Several weeks ago, I received an e-mail from my sister-in-law. She wrote that I probably already was aware of it, but she just wanted to make sure that I knew my mother was in the hospital. I didn’t know, and I was very concerned. I called my brother to get more details. I found that my mother had a gall bladder attack and was having her gall bladder removed the next day. My mother was doing fine, the surgery would not be highly invasive, and so she was expected to be home in a day. It was all very good news.
In the meantime, my two sisters had received the same e-mail, and they were even more concerned about Mother than I was. I talked with both on the phone and e-mailed both as well, bringing them up to date on what was going on. It was amazing to realize that within minutes, one sister in Singapore and the other in Seoul, Korea, could be reached and informed about my mother’s health.
This has not always been so. Nearly 20 years ago I made my first trip to India to speak at a missions conference. I flew into Bombay where I was to meet up with another speaker and then travel to Baroda, where we were to speak at the conference (he was the main speaker). I had sent a letter to P.S. Thomas in India two months before I arrived, indicating when I would be arriving, and all of the necessary flight information. Unfortunately, my letter arrived two weeks after I did. I stood on the street at the international airport in Bombay for several hours before I realized no one was coming. After checking into a western hotel for the night, I began to attempt to call someone who could tell me where I should meet the fellow I was to travel with. Not having the phone number of anyone from the Indian Evangelical Mission in Bombay, I realized I would have to call home to the United States. That is when I learned about the phone system in India. It took nearly 12 hours to book a call to Dallas, Texas, and this was after I insisted that the call was urgent. Never before have I felt so removed from my family and homeland.
Because of the rapid means of communication we enjoy, it is very difficult for us to identify with the circumstances that underlie our text, and Paul’s motivation for sending both Timothy and Epaphroditus back to Philippi. Think of how slow communications were in Paul’s time. A group of men had left the church at Philippi, headed for Rome. They knew that Paul was being held as a prisoner, pending his appearance before Caesar. They realized that while he normally worked with his own hands to support himself, it would not be possible under the circumstances, and so they sent him a gift of money. Probably it was along the way to Rome that Epaphroditus became ill, so ill that it was feared he would die. It may well have been at this point that one of the party was sent back to Philippi, to let the church know that Epaphroditus was gravely ill and in desperate need of their prayers. Days and weeks passed, and still no news had reached Philippi about Epaphroditus. The church was surely greatly concerned about their brother in the Lord. Was he still alive, or had he died of his illness? No one knew. In those days you could not send an e-mail or a wire; not even a letter by the postal service. You could not make a phone call. Word would have to be sent by means of a messenger, and that would take weeks. This is why Paul found it necessary to send Epaphroditus back to Philippi. He was to be the messenger. He would carry Paul’s letter to the saints at Philippi. Epaphroditus would certainly give the Philippian saints an eyewitness report of Paul’s situation in Rome as well. By means of Epaphroditus, the church at Philippi would finally hear (and see for themselves) the good news that their beloved brother had survived his illness.
Our text deals with “three good men.” All three exemplify humility by the way in which they put the interests of others ahead of themselves. These three men are Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Paul. Let us look at these three “good men,” and the humility that characterized them, and let us endeavor, by God’s grace, to imitate them in their humility.
19 Now I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you quickly, so that I too may be encouraged by hearing news about you. 20 For there is no one here like him who will readily demonstrate his deep concern for you. 21 Others are busy with their own concerns, not the Lord’s. 22 But you know his qualifications, that like a son working with his father, he served with me in advancing the gospel. 23 So I hope to send him as soon as I know more about my situation, 24 though I am confident in the Lord that I too will be coming soon.
When Paul came to Philippi for the first time, it was Timothy’s first missionary journey with the apostle (see Acts 16:1-3). In the years that followed, Timothy would visit the Philippians on several occasions and would become well known to them (see Acts 18:5; 19:22; 20:1-4). In this epistle, hand-delivered to the Philippians by Epaphroditus, Paul announces his intention to send Timothy to them shortly. Paul is optimistic about his release in the near future, and as soon as this happens, Paul plans to visit those he loves in Philippi (Philippians 1:24-25; 2:24). Paul knows this process may take some time, and so he is eager to get a first-hand report in Rome from a trusted colleague48 concerning how the Philippians are doing.
