[Note: In our editors’ notes for the new volume year (Oct. 1, 2020), we neglected to mention that Mr. Bruinooge has joined the SB staff under this rubric. We apologize and welcome him as a regular writer.]
Yet I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labour, and fellowsoldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants. Philippians 2:25
When we receive praise as Christians, our first reaction is often self-satisfaction. We are pleased that others are pleased with us. We need the constant reminder that all spiritual abilities and gifts are from the Lord. Paul’s dear friend and companion Epaphroditus would have needed this reminder, too, as he received high praise from the great leader of the missionary program in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. As the letters of Paul clearly testified, it was the amazing work of God in the hearts of his companions that made it possible for them to carry out their work to the fullest extent (Phil. 1:6). In that connection, this article will attempt to unpack the few references to Epaphroditus in the New Testament, and to reveal the important work of this humble and dedicated servant during the first century A.D.
To better understand the relationship between Paul and Epaphroditus and the impact of Epaphroditus on the spread of the gospel, it would be helpful to first understand Paul’s relationship with the Philippian church. If you would read through the book of Philippians in one sitting, it would soon become evident that the Philippian church was one of the most beloved of the apostle Paul. The letter uses many terms of endearment as Paul expresses joy for his circumstances under house arrest in Rome and for their faithfulness as a Christian community (Phil. 1:7).
One of the reasons for Paul’s endearing attitude toward them is because of his experiences in Philippi some ten years before writing his letter to them. He had come on his second missionary journey (early 50s A.D.), meeting Lydia and other women of prayer down by the riverside (Acts 16:14). There was a very small population of Jews in Philippi; therefore, there was no synagogue in Philippi as at least ten Jewish males were needed. This was partly why the Lord led Paul to Lydia, a member of the first Christian household in Europe (16:15). Not long after Paul’s arrival, he cast out the evil spirit of a slave girl, leading to Paul and his companion Silas being unjustly flogged and beaten (16:22-23). After imprisonment, the miraculous earthquake led to the conversion of the jailer and his household, allowing Paul and Silas to safely leave the city, albeit as mistreated Roman citizens (16:37). These experiences of Paul in Philippi solidified their place in his heart, and a special bond formed between Paul and these new Christians.
Fast forward ten years from Paul establishing the Philippian church, and we find him under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial before Nero (Phil. 2:24). It is during this time that Epaphroditus, a Greek from Philippi, comes to Paul in Rome. It is not clear when Epaphroditus was converted, whether his conversion occurred during the early beginnings of the church or some other time during this ten-year interval. Nonetheless, he was sent during the early 60s A.D. to visit Paul in Rome, and to carry out several important tasks.
The first task of Epaphroditus was to bear the greetings of the Philippian church and to report on how things were going in Philippi. Overall, this report revealed the Philippians’ high spiritual condition (Phil. 1:3-11); but it also revealed to Paul the conflict between Euodias and Syntyche and how resolution was needed (4:2). Perhaps Epaphroditus was given guidance by Paul in helping to intercede in this disagreement upon his return to Philippi.
The second task given to Epaphroditus was to minister to the needs of the apostle Paul as he awaited his trial (Phil. 2:25). The descriptions used at the outset of this article to describe Epaphroditus reveal how capable and faithful this man was. He was chosen to support Paul in any way necessary for the furtherance of the gospel, a support which involved preaching to those in Rome as part of the missionary work (2:30). We are again reminded of the value of the network of people who surrounded Paul in the spread of the gospel. In a ministry that spanned roughly 25 years, the apostle Paul relied heavily on faithful men and women to help carry out the Great Commission in the Roman Empire. These faithful individuals were a support to Paul in his work. Regarding this needed support, it is worth noting that Paul lacked a spouse during his ministry (I Cor. 7:8-9), and we recognize the immeasurable support that faithful wives of pastors give to their husbands. Without this specific support in the life of Paul, faithful men and women like Epaphroditus become even more significant in the work of the gospel ministry.
In addition to bearing greetings from Philippi and ministering to the needs of Paul in Rome, Epaphroditus was given the important task of delivering a monetary gift to Paul from the Philippian church (Phil. 4:18). This gift was extremely significant for the basic needs of Paul. Certainly our penal system today bears little resemblance to what Paul experienced—it was necessary that he support himself by his own efforts as he endured his first Roman imprisonment under house arrest (Acts 28:30). Epaphroditus served as the courier of the gift, but ultimately the gift was from the Philippians, a genuine expression of love and affection towards Paul.
