COMMENTARY ON PHILIPPIANS
T E X T
“Yet I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my need; since he was longing for you all, and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow”
(Phil 2:25-27, NKJV)
You will notice that the details of life related by Paul are always stated within the context of life in Christ Jesus. If he is in prison, he is a prisoner of Christ. If he contemplates being freed, it is to do the work of the Lord. If he mentions friends, it is regarding their labors for the Lord. His longings relate to the Kingdom of God. His communications are to the people of God. He mentions his prayers, not his meals. Even those who guarded him are brought up within the context of the Gospel and their response to it. Here is a notable example of living unto the Lord. It is a stance greatly to be coveted by every child of God. In this frame of mind Christ is brought to bear upon all of life.
EPAPHRODITUS–FELLOW WORKER, SOLDIER
“Yet I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my need.” The imprisoned Apostle determined to send Timothy to Philippi–even planning to come himself, if the will of the Lord so allowed. However, in the meantime, he resolved to send Epaphroditus to them for the present time. While he waited to see how it would “go with” him, he refused to let the work of the Lord stand still. Notice, he states it was “necessary” to send Epaphroditus. And why so? It was not owing to any apparent crisis that had risen in Philippi. They were working out their own salvation with fear and trembling in the midst of a perverse nation. That condition requires edification, strength, and encouragement. We see from this that the best of congregations need to be built up in the most holy faith.
We learn from the fourth chapter that Epaphroditus had been sent to Paul by the Philippians. From him, Paul had received things sent to him by the Philippian brethren, “an odor of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God” (4:18). We do not know precisely what was sent, but it brought great satisfaction to Paul. Of their gift he said, “Indeed I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you . . . ” They were no doubt practical things, but the satisfying value came from the spirit in which they had been sent–a sacrifice well pleasing to God.
The description of Epaphroditus reveals the manner in which laborers in the Lord’s vineyard are to be assessed. Again, the appraisal of this saint is made within the context of the work of the Lord.
“My brother.” While the technical meaning of this word is “a male relative with the same parents,’ that is not the meaning of the word here. Relationships in Christ transcend fleshly ones. Saints are related to one another by virtue of their union with Christ. Our Lord said, “you are all brethren” (Matt 23:8). This designation identifies one as a member of the body of Christ. Paul therefore spoke of being “called a brother” (1 Cor 5:11), showing it is not to be taken lightly. No less than 55 times, the word“brother” is used in this manner in the epistles. It is a high designation.
“Companion in labor.” This is labor “in the Lord”–focused efforts in the vineyard of the Lord and with the Gospel of Christ. It is labor that is “not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58), is prompted by love (1 Thess 1:3), and is “in the Word and doctrine” (1 Tim 5:17). Your experience should confirm to you how relatively few people work together for the cause of Christ.
“Fellow soldier.” As a soldier, he had taken his stand against principalities and powers, and was casting down imaginations exalting themselves against the knowledge of God (Eph 6:12; 2 Cor 10:5-6).
“Your messenger.” An able representative of the Philippian brethren, he brought their gifts and embody their hearts. As such, Paul says, “He ministered to my need.” He did so, not only as a representative of others, but as personally joining with the Apostle in his desires and labors.
LONGING AND DISTRESS
“ . . . since he was longing for you all, and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick.” Here is an account that reflects real Kingdom thinking. It contradicts current teachings that claim health is guaranteed in the Lord, and that sickness is an unnecessary intrusion into the lives of believers.
Epaphroditus was “longing” for his brethren at home. This was not mere homesickness. It was a deep desire for the fellowship they had in Christ Jesus. He had not been longing for some of them, but for “all” of them–as a body of believers. See the versatility of the redeemed soul. Although away from his brethren, ministering to Paul, and experiencing personal infirmity, he still longed for the brethren at home. Too, there is a suggestion that the Philippians had an equal longing for him. Some believe Epaphroditus was more than a mere representative of the church. They see him as the leader of the congregation, or at least one of them. I am also inclined to this view. The desire of Paul to send Timothy, come himself, and send Epaphroditus indicates churches are not as independent as some suppose. I know of churches whose leaders would be offended by such considerations.
