We see an individual and corporate example in the New Testament throughout Paul’s missionary journeys. The book of Acts reveals that Barnabas and Paul were faithful members of the church of Antioch before being sent out by the church. As they and other individuals went about evangelizing, discipling, and planting churches, Paul wrote about the partnership he experienced with new believers gathered in local churches.
The “gold standard” of such a partnership could be seen with the church in Philippi. Exploring Paul’s partnership with this church and specifically with one of their own, Epaphroditus, shows how missionary care serves the persevering work of gospel proclamation.
Paul’s Partnership with the Philippians
Paul arrived in Philippi in A.D. 49 and we see then the evangelizing of the first members of the church in Acts 16:11–40. His partnership with the church in Philippi was strong from the outset.
In Philippians 4:15, Paul highlighted the type of relationship he had with the church, writing, “And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving; except you only.”
A theme of joy in the midst of poverty that led toward generosity echoes throughout the letter as we are reminded that Paul wrote this letter while imprisoned for preaching the gospel.
While a reader of Paul’s letters can surmise his confidence in the gospel despite the cost, Paul was human and experienced hardship. Upon realizing this, the Philippian church saw an opportunity to encourage Paul with Epaphroditus.
Moisés Silva, in his commentary on Philippians, explains that the church was aware of Paul’s need and their spiritual responsibility to him, and thus sent Epaphroditus with a gift to assist Paul and aid him for a period of time. It is Epaphroditus’s example that we want to explore further as it gives churches and missionaries a model for the reciprocal nature that partnerships require.
Epaphroditus’s Example of Care
In 2:25c, Paul used terms that reflected the gift his relationship was with Epaphroditus to the role that his friend carried out on behalf of the church in Philippi. On behalf of the church at Philippi, Epaphroditus carried out the role of a “minister” to Paul, meeting Paul’s material and spiritual needs. Such action mirrored what Paul wrote elsewhere in his letter of Christ’s sacrificial nature in going to the cross, which is the foundation for Christian partnership.
In spite of the service Epaphroditus had carried out for Paul and the Philippians, he longed to be back with his church. (2:26a) While the timing is unclear, we later read that Epaphroditus became ill and was in great distress. Ralph Martin says “Epaphroditus’ longing for his native city and a restoration to his Christian friends there has been variously interpreted as homesickness … or, a pastoral solicitude for the ‘flock’ from which he is separated or, more likely, a desire to be back home to defend Paul’s gospel” (139).
The surrounding verses reveal Epaphroditus’s desire to be back with the church, but also to report all that was carried out on their behalf. The context of these verses helps to explain the pain that partnership brings as well as the hand of God that upholds a laborer. In spite of the illness, Epaphroditus came to Paul’s aid and was healed in the process according to the mercy of God.
God’s hand was guiding Paul’s circumstances, Epaphroditus’ condition, and the church at Philippi for the sake of the gospel being furthered and God’s messenger to the Gentiles being strengthened and encouraged. Epaphroditus had the mind of Christ in his actions and Paul reminded the church at Philippi (and us) that they should walk in that same example, particularly as it relates to supporting those sent out to further the witness of the gospel.
Paul’s Joy and Sorrow
The mercy of God was not only extended to Epaphroditus, but also to Paul. Though joy is a prevailing theme in the letter, Paul expressed great sorrow at sending Epaphroditus back. Paul could rejoice, even as he was about to exhort the Philippians to do, because his brother, co-worker, and fellow soldier had just fulfilled the work the church sent him to accomplish.
Paul’s eagerness was underscored by the hope that the Philippians would rejoice at seeing their minister and messenger again. Paul was eager to send him back in light of his near-death experience and less sorrowful because the Philippians would receive him back with joy. Paul turned the focus from the gift he received in Epaphroditus to how the Philippians should now receive him back.
The crescendo of commendation reached its peak in 2:29 as Paul told the Philippians to receive Epaphroditus with joy and also honor his service. Paul received this “sent one” who served with humility and honor, and then exhorted the church to receive him back in the same manner.
What the Philippians could not do because they were not able physically to be with Paul, Epaphroditus fulfilled. Epaphroditus was willing to count the cost and sacrifice his life to do what the church could not do in full. Not only did Paul receive the gift (4:18), but he also received a gift in the presence of his partner, who was a model of sacrificial partnership.
Application in Ministry
In Acts 13–14, Paul and Barnabas concluded their first missionary journey, returned to the church at Antioch where they “spent no little time” with the members, and reported how God had used them. Both in sending out ‘sent ones’ and receiving them back, the church at Antioch and this example in Philippi reflect the local church’s crucial role in sending, supporting, and receiving sent ones.
As Paul noted in his letter to the Philippians, Epaphroditus completed what was lacking in the Philippians’ absence. Likewise, as believers in Christ, we are commanded to care for one another. Paul’s words stress the importance of the local church’s commitment to one another as reflected in the way we meet each other’s needs, including those who are sent out from us.
Sending should not be the finish line but instead the start of the role played by the church in undergirding the work of her partners.
There are many ways a sending church can care for those it sends out:
- Regular prayer for supported partners
- Frequent communications and regular member care calls
- Sending short-term teams to provide ministry aid and member care
- Sending care packages
- Created Advocacy Teams to build deeper partnership between the sent one and various members of the church in prayer, communication, and on-going support.
As missionaries return for stateside assignment, the church can:
- Provide a missionary home for partners.
- Give them the opportunity to report to and mobilize members of the church.
- Provide logistical support to get them re-established into the community (car, home, arrangements for school, etc.).
- Have the elders meet with team to receive updates and provide additional care and counsel (you might even link som of the spiritual health questions that the Upstream Collective has in its resource folder for this sending element).
- Send them to a marriage or family retreat/weekend to encourage them.
- Give them a short getaway as a family to rest, recharge, and recreate.
It is the church’s privilege to give strong care, support, and hospitality, as well as encourage global workers to receive such hospitality.
Relationships are the bedrock of partnership. We see this in Philippi, and it should be the case in present contexts. Before we send missionaries to the field, we need to develop relationships with them so that they are equipped and trained as biblically faithful missionaries who we know and can send with confidence.
The church at Philippi could stand behind Epaphroditus, send him with conviction, and in time receive him back in an honoring way. They knew how he would care for Paul and, in light of the suffering he endured, how he should be commended at his return. This missionary care exemplified by the Philippians serves to support the furtherance of the gospel in our lives (whether as goers or senders) and in the lives of those with whom we share Christ.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on The Upstream Collective August 11, 2021. Used with permission.