I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also.
I have thought it necessary to send you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 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. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 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.
Philippians 2:19-30 ESV
Within our present passage, Paul launches into another personal discourse between the Philippian church and himself. His message here revolves primarily around two men that both Paul and the Philippians knew well: Timothy and Epaphroditus. Even though verses 14-18 concluded the discourse Paul began in 1:27, the descriptions of Timothy and Epaphroditus before us serve as an epilogue of sorts, setting before us two examples of worthy men who are following after Christ and His example of service and humility.
OF TIMOTHY // VERSES 19-24
Paul begins by expressing his hope of sending Timothy to the Philippians soon. Contrast this language with verse 25’s usage of the past tense, and we can understand that Epaphroditus was sent back as the messenger carrying Paul’s letter to the Philippians and that Timothy would be sent to them at a later date, if possible. But why would Paul send Timothy to them since he has already responded to them with his letter? So that I too may be cheered by news of you. Just as the Philippians sent Epaphroditus in order (partly) to receive word from Paul, so the apostle would send Timothy to check on the Philippians. Particularly since divisive bickering seems to be present in Philippi, he likely wants Timothy to assure him that the message of the letter is being lived out.
Paul’s commendation of Timothy was probably unnecessary since Timothy was almost certainly with Paul and Silas during the founding of the Philippian church. Timothy was, however, still a relatively new believer while in Philippi, so perhaps Paul is assuring the Philippians that Timothy’s growth and maturity in the faith is significant.
Paul begins his commendation by saying that no one is like Timothy, who is genuinely concerned for the Philippians’ welfare, which he then clarifies further by saying that Timothy’s interests are those of Jesus Christ, not self. This, of course, is not Paul saying that Timothy is a greater servant than his other companions, such as Silas or Luke. Instead, Paul is describing Timothy’s particular concern for the Philippians. Notice the correlation between verse 20 and 21. Timothy’s genuine concern derives from seeking the interests of Christ rather than self. I place emphasis on the word seeking because Timothy did not simply have or possess the interests of Christ; rather, he sought them. Even though we have been justified by the cross of Christ and given a new heart through the Holy Spirit, we still do not naturally desire the things of the Lord; we must seek after them, longing to have the desires and loves of Christ. This is a foundational component of the process of sanctification. We seek to mold our interests to mirror the interests of Christ.
But how do we practically seek the interests of Christ? In a word, we turn our eyes toward the things of the kingdom. But what does seeking first the kingdom look like? It means sharing the gospel even when we are afraid to do so. It means speaking the truth in love even when it would be easier to remain quiet. It means bearing with one another patiently even when we would rather walk away. It means communing with God through meditation on the Word and prayer even when we would rather scroll through Facebook or binge on Netflix.
Next, Paul appeals to the Philippians’ prior experience with Timothy, confidently asserting his proven worth. Timothy, though a young man, is not someone that the apostle giving a chance to prove himself; rather, Timothy has already proven his worth. He has done so by being as a son to Paul in the ministry of the gospel. The implication seems to be that just as a son would often continue the craft or trade of his father, so Timothy has done with Paul. This was especially fitting since the apostle did not have biological children of his own. The parental love of Paul towards Timothy is no clearer than in the letter of 2 Timothy, which also happens to be the last of Paul’s letters before his execution. In verse 2, Paul calls Timothy his “beloved child,” and the remainder of the letter oozes with the love of a father writing his final letter to his son.
May the relationship between Paul and Timothy inspire us as well to disciple the next generation in the ministry. For parents, the discipleship mandate is clearly present within texts like Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Ephesians 6:4. Yet Paul’s love for Timothy clearly displays that a biological relationship is not necessary.
Finally, Paul states that he will send Timothy as soon as he found out how it would go with him. Thus, he was likely waiting for a fuller confirmation that he would eventually be released from prison himself. As such, he expresses once more his confidence that the Lord will allow him to visit Philippi upon his release.
OF EPAPHRODITUS // VERSES 25-30
But Timothy is not the only individual that Paul hoped to send to the Philippians. He also hoped to send Epaphroditus, but as noted already above, he speaks in the past tense of sending him, implying that it was Epaphroditus who delivered this letter to the Philippians. This is the only mention of this man in the New Testament. Another form of the name, Epaphras, is mentioned in Colossians and Philemon, but few believe that these two men were the same. Thus, the only information that we have regarding Epaphroditus is found within this letter.
Brother, Worker, Soldier, Messenger, Minister
Paul’s commendation of Epaphroditus is fivefold.
First, he was Paul’s brother. As a fellow child of God in Christ, Epaphroditus was family to Paul. The title of brother and sister within the church emphasizes the communion of the saints, that we are now all grafted into according to the gospel.
Second, he was a fellow worker. Epaphroditus labored alongside Paul on behalf of the Philippians. No one with a conscious would have the pride to call Paul’s life easy. His life was a constant outpouring to Jesus, and precious few had the strength to work alongside him. This man was one of the few. This should also remind us that the life of a Christian is one of work. Indeed we have an eternal rest in Christ that begins in this life, but the work of the kingdom must still be done.
