Philippians 2:25-30 “But 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. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed 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. Therefore 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. Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honour 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.”
This little section of the letter centres on a brief episode in the life of one of the early European Christians who was called Epaphroditus. That was a common name at that time; it can still be found on ancient inscriptions. It’s a Greek name meaning ‘charming’ or ‘amiable’. Some of you are new to the New Testament, and you think that all the rest of the congregation know much more about everything, even about lesser characters like Epaphroditus, that his further exploits are probably tucked away in other corners of the Bible, and the in-crowd has immediate access to them. So you may be thinking something like this, that he was probably a great missionary, and that he had children, and that he died a martyr’s death and that we all know these things while you are in the dark. No, we don’t know those things. Nothing more about Epaphroditus is given to any of us. Don’t feel that you are the ignorant one in the infants’ class in Christ’s school. We are all in the dark together about him. I want to say that nobody here knows anything more about Epaphroditus than what we have just finished reading. In other words, this man is written about only in this letter to the Philippians. If you want to have the complete biblical picture on him then turn with me now a little further in this letter to chapter four and verse eighteen where Paul writes, “I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.” That’s it! That’s your lot! He was the messenger who brought the gifts which the Philippian church had sent to Paul in prison. Now we all know everything that the Bible has to tell us about this man. We are all standing on the same level, equally knowledgeable, and yet equally curious, but anxious to explore what Paul is going to teach us about our own daily living from his references to this brother.
What are we being told about him? Epaphroditus was a Gentile, a native of Philippi, sent to visit Paul by the church there, and taking principally the gift of money collected by the congregation which was designed to help buy Paul some creature comforts while he was in prison, and perhaps also to meet some legal costs in his upcoming trial. It all seemed pretty straightforward, a mission that this chosen man was accomplishing in the service of his church and the apostle. Then the drama occurred: while Epaphroditus was with Paul he was taken ill, quite seriously ill. Listen to Paul, “you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died” (vv. 26&27). Here is this mature Christian, a leader in the Philippian church, a prayed-over man, sent by the church to Rome, entrusted with taking this sum of money across the ocean. He gets ill, and has to return home still recuperating from this brush with death. Maybe he still easily breaks down and cries. The church on Philippi was hoping for a visit from Timothy, but it is a frail, pale Epaphroditus who arrives off the boat and turns up to speak at the church meeting – when he is well enough to attend. They wanted wonderful tales told of Rome, and the apostle, and his appreciation for their gift, and the great things he was doing, the congregation in Rome, the sights there, and Epaphroditus’ experiences on the journey. Instead they have a thinner man than the one they sent out those months ago, with a cough, no appetite, leaning on a stick, often in tears, subdued and a little ashamed. It was all a little disappointing wasn’t it? Was Epaphroditus the right man to have been sent on this mission? Had they prayed enough? Had he? Had the elders made the right decision? There were probably some in the congregation who would have had reservations about sending him. There usually are. Nothing is ever unanimous in retrospect. People always claim doubts, nodding their heads in a sage manner, though no one said anything at the time. Were questions asked privately? Were comments made behind Epaphroditus’ back?
Isn’t this a contemporary problem, the number of missionaries who come home at the end of their first furlough and don’t go back. They have picked up diseases; they are enervated and simply can’t cope with living so far away. It even happens to businessmen, embassy officials, servicemen and their families, and they have a very equipped support system to assist them. Do we think that it shouldn’t happen to full-time Christian workers? Should they be immune? Sinclair Ferguson asks, “Did Paul suspect that some Philippians might feel that Epaphroditus was a spiritual failure? Was he fearful that there might be the occasional snide comment: ‘Some people don’t seem to be able to handle the pressures, and last the pace’? Perhaps he feared for Epaphroditus’ good reputation and the future acceptance of his ministry in Philippi.” (Sinclair Ferguson, “Let Study Philippians,” Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1997, p.66).
