Sermon, January 19, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
Today we’re going to finish up chapter 2 of Philippians, actually so far this will be the longest text that we’ve attempted to cover in a single sermon, and if you’ve read ahead (which I of course encourage you to do) you probably noticed that this next section, the close of chapter 2 may seem a bit perfunctory, or at the very least not brimming with theological truths as some of the previous passages have been. But I hope that we can see as we consider it that it is actually really quite full of practical applications for how we are supposed to live as brothers and sisters in Christ, and for that it is not at all superfluous, it’s actually of great value. So let’s turn there now, to Philippians chapter 2, beginning at verse 19 and reading to the end of the chapter. Listen, this is God’s holy, inspired word.
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.
The Word of the Lord.
In an effort to help us fully understand what God is telling us through Paul here in this passage and many others, I often try to orient us to the structure of the letter so that we know the greater context of what is going on. I’m sorry if that brief structural review is getting tiresome this long in the process, but I think it is extremely helpful, and we need to remember that this is a letter that was sent to the Philippian church as a unit, a single document, so we need to keep the whole in mind.
We just finished up, as I said last week, finished getting through the meat of the letter, a section of primary instruction that stretches all the way from chapter 1 verse 27 through chapter 2 verse 18. The overarching theme of that instruction, remember, is to live like citizens of heaven, live like saved people, and humility is the key. It’s of course more than that, but that is it in a nutshell. So as we begin this section, we are actually entering a part of the letter with a different purpose, and it actually hearkens back to an earlier part of the letter. Ligon Duncan, when preaching on this (I have to give credit when I steal things) calls this Paul’s return to his “missionary report.” Remember before in chapter 1, verse 12 he started this report, telling the Philippians—who were so eager to hear of his condition, under arrest and all—telling them that he is doing well, because even though he is under house arrest, the gospel is still going out in so many ways. In his first installment of the missionary report back there he says the gospel is advancing through him to the guards, through others who have been emboldened by the loss of Paul’s ability to preach himself, and good grief, the gospel is even advancing through people who are preaching with the wrong motives, who don’t even like Paul!
So here in today’s passage he’s getting back to that report, and this time he’s updating them not on his own condition, but on the condition of two others: Timothy and Epaphroditus. Now before you think of this as Paul being scatterbrained, peppering his report through the letter rather than just clumping it together, it’s actually very important that his report on both Timothy and Epaphroditus happen here, after the exhortation he’s just given. The accounts of these two men are further examples of exactly what he just told them to do in so many words! Shining examples of the sacrifice, the humility, the selflessness, the charity, the uncompromising fidelity to the gospel, the all-in body and soul living lives for Christ that he just told them about. In the Christ-hymn he was telling them of Christ as the ultimate example, but they only knew Christ the man from stories, preaching, and the like. Paul is reminding them that they have two people that they know well in front of them that are living examples of what it is like to live like that heaven citizen, like that saved person. And through these examples today we, as Grace Reformed Church in Casper, can learn more what it looks like to be in this community.
So first Timothy. Who was he? We know a bit about Timothy, especially because Paul wrote two letters to him specifically, and because he shows up in the account in Acts. If you remember, Timothy was with Paul and Silas when the church in Philippi was founded, jailbreak and all. They would have known him as a person and been able to corroborate all that Paul tells them about him here, saying in verse 22, “but you know Timothy’s proven worth.” We know that Timothy was raised in the faith from the time he was a child, by his mother and grandmother—he represents the next generation of the Christian church, the first generation of believers who would grow up in the faith and not only have heard and believed the gospel in their adulthood. And so we look carefully at the relationship between Paul and Timothy.
And there are a few things we see. Paul says that he has no one like him, or more accurately, no one more like-minded than him, who he trusts more. He also mentions that their relationship is best described with the closeness of father and son, that’s how close he felt to Timothy. And because he was such a like-minded son to Paul, that’s why he couldn’t wait, as he says several times, couldn’t wait to send Timothy to Philippi because he knows what a blessing that will be to them.
There’s something so important for us to hear as a church from Paul and Timothy’s relationship. First is that we need each other, and second how vital it is to pass the faith on with vigor, with vibrancy to the next generation. First the need: this is the apostle Paul, right? Can we think of a stronger Christian? He’s the Christian who earlier in the letter has the faith to have boundless joy in what are admittedly terrible circumstances, ones that should produce frustration, disappointment, physical and emotional pain. The Christian who says “If it were up to me I’d rather die and be with Christ, but clearly he still has work for me to do for you, so joy it is!” What a pillar of strength! Yet here he admits to the Philippians that Timothy’s presence, his fellowship is indispensable to Paul at this point, and that’s why he can’t send him. God has blessed few people with the depth of faith that Paul had, and even he needs Timothy for strength, he tells the Philippian church how he is strengthened by hearing of their faith and works. We need each other. God didn’t design us to walk the Christian walk alone, he didn’t intend for us to be islands, he built us for Christian community, and that’s something we should constantly pursue.
Not only is Christian community good for us, it’s commanded that we do it. If you love Jesus, you will love his church, there is no individualistic Christianity. Will it be hard? Of course, the church is full of sinners at various points in their sanctification, and not one of them is perfect. A great quote from Charles Spurgeon on that point:
“If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all; and the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.”
