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We continue now our study in Paul's Epistle to the Philippians. In the Bible, we are given, not only pictures from the highest realms of theology, but also pictures of real life, individual struggles, personal relationships. At the beginning of this chapter, we had the former in the description of Christ's incarnation and glorification (vss. 6-11); here, we have the latter in Paul's description of his relationship with two of his fellow servants of Christ. "In some of Paul's writings the Apostle predominates; in others the man."[Footnote #3] The many instances in the Bible where personal concerns and relationships are highlighted reflect the fact that God cares for us personally and desires that we have close relationships with each other. Paul's relationships proved valuable to him. In the midst of his captivity, Paul was surrounded by the love of his brothers.
19I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. 20I have no-one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. 21For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. 23I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. 24And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon.
First, Paul speaks of his long-time friend Timothy. An indication of the importance that Timothy played in Paul's ministry is that Timothy is mentioned in eleven out of thirteen of Paul's epistles. Timothy was dear to Paul. Here he describes their relationship like "a son with his father" (vs. 22). Nevertheless, Paul unselfishly says: "I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you." Paul seeks the will of the Lord first in everything he does (thus, he says "I hope in the Lord Jesus"), so even though Timothy is like a son to him, and undoubtedly attending very well to his needs in captivity, Paul is willing (if the Lord is) to send him to Philippi. This shows Paul's love for the Philippians: he was willing to send the best he had.
Presumably, Timothy was being sent to minister to the Philippians during their time of persecution (see Phil. 1:29-30). They would need someone strong in the faith to be with them during this time. Even the expectation of Timothy's coming would help them. "[Paul] promises that Timothy will come, so that, by expecting him, they may bear up more courageously. . . For, as in war, an expectation of reinforcements heartens soldiers and stops them from giving way, so this consideration, too, would encourage the Philippians greatly."[Footnote #4]
Paul trusted Timothy to carry out such an important mission. He says: "I have no-one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare." Paul discerned that Timothy truly cared about the Philippians, not because he was constrained to care for them (being the disciple of the primary apostle to the Gentiles), but because he truly cared for them. Peter encourages such an attitude in an exhortation to elders: "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve" (I Peter 5:2). We are not to love others because we have to, but because we want to. This is important. True love cannot come from the mind, but must come from the heart. But, how does one cultivate such love? Pray for it. Pure love can only come from God, by His Spirit working in you.
Sadly, too few have such love. Paul notes: "For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." Such love is even difficult to find among Christians. Unselfishness should be a trademark of Christianity. If it were, the Christian religion would have a much better reputation than it now carries in the world. Timothy's unselfishness was not merely theoretical, but proven: "Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel."
25But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow-worker and fellow-soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. 27Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. 28Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. 29Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, 30because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me.
Paul now speaks of Epaphoditus, who was sent by the Philippians "to take care of [Paul's] needs." It seems that things did not quite work out for Epaphroditus' goal of serving the Lord by aiding Paul. Epaphroditus had the best of intentions. Paul flatteringly calls him a "fellow-worker and fellow-soldier." These are worthy titles for a Christian. We, as servants of Christ, should be "fellow-workers" for Christ, not fellow-loafers for Christ. As the Lord says through Jeremiah: "A curse on him who is lax in doing the Lord's work!" (Jer. 48:10). We should all have an agenda full of the Lord's work to do, and we should carry out His work energetically, not lazily.
We should also all realize that war has been declared upon us, and thus be "fellow-soldiers" in Christ's army. Paul says elsewhere: "Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs--he wants to please his commanding officer" (II Tim. 2:3,4). Also, to prepare as a soldier, Paul tells us to "put on the full armor of God" (Eph. 6:13), the armor of God being truth, righteousness, readiness, faith, salvation, the Word of God, and prayer (cf. Eph. 6:14-18).
Despite the fact that Epaphroditus was a "fellow-worker and fellow-soldier" of Paul, Paul was forced to send him back to the Philippians, because things were not working out in his service for Paul. First, "he was ill, and almost died." Then, he got homesick of sorts: "For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill." And so, though Epaphroditus had the best of intentions, he had to return to Philippi. I believe that the Lord Himself, for His own reasons, did not want Epaphroditus to serve with Paul. Most certainly, the Lord had something more valuable, and more suited to his abilities, lined up for Epaphroditus to do in Philippi. Sometimes, our plans to serve the Lord do not agree with what the Lord has planned for us. We set out with the best of intentions, but encounter insurpassable obstacles, sent by God Himself. Often, God has to go to great lengths to get us back on His path. To Epaphroditus, He sent a life-threatening illness. Given that Epaphroditus was a "soldier" for Christ, he probably would have persevered through anything less. The illness was serious enough to force Epaphroditus to long for home, though; and so, Paul sent him back to the Philippians.
Paul, however, definitely did not want the Philippians to think any less of Epaphroditus for being sent back. He exhorts them: "Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me." If the path upon which we set out to serve the Lord turns out not to be the correct path, we should in no way be ashamed. We should rather praise the Lord that He cares enough to lead us onto the correct path. Nor should we disparage others when they feel that the Lord is leading them from one place of service into another; rather, we should encourage them greatly to follow the leading of the Lord. Epaphroditus' (so-called) failure with Paul was cause for "great joy" and "honor"; for, whatever the result, he set out to do what he considered to be the "work of Christ", and was most certainly returning to do the true work that Christ had prepared for him to do.
We praise You, Lord, for Your guiding hand: that You care enough for us to, not only to set aside work for us, but to lead us into that service. Make us, by Your Spirit, into "fellow-workers" and "fellow-soldiers" as we seek to serve You. Give us true care and love for others, from the heart: love that can only come from You. We ask these things in the name of Jesus, Amen.
(Due to space constraints, the continuation of this study will not be included in the next issue. The series will recommence in the June 1996 issue.)
3. Charles Vaughan, Epistle to the Philippians, pg. 139.
4. Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle, pg. 260.
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