So Paul writes these words about a man who is going home with a sense of failure, that he had been sent to Rome at the expense of the church in Philippi to help Paul, but he himself had needed intensive care when he got there and he still wasn’t right. He worries about the grief that he has given his congregation back in Greece. So Paul gives this glowing testimonial to Epaphroditus. It is full of gracious thanksgiving and appreciation. It would have made the man himself hang his head and look at the floor when this letter was read out one Lord’s Day morning in Philippi. Paul didn’t spare his blushes: “Let me tell you these great things about the man I was privileged have with me recently . . .” Sinclair Ferguson has such pertinent words to say about this, “It is all too common when a Christian is mentioned by name to find fellow-Christians distancing themselves from him with critical words and, sadly, sometimes with a harsh and carping spirit. There is all too little generosity of heart in our praise of other Christians. We justify this by stressing the importance of not inflating the ego of a fellow-believer. But the sad truth often is that we are narrow-minded. We do not count others as more important than ourselves, but are jealous of our own reputation (see 2:3). By contrast, Paul’s words are a beautiful reminder of the gratitude and admiration we should have for the graces and gifts of the Spirit in the lives of our fellow-Christians” (ibid.).
The Lord Jesus Christ is wonderfully forgiving and generous. There was the first great occasion when he made patently clear to the disciples the terrible judgment of the cross that lay before him. He told them that he was going to suffer many things, he was going to be tried, condemned, and killed, but the third day he would be raised to life. We are told of Peter’s response: “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’ Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matt. 16:22&23). The Lord Jesus has given a fierce rebuke, and a fierce rebuke has been received by Peter. You might expect that that would be the end of the relationship; Peter, in a huff because Jesus called him “You devil!”, going back to the boats to resume his work as a fisherman, and Jesus ostracising Peter for what he has said. That is how we act in the 21st century church, but that did not happen here. Six verses after Jesus chastened Peter with those words we read, “After six days Jesus took with him Peter . . .and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun . . .” (Matt. 17:1&2). That is grace! Jesus gave to Peter this extraordinary privilege, in less than a week after rebuking him, Peter became an eyewitness of the majesty of the Son of God and he heard the voice of the living God praising his Son. Doesn’t the New Testament have so much to teach us about Christian relationships, and don’t we have much to learn? Why are we always waiting for the other person to take the first step? Hear the word! “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Roms. 12:17&18). So that is the background to these words of our text. Paul urges the Philippians to, “Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honour men like him” (v.29). Paul explains to us why; he paints a classic portrait of Epaphroditus, and thereby teaches the Philippian church and ourselves three or four basic lessons about Christian living and relationships.
1. WE ARE MEMBERS OF A NEW HUMANITY.
One of the effects of the gospel on people is that it makes them more humane. We should become more normal and well-rounded human beings by Christ’s redemption. I emphasise that because some of you are hanging back from becoming Christians by the thought that you might become less than human when you are saved. You hear words like being ‘converted’ and being ‘born again’ and you’re nervous. You know something about yourself. You’ve got a sense of identity, and you’ve put your life together. There is a certain approach to yourself, and you don’t want to see all that destroyed. What are you going to have in its place? You don’t want to become irrational. You may have certain interests that are important to you. Are you going to lose all of that? Then you’ve met some religious folk and they seem artificial. They seem less than human beings in their individual lives. They’ve given you the creeps. You are not going to commit yourself to Christianity without a lot of persuasion. What can I say?
Look at this passage. Here is a first century Christian called Epaphroditus and one of the first things we are told about him is that he was homesick; “he longs for all of you” (v.26). He missed his family and his friends terribly. He felt far from everyone he loved and everything he cared about. The language and the climate and the food was all so different in Rome. He just wanted to be back in Philippi with everyone he loved. He was a man of God and a church leader but he had homesickness – we have a special Welsh word for this longing for home and your own folk, hiraeth. In fact in the Welsh translation of this passage this is the word that is used. We invited two young Mormons to our home last Christmas-time, and there, surrounded by our large extended family, one of those boys was so quiet. He was obviously thinking of another home where he belonged. We didn’t engage in theological debate because we had done that some weeks earlier, but we sought to show them kindness in our Saviour’s name hoping that that would speak as powerfully as our words. But our sense of family and longing just made one of those boys go in and in, and back and back to his own home. He felt this hiraeth, and many of us can identify with him.
When Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones went off to grammar school from Llangeitho to Tregaron eight miles from home, having to stay in a dormitory from Monday to Friday each week, he was very homesick and soon the family got a bicycle for him to ride back and fore to school each day. Preaching on these words he says, “There is, alas, a school of thought that seems to think that we are only Christian when we have lost all natural feeling, but all that is contradicted and denounced, in a sense, by this practical section. You may be called to the foreign mission field and you may be finding it a bit difficult, because you wonder how you can stand that break with your father and your mother. You must not think you are the poorer Christian because of that; do not think that you will only become a perfect Christian when you no longer know what it is to be homesick. Think of this mighty servant of God, Epaphroditus, who knew what it was to be homesick, to be heavy-hearted, and who longed to see his friends face to face once more” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy,” Hodder, London, 1989, p.228). Becoming a Christian does not mean that you become less affectionate to your family and friends.
Notice something else: the tenderness between friends that Christianity encourages. There are two striking examples of this.
The first is in these words of Paul about Epaphroditus, “Indeed 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” (v.27). Dr Lloyd-Jones, “Some people, perhaps, while away a few hours in reading novels, or in paying attention to things that are considered to be moving and affecting, but I defy you, whatever your literature or form of entertainment, to find anything that is more grand and moving, and that can rouse one so much in the depths of one’s feeling and emotion, as that statement of this great man. Here is a man who says, ‘to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’, a man who was ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of Christ, yet who says, ‘This dear brother of mine was desperately ill, I thought he was going to die, but God not only had mercy upon him, he had mercy on me too, to spare me, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.’ He would have felt it grievously, it would have hurt him, he would have known what it was to feel a temporary sense of desolation. Oh, let me emphasise this doctrine once more, the Christian is never meant to be unnatural. ‘Mortifying our members’ here in this world does not mean mortifying, or trying to kill, these things which have been implanted in us by God. He made us human beings: it is the perverse things that are sin. Things that are noble and true all have their legitimate place in the Christian life. Paul knew what it was to be anxious about his dear brother who was so desperately ill and he thanked God when his life was spared, ‘to spare me sorrow upon sorrow,’ says Paul – he knew this wonderful consolation of the Lord Jesus Christ” (ibid.).
Again, the second moving example of tenderness between friends is evident when Paul tells us that Epaphroditus was “distressed because you heard he was ill” (v.26). Some people love others to know that they’re ill. They make quite sure everybody knows, and they may even exaggerate their illnesses, but here was a man who was upset because others were being upset on account of his illness: “I am just being a burden to everyone. They are all worried about me, and they can do nothing at all.” Epaphroditus seems to have been a private person who kept his counsel. He wouldn’t have wanted the pastor to have told the congregation in the Prayer Meeting that he was the one who needed to be prayed for. Now he was in the limelight for being ill, and knowing his family and congregation were desperately worried about him – he was almost demented when he learned this. The word ‘distressed’ (v.26) is very strong. It is used to describe the feelings of the Lord Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane before the cross. Not at all did Epaphroditus feel a glow rather the opposite because he had become the centre of attention, and on everyone’s prayer list, and the theme of much intercession in the Prayer Meeting back in Philippi. Epaphroditus was in a state of mental torment because of the pain he had given to his brothers and sisters.
So Paul decides to send him back home – after just a short time. The Philippians had thought Epaphroditus would be staying with Paul perhaps for a year, taking over from Timothy, ministering to Paul’s needs, but after a month he’s on a ship heading for home. “I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus . . . whom you sent to take care of my needs” (v.25). Paul appreciated the help that a fit Epaphroditus could give, but not this weak, distressed and homesick man: “I am all the more eager to send him . . .” (v.28). Why? Two reasons, because of Epaphroditus’ emotional distress, and because of the joy it would give the Philippians: “so that when you see him again you may be glad . . . Welcome him in the Lord with great joy” (vv. 28 & 29). Paul is concerned for the emotional well-being of the church. He can envisage the happy scene when the invalid is welcomed back from Italy into the bosom of his family and congregation. Paul knew that if he was telling the congregation to rejoice in the Lord always, that this was their duty, that he must encourage that joy by all proper means.
