During these last few months of coronavirus, I think we all have come to a deeper appreciation of the value of fellowship. We genuinely miss one another.
As we have seen, fellowship in the Philippian church was not of the ice cream social variety but was rather the fellowship of people bound together by a great spiritual quest.
The Greek root word for fellowship occurs six times across the brief chapters of Philippians, rendered variously as “partnership” (twice), “partakers” (once), “participation” (once), and “share” (twice).
And each occurrence emphasizes a different aspect of the Philippians’ fellowship or participation with one another: 1:5 emphasizes “partnership in the gospel”; 1:7 describes the Philippians as “partakers . . . of grace”; 2:1 lists their “participation in the Spirit”; 3:10 records Paul’s desire to “share” in Christ’s sufferings; and 4:14, 15 employ the words “share” and “partnership” to stress fellowship in giving — “Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only” (4:14, 15). So fellowship involved participation in the gospel and grace and the Spirit and suffering and giving.
In 2:25-30 we learn that the Philippians had decided to express and confirm their fellowship with Paul by taking up an offering for him and dispatching an envoy to make the 800-mile trek to Rome and pay Paul’s prison expenses and minister to his needs. This was crucial because the Roman prison system didn’t provide for food, clothing, or medical care.
So young, strong, healthy, godly Epaphroditus was chosen and was entrusted with a considerable sum of money. This meant that he was not traveling alone when he fell ill because Paul had established apostolic precedent in sending large gifts by group (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:16-22).
The most likely scenario, therefore, is that when Epaphroditus fell ill, one of his traveling companions (or an acquaintance passing the other way) returned to Philippi with the alarming news, while another, or others, stayed with Epaphroditus and nursed him along so that he finally made it to Rome, very much worse for the wear. But ever-faithful Epaphroditus delivered the goods and set himself, as he was able, to caring for Paul as the Philippians’ surrogate.
However, it wasn’t long until Paul decided that the young man should return to Philippi for reasons that the apostle would later explain.
What is at once apparent from what Paul says here is that he was concerned that the Philippians give the young man a proper welcome. It was very possible that the little church, preoccupied with surviving in Philippi’s obtrusive, oppressive, “little Rome” culture, coupled with their surprise at Epaphroditus’ early return and the fact that he didn’t remain with Paul as long as they expected, could have worked to make his “welcome” to be little more than a perfunctory acknowledgment of his return, without the church truly engaging him and hearing and valuing his story and expressing genuine appreciation, kinda like when our young soldiers returned from Vietnam.
A church (like a culture) that does not recognize the sacrifice of its own for the sake of the gospel makes a big mistake. And the wise apostle simply would not let that happen.
Moreover, Epaphroditus’ selfless conduct was a living example of the mind of Christ in his serving the interests of others. So in verses 25-28 Paul prepares the way for a proper homecoming upon Epaphroditus’ return to Philippi.
25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
Unlike Timothy, Epaphroditus was not very well known outside of Philippi. Epaphroditus is mentioned only here in Scripture, but Paul makes certain that the Philippians (and we) recognize him and honor him for his example of selfless service.
Paul began with an unusually complimentary introductory fanfare. There was no drum roll, but it was definitely “Here’s Epaphroditus!”
Epaphroditus’ introductory resumé had five entries, three from Paul and two that referenced the Philippians. Paul called him “my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier.”
In a world of imitations, “my brother” referred to the real thing — the theological reality that two who were truly brothers shared the same spiritual bloodline. “My brother” resounded with affection, the love of believer for believer — “my dear brother.”
“Fellow worker” is intentionally elevating. Jesus would say of the church in Ephesus, “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:3), and this was singularly true of Epaphroditus. He worked, but more, he was Paul’s “fellow worker,” the great apostle’s coworker. Paul was the public, up-front apostle, and Epaphroditus was the behind-the-scenes servant. Yet the two were equally coworkers — one in work and dignity.
Next, the image that “fellow soldier” evokes lifts Epaphroditus high. Paul says elsewhere, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
This was the battle they were fighting. It is a spiritual battle, but nonetheless a real battle.
The two fought shoulder-to-shoulder in Rome. Perhaps Paul had in mind the trademark imperial soldiers’ battle ethic of standing side-by-side, dug in with shields locked solid, swords drawn. The truth is, young Epaphroditus was a battle-tested warrior who had been wounded in combat and was being sent home for a rest. This man was no weekend warrior. He had proven himself with distinction.
Now, let’s apply this to our church life today:
These three titles for Epaphroditus serve also to tell us what the church is like: It is a community (fellow-brother) that works together (fellow-worker) for a common cause—to advance the kingdom (fellow-soldier).
So the church is a community, a corporation and a cause. Some people are more oriented towards one than the others and we have to learn how to approach people with different “hats” on.
Why is this so important to grasp?
If you are in community with someone, then you are a family. If you are in a cause together, then you are an army. If you are in a corporation together, then you are a business. These three dimensions are vastly different from each other in more than just metaphor – they have different core values, different key persons, different ways of entrance and exit, and varying ways of payback.
In a community, the greatest values are, arguably, love, loyalty and mutual support. In a cause, the greatest value is winning. In a corporation, it is effectiveness. Could there be some tension between love and winning, or love and effectiveness?
Or think about roles.
In a community, the roles fall into such things as father, mother, brother; in a cause, it would be general, lieutenant, or sergeant. In a corporation, one thinks of a CEO, a president, or an employee. You relate to someone as father in a vastly different way than you do as either general or CEO. Approaching someone as an employee is not the same as approaching them as a brother.
