Ministry with the actions and affections of Christ
This post is based on Philippians 2.25-30. If possible, have your Bible open at this passage as you read.
He’s one of the Bible’s most attractive characters, but many barely know his name.
Epaphroditus, meaning handsome. Literally ‘above Aphrodite’. One who might surpass the Greek goddess of beauty. Parental hopes, it seems, of a child of exceptional charm. But his attractiveness was not in his name or his physical attributes. His was the deep beauty of godly character. For Epaphroditus is one of the most Christlike people we encounter in the New Testament.
He was, according to Paul, the kind of Christian worker who deserves great honour (Phil. 2.29). A man to be treasured immensely. A minister to be greeted warmly. A ministry to be celebrated with great joy.
What made Epaphroditus such a model minister? Was he a serial church planter? A dynamic preacher? A worker of miracles? A pastor par excellence? If he was any of these things, Paul didn’t see fit to tell us. In fact, by modern standards, Epaphroditus wasn’t much to write home about.
He started well. He was the embodiment of the Philippians’ contribution to Paul’s mission team, bringing their material support (Phil. 4.18). He was, literally, their ‘apostle’ (Phil. 2.25), sent as their authorised representative just as Christ had sent Paul with His authority. And Epaphroditus became more than a courier. His practical contribution to the needs of the imprisoned apostle engendered a deep affection expressed in three terms (Phil. 2.25). He was Paul’s “brother.” A brotherhood forged in the fire of affliction. He was Paul’s “fellow worker.” A valued member of the team using the gifts he was given. He was Paul’s “fellow soldier.” They fought together against Satan’s schemes and for the cause of Christ.
Epaphroditus: exemplary brother, worker and soldier alongside Paul. If you’ve had a ministry partner like that, you’ll know how grateful Paul was.
Not coldness but compassion.
Not competition but cooperation.
Not conflict but co-belligerence.
But it was not primarily in his service that Paul saw Christ’s likeness. Rather, it was in his suffering.
Paul writes that he must send Epaphroditus back to Philippi (Phil. 2.25). Reports had reached them that their envoy had been ill. Paul confirms it was true. Epaphroditus had been ill. In fact, he’s had a brush with death. “But God…” – two transformative words! God saved Epaphroditus from death – a divine intervention Paul received as a gift of mercy to both his friend and himself. We don’t know if he recovered fully. Was he unable to continue in service for Paul? Paul gives three reasons for sending him back.
Epaphroditus’s longing to be with the Philippians.
The joy his return would bring them.
The relief of sorrow (anxiety) for Paul (Phil. 2.28).
That last point suggests that this brother, who had been such a support, was now a burden, if not materially, at least emotionally.
It doesn’t sound like ministry glory, does it? Strong man brought low. Promising start, humiliating ending. Once a useful minister, now a bit of a wreck. Not the kind of bio you read in the handbooks at big conferences or on the back of bestselling Christian books. But maybe it’s your story or that of someone you know. Humanly speaking, it’s an embarrassment. Something to whisper about. Someone to pity.
But God! God had another purpose. It was precisely in his weakness that Christ was revealed. Twice Paul’s words indicate the likeness. We read that Epaphroditus came “near to death” (Phil. 2.27) and “nearly died” (Phil. 2.30). Coming just after Paul’s famous “Christ hymn,” in which he says Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2.8), the parallel is obvious. Jesus died in obedience to his Father. Epaphroditus came close to death in the work of Christ, “risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me” (Phil. 2.30).
We don’t know if Epaphroditus’s illness was a direct result of gospel ministry. He could have been assaulted or perhaps he picked up a disease. Or maybe he just ran himself into the ground. We don’t know and speculation will get us nowhere. All we know is that he became sick in the context of sacrificial service for Paul in the name of Christ.
It’s a story that’s been repeated many times, and we may be prone to ask, “Why didn’t God preserve him from illness and save Paul the worry?” As ever, we cannot second guess God’s mind. But this we can say: faithful and sacrificial service for God carries no guarantee of safety, wellbeing or longevity. Put more bluntly, ministry might kill you. It will do that quicker if you’re foolish, but even if you’re wise, you might die in service.
Weakness in ministry is no source of shame! For it is in weakness that we come closest to Christlikeness. That was true in the physical weakness of Epaphroditus, but Paul’s second verbal clue is more remarkable still.
Paul writes that “he has been longing for you all and has been distressed” (Phil. 2.26). The word translated “distressed” is only used of one other person in the New Testament. It was, of course, the Lord Jesus in Gethsemane (Matt. 26.37; Mark 14.33). Epaphroditus came close to Christlike sacrifice when he nearly died, but he also experienced Christlike sentiment as he reflected on the anxiety his illness had brought his sending church. There is no more Christlike quality than to be so invested in the spiritual wellbeing of others that we long to be with them in their pain.
Epaphroditus was Christlike in his actions and his affections.
That’s the kind of worker who should be honoured. Not the endlessly resilient, seemingly invincible and inexhaustible. Instead, we should honour faithful servants who will follow in their Master’s footsteps, bearing the burdens of others, and offering their resources in the mission of God.
What about us as modern-day workers and soldiers for Christ?
Perhaps you often attempt to hide your troubled emotions, put on a brave face, or try to be strong when you aren’t. Please don’t walk that road alone. Find a co-worker like Paul who will hear your heart, and commend you to the care you need. If don’t already have that support, our Associates are here for you.
Perhaps you’re not that close to the line, but you know your affection no longer resonates with Christ’s heart. You’ve developed a host of self-protection mechanisms because of unhealed wounds and past hurts. Please hear what Paul tells us of Epaphroditus. You are no source of shame, but one to be honoured, for you have shared in the sufferings of Christ. Let that truth seep into the depths of your heart. Don’t let your wounds define you, or become calloused. Rather, discover again the joy of the Lord. Meditate deeply on Christ’s wounds, and let your own sufferings take on a fresh perspective in light of his redemptive sacrifice for you.
Perhaps you’re happy to be Christlike in your giving of self, but you feel shame when you groan in anguish for those you serve. Epaphroditus shows us that deep emotions are not shameful, but honourable when they echo Christ’s heartbeat. Some emotions are just negative and should never be expressed except to God. Festering bitterness and envy have no place in Christian community (Phil. 2.14). But there are other emotions - the longing for purity in the Church; the heartfelt sorrow at sin; the sense of being burdened for those lost without Christ. Epaphroditus felt these and so did Paul. He calls them “the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1.8).
To have the mind of Christ is to serve in humble obedience. To have the heart of Christ is to suffer in deep affection.
Through that service and suffering comes the joy of celebration. It’s a joy that comes through fellowship with others who share our sorrow at sin and our hope of glory. For Christ, it came in his glorious reception into Heaven’s eternal joy. For Paul, it came for a season through Epaphroditus. For Epaphroditus, when Philippians was written, it could not come through Paul, imprisoned in Rome, but came through a warm welcome from the community of believers of Philippi.
Where will that joy come for you in your service and sorrow? Find ministry brothers or sisters who share the affection of Christ. Express it together, saving each other from cynicism, praying for God to continue His work in and through you, and rejoicing in the Lord. You might find that partnership in a colleague or ministry team, your spouse, a fraternal, a retreat, a Living Leadership mentor, a group in Refresh Network Online, or even in your church community. But don’t neglect it.
And perhaps even today you can be the bringer of joy to another as you honour someone who serves humbly and loves deeply.