Epaphroditus - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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Epaphroditus – an inspiring example.

Reading : Phil.2 :1-30

The Christian’s great example is of course the Lord Jesus Christ and in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians Paul gives us a magnificent insight into Jesus’ humility. To what lengths he was prepared to go in order to save his people from their sins!

Jesus’ life was truly staggering and his example is meant to encourage and not depress us. After all our salvation does not depend upon our efforts to copy his example but upon God’s free grace who credits the righteousness of his Son to our account when we put our faith in him.

The details of Jesus’ life are recorded for us so that we might understand just how great he is and how utterly worthy of our trust he is. Such a One has fully deserved his Heavenly Father’s approval and we may be sure that united to him by faith we will be safe for all eternity.

The example that Jesus’ life left also supplies us with a pattern and a goal to which we may and should aspire. His example perfectly illustrates the type of life that God wants human beings to live. So Paul draws a picture of Christ’s humility and urges Christians to conform their own lives to his. For example Paul writes:

Phil.2:4 "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."

and then proceeds to show that this was precisely the way Jesus ordered his life.

Then, in case we think that following such a high example might be too difficult for us, he directs our attention to the fact that some Christians were doing just that and doing so with a considerable degree of success. In Phil.2:19-24 he points to Timothy, then in vv.25-30 he turns his attention to Epaphroditus before in ch.3 he goes on to speak about his own experience. This evening we will focus upon Epaphroditus who was truly a remarkable follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we think of the way in which he followed his Saviour may the Lord challenge and inspire us to press on in our own lives as we work out the salvation we have received and as we seek to live lives "worthy of the gospel of Christ."

Epaphroditus came from Philippi and it is important for us to understand something about this city and the place it occupied both in the world of its day and in the affections of the apostle Paul.

Philippi was an important and rich city located at a strategic point on a major communication link in the Roman Empire – there was a regular coming and going between Rome and Philippi even though the two cities were separated by some 800 miles.

Some 80 years prior to the time when Paul wrote his letter the city of Philippi had actually become a Roman Colony and many military veterans were granted residence and property rights there. Being a Roman Colony which meant that the city enjoyed a highly privileged status. Under Roman Law a colony could govern itself, it did not have to pay tribute to Caesar in the form of taxes and the citizens enjoyed the same rights as those living in Italy itself even though Rome was some 800 miles away. The granting of colony status to a place outside Italy was the highest honour that Rome could confer. And the inhabitants of the place were well aware of that honour. Paul’s letter indicates that the quest for further honour, prestige and status was something that dominated everyday life in Philippi.

It was to just such a place that the Holy Spirit had directed the apostle Paul during the course of his second missionary journey. Paul had been stuck not knowing just where to go until he received special directions. One night he saw in a vision a man from Macedonia calling for help and when the morning came he concluded that God wanted him to preach the gospel in Macedonia. It wasn’t long before he arrived in Philippi.

Ministry in Philippi involved opposition and imprisonment for the apostle but he also saw spiritual fruit: Lydia was converted, a demon-possessed slave girl was delivered and a jailer along with his entire family believed in God and were baptised. The church in Philippi was born and Paul’s relationship with the church was good and positive. When Paul moved away to minister elsewhere the churches in Macedonia stood with him and sent him the financial support that enabled him to preach the gospel free of the need to support himself.

Now Paul was in prison in Rome itself for his faithful preaching of the gospel and still the church in Philippi stood with him. They arranged to send another financial gift to help the apostle while in prison and the man they chose to take the gift to Paul went by the name of Epaphroditus.

In those days names were generally more than mere labels chosen because the parents liked the sound of them. Names generally indicated something and if this was true for Epaphroditus it would suggest he was brought up in a pagan family that worshipped the goddess Aphrodite. (It is true that Jewish families living in the Empire would sometimes chose Greek names for their children perhaps with the desire to enable their children to fit in with the wider society.) It is worth noting that Epaphroditus having become a Christian had not needed to change his name – the changes that were necessary had taken place in his character and behaviour as we are about to see.

It was an important task that had to be carried out and not one devoid of danger. Who would be willing to take that generous financial gift on a journey of 800 miles to a prisoner in Rome who could well be facing a death sentence? Who would you trust with such a responsibility?

A brave and courageous person would surely be needed and someone with a proven track record, someone who was reliable, and the church in Philippi decided to send Epaphroditus – and they weren’t wrong!