This was not their first expression of love to Paul in this way, for Philippians 4 refers to a gift they had sent on to Paul while he was in Thessalonica (Phil. 4:16). Once again, while Paul is confined to his hired house, the Philippians, through Epaphroditus, bring a gift to help relieve some of the anxiety of having to support himself. Certainly Paul would have had the financial support of the Roman church community (4:17), but this gift from Philippi was more than just a gift of money. It is beautifully described by Paul as “an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God” (4:18). The Philippians knew that this must be at the heart of the gift. The principles of proper giving were an important element of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians (I Cor. 16:1- 4; II Cor. 8-9), but the other newly established churches of Asia and Greece would have understood these principles well. On his missionary journeys Paul had faithfully collected from these new churches, specifically for the needs of the poor in Jerusalem (I Cor. 16:3). Now the Philippians are able to show their liberality to their dear friend Paul, carrying out these principles of giving in a specific way to him.
The scope of this gift’s significance is much greater than the money itself. The epistle to the Philippians is well known as a letter of joy, rejoicing, and thankfulness on the part of Paul in spite of his adverse circumstances. Paul expresses his thankfulness for several things in the letter, but a simple examination of the sequence of these items within the epistle places the reference to the gift towards the end of the letter, almost as an “afterthought” (Phil. 4:10, 17). In Philippians 1, Paul makes no mention of a gift, but rather expresses thankfulness for two other matters: for their good spiritual condition (1:3-6) and for his imprisonment so that he could spread the gospel to those in Rome, including those among the higher levels of authority (1:13). This demonstrates that Paul was not prompted to write to them because of the gift, but rather was led to thank them for their expressions of love and gratitude through the gift. The gift was a means by which Paul received love and affection from the Philippians.
As Epaphroditus delivered the gift and sat at the feet of Paul, what an amazing message of contentment and joy he was able to receive from Paul regardless of his difficult circumstances. How that must have strengthened and encouraged him—to be able to hear that message himself even before the Philippian church. In God’s plan, Epaphroditus would have needed that message of contentment because Philippians 2 reveals that at some point Epaphroditus became very ill, even becoming “nigh unto death” (Phil. 2:27). It is possible that he became very sick on his initial travels to Rome, for the Philippians learned of his severe sickness (2:26). Regardless of when this sickness occurred, the significance is that Epaphroditus was committed to carrying out his duty as a fellowsoldier of Paul—to deliver the gift from Philippi and support Paul in the ministry (2:25). Epaphroditus shows remarkable commitment and dedication to his work, qualities that Paul himself recognized in his own admission that the death of Epaphroditus would have brought “sorrow upon sorrow” (2:27). Recovery from such a severe sickness during this time was rare, so you get a strong sense of Paul’s relief when Epaphroditus did recover. Clearly, Paul loved him, and was so thankful when the Lord had mercy on him and healed him. Paul cites that this mercy was therefore extending to himself by the physical restoration of Epaphroditus (2:27).
Even though the name of Epaphroditus is only mentioned twice in the New Testament, much is contained in Philippians 2 about the circumstances surrounding his trip to Rome. It becomes evident that Epaphroditus, once recovered, was the obvious choice to be the letter-carrier of Philippians back to Macedonia (Phil. 2:28). Who better for this task? Epaphroditus! The man who delivered the gift and endured severe sickness for the sake of the gospel in Rome! The man who could alleviate the Philippians’ concern for his well-being by coming to them in person with an inspired letter penned by their beloved Paul! The man who could provide firsthand details about Paul’s experiences in Rome and the spiritual condition of the Roman church!
Maybe you have assumed all along that the title of this article was referring to the monetary gift brought by Epaphroditus. If that were the case, the title would perhaps have lost some steam a while ago as we examine the gift as really coming from the Philippian church and, ultimately, from the Lord (James 1:17). However, the title regains its meaning as we reflect on the character of Epaphroditus. He was a gift—a gift to the early church, both in Philippi and in Rome. His references in Scripture are a gift to us, too. He teaches us about dedication, commitment, perseverance, and selflessness. He teaches us that the Word of God is more important than our physical condition. The idea of Epaphroditus being “nigh unto death” has the idea of him risking his life; meaning, he chose God’s mission over his personal desires (Phil. 2:30). While this life is good and to be valued, our view towards earthly circumstances never trump our desire for the good of the church and for the glory of the life to come (Phil. 1:23-24; Rom. 8:18). Therefore, the gift of Epaphroditus was both the expression of love by the Philippians to Paul and his spiritual example to the Philippians, Romans, and to the church of all ages. A worthwhile double-meaning.
Paul’s command to the Philippians regarding Epaphroditus upon his return to Philippi? “Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness” (Phil. 2:29). What beautiful fellowship would have been enjoyed between Epaphroditus and the Philippian church upon their reunion, with Paul’s love letter to share.