“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, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 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. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 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.” (Philippians 2:25-30 ESV)
The imprisoned Apostle Paul knew what many moderns don’t: that love is more than a feeling.
Paul knew that love, far from being a mere emotion, involves self-giving for the good of another. And as a result, Paul couldn’t talk about the self-effacing, mission-minded love to which the Christians in Philippi were called without pointing to two visible, tangible examples of such brotherly affection in action: Timothy and Epaphroditus.
Timothy, as Paul’s traveling pastoral assistant, had demonstrated his worth in his genuine, selfless concern for the Philippian church, embodying Paul’s own heart for the congregation. In turn, Epaphroditus, as an emissary sent by the church in Philippi to aid Paul (v. 25), represented the church’s reciprocal love for Paul.
Notice the heightening of Epaphroditus’ titles in verse 25: brother (in Christ), fellow worker (as a minister), and fellow soldier (as a minister, like Paul, uniquely acquainted with the sufferings and mission of Christ; cf. 2 Timothy 2:3-6). Similarly, we may enjoy fellowship with a great number of fellow believers, yet there is a particularly close bond forged among those who serve in the trenches of ministry together, who take enemy fire together, and who embark on gospel offensive arm-in-arm.
At some point in his ministry to and with the apostle, however, Epaphroditus had fallen ill—near to the point of death (v. 27). Yet his selflessness is seen in that he was more concerned for how his illness or possible demise might affect the Philippians than for his own state (v. 26). Consider what a spiritual feat this is indeed—to be in distress for others while in such dire physical straits oneself. J.C. Ryle, in his booklet Sickness, remarks, “Many a creed looks fine on the smooth waters of health, which turns out utterly unsound and useless on the rough waves of the sickbed. The storms of winter often bring out the defects in a man’s house, and sickness often exposes the gracelessness of a man’s soul.” From a fleshly perspective, we would have forgiven Epaphroditus for looking to his own interests while on his sickbed, and in fact we would have expected as much. Yet the trial of illness for this traveling Christian worker revealed the true state of his soul: one of tireless devotion to the upbuilding of others in the faith.
It was then that “God had mercy” on Epaphroditus, sparing his life (v. 27). Though it is “far better” (1:23) to be away from the body yet present with the Lord, to remain in the body was more needful—especially for Paul, lest he should suffer “sorrow upon sorrow” (2:27). Yet how is Epaphroditus’ recovery a “mercy,” if indeed it is so much better to be with Christ? John Calvin answers, simply, that life is still “nevertheless, considered in itself, an excellent gift of God.” Additionally, Calvin comments, through Epaphroditus’ healing God was glorified, and when God is thus glorified in our lives, we are reminded “to look not so much to life itself, as to the end for which we live.”
We must not pass over the Lord’s kindness to Paul as well. Lest we read Paul as possessing such Stoic indifference as to unflinchingly endure the loss of all attachments, Paul reminds us of his humanity. He admits to loving his brother in Christ and longing deeply for his continued companionship. And this longing is not met with rebuke from the Lord, as though Paul had imbibed some worldly passions, but rather with an act of mercy in preserving the life of his friend. Let us consider, then, the good gifts that God gives to his children. While he calls us to suffer, and especially to suffer on mission, he does not expect us to do so as Stoics. He scatters innumerable blessings across our way, sweetening every bitter cup in his providential care for his children.
Having benefitted from Epaphroditus’ devotion, Paul resolves to send him back to Philippi (v. 28) for the joy of the believers there. Here we see a biblical rationale for the practice of missionary furlough: an emissary sent out from the church is reunited with the congregation to upbuild them in love.
In response to such self-sacrificial, missional believers, Paul instructs: “honor such men” (v. 29). There is a special type of esteem which is fitting for gospel workers who risk death (v. 30). The Lord Jesus taught his disciples that even an act as simple as giving God’s messenger a cup of cold water would be met with reward (Matthew 10:42). Likewise, the Apostle John tells us to support missionaries along their journey “in a manner worthy of God,” so “that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 6, 8).
Finally, Paul remarks that Epaphroditus had risked his life “to complete what was lacking in your service to me” (v. 30). We should not take this to mean that there was some deficiency in the Philippians’ care for Paul, as though they had failed to love the apostle until Epaphroditus tipped the scale. Rather, Paul is simply stating what is obvious: that the Philippian believers, over 800 miles away from Paul’s location in Rome, were not physically able to serve Paul to the fullest extent. It took sending Epaphroditus in the flesh to fully express their love for Paul.
How easy it is for us to forget, in our hyper-connected world with instant communication and easy travel, that true love indeed is best expressed face-to-face. Love always involves not only presence but also risk to oneself—if not physically, certainly emotionally. C.S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)
Do you know the missionaries, evangelists, or church planters whom your church has sent? Do they know those who remain at the church? Is the relationship marked by mutual affection, sacrifice, and striving for the good of the other? The affectionate fellowship shared by Paul, Epaphroditus, and the Philippian church is a reminder that we must love our sent ones well, and that Christian love is dangerous indeed.
Your Word shows me that true Christian love is costly. Forgive me for loving your people merely from a distance, remaining aloof to their needs. Teach me to love as Epaphroditus did. Use my life to encourage those who follow you and who are about your work.
In Jesus’ name,
- Pray for your church to love its sent workers well. Prayerfully consider a short-term missions trip as a way to encourage long-term workers, as Epaphroditus came to aid Paul.
- Ask the Lord to help your church honor those who risk their lives on mission. Pray that the faithfulness of missionaries would be an example that would build up others in your congregation.
- Pray that missionaries suffering from illness would see their suffering as being from the Lord’s hand and meant for their good. Ask for healing, encouragement, and deepening sanctification for each missionary walking through a season of sickness.