Philippians 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Epaphroditus to Come Now

From his plans to hear about their affairs (now in response to this letter) and to come himself as soon as possible, Paul turns to the more immediate matter at hand--the return of Epaphroditus, who is also the bearer of the letter. The paragraph is in two parts (vv. 25-27; 28-30), both of which (a) begin on the same note (Paul's having sent Epaphroditus), (b) mention Epaphroditus as the Philippians' "minister to my needs" and (c) note that Epaphroditus's illness brought him very near to death. What is being explained in both parts are the reasons for sending Epaphroditus now and not waiting for the outcome of Paul's trial.The first part gives the reason from Epaphroditus's perspective: his own deep longing for the community back home in light of their knowing about his illness (v. 26). Verses 28-30 then give the reason for sending him from the Philippians' perspective: their own joy in seeing him again, which will lessen Paul's present sorrow to some degree (v. 28).

But the whole should especially be read from Paul's perspective, which helps to explain what (for us) is the most striking about the paragraph--that it takes the form of commendation, the kind of thing that regularly appears in letters from the Greco-Roman period to introduce the bearer of the letter to the one(s) addressed. Why such a commendation in this letter? Most likely it is another reflection of the "mutual affection" dimension of friendship, which pours forth regularly in this letter. This profusion of commendation is part of that affection. Paul has received the Philippians' gift from Epaphroditus (cf. 4:18); now in sending him back he commends him to them as one of their own, and in honoring Epaphroditus, Paul honors them. That Epaphroditus should have risked his life on their behalf is reason enough for Paul to urge them to receive him back with joy. That God has spared him so that he could come back at all is all the more reason for joy--on everyone's part.

Given the paradigmatic role of every preceding narrative to this point, that may well be so again. If so, the paradigm here moves toward the "suffering" theme in this letter. Epaphroditus models one who was ready to risk his life and thus to suffer for the sake of Christ on behalf of others. What makes one think so in this case is the unique phrase "unto death" (v. 30; NIV almost died), used elsewhere in Paul's letters only in 2:8 to refer to Christ's death on the cross.Epaphroditus: Their Messenger, Paul's Brother (2:25) It is difficult for most of us to enter into the worldview of the first century, especially regarding matters like communication and medicine. By way of telephone, fax or e-mail we can be in instant communication with people almost anywhere on the globe; and we are so used to the results of medical science that they now cease to amaze us. In our world most people expect to live through even the most dreaded of diseases, not realizing how recent such a worldview is. In the Greco-Roman world people expected to die of disease or illness and were amazed by recovery; and the only way one could find out about a friend from afar was through courier--and then only if someone happened to be going that way.

So one rightly wonders how the Philippians responded to seeing Epaphroditus again. Apparently he had suffered a kind of illness that ordinarily issued in death. That much they knew, but of the outcome they knew nothing. And that is why Paul thought it necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, and to do so as soon as he was strong enough to travel, rather than to wait until news of Paul's situation had been resolved. But before elaborating those reasons, the very mention of his now-recovered friend causes Paul to burst into accolades. Here is one who ministered to Paul at the risk of his own life (vv. 29-30), and Paul cannot help himself. With three epithets he describes Epaphroditus's relationship to himself; with two more reminds the Philippians that his service to Paul was on their behalf.

First, he is my brother, the fundamental term of relationship within the believing community; he is to Paul what the rest of the Philippian Christians are as well. Second, he is Paul's "coworker" (NIV fellow worker), Paul's most common term for those who have labored with him in the gospel in some way, including Euodia and Syntyche and others in Philippi (4:3). But in this case, third, he further defines Epaphroditus's role with a military metaphor; he is also my . . . fellow soldier. Whatever may have evoked this uncommon (for Paul) metaphor (his being surrounded by the Praetorian Guard, 1:13? or the fact that Roman Philippi originated as a military colony?), it images Epaphroditus as a wounded comrade-in-arms who is being sent home for rest. Since Epaphroditus was almost certainly present at the dictation of the letter, these words are probably in part for his sake; but they are surely for the community's sake as well, to emphasize the role their messenger has played on Paul's behalf.

Paul further designates Epaphroditus as your messenger (apostle) and ministrant to my needs. First, he was their "apostle," sent on behalf of the congregation to perform a given task. That task is then expressed with a sacrificial metaphor: he offered priestly service (to God, it is implied) on their behalf for Paul's needs. This is the first certain mention of their gift to Paul (although see comment on 1:5 and 2:17). Paul's present point is clear: in a culture where prisoners were not cared for by the state but had to depend on friends or relatives for food and other necessities, this is no small thing the Philippians have done. This present word about Epaphroditus anticipates the full acknowledgment in 4:10-20.Epaphroditus's Concern for Them (2:26) The mention of Epaphroditus's role in the church's ministry to Paul brings Paul to the first reason for sending him back now. Epaphroditus is full of concern for "the folks back home"; he longs for all of you (cf. 1:8)--a longing not just to see them again but to relieve their distress over his illness. Epaphroditus's concern is perfectly understandable. He knows as they do that he could have died from his illness, but they do not yet know he has recovered.

