A Selfless Hero

Philippians 2:25-30

If we were to draw a main idea or central message from this section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, it would be this: a joyful person does not take other people for granted. This personal character quality is one of several outcomes of a person who practices what Paul taught the believers in this church at Philippi to be like at the start of this chapter: “In lowliness of mind, let each esteem other better than himself” (Phil 2:3).

In the six verses before us (Phil 2:25-30), we see such selflessness and respect for other believers in at least three ways: (1) the way the church at Philippi treated Paul, (2) the way that Paul treated a man named Epaphroditus, and (3) the way that Paul treated the church at Philippi.

Before we highlight key points of learning and application for our lives today, allow me to give you a brief backstory about what is going on here.

Paul had been incarcerated in Rome for months, maybe more than a year, waiting for a hearing before Emperor Nero. At some point, his ministry associate, Timothy, joined him to provide help and camaraderie. But also at some point, the church at Philippi sent one of their members to visit him, as well. The purpose of this visit was to provide Paul with a financial gift from them and also to provide other help and camaraderie (Phil 4:18):

I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you …

Unfortunately, the man they had sent – Epaphroditus – contracted a serious illness, one that was so severe that he almost died. Though thankfully he did not die, he was sent back home to Philippi by Paul much sooner than originally planned. And on this return journey, he was accompanied by Paul, presumably leaving Paul alone in prison, without the help of either man.

Why would Paul do this when he needed their help? The answer is that he knew it was best for the emotional well-being of both Epaphroditus, the church at Ephesus, and even himself. And by responding this way, Paul demonstrated that a believer experiences joy – even while suffering – when he or she treats the people around him with genuine appreciation and heartfelt care. In other words, though Paul could have used the help of these two men, he chose to ensure their personal well-being first over his own. In other words, he valued people as people, not a means to his own well-being and success.

Together, let’s notice how Paul shows genuine care for Epaphroditus and the church at Phillip through his words, feelings, and choices. As we do, ask yourself whether you care for and respond to the people in your own church family the same way. Do you view people in your church family as people who exist to serve you and to help you be successful? Or do you view them as people to care for attentively first of all?

A joyful person is not possessive.
Yet I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my need;

This statement reveals a decision that Paul made from prison which is both ironic and surprising. What was this decision that he made? He chose to send Epaphroditus back home to Philippi.

This is an ironic decision because Epaphroditus had been sent to Paul by the church at Philippi, but now Paul is sending him back to Philippi instead. “Your messenger” means that he had been specially sent by the church at Philippi to serve Paul on the church’s behalf. “The one who ministered to my need” emphasizes his assigned mission and responsibility to serve Paul by meeting his need. The word need here means to complete something that is lacking or to alleviate a difficulty. So, for Paul to send Epaphroditus back to Philippi meant that he would now be lacking in some way and increasing his degree of personal difficulty.

This is a surprising decision because Epaphroditus was such a key helper to Paul. He is such a key helper that Paul describes his relationship to Epaphroditus in three ways. He was a spiritual “brother” to Paul, indicating deep, personal closeness. He was a “fellow worker,” which means that Paul relied on him to accomplish his ministry well and could be relied upon to get things done. He was a “fellow soldier,” which means that he could count on Epaphroditus to help him out even when the cost or danger was high. Helpers and friends like this are hard to find – so it was surprising that Paul would send him back.

It was further surprising that Paul would send him back because he was also sending Timothy along with him, too – and we know how high Paul was on Timothy, and how close and reliant as well. Why was Paul sending them back when they were there specifically for the purpose of helping him carry out the work of ministry?

Before we look at why Paul sent Epaphroditus back to Philippi, let me point out what this decision by Paul demonstrates. It demonstrates that he was not possessive. Though he deeply appreciated his relationship with Epaphroditus and Timothy and the help that they provided for him, he did not insist on keeping them nearby. Pastors need to guard their hearts from being possessive. Parents need to guard their hearts from being possessive. All of us need to guard our hearts from being possessive – from clinging to our relationships with other people and relying on other people so greatly that we cannot live without them.

As Matthew Hall, a Christian church history professor recommends, believers – esp. Christian leaders – should “learn the difference between responsibility and possessiveness.” Taking responsibility for people, esp. those under your care and/or working closely together with you on a team, etc. means that you will work hard to achieve goals, meet needs, and invest in the development, health, well-being, and success of those around you. Possessiveness goes farther than this, though, and views the people under your care and/or working closely with you as somehow belonging to you and essential to your personal security and success.