Paul’s plan was to first send Epaphroditus to Philippi, his home, where he would remain. This meant that there would be no response to Paul’s letter because Epaphroditus was not returning to Paul. Paul intended to send Timothy to Philippi next, just as soon as the outcome of his trial was known. Timothy could share the “good news” of his “release,” thus putting the minds and hearts of Paul’s dear friends at rest. Timothy would then return to Paul, filling him in on how things were going with the church at Philippi. And when this news from Philippi was received, Paul knew that he would rejoice in their progress and endurance in the faith (2:19). Paul would then come to Philippi as soon as possible to visit them in person (2:24).
One of Paul’s purposes in writing this epistle is to inform the Philippians that Timothy is coming soon, followed shortly thereafter by the apostle himself. But Paul’s words here are a tribute to the character of Timothy, and also of Epaphroditus. Paul gives Timothy the highest possible recommendation. These Philippians knew Timothy; why was it necessary for Paul to commend Timothy so highly to them? I believe there are several reasons for his commendation.
First, Paul’s high recommendation of Timothy was intended to produce admiration and respect for this faithful servant of God when he arrived. With a recommendation like the one Paul gives Timothy, he should be well received by the Philippians. If they respected and admired Paul—as they surely did—then they would certainly value Timothy and his emissary to them, based on Paul’s commendation. Paul was using his position and authority to elevate Timothy and to enhance this young man’s ministry.
Second, Paul’s high recommendation of Timothy is very instructive concerning what qualifies and commends a Christian leader. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is, in part, a letter of introduction for Timothy. The Philippians already know Timothy quite well, but Paul’s words in our text are an introduction to his upcoming ministry in Philippi. I have to admit that I greatly dislike introductions. When a speaker or a writer is being introduced, the audience is told why they should give this person a hearing. Almost without fail we are told about the speaker or writer’s achievements and successes. We are told about the educational achievements of the person, about his or her fame, and certainly about their success stories. Often, we are told where the person has traveled and to whom he or she has spoken. For a pastor, we are told about the size of the church and how fast it has grown since the pastor began his ministry there. The inference is that these are the things that are most important, the things that qualify one to lead—and oblige us to listen and to follow their leadership.
Paul does not speak to us about Timothy’s achievements. He does not tell us where Timothy has spoken or how many people were converted under his ministry. We are not told about the number of books he has written, or the important people with whom he has associated. We are not told about his charm or charisma or oratorical skills. Paul commends Timothy to the Philippians as a man who deserves a hearing because of his character. Timothy is a humble man, who sets the interests of others above his own (2:20-21). He has faithfully served with49 Paul, as a son would serve with his father (2:22). Paul’s readers would understand very well that Timothy had proven his character (and thus his worth) over a period of several years, during which he served and suffered with Paul. Here was a man who could be counted on when the “chips were down.” Suffering faithfully for the sake of Christ sets a man or woman apart. In the New Testament, it is not one’s successes which qualify him, but his steadfast endurance in the midst of his suffering for Christ.50
Third, Paul is implying to the Philippians that he is sending Timothy as a gift to them, the finest gift he has to send. Paul speaks of Timothy in terms that show he looks upon Timothy as one who stands head and shoulders above the crowd.51 The Philippians had always been generous with Paul (see Philippians 4:14-16), and now Paul wishes to be generous with them. His “gifts” to this church are Epaphroditus and Timothy. Paul is here telling the Philippians that he is sending them the best gift that he has to give.
