“My brother, and companion in labour, and fellowsoldier”
As we consider these associates of Paul and learn of their ardent and unselfish service we cannot help but fall in love with them. In our hasty reading of the Scriptures these folk may at times be nothing more than just a mere name. If we take the time, however, for a more careful examination we are certainly impressed by the devout character of these dear children of God. The virtues to be seen in them were also manifest in the life of the Apostle Paul. They had a sincere love for Christ, an untiring zeal, devotion to duty, a deep conviction as to the truth, and faithfulness as stewards of the mysteries of God. There is an old saying that birds of a feather flock together and Paul delighted to be in the company of these friends whose companionship he prized so highly. In lands today, where the Christian life is difficult, God’s people do appreciate the fellowship of their brothers and sisters in Christ and joy to be together. Sadly, this blessing is not valued by many as it ought to be.
Here we are to meet another of these exemplary saints. His name is Epaphroditus. Is he a stranger to you? He ought not to be, for his name is inscribed indelibly on the sacred pages of God’s Word. It is true there is only a scant reference to him, just a few verses in Philippians two and a passing reference in the fourth chapter, yet he was such a man as to merit the most fulsome praise on the part of the apostle. Paul wrote: “Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness; and hold such in reputation.” They were to hold Epaphroditus in high regard and to honor him as one whom God honored. But before we look at Epaphroditus more closely let us get the setting. Paul was in the prison at Rome at the time he wrote to the Philippians. This was his first imprisonment which lasted two years and from the closing verses of Acts it seems this was a house arrest where he had some measure of freedom and his friends were at liberty to visit him. These were not idle nor barren years for in Philippians 1:12 he states that instead of the gospel being hindered by his imprisonment it had been furthered. There is always a way to bear a testimony for Christ. In Paul’s case he had a steady and ever changing audience for there was always a Roman guard present, some think even chained to him, and Paul made a deep impression on these soldiers. They had never had a prisoner like him and there is little doubt that some came to know the Lord through his witness, and not only carried the gospel message back to the barracks where they were quartered but when ordered elsewhere took the truth to other parts of the Empire. Philippians 1:13 reads: “My bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace (Caesar’s court) and in all other places.” It seems strange that the opportunity of spreading the gospel, denied to him in Jerusalem the holy city, was given to him in Rome the heathen capitol.
Paul’s ministry as the prisoner of the Lord was certainly most fruitful. Beside the Roman guards he had many other contacts. There were many Christians in the city and as they came to visit he fortified them with the truth and they were emboldened to go forth and speak the word without fear. In Philippians 4:22 Paul mentions the saints that were of Caesar’s household. Some of these may have held high office, but many of them were slaves and the apostle came in touch with them as they went about their duties. These were encouraged and nourished and took the Word of Life back to others. Most of these Christians had been saved before Paul’s arrival at Rome. The gospel had previously been carried to Rome, not by Peter but by Paul’s converts. Four or five years prior to this Paul had sent the Epistle to the Romans and in it names a number of saints at Rome who had been with him formerly and had been saved and taught by him. Now he had the opportunity to see some of them again. It does seem evident that even though imprisoned he had many avenues by which to disseminate the truth and carry on an active ministry.
God’s servant was in bonds, but God’s Word was not bound. In Acts 24:27 we read that Felix “left Paul bound” and many are doing the same today. Because they ignore and neglect Paul and his writings they have in reality “left Paul bound.” Dean Howson comments that when Paul was bound in prison his writings went forth freely, whereas now when Paul is free and with the Lord, his writings are bound. We quote Dean Howson: “Once, when he was literally a prisoner in Rome, his Epistles went forth freely from thence, to be the possession of the whole Christian people. Now this part of the Word of God is itself ‘bound.’ Is not this contrast one of the most startling in history?” It is indeed startling, shocking and shameful that this most important part of Scripture is so sadly neglected. Confusion worse confounded has resulted because of this ignoring of the Pauline epistles and the failure to see their application to God’s program today in this dispensation of the grace of God. It is most important that one be grounded in Pauline doctrine. There is no doubt that the most important and far-reaching effects of Paul’s work during his imprisonment was the writing of the three epistles (Ephesians-Philippians-Colossians) which have brought tremendous blessing to untold millions during the centuries of time.
Now Paul has another visitor. It is dear Epaphroditus and he has come all the way from Philippi. What brought him to Rome? He had been sent by the Philippian church. If Paul had a favorite church it must have been the one at Philippi. He said they were his joy and crown and he dearly loved the saints there and they in turn loved him. When they learned of Paul’s imprisonment they had taken up a love offering, but how would they get it to him. It would be a long and hazardous journey from Philippi to Rome, about 800 miles, and would take about six weeks over treacherous terrain. In addition the bearer would be carrying a large sum of money and would be in peril of robbers, highwaymen waiting to pounce on the unwary. Whom could they entrust with this dangerous and life-threatening task? Perhaps it was here that Epaphroditus volunteered and said, “Here am I, send me.” This they did and in the providence of God he completed the mission and safely reached the apostle, but in so doing put his own life in jeopardy. The rigorous journey had so weakened him that he was sick nigh unto death. Wuest says: “He and death were next door neighbors.” It is evident his illness was quite lengthy as word of it had reached Philippi and gotten back to him again. He most certainly would have died except for the God who is rich in mercy.