When a person is possessive, they respond personally and bitterly when the people they care for and work with offer criticism or move away. This reveals a self-centeredness, and an early symptom of a possessive heart is the regular use of possessive pronouns such as my team, my church, my class, my ministry, and so on.

Paul had learned to lead and serve together with other believers, holding them close at heart but with an open hand, realizing that God was free to move people in and out of his life as he saw fit. So then, they were free to follow God and he was free to trust in God, without being personally reliant on others for his security and success. This is a key to joyful living.

Paul was confident enough in his relationship Christ that he could be satisfied and at peace whether these key men were there for him or not. When our joy depends on other people being there for us and making life easier for us, then our joy will be thin and fragile. But when we can rejoice no matter who comes and goes from our life, our joy will be deep and long-lasting.

What's more, possessive people actually achieve the opposite of what they fear. By clinging selfishly and dependently to people, they actually push people away. But by taking that pressure off and affirming their freedom to follow Christ above all, you actually strengthen, deepen, and forge stronger, long-lasting friendships and partnerships instead. Selfish possessiveness breaks down relationships but open hands knits hearts together and builds trust that stands the test of time.

A joyful person acknowledges the emotions of others.
Since he was longing for you all, and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I sent him the more eagerly, that when you see him again you may rejoice, and I may be less sorrowful.

Now, moving on to why Paul made this surprising decision in the first place. He made this decision because he had paid attention to and acknowledged the emotions of three parties: (1) Epaphroditus, (2) the church at Philippi, and (3) himself.

Regarding Epaphroditus, we see that he had become very ill enroute to visiting Paul. Paul underscores just how sick he had become – he had nearly died. Thankfully, God had preserved his life and provided healing. Even so, it was not Epaphroditus’s illness that was the primary concern here. It was that Epaphroditus – as a result of his sickness – had developed a strong desire (“longing for you all”) to see and reassure his fellow church members in Philippi that he was okay. This concerned him so greatly that he was “distressed,” which is a word of strong, painful emotions. Paul did not insist that Epaphroditus ignore those desires and emotions to serve him in prison, but he chose to let Epaphroditus return to Philippi instead to alleviate that personal pain.

Regarding the church at Philippi, they had somehow learned of Epaphroditus’s illness and grown very concerned for him. Paul wanted to alleviate their concern as well by sending Epaphroditus back to them.

Finally, regarding Paul, Paul was being sensitive to his own emotions as well. He acknowledges that if Epaphroditus had died, he – Paul – would have experienced profound sorrow (“sorrow upon sorrow”) and felt bad as it was that Epaphroditus had nearly died just to meet his needs. So, Paul said he was very eager (enthusiastic) to send Epaphroditus, he was not grudging or reluctant. Why? Because in doing so, he knew that the members at Philippi would rejoice, and knowing that they would rejoice alleviated his own personal sorrow over Epaphroditus’s trial on his behalf.

So, what we see here is that Paul is acknowledging and responding thoughtfully to the emotions of relationship and sorrow (which is the emotion of loss). So, we must do the same. As we live daily and serve Christ together, we must pay attention not only to what we are doing but to how we are feeling. We might call this “emotional awareness.”

Sometimes we might believe that we should ignore or minimize our emotions, but we should not. To be sure, we can take our emotions too seriously! But that is another problem to discuss another time, as this is not what the passage before us is addressing. Here, we find Paul behaving responsibly towards the emotions that he, Epaphroditus, and the church at Philippi were feeling – and these were appropriate emotions.

If we are going to be happy, contented, joyful, peaceful followers of Christ who faithfully serve him through suffering, we must be aware of our own emotions and the emotions of others around us. We should process our emotions through the framework and filter of biblical teaching and in balance with our mental, physical, and spiritual aspects. But we should not disregard our emotions and the emotions of others – and we should respond well to the emotions of others and our own as well. This is why, for instance, businesses give employees time off when they experience personal tragedy. It’s also why schools pause school work and/or offer specialized guidance counseling for students when they experience some sort of tragedy at the school, such as a mass shooting incident.

As believers, we should never be so busy that we cannot notice and respond properly to our own or other believers who are struggling with difficult emotions. We should be able to step back, help them step back, and take reasonable steps to help bring those emotions into balance and to restore the peace and enthusiasm that should be there. Paul was able to do this – even when he was the one in prison and likely needed the presence and assistance of Timothy and Epaphroditus more than anyone. Even then, he valued the emotional and relational well-being and health of Epaphroditus and the church at Philippi more than he valued his own comfort, effectiveness, and success while in prison.