Fourth, if Timothy is the finest gift that Paul can give to the Philippians, then sending Timothy is a great personal sacrifice for Paul. Paul’s gift of Timothy is at Paul’s expense. How easy it would have been for Paul to ask Timothy to stay there with him, at his side, to minister to him. Instead, Paul indicates an eagerness to send Timothy as soon as possible.52 We must remember that Paul was being confined until the outcome of his trial was over. Men like Timothy and Epaphroditus were Paul’s hands and feet. They did for him what he could not do himself. To send men like this away is something like a blind man loaning his Seeing Eye dog to a friend.
Fifth, because sending Timothy was at great personal sacrifice for Paul, we see that Paul was being humble by placing the interests of the Philippians above his own. It is not just Timothy who is humble and who places the interests of others above his own. Paul is likewise humble. The reader has to see this “between the lines,” but it is surely there to see. A man in Paul’s circumstances could easily choose to keep his associates nearby, where they could minister to him in his time of need. But Paul is more concerned about the Philippians than he is about himself. Because of this, Paul will send Timothy to Philippi to share the good news of his release, and to minister to them when he arrives.
Sixth, in speaking of Timothy as he does, Paul is making it clear to his readers that Timothy is an excellent example of a man who sets the interests of others above his own. We must not forget the context of these verses about Timothy. Paul “kills two birds with one stone” when he writes of Timothy as he does. He paves the way for a very fruitful ministry when Timothy arrives at Philippi, and he also “incarnates” the principle of humility by using Timothy as an example of true humility.
Seventh, I believe Paul is promoting Timothy and his ministry, while at the same time preparing the saints for the day when he will be gone, and others will have to carry on the ministry in his absence. There are really two separate, but related, truths here. Each needs to be explored.
To begin with, Paul is promoting the ministry of others, like Timothy. If you are a student of history, you know that dictators and despots don’t groom men to replace them. They are very careful to keep any potential rivals from becoming too popular or to powerful. Some have even been so threatened that they have killed off any rivals, including their own heirs. To promote someone you consider your potential replacement would be virtual suicide in many places. In all too many churches and Christian ministries, it is made very clear that no one is to “upstage” the “man at the top.” Paul was amazingly humble in the way he promoted Timothy and his ministry. I would have to say that in our time, I know of no individual who is more gracious and generous in promoting others than Dr. James Dobson. A number of ministries have emerged because of the exposure and financial investment Focus on the Family has given them.
A second thing to observe about Paul’s endorsement of Timothy is that Paul is preparing both Timothy and the Philippians for the day when he will be gone. Paul is reasonably confident that he will be released from prison, free to serve the saints. But the apostle also knows that his days are numbered. He knows that before long he will die, and when he does, Paul wants to guarantee that there will be many others, like Timothy, who will take his place. Paul is not seeking to protect “his ministry;” he is seeking to promote the gospel, and to do this, he promotes the ministry of other men.
25 But for now I have considered it necessary to send Epaphroditus to you. For he is my brother, coworker and fellow soldier, and your messenger53 and minister54 to me in my need. 26 Indeed, he greatly missed all of you and was distressed because you heard that he had been ill. 27 In fact he became so ill that he nearly died. But God showed mercy to him—and not to him only, but also to me—so that I would not have grief on top of grief. 28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you can rejoice and I can be free from anxiety. 29 So welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, 30 since it was because of the work of Christ that he almost died. He risked his life so that he could make up for your inability to serve me.
Paul has placed Timothy and Epaphroditus side-by-side in our text, and it is important for us to understand why. But we must first take note of who Epaphroditus is, and how he differs from Timothy, while manifesting the same humility.
