SUFFERING is the supreme service. It comes nearest to the sacrifice which our Saviour made for us. The service of the strong is acceptable to God, yet the work of the weak is far more welcome. It is a deeper display of sacrificial love and demands much more affection to suffer than to serve. It is when both are combined that we see the highest response to God's grace. And both are found in the four examples set before us. Christ was the supreme Sufferer. Paul had his splinter in the flesh and his persecutions. Timothy had his frequent infirmities and the evils from without. Epaphroditus, the apostle of the Philippians, was especially signalized by his suffering, which took him very near to death (2:25-30).
Suffering for God is the highest privilege which can be accorded His creatures. The Philippians themselves knew this by experience, for they were graciously granted not only to believe on Christ, but to suffer for His sake (1:29). In them the two extremes meet, for in no other part of God's Word is there so much emphasis on both suffering and rejoicing. And this is true of Epaphroditus also, for twice in this brief paragraph concerning his sufferings we read of the rejoicing of the Philippians in connection with it (2:28,29).
Epaphroditus signifies charming, and such is the account of his career in this epistle. We read of no great deeds that he had done, no "souls" that he had won, but only that he was commissioned to carry the gift of the Philippians to Paul. He transformed this somewhat prosaic task into a memorable achievement by risking his soul in its accomplishment. So is it with earth's common occupations. Weakness and suffering may make them deeds of honor and charm, worthy of highest recognition, bringing joy and delight to the heart of God and man.
Epaphroditus is given five titles which are characteristic of his service. These are: brother, worker, soldier, apostle, and minister. The number is especially, appropriate, as five is usually associated with weakness, the outstanding feature of his service. On one side these remind us of the family circle, of the workshop, and of the army. Epaphroditus belonged to the same spiritual family as Paul. This, of course, is basic. Service must be based on spiritual, not on physical ties in this administration. Beyond this we must be fellow workers of Paul if our service is to be acceptable to God.
There seem to be four who take the title soldier in Paul's epistles, Paul himself, by implication, Epaphroditus, Archippus (Philemon 2), and Timothy. Paul's charge to Timothy is well worth pondering in this connection, for we may easily receive a false impression from the figure of a soldier. We associate it with violence and glamour. It really conveys the thought of devotion and suffering. Like all figures, only a section of the soldier's life is used in the likeness, not the whole. So that Paul wrote: "Suffer evil with me as an ideal soldier of Christ Jesus" (2 Tim.2:3).
Many who went through the great war learned that real soldiering did not consist in parading about in fine uniforms, but in enduring all sorts of discomfort and hardship in the midst of rain and mud and weariness and wounds and death. It is this side of the soldier's life which portrays our course in His service. It is not simply endeavoring to accomplish His work in pleasant surroundings, but in the midst of opposition and evils of all sorts, which test our endurance and try our physical frames to the utmost. Not that we seek suffering, or castigate ourselves. No soldier does that. He does the opposite. In every way he seeks to build up and conserve his forces for the fight. We do not invite evil, we face it. Then we thank God and suffer it, for His sake.
THE APOSTLE EPAPHRODITUS
We are far too prone to stereotype the usage of words and make a proper name out of a common noun. This is shown by the rendering of the Authorized Version in this place. Acting under the tradition that only the twelve could be named apostles, they changed the rendering here to messenger. How could the Philippians appoint an apostle? The same superstition insists that Paul took the place of Matthias. But apostle simply means commissioner. In some ways it would be far better if this term were used. That is why I have it in the sublinear. Are there apostles in the church today? Of course there are commissions and commissioners today. That is not the point. If we are asked whether God commissions men today the answer must be in the negative. The apostles are in the foundation.
Epaphroditus was the apostle of the Philippians. But that was a totally different matter from being God's apostle to the Philippians. He had no authority over the ecclesia or its doctrine or practice such as Paul or Timothy might exercise. He was simply given the power to represent them in carrying their gift to Paul in Rome. He was not merely a "messenger." He may have conveyed a message as well, but his main business was to transport their present to the apostle. Being commissioned (apostled?) to do this he became their commissioner or apostle for the time. Such "apostles" may well find a place today. It did not occur to me at the time, but I also have done this duty, and was an "apostle" for a brief period, empowered to convey a sum of money to evangelists at some distance from the city.
EPAPHRODITUS THE MINISTER
Yet I was also a "minister," for it ministered to the needs of the workers. How far this word has lost its proper usage is seen when we say that Epaphroditus was Paul's "minister." We may be sure that Paul did not attend his church, or listen to his sermons, or "Sit under his ministry." To be sure, ministration is not simply serving or dispensing. It is a public office. The priests ministered in the temple (Luke 1:23; Heb.10:11). The political authorities are God's ministers (Rom.13:6). In this sense was Epaphroditus the minister of the Philippian ecclesia, inasmuch as he was their public functionary, and attended to their ministration for them. As the priests brought the people's offerings to God, so he carried the Philippians' gift to Paul.