So here is New Testament concern for our human relationships, temperaments, affections and physical and psychological weaknesses. All this mattered to this apostle of Jesus Christ, and so it matters to God. Not just that we believe the right doctrines, and that we keep the right rules but our emotional life is important to him. I am focusing on this fact that when you become a Christian it is not the end of your humanity, but rather it is the beginning of a new wiser and more sensitive humanity. We live our lives in the body with a body’s affections, and desires, and dependencies, and sensitivities, and longings, and passions. Becoming a Christian doesn’t destroy that. Thackeray has a character in one of his books whose name was Major O’Dowd. Thackeray says about him, “O’Dowd passed through life agreeing with everyone he met on every conceivable subject. He was not a man, really; he was a piece of spaghetti.” I am pleading that we be true men and women moved with affection and concern for one another. Men of God who have left their impact on the world were all like that, men like Spurgeon, and Stonewall Jackson, and Bunyan, and Jim Elliot, and Dr Lloyd-Jones. They read widely. They were interested in much of life, in politics and freedom. They were family men. I think of Dr J. Gresham Machen, the great champion of the Christian faith in the first half of the twentieth century. What an all round character he was. He loved music, especially operatic music, poetry, good food, college football, children, travelling on trains. Younger men seemed to converge on him. He enjoyed giving his books away. He loved mountaineering; he climbed the Matterhorn. He never lost a game of draughts (what Americans call ‘checkers’) with his students, and he played hundreds of games as on Friday nights the students of Princeton came to this bachelor’s rooms where they ate oranges and nuts and cookies and soft drinks. Christians are members of a new humanity with a sensitivity and a concern for others. Why don’t you join us? How can you afford to stay outside the enriching work which the Lord Jesus can do to your soul?
2. WE ARE MEMBERS OF A NEW FAMILY.
Paul says, “I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus my brother” (v.25). Why is that phrase ‘my brother’ significant? We are all very familiar with the concept that Christians are brothers. Certainly it is the first time the word ‘brother’ is found in this letter, in fact this is the only place it is found here. But the word ‘brother’ is significant because not long before this time Saul of Tarsus would thank God daily that he had not been born a Gentile but one of the chosen people of God. What a change Jesus Christ has made to him. Paul could look on this European, Epaphroditus, and say of him not ‘barbarian’ but ‘my brother.’ Of course, becoming a Christian had not terminated Paul’s Jewishness. There is that marvellous passage in Romans where Paul speaks of his love for his own people. His great burden was for his kinsmen according to the flesh, and he says, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Roms. 9:3&4). His conversion to Christ hadn’t put an end to his Jewishness. He was still a Jew. He was still rooted in the culture of his own people. He still had this great driving love for them. When he went to a new town he made his way to the local synagogue. That was the hub of Jewish activity, and invariably that is where he began his evangelism.
That must be true for us too. We do not lose our ethnic, national and racial characteristics simply by becoming Christians. We still remain rooted in the soil in which we ourselves were nurtured. We bring those feelings to God and we ask him to bless and use them in a way that honours him. But we are conscious that we belong to another family, that we are members of the household of God, and in that family there is no Jew, nor Welsh, nor English, nor American, nor Arab, no black nor yellow, no aristocrat, nor plebeian. There are no second class or handicapped brothers or sisters, but we are one home, one people of God. A Christian looks at another and he says, “My brother.” There was nothing else in the world that united a Roman citizen to a barbarian, to a woman, to a slave, to a Jew, to a child except Jesus Christ. He made them all brothers, sons of God, and his heirs, joint heirs with Jesus Christ every single one of them. Rome had associations of soldiers, and guilds for different crafts, and political clubs. They had these organisations like our Masonic Lodges which united certain groups for certain defined ends in a polarised society, but coming to Jesus Christ made people know, “We are family; my brother and my sister and me.” A family takes care of the needs of its members, and so the Philippians sent Epaphroditus to take care of Paul the Jew. A free Greek cared daily for an accused prisoner in chains. They were in the family.
There are groups who meet together today tied by limited interests. Some are fighting a specific addiction to drugs or alcohol. They meet together and they give their different experiences. They are held together by their common dependence and the destruction it has wrought on their lives, and the help their sharing provides, but when the meeting is over they go their separate ways. There is the ‘Gay Society’ at the University, and the only thing that they have in common is homosexuality. They are separated from each other the moment they get out. The Christian shares so much – a common faith, the same ethical system, the same responsibility to one another and to the world. Their joys and their sorrows are the same. Their burdens are mutual and so are their enthusiasms. They share the same goal. They all know that their chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. That is the brotherhood Paul is talking about. There is nothing incestuous about the relationship. It is life-enhancing and enormously enriching. John Penry wrote to his wife from the Tower of London the week before he was beheaded and signed his letter, “Your husband for a season and your eternal brother, John.”
