By Christopher VanDusen
Have you ever been forced to go home from an errand run or event earlier than expected, and were compelled to explain why? This is how it was for a man named Epaphroditus around the year 61 AD, except that he had the person who sent him back explain for him. He was sent by a church in the Roman city of Philippi to the apostle Paul, who was under house arrest in Rome for false charges made by his Jewish enemies. The Philippians sent him to give Paul money, and to bring news of how the church was doing.
The Philippians and Paul had a very close relationship, since Paul had planted the church, and they had supported Paul in his missionary endeavors since they were established. In response to the ministry of Epaphroditus and the church, Paul wrote the Epistle to the Philippians to express his thanks, report on his circumstances, and to address problems and concerns in the church.
In the first chapter of this letter, Paul expresses his thankfulness for them; explains how he prays for them; describes his impact on Rome; and closes with instruction on how to live in light of the gospel through persecution. In the second chapter, Paul instructs the Philippians on how to be unified; how to love one another; how to become more like Christ; and then instructs them on how to prepare for the arrival of Timothy, his representative. Part of the reason Paul gives instructions for their reception of Timothy is to hold him up as an example of the selfless and self-giving attitude that he instructs them to cultivate in the beginning of the chapter. So it is with his explanation for Epaphroditus’ arrival, which immediately follows. This is what he says in Philippians 2:25-30:
“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. 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.” (ESV)
In this passage, Paul does five things to explain why he “thought it necessary” to send Epaphroditus to them:
- He Reminds Them of Epaphroditus’ Roles (v. 25)
- He Reveals Why Epaphroditus Has Returned (v. 26)
- He Reviews Epaphroditus’ Recovery (v. 27)
- He Reasons for Their Rejoicing and His Relief (v. 28)
- He Requires Them to Rejoice and Highly Regard Risk-Takers (vss. 29-30)
Paul Reminds the Philippians of Epaphroditus’ Roles
The first way in which Paul explains why he was compelled to send Epaphroditus back to the Philippians is by reminding them of their fellow church member’s roles. He calls him “my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need”.
First, Paul describes three of Epaphroditus’ roles in his relationship with Paul, and then two of his roles in his relationship with the Philippians and Paul. The first relationship Epaphroditus has to Paul is he’s his “brother”. Paul clearly doesn’t mean that Epaphroditus is his biological brother, since Epaphroditus is a Greek, having a Greek name, while Paul is a Jew. Rather, he is his spiritual brother, since they both share God as their Father by virtue of being born again into His family. Second, Epaphroditus is Paul’s “fellow worker”, or “co-worker”. Paul doesn’t mean that they both work together to make a living, since Paul was imprisoned, and couldn’t engage in his trade of tent-making. Rather, they both work together in what Paul calls in verse 30 “the work of Christ”, or the work of making disciples of Christ, and teaching them to obey Him. Thirdly, Epaphroditus is Paul’s “fellow soldier”, since they’re both fighting in the war against Satan and his demons by living and promoting God’s Word, and praying for other Christian soldiers.
The second group of roles that Epaphroditus fills describe his relationship as a representative of the Philippians to Paul. First, Paul calls him the Philippians’ “messenger”. This tells us that it was Epaphroditus’ job to explain to Paul how the Philippians were doing, and what problems they were having. Second, he’s the Philippians’ “minister to [Paul’s] need”. The word “minister” is translated from the Greek word diakonos, which literally means “servant”. So, Paul was the Philippians’ servant to meet Paul’s need. What was this need? In Philippians 4:18, Paul tells us by saying,
“I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering , a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” (ESV)
So, clearly, Paul’s need was at least a financial one, since he couldn’t work to support himself while imprisoned, and he may not have been provided with food by the Romans. Actually, Luke tells us in Acts 28:30 that while Paul was imprisoned under house arrest, “he lived there two whole years at his own expense” (ESV). Hence, Paul would have had to at least pay for his lodging while awaiting a hearing with the Roman Emperor to decide the outcome of his legal battle. At any rate, Epaphroditus had brought money from the Philippians to Paul, to support him.
Paul Reveals Why Epaphroditus Has Returned
In verse 26, Paul explains why he “thought it necessary to send to [the Philippians] Epaphroditus”:
“. . . for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.”
