A Fine Example
“Yet I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labour, and fellow-soldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants”—Philippians 2:25
There are folk whose names appear only once or perhaps at the most twice in Scripture, yet whose character is just full of inspiration and comfort and help. Epaphroditus is one of these, and we might easily overlook him and forget about him altogether, because apart from the mention of his name in our text and in the 18th verse of the 4th chapter of this very letter, we don’t hear of him elsewhere in the Word of God. But no study in the Epistle to the Philippians would be complete it we overlooked our friend and brother, Epaphroditus. We shall meet him in heaven. It is well we should be acquainted with him down here, because he is, indeed, as I have suggested in the title of our message, a fine example.
The very place in the letter in which his name appears, I think, is most significant. You remember that Paul has been setting before us the necessity for Christian humility, Christian character, and sacrifice. He shows to us the supreme example of that in the Lord Jesus Himself in those steps that He took from the throne to the cross and then back again to the throne. Then he tells us that we are to shine as lights in a dark world amidst a crooked and perverse generation. This is to be the function of all of us—just to keep our face to the sunshine and reflect something of the loveliness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul would say to us, “Do you think this really works? Can it work?” Let me give to you two examples of how it is working right now. He tells us a little word or two about Timothy and then also about Epaphroditus. It is not by accident that the chapter in the word of God which begins with the record of our Lord’s humiliation, His descent to the cross, and then His ascension to the throne—those mighty leaps up to the place where He belonged, at the head of all principality and power—closes with the record of Epaphroditus. What was seen in tremendous glory in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ is reflected in the lovely character of this man about whom I want to speak to you for a few moments today. The example of a man who kept his face toward the sun and therefore in every situation reflected something of the loveliness of his Saviour.
Who was this man, Epaphroditus? Well, a man of Macedonia, an inhabitant of Philippi. I would imagine probably one of Paul’s converts when he visited that city some ten years before he wrote this letter to them. The church at Philippi had sent Epaphroditius to Rome to visit Paul in his imprisonment and to take him some practical help and means of sustenance and to give him their greeting. You notice in the 25th verse Paul speaks of him as “your messenger,” and in the last verse of the chapter the one who made up their lack of service to him. He was not rebuking them for that, but simply what they could not do because of distance, they were able to do because of this messenger who brought their gifts as the 18th verse of the fourth chapter says, “…an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice…” of their love to the apostle in prison. But it appears from these verses that during his stay with Paul in Rome, Epaphroditus was taken sick—seriously ill—an illness indeed which very nearly proved fatal. Incidentally, what a comfort it is to know that illness does not of necessity by any means indicate that there is something wrong in his life with God on the part of the one who suffers. Furthermore, is it not of interest that there was no miraculous healing here at all? The illness was allowed to take its course until the poor man was just about ready to die. That is exactly what we are told in this record, but we are told something more—that news had reached Philippi that their messenger was seriously ill, and they were greatly concerned and very anxious about it. Epaphroditus in turn became anxious. The 26th verse tells us that “he longed after you all and was full of heaviness because that ye had heard that he had been sick.” He was not concerned about himself, but he was concerned because his illness was causing anxiety to that little group of Christians in Philippi. Apparently he had not told them about it, but the news had reached them somehow, and the effect of that nearly caused a complete relapse. He was concerned because they were concerned, distressed beyond measure because he was adding to their grief, and so Paul deems it necessary to send Epaphroditus back at once to relieve their anxiety.
You know, is not the Bible an amazing book? Of course it is divinely inspired! Perhaps one of the greatest evidences of that is that it is so human. In the early verses of this chapter we have a simply breathtaking view of the glory of the Lord and the downward step He took to the cross and back again to the throne. The next minute we are listening to a conversation between three fellows in prison in Rome, planning what they should do because an emergency has arisen and one of the number has been taken ill, almost to the point of death, and there is a group of Christians that are worried about them in Philippi. I can just see them sitting down there planning it all out. “What shall we do in this situation?” My, what an atmosphere of love there is in there! Everything outside was opposed to them and there was animosity and hatred, but oh how Paul loved Timothy and Epaphroditus, and how Epaphroditus loved Paul and Timothy, and how they all loved the church at Philippi and how the church at Philippi loved them! Everybody loved everybody else! Out from the atmosphere of the darkness of that prison there comes the radiant light of a few men who are knowing the power and impact of the love of God.
