I love this letter. It is so filled with hope and joy. When you read it, joy just oozes out of it. But it is also filled with paradox. What’s so paradoxical about the letter in general, is that Paul is writing it from prison and at the present moment, he doesn’t know what the outcome of his trial is going to be, in fact, he doesn’t even know if he is going to live or die. Nonetheless, in the midst of seemingly dire circumstances, he writes an amazingly joyful letter to his friends in the church at Philippi.
Another reason I love this letter is that is presents several themes which cut sharply against not only the prevailing culture of Paul’s day, but also cut with surgical precision against the grain of contemporary American culture and values. This section of the letter is what Bible scholars call a travelogue. A travelogue is just what it sounds like: a sort of travel agenda that would explain the author’s intention to visit the audience or to send emissaries to visit them on his behalf.
At first glance it may be somewhat tempting to look at a travelogue as simply logistical information that is fixed in history, and skip over it to get to matters that seem more practical or theological in essence. But it occurs to me that nothing is in Scripture by accident, and nothing in Scripture is irrelevant. If we are willing to do the work, there are some very profound theological principles here that we can apply to our lives in very practical ways.
So what is Paul doing here in general? He is holding Timothy and Epaphroditus out as examples; people who exemplify the behavior he called the Philippians to back in v.4. In fact, the rest of chapter two simply builds on this one verse.
- In vv. 5-11 he holds up Jesus as the archetype for this behavior, in that He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, and dying on a cross for the benefit of others, for the benefit of those who would have faith in Him.
- In v.17 Paul offers himself as an example, as his life is potentially to be poured out for the benefit of the Philippians.
- Now he will offer two final examples in Timothy and Epaphroditus.
- Timothy: because of his genuine concern for the interests of Christ and the welfare of the Philippians.
- Epaphroditus: because he nearly died for the work of Christ.
19: “I hope in the Lord Jesus” – Paul approached everything with total deferment to the will of God. Notice what he doesn’t say here. He doesn’t say, “I am going to do this or that”, he doesn’t say “I am going to send Timothy to do this or that.” He simply says, “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon.”
Paul is a man who is absolutely yielded to the sovereignty of God and I think what he is touching on here is the attitude that James talks about in 4:13-16, “13Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”
Our culture tells us that we need to plan our work and work our plan. When I worked in the corporate world, I had to formulate a 5-year career plan that my boss would evaluate and approve based on whether or not he thought my goals were reasonable. In the kingdom of God, however, there is no 5-year plan because God doesn’t show us the end-game, he just shows us the next step and he asks us to trust Him to handle the end-game.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to suggest that it is wrong to plan, I just mean that our plans always need to take a back seat to God’s plan, because I can tell you from first hand experience time and again, God’s plan is better 100% of the time. This can be a difficult thing to resign ourselves to because it means we are relinquishing control over our lives, but when you do this in earnest, the sense of overwhelming peace and joy that settles upon you and your household is beyond explanation.
20-22: So why does Paul want to send Timothy to them? Because Timothy alone will be genuinely concerned about their welfare. The idea is this: rather than being self-focused (looking out for number one), Timothy is the type of man who will look out for the interests of the real number one: Jesus Christ. And to be concerned with the interests of Christ is to be concerned with the welfare of His people. In fact, I am going to make a bold statement here: it is impossible to serve God without serving others. Let me say it again: it is impossible to serve God without serving others. There is no such thing as solo Christianity. To be called into relationship with God through Jesus Christ is to be called into a community and a life of service to that community.
Timothy is one who serves others because of his concern for the kingdom of God. And not only so, Paul uses a strong word here to talk about the type of service that he and Timothy have been engaged in. The word comes from the Greek root δουλεύω – which literally means “to be a slave.” This word almost always gets softened when it is translated into contemporary English idiom. It is generally rendered “serve,” but that word doesn’t typically invoke images of slavery when we hear it today.
However, time and again Paul uses the language of slavery to talk about the ministry Christians are called to. In fact, this is exactly how he identifies himself in the very first verse of the letter: “Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus.” And this is exactly what all who follow Jesus should aspire to: a life as a slave of Christ Jesus in the service of God and His people. Indeed, this is at the very heart of the gospel: to accept that Jesus is Lord is necessarily to acknowledge that I am His slave.