And think of the tension between these three when it comes to key people or heroes. In a community, the key people are often the ones the community rallies around, meaning the weakest. Think of the way a family revolves around a newborn. In a cause, the heroes are the ones who are the most committed. In a corporation, the most honored are usually the most productive.
And perhaps most tricky of all, think of how you exit each of these dimensions. In terms of leaving a community, well, you don’t. You are part of a family, or family of origin, forever. You can’t ever really leave. When it comes to a cause, you have to desert or, if honorable, die in the effort. In a corporation, you either quit, are fired or retire.
Starting to get dizzy with the complexities?
Sorry to pile it on … but we haven’t even arrived at the tough part.
Think about knowing which hat to wear. Someone is not performing well at all, but you know that part of it is based on personal issues in their life. Do you wear the corporate hat of performance or the community hat of concern? In truth, it might be both. They may need a word from you as their general to pick up their pace for the cause and also need a father-figure at a moment of weakness.
Paul knew the value of all three relationships and was able to partner with Epaphroditus in all three areas. May we have the flexibility and grace to do that too!
[The above information about community, cause and corporation is from James Emery White, but I originally heard it from Jim Dethmer.]
Now let’s get back to the text of Philippians.
Beyond all that Epaphroditus meant to Paul, he had served the Philippians themselves in a twofold manner, as “your messenger and minister to my need” (v. 25b) —two titles of honor that rightfully belonged to the great Apostle Paul himself.
“Messenger” is literally “apostle.” And though Paul did not use apostle here in the full technical sense of one who had seen the resurrection and had a special commission to preach the gospel (cf. Acts 1:21-23; Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 15:7), it was, nevertheless, a designation of intended dignity.
Likewise, “minister” is also a title of dignity that was evocative of priestly service as Epaphroditus ministered to Paul’s needs. Paul may have been thinking of Epaphroditus’ ministry to him as similar to a priest’s. He presented the Philippians’ offering to Paul as a sacrifice (4:18).
Gerald Hawthorne says:
“Epaphroditus was their envoy to him, their way of telling him that they cared enough to send their very best …”
Paul is confirming that Epaphroditus had performed a very valued service to him, just as they meant to happen.
Here’s the picture: Epaphroditus was a layman whom we would never have heard of were it not for Paul’s brief reference here. But he was not a “mere layman.”
Epaphroditus served in no public capacity. He did not shepherd a flock, as did Timothy. He did not take the gospel to an unreached area. He did not receive special revelation. And he wrote nothing.
All he did was faithfully discharge his duty by delivering a bag of money to Paul and then by looking after him.
Yet he is called by Paul “brother . . . fellow worker . . . fellow soldier” and was identified to the Philippians as “apostle” and “minister.”
Paul’s makes no distinction between the ministry of Timothy and the ministry of Epaphroditus, as though one ministry is “first class ministry” and the other is “second class.”
They are very different men, with very different ministries, but they are both a vital and valuable part of the body of Christ.
We must understand that to serve in some unnoticed, unrecognized place in the body of Christ is as much the work of Christ as is public ministry. Paul teaches the same thing in 1 Corinthians 12 in his exposition of giftedness. Paul believed this implicitly, and so must we!
And, of course, we know that Jesus tells us that ministry done in secret is rewarded by God. So don’t disparage yourself or others if your ministry is behind-the-scenes or in the background.
Epaphroditus was remarkable. He held himself responsible to God by the same standard of faithfulness that Paul used for himself. No wonder Paul singled the young man out as an example to the church in Philippi, where so many were looking out for themselves rather than others. Epaphroditus had put on the mind of Christ, taking on the humble life of an unsung servant. The Philippians needed to see the young man for the man he was and receive him as such.
As a further motivation to properly welcome Epaphroditus back, Paul mentions Epaphroditus’ homesickness: “For he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill” (v. 26).
This was not a case of simple longing for a warm bed and some Aegean cuisine. It was a complex tension going on in Epaphroditus’ heart. Paul had used the same term in the introduction to this letter to describe his own personal longing for the Philippians “with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:8).
But what really distressed Epaphroditus was not the fact that he had been so ill, but the knowledge that news had gotten back to Philippi of how desperately sick he was. He was distressed because he feared they were distressed.
This may be difficult to understand in this day of cell phones when while in England I can call a friend and have him answer on his cell as he walks out of a restaurant in France! However, longtime missionary families understand Epaphroditus well and can tell you of quite different days when it took weeks to communicate.
How intensely Epaphroditus mentally suffered is seen in that the only other use of the Greek word here translated “distressed” is used to describe Jesus’ anguish in Gethsemane (cf. Mark 14:33).
The young man agonized as he imagined the prayers that were being offered for him by his brothers and sisters in the church. Some of them, he knew, had lost sleep over his plight. How he longed for them to know he was okay.
What a sympathetic, empathetic soul Epaphroditus was! Again, the young man was like Christ in his lack of self-interest and focus upon others. “You Philippians, receive him properly.”
If that wasn’t enough to convince them to give him a good welcome, Paul adds, “Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow” (v. 27).
The gravity of Epaphroditus’ trauma was such that it suggests that his fellow travelers had given up hope that he would live. Again the example of Christlike servanthood is repeated. Just as Christ had died as a servant, just as Paul had faced death serving the gospel, so Epaphroditus had come near to death in Christ’s service.
So here again is a good example of Christ-mindedness.