First, unlike Timothy, Epaphroditus is not a very prominent person in the New Testament. While Epaphroditus was well known to the Philippian saints, he is certainly not well known to us. Here is a man whose name appears only twice in the New Testament, both times in the Book of Philippians (2:25; 4:18).55 Timothy, on the other hand, is named 24 times in the New Testament. In spite of this fact, Paul gives Epaphroditus prominence in our text. Paul actually devotes more words to the commendation of Epaphroditus than he does to the commendation of Timothy.56
Second, Epaphroditus is unlike Timothy in that his service takes a very different form. In my opinion, this is a very crucial point. There are some (like Calvin) who seem to think that Epaphroditus was a “minister” whose ministry was very much like that of Paul or Timothy. I do not see his ministry this way at all, and I believe that our text bears this out. Epaphroditus was sent by the Philippian saints to accompany their gift to Paul (4:18), which was intended to minister to his needs during the time of his incarceration. This task does not require a preacher; it requires of man of impeccable character, who will see to it that the funds reach their destination intact. It would seem that while Epaphroditus was the bearer of the Philippians’ gift to Paul, he was himself a gift as well. Epaphroditus seems to have remained on with Paul, so that he could minister to his needs, as his servant.
The ministry of Epaphroditus will be better grasped when we consider the needs of Paul at this time, needs to which Epaphroditus ministered on behalf of the Philippian saints. Let me begin, however, with a much more recent example of incarceration, and how a prisoner could be served. A couple of years ago, the brother of one of our church members was imprisoned in Mexico for “political crimes.” The truth of this matter seems to be that Arturo (the Christian who was imprisoned) had served in the administration of a government official whose party was no longer in office. The opposition party sought to “punish” their rivals by indicting a number of former officials for political crimes. Some may have been guilty, but it seems that Arturo was innocent, an honest man caught in the crossfire of rival political parties. While Arturo was in prison there in Mexico, his family and fellow Christians had to assume the responsibility of providing for Arturo’s needs, as well as those of his family. During his incarceration, food and fresh clothing were brought to him every day. Had this not been done, he would probably have survived, but with only meager allotments of food and clothing.57
I believe Arturo’s circumstances in that Mexican prison were very similar to Paul’s circumstances during his Roman imprisonment. Like Arturo, Paul would have needed food and clothing. Almost more important to Paul would be the supplies that were necessary for his writing to the various churches (see 2 Timothy 4:13). Having written his letters to the churches, Paul would have needed couriers to hand deliver his letters to the churches and bring back a response from them. I believe that Epaphroditus was sent to Paul to minister to him in these very practical ways, so that he could carry on his apostolic ministry while in prison.
While both Timothy and Epaphroditus were with Paul at the same time, their ministries to him took very different forms. Timothy was a protg of Paul, one who ministered in Paul’s behalf, and often in his place. Timothy ministered by teaching and preaching the Word, and by correcting various wrongs (cf. 1 Timothy 1:3-4; 4:11-16). We find no reference in Philippians to this kind of ministry on the part of Epaphroditus. He was sent to minister to Paul by the Philippian church. He stayed with Paul, to minister to his needs. Nowhere are we told that Paul sent him out to teach and preach, like he sent out Timothy and others. We are not even told that Epaphroditus was sent back to Philippi to teach and preach. He was sent back home to comfort his heart, and the hearts of those in Philippi who loved him (2:28).
Let me attempt to sum up the difference between the ministry of Timothy and the ministry of Epaphroditus. Timothy ministered for Paul by going to places Paul was not able to go. By his preaching and teaching, Timothy extended (we might even say “multiplied”) the ministry of the apostle, and thus the work of the gospel. Epaphroditus ministered to Paul personally. He provided him with necessities such as food and clothing. While Timothy served, so to speak, as Paul’s mouth, Epaphroditus served as Paul’s hands and feet. Epaphroditus probably ran errands for the apostle, doing things for him that he could not do in his incarceration. In so doing, Epaphroditus facilitated the ministry of Paul.
I have a very good friend, Craig Nelson, who is a fine student of the Scriptures, and who is gifted in teaching and preaching the Word of God. Craig is blind, but this has not kept him from going to many places (like India, Africa, and England). In some cases, I have accompanied Craig. At other times, he has traveled with his wife Grace, or with one of his children. The one who accompanies Craig ministers to him, facilitating his ministry to others. Epaphroditus was a most valuable asset to Paul, as a facilitator of his ministry.
