunity for Philemon to grow in Christ, by learning to forgive the renegade slave. It was likely that it would not be an easy reconciliation for either Philemon or Onesimus, therefore Paul sent Onesimus back with a letter to Philemon to tactfully invokePhilemon’s tenderness and merciful forgiveness.

The most powerful exhortation comes from one who fully understands the difficulty of the issue; from one who has entered into the experiences of those he has sought to encourage. This is no different in this letter to Philemon. Underscoring the letter is Paul’s own personal example. He, like his Lord, was touched with the feeling of others’ infirmities, having experienced their trials. What Paul was asking of Philemon was what he himself had learned.

In verse 24 we have listed in the concluding greetings of Paul’s companions a most interesting group— “Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers”.

 Marcus is the John Mark of the book of Acts. His life—like Onesimus’—is a striking example of failure, yet ultimate victory. It was in the homeof John Mark’s mother that the ecclesia met and prayed for Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:12– 14). The family was evidently quite affluent and provided for the ecclesia’s needs, and Peter knew them well. John Mark’s mother was Barnabas’ sister (Col 4:10).

John Mark had proved himself unreliable when he left Paul and Barnabas on their first journey at Perga to return to Jerusalem—“Now when Paul and his company loosed from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia: and John departing from them returned to Jerusalem” (Acts 13:13). Barnabas was keen to give his nephew another opportunity to put his hand to the work. However, Paul was not prepared to have an unreliable member in the difficult campaign ahead of them. Sadly, Paul and Barnabas went separate paths because of this strong dispute over John Mark (Acts 15:36-40). Paul took Silas and later Timothy, while Barnabas took John Mark. Both were right, and both were wrong, since it resulted in a division because of their difference of opinion.

Yet fortunately the story does not end there as this division was in time rectified. Paul then writes of Mark that he was now profitable to him in the work of the Truth—“Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry” (2 Tim 4:11). Here is an important reference to John Mark as the word “profitable” is only used threetimes in Scripture—meet for the master’s use” (2 Tim 2:21); “profitable to me for the ministry” (2 Tim 4:11); and “which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me” (Philemon v11).

These latter two references illustrate why Paul mentions John Mark in his closing words to Philemon. Paul was informing Philemon that he understood his feelings. Paul, like Philemon, had endured an unprofitable servant who had run away but who later had become profitable in the Truth’s service. When John Mark changed, Paul not only received him back with open arms, but also openly acknowledged his worth to all. Hence, Paul was asking of Philemon no more than what he himself had done in his own life.

It is this which empowered Paul’s exhortation to Philemon and to us. Paul’s advice was tempered with the knowledge that he truly understood Philemon’s situation and was living his own advice. The most powerful exhortation is not the one that is heard but the one that is lived. A brother or sister’s actions are easier to perceive and more readily heeded than merely one’s words. Let us encourage one another by our personal example of faithful living of the Truth. Setting a good example is the most effective means of exhorting one another.