An example of someone who failed to exercise emotional awareness was the son of King Solomon in the Bible, named Rehoboam. When he succeeded his father and became king, the people of Israel ask him to lighten their financial and workload (1 Kgs 12:3-4):

Jeroboam and the whole assembly of Israel came and spoke to Rehoboam, saying, “Your father made our yoke heavy; now therefore, lighten the burdensome service of your father, and his heavy yoke which he put on us, and we will serve you.”

The older advisors to Solomon, Rehoboam’s father, advised him to do what the people requested, but his peer advisors recommended that he increase their load instead – which he did. By pushing the people too hard and too far, he didn’t demonstrate caring, empathetic leadership, but uncaring, insensitive leadership instead. As a result, 10 of the 12 tribes defected from his kingdom.

Simon Sinek, an American author, says, “Leadership is not about being in charge but is taking care of the people in our charge” – and this is true. For Sinek, he writes from a secular, business standpoint, but for Christians, we – more than any – should be most consistent and successful at leading this way. Since we know that this is how Christ cares for and leads us, we should do the same for one another. Paul demonstrated with his decision to send Epaphroditus back to Philippi that he cared more for the emotional, spiritual, and relational well-being of Epaphroditus and the believers at Philippi than he cared for his own ministerial comfort, productivity, and success, though in prison. Is this your mindset and approach in life and ministry as well? Whether it is or not, it can be and it should be. Here are some ways you can begin to practice this better:

First, you can be more attentive and responsive to people’s emotional, spiritual, and relational well being by knowing (1) what an emotion is, (2) being aware of what emotion (or emotions) a person may be experiencing and expressing, (3) identifying what may be the cause of those emotions, and (4) responding appropriately to that cause. If it is a legitimate cause (as in a genuine cause for sorrow and sadness), then finding ways to provide comfort and support is in order. If it is a misleading cause such as false information, then correcting that info may be helpful, but doing so gently and thoughtfully may also be in order.

What is an emotion? According to the American Psychological Association (APA), an emotion is “a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feelings.”

One psychologist, Paul Eckman, identified 6 basic emotions:

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Surprise

He later expanded this list and there are various ways to distinguish and identify our emotions, not to mention we may experience multiple emotions at once. The purpose of identifying these various emotions is not to provide an authoritative list but to recognize the variety of emotions a person may experience. What’s more, Scripture acknowledges our emotional nature throughout Scripture as people display these same emotions throughout the Bible and such expressions and responses are also spoken and taught about by Scripture as well. Even Christ himself exhibited such emotions and responded to such emotions among his disciples.

Consider, for instance, how Christ said, “Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart” (John 16:6). Here he noticed that his 12 disciples had become sad because he had told them he was going away. Here, he (1) was emotionally aware and noticed their sadness, (2) he paused to acknowledge their sadness, and (3) he provided some teaching and information that would help them work through their sadness well.

That’s what Paul is doing here in Phil 2. He acknowledges sorrow and sadness in Epaphroditus, the Philippian church, and his own heart. He responds then by speaking encouraging words and words of empathy, while also making a decision intended to provide some resolution – sending Epaphroditus home.

How can we respond well to one another’s emotions?

  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. You may be wrong, maybe even often, but as Scripture says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things…” (1 Cor 13:7). So, give people the benefit of doubt unless proven otherwise.
  • Give people flexibility when needed. Build systems and schedules that feature rotations, breaks, strategic pauses rather than pushing people – the same people – relentlessly without recurring sabbath rests. And when people are hurting or struggling, give them some additional space. If they respond well, they’ll refresh, recover, and return to action.
  • Pay attention to what people are feeling and why, and give them a chance to explain or express themselves. Listen to their emotions not just their words. Think and pray carefully about those things and respond in a way that you believe can help them grow, heal, and move forward well – not just push ahead.
  • When possible, share a person’s feelings when they express them to you. Like Paul, he shared the sorrow that Epaphroditus felt for the sadness of the Philippian church. By sharing in this feeling, he was able to make a better-informed decision that met an emotional need.
  • Show interest in the rest of people’s lives, not just the parts of their lives that benefit you personally. Show interest not only in what they do at work or school or in a church ministry setting, for example but also in their important relationships, hobbies, pursuits, challenges, and more outside of the work and ministry that you share.