Now this man of God was “distressed,” or made very heavy, because they had heard “he was sick.” The word “distressed” is a strong one, meaning sorely troubled, upset, and deeply troubled. He was not troubled because he was sick, but because his brethren heard he was sick. It is as though their concern for him would detract from their thoughts of Paul, to whom they had sent assistance. His sickness is thus viewed as secondary to the work of the Lord, and was not considered by him to be a crisis–even though serious.
The value of this verse is not found in its doctrine, or teaching, but in the spirit of the text. It conveys to us a certain Kingdom manner that is most unusual in our day. Among the churches of our land, sicknesses are viewed as most critical, often being the only things for which people pray. While guarding against insensitivity in this area, we learn from this text of the manner in which holy men regarded infirmity. Paul said he “gloried” in infirmities, in order that the “power of Christ might rest” upon him (2 Cor 12:9). He knew that his personal weakness became an occasion for Divine power to come upon him. The manner of the Kingdom is, “when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
The sustaining of a human soul under the weight of infirmity is no small thing. Whether “infirmities, reproaches, needs, persecutions, or distresses for Christ’s sake,” a depletion of personal resources makes one a reservoir for Divine power. This does not mean we are indifferent about sickness, whether in ourselves or others. It does mean we can capitalize on the occasion, according to the will of God. That is why Paul could leave Trophimus “in Miletum sick” (2 Tim 4:20). He knew the manner of the Kingdom.
What a noble soul we behold in Epaphroditus! He was more concerned for his brethren than for himself. Thus, with Paul, he exemplified the mind of Christ in preferring others above himself. May God raise an army of such souls to work in His vineyard–souls who care for the flock.
HE ALMOST DIED FROM THE SICKNESS
“For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.” At once we see that Epaphroditus was not suffering from a minor or common ailment. He almost died! Hezekiah was “sick unto death” (2 Kgs 20:1). Mighty Elisha died “of his sickness” ( Kgs 13:14). King Jehoram was smitten by God with an “incurable disease,” from which he died (2 Chron 21:18-19). King Asa died of a disease in his feet because he “did not seek the Lord, but the physicians” (2 Chron 16:12). There is, indeed, a sickness that is “unto death.” For a while, Paul did not know whether this was the case with Epaphroditus or not. Now he writes that the sickness was “almost unto death.” He was ushered to the very gates of death by illness, yet was spared for the moment from entering into them. I have often wondered how many of God’s people have been “sick almost unto death.”
Those who boast of healing coming from the natural constitution of man will not be able to rejoice with Paul. The apostle does not trace the recovery of this faithful servant to the healing properties of the body, but to the mercy of God: “God had mercy upon him!” It is still true, “Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases” (Psa 103:3). Those who argue about whether or not God still heals must ponder whether or not He still has mercy upon people. The healing was not traced to a miracle, but to mercy.
Another thing we see here is that Paul, though a mighty apostle, could not heal at will. Spiritual gifts, however notable, are managed by the Giver, not the receiver. We know this is the case, because the recovery of Epaphroditus brought mercy to Paul as well. Their spirits were so knit together that Paul sorrowed and rejoiced with this messenger from Philippi.
Here was a case when sorrows had been rushing like a flood over the Apostle. Although he rejoiced in the Lord, gloried in his infirmities, and brooded with care over the churches, yet he had been given the bitter herbs of sorrow. The mercy extended to Epaphroditus kept Paul from having “sorrowupon sorrow.” David spoke of such an experience when he referred to the“sorrows of death” surrounding him (Psa 18:4). He called it the “pangs of death” getting hold of him, while he “found trouble and sorrow” (Psa 116:3). It is a circumstance in which the believer finds “sorrow in my heart daily”(Psa 13:2), and “my sorrow is continually before me” (Psa 38:17). Our Lord experienced this to the fullest measure, as confirmed by these words: “A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3).
Paul does not say having “sorrow upon sorrow” was an impossibility, but that he was spared the experience by God having mercy on Epaphroditus–not himself! There is such a thing as coming “into deep waters, Where the floods overflow me” (Psa 69:2). Were it not for the mercy of God, this circumstance would be more frequent for the best of saints. But God is merciful and faithful, and will not allow us to be tempted above what we are able to bear. Often the deliverance comes when He has mercy on those we love and with whom we labor – and that is something worth thinking about.