The charm of Epaphroditus is revealed in the exquisite sensitiveness of his character. He was depressed, not because he is infirm (though that may have been the case also), but because the Philippians had heard of his infirmity. Even though drawing near to death he is concerned about them, and the sorrow he causes them, rather than his own disability. Paul shares in this charming considerateness, and hastens his return to them, so that he, in turn, may not be burdened by their sorrow. Indeed, the whole interchange of sympathetic feeling is charming to a degree seldom seen among mortals. It is the delectable fruit of Gods love, which should always grace the service of his saints.
INFIRMITY AND DEATH
The case of Epaphroditus is of more than passing moment because it confirms and crowns the great truth that, in this administration, God's power is perfected in infirmity. Paul himself, after he had healed others, was given a splinter in the flesh (2 Cor.12:7). Today God's grace is our sufficiency. Paul gloried in his infirmities, that the power of Christ should tabernacle on him. This was by no means the teaching of the twelve, or even of Paul himself when he was connected with the heralding of the kingdom. That day of physical marvels was announced by displays of power. The powers (not the infirmities) of the coming eon were produced as tokens of its nearness. Even the nations were given gifts of healing, in view of the coming glory. But, as the kingdom heralding ceased, the powers that accompanied it withdrew.
There are circles of the saints today who would not have hesitated to charge Epaphroditus with lack of faith, if not with actual sin, for his failure to "appropriate the healing in the atonement." For them it is a disgrace to be ill, and, even if it is the consequence of their self-sacrifice in the Lord's work, it is a dishonor and a shame. How different was Paul's estimate! Quite to the contrary, he writes to them and to us: "have such in honor, seeing that he draws near unto death because of the work of the Lord, risking his soul that he should fill up your want of ministration toward me" (2:29,30). Infirmity of the flesh is as much in keeping with the truth today, as was the health and healing which accompanied the heralding of our Lord or of the twelve, or of Paul's own earlier ministries, which were still connected with the kingdom.
Paul was probably the greatest healer among the apostles. He more than duplicated every sign recorded of Peter in the book of Acts. The lame man at the Beautiful gate of the temple was not the beneficiary of so wonderful a miracle as was the lame man at Lystra (Acts 3:2; 14:8). Of whom else do we read such words as these: "powers, not the casual kind, God did through the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons from his cuticle are carried away to the infirm also, to clear the diseases from them, and wicked spirits go out" (Acts 19:11, 12)? In this matter Paul seems to have easily eclipsed all others.
Yet in this, as in all else connected with Saul, who is called Paul, there is a gradual but mighty change, which he himself describes as a going from glory to glory (2 Cor.3:18). Superficially, one might expect that this would bring still more physical strength and healing, but the advance is confined to the spiritual sphere, while the physical wonders fade away with, the failing kingdom hopes.
Personally, in immediate connection with the highest revelation of which Paul could boast (2 Cor.12:1-7), he is given a painful and irritating affliction in the flesh, in order to keep him down. He who healed others cannot heal himself. And when he prayed for its removal, his persistence did not avail. So far as we know it was never withdrawn from him, so that we must picture the great apostle himself as a pathetic figure physically, in the latter part of his career, as at once the revelator and exponent of the great truth for the present, that God's power is perfected in human infirmity. It was in his latest days, in prison and unable to cure himself or his friends, that Paul was most powerful.
We see this change coming over the scene even more clearly in Paul's connection with his companions. Surely the great healer would wish to cure his own intimate friends and associates in the Lord's work. But, in proportion as the spiritual grace increased, the physical receded. His own son in the faith, whose service he so highly commends in this epistle, is frequently infirm (1 Tim.5:23). That Paul is concerned about it is evident from the fact that he recommends, not a remedy, but a palliative. Weak Timothy became his most powerful aid. "Trophimus, being infirm, I left at Miletus" (2 Tim.4:20). In earlier days, before the present grace was revealed, he would have healed him. Now infirmity is not to be removed but used. Through it God's power is to be revealed. Some day we shall see that Trophimus' infirmity effected more for God than the most wonderful miracle of healing would have done.
And so it is today. God's power is not apparent in mighty muscles or in buoyant health, neither of which is to be despised. He displays His glory in broken vessels of clay, so that the excellence of it is not of man but of God. And it is our duty and privilege to bestow especial honor on those who risk their souls in carrying out His work. God could easily keep them in health or cure their weaknesses, but that does not accord with the transcendent grace which is granted to us in this secret administration. Soon after it was revealed to Paul, long before it was made public in his imprisonment epistles, the physical blessings of the kingdom not only retired but, in Paul's case at least, were replaced by positive physical impotence and pain.
Epaphroditus risked his soul to fulfill his commission. It is evident from this that he did not shrink back in the face of danger. He knew before that it might cost him his health, if not his life. He had no such illusion as that the wonderworking apostle would heal him. He committed himself wholly into the hands of God, Who had mercy on him and spared his life. Now he has an honor compared to which all earthly glories fade away. What distinction can compare with his place among the slaves of God? For he it is who was chosen to be our model, to teach us how to serve God acceptably in suffering.
A. E. Knoch