Guess who’s coming to dinner?

Church groups like to have fun together. No problem there.

But generally speaking, it’s a good idea to do it in a way that isn’t going to get someone arrested.

I know one fellowship group that decided to have a “mystery dinner guest” event. Several people volunteered to host a dinner in their home. The people who wanted to participate as guests were then assigned at random to one of the hosts, who had no idea who was going to show up that night. Fun, right?

Except that some of the guests really got into the spirit of things and took it to the next level: they showed up in masks. Not modest little Zorro or Green Lantern type masks, mind you (and really, how in the world does anyone expect to protect their secret identity with those?). They wore full-face masks, the kind you only see at Halloween. Or in movies about bank robbers. Or slasher flicks.

One gentleman — as nice and God-fearing a guy as you would ever want to meet — didn’t have a mask, so he improvised. He got out of his car, put a brown paper bag over his head, walked up and rang the doorbell. The host happily opened the door… then threatened to call the police.

Of course, once he hurriedly snatched the bag off his head, everything calmed down.

But sometimes, it’s helpful to know in advance who’s coming and when.

. . .

People living in present-day Western society can be clock- and calendar-driven in a way the apostle Paul and his contemporaries would not have imagined. But that doesn’t mean life was completely spontaneous and unscheduled. In his letters, in common with the letter-writing conventions of his day, he sometimes told people his travel plans so they could anticipate his arrival and prepare as necessary.

In his letter to the Philippians, for example, he tells them that they will soon be seeing their beloved Epaphroditus again, then Timothy, then — Lord willing — Paul himself. Reading between the lines of what he says, we might reconstruct the context and timeline this way:

  • Paul is imprisoned in Rome;
  • The Philippians hear about it and take up a collection to send to him;
  • They commission Epaphroditus to bring the gift to Paul, but he falls deathly ill along the way;
  • One of Epaphroditus’ travel companions returns to Philippi with news of his illness;
  • Epaphroditus perseveres, reaches Paul with the gift, and at some point is healed, perhaps miraculously;
  • Paul writes a letter to say thank you for the gift, but also to deal with tensions in the church;
  • Knowing how worried they are, Paul sends Epaphroditus back to them with the letter;
  • He promises to send Timothy later, as soon as he knows the outcome of his trial;
  • Believing that he will be released, Paul tells them he hopes to visit them soon as well.

But even though Epaphroditus will be returning to Philippi before Timothy, Paul mentions Timothy first:

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I, too, may be consoled by news of you. I have no one so like myself who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. I hope therefore to send him as soon as I see how things go with me, and I trust in the Lord that I will also come soon. (Phil 2:19-24, NRSVUE)

Timothy, of course, is no stranger to the Philippians. Though we read more about Silas, Timothy too was one of Paul’s companions when he brought the gospel to Philippi. But why does he mention Timothy first?

As we’ve seen, the themes Paul deals with in Philippians 2 are theologically rich, even astonishing: the humility of God in Christ; the empowerment to do the will and work of God; the destiny of the faithful, who will shine like stars.

Against such a backdrop, Paul’s travel plans may seem uninteresting at best, boring at worst. But what Paul says of Timothy should reinforce what we’ve already learned from the rest of the chapter. Though it’s impossible to know for certain, it’s likely that he mentions Timothy before Epaphroditus because Timothy is a prime example of what Paul is trying to teach the Philippians.

We’ll explore how in the next post.