Plans and Partners in the Ministry
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Philippians 2:19–2:30
“PLANS AND PARTNERS IN THE MINISTRY”
19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. 20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, 24 and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also.
25 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, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 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. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
Several years ago a high school, whose football program had struggled to win more than one or two games a season, welcomed a transfer student who was known for being a “blue chip” athlete. From the first day of practice, the coaches were impressed with his ability to run, catch, and pass the football better than anyone they had ever seen play. So they decided to restructure their entire offense and build it around him. The plan worked great as they won their first three games. But then the other teams’ defenses began keying on him and, as fate would have it, he broke an ankle and was out for the rest of the season. The team didn’t win another game.
The moral of the story, of course, is that one man does not make a team. That is true in sports...and it is true in the ministry.
Were we to glance at the 16th chapter of Romans, we would find the Apostle Paul mentioning no fewer than forty individuals—most by name—who were presently playing an active role in his ministry. His words were, for most part, filled with affection and appreciation for their faithful support of him in the ongoing work of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul knew that he wasn’t in “the trenches” of ministry alone.
A while back I sat down to begin my own list of individuals who had played a part in my life and in my ministry...some more directly than others, but all having made significant contributions. I soon realized that the list, no matter how long it grew, could never be exhaustive. There were simply too many to whom I owed a debt of gratitude that I could never repay.
Of all people, Christians ought to be the ones to realize that there are no “self-made” individuals among us. In the first place, we are “Christians” solely by virtue of the sacrificial death of our Jesus and our relationship with Him. And secondly, many others have been used by the Lord to help make us what we are becoming in Christ. You and I probably should pause more often than we do to seriously consider that.
We must of course and of necessity place our Lord Jesus Christ at the very top of our list because, apart from His work of providing our salvation through His death upon the cross, everything else would be meaningless. But that doesn’t eliminate our responsibility to acknowledge those whom He has brought into our lives and who deserve not only our recognition but also our heartfelt thanks.
Here in the 2nd chapter of Philippians, Paul pays tribute to two such individuals, namely Timothy and Epaphroditus. Paul is incarcerated in Rome, remember, and he has obviously spent considerable time contemplating the ongoing work of the ministry while being confined. As he wonders how things are going, he calls to mind these two trustworthy men. Their relationship with Paul differed, but their value to him was equally-important in terms of their continuing influence for the sake of the Gospel.
This section actually supplies us with information regarding the purpose and destination of the Philippian letter. These two paragraphs fall neatly into two clear parts. In verses 19 through 24, we are informed that Paul planned to send Timothy to Philippi as soon as the outcome of his incarceration had been resolved. And then in verses 25 through 30, we are told that he would immediately be sending Epaphroditus back to Philippi—in all likelihood carrying this present epistle with him—and he was here encouraging the Philippian Christians to warmly receive him when he arrived. In both cases—that of Timothy and that of Epaphroditus—the work of the ministry would persevere, and this document would serve as a “letter of commendation” on their behalf.
Paul begins by informing his readers of the...
Future plans regarding Timothy, the son (verses 19-24).
Twice in this paragraph—in verses 19 and verse 23—Paul tells the Philippians that he “hope(d) to send Timothy to (them) soon.” In the first instance he gives a reason, which seems to have been the informative purpose for this letter...namely that he be “cheered” or encouraged by the progress that the Gospel was making in Philippi. And in the second instance, it was with the “hope” that he would be released from his imprisonment and would be able to visit the Philippian believers himself.
The timing of his release was uncertain and he didn’t want to delay being represented any longer than was necessary. If he couldn’t personally make the journey until the outcome of his case was determined, then he would dispatch his “right hand man” to them as quickly as possible.
Paul’s comments regarding Timothy in verse 20 are worth noting. Of him he writes, “For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” The phrase that Paul employs (“ισοψυχοs”) means “the same soul.” This is the only place this description is found in the New Testament. Timothy was Paul’s “soul mate”...they were of “one heart” and “one mind” in terms of their partnership and commitment to the Gospel.
The apostle’s comments bear something of a critical tone in verse 21, when he writes, “For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” The contrast Paul is making does not seem to have been between Timothy and Paul’s other co-workers who could have dispatched to Philippi, but rather between Timothy’s character qualifications and others who may have come to mind. In Paul’s mind, there was no one who was Timothy’s “equal” in terms of commitment. By comparison, his young disciple stood out as a rare gem in a world filled with “self-seekers.”
