Examples of Self-Giving Service for the Joy of Faith, part 4 (Philippians 2:27-30)

Last week we looked at the amazing example of Epaphroditus, a young man who had risked his life completing the mission he was given—to bring a gift to Paul from the Philippian church.  He did that faithfully, despite the fact that he was very sick and almost died.

Paul pointed out how valuable Epaphroditus had been to him and also the Philippians, because he intended to send him back to them and wanted the Philippians to esteem him and welcome him with open arms.

When we left off last week we noted that Epaphroditus had been very ill, near to the point of death, and Paul tells them two things:  First, that all the while he was sick his mind was more upon the emotional distress they would be feeling rather than his own physical distress.

Second, Paul indicates how dependent they had been upon God for Epaphroditus’ revival.  Listen to these last few words of Philippians 2:

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.

We who have the benefits of modern medicine may easily read right past “but God had mercy on him.”  But in Paul’s day few people drew back from death’s door.  Many sick people eventually died.

This wasn’t a matter of the young man’s simply getting better but of God’s direct healing—“the sovereign merciful act of God himself” (O’Brien).  Even though we have the benefits of modern medicine (and should avail ourselves of it), it is still God who brings healing.  In this case, medicine wasn’t available.  Evidently Paul did not have the ability to heal everyone he wanted to be healthy, even his fellow workers.  Divine healing has always been subject to the will of God, and not something that someone can force whenever he or she wants (cf. 1 Tim. 5:23; 2 Tim. 4:20).

Only God could have done this.  And Paul lets them know that this was the case.  If God had effectively brought him back from “death’s door” then he must have a purpose for him.

Epaphroditus had been spared death by the merciful intervention of God himself.  And, as the apostle was quick to mention, the mercy extended further, to Paul himself — “and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow” (v. 27b).

Like Christ, Paul was “a man of sorrows” due to his calling (cf. Isaiah 53:3).  He was also a man who, amidst sorrows, experienced a fountain of joy, as we note from the sixteen instances of forms of the word joy in Philippians.

Among his present sorrows in Rome was the selfish rivalry of some Christian leaders.  How thankful he was that the sorrow of Epaphroditus’ death was not overlaid upon those sorrows. How grateful he was for the sovereign will of God and for divine mercy.  But what Paul wanted the Philippians to know was that when they received Epaphroditus back again, they were receiving a man who, as it were, was back from the dead.  So this was likewise a mercy to them.

For all these reasons — Paul’s esteem for Epaphroditus as a brother, a fellow worker, a fellow soldier, an apostle, and a messenger who desperately longed for home and was distressed at their distress and who almost died carrying out their assignment — because of all of this Paul says, “I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious” (v. 28).

When Epaphroditus arrived, the Philippians would be relieved to know he was safe, Epaphroditus would be relieved to be home, and Paul would be “less anxious” about him.  Nothing would please Paul more than a proper reunion.

Paul will urge the Philippians to regard Epaphroditus highly (“hold men like him in high regard”), and to welcome him back wholeheartedly (“with all joy”).  Perhaps Paul sensed that they would undervalue him.

Paul now urged, “So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me” (vv. 29, 30).

During the long separation between Paul and the Philippian church (and especially since his imprisonment in Rome), the Philippians had been unable to fully express their fellowship/partnership in Paul’s ministry — especially since they lacked a way to supply his needs.

He had daringly exposed himself to danger.  It was while he had labored for his absent Philippian brethren, to make up their deficiency in this sense (4:14-18; cf. 1 Cor. 16:17), that he had become dangerously ill.

Epaphroditus’ heroics enabled them to complete their gospel obligation to Paul.  He was the key link that did not fail in his mission.  They owed the young man big-time.

In effect, single-talented as Epaphroditus was, he was like Christ.  Paul makes this very clear in the Greek because the phrase that tells us that Epaphroditus “nearly died” in verse 30 is exactly the same as the phrase in 2:8, which describes Christ coming “to the point of death.”

Epaphroditus’ near death for Paul echoes Christ’s real death for us.  This young man had the mind of Christ.  He was not only willing to lay down his life for the sake of others, he almost did!

He clearly wasn’t thinking of himself and his own desires or needs.  His heart was focused on finishing his mission to Paul, of helping Paul on behalf of the Philippian church.  Thus, he made possible for the Philippian church to be partners with Paul in the gospel.  The Philippians, Epaphroditus and Paul would all be rewarded for their part in making the gospel known in Rome.

Thomas Constable has an interesting side note:

Aphrodite (Venus) was the goddess of gamblers. When a pagan Greek threw the dice he would cry out “epaphroditos!” meaning “favorite of Aphrodite.”  Epaphroditus’ name may have connections with this custom.  If so, Paul may have written that Epaphroditus “risked [gambled] his life” as a wordplay on his friend’s name.  Paul made a more obvious wordplay with Onesimus’ name, which means “useful” (cf. Phile. 10-11).

Epaphroditus gambled with his life and won because God was with him and had mercy on him.

David Guzik shows how Epaphroditus’ example influenced other risk-takers in the early church:

In the days of the Early Church there was an association of men and women who called themselves the gamblers, taken from this same ancient Greek word used in not regarding his life.  It was their aim to visit the prisoners and the sick, especially those who were ill with dangerous and infectious diseases.

Often, when a plague struck a city, the heathen threw the dead bodies into the streets and fled in terror.  But the gamblers buried the dead and helped the sick the best they could, and so risked their lives to show the love of Jesus.

