Timothy and Epaphroditus

Philippians (9)


The Christian faith is by no means a solitary business. The grace of regeneration extends to each individual, but because this grace is brought by means of the Spirit of God, one of the first things it does is knit us together with all the other recipients of this same grace. Each Christian is touched by God, individually, but there is only one body. This is manifested in different ways. One of them is the great grace of corporate worship. “I will give thee thanks in the great congregation: I will praise thee among much people” (Psalm 35:18). But another aspect of this is the grace of companionship, a grace that we can see several times in this passage. “And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life” (Phil. 4:3, NKJV).

The Text

“But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheus shortly unto you, that I also may be of good comfort, when I know your state. For I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s. But ye know the proof of him, that, as a son with the father, he hath served with me in the gospel. Him therefore I hope to send presently, so soon as I shall see how it will go with me. But I trust in the Lord that I also myself shall come shortly. Yet I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labour, and fellowsoldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants. For he longed after you all, and was full of heaviness, because that ye had heard that he had been sick. For indeed he was sick nigh unto death: but God had mercy on him; and not on him only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I sent him therefore the more carefully, that, when ye see him again, ye may rejoice, and that I may be the less sorrowful. Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness; and hold such in reputation: Because for the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of service toward me” (Philippians 2:19–30).

Summary of the Text

Paul had picked up Timothy as his assistant very early on. Several decades after they had joined forces, Paul still needs to caution him about not letting people despise his youth (1 Tim. 4:12), and of the need to flee youthful lusts (2 Tim. 2:22). This means Timothy was likely in his teens when he first came onto Paul’s team. Paul’s intention here is to send Timothy to Philippi as his representative (v. 19), in order to learn how they were doing. Paul says that he has no one else like Timothy, one who would care naturally for them (v. 20). Others were selfish, not seeking out the interests of Christ (v. 21). But the Philippians already knew Timothy’s worth, how he had served Paul as a faithful son in the gospel work (v. 22). Paul was going to send him in order to get news from Philippi, just as soon as he would be able to bring news to them from Paul (v. 23). If things worked out, Paul would also follow (v. 24). In addition to sending Timothy, he was also going to send Epaphroditus back to them (v. 25). He was Paul’s brother, co-laborer, fellow soldier, and servant to Paul—but he was still their messenger (v. 25). Epaphroditus was greatly concerned because he knew that they had heard about his illness (v. 26). He had in fact almost died, but God had mercy on both him and Paul (v. 27). Paul was spared sorrow upon sorrow. Paul was therefore very deliberate about sending him home again, in order to augment their joy and reduce Paul’s sorrow (v. 28).   Paul urges them to receive him back with gladness, and to honor him highly (v. 29). His illness had been work-related, and so he had therefore risked his life to fulfill the task they had given him to do (v. 30).

That Name Epaphroditus

We should also take a minute to glean a lesson from the fact that Paul’s “fellow soldier” was named (still named) Epaphroditus. That name means “dedicated to Aphrodite,” or Venus, the goddess of sexual love. It is natural and right that we name things after what we love and honor, and I suspect it was not too long in the history of the church before Christian parents stopped naming their kids Epaphroditus. Or Judas. But it is equally important for us not to be too fastidious in the meantime. “Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” (Ecclesiastes 7:16). Tychicus had a name related to fate or chance, and Mordecai means dedicated to Marduk.

This means you should not be too concerned about meeting someone for lunch on Thor’s Day. Or that some people think that Christmas must be avoided because it used to be a pagan holiday. That’s quite all right. We used to be pagans.

Fellow Soldiers

When the Lord Jesus sent out the seventy, He sent them out “two by two” (Luke 10:1-2). Even though the laborers were few, He did not spread them out into “ones.” Paul goes to Athens alone, but he wanted Silas and Timothy to join up with him with “all speed” (Acts 17:15). After they arrived, the effectiveness of the ministry was amplified (Acts 18:5, 8-10). And when Paul was in Troas, there was a real open door there, but he had no peace in his spirit because he hadn’t heard from Titus yet (2 Cor. 2:12-13). Companionship in gospel work is an assigned strategy.

“Do thy diligence to come shortly unto me: For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus unto Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry. And Tychicus have I sent to Ephesus. The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:9–13).

Here is the key to effective ministry. Companions. And books. 

Sorrow Upon Sorrow

Now Paul had just finished saying that if he were to be sacrificed on the altar of the Philippians’ obedience, he would rejoice, and so would they (Phil. 2:17-18). But he says here that if Epaphroditus had died, it would have left him disconsolate (v. 27). Is this a contradiction? It would be if Christian joy were a happy-happy-joy-joy kind of thing, but it isn’t. We are not made out of blocks of wood. It is possible to rejoice in the Lord through tears of grief.

As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”

2 Cor. 6:10 (KJV)

Who do we follow? Who is our Lord? He is the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3). He went to the cross for the joy that was set before Him (Heb. 12:2). He is now at the right hand of the Father, where there is an infinite river of pleasure (Ps. 16:11), and fulness of joy.

This means that every follower of Christ is called to cultivate a hierarchy of emotional values. This is what Christ Himself did, and it is what Paul had learned to do in imitation of Christ. As we grow in the school of Christian imitation, this is a lesson we will most certainly be taught. We must build on the bedrock of joy and contentment—which is deep satisfaction with the sovereign will of our covenant-keeping God. At the same time, we are not Stoics—we experience pain, grief, alarm, concern, and so forth. But we experience all of it in context. And never forget that for those who are in Christ—which means you—the context is Christ Himself.

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