Third, Paul speaks of the ministry of Epaphroditus as his participation in “the work of Christ” (verse 30). There is a very important principle at issue here, and it is most important that we understand it. It is set down by our Lord in the Gospel of Matthew:
40 “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. 41 Whoever receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever receives a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, I tell you the truth, he will not lose his reward” (Matthew 10:40-42).
Whether it is a Paul, or Timothy, or Epaphroditus (or any other Christian of that day), everyone who is fulfilling their calling, who is carrying out their humble service for Christ, is participating (“having fellowship in”) the “work of Christ.” Paul acknowledges this in terms of the contribution of Epaphroditus. He does so on the basis of the principle that our Lord laid down in Matthew 10. To facilitate the proclamation of the gospel by assisting the one proclaiming it is to enter into their work, and their reward! To show hospitality to a prophet58 is to participate in his prophetic ministry; to minister to the apostle Paul, as Epaphroditus did, was to participate in his apostolic ministry. Epaphroditus was, therefore, a very integral part of the “work of Christ.”
Fourth, Paul speaks of the ministry of Epaphroditus in the highest terms, and he refuses to distinguish his ministry from that of Timothy or of himself. Let me be very blunt here, so that what I am saying will be very clear. Paul’s makes no distinction between the ministry of Timothy and the ministry of Epaphroditus, as though one ministry is “first class ministry” and the other is “second class.” I see this distinction being made so often today. We speak of “the clergy and the laity,” of “full time Christian ministry” and (mere) “laymen.” I hear people talk about “significant ministry,” and of “just being a housewife” (for example). Paul does not make such distinctions, and I don’t think he would tolerate them in his day, or in ours.
We see this error of making evil distinctions in the Corinthian church, where some distinguished themselves from others and their ministry:
12 For we would not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who recommend themselves. But when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding (2 Corinthians 10:12).
It is very apparent from 1 Corinthians that at least some of the Corinthian saints were making improper comparisons. They were comparing Paul’s manner and message with the more “sophisticated” methods and message of some very charming—but very cultic—teachers (1 Corinthians 1:10ff.). By the time we reach 2 Corinthians 12, Paul will go so far as to call them “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:13). But in 1 Corinthians 12-14, it is evident that evil comparisons were also being made on the basis of one’s spiritual gifts. There were some gifts that were either more visible or more vocal than others, and because of this, they were considered more valuable, indeed, more spiritual. Christians who did not possess these “superior” gifts were looked down upon by those who did (or thought they did), and many began to seek the more spectacular gifts, even to the point of becoming disorderly in the church meeting as they sought to “show off” their gift. Paul makes it very clear in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 that the church, the body of Christ, actually functions like a body, so that the contribution of every member of the body is essential to the healthy functioning of the body.
This is precisely how I see Paul dealing with these two men, Timothy and Epaphroditus. They are very different men, with very different ministries, but they are both a vital and valuable part of the body of Christ. They are both actively involved in the “work of Christ.” Because of this, Paul refuses to elevate one above the other. He even goes beyond this. Paul refuses to elevate himself above the ministry of Epaphroditus.
I want you to notice the terms which Paul uses as he refers to Epaphroditus and to his ministry. Paul describes Epaphroditus in two ways. He speaks of the value of the ministry of Epaphroditus as one who ministers on behalf of the Philippian saints. He describes Epaphroditus as “your messenger” (verse 25). The term “messenger” is literally the word that is most often rendered “apostle” in the New Testament.59 While it is obvious that Epaphroditus was not an “apostle” in the same sense that Paul was, Paul seems to have deliberately chosen the most dignified and honorable term he could think of to describe this wonderful man, Epaphroditus. The same thing can be seen in the second expression, “your servant” (verse 25). The word which Paul uses here is closely tied to the word service in Philippians 2:17: “But even if I am being poured out like a drink-offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I have joy and rejoice together with you” (emphasis mine).
