…and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you…and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions — if he comes to you, welcome him)… (Colossians 4:9-10).
Onesimus was a Colossian slave who ran away from his master and straight in to Christ through the teachings of Paul. He is accompanying Tychicus back to Colossae to make things right with the man who owned him. A note to that man, Philemon, is also in the Bible and tells more of his story — it was hand-delivered along with this letter to the Colossians.
Mark in this verse is John Mark, author of the gospel account that bears his name and the cousin of Paul’s first missionary partner, Barnabas. Mark once abandoned them both in the middle of a missionary journey (Acts 13:13), and Paul was disappointed enough in this choice that he eventually severed his friendship with Barnabas and set out to preach Christ with another co-worker, Silas, instead (Acts 15:37-39).
Onesimus. Mark. Deserters, the both of them.
But here, in these closing words, Paul goes to bat for the betrayers: Onesimus, who is one of you. Mark, welcome him.
Paul begs Philemon to receive Onesimus as he would the Apostle himself, and to charge any debts to him personally: If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account (Philemon 18). And somewhere, somehow, Paul has forgiven Mark. At the end of his life, Paul asks for him — get Mark and bring him with you (2 Timothy 4:11) — and calls him my son (I Peter 5:13).
The lawbreaker and the heartbreaker — there is redemption for both.
That’s because, in the end, Paul knows that the story of the Christian faith is summed up in mercy without cause: you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death (Colossians 1:21-22).
It is bound up in the stories of Onesimus and Mark — and all those like them.
Joseph’s brothers, forgiven for selling him into slavery. Hosea’s wife, bought back into covenant marriage though she remained unfaithful. Barabbas, the notorious murderer, set free in place of the innocent Christ. The adulterous woman, caught in the act yet forgiven by the Savior. The Prodigal Son, mocking the protection and spending the grace of his Father, yet welcomed home without reservation or retribution.
Much has been made of the work of justice for the modern Christian — “to truly follow Christ, we must set things right.”
But the gospel is found in the face of Jesus on the cross, crying out mercy for His murderers as they watched Him die.
To truly follow Christ, we must first forgive while things are still wrong.
We must make peace when there is no justice — practice grace where there is no apology — work to forget when we can do nothing but remember.
For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). For I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).
I find all of this as impossible as the next person. Radical grace can only come through the Spirit — His daily, quiet, relentless exposure of our debt and our One True Hope of payment.
If we cannot forgive, we do not yet know how much we have been forgiven.
If we cannot forgive, our hope is not in Christ, but in those who have deserted us, longing for them to be the savior they can never, ever be.