Are you willing to do whatever it takes to advance the cause of Christ? What sacrifices would you make to serve Christ and His body? Epaphroditus remained so steadfast in his dedication that he risked his very life. In Phil. 2:25-30, Paul calls to our attention a man “behind the scenes” working in a “small” way to show us there is joy in even the unrecognized acts of service.
Part 11 of a whole book study series called “Joy in Christ: A Study Through Philippians.”
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.
Who Was Epaphroditus?
Epaphroditus was the believer selected by the Philippian believers to carry their monetary gift to Paul. This gift was to help defray Paul’s daily living expenses (food, clothing, medical care). Certainly we can guess that, given the roughly 800 miles a trek from Rome to Philippi covered, this man was likely in good health at the outset.
Paul is effusive in his description of Ephaproditus. It is obvious in what high regard he held him. He speaks about him in many different terms that relate to his dedication to Christ:
- my brother (adelphos). Here Paul speaks of Epaphroditus in terms of their relationship through the blood of Christ.
- my coworker (synergon). This gives the sense of a teammate or partner, someone who diligently works alongside you to further the gospel of Christ.
- my fellow soldier (sustratiótés). Soldiers fight for the cause to which they are dedicated.
- your messenger (apostolos). The Philippians had sent Epaphroditus as their representative and delegate to Paul, carrying the gift and their love in Christ with him. (related: Phil. 4:18)
- your minister (leitourgos). Epaphroditus was someone who was ministering to Paul’s needs on behalf of the body of Christ at Philippi.
There is a sense in which each of these descriptive phrases applies to you and I and our roles in the body of Christ. We all have opportunities to both reflect on who we are in relation to each other as well as live out the “one anothers” found so frequently throughout scripture.
Why Send Epaphroditus?
In the last study, we saw that Paul had initially thought to send Timothy, and all the reasons why. Whereas Paul “hopes” to send Timothy, in contrast, he believes it “necessary” to send Epaphroditus. It is not a hope, but a necessity (the NAS helps us as it translates verse 25 with the additional But I thought it necessary….). Why does Paul make such a fanfare over sending Ephaproditus, especially if he has just recently recovered from a life-threatening illness?
Paul wanted to express his gratitude to the believers at Philippi for their financial support. In particular, however, we see from verse 26 that Epaphroditus himself has been very affected both by his separation from the believers and the effect the news of his illness had upon them. So in effect, Paul seeks to comfort the believers at Philippi by sending Epaphroditus so they can see him in person and assure themselves he has returned to good health.
Somewhere along the way of this lengthy journey, Epaphroditus became sick. The specific nature of his sickness is unknown, although some commentators speculate it was could have been a flu or localized plague.
Given the large amount of money he was carrying, it is probable that he was traveling with other believers (related: 2 Cor. 8:16-22). When he became ill, someone was undoubtedly sent back to Philippi with that news, while the others remained to attend to him. He was not in good shape when he arrived in Rome (near death). (derived from R. Kent Hughes, Philippians: The Fellowship of the Gospel)
Why Didn’t Paul Heal Epaphroditus?
This question often arises. After all, he had apostolic authority and giftedness. For that matter, we could also ask why didn’t Paul heal himself of the thorn he spoke of in 2 Corinthians 12:7-8? And there are other instances across scripture where we find illness left unhealed.
God is sovereign over all illness and I would say in both these men’s cases, the illness was for His glory. In Paul’s case, God chose to allow it so that Paul would see his own insufficiency and remain humble and in need of God’s grace. In the case of Epaphroditus, we don’t have any information on how he was healed, except that Paul indicates he was made well because God had mercy. I believe God allowed Epaphroditus to become ill to the point of death (and then preserved his life) for at least two reasons:
- First, the purpose of showing His glory and kindness — that the instrument of healing was Himself and no other.
- Second, we see the utter dedication of a servant of Christ — just as Christ served to death, pouring out His life for us, so in a way, Epaphroditus and his willingness to undertake a dangerous journey was serving at the risk of his life for the cause of Christ. Even when he fell ill, he didn’t return to Philippi, but instead kept pressing on. He obviously viewed the service he performed in bringing this provision to Paul as an act of serving Christ Himself.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m sick, my focus goes entirely to the feeling of being sick and the desire to feel well again. Everything else seems to fall by the wayside, even the really important things. So Epaphroditus’ dedication here is pretty impressive to me.
Overall, there’s a lesson here for us that when we willingly lay ourselves down for the sake of others, there are no “small” acts of service in God’s kingdom. There are all sorts of things that fit together in His perfect “puzzle” — His purpose and plan for Himself in this world.
Sorrow Upon Sorrow
Paul speaks of the possibility of losing his brother Epaphroditus to death as something that would have brought him sorrow upon sorrow. He already was enduring separation from his beloved Philippian fellowship as well as facing a trial and being a prisoner of Rome. Humanly speaking, he was concerned that he might face yet another blow on top of all of this if Epaphroditus died.
He also felt compassion for the distress this illness caused Epaphroditus’ friends and brothers in Christ at Philippi. Sending this man back to them recovered from his illness would be an encouragement to them and would help mitigate Paul’s sense of concern over their anxiety.
A Man Worthy of Honor
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.
In our eyes, perhaps Epaphroditus looks like “just another believer.” He wasn’t a well-known apostle or teacher like Paul (although it is not impossible that he might have been a teacher). He didn’t write anything. He never speaks anywhere in the bible. Yet Paul insists on him being received in a manner befitting someone heroic. Why?
Epaphroditus saw a need and chose to meet it, selflessly and with steadfast devotion. He served in the place of the Philippian believers who did not have the opportunity to serve Paul because of the distance and Paul’s circumstances (this is what Paul refers to when he talks about their service being lacking in verse 30).
This makes him the second example of a Christ-like model, confirming what Paul was talking about earlier when he spoke of considering others’ interests above your own.
A few insights from these verses:
1) There are people in the body of Christ who serve without recognition or anyone really seeing what they do. They don’t call attention to themselves, but simply go about serving quietly and steadily.
2) If you are one of the people who serves behind the scenes in the body of Christ, without some sort of title and no one really knows who you are, be encouraged. God sees the faithfulness of your heart even if no human does. The ministry that takes place in unofficial, untitled, and often unnoticed ways is of extreme importance, no less so than a widely public ministry.
I pray that Epaphroditus encourages you by his example of selfless service in the name of the gospel of Christ!