We are all familiar with the giants of the New Testament, the apostles like Paul, Peter, John and others. But what about the lesser known saints? You know the ones I’m talking about. These are the ones usually mentioned at the end of Paul’s letters, the parts of the letters we tend to gloss over, the parts we certainly don’t memorize. These are the ones whose names we struggle to pronounce. Who are they? I think we can learn a lot from them, even if our knowledge is limited. In these series of posts, I want to highlight a handful of these obscure believers.
In comparing the New Testament epistle writers, Paul takes much more time mentioning his friends and co-laborers, and in only a few words, much is communicated. These verses might not be pregnant with doctrine, but they are certainly pregnant with example. And example is important for us, as Paul says in Philippians 3:17-18:
“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.”
Let’s start with Epaphroditus. He gets a prominent mention in the middle of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
“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, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 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. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 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.” Philippians 2:25-30
If we’re brutally honest, this may be a passage we skim over to get to the ‘good stuff’ in Philippians 3. But I think there’s a lot here and that’s why it’s included. Remember that all of it is God’s word and is profitable. (2 Timothy 3:16)
So what can we see right off the bat? First, Epaphroditus was a brother of Paul, not biologically of course, but spiritually. They are fellow believers and so brothers in the faith. He’s also a fellow worker in the gospel. But not just a worker, but a fellow soldier. The word soldier is only mentioned a few other times in the New Testament in reference to another person. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he encourages his child in the faith to endure suffering as a good soldier of Christ. In Philemon, Paul mentions Archippus in his greeting as a fellow soldier. Paul mentions many as fellow workers but only a few as fellow soldiers. Does this have to do with suffering? Maybe so, and we learn more about how Epaphroditus has suffered in the remaining verses.
But before we can talk about the suffering of Epaphroditus, we need to figure out what he was doing in the work of the gospel. Remember the circumstances of Paul. He was in prison, in Rome, without a way to support himself. So he is dependent on other people and other churches to supply his needs. The church in Philippi has sent Epaphroditus to help. If you look at a Bible atlas, you can see the distance between Philippi and Rome. It wasn’t easy travel, even in the days of the Roman Empire and their extensive network of roads. So Epaphroditus is taking a great risk in bringing these gifts of the Philippian church to Paul.
Going back to verse 25 we learn that Paul is sending him back to the Philippians. He has fulfilled his mission, he has supplied Paul with the gifts the Philippians had sent. But look at verse 26. Here we learn more about the suffering Epaphroditus has endured. He has been ill, and very ill at that. But is he worried for his health? No! He is concerned because the Philippians were concerned about him. Here we learn of Epaphroditus’ great love for the body of believers to which he belongs. He has been longing for them.
Then in verse 28, Paul says he is eager to send Epaphroditus back to Philippi and instructs them to honor such men because he nearly died in his service to him, which was above all a service to Christ.
So in only six verses we learn a lot about this man. We learn that his identity is rooted in the gospel in two key ways. First, he is invested in gospel relationships. He is a part of the church, the family of faith. He is called a brother. He is dearly loved by Paul and by his fellow believers back in Philippi. It’s obvious that he has invested much time in building relationships. In reading a little between the lines, we can deduce that this man is a man of humility. He isn’t so much concerned about his own life, but about the worry his illness is causing his fellow brothers and sisters. His life is an example of obedience to Paul’s admonitions in Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Second, he is invested in gospel work. He doesn’t just believe in the message of the gospel, he is invested in the mission, at the risk of his life. He knew of and maybe had witnessed Paul’s own example of suffering for Christ, (see Acts 16), and so was motivated to do the same. Someone needed to get these gifts from Philippi to Rome, and I can imagine Epaphroditus being the first to raise his hand.
If you look at the book of Philippians as a whole you can see why Paul chose to highlight the life of Epaphroditus. There had been doctrinal problems in the church, but also relational strife. We learn a little about that in the beginning of chapter 4. When you read the whole book in light of the relational strife going on, you see Paul pointing out several different examples for the Philippians to follow. He mentions himself in chapter 1 and how he is not bothered by others’ selfish motivations in preaching the gospel. In chapter 2 he exhorts them to be unified and humble and uses the Lord Jesus as a powerful example. But then he points out an example closer to home, their own brother Epaphroditus. This is the kind of man he wants them to keep their eyes on. Paul calls on the Philippians to imitate not just him but others like him. Like Epaphroditus.
Epaphroditus serves as a great example for us as well, an example we should seek to imitate. Are we invested in gospel relationships, the kind of relationships that are committed to growing in the knowledge of God and love for each other? Are we invested in gospel work? Are we willing to take risks and suffer for Christ?
Seek to imitate this lesser known saint, Epaphroditus, even if you struggle to pronounce his name. You also might want to open your eyes to those lesser known saints around you, those who might not have a prominent platform, but certainly have a powerful example. Seek to imitate them. Better yet, seek to live a life worthy of being imitated.