How the Philippians had learned of Epaphroditus's illness cannot now be known. It is usually assumed that he took ill in Rome and that a courier, going by way of Philippi, carried the news to them. But another scenario seems more promising. Given that Epaphroditus was probably carrying a considerable sum of money, it is altogether unlikely that he was traveling alone (cf. 2 Cor 11:9, where the same Philippian service to Paul is brought by "brothers," plural). Very likely Epaphroditus took ill on the way to Rome, and one of his traveling companions returned to Philippi with that news (which is how Epaphroditus knew they knew) while another (or others) stayed with him as he continued on his way to Rome, even though doing so put his life at great risk (Phil 2:30). This view is favored in particular by the way Paul phrases verse 30: risking his life in order that he might fulfill his mission on behalf of Philippi.God's Mercy on Epaphroditus (2:27) With an emphatic indeed, Paul goes on to bear witness to the severe nature of the illness and then to the wideness of God's mercy--both to Epaphroditus and to himself. We have no way of knowing the nature of the illness; what Paul underscores is how serious it was, enough to bring Epaphroditus to death's door. The repetition of this motif in verse 30 further indicates its great seriousness.

But the other side of reality, which the Philippians would now be experiencing with Epaphroditus's arrival, is that God had mercy on him--a clause probably read much too nonchalantly by those of us who have the benefits of modern medical science. How God had mercy on him we do not know (perhaps by "gift of healing"?); the phrase probably does not mean simply that in God's good mercy Epaphroditus got better, but that God had a direct hand in it. Paul's emphasis in any case rests altogether on the mercy of God evidenced by Epaphroditus's recovery, which stresses not so much generosity toward the undeserving--although that is always true as well--but the experience of mercy itself. This is indicated by the final addendum, not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow, a phrase that once again presupposes Paul's close relationship with this community. They know well his affection for them; the concluding plaintive note simply underscores it.

But what is the first level of sorrow on which additional sorrow would have been piled? Probably it alludes to the recurring motif of suffering, of Paul's continually being poured out as a drink offering (v. 17), especially in his present imprisonment. This little phrase should also be kept in mind when in this letter we repeatedly hear Paul speak of rejoicing. Joy does not mean the absence of sorrow but the capacity to rejoice in the midst of it. Paul's gratitude in the present case is for mercy, that he has not had sorrow of this kind--the loss of a longtime and dear brother in the Lord--added to the sorrow he already knows.

As usual, therefore, Paul can hardly speak without reflecting on everything from a theological perspective. The God he serves is full of mercy, both in healing the sick and in sparing the heavy-laden from further sorrow. Note too that Paul simply would not understand the denial of grief that some express today when they rejoice over the death of a loved one. No, death is still an enemy--ours and God's (1 Cor 15:25-26)--and grief is the normal response; but it is sorrow expressed in the context of hope (1 Thess 4:13).Joy Back Home (2:28) With an inferential therefore Paul returns to the opening words of verse 25, "I sent him," now qualified in light of verses 27-28 with all the more eager. Thus Paul offers the reciprocal side of Epaphroditus's distress over their knowledge of his illness: "that you may see him again and rejoice" (NIV be glad; see comment on 2:17), expressing here a gladsome, spontaneous delight in seeing their brother again, and especially in seeing him alive and well. Whether Paul intended "see him again and rejoice" or "see him and again rejoice" is ambiguous. Pauline usage clearly favors the latter, since this adverb almost always precedes the verb it modifies. Paul therefore probably intended that in seeing him they would "rejoice again," which is quite in keeping with the repetition of this imperative in the letter. But one cannot be sure that this is how the Philippians would have understood it, since again also seems to go naturally with the participle "seeing." In either case, Epaphroditus's return will be cause for renewing their joy.

Not only so. Just as Paul added a word of personal relief at the mercy of God in sparing Epaphroditus, so here he adds a similar word, "and I for my part may have less sorrow" (NIV anxiety). God's mercy on Epaphroditus meant that Paul was not given extra sorrow; his anticipation of the Philippians' joy in seeing Epaphroditus again, along with their relief from anxiety over him, will also have the effect of lessening Paul's ongoing grief (related to his imprisonment).The Commendation Itself (2:29-30) With another inferential "therefore" Paul comes at last to the commendation proper. Since Paul has sent Epaphroditus back for the triple reasons given (for Epaphroditus's, theirs and Paul's sakes), "therefore," he concludes, welcome him in the Lord with all joy, and honor [people] like him. Having given the reasons for their welcoming him back with joy, Paul now concludes by urging them to do so (not all imperatives in Paul are correcting something that has gone wrong!).