Now that cuts against the grain of American culture, doesn’t it? American rugged individualism, the myth of the self-made man, the idea that I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul: all utter nonsense. All human beings are slaves, some just haven’t realized it yet. All of us are either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness; we are either slaves to the kingdom of God or we are slaves to the kingdom of darkness; there is no middle ground.
So what does it mean for me to be concerned with the interests of Christ? First of all it means that I have to undergo a devastating shift in focus from the internal to the external and a devastating shift in hierarchy where I move from #1 to #3: God first, others second, and me third.
This being the case, if I am to keep myself in check, then I have to ask myself some tough questions. Whose welfare am I genuinely interested in other than my own? Am I really concerned about others, or am I just looking out for number one? What do I sacrifice so that I can promote the welfare of someone else? By the way, the sacrifice doesn’t have to be monetary, it can be any resource that we share with others, including our time.
25-27: In 25-27, Paul uses a series of terms to describe Epaphroditus that indicate that he evidently held Epaphroditus in very high regard. He called him my brother, my fellow worker, my fellow soldier.
- Brother – denotes his close personal relationship with Epaphroditus
- Fellow worker – συνεργός – where we get the English word synergy and denotes someone who has worked alongside Paul.
- Fellow soldier – a military term that is used to describe those who fight side by side. Here of course, Paul uses the imagery to denote E.’s willingness to engage in the spiritual warfare that inevitably accompanies the advance of the gospel.
- Epaphroditus is not afraid of hard work. He is the type of guy who will roll up his sleeves, get in the trenches, and do whatever God has asked of him.
28: Did you catch that? Paul is awaiting the outcome of a trial in which his life hangs in the balance. Depending on the outcome, he may be executed for being subversive, yet he is so focused on the welfare of others that he has no anxiety for his personal situation; his anxiety is for the Philippians. Does the word selfless come to mind?
How many times are we so focused on ourselves and whatever predicament we may find ourselves in (or have gotten ourselves into) that we get totally overwhelmed with anxiety, with fear and apprehension about the future, a future that we have absolutely no control over? Have you ever noticed that the most miserable people on earth are those who think only of themselves?
This type of anxiety is borne out of an internal focus: I am focused on me and my fear. But Paul is speaking of another type of anxiety here, an anxiety that is the result of his intense focus on the needs of others. He eagerly wants to relieve the Philippians of their state of worry over the welfare of Epaphroditus, which will in turn relieve him of his anxiety for the welfare and state of mind of the people in Philippi.
29: Timothy and Epaphroditus were a couple of special guys, so special in fact that Paul held them out as examples or models for the Philippians. But just what made them so special?
- Preeminently that they have followed the example set forth by Christ Himself.
- They were servants of others
- They genuinely cared for God’s people
- Eager to serve in whatever way God may choose to use them (not glamorous)
- They were willing to lay down their lives for the kingdom of God and the advance of the gospel
- They were available
On account of these things Paul tells the Philippians to honor men like these. What does that mean though, to honor them? In general, honor refers to the public acknowledgment of a person’s worth, granted on the basis of how fully that individual embodies qualities and behaviors valued by the group.
So let’s bring this home to roost in our contemporary context, shall we? What kind of things are valued and honored in contemporary American culture? Materialism (greed), power, sex-appeal. The people who have these things are the people who are honored and celebrated in western culture.
In the kingdom of God, however, everything is backwards and upside down from the system of the world. The world honors strength, the kingdom honors weakness; the world honors getting, the kingdom honors giving; the world honors vengeance, the kingdom honors mercy; the world honors individuality, the kingdom honors community; the world honors self-promotion, the kingdom honors humility; the world honors self-exaltation, the kingdom honors the exaltation of Christ.
The essence of kingdom living is simply this: to turn our focus inside-out. To move the center of our attention from the self to the community, to be so concerned with others that we have no time to be anxious for ourselves. To be so consumed with God’s will that our will ceases to be important, and falls into line with His.
In 1920 Eberhard Arnold wrote, “ Prophecy bears witness against all that is self-seeking, murderous, and anti-social; against all crime against life and community; against all gain through injury to another; against all luxury and affluence at the expense of those who suffer want; against violence and war…With this attitude, the first Christians remained everywhere ‘aliens’ and ‘foreigners’ within their society, citizens and ambassadors of a coming supra-political order.”
This supra-political order Arnold writes about, I proclaim to you as the Church, the manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth. A kingdom that is counter-culture, a kingdom of slaves, a kingdom where God is first, others are second, and I am third.