Paul doesn’t chide Epaphroditus for taking a foolish risk, but exalts him because he had taken a faithful risk.  He was completing his mission.

Now, it is possible that Epaphroditus was sent not only to bring a gift to Paul, but also to be his attendant.  It may be that Epaphroditus fulfilled the first, but because of his sickness was unable to be of much help to Paul.  Perhaps the Philippians believed his mission had failed.

But Paul wants them to know that this was not the case.  Epaphroditus had proved himself very valuable to Paul and despite his extreme illness had accomplished his mission.  Why?  Because he had the mind of Christ, a selfless willingness to expend himself in every way to put others first and minister to them.

And Epaphroditus did this to fulfill what was lacking in the Philippians service to Paul.  We, likewise should have the heart that there is something lacking in our service until the job is done.  We should not be satisfied with good intentions or a half-done job.

And we should be willing, like Epaphroditus, to help others complete the job, even if it wasn’t our job to begin with.

That is why Paul is so proud of Epaphroditus.  In every way he showed himself to be a humble, others-centered man.

Epaphroditus represents a category of people who are to be honored.  If we have read Paul correctly, it is not only the up-front people, those with the more public gifts, who are to be honored but also those who regardless of their gifts live out the example of Christ.

By holding up Epaphroditus, Paul contradicted the Greco-Roman culture’s, and also our modern culture’s, rewarding those who seek prestige and position.

Markus Blockmuehl explains:

Once again, those who stake their ambition on the example of Christ in 2.6-11 will find themselves in conflict with the values and presuppositions of the secular path to power.  By saying that it is people like Epaphroditus whom the Philippians should hold in honour (entimous), Paul at once contradicts Graeco-Roman society’s pervasive culture of rewarding the upwardly mobile quest for prestige and public recognition (philotimia).  The Church instead will prize and value those who aspire to the mind of Christ.  (The Epistle to the Philippians , p. 17)

In other words, real honor should go not to those who seek honor, but to those who serve in humility, even behind the scenes, but who do so faithfully.

This ought to lay the ax to those of us who define success in the evangelical community as a kind of lordship: sitting in the honored seat, being the feted guest at luncheons, speaking to vast throngs, building monuments, naming buildings after ourselves, collecting honorary titles.

Over the course of chapter 2, Paul had taken great pains to get the Philippians outside themselves, beginning with the command in verses 3, 4:

“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Paul knows that for true partnership in the work of the gospel to exist, there must be unity among the workers. The key to achieving unity is for each believer to adopt the humble mind of Christ.

Paul had held up the supreme example of Christ in verses 5-11.  He had raised the example of his protégé Timothy in verses 19-24, as a man who looked out for others’ interests.  He had lifted up the layman Epaphroditus as an unforgettable example in verses 25-30.

But what about Paul himself?  As we would expect, we see that the great apostle practiced what he preached as he put the interests of others above his own in sending Timothy and Epaphroditus back to Philippi, leaving himself alone and unattended in Rome.

Was Paul thinking about himself during those dark days in Rome?  Hardly!  He was willing to sacrifice his own interests for the well-being of others.  Paul, the theologian, lived out every aspect of his theology in the most practical ways.

The magnitude of Paul’s humility and benevolence toward Epaphroditus can be seen by contrasting Paul’s words in our text to what someone of lesser stature might have made out of this same situation.

Let’s suppose Paul was a very insecure and threatened leader, who had to keep reminding others of his position, power and prestige, a petty fellow, who found it impossible to praise others.  What could this kind of man have done with the circumstances at hand?  Let me suggest one very fictional scenario:

“From Paul, the esteemed apostle of God’s choice, to all those under my charge in Philippi.  As you know, missionary work is very demanding, and only the strong of heart can endure under conditions such as I am presently experiencing.  Unfortunately, Epaphroditus is not a strong man physically.  His trip to Rome with your generous gift was too much for him, and he almost succumbed to his illness.  It was fortunate that I was able to nurse him back to good health.  Epaphroditus is not a strong fellow in spirit, as well as in body.  He simply could not hold up under the stress of the situation.  He became so homesick that he was of little help to me here, and so I have sent him home.  His return should serve as a warning to the faint of heart.…”

Rather, in our text (verse 29), Paul actually commands the saints at Philippi to give him a hero’s welcome home.  Paul encouraged Epaphroditus and prepared the way for a triumphant reunion with his friends, family, and fellow believers.

By multiplying the examples of Christ-minded, others-centered men Paul is encouraging the Philippians (and us) that we can be like them.  Oh, we might not want to think of ourselves as like Christ, or even Paul, maybe not even Timothy.  But Epaphroditus is normal, just like us in our weaknesses, yet still able to put others ahead of himself.

What about us?  We know that public ministry gifts must be used to glorify Christ in looking out for the interests of others.  We know that God sees all and will hold his leaders responsible.

But what about the quiet, perhaps single-talented Christians like Epaphroditus?  Will they get a pass?  No!  Rather, they should fear that if they bury their talent (thinking “it won’t matter”), God will certainly see and hold them accountable.

They should read what the master said to the lazy servant in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:14-29.

14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance.  But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

So don’t hide your talent.  Even if you have only one ability to serve God with (and some may think they have none), use what God has given you to minister to others.  Ask him how to use the talents and abilities you have to minister to others.

Epaphroditus certainly wasn’t Paul or Timothy.  He was a “brother,” a “fellow worker,” a “fellow soldier,” a “messenger [apostle],” a “messenger” — that’s all!  He had the mind of Christ — that’s all!  He is honored today by both man and God — that’s all!

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Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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