Gordon Fee says of this Greek word that it is the term “from which ‘liturgy’ derives’ . . .” It is “used primarily in the LXX to refer to the various duties of the Levites, including the actual ‘service’ at the altar. The word group appears rarely in Paul (3 or 5 times in this letter;. . .; otherwise only in 2 Cor 9:12 and Rom 15:29, of the offering for the poor in Jerusalem), always metaphorically of Christian ‘service’ of some kind, and not restricted to ‘ministers.’”60 Once again, Paul has employed a term which conveys the highest regard for the quality of Epaphroditus’ ministry, a term which indicates that his service is deeply spiritual and very significant.
Paul has also employed three descriptive terms for Epaphroditus and his ministry, which convey his high regard for this man and his ministry. He speaks of Epaphroditus as his “brother,” as his “co-worker,” and as his “fellow soldier” (verse 25). In other words, he speaks of Epaphroditus as his equal, as a colleague, and not as his servant or subordinate. There are times when Paul finds it necessary to lay claim to his calling and authority as an apostle, but this is not necessary with the Philippian saints. And so he speaks of Epaphroditus and himself as “brothers” who are both working in the cause of the gospel, fighting side by side for the faith of the gospel against all opposition.
I can understand how Calvin and others could have misinterpreted Paul’s words here. They have assumed that because Paul spoke so highly of Epaphroditus he must have been ministering in the same way Paul and Timothy did. But in so doing, they have missed the point that Paul is making by his choice of words. They assume that since the honor Paul gives to Epaphroditus is so great, his ministry must be “great” (by their definition) as well. For those who distinguish between “laity” and “clergy” this is not surprising. But what they should have seen is that their laity/clergy distinction, inherited from their tradition, is not really biblical. We all have different gifts and functions within the body of Christ, but we are all working together as His body to do His work.
Sixth, Paul is preparing the way for a hero’s welcome for Epaphroditus when he returns home to Philippi. Paul has a very clear purpose in writing this letter to the Philippians, delivered by the hand of Epaphroditus. Paul paints the picture of his return in the most positive—even heroic—terms. Epaphroditus had come to Paul with a gift from the Philippian saints. Either on the way to Paul, or there with the apostle, Epaphroditus had become deathly ill. Paul is greatly distressed by his illness and grieved at the possibility of his death. It would have been a great personal loss to Paul, but God was gracious and spared his life. Epaphroditus knows that those back in Philippi have received word of his illness, but apparently not of his recovery. Epaphroditus was distressed that his beloved brothers and sisters might assume the worst and suffer unnecessary grief. Nevertheless, he was determined to remain at Paul’s side, ministering to him in any way that he could. He would not abandon his post. It was at Paul’s initiative that Epaphroditus was returning. His arrival would end his distress, and it would end Paul’s as well. Epaphroditus’ presence would set aside any concerns about his health. He could also deliver Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and give an eyewitness report based on the time he had spent with Paul in Rome. He could tell them of Paul’s love and concern for them, of his constant prayers on their behalf, and of his yearning to come and visit them soon. Because of this, they would understand why Epaphroditus left Paul’s side to return home and welcome this man as a true hero of the faith.
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 could 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.…”
In our text (verse 29), Paul actually commands the saints at Philippi to give him a hero’s welcome home. Now do you see how Paul encouraged Epaphroditus and prepared the way for a triumphant reunion with his friends, family, and fellow believers?
Seventh, Paul uses Epaphroditus as an example for others to emulate. In our text, Paul is especially using Epaphroditus as an example of the kind of man the saints at Philippi should esteem and whose leadership they should follow. Church leaders are not necessarily those who are the most charismatic, the most gifted, or even the most successful. They are to be men who are like Christ—humble servants, faithfully carrying out their service, willing to lay down their lives for the sake of the gospel. What a contrast this will be to those whom Paul describes in the next chapter (3:2ff.), who are proud and arrogant, and who trust in the things of the flesh, rather than in Christ, and the power of His Spirit.