Dr Lloyd-Jones says, “the way to show we are Christian people is not merely to be constantly addressing one another as ‘brother’; it does not mean just a mechanical use of the term in that way. It is, rather, a manifestation of love. In your family relationships you do not always address your brother as brother. You call him by his name. The family and the brotherly relationship is something which is manifested in action. You see it perfectly in this section. Look at this concern for one another. The Philippians had sent Epaphroditus to Paul to attend to his wants while he was in prison – that is the manifestation of the brotherly spirit. Though they loved Epaphroditus very dearly, they sent him all the way over to Paul to minister to the needs of the great apostle – loving, brotherly concern. Timothy, too, says Paul, served him as a son with his father. And then you notice Paul’s concern for these people at Philippi. There in Rome, Epaphroditus was of great value and help to him, and yet because Paul knew of their need of Epaphroditus, he sent him back: their need was Paul’s only consideration. That is what is meant by brotherly relationship: this sense of blood relationship, this great concern for one another which shows itself in action” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy,” Hodder, London, 1989, p.232).
Because we are brothers that doesn’t mean that we always see eye to eye, and that there are not very awkward and difficult people in the church of Jesus Christ. Some of those may also be extraordinary men. C.T.Studd was one such man. In a recent edition of the Banner of Truth magazine there is a splendid article outlining Studd’s achievements for Christ. The Rev. Philip Hacking was once giving a paper on Studd, and when he had finished an old lady came to him and said, “I worked with C.T.Studd, and he was impossible, quite impossible.” I can understand what she meant, and if you read his fascinating life you will also understand what she is saying. Or you can think of the outstanding Ulster preacher of the beginning of the 20th century, W.P. Nicholson. He was another individualist. It was said of him that “nobody believed a man could be full of rudeness and the Holy Spirit at the same time until he met W.P.” There are eccentrics, demagogues, cranky people and dotty aunts in our Christian family, as there are in our natural families. God uses them in spite of their seeming human impossibility. It is a good thing we are not all like that. Certainly we do not model ourselves on those family members, but they are still our brothers. We will not excommunicate them. Come, we say, and join this richly diverse Christian family.
3. WE ARE MEMBERS OF A NEW WORKING PARTY.
“But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus my brother, fellow worker” (v.25). It doesn’t appear that Epaphroditus was an impossible man because Paul could work with him. Critical, restless, difficult men might be workers, but would Paul call them fellow workers and fellow soldiers? Aren’t they loners? Epaphroditus wasn’t; he worked alongside Paul. For whom were Epaphroditus and Paul working? The apostle tells us, “for the work of Christ” (v.30). What is the work of Christ? Surely he is not speaking here only about what we call our ‘job’ – the tasks of the children in school, the housewife’s constant labours, the slave going to the well for water for the house, working in the fields, the tax man at the receipt of custom. Of course, all such labour is honourable work and God is concerned about that: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as your reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Cols. 3:23-24). The slave in the field, the mother in the kitchen, the father before his computer screen, the student completing his essay – all doing that work “with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men . . . It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” That we can offer our jobs to the Lord as work for him is a liberating vision.
Simply to have a job is a wonderful blessing. There is a man I often visit and I say to him, “Have you got a job yet?” He had one for a while but not this past week, and he says, “Something will turn up.” It is not good to be without work. If we want to help troubled youngsters change their ways and stay out of prison then their employment is essential. There is a Christian who has been so anxious to help teenagers in his community that he set up a work programme for them. He took risks, and he made mistakes on the way but eventually he has been greatly used by God. He first decided that these boys could learn a lot from raising pigs. The boys could be housed outside the town, fifty little pigs would be bought, fed, and they would figure out on the way how to deal with the problems they caused. Then they would be sold when they were ready for the market. It sounded a great idea in theory, but as it turned out there is far more to looking after pigs than any of them realised. These boys from a local council housing estate weren’t cut out to be pig farmers. Those fifty pigs did a lot of strange things, and the boys also did a lot of strange things They got into one crazy situation after another, until at last one boy called it quits. “I’m not looking after any more pigs as long as I live!” They all agreed. But they all needed work. Six days shalt thou labour!