Yes, and not only so, you notice the passage says that in the midst of all this there was absolute confidence that God would not add, as verse 27 says, “sorrow upon sorrow.” Paul was saying to himself, “I am sure that the Lord won’t let Epaphroditus die. He is going to spare me that sorrow. I know there must be sorrow and trouble in my life or else I would not have power to communicate my sympathy, love and tenderness to others in need. I know that I cannot resist suffering. My heart must be open to all the chastisement of God, but He will not add sorrow upon sorrow. I know that He will not add one drop of needless grief to my life at this point.” What a picture of Christian love and confidence in the midst of trial and sorrow and ills and sickness and persecution. All because it springs from the revelation of what Jesus is, and the fact that their faces were always towards the Son. What a forgetfulness of self there was there in order to minister to those whom the Lord loved! I am always amazed to find Timothy in this little group. I am not speaking about him this morning: that would be another subject. He had ulcers in his stomach since he was a boy. Paul told him to take a little wine (emphasis on “little”) for his stomach’s sake. He was a sick fellow—a weakling. He was cradled in a Christian atmosphere. His grandmother and mother were both Christians. This man was apparently also of a sensitive nature, and here he is now right in the front line of the battle with Paul. What amazing things the grace of God can do!
Let us pause at this moment in our message and ask ourselves in the presence of God how much of the self-abandoned love of Epaphroditus for the people of Philippi, how much of the concern of Paul for both of them can be seen in your life and mine? Are you a real true Christian friend? In 1 John 3:14 we read: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” I find that very thing in Epaphroditus. Against the background of the cross of Calvary and the humiliation of the Lord Jesus, I find this man a shining example of working it all out in that situation.
But that is not all. I want you to notice how Paul describes him in our verse. “My brother, my fellow worker, as it really is, my fellow-soldier, your messenger.” Could we just think for moment about these qualities in this man’s life which Paul had discovered in him as they lived together in prison? “My brother.” They shared the same parenthood. They were both born of God. They were brothers in Christ. What times they must have had together! Perhaps whole nights they spent with one another recording and telling each other things that God had done for them. If Paul was distressed because he was ill, I know Epaphroditus knew how to encourage him. If Epaphroditus became depressed because he took ill, then I know that Paul knew how to bring him encouragement. Both of these men just lived at the cross, and out from them there flowed the sympathy and love of the Lord Jesus. They had the one Savior, the one motive, the one concern for the salvation of other people and Paul speaks of him as “my brother.”
What a great word that is, Christian. Supposing you had been in Epaphroditus’ place at that time? When you took your leave of Paul to return to Philippi, would he have held out his hand to you and gripped you firmly by the hand and said, “my brother”? That is a tremendous word of Christian fellowship, a proof of Christian faithfulness. Have we got the same motive for living as they had? Can we speak as they could of the wonderful dealings of our Lord Jesus with them? “My brother!” That is a precious word. It is a great thing as a Christian to hold out your hand to another Christian and look into his face and be able to say without any reserve, “my brother,” because you are both born of the same Father.
Paul also calls him “my fellow worker.” Epaphroditus, I think, was a man that Paul had discovered was not afraid of work. The kind of work that he liked to do was work that had no publicity attached to it. Last summer we visited in Britain what we call the Royal Horse Show, which is something like what is held in Chicago at the end of November. I remember watching some of those high prancing horses going around the ring, lifting up their heels and looking so smart. I happened to walk around the back of all the tents and there I saw one grey, heavy plow horse, pulling a great load of fodder, especially for those horses that were running around the ring. It is one thing to run round the ring in public and another kind of job to give them food behind the scenes. That’s the kind of man Epaphroditus was. He just hated the glare of publicity. He was the messenger of the Philippian church. Dear old Dr. F.B. Meyer when he was 82 years old, still preaching, said, “I have one ambition: it is to be the Lord’s errand boy.”
Will you pardon me just a little flight of imagination? I would like to have read the minute book of the church meetings at Philippi. I think I would have read something like this: “It was moved by Clement and seconded by Euodias that our brother Epaphroditus be asked to collect subscriptions for poor people at Jerusalem. Carried with one abstention, Syntyche (she would, of course, especially as Euodias had seconded the resolution).” Or perhaps I would read something like this: “It was proposed and carried, Euodias and Syntyche disagreeing with the church and with themselves, that Epaphroditus be asked to travel to Rome and convey our greeting and help to Paul.” That is the sort of man he was. Just doing a common bit of work, not appearing on a platform, no show, no fuss, but doing the job thoroughly for the Lord’s glory.
Oh how much the church owes today to people like that! How impossible it would be to maintain the ministry of this church, for example, without people like that. Would to God that we had many, many more of them. The kind of people who go through life unnoticed, unrewarded, and unthanked and yet get on with the job. There’s no task too obscure or too ordinary, but they will do it. That is the test of the reality of our Christian faith: how much we do behind the scenes without a word of thanks, without a word of praise, and how low down we will stoop to the most menial task for the Lord’s sake. It is the test of a Christian’s growth. Epaphroditus was a man like that. I am afraid that some Christian folk only serve if their service is to be in the glare of the public eye or rewarded with a vote of thanks, but Epaphroditus was a fellow-soldier, a fellow worker. He could work with people. It is good to be a worker, but how wonderful to be a fellow worker like that—a companion in labour.
