As Christian people grow in their knowledge of and love for Christ, their passion to serve Him—to obediently and faithfully do all they can to advance His kingdom program to its glorious completion—will grow as well, as will their effectiveness. However, it is no secret that this advancement is challenging, dangerous, often creates conflict with the unsaved and even other Christians, and—when one realizes that advancement is both the larger context in which progressive sanctification is set, and that our level of sanctification impacts our effectiveness and fruitfulness in that advancement—is either helped or hindered by our own growth in holiness and grace.
Philippians 2 has been a tour de force of the humility which God builds into His own. Under inspiration, Paul has given us four examples of this humbleness, starting with the supreme example of our Lord Jesus. Each of the examples highlight one or more aspects of the humility and obedience God asks of us. With Epaphroditus, we see godly humility evidences itself supremely in a tireless, joyful, radical, and self-sacrificing outpouring of oneself for the Lord and His program. Five characteristics of this service evince themselves in this text; we will look at three today and the remaining two next week.
A. Paul’s Description (v. 25)
Paul evidently highly esteems Epaphroditus—something most helpful for us, since the latter man is only mentioned not even a handful of times in the NT. How wonderful that someone who is so obscure can yet make a mark on eternity and be an example to us!
Paul begins by giving a five-fold description of Epaphroditus. All of these ideas are applicable to us and denote a well-rounded spiritual maturity. I will comment on each briefly below.
My brother. The most important description begins the list. Out of this one flows everything else. Paul is certain Epaphroditus is a fellow believer; he has been born again by the Spirit of God and is in the family and kingdom of God. Thus as an adopted son God’s power is at work in him to make him like Christ and to effectively use him for His glory. Besides this, it also underscores Paul’s deep affection and tenderness towards Epaphroditus. There is evidence Paul used the term “brother” or “brethren” in a full-throated way to denote affection, relationship, intimacy, commitment, and loyalty. It was not merely an academic or theological construct.
Fellow worker. Only the saved can work for Christ. Indeed, we are saved unto serving Him and fulfilling His purposes in the world. All of us in the family of God have ministry responsibilities assigned to us by the Lord Jesus. Mike Riccardi writes that Paul reserved this term for those who worked closely beside him in ministry and so to call Epaphroditus by this title was to place him in Paul’s inner circle. This reveals the level of confidence Paul had in him, and the loyalty he saw in Epaphroditus to him and to the gospel. Do we have this loyalty to the cause of Christ?
Fellow soldier. Epaphroditus is a partner in spiritual warfare, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Paul again the demonic forces that lie behind the political and cultural opposition to the Way. The more we work faithfully for the Lord, the more we will face the ire and backlash of our own flesh, an ungodly culture—and more importantly, the “spirit now working in [lit. “energizing”] the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). The founding pastor of the church I attended in college began his ministry in 1956 as a missionary to servicepeople, founding an outreach to the military that continues to faithfully proclaim the gospel to this day. He often said that to engage in evangelism and discipleship was “to join the winning team.” We need to remind ourselves in the heat of battle that to fight with and for the Lord Jesus is indeed to be on the winning team!
Messenger. This is the word “apostle.” In the NT, this word is used in a narrow and technical sense, to denote those men personally commissioned by the Lord Jesus to represent Him and teach on His behalf as emissaries of God Himself, and in a looser, more non-technical sense to simply denote someone who was a sent representative of a local church, even just for a limited time. It is in this latter sense that Epaphroditus is an apostle, representing the Philippian church in his ministry to Paul. This of course denotes his union with the church, extending it in himself where they cannot go. (We are to represent the Lord Jesus and our local expression of His body well in all areas of life. Do we?)