Through this sermon series, it’s come up a few times how we need to cultivate, pursue true Christian fellowship if we are to be doing our job as a church well. There are so many things involved in that, but it includes among other things as Paul says of Timothy, that he showed “genuine concern” for their welfare. Timothy is an example to us and the Philippians of how the people of the church should relate to each other, and it is the desire of Christ that we look after each other’s welfare, show genuine concern for one another. And Paul says right here that that isn’t the case with everyone, there’s work to do, he says in verse 21 “For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” We don’t know exactly who he’s referring to here, but he’d much rather send Timothy. We need each other, that’s why God chose to put us in community and not be islands, he knows we all are strengthened by one another, even someone with faith as great as Paul.
Secondly, Paul and Timothy’s relationship, mentioned here and expounded in the letters to Timothy, show us with what energy we should be striving to pass the gospel to the next generation. He mentions that Timothy is a son to him but also how he has served in the gospel together with Paul. He may be young, but Paul celebrates the work God is already doing through him, not as a subordinate but as a partner in the gospel. How about us? What is our passion for the next generation? We’re on the cusp of doing a lot of soul-searching about mission and our place in the greater church. Where is that piece? Do we have it, does it figure into our thinking about the long term? What does a passion for the gospel being spread to the next generation look like for us, right now? How do the physical, financial, and people resources God’s given us right now position us for that task? Every resource we have as a church, every category, we have exactly what God wants us to have right now. It’s a big question, and one we should all be thinking about.
And then we turn to Epaphroditus. At first glance, we might get distracted by the fact that unless we look closely it just sounds like Paul talks about his health concerns, but here too there are things we need to pay close attention to relating to our brotherhood in Christ. Remember that Epaphroditus was the envoy, the messenger sent from the Philippian church to bring both a report about the church to Paul, and also a gift from them to him.
Paul calls Epaphroditus five things here as he introduces him. The first three are things that Epahroditus is to Paul: A brother, fellow worker, fellow soldier. The last two are what he is to the church in Philippi: their messenger to Paul, and their minister to Paul’s need.
The first three, brother, worker, soldier—these each give us a window into the relationship not only between Paul and Epaphroditus, but also between each one of us. First that we are brothers and sisters. That’s an amazing fact, and I’m sure it felt more real to the early church than it sometimes feels to us. We’ve inferred this several other times in the letter. Your membership in the body of Christ trumps everything else. These brothers and sisters around you are more truly your brothers and sisters than are any of your blood relatives who are not in Christ. That is true! This is your family, the one God has given you and your membership in it trumps all the other relationships you have. Wow. That dovetails so nicely with the call to have genuine concern, to give sacrificial service to others in the church. Aren’t your immediate family members the people in your life for whom you would most naturally do something sacrificial for their benefit? Have that same mind, that same mindset of brotherhood and sisterhood to the people in the church, because they truly are your family.
These early churches were still figuring out what Christian brotherhood was, it was a new concept, but many of them felt it for sure. Many early Christians were the only ones in their family to be in the church, and many were shunned and ostracized for it. The church clearly was their new family and the only one they had.
Then Paul calls Epaphroditus a fellow worker and fellow soldier—this is what your family does together, works and fights for the gospel. You are brothers and sisters, and this is what you do, greater as a team than as the sum of each part—we work, and we strive, contend for the gospel. God knows that we do those things better as a family than as individuals.
The rest of this account about Epaphroditus shows us two things: how deeply we should care about these our family members, and how much we should be ready and willing to sacrifice for the cause of Christ. Epaphroditus was ill, and we can see in the concern showed by both the Philippian church and Paul himself how deeply they cared about his safety and health. Epaphroditus was one of their church members, and he fell ill, so ill that he nearly died, and what does it say? “he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.” It’s funny how that is relayed. Paul doesn’t say that “we know you heard he was ill,” or “we know you are distressed about it.” He says Epaphroditus is distressed because he knows how worried you are about him. He’s not worried for himself, he’s worried that they’re worried. And when Paul considers what would have happened it Epaphroditus had died, he would have had “sorrow upon sorrow,” and he still describes himself as anxious. These are people who genuinely care about one another in a self-sacrificing sort of way. God gives us the imagery of the body of Christ. If you sprain your ankle, your whole body can’t forget it. If one member of the body is in peril, so are we all with them. This revisits that topic of Christian fellowship and what it really looks like, and there is no bullet pointed list, there is no list of things that makes fellowship true, but care that deeply for the other members of the body, and the fellowship proceeds naturally without a list.
Lastly, the account of Epaphroditus reminds us that we must be willing to risk our lives for the cause of Christ. Epaphroditus nearly did, and Paul says that that sacrifice should be applauded, he says in verse 29 “so receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”
So we return then finally to the original question: what does it mean to live like saved people? Well, here are two examples. What do we learn from them? We learn that God’s decision to put us in community with each other was not arbitrary or could have gone either way—no, he knew that it would be to our benefit to give us this family. We need the family of God. And when this family is functioning properly, it has several features: the people of God care for each other deeply and empathetically, like their savior did for them, so much so that their lives are characterized by selflessness, genuine concern, and carry those burdens together. But that genuine concern is not just for its own sake, but ever and always for the advance of the gospel, in the church through discipleship and out of the church in evangelism, and for that cause we should be ready and willing to risk it all, because it’s all for Christ. Amen.
Heavenly Father, thank you for blessing us today with your Word. The examples of your servants Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus both inspire us to seek greater unity in our purpose as your church and also convict us, that we do not always live this way. Enliven this Word in all of us today, that we may serve you with boldness, that we would out of our love for you serve each other with radical selflessness, and that we would never direct all of that inward to ourselves, but would always seek to find what part of the body you are calling this church to be. Help us to be vigilant and passionate about deepening our faith as a church, but equally so about spreading this faith to those who come after us. In Jesus’s precious name, Amen.