Real Men Serve the Saints
In the previous post we looked at a real man of God: Timothy. Today we turn our attention to Ephaphroditus. Continue reading . . .
In the previous post we looked at a real man of God: Timothy. Today we turn our attention to Ephaphroditus. A-who-da-what-us? No, Epaphroditus! Yes, it’s an unusual name, to say the least. It comes from the name of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Some have suggested that the parents of Epaphroditus were pagan devotees of the goddess, but that’s merely speculation. Aphrodite was also the goddess of gamblers. The custom in those days was to throw the dice and shout, “Epaphroditos!” or, “favored by Aphrodite!” Our Epaphroditus was himself a gambler of sorts: he risked his life for the sake of the gospel! Look with me at Philippians 2:25-30.
“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.”
So who was this man and what had he done? Evidently he had served as an emissary or envoy on behalf of the church at Philippi. They had taken up a collection for Paul and entrusted it to Epaphoditus, who carried this monetary gift to the apostle in prison (see Phil. 4:14-19). Epaphroditus then remained in Rome (or Caesarea) with Paul and ministered to Paul as his personal aide. During the course of his time with the apostle he had fallen ill, almost died, was eventually healed, and is now being sent back to Philippi carrying the epistle addressed to the church in that city.
There is a story that dates from the 4th century a.d., concerning the difficulty that some inexperienced demons were having in their efforts to tempt what appeared to be a godly man. They used everything at their disposal, but to no avail. They returned to Satan and told him of their difficulty. Satan responded by saying that they had been too hard on the man. “Send him a message,” said Satan, “that his brother has just been made bishop of Antioch. Bring him good news.” The demons returned and dutifully reported the wonderful news to the man. And immediately, he fell into deep, wicked jealousy! (The story is told by Kent Hughes in his book, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome [Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1987], p. 100.)
But as you can see, neither Epaphroditus nor Paul suffered from this sort of professional jealousy. It would have been easy for Paul to look down his apostolic nose on someone like Epaphroditus, or for Epaphroditus to ache with envy as he reflected on the success of Paul’s ministry. But we see nothing of the sort in either man.
Paul, without question the most brilliant biblical scholar of his day, gifted and powerful, looked on Epaphroditus, a previously unknown “nobody,” and called him “my brother” and my “fellow worker and fellow soldier” (v. 25). Many of us resent the gifts of others, perhaps being threatened by their success or fearful of our own loss of prestige. But Paul and Epaphroditus knew nothing of the sort.
It’s important to note the word translated “minister” in v. 25b. It comes from a Greek word from which we get our term liturgy. It was often used in the OT (LXX) to refer to the priestly and sacrificial duties of those who administer sacred rites of the Levitical order. When Epaphroditus cared for me, says Paul, he was rendering a distinctly spiritual and priestly service. He was my minister!
In any case, Paul felt obligated to send him back to the Philippians, as he describes in vv. 26-30. Clearly, Epaphroditus was homesick. More than that, he was just plain sick! But notice carefully what Paul says. It reveals a great deal about why this man was great. It wasn’t the case that Epaphroditus took advantage of his own sickness to obsess over his own welfare. Strange as it may sound, his concern was for their concern for him! He cared so deeply for the Philippians back home that he was less concerned for his own physical health than he was for their emotional health once they learned of his affliction.
Most of us exploit personal illness to indulge in a bit of self-pity. We don’t enjoy the physical discomfort, but we can’t keep ourselves from taking selfish satisfaction in the special attention others show us in our hour of need. But look at Epaphroditus! Here is a man who probably prayed more to God concerning the grief his friends experienced because of his illness than he prayed to God for his own physical welfare!
Paul says he was “distressed” (v. 26) when he discovered that the Christians in his home church had received news of his illness. He couldn’t bear the thought of being a burden to them, even if only in their minds. Far from feeling gratified that he was the object of so much conversation and prayerful concern back home, Epaphroditus was driven to emotional torment by the realization that he, though by no fault of his own, had become a source of sorrow to them!
Neither the nature nor cause of his illness is specified, but Paul does tell us that it came about when he “risked” his life “for the work of Christ” (v. 30). Epaphroditus was no coward. He was a courageous man who took no concern for his own welfare when it came to making Jesus known.
Epaphroditus wasn’t the sort of man to win the MVP in this year’s Super Bowl. He probably wouldn’t qualify as the sort you’d want to advertise your product on TV. I doubt if he would be asked to share his testimony on TBN or the 700 Club. He is hardly anyone’s idea of a celebrity. But Paul says: “receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men” (v. 29).
So what does the true man of God really look like?
(1) The real man of God is perfectly content with being perfectly ordinary. There was nothing about either Timothy or Epaphroditus that set them apart in a crowd. Nothing is said here about their spiritual gifts or their speaking skills or their powers of persuasion. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Epaphroditus was a clay jar. Thank God for your ordinariness. Don’t resent it. Don’t think that God has left you deficient or that he must have loved others more than you or that you cannot achieve great things in the church and for the glory of Christ.