A couple of years ago, Barbara Crandell—one of the very dear widows in our church—had her home air conditioner fail on the hottest day of the summer up till then. Barbara’s mother was elderly and ill, and she was living with her in her home. There was no way this elderly woman would be able to handle the heat without air conditioning. I knew that several of us could install a new air conditioning unit over the weekend, but we would first need to purchase all of the necessary equipment. It was the Friday of a holiday weekend, and I knew that in a few hours all of the air conditioning supply houses would be closed for the holiday. I called Larry, a Christian friend from another church, I explained the problem to him, and asked if he could help us by acquiring the needed equipment that day.
It would have been a great favor for him to do this on our behalf, but he did even more, much more. On the phone, Larry told me he would send out one of his “best engineers” as soon as possible. By the time I got back to Barbara’s house a couple of hours later, there were two or three trucks from Larry’s company outside. The engineers were there, as promised, along with his best installers. On the same day, and within a few hours of my call, they had entirely removed the old air conditioner and furnace and replaced it with a new one. The house never even had time to get hot inside.
Larry’s gracious ministry to Barbara on that hot summer day reminds me of Paul’s ministry to the Philippians. Paul was not free at the moment to go to Philippi, but he sent the very best alternative there was. Larry never came to Barbara’s house. The truth was that he did not need to do so, and it would have done little good if he had. Larry’s expertise was not in the engineering field, nor was he an expert installer. But Larry had the finest experts in these areas at his disposal. I do not for a moment believe that these men had nothing to do that afternoon. They came because their boss had sent them, and they did their work well. Larry did not come, but his gift that day cost him something, and I will always be grateful to him and thankful for him because of it. That is the way the Philippians should feel about Paul.
Our text presents us with some very important truths, which deserve careful thought and appropriate responses. For example, it would seem to me that our text strongly implies that while it certainly is important for us to send money to our missionaries, it may also be very beneficial and encouraging for us to send folks like Epaphroditus who can minister to those who serve on the front lines, facilitating their ministries, meeting their needs, and encouraging their spirits because we (in the words of Hallmark cards) have “cared enough to send the very best.” Sometimes sending some of our most valued saints is sending the very best.
At first I was inclined to entitle this lesson, “Two Good Men.” Obviously, the two “good men” would be Timothy (2:19-24) and Epaphroditus (2:25-30). Timothy and Epaphroditus are “good men” in a general way, but Paul points them out in a particular way. The context is that of humility, which is evidenced by the kind of servanthood they exemplify, servanthood that places the interests of others above one’s own interests. It is not hard to see how these two men were “good men” in terms of their humility and servanthood. Paul indicates that of all the men whom he could send, none could match the humility of Timothy. Timothy had a deep and consistent concern for the Philippians (2:20), unlike the self-seekers of his day. Epaphroditus, too, was a humble man. He was content to perform menial service in Paul’s behalf and thus for the cause of Christ. He was deeply distressed by the agony of those in Philippi, who did not know whether he was alive or dead. Even so, he was content to remain in Rome, serving Paul as long as he was needed.
These two men are, indeed, “good men.” But there is a third “good man” to be found in our text, and that man is Paul himself. How many men in Paul’s position would work so hard to commend others? How many great men have you known who treated those who worked with them (even the ones performing menial service) as equals, as colleagues? How many Christian leaders have we seen like Paul, who have been willing to send those who are so dear and so profitable to them away? Is Paul’s humble spirit not the same spirit that has prompted many Christian parents to release their children to serve God in distant and remote places?
I would suggest to you that Paul’s assessment of these two “good men” and their contribution to the work of Christ should be very instructive to us today about “Christian ministry.” After this message, one of our men shared with me what a great encouragement this text was to him. A man does not need to have a “full-time Christian ministry” to make a significant contribution to the work of Christ. While God raises up some to be more visible and vocal, He also raises up those whose ministry is supportive, men and women who facilitate the ministry of the gospel in ways that are not seen, but are absolutely vital.