And you notice that Paul says about him that he was “my fellow-soldier.” He was this in his life, Paul tells us, in the service of Christ. In fact it was the sheer risks that he took that made him so sick and so ill. I wonder how Epaphroditus took ill at Rome? There was a run-away slave called Onesimus who was found in the slums of Rome. Paul wrote to Philemon about him and in the tenth verse of his priceless jewel of a letter to Philemon, said: “Onesimus, he is my son, begotten in my bonds, begotten during my imprisonment.” Who found him? Who went through the streets of Rome, through some of the low dirty hovels of that city to find and discover this run-away slave and bring him into the presence of the apostle Paul? Could it have been Epaphroditus? Could it be that between times of fellowship with beloved Paul, this man proclaimed the Gospel at the risk of his life, up and down dirty stairways, into dirty houses, regardless of circumstances and condition? This man hazarded his life until he was at the point of death, absolutely worn out in body and soul as the result of preaching the Gospel. The burden of Paul weighed so heavily upon him that he spent himself in the cause of Christ. I find that to be a tremendous challenge in my heart—and I hope it is in your life also.
Do you not think that sometimes we are very anemic in our Christian service? We take it up, but somehow it is seldom vitalized by the sacrifice of our life, because we do not sacrifice ourselves. How little life there is in our Christian work and ministry. The activity perhaps is only artificial, and there is no power, therefore, to bring blessing to other people. I am sure that in Christian service of all service the measure of our power is the measure of our sacrifice. Where there is no blood, there is no life, and where there is no life, there is no power. These are things that cannot be organized into a church curriculum. They are things that people get hold of because they live as Epaphroditus did in the recognition of Jesus at the cross. Because they think of the stoop that He took, then no stoop is too great for them to face. Because they think of how He washed His disciples’ feet because there was no slave, then Epaphroditus and any child of God who gazes at Calvary will never say, “I am too important to do that job. I am too big to do this thing because there is no recognition, it has only got unrecognized, hard-working grind and nobody will ever know.” That is the kind of fellow-soldier the church needs! And Epaphroditus, mark it, did not turn back when death nearly faced him when he was ill and sick and laid aside. “He that loseth his life,” said Jesus, “shall find it.” And in this little portion, set in glorious vision and relief, is the picture of a man who just lived on that principle for the glory of the Lord.
I think that when Epaphroditus began to suffer, he also began to enter into the joy of the Lord. The Old Testament says that when the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord began also. There are some things in the Christian life I know that you and I find very distasteful, and we do not like doing them at all. The flesh would shrink from them and run away from them, but oh the joy that comes when, by the grace of God, there’s a yieldedness, a happy yieldedness, to do anything for His sake!
You know just what Paul says of Epaphroditus in the last little phrase of our verse, that he “ministered to my wants.” There are many words that Paul could have used there for that English word “ministered.” Many words appear in the New Testament in different Greek words which are translated by this one word, but the one he used is, strikingly enough, (and I am sure with real meaning,) a word that denotes the highest form of priestly service. “He ministered to my wants,” said Paul. I put this kind of menial service at the very highest level. I believe that is not only how Paul regards it but how the Lord Jesus regards it, too. Therefore, against the background of the cross, of the glorious view of the Lord Jesus in this chapter, here is a man full of love and sympathy. “My brother.” Here is a man with a real desire for self-effacement. He is the messenger, the errand boy of the church. He is a man who works as a fellow worker with others, a man who hazards his life for Christ. “My fellow-soldier.”
It is not the label on the bottle that’s the important thing but what is inside it. It is not the name we give ourselves, but what God sees inside. On one of the state highways in this country a little time ago, I noticed a big freight-carrying truck going along at what I thought was an alarming pace, but it was going along. And on the back of it there was written: “At your service. Any load. Any time. Any distance. Anywhere.” Now I would not like to have tested that too closely, but I could not help feeling that that, by the grace of God, is what I want. Honestly to look up into His face and say to Him: “Lord Jesus, may it be that You can look down upon my heart and the heart of everyone who hears my voice this morning and hear us say, echoing up the glory, ‘Lord Jesus, I am at your service. Any load. Any time. Any distance. Anywhere.’” That is the picture of the Savior in the beginning of this chapter. It is the picture of Epaphroditus at the end of the chapter. It is the picture of Paul in the next chapter as he gives his testimony. Do you think that you and I by the grace of God can just squeeze in here somewhere and look up into His face and say that?