Minister. This word means “servant,” but it is not the word for deacon. Rather, it refers to priestly, sacrificial service, used only five times in your NT. To lovingly, devotedly, and sacrificially serve Paul on behalf of the local church was a holy, priestly thing to do, an offering up of spiritual sacrifices to God (1 Peter 2:5). This is how Paul viewed Epaphroditus’s service, but it is also how God viewed it. How good to know that God looks on our meager offerings—so much less than He deserves—with all the pleasure and affirmation of a sacrifice offered by a priest in strict conformity to the laws He revealed. How merciful He is—and how good!
B. Selfless Concern for the Philippians (v. 26)
Recall that Epaphroditus has been commissioned by the Philippian church to travel the 800 miles to Rome to, on their behalf, present Paul with a generous financial gift and care for him in his imprisonment. He will return with Paul’s inspired treasure—the next addition to the holy canon, this letter to the Philippians, still warm with the breath of God. Verse 25 implies Paul had wanted to keep Epaphroditus with him longer, but he is sending him back “because he was longing for you all and was distressed” (v. 26). “Longing” is that rich word that Paul loves to use meaning longing, yearning, a deeply-felt affection and tender concern. Paul does not berate Epaphroditus for this quality, as if he is being too concerned about people and not enough about the Lord, or simply chalks it up to him being a more emotional sort but that this longing is by no means necessary No! Paul commends it, affirms it, even exhibits it himself (e.g., Philippians 1:8). While this is more than a simple longing for relationship with loved ones, it is certainly not less than that. And note that Epaphroditus’s longing was also driven by concern for them—he knew the Philippians knew he was sick to the point of death, and they were evidently worried about their friend and brother. But he wasn’t worried about himself. He was worried about them for being worried for him! He is very other-centered. O how we all need to be sanctified in this way! How many of us are wrapped up in very small packages with our name stamped upon them! How many of us need to grow in a pure, ordinate, other-centered, yearning delight and affection for other believers that is wrapped up in their well-being!
C. Sacrificed Greatly for the Gospel (v. 27)
Paul does not tell us exactly why Epaphroditus is sick. Likely the 800-mile journey, stress at Paul’s imprisonment, likely backbreaking service on behalf of the Roman church and ministry there, coupled with the bacteria that likely resided in all kinds of places thanks to the lack of modern sanitization combined to wreak havoc on his immune system and bring him to the point of death. (I doubt the soldiers would have been too enthused to schlep a doctor into Paul’s quarters, for a variety of reasons.)
We do know (1) that Epaphroditus’s sickness was likely a direct result of his exhaustive labor for Christ and (2) that God, whether supernaturally or providentially, intervened and restored Epaphroditus to full health. I would caution my readers to take this verse as a “nothing is ever good enough in service for Christ, you know you’re really faithful if you almost die, so neglect everything else and do ministry 24/7” exhortation. (Often, single people face this type of counsel, as if the obvious greater freedom for ministry should mean every waking moment is to be given to the church or one’s devotion is called into question.) Rather, it is an exaltation of the gracious mercy of God, who saw how His servant had faced great sacrifice in serving Him and restored him to full health and thus usefulness. It is also a plan realization that service to the Lord does not spare us from every aspect of being in a fallen world. Our bodies remain cursed, as do our circumstances. There are simple setbacks and issues that crop up not because if our sin or disobedience or foolishness, but simply because we live in a fallen world. But God is sobering over all things and can and does rescue His people from trying circumstances unto even more fruitful service for Him. Doubtless Epaphroditus was energized and invigorated to give himself away even further. Sacrifice for Christ is indeed sacrifice. But my guess is that Epaphroditus would not have it any other way.
Walking with Christ in a fallen world, moving it forward to the summing up of all things in Christ, means suffering, heartache, and loss even as it means blessing, restoration, and joy. Epaphroditus’s character, commitment to God’s people, and total devotion to Christ to the point of death is a powerful example of the fully-orbed life of consecration to which we are called. Truly our whole lives belong to Christ, and He is worthy of every breath and every atom. May we spend them all for Him with abandon. Like the great missionary Henry Martyn, may our hearts cry out, “Let me burn out for God!”