It is perhaps true that all of us have one or two others in our lives, who in terms of those things we most value are nearly “carbon copies” of us. We sometimes say, that we are “joined at the hip.” In circumstances like the one being described here, such people serve as true “proxies” for us. Thus, Paul adds in verse 22, “But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel.”
Timothy’s “worth” had been “proven” time and again. That phrase conveys the idea of being “tested by fire.” In other words, he had felt the intense “heat” of the challenges of ministry and was shown to be loyal to the apostle and faithful to the cause of Christ. Timothy was to Paul as Joshua was Moses, and as Elisha was to Elijah. All of those men had been mentored by the man they would one day replace. And such was the case with Timothy...which is why Paul refers to have as his “son.” They shared a common bond at a level that was anything but common.
Perhaps it is helpful for us to review how their relationship came to be. Given the account that we find in the Book of Acts, Paul may have met Timothy in the city of Lystra while on his first missionary journey (cf. Acts 14:6ff). It seems at that time Timothy’s mother and grandmother heard the Gospel being preached and had responded in faith. They, in turn and in time, had led the young man to trust in Christ as well (cf. 2 Timothy 1:3-5). When Paul returned to that area during his second journey, he enlisted Timothy as one of his fellow laborers (cf. Acts 16:1-4). From the very start he appears to have taken him “under his wing” and began to disciple him.
Given the fact that Timothy is mentioned in the opening verse of this epistle, it is quite likely that the Philippian church knew him...if not directly, then certainly by reputation. Nearly every reference of him in the New Testament testifies that the Lord prepared within him the heart and mind of a servant. When Paul writes in verse 22 that “he served with me in the gospel,” the word for “serve” (“δουλοω”) means “to bind oneself as a slave.” In other words, Timothy had given up his individual rights and personal pleasures for the sake of ministering the Gospel among those who had yet to hear it. Every pastor prays for people like this to become members of his church...their own “Timothys” with whom aspects of the ministry can be entrusted.
The fact that Paul again used the word “hope” in verse 23 suggests a degree of uncertainty in terms of the timing of his personal visit to Philippi. The outcome of his case still awaited determination, but he seems assured that his release would be granted and that he would indeed be seeing them again...hopefully “soon.” He had expressed similar confidence earlier when he referred to the possibility of facing death. In chapter 1 and verse 25, he had written that he was “convinced” of the Lord’s guiding hand in determining the outcome of his circumstances.
Now in the passage before us, he adds, “And I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also.” “Shortly”...but not yet. As with everything in Paul’s life—as well as in ours—all was subject to the sovereign will of God. When he writes, “I trust in the Lord,” he is in effect saying, “If the Lord wills, I will shortly come to you.” There is no more safe and confident way to live one’s life than in knowing it is in His hands.
The verses we are looking at this morning are much more personal and far less theological than the ones we have considered in recent weeks. Reflecting the concern he has raised about maintaining unity among the Philippian believers (cf. Philippians 2:3-4), he reminds them that Timothy’s coming to them would reflect his own genuine concern for them. Timothy was not like so many others who sought their own “interests” ahead of those of Christ. How needful is this reminder for us today. Selfless service is a certain antidote for the variety of struggles that consistently plague the local church. By putting the “interests” of others and of Christ of “first importance,” the way of humility—that is, “the way of the cross” as described in chapter 2(:5-8)—is on “full display” and in “full demonstration.”
When the Gospel impacts the people of God that way—that is, to the very core of our being—we can expect it to stand out in direct contrast with a society and culture that lives just the opposite. The world repeatedly tells us to “look out for number one,” without realizing who “Number One” truly is.
In the very near future, Paul would be sending Timothy to Philippi to encourage them and to make certain that the advance of the Gospel would not be short-circuited by his absence. In a similar way, the Lord has sent each of us into the world to maintain the progress of the Gospel. No other investment we can make is more eternally significant. Such reality should force us to repeatedly ask where our priorities lie in terms of carrying out the commission that our Lord Jesus has left for His Church. Be but warned...if we are honest with ourselves, it could be a painful self-evaluation.
But even before Timothy would be sent, Paul reveals the...
Present plans regarding Epaphroditus, the brother (verses 25-30).
We do not know nearly as much about Epaphroditus as we know about Timothy. In fact, the only place where he is mentioned in Scripture is in this Philippian letter. We are introduced to him here in verse 25 through 30, and he is referred to again in chapter 4, verse 18. From these two places, we are able to identify him as a member of—and possibly a leader of—the church in Philippi.