In Philippians 2:25 Paul referred to Epaphroditus as “he that ministered to my wants.” It would appear that after recovering from his illness Epaphroditus stayed with the apostle for some time ministering to him and making himself useful in various ways. In fact, he made himself so invaluable that Paul was loath to part with him, but he could discern that the dear man was pining for his friends at Philippi, and was even grieved that his sickness had caused them anxiety, so he wrote: “Yet I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labour, and fellowsoldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants.” Paul was not one to waste words, yet here he was most profuse in his praise of Epaphroditus, and certainly Epaphroditus was worthy of this high praise. Firstly, Paul calls Epaphroditus “my brother.” What an honor to be considered the brother of the great apostle to the Gentiles. This was something unheard of at that time. The Roman world was divided into slaves and free men, Greeks and Romans, Jews and Gentiles, but no such thing as men bound together in a brotherhood of any kind. It is only among Christians that this term can rightly be used. The term “brother” or “sister” means we have come from the same womb. And we have, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.” In our public services we miss much by our failure to use these terms, for to use them reminds us of our oneness in Christ in the family of God.
Next, Paul said Epaphroditus was his “companion in labour.” Here was a man who was a worker, a co-worker with Paul; they were labourers together. Every Christian should be a worker. We love to quote II Timothy 2:15 but mostly just emphasize the last line about rightly dividing the word of truth. We certainly should be rightly dividing, for if not we will never have a right understanding of the Scriptures, but we should not neglect the first part of the verse. It should be our ambition to be workmen approved of God, and who work so well we need not blush with shame. Epaphroditus did not receive the grace of God in vain, he was always abounding in the work of the Lord and great will be his reward.
Paul had many enemies because of the truth he preached and he had long fought the good fight of faith. He was a battle-scarred warrior and here he calls Epaphroditus his “fellowsoldier.” We are indeed engaged in warfare, not against flesh and blood, but against the unseen powers of darkness controlled by Satan. In our own strength we would fail against this foe, but we are to be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. We are to put on the whole armor of God, to fight the beautiful fight of faith, and to courageously and effectively wield the sword of the Spirit. When Paul said Epaphroditus was his fellowsoldier he meant that Epaphroditus was standing shoulder to shoulder with him in the battle. The Roman legions struck fear into the hearts of the enemy as they advanced toward them in an unbroken line, shoulder to shoulder, with shields before them and spears in hand, and shouting a song of victory. If Christians would do likewise it would terrify all the hosts of evil.
Finally, Paul refers to Epaphroditus as the “messenger” of the Philippians. He had come to Rome on their behalf, as their representative. He had delivered their message and their love-gift, and now, busy as he was on Paul’s behalf, he was longing to be on his homeward way. The apostle wrote: “For he longed after you all, and was full of heaviness, because that ye had heard that he had been sick. For indeed he was sick nigh unto death; but God had mercy on him.” It is fitting that we stop here and ask the question: Why didn’t Paul heal him? In time past Paul had been used in the healing of many. Even handkerchiefs and aprons from his body were taken to the sick and brought about their healing. So why didn’t he heal Epaphroditus? Was it because he had lost his faith, as some would tell us? No, the answer is that God’s program had changed. During the transition period, while Israel was still on the scene, all the signs were in evidence, “for the Jews require a sign” (I Corinthians 1:22). With the close of the book of Acts, coinciding with Paul’s arrival at Rome and his imprisonment, the transition is ended. Here we have the solemn pronouncement: “For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. Be it known therefore unto you, THAT THE SALVATION OF GOD IS SENT UNTO THE GENTILES, and that they will hear it” (Acts 28:27-28). Israel is now completely out of the picture and with the setting aside of that nation the sign program ended. In the epistles written thereafter is found the normal program for God’s people today and in these epistles there is a complete absence of any reference to the signs. Members of the Body of Christ are to walk by faith and not be looking for outward signs. This is the reason Paul did not heal Epaphroditus, why he left Trophimus sick at Miletum, and why he told Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake.
In the Philippian letter we are told to be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication to make our requests known unto God. There can be no doubt that much prayer was made on behalf of Epaphroditus and God had mercy and brought about his recovery. It is now time for him to start on his homeward way but Paul did not send him back empty-handed. Whatever the amount of the offering Epaphroditus brought to Paul, when he went back to Philippi he carried a treasure greater by far. It is interesting to notice how Paul used his companions as letter carriers. Phoebe carried the Roman letter, Titus carried one of the Corinthian letters, the slave Onesimus carried the letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, and here Epaphroditus is entrusted with the Philippian letter, an epistle of joy. In this letter Paul tells the Philippian saints to receive Epaphroditus with gladness and to hold him in high reputation, and he tells them why they are to do this: “Because for the work of Christ he was sick nigh unto death, not regarding his life.” In Philippians 2:4 we are told not to be mindful of self but of others. Then we have the example of Christ who gave His life for others, and finally the example of this dear man who walked in the steps of the Saviour and who regarded not his own life and was willing to give all for others.