As we consider the need to be emotionally aware and responsive to the people God has placed in our lives, we should also consider another way to acknowledge people well.

A joyful person acknowledges the devotion of others.
Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness, and hold such men in esteem; because for the work of Christ he came close to death, not regarding his life, to supply what was lacking in your service toward me.

Paul not only acknowledged the emotion of others, he acknowledged the devotion of others, too. He does this for Timothy, of course. And he does this for Epaphroditus, too. He specifically and publicly acknowledges the devotion to Christ and to serving Christ that Epaphroditus had displayed. He does this by mentioning Epaphroditus and holding him up as an example of selfless service. He does this by calling him a brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier. He does this by emphasizing how greatly Epaphroditus had suffered. He does this by acknowledging how deeply Epaphroditus desired to be with his home church.

Paul acknowledges Epaphroditus’s devotion even further when he urges the church at Philippi to “receive him with all gladness.” By saying this, he wanted to be sure that Epaphroditus received a hero’s welcome when he arrived back to his church family. He did not want him to experience any vibes of disappointment by people thinking that he had somehow failed. That he had failed to serve Paul as long or as well as they had intended, for instance. Or that he had become so ill because he was unusually weak and incapable as a human being or because God had somehow disciplined him.

Furthermore, Paul urged the church to “hold him in high esteem.” They were not only to be glad to have him back they were to show him the greatest of respect and to uphold what he had done as an example of Christlike living and service.

Finally, Paul explains why Epaphroditus was so exemplary. He had risked his very life for the cause of Christ. He had chosen not to value his own life as more important that Christ or even than Paul. And he had done what no other member at Philippi had done by delivering a financial gift to Paul, something that they had wanted to provide but were not able to provide. Here’s what that service entailed:

The trip would take forty–fifty days and involve 385 miles (620 km) of travel from Philippi to Dyrrachium along the Via Egnatia, a two-day trip across the Adriatic from Brundisium, and then another 370 miles (600 km) from Brundisium along the Appian Way to Rome. This illustrates the depth of Epaphroditus’ sacrifice for the service of the gospel.” (Keown)

Do you serve the church with this kind of devotion? Do you know anyone else who does? Not everyone can do what Epaphroditus did and not everyone has such a selfless willingness to sacrifice so greatly. When you notice this sort of devotion to the work of Christ as Paul recognized in Epaphroditus, he encouraged the church at Philippi to “esteem him very highly.” There are some in any church who do what many others either cannot or will not do because the cost or devotion required may be too difficult or too inconvenient or impractical. When someone steps in to get meet a need on behalf of the rest, such a one should be properly recognized and respected. Ways to acknowledge the devotion of people around you include:

  • Acknowledge people’s positive and meaningful actions, efforts, and work – no matter how seemingly small or large – by giving personal, positive feedback. This can come by way of passing words of heartfelt affirmation and appreciation, a hand-written note, a grateful and spontaneous text or email, or something more – like a gift, a gift card, a shared event together, etc. If we’re not thoughtful and caring, we’ll take for granted the good and heartfelt efforts of people in our lives and only speak when they mess up, fall short, or fail in some way.
  • Express appreciation for people publicly so that others hear your acknowledgement and so that they know you have done so. Paul himself does this on numerous occasions – not only here in Phil 2, but also at the end of numerous other NT letters. Read Rom 16, for instance, and you will see how many people he acknowledges for their devotion to serving Christ!
  • Let people know the specific ways that they are making a difference. When other people speak positively about them or when positive things happen as a result of their efforts, make sure to relay that information to them if they aren’t already aware. Show them how they are making a real difference in ways they might not otherwise know.

In conclusion, we can see from Paul’s example here that ministry, relationship, and leadership success and fruitfulness is not measured in numerical, statistical, financial, and productivity categories alone (though these are certainly relevant to some degree), but these are measured by Christ through evaluating our awareness of, acknowledgement of, and appreciation for the emotion and devotion of others through paying attention, listening, and acting in ways that show genuine care and interest in the well-being of the people around us, even if such care seem to set us back in the moment.

As followers of Christ in the Brookdale Baptist Church family, may we grow in our ability to acknowledge one another’s emotion and devotion so that we can grow in our individual and mutual joy as we serve Christ together. May we treat one another as Paul treated Epaphroditus and the Philippian church, valuing their emotional and relational health over our own personal and individual success, accomplishments, and comfort.

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