Given the context of both passages, it would appear that Epaphroditus had been sent by the brothers and sisters in Phlippi to hand-deliver “gifts” to Paul while he was being forcefully detained in Rome. We are not told precisely what those “gifts” may have been, only that they were used to minister to his “needs” (cf. Philippians 4:16). Either while en route to Rome or upon arriving, he fell ill and came close to dying. His recuperation had delayed his return to Philippi, and the believers there would have grown concerned about his prolonged absence.
You will notice in verse 25 that Paul referred to Epaphroditus as “my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need.” Timothy was the “son,” and Ephaphroditus was the “brother.”
“Fellow worker” (“συνεργοs”) and “fellow soldier” (“συστρατιωτηs”) are compound-terms that express his “partnership” with Paul and provide an “endorsement” for the faithful service he had performed on behalf of the Philippian church, as well as for Paul.
He is called a “messenger” (“αποστολοs”) and a “minister” (“λειτουργοs”) Those words are used elsewhere to identify “apostles” and “priests,” but here Paul is employing them in a less “official” capacity. Epaphroditus was not an “apostle” in the strictest meaning of the word, but in a broader sense was “one who had been sent with as message,” which is what the term literally means. The same title is given to others in the New Testament—men like Barnabas (cf. Acts 14:14), James (cf. Galatians 1:19 and 1 Corinthians 15:7), Silas and even Timothy (cf. cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:7)—but these also were not technically “apostles” of our Lord, in the sense of being numbered with the Twelve.
According to 1 Corinthians 9:1, the specific title “apostle” belongs to those who, among with other criteria, had seen the risen Christ and been chosen by Him to serve in that capacity. Given that to be true, there are no “apostles” among us today...no matter what titles some may wish to apply to their name. But there are faithful “messengers” and “ministers,” among whom Epaphroditus was one. And how we need such individuals today.
As he convalesced, Epaphroditus was filled with anguish over the fact that his delay in returning to Philippi would have brought great anxiety to those in his church back home. Perhaps, he feared, some may have thought that he had been killed on his journey, or—even worse—that he might have absconded with their gift. So, in verses 26 and 27, Paul wanted to set the record straight and give them a reputable report: “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.”
Here Paul bears witness to the serious nature of Epaphroditus’ illness, and also to the mercy of God of behalf of both men. You and I have no way of knowing the nature of the illness, but Paul underscores how serious it really was...severe enough to bring him to “death’s door.”
“But God had mercy” is probably a phrase read much too casually by those of us who have the benefits of modern medical care. In ancient times, few people ever recovered from serious illness. In saying “God had mercy on him,” Paul doesn’t simply mean that in God’s “good mercy” Epaphroditus “got better.” Instead he wanted to emphasize the fact that God had a direct hand in his healing. You and I should not pass too quickly over the fact that, not always, but at times and according to His providential purposes, God still heals!
Had not God’s “mercy” prevailed in this case, Epaphroditus would have died. Paul says that “sorrow” would have only added to his own “sorrowful” conditions that he was already experiencing through his confinement. “But God had mercy”...but, even if He had not brought healing, Paul would have “rejoiced.” Remember, this is an “epistle of joy,” and true “joy” never means the absence of sorrow but the ability to rejoice in the midst of it.
Therefore, Paul is all “the more eager to send” Epaphroditus back to them so “that (they too) may rejoice at seeing him again.” Timothy’s journey would be “soon,” but Epaphroditus would more immediate. He would be sent “with haste,” right away. And when he arrived back in Philippi, not only would the “joyfulness” of the Philippians be recovered, but Paul himself would be “less anxious” on their behalf.
“So,” Paul adds, “receive him in the Lord with all joy and honor such men.” Welcome him back with open hearts and open arms, “for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.” The apostle is not saying that their “gifts” to him were insufficient or inadequate, but simply that the entire church had not been able to personally present them to him. In other words, it was a “deficiency,” but through no fault of their own. They had merely lacked the opportunity.