So the pigs were sold and the Christian man in charge of this operation had a much better idea. The boys loved to work on cars. Cars are cool. So he got them involved in repairing cars, and learning to spray car bodies. They worked increasingly hard, learned skills, and enjoyed doing something useful. They opened a bank account, balanced their own chequebooks, and paid their bills. Their lives were turned around by working, but also by one more feature. This man worked for Christ. He was fair and kind and straight. The boys developed a trust in him. He could encourage them and patiently teach them in their jobs. Then he spoke to them about the one he called his Saviour. He prayed for them, and encouraged them to come with him on the weekly day of rest to his church. They would listen to him. When some of them professed to follow the Lord Jesus Christ he discipled them, explaining to them Christian teaching, what the big new words of the Bible like ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification’ meant. He did all his work for the Lord, repairing cars, and helping boys, and praying and testifying and supporting his local church. He was a worker for Jesus Christ. So was Epaphroditus, and so was the apostle Paul.
We have to work for the Lord in our jobs, and also in those other areas of our lives. There are three.
i] In our thinking we have to work harder. The church is surrounded by ideas and concepts that are utterly hostile to the gospel and we need to work hard in those intellectual areas. Paul was set for the defence of the gospel. The historian T.R.Glover said that the success of the early church in spreading the gospel and making converts was due to the fact that Christians in the first three centuries ‘out-thought, out-preached, out-loved and out-suffered’ their contemporaries. That is our vocation today. We have to think about why we believe what we do, and how we give the answer for the hope we have. Even how we approach the unbeliever needs thought. My friend 70 year-old Paul Cook was in hospital earlier this year with his arthritis, and in a bed opposite him in the ward was a biker who had come off his motorbike in a crash. He was a big man and quite a leader in the biker fraternity and a fascinating array of friends came to visit him while he was in hospital. Little Paul Cook watched all this with interest. How would he approach this man, the cultural and religious gap between them being enormous? What words would he say to him? He was being a labourer for Christ there. Paul had to think. Finally one quiet evening, after visiting time, he introduced the subject of religion by asking this biker the following question: “Do you ever think of the God who made you?” That question is brilliantly phrased. The biker’s answer was, “I don’t know him.” That was the start of the conversation, because Paul had thought about the question to ask the man. We have to work at thinking.
ii] In our living we have to work harder. Epaphroditus risked his life to help a man in chains (v.30). These are days when safe predictable religion will no longer do. We have to stand in the midst of Great Darkgate Street and preach to the dying men and women in the town. We have to take risks in relationships that test our loyalty and commitment to one another. The word here for risk-taking is that of a gambler. It means staking everything on the turn of a dice. In the early church there actually developed, out of verse 30, a Christian fellowship of ‘risk-takers.’ It was their aim to visit the prisoners in stinking jails, and the sick, particularly those who had dangerous and infectious diseases. In the year 252 AD a plague broke out in Carthage. The heathen abandoned the bodies of their dead, fleeing in terror. Cyprian, the pastor-preacher in the town, gathered the Christian community together, set them to carrying out the corpses and burying them, nursing the sick. So they saved the city from destruction and desolation and thereby they gained credibility in the eyes of the population. There were no more outbursts of persecution against them. Isn’t this a paradigm for our age? Where are the Christians who will be innovative, as Howell Harris was in his age, and William Booth a century later, and Francis Schaeffer a century later? We can learn from men like that, but if we copy them we become a mere pastiche. A new work is required. Where are the Christians prepared to take a risk, amid the godless masses, amid the lonely, and with the pregnant single girls, and with those who have addiction problems? Friendship is a risky business. Let us labour in our thinking and in our living.
iii] In our praying we have to work more. The New Testament describes a non-Jewish woman who laboured in intercession with the Lord Jesus, and who received what she asked for. This woman had a daughter who was demon-possessed. When she went to Jesus for help, at first he didn’t even say a word to her. Silence from heaven. When she kept asking him he told her that his first priority was to save lost Jews. When the woman still kept asking for his help Jesus said to her, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” In other words he seemed to be inferring that she and her daughter were Gentile dogs. Did that make the woman give up and go away? No, she laboured all the more with Jesus Christ. She used his own words to make her case stronger. “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus was delighted with her labours. “Your request is granted.” And “her daughter was healed from that very hour.” (Matthew 15:21-28). We give up praying too soon. Were we really longing for our petitions to be answered? Were we desperate for the Lord to work in those matters? Did we give up in the labouring? We are members of a new working party. Every time you hear the phrase ‘New Labour’ you must ask yourself “How am I labouring for my Saviour?”