(2) The real man of God is unafraid to experience and express his love for other Christians. So many so-called “men” today are terrified of feeling deeply. They suppress their emotions, worried that others might think them weak for actually having intense affections and feelings for others. You never see them cry. You rarely hear them express their devotion to or delight in another believer. If Timothy had been this sort of so-called “man” I doubt if Paul would ever have entrusted him with this task. Timothy was dispatched to Philippi precisely because Paul knew of his deeply affectionate and loving concern for the welfare of the Christians in Philippi.
Consider the dynamics of Christian love as seen in Philippians:
Christ loved the Philippians so much he emptied himself and became a slave to the point of death (2:6-8).
The Apostle Paul loved the Philippians so much he endured a cruel beating and unjust imprisonment to bring them the gospel (Acts 16).
The Philippians loved Paul so much that they generously gave of their financial resources to support him in his missionary endeavors (1:5; 4:14-19).
Epaphroditus loved Paul so much that he risked his life in ministering to his every need (2:25, 30).
The Philippians loved Epaphroditus so much that they grieved upon receiving news of his illness (2:26).
Epaphroditus loved the Philippians so much that he grieved upon receiving news of their receiving news of his illness (2:26).
Finally, Paul loved Epaphroditus so much that had he died from this illness, Paul would have experienced “sorrow upon sorrow” (v. 27).
(3) The real man of God sacrifices everything for the sake of the gospel. We saw this in Timothy in v. 22 and in Epaphroditus in v. 30. “Men” today sacrifice everything for the sake of their favorite sports team. They risk it all to gain great wealth. They risk it all to preserve and promote their own reputation. But how many hold the gospel in such high regard that nothing could stand in their way to make it known?
(4) The real man of God is never spiritually competitive. He is never envious or resentful of another believer’s gifts and achievements. Epaphroditus didn’t seek to replace Paul but to serve him. He wasn’t Paul’s rival but his “brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier” (v. 25). This is simply another way of saying that a man of God is humble and not given to entitlement.
(5) The real man of God is never self-absorbed but thinks more of the welfare of others than of himself. Epaphroditus was more worried about the Philippians’ being worried about him than he was worried about his own physical condition (v. 26).
(6) The real man of God is courageous and takes no thought for his own safety, but willingly risks all for the sake of the ministry and the gospel (v. 30). It doesn’t matter if it’s physical safety, money, personal comfort, or whatever; the real man of God holds everything in an open hand for the sake of making Christ known.
(7) The real man of God does not suffer from false humility but is able to receive praise without being inflated with a sense of his own importance (v. 29). Most NT scholars concur that Epaphroditus was probably present when Paul dictated this letter to the Philippians. He heard Paul issue the exhortation in v. 29. Thus he was fully aware not only that Paul had written to the Philippians but that they should joyfully “honor” him. Let’s also not forget that Epaphroditus is carrying this letter back to the church in Philippi. He never sought out honor for himself. He never curried favor with the apostle. He never lobbied for praise from men. But when Paul declared that men like him should be honored, Epaphroditus in effect said, “Well, o.k. If you insist. But let’s not make too big a deal of it!”
Men, what keeps you from being a Timothy or an Epaphroditus? What obstacles do you encounter in your own soul to cultivating these sorts of qualities? Are you prepared today to tackle them head on? Allow me to identify several potential problems.
First, the single greatest threat to your becoming a man like Timothy or Epaphroditus is your failure to understand and apply the gospel to your own heart. Your fear of being “ordinary” or of honestly expressing your feelings of love, as well as your tendency always to compare yourself with others ultimately comes from a failure to embrace the truth that God loves you in Christ with no strings attached. The gospel declares that your value is in your relationship to Christ, not in your bank account or your status in the community or your grade point average or your reputation or the size of your home or your competency on the athletic field.
You are a child of God by grace alone. Your worth as a man is determined by your Creator, not by the opinions of a co-worker. You are righteous by faith, not by your annual sales record or the size of your 401(k) or by how well you’ve done in comparison with others in your field of endeavor. Knowing and growing and resting in that truth will alone liberate your heart to love others as Timothy and Epaphroditus did.
Second, give up your determination to remain “safe” and “secure”. Trust God alone to protect you and ultimately vindicate you. The only thing that matters is what God thinks of you, not what others may surmise or say. Trust the gospel when it tells you that what you fear they might do to you, they can’t. Only God can, and he has promised never to harm you or to leave you or by any means, for any reason, to forsake you.
Third, acknowledge and deal with your unbelief. Your fear that your boss or your wife or your co-worker will not respect your competency as a man and husband and father is greater than your faith that God will sustain and support you no matter what.
Fourth, crucify (put to death) your sinful commitment to uphold your image at the cost of serving and supporting others. It isn’t important that you look good, but only that you love good (forgive the grammar!).
Fifth, and finally, acknowledge and then repent of the fact that the underlying problem in your failure (refusal!) to serve and love others is selfishness. It’s not the lack of opportunity or education or experience or the absence of a spiritual gift you think you need. The problem is selfishness! And what is the antidote for this spiritual disease? Read and heed, believe and obey, trust and treasure the truth of what Paul said (Philippians 2:5-11) that Christ has done for you. May the power of his humble love and painful sacrifice on your behalf pierce the otherwise calloused and seemingly impenetrable walls of your self-protection and selfish ambition.