Welcome him . . . with [all] joy repeats what he said in the preceding clause as to the purpose of his sending Epaphroditus home. But it does so with the typical (for this letter especially) qualifier in the Lord. The nuance of this phrase is again not easy to pin down, but most likely it is similar to Paul's "hope in the Lord" (v. 19) and "confident in the Lord" (v. 24) in the preceding paragraph. Everything that believers do is in the Lord in some way or another. Their common existence, theirs and Epaphroditus's, is predicated on the fact that together they are in the Lord, meaning they belong to him.

Moreover, Paul adds, they should hold people like Epaphroditus in honor. Although this plural (literally "such people") may indicate, as suggested above, that others are traveling with Epaphroditus and that in this final word they too are included, more likely this simply reflects a standard idiom. When Epaphroditus is held up for honor of this kind, he belongs to the larger category of "such people" who deserve esteem. Thus the two phrases together indicate the kind of reception Epaphroditus deserves upon his return, the kind of esteem in which the Philippians should hold him for what he has done. Such honor is not drawing glory away from God, but is that properly given to one of God's own who nearly "poured out his life" on behalf of a brother for Christ's sake.

With a final causal clause (v. 30) Paul repeats, but also elaborates, the two basic reasons the Philippians should esteem Epaphroditus highly on his return home: first, he almost died for the work of Christ, which is then elaborated, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me. What is added to what was already said in verse 27--which we could have guessed at but without certain evidence--is that his coming so close to death was the direct result of engaging in the work of Christ. The grammar of the sentence indicates that this refers to Epaphroditus's bringing the Philippians' gift to Paul in Rome; and since Paul's imprisonment is directly related to the work of Christ, any gift brought to him by fellow believers in this way would be seen as participating in the gospel, as 1:5 suggests.

The next qualifier intensifies he almost died for the work of Christ. By completing his mission in the midst of severe illness, Epaphroditus put his own life in jeopardy. At least that is what the grammar implies. The main clause says he almost died for the work of Christ, which is now modified by an aorist (in this case past) participle followed by a purpose clause, which goes with the participle, not the main clause. Thus, he almost died for the sake of Christ, by "having risked his life in order to complete . . . your service to me." The clear implication is that there is "a causal connexion between the bringing of the gift and the risking of his life" (Mackay 1960:169). This is the phrase that gives credence to the view noted above (v. 26), that he most likely took ill en route to Rome but pressed on anyway to fulfill his commitment to the church and Paul, and thus exposed himself to the very real possibility of death.

The final purpose clause gives the reason for Epaphroditus's so risking his life, while at the same time offers the believers in Philippi their ultimate reason for holding him in high honor: he was willing to risk his life so that he might make up for the help you could not give me. But it is doubtful whether Paul intended to sound quite so pejorative. This combination of the verb "make up for" and the noun "lacking" is used in a similar context in 1 Corinthians 16:17 to refer to "making up for the absence of the rest." That is almost surely the intent here. Thus the clause begins "he has made up for your lack" in the sense of "your absence." Paul's absence from Philippi has created a gap in his life, and Epaphroditus has filled that to a degree.

Having made that point, Paul then returns to the sacrificial imagery of verse 25. With a genitive qualifier he indicates that by the "lack" of their presence, neither could they minister to his needs as they would have liked; but now Epaphroditus has done so in their behalf. As in verse 25 he expresses their gift to him through Epaphroditus in terms of performing the duties of a priest in his behalf. Very much in keeping with 4:10, he thus acknowledges that their "lack" was not in the willing but in the opportunity. Though stated very awkwardly, the sense of the sentence goes something like this: "so that he might make up for your absence and thus minister to my needs as you have not had opportunity to do recently."

Thus Paul concludes this brief narrative of proposed travel plans, a narrative full of warmth and pathos, victory and trepidation. His affection for the Philippians spills over through his expressions of affection for Epaphroditus, their "ministrant" to his human needs. At the same time the passage echoes with notes of gratitude and joy: gratitude to God for his mercy in healing a brother, joy renewed as they see him again. Paul hints at his sorrows but does not elaborate; instead the passage is full of affection and honor for one who dared to risk his life for the work of Christ in bringing him material aid. His ultimate concern is that the Philippians themselves appreciate Epaphroditus for what he has done in their behalf for Paul's sake. If Epaphroditus also serves to model one who was willing to suffer for the sake of Christ, that note, while not played loudly, neither is played so softly that it cannot be heard. Here is very personal material, which includes theological moments because Paul seems incapable of doing anything otherwise.

Previous commentary:
Timothy and Paul to Come Later

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