What do the humility and maturity to which God calls us look like? How are we to respond to the spiritually mature among us? Thankfully our Lord has not left us in the dark about either question. In the little-known believer Epaphroditus He has given us a relatable image of spiritual maturity, and our spiritually mature attitude towards those who manifest it.
Because I have already introduced this section in last week’s blog, I will not do so here. I will also continue the points where they left off.
D. Submissively Compliant (v. 28)
Recall that Epaphroditus has been commissioned by the church at Philippi to be a minister to Paul’s need while under house arrest. He was to stay there until Paul was either executed or released. So, when Paul decided to send Epaphroditus back early, he assures the church that this was not Epaphroditus’s doing—he is still a man under apostolic authority, still willing to yield his plans for what God is sovereignly orchestrating. Think of it like this: He made the 800-mile journey from Philippi to Rome, which as we already know nearly killed him. He was supposed to stay there for a while, serving Paul and likely the church at Rome. Then his plans are derailed by deathly illness, and then once he is better, Paul decides to send him back home for Philippi’s sake.
If I were Epaphroditus, I would be feeling more than a little miffed and frustrated—with life, with circumstances, maybe even with Paul. But there is no hint of this in our text. Paul eagerly sends him back home, and we have every reason to think Epaphroditus is eager, too. Not simply because he missed his church and his friends, but because he was anticipating what God would do by reordering his circumstances. O that we had eyes to see the full plan of God, that in our detours and changing circumstances there is only divine opportunity and intent for the furtherance of His program! What is most interesting in all this is Paul’s little word “therefore.” This ties back to verse 27, where he recounts Epaphroditus’s healing. This demonstrates Paul’s surrendered heart: Instead of keeping the now-healthy (and doubtless divinely eager and energized) Epaphroditus in Rome to minister to him, he sees Epaphroditus’s need for his church family and his renewed strength as the reason he should go back home. The Philippians need him. Epaphroditus needs them. Paul will be just fine on his own. Paul, too, has the wisdom to be flexible and see where God is leading, even if that is different from what he and others have intended and planned.
This yieldedness to the authority and direction of God (and discernment of His will, but that is a separate blog!) is extolled and exhorted throughout the Scripture. Multiple times in Proverbs we are assured that while we plan (and we should!), it is only the counsel of the Lord, His plans decreed from eternity, that will come to pass (Prov. 16:9, 19:21). Moreover, we are not to boast about the security of our planning, for we have no idea what a day will bring (Prov. 27:1). Because our God is not merely sovereign, but ineffably good and loving, this is the best news there could be. Our most painful and humiliating experiences are threaded through the hands of infinite love. Paul models this commitment to act and work in the context of a sovereign and immanent God. He tells the Ephesian church he will return to them if God wills it (Acts 18:21), and he tells many of the other churches the same thing (Rom. 1:10, 1 Cor. 4:19, 16:7). Paul also recognized God’s appointment of various hindrances to his ministry (1 Thess. 2:18). James, the half-brother of our Lord, says it best. Speaking to the arrogant presumptuousness of those who plan without consulting the Lord (and that didn’t go over well for the children of Israel with the Gibeonites; Joshua 9:14), James writes, “you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. …you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that’” (James 4:14-15, emphasis mine). When even the continuance of your very life is in the hand of a sovereign God, you mustn’t be presumptuous about the details!
Everywhere, the Scripture assures us God is sovereign, and the chief way to live in light of that truth is to be willing to forgo our plans for His. They are better. But what should our response be when someone models this quality, as well as the others Paul has outlined here? It is to that we now turn.
E. He is to be Highly Esteemed (vv. 29-30)
Recall that it may initially seem to the Philippians that Epaphroditus has abandoned the mission they gave him. Paul has assured them Epaphroditus is returning home at the apostle’s insistence. And recall that when acting in apostolic authority, Paul acts in the stead of Jesus Christ as His emissary. This is why he tells the church to receive Epaphroditus with all joy—he is coming to them in the very center of the will of God and only joy and anticipation at what God will do for them through it is the acceptable response. There is no failure here, no sin, no consoling themselves in difficulty that “God will bring good out of it.” No, this is at root a good thing, and the only ordinate response is joy.
Paul speaks lavishly about Epaphroditus. They are to “receive him in the Lord”—as if he were the Lord, because of his identifying with and representation of Him. This means Epaphroditus’s coming is not failure or loss, but the presence of the Lord Himself to bless them! Such is the high honor of being in Christ. (There is an important note here: Paul is saying just as in His humanity the Lord represented and manifested the very presence of the Lord, so also can we. Not in exactly the same way—Jesus was and is, of course, eternal God—but in that in both cases God is using a human being to manifest His presence and do His work. It is a truly humbling thing for a sinful human like Epaphroditus or like us to have this privilege!)
Because of Christ’s work in sanctifying and maturing Epaphroditus, and because of His union with him that made Epaphroditus’s presence the presence of the Lord (in a sanctified, usable vessel), Paul exhorts the Philippians to hold him in esteem. This means to hold in reputation. It’s the word Jesus uses in Luke 14:8 to talk about “distinguished” guests at a dinner party. There is so much in this word because it is tied to a very weighty passage! Ultimately the Philippians are to hold the sinful, human Epaphroditus in high regard because of the work Christ has done in him. Where, after all, did he get regenerated? Commissioned into service? Sanctified and matured? Not himself! But, did he not have a role to play in some of these things? Our sanctification, for example, is not passive. Nor is our total spiritual maturation. God is sovereign over it, but it will not happen apart from choices we make. So they are to esteem him for that reason as well. He has made right, God-honoring, Spirit-led choices that have made him the model he is, and he is to be honored and respected for it.
Moreover, sanctification, maturity, holiness, self-sacrifice, and all the rest are righteous, lovely, inherently good things that demand a response of honor and esteem. The holiness we manifest is God’s. We reflect it imperfectly and derivatively, but it is nonetheless the holiness of God Himself. Does it honor Him, is it ordinate, is it a right valuing of His holiness, to treat its presence in the real actions and choices and affections of another human being as inconsequential? Do you realize that God purchased the holiness of that Christian with the blood of His dear Son? How can we honor Him and not honor the reflection of His purity in other believers? Paul’s exhortation at this level makes all the sense in the world.
Paul closes with the specific reason they are to esteem Epaphroditus: He was near death for the work of Christ, not regarding his own life, to serve Paul on their behalf. This is love. This is devotion to God’s people and to God’s program. This is esteeming the work of Christ and the Christ of the work! And doing so with no thought for oneself, but only a willingness to be spent entirely for the souls of others. When our natural bent is towards self-protection, self-serving, self-gratification, then the type of abandonment to the will of God Epaphroditus demonstrated is a clear mark of the mighty Spirit’s sanctifying work.
Who are the people in your life that demonstrate the five-fold description Paul talked about in verse 25? The selfless concern and affectionate love of verse 26? The great sacrifice of verse 27? The submission to the plan and will of God of verse 28? Then verses 29 and 30 tell you how to view them. This is part of God’s will for your life.
Hold such in esteem.