Passage – Philippians 2:19-30
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.
Have you ever observed two very different people who were good at the same thing? Perhaps it was two office managers, two coaches, two teachers, or two pastors who were both exceptional, but strikingly different in their personality, approach, tone, or skillset. If we only saw one of them, we might think their way is the way to be excellent in that role. But having seen both excel, we realize that there is more than one way to be excellent in that role.
That is what we will observe in this passage. Paul uses many superlatives in his affirmations of Timothy and Epaphroditus. It is clear that both are strong Christians. Yet what Paul highlights in their character and how he describes his relationship with each of them is quite different. As we study this passage, we will realize there is no universal Christian personality or one template for Christian relationships.
The Example of Timothy (v. 19-24)
The reason that Paul says he has, “No one like him,” is sad. Timothy’s standout quality is simply the depth and genuineness of his concern for others. We wish we lived in a world where this quality stood out less. But even Paul, a mentor of many young ministers, recognized this quality was rare.
What stood out about Timothy was the absence of self-interest in how he cared for others. He did not give-to-get. While a lack of self-interest can express itself as timidity (2 Timothy 1:7), Timothy didn’t back away from new opportunities. Timothy had proven his worth (v. 22) by caring deeply and caring well for many people over years of laboring beside Paul in ministry. Timothy was humble and assertive, caring and ambitious.
While not stated overtly, we get the sense that Paul saw things in Timothy that he wishes were more present in himself. We tend to be most awed by qualities in others that are weaknesses in us. Paul was a highly accomplished church planter, frequently moving from city to city. This strength often comes with the weakness of being distracted by the next mission. It is likely that Timothy’s people-orientation stood in contrast to Paul’s task-orientation.
Yet, even so, Paul described his relationship with Timothy as a father-son relationship. This is more than a “Timothy interned with me” statement. The unique ministry preparation relationship between them would result in two personal letters from Paul to Timothy making the New Testament cannon. From this, we see in Paul the ability to mentor and admire the same person. Paul could be “more experienced” than Timothy without viewing Timothy as being “less effective” than him. This father-son relationship allowed Paul to be proud of, rather than threatened by Timothy strengths in areas of his weakness.
In the background of these pastoral affirmations, we see some highly logistical, common sense style decision making. Paul is sending Epaphroditus to the Philippians now, with this letter, and will send Timothy later. The Philippians would be encouraged to see that Epaphroditus was healthy, and Paul wanted to wait until Timothy could update them on his pending trial.
Often, we think of decision making like this as “less spiritual.” It’s not that Paul didn’t pray about it, but the primary factor in how the plan came together was not a special prompting but weighing the logistical and emotional benefits of the various options. It could be easy to miss the biblical validation of this type of decision making, but it is worth noting that the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to explain his rationale for non-Spirit-prompted decisions about life and ministry.
The Example of Epaphroditus (v. 25-30)
Now we turn our attention to a quite different, but equally good example of Christian character. Epaphroditus is described as a soldier. The impression is that Epaphroditus is as tenacious as Timothy is compassionate. Having been near death, Paul got to observe his intense drive to complete his mission. Even battling this severe illness, Epaphroditus didn’t want the news of his illness to be a distraction to his Philippian friends (v. 26).
In the description of Epaphroditus’ response, we notice an important nuance in our theology of emotions. Later in this letter, Paul will say, “be anxious for nothing,” (Philippians 4:6) and some well-meaning Christians take this to mean that all anxiety is sinful because there is a biblical command against being anxious. But notice that Paul affirms the distress that Epaphroditus feels. It is a sign of his love and commitment to them.
From this we see that anxiety can be an extension of the second great commandment – to love our neighbor as ourselves – and is not necessarily a violation of the first great commandment – to love/trust God with all our heart (Matthew 22:37-40). Even a strong man, described as a soldier, is commended for allowing himself to be moved in this way. Does anxiety sometimes emerge from a lack of trust in God’s to provide? Yes. Does anxiety sometimes emerge from a deep, God-honoring concern for others? Also, yes (see also 2 Corinthians 11:28).Anxiety can be an extension of the second great commandment – to love our neighbor as ourselves – and is not necessarily a violation of the first great commandment – to love/trust God with all our heart, Click To Tweet
Comparably, Paul describes how his own emotions were moved at the thought of Epaphroditus dying. Neither the driven-ness of Paul nor the commitment to mission of Epaphroditus caused them to mute or suppress their emotions. To some, expressing one’s emotions this way is viewed as less than manly. The Bible does not affirm this emotionally truncated view of manhood.To some, expressing one’s emotions this way is viewed as less than manly. The Bible does not affirm this emotionally truncated view of manhood. Click To Tweet
There is another phrase in this passage that merits our attention. Paul says Epaphroditus risked his life “to complete what was lacking” in the Philippian’s care for him. Paul used the same phrase to describe his own suffering in Colossians 1:24.
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
As we get a sense for how Paul talks, Philippians helps us understand something that is confusing in Colossians. Paul is merely saying that Epaphroditus embodied the care that the Philippians had for him. Epaphroditus was their messenger, their agent. Paul wasn’t denigrating their care, as if it was insufficient. In the same way, Paul’s suffering did not add to what Jesus did on the cross, as if more atonement was needed. Paul’s suffering was the just the necessary means to taking the gospel to the Colossians.
This helps us interpret our own suffering accurately. For example, when we step on the Lego block our child left in the floor, we are not suffering for Jesus. Our foot hurts and God is compassionate towards our pain, but it is not “missional suffering.” We shouldn’t over spiritualize it. But when we sacrifice time to prepare and teach a children’s Sunday School class, we are “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body.” We are delivering, not adding to, Christ’s care for them.
Understanding this both adds meaning to and compels us towards investing our lives in this way. That is why Paul is publicly commending Epaphroditus. He is calling Christians to imitate this aspect of his character. Paul says we are to honor people like him (v. 29). In this we see the ministry principle, we replicate what we celebrate. Public affirmation is not just about affirming the good work of one person but calling attention to an example for the entire church to follow.
In this passage, we see the affirmation of two men with very different personalities. Stemming from this we see different styles of relationship emerge based on these personalities. We need to see both are affirmed. There is no universal Christian personality, nor is there a cookie-cutter template for Christian relationships. In the same way that God made light and dark, water and earth, plants and animals, male and female, and called each “good” (Genesis 1), God introduced great variety into how he made people and the relationships that emerge between them. This should free us from both insecurity and pride, which are both rooted in comparative thinking. Instead of comparing ourselves to others and thinking we’re better or worse, our question should be, “What does it look like to exemplify Christ within my personality, giftings, and relationships?”
- Who are people in your life that are stark contrasts in personality, but each of high Christian character? What is unique in the way each displays Christlikeness?
- Before studying this passage, how would you have responded to the question, “If all Christians are to be like Jesus, does that mean we should all have the same personality?”
- Who are people in your life, like Timothy, that standout because of their selfless care of others?
- How have you seen the challenge to be “humble and assertive, caring and ambitious” be present for highly compassionate people?
- When or how have you seen logistical decision making neglected for highly spiritual decision making?
- What is your reaction to the statement that “anxiety can be an extension of the second great commandment”?
- What are ways you are currently filling up “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” by facing a hardship to make the gospel known?
- What are ways you should use the principle “we replicate what we celebrate” to facilitate growth towards Christlikeness in your circles of influence?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.