As I conclude this message, I hope that you have been encouraged in your ministry as well. If you have a public, visible ministry, I hope that the humility of Paul will be seen in you and in your relationship with those who support you in your ministry. If you have a less visible ministry, I hope that Paul’s words will give you great encouragement in your work for the Lord. And, if you do not really have a ministry, I hope that this message will encourage you to seek one. Ministry is never hard to find if you are willing to be a facilitator, like Epaphroditus.
Incidentally, I should probably mention that Paul himself began his ministry as a supporter. Paul’s early ministry was a supportive one in the sense that he accompanied Barnabas, who was clearly the leader in the early days of Paul’s ministry. Paul was to Barnabas in the early days what Timothy was to Paul later on. We should recall from Acts 11 that Paul once served as an “Epaphroditus” when he bore the gift from the Gentile churches to the brothers and sisters living in Judea (Acts 11:27-30). I would say that many (perhaps most) of those whom God has elevated to places of leadership commenced their ministry as an “Epaphroditus.” Think, for example, of Joshua, who served Moses, or Elisha, who “washed the hands of Elijah” (2 Kings 3:11). Only those who have learned to serve are fit to lead, because Christian leadership is a place of humble service (Matthew 20:20-28).
Finally, it could be that there is someone who will hear or read this message who may think they can earn God’s favor and blessings by working hard for Him. Paul will say something about this in the next few verses. But for now, let me simply say that Christian ministry is that which flows out of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, by faith. It is not something we do in order to win God’s favor, but something we do because of our love for Him, and for others. Christian ministry is done in obedience to His Word, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Whatever He has given us to do, it is indeed a great privilege and blessing, whether you are a Timothy or an Epaphroditus.
48 I am impressed by the fact that Paul often had to send one of his trusted co-workers, like Timothy or Titus, to a church, to check on their welfare and to return to Paul with a full report (see 2 Corinthians 2:12-13; 7:5-16). How much Paul must have trusted these men, to fully rely on their assessment of the condition of the churches they visited on his behalf.
49 This word “with” is very important. Paul does not speak of Timothy here as his servant, as the one who served “under” him. Paul speaks of Timothy as a man who served “with” him in ministry. Timothy is referred to as a colleague in ministry, not as an understudy.
50 This is very clearly seen in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, where Paul speaks of his sufferings for Christ in defense of his apostleship. This is a very different mindset from that which possessed some of the Corinthian saints (see 1 Corinthians 1:10—2:5; see also 4:6-13).
51 There is too much agony here on the part of scholars who entertain questions that Paul never meant to raise. Some wonder why Paul would disparage all of his other colleagues in ministry as self-seekers. Paul seldom kept himself surrounded by his fellow-workers, sending them here and there to minister, just as he was sending Epaphroditus and later Timothy to Philippi. I believe that Paul is saying that he had virtually no one left to send, except Timothy. Rather than looking upon Timothy as a “bottom of the barrel” minister, they should look on him as the “cream of the crop.” I think that Paul is not contrasting Timothy with the rest of his ministry team, but with the world. In the world at large mankind looks out for itself, and not for others. Timothy is not like this. Timothy is unique in being a humble servant, who gives himself to others and for others, instead of being self-serving, like the rest of the world.
54 Regarding the use of this same Greek word in Romans 15:16, A. T. Robertson writes, “‘The word here derives from the context the priestly associations which often attach to it in the LXX’ (Denney). But this purely metaphorical use does not show that Paul attaches a ‘sacerdotal’ character to the ministry. Ministering … means to work in sacred things, to minister as a priest. Paul had as high a conception of his work as a preacher of the gospel as any priest did.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1932), en loc.
55 It may be that Epaphras (see Colossians 1:7; 4:12; Philemon 1:23) is a shortened version of Epaphroditus, but it is generally agreed that he is not the same person as Epaphroditus in Philippians. Epaphras is called “one of you” in Colossians 4:12.
57 It was our privilege to have a part in meeting Arturo’s needs during his imprisonment. When he was released, he made a trip to visit our church, and to share how God had ministered to him and through him while he was incarcerated.