When Paul wrote that Epaphroditus “risk(ed) his life,” he employed a term (“παραβολευομαι”) that was often used disparagingly of those who gambled or “threw down” their money at the chance of “getting rich quick”...not unlike those who play the lottery or the slots in our day. Over time, the term came to more generally be used of “taking a risk” at anything. The word is used only once in all the Bible, but is was later employed to describe a group of individuals within the post-apostolic church who would “risk” themselves on behalf of the most needy. Of that group, William Hendriksen has written,
In the early church there were societies of men and women who called themselves the parabolani, that is, the riskers or gamblers. They ministered to the sick and imprisoned, and they saw to it that, if at all possible, martyrs and sometimes ever enemies would receive an honorable burial. Thus in the city of Carthage during the great pestilence of A.D. 252 Cyprian, the bishop, showed remarkable courage. In self-sacrificing fidelity to his flock, and love even to his enemies, he took upon himself the care of the sick, and bade his congregation nurse and bury the dead. What a contrast with the practice of the heathen who were throwing the corpses out of the plague-stricken city and were running away in terror.
Perhaps it would not be a stretch to say that Epaphroditus could have been the “patron saint” of the “parabolani.” Both he and Timothy were selfless fellow-servants of the Gospel in the earliest days of the Church, and how great is the need for selfless men and women of their sort within the ministry of the local church today.
The work of Gospel ministry is never that of any one person any more than a star running back bears the sole responsibility for the success of his team or a single instrument is responsible for the movement of a beautiful symphony. The work of the Lord always and in all things subject to His sovereign will, and He will use whatever plan and purpose in bearing it to completion. Though it may not always appear to be the case, our God remains in control. And while that does not eliminate human responsibility, it does remove from our hands the need to grow anxious in awaiting the yet unrevealed outcome.
We may be prone to look at certain Christian leaders or long-term pastors and cannot imagine how the work of the Lord will carry on after they are gone. The recent “passings into glory” of Billy Graham and R.C. Sproul have caused some to wonder that very thing. Over the past two or three years, many of my college and seminary professors have “gone home to be with the Lord.” It is hard to imagine that things could ever be the same without them. And yet they will. As much as we honor and respect those who faithfully serve the Lord, the ministry belongs to the Lord and not to any one man.
The progress of the Gospel will persevere until Jesus returns, at which time the necessity for Gospel preaching will cease altogether. Trust me, God is not pacing the floor of His throne room and wringing His hands over the thought of who will replace any of His faithful servants.
As you and I await the disclosure of God’s providential plan for us individually and corporately, let me encourage us to keep three things in mind:
- In the first place, let us thank God for the “Timothys” in our lives...people whom the Lord sends our way to mentor, disciple, and with whom to invest the work of the ministry. What a blessing to build an intimate and trusting relationship with another person...something rarely experienced in our “Facebook age” of superficial friendships. When God sends us a “Timothy,” He expects us to relate to him. If you do not have such a person into whom You are pouring your life and the life of Christ, then let me encourage you to begin praying for one today. And if are a person who is in need of being discipled and strengthened in your Christian walk, then let me urge you to begin praying for a “Paul” today. It is the desire of Jesus’ heart to build His Church through these kinds of meaningful relationships.
- Secondly, let us also give thanks for those who are like Epaphroditus in our day... people who are trustworthy and dependable and who come to the aid of another in time of need. This is the type of person who takes risks by reaching out to others for no other reason than to love them in Jesus’ name. When God sends us an “Epaphroditus,” He expects us to respect him. Grace extended in love needs only to by received with gratitude. It doesn’t expect to be repaid. Is there someone to whom you can be an “Epaphroditus” today? As we become aware of the needs of those around us, it is a role the Lord asks us to fulfill. It is how we show to one another—and, perhaps even more significantly, to the world—that we are truly His people.
- And finally, and most importantly, being both a “Timothy” and an “Epaphroditus” would merely be a “humanitarian effort”—not really distinguishable from the “moral causes” of the world—were it not for the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ. When God sends us His Son, He expects us to respond to Him. With nail-scarred hands, He reaches out to us and offers Himself to us. In exchange for our sins, He gives us His righteousness, comes into our lives, and equips us to receive an eternal home in heaven. Let us, therefore, bow before Him with exceeding thanksgiving in acknowledgment of His role as our Redeemer.
At some point in our lives, we need others who are willing to risk for us...and even on occasion rescue us. Jesus both risked and rescued us, and He did more. He redeemed us. He is the reason that we come together, and His is the story that we gladly proclaim. We may not yet know the details of His plan, but we are able to discern His purpose...and that is to magnify Him through our lives and words. May God give us confidence as we entrust ourselves fully to Him and labor faithfully to make Him known to others.
That is His plan for us, and we are His partners.