4. WE ARE MEMBERS OF A NEW ARMY.
“Epaphroditus my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier” (v.25). There are two things that stand out. Firstly, that Epaphroditus wasn’t a ‘Rambo’ parachuted in behind enemy lines battling against wickedness. He fought shoulder to shoulder with Paul. They were ‘fellow soldiers’. James Montgomery Boice says, “Shoulder-to-shoulder fighting accounted for the success of Rome’s armies. Prior to the triumph of Rome, men fought mostly as individuals. They often dressed alike, but they did not fight side by side. The Roman armies did, and as a result the phalanxes of the legions were the terror of the ancient world. The soldiers marched abreast behind a solid wall of shields. As they marched they struck their shields with their spears in unison and sang battle songs.” (James Montgomery Boice, “Philippians,” Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1971, p.160).
How does any soldier fight today? Can he just turn up on the battle field today with some weapon or other and shoot away? Of course he can’t. He has to be under a commanding officer. He has to work with other men, protecting and covering them as they advance or retreat in an orderly way. He will be much more effective as he works with fellow-soldiers. So Christ baptises every Christian into one body. We are members one of another. He could have let every Christian be a little beam of light shining for Jesus wherever he or she is. The Lord actually did that with Christian fathers. He did not create an organisation in the world of which every single father must be a member. But every single Christian has to be a member of a church. It was unthinkable to the New Testament church to be a Christian and not be a member of the family of faith, a fellow worker, a fellow soldier. How would they make any progress in Europe without body life and activity and outreach? We have to live together and talk together and act together. We have to fight together, and then we are most strong. But when people have the thinnest possible ties to a local church, just doing their own thing, then the Christian army is weaker. Feed your work and achievements into the life of the congregation. Share them with us, your heartache and encouragements.
The other point about Epaphroditus the soldier is how bravely he fought, “because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me” (v.30). “Is that not the spirit of the soldier who is commended in the war, a man who leaves all, and is willing to lay down his life for his king and country? To me, the tragedy of this generation is that whereas we all readily exalt the man who manifests this spirit in terms of nations, we do not see the same spirit when we talk about the everlasting, glorious kingdom of our God and of his Christ. Men are exhorted, in times of war, to lay down their lives for king and country – that is all right – but are we not called, to an infinitely greater degree and extent, to be prepared to do that for Christ’s sake? And yet we are a little afraid of the sneers of our colleagues and of the meaningful looks of the club room as we enter it, because we have become Christians. We are afraid of the slightest degree of persecution.
“Oh, shame on us Christian brothers, let us rather be like these three mighty servants of God, Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus, who were ready to risk their lives for the sake of Christ and for his work. The battle is on, and the fight is keen and hot. Let us all be certain that as fellow soldiers we keep rank, we never flatter or fail, and whatever the demands may be, whatever the cost, we shall be ready at any moment, yea even unto death, to stand and to fight for our glorious King, the Lord Jesus Christ” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy,” Hodder, London, 1989, pp. 234&235).
New human beings, brothers and sisters, fellow workers and fellow soldiers: that is what Jesus Christ has made of us. We are a people who love to get together, as people do who have common interests. The more we do it the better, but we shouldn’t imagine that it carries no risks. All social interaction carries risks. An old lady once said, ‘The longer I live, the more I love the Lord’s people and the less I trust them!’ We understand what she meant, but that shouldn’t make us hermits. We need the support, encouragement, admonition which our brethren, fellow workers and fellow soldiers provide. We need to come together; simply to be together. We need to be part of a critical mass in which faith stimulates faith and launches into explosive activity. If you’ve been hurt by a fellow soldier or fellow worker then don’t say, ‘I’m never again going to expose myself to being hurt by Christians.’ We have to stick with the Lord’s people. They’re our people. They’re inseparable from himself.
1st December 2002 GEOFF THOMAS