The first reason Paul sent him back to the church was that he was “longing” for them. This shows us that he dearly loved that church, and wanted to be with them to enjoy their company. Second, he was “distressed because [they] heard that he was ill”. Why was he distressed? Because he knew that they would be distressed from hearing that he was ill. This shows us that the Philippians dearly loved Epaphroditus, and had great concern for his well-being. But he didn’t want them to be tempted to worry about losing him to illness.
Based on these two reasons, Paul decided that Epaphroditus needed to go back to the Philippians. First, to satisfy his longing to be with them, and second, to relieve any of their fears or worries that they might have had about his illness by presenting him to them in a healthy condition.
Paul Reviews Epaphroditus’ Recovery
In verse 27, Paul recounts Epaphroditus’ illness, and his recovery from it by saying,
“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.”
First, Paul confirms that Epaphroditus was ill, and describes this illness as almost killing him. Then, he explains how he recovered from it by pointing to the ultimate reason he got well — “God had mercy on him”. What does Paul mean by “mercy”? The Greek word translated “mercy” was used to describe the act of relieving suffering out of pity or compassion toward someone. So, Paul might have also said “God had compassion on him”, or “God had pity on him”.
But Paul doesn’t stop with the relief of Epaphroditus’ suffering, but with the relief of his suffering as well. He says that God also had mercy on him. Why? The reason Paul gives for God’s decision to take away Epaphroditus’ illness is so that Paul wouldn’t have “sorrow upon sorrow”. That is, so Paul wouldn’t have yet another trial to mourn over due to the death of his “brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier”.
What were the other sorrows that Paul experienced? He says in one of his letters that he was “constantly concerned” about all the churches he had planted, which often had many problems with sin and persecution. Also, he had many enemies that sought to silence him, and spread lies about him. In addition, he says in Romans 9 that he had “unceasing grief” for his fellow Jews who weren’t Christians, and were under God’s wrath. Those are just a few I can think of. Like Jesus, he was a “man of sorrows”, but God decided to save Epaphroditus from death to prevent Paul from experiencing one more sorrow, on top of the many he was already suffering.
He Reasons for the Philippians’ Rejoicing and His Relief
In verse 28, Paul explains why Epaphroditus’ recovery motivates him even more to send him back to the Philippians:
“I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious.”
The first reason he gives for being “more eager” to send Epaphroditus is a selfless one — so the Philippians will “rejoice at seeing him again”. So, here we see that Paul is exemplifying the selfless attitude that he’s been urging the Philippians to have in the second chapter of this letter. He wants them to “rejoice”, which means to feel an inner happiness that causes someone to express it with one’s behavior. The Philippians would rejoice when they saw Epaphroditus, not only because they loved him, but because they would find out for the first time that he had completely recovered from his illness, which is why Paul uses the word “therefore”.
The second reason Paul is more eager to send Epaphroditus isn’t clear in the ESV translation of this verse, since it uses the words “less anxious”. Considering that Paul commands the Philippians in chapter four to not be anxious about anything, it doesn’t make much sense for Paul to admit at this point that he’s anxious. In fact, the Greek word translated “be less anxious” doesn’t have a necessary connection to anxiety, according to Strong’s Concordance, the New American Standard Bible (NASB) Exhaustive Concordance, and Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. In addition, the NASB and New King James Version use the words “less concerned” and “less sorrowful” respectively. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the Greek word from which these phrases come is alupoteros, and literally means “free from pain or grief”. Also, the fact that Paul has just said that God prevented him from having “sorrow upon sorrow” adds another reason why Paul is speaking more about “grief” than about “anxiety”.
Given all these reasons, it’s best to see Paul as saying that he’s more eager to send Epaphroditus to the Philippians so that he’ll have less “grief”, “pain”, or “concern”. He wasn’t anxious about the Philippians, since he’s already said in this letter that he’s confident that the Lord is working in them, and that they’ve “always obeyed” his instructions. However, he still has concerns about them, which compelled him to give them more instructions and encouragements. When he knew that Epaphroditus got to them, and shared this letter with them, his concern for them would be greatly relieved.