The journey could take around a month or so by land, a little less by sea under favourable circumstances. And Epaphroditus navigated the journey safely – what an encouragement he was to the apostle Paul when he arrived to visit him in his prison in Rome. But the gift of money wasn’t the only gift that Paul received – the messenger was himself a gift and how Paul valued him!

Epaphroditus was no shrinking violet. It was a risky business to associate with a prisoner on trial for his life and Epaphroditus not only visited him but he also threw himself into just the ministry that had landed Paul in prison in the first place. Indeed so seriously did he commit himself to this work that he exhausted himself making himself ill, so seriously ill that he almost died. Small wonder that Paul held him in high esteem!

News got back to Philippi about Epaphroditus’ health and there it was greeted with great dismay – they were anxious about the well-being of their envoy but what could they do?

Word of their anxiety got back to Epaphroditus who was now, by God’s sovereign kindness, restored to full strength. It was now Epaphroditus’ turn to be worried about his anxious friends back in Philippi. The word that describes his distress is a strong one. The only time the word is employed in the NT is to describe Christ’s emotion in the Garden of Gethsemane. Epaphroditus was a man after Christ’s own heart. He loved the church members back in Philippi dearly and couldn’t stop thinking about them; he longed to be able to return to reassure them that all was well. But how could he? He was in Rome on a mission and Paul still stood in need of help.

In the event it was the apostle himself who considering the facts of the situation took the decision to send Epaphroditus back home to Philippi. But he wouldn’t send Epaphroditus empty handed – he could carry a letter with him.

The church in Philippi was a good one but it still had its problems – they had their opponents, they were tempted to grumble, they were troubled by false teachers and they also had some internal interpersonal conflicts. Paul would take the advantage of addressing these and he would also explain why Epaphroditus was returning to them earlier perhaps than they had expected. Paul seems to go out of his way to ensure a warm welcome is extended to Epaphroditus – he is no failure, no first-term missionary casualty who had left the field before his mission was complete, but he was a remarkable man, the type of man that other Christians ought to honour and esteem highly.

As Paul writes these explanatory words we are given a heart-warming description of what a Christian man might become by the grace of God. The description Paul gives of Epaphroditus is unequalled in the NT – Paul gives him 5 honour-filled titles and to these we now turn.

Epaphroditus – a man of honour
Remember what we said earlier about the inhabitants of Philippi and their concern for honour – Paul now lists the criteria by which he judges Epaphroditus worthy of appreciation.

There are 5 titles – 3 are linked to Paul and 2 the Philippians themselves.
Paul writes of Epaphroditus as:

  • My brother

  • My co-worker

  • My fellow soldier

And then as:

  • The messenger

  • The representative minster

of the Philippians.

Let’s look briefly at these.

My brother.
One of Paul’s favourite words for Christian believers is to refer to them as brothers (or brothers and sisters). But nearly always he writes of such in the plural. In fact he only writes of three individuals as "my brother" Timothy, Philemon and here Epaphroditus.

What are we to make of this?

Firstly, the simple fact is that Epaphroditus was a real Christian who had been saved by God’s grace. This is the "without which nothing" of spiritual living and godly service. We go quickly astray if we imagine we are living the kind of life God wants by simply imitating the outward acts of service that others perform if we don’t first put our faith and trust in Jesus.

Secondly, the expression "my brother" conjures up a further idea of warmth and personal appreciation. We don’t know if Paul had known Epaphroditus from his earlier time in Philippi and if he did how well he knew him, but we do know that after Epaphroditus’ sojourn in Rome Paul had come to appreciate him very greatly indeed.

Are we living our lives in such a way that others would speak so warmly of us? To whom are we functioning as close Christian brothers or sisters?

My co-worker.
Whereas all genuine Christians are called brothers and sisters in Scripture we do not find that all are described as co-workers.

Paul worked closely with many different Christians in various mission teams and we find him referring explicitly to perhaps 15/16 individuals as his fellow workers. Once again Timothy and Philemon are mentioned as well as Epaphroditus. It is possible that Paul considered a further 20-25 people, including both men and women, as being fellow workers. The work that Paul has in mind is gospel work and Epaphroditus took this very seriously. Paul tells the Philippians that Epaphroditus had nearly paid the ultimate price in carrying out the work of Christ.

Are you a team player participating together with others in the work of the Lord? A team player lays his own interests to one side in order to promote the interests of others. Such behaviour cuts across the grain of the natural tendencies of the human heart and is probably the reason why not all Christians are described as co-workers. Do we have progress to make here?