Third, he is described as a fellow soldier. The New Testament often invokes the imagery of life being a constant war against our own sinful desires and against the Satan. Epaphroditus evidently played his part as a soldier for Christ, advancing the gospel and expanding the kingdom of heaven. This also harkens back to the conflict that all Christians are engaged in (1:30). We are often today too hesitant to describe Christians as soldiers for the cross of Christ. I would assume that the historical shame of the Crusades, Inquisition, and the like have some role in this. Instead of emphasizing that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, many have simply stopped wrestling altogether. The Christian life, however, must be soldierly. A life of discipline, peril, comradery, and watchfulness.
Also, note that Paul calls Epaphroditus his fellow worker and soldier, meaning that Paul himself is just another worker and soldier. Given the hugely significant role that Paul played in the development of the Christianity, it could be tempting to view him with a sort of saintly (in the Roman Catholic sense) status. The apostle himself, however, knew that he was the foremost (1 Timothy 1:15). If we are field laborers, God alone is the Lord of the harvest. If we are soldiers, He alone is our General. Even the greatest of Christians are still fellow workers and fellow soldiers for the cause of Christ.
Fourth and fifth, he was the Philippians’ messenger and minister to Paul. Epaphroditus bore the responsibility of carrying letters between Paul and the church in Philippi, but also he brought gifts and ministered to Paul, in place of the Philippians, while he was with him. Similarly, we are all called to be messengers of the gospel, bringing encouragement to our brothers and sisters in Christ and the hope of salvation to those who do not yet believe. And we are ministers of Christ, serving one another in the Lord.
He Nearly Died
Surely Epaphroditus is an unsung hero of the Bible, for only a true champion of the gospel could elicit such a depiction from Paul. While he served Paul well, Epaphroditus was longing to return to his people, so that he could encourage them after they had heard that he was ill. And the illness that beset Epaphroditus was not slight. He was near to the doors of death, but God was merciful to him. Paul claims that he was also thankful to God for Epaphroditus’ recovery, so that he would not have “sorrow upon sorrow.” It would be to Paul’s joy to send Epaphroditus back to his people, as it would be an encouragement to all of them.
Before continuing, we should make a couple remarks regarding the illness of Epaphroditus. First, why would Epaphroditus’ death have been a sorrow upon sorrow to Paul? After all, didn’t Paul believe that death is gain for the believer? The Scriptures never claim that death is not sorrowful. In fact, Paul wrote these words to the Thessalonians: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Take not that Paul did not forbid grieving in general; he simply forbade grieving without hope. Still, why grieve at all for someone whose death is gain? We do not grieve for Christians who die; we grieve for ourselves. Death is sorrowful because, for a moment, it separates us from one another. But we do not mourn for those who die in the Lord; indeed, we rejoice in the midst of sorrow that they are before the face of God.
Second, consider the fact that Paul apparently did not heal Epaphroditus. Even though God healed many people through Paul (Acts 19:11-12, 20:10-12, 28:8-9), Paul was obviously not able to simply speak a word of healing over Epaphroditus. Nor does Paul at all attribute the near-death of Epaphroditus to a lack of faith. Such faith healings that pronounce the ability to heal on command simply do not fall in line with accounts like these in Scripture. Throughout the Bible, miraculous healings were used to authenticate the Word of God; therefore, the miracles always revolved around the glory of God. Today’s faith healers glory in their giftings and preach that we deserve to be healed so long as we have enough faith. Healing, of any kind, is the work of God alone; He, therefore, must receive all the glory.
Honor Such Men
Paul concludes the chapter by encouraging the Philippians to rejoice in Epaphroditus when he returned to them. However, he did not want them simply to rejoice because he came back to them but because Epaphroditus was a man who nearly died for the work of Christ. Such men should be highly esteemed by the church.
In our previous study, we discussed the importance of daily dying when it comes to following Christ. Indeed, it can be dangerous to romanticize the extreme lifestyles to the neglect of an ordinary life that is lived for the will and glory of God. However, we cannot fall into the opposite ditch because there is still a place for honoring those who risk their lives for the work of the kingdom. Even though most of us will live relatively normal lives without much risk in sharing the gospel, billions of people around the world still need to hear the name of Jesus for the first time, and most of them live in places that are risky. Some are dangerous because of governments that are against Christianity, while others because of harsh environments. Regardless, most unreached people groups do not know the gospel because getting (not to mention speaking) to them requires great risk. Brothers and sisters, we will not all be called to go to the ends of the earth to bear that risk, but some must, for the sake of the gospel, being supported by and representing those who remain (as Epaphroditus was for the Philippians). Do not assume, however, that just because you have not been called to go so far that God will never do so. In fact, I think we would all do well to take up John Piper’s practice. Throughout his pastoral ministry, he would at least yearly ask the Lord if it was time for him and his family to go. Such a practice is wise because while we will not all go, we all must be willing to go. Will you, therefore, pray genuinely if it is time for you to risk your life proclaiming Christ to those who know Him not?