He Requires Them to Rejoice and Highly Regard Risk-Takers
In verse 29, Paul concludes this passage by commanding the Philippians to rejoice for Epaphroditus’ return, and to highly regard people like him. He puts it like this:
“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.”
First, Paul bases his first command on what he’s just explained by using the word “so”. He says “because I’m more eager to send Epaphroditus to you so you can rejoice, receive him in the Lord with all joy”.
But what does he mean by receiving him “in the Lord”? “The Lord” refers to Christ, but focuses on His position as the Supreme Authority over the universe. But the word “in” means that the Philippians are to receive Epaphroditus as those who are spiritually united to the Lord — in Him — share His life, and participate in the activities of His kingdom. In other words, they are to receive Epaphroditus back into their community because they all share the same life of the Lord.
So, they’re to receive Epaphroditus as those “in the Lord”, but the way in which they’re to do it is “with all joy”, or as much joy as they can feel and express because of his arrival.
The last thing Paul commands them to do is to “honor such”. There’s actually no Greek word for “men” in this verse, but only a word that means “of this kind”. Hence, he’s telling them to honor, or to highly value, people like Epaphroditus.
What is Epaphroditus like? Well, Paul says that he almost died “for the work of Christ” by “risking his life to complete what was lacking in [the Philippians’] service to [him]”. How did Epaphroditus risk his life? He had to travel for miles from northern Greece to western Italy, probably by ship. While onboard, he clearly risked getting sick from spoiled food, or from coming into contact with sick strangers. Any long-distance travel in those days was very risky. As a result of risking his life, he got sick, and almost died.
But why did he risk his life? First, for Christ’s work, or the work of the Anointed Prophet, Priest, and King. Since Christ is in heaven, He now continues the preaching, reconciling, and ruling He started while on earth through His people. Epaphroditus engaged in this work by going to Paul on the behalf of the Philippian church to “complete” their service to Paul, since they needed someone to bring him money and news about them.
So, that’s the type of person that Paul commands the Philippians to honor — those who are willing to risk their lives for Christ’s work, and to serve Christ’s people.
Appreciate, Long For, Receive with Joy, and Honor Risk-Taking Servants of Christ
If you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, how does this passage apply to you? First, notice that Paul considered it necessary for a Christian who had been away from his church for a while, and got severely sick, to go back to his church. Do you consider it necessary for Christians who long to be together, and haven’t been together for a while, to meet together? Do you long to be with your church family?
Second, Paul reminded the Philippians of Epaphroditus’ roles in his church relationships, so they would appreciate who he was, and what he did. Do you appreciate all that your brothers and sisters in Christ do to serve other Christians, as fellow workers, soldiers, and servants?
Third, Epaphroditus cared enough for his church that he was distressed at the thought that they might be tempted to worry about him. Do you care enough about your church family that you’re distressed when they’re distressed, or tempted to sin?
Do you welcome your brothers and sisters in Christ to your gatherings in the Lord with all joy?
Do you honor Christians who are risk their lives to do Christ’s work, or to serve other Christians?
Are you willing to risk your life to do Christ’s work, and to serve your brothers and sisters in Christ?
If you have no desire to be with other Christians, or no desire to help them when you know they need it, then that’s probably because you have no love for the One who loves His people the most — Christ. Lack of love for Christ is rebellion against Him, called sin, since He deserves, and demands, love from every person. If you’re in rebellion against Him, then you’re one of His enemies, and are one of God’s enemies. If the end of your life comes while you’re an enemy of Christ, He’ll judge you and punish you with eternal torment for your rebellion. There’s good news, though! God Himself sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become the man, Jesus, and to suffer on a Roman cross to take God’s punishment for our rebellion against Him. Then, God raised Him from the dead, and took Him into heaven as our King. He commands everyone to change their minds, and to trust in Christ as their King and Savior from sin and God’s wrath because He’s going to judge everyone through Jesus based on everything they’ve done, and punish His enemies forever. Please make sure you’ve changed your mind about God, Christ, and yourself, and are trusting in Christ alone as your King and Savior, because God promises to forgive all the sins of everyone who does so, and give them peace with Him.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.