Paul’s third description of Epaphroditus is

My fellow soldier
The picture would resonate with the inhabitants of Philippi with its large and important veteran population – they knew about soldiers and the rigours of the military life. Of course Paul is not thinking now of the Roman army but of himself and Epaphroditus as being enlisted as soldiers in the Lord’s own army. You’ll be aware that Paul used military language and symbolism frequently to describe the Christian life.

Well, one of the realities of the life of a soldier was that of danger. Paul knew all about this and his own discipleship involved paying a heavy price in terms of opposition and troubles of various kinds not to mention beatings and imprisonments. Similarly Epaphroditus knew what it was to encounter danger in his service of the Master. In following his Lord into spiritual battle he had taken risks – he was prepared to lose his life for Christ and it had very nearly cost him his life!

Are we standing up for Jesus where he has placed us? Are we fighting alongside our brothers and sisters in the gospel fight? Are there adjustments we need to make in our priorities in order that we might truly be "fellow-soldiers"?

Paul has finished with his first set of descriptions of Epaphroditus but he still has a second set to declare:

The Philippians’ Apostle/Messenger
Paul refers to the responsibility that the Philippians had laid upon Epaphroditus. They had sent him on a mission as their representative. He had carried the monetary gift faithfully to Paul and fulfilled this part of his charge – no mean feat in what was a hostile environment.

But more than simply bearing a gift he was a gift himself for he was sent

To Minister to Paul’s need on behalf of those who sent him
This Epaphroditus also did. The church as a whole couldn’t go to Rome and minister to Paul but they could and had chosen Epaphroditus as their representative to do for them what they couldn’t do themselves.

Paul greatly appreciated all that Epaphroditus had done for him. We catch a glimpse of that appreciation when we consider how Paul felt when he contemplated the possible death of his friend. Epaphroditus’ death would have come as a severe blow to the apostle – it would have been like adding sorrow to sorrow.

Christ’s work in Epaphroditus’ life had made him a man to be valued and treasured. Paul sent him back to the Philippians with a wonderfully warm and glowing report. This man was no failure but a man to be honoured.

Why does Paul send Epaphroditus home?
If Paul had such a high regard for Epaphroditus the question presents itself as to just why he sent him home and Paul himself gives us three reasons:

  • For Epaphroditus’ own sake.

While Paul could probably have kept Epaphroditus with him, after all the Philippians had sent him to be an aid to Paul and Paul’s needs had by no means come to an end, Paul could see the strong emotions that were tormenting his friend. Paul knew and understood such emotions. In his second letter to the church in Corinth wrote about the daily pressure he felt due to his anxiety for all the churches. (see 2Cor11:28).

So Paul was well placed to understand just how Epaphroditus felt about his friends in Philippi and Paul sent him back there so that Epaphroditus’ own distress might be alleviated.

  • For the Philippians’ sake.

Paul knew too that the Philippians had been greatly concerned for Epaphroditus when they had heard of his sickness and in sending him back to them Paul was sure that theirs would be a joyful reunion and he wanted to promote that joy.

They had every reason to be joyful as they saw Epaphroditus again and Paul directed them not to hold back for men like Epaphroditus were special and deserved every honour coming his way.

  • For Paul’s sake

Now it may sound a little strange that Paul could argue that in sending Epaphroditus back to the Philippians he was operating in his own favour too. After all, Paul was still in prison, still harassed by many pressures, and he would have personally benefitted from a prolonged stay from such a wonderful colleague. So what did he mean?

Now we gain a little insight into how Christ’s example had rubbed off on Paul and how Paul now followed that example. Do you remember at the beginning of this sermon I read Phil.2:4? There Paul had spoken about not only looking to our own interests, but also to the interests of others. Well that is exactly what Paul is doing now in sending Epaphroditus back to Philippi! But he will be a winner in it all too and this is why. Paul’s joy will be enhanced and strengthened by knowing of the rejoicing of his fellow believers in Philippi!

There are so many different lessons to be learnt from Epaphroditus and the relations existing between him and Paul and the church in Philippi.

I wonder which speaks most to you? I wonder what area of discipleship you need to work on? We’re not to become discouraged as we think about the spiritual achievements and progress that others have made but rather we should take encouragement from them and aim high ourselves confident that God can do great things in the life of a Christian.

And to God be the glory.


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