Reoccurring themes and second chances
As Paul wraps up his personal letter to Philemon, he also lists out final greetings from those who are ministering with him at the moment:
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my coworkers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
In light of Paul’s plea for Philemon to reconcile with Onesimus – despite the wrongs Onesimus had committed – one name on Paul’s final greeting list stands out: Mark.
Paul’s letter to Philemon and his letter to the Colossian church were very likely to have been written and delivered at the same time. In fact, one of the great evidences for this timeline is the near-identical final greeting list at the end of Colossians, where Paul says:
Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, greets you, as does Mark, Barnabas’ cousin (concerning whom you have received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him)
This is the same Mark who deserted Paul and Barnabas on a missionary trip approximately 20 years before Paul wrote his letter to Philemon. Although the Scriptures do not record why Mark abandoned the team, we do know that his reasons caused significant problems later on:
After some time had passed, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit the brothers in every town where we have preached the message of the Lord, and see how they’re doing.” Barnabas wanted to take along John Mark. But Paul did not think it appropriate to take along this man who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone on with them to the work. There was such a sharp disagreement that they parted company, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed off to Cyprus. Then Paul chose Silas and departed, after being commended to the grace of the Lord by the brothers. He traveled through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
At that time, it was Barnabas standing in the gap for John Mark and pleading for Paul to reconcile over the past wrongs that John Mark had caused. However, Paul did not want to trust John Mark after his previous failure.
The disagreement over John Mark’s usefulness was significant enough for Barnabas and Paul to part company. They are never mentioned together again in the rest of the New Testament.
Now fast-forward 20 years. John Mark, through Barnabas’ mentoring, has become useful to Paul as they work together spreading the gospel. There is no doubt in my mind that Paul saw in Onesimus the same need for a second chance that John Mark had needed so many years prior. While Paul could not go back to change his previous choices, he was presented with an opportunity to make the better choice this time.
You can almost hear the echo of Barnabas’ plea on behalf of John Mark when Paul writes about Onesimus:
So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me. And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
Maybe we’ve messed up opportunities to reconcile relationships in the past. We can’t go back and change those. We have to trust that God will work in other people’s lives. However, we will run into reoccurring themes the longer we walk with Christ. There will be opportunities for us to make the right choice and help someone else.
Our great God is a God who gives second chances. And He is patient enough to show us the reoccurring themes of life – even decades later – to give us another chance to act like Him toward another person.