When I first became a Christian in college, I was quickly given the impression that all the truly godly believers had to leave home and country and become missionaries to far off lands. The more remote the area, the more dangerous, the better. But I never had the slightest inclination to do that. It made me wonder: Am I just afraid to do what God wants me to do? Am I being disobedient? Deaf to God’s call? Maybe I’m just a failure as a Christian, a disappointment to God.
After all, think of everything God has done for us. Don’t we follow a crucified Savior? Aren’t we supposed to take up our own crosses in response? Is any sacrifice too great? Listening to preachers call us to distant mission fields, I felt conflicted. On the one hand, I felt guilty; Jesus died for me, but here I was: too lazy, too timid to be a missionary. But on the other hand, I felt manipulated. Is this how it really is with God?
Only one thing was certain: I was confused.
Paul calls the Philippians to be humble like Jesus. He makes a point of saying that this meant obedient service, all the way to the point of a humiliating death on a Roman cross. This story of the suffering and death of Jesus, moreover, seems to be the background for Paul’s admiration for the faithful service of Epaphroditus, who almost died in the course of carrying out his mission:
Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and coworker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for all of you and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again and that I may be less anxious. Welcome him, then, in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me. (Phil 2:25-30, NRSVUE)
Paul piles up the commendations: Epaphroditus is his brother, his co-laborer for the gospel, his comrade-in-arms. No doubt he volunteered to be the one to bring the Philippians’ gift to Paul in Rome. This was a bit more than a DoorDash delivery; carrying large sums of money on a long journey was a risky venture, and the Philippians probably assigned him some travel companions for security. But Epaphroditus no doubt already had a reputation for humble and dedicated service, and it’s clear from Paul’s words that he was much loved in the community.
Somewhere on the journey, he fell seriously ill — but pressed on. One of his companions probably returned to Philippi with the news, leaving the home church anxious for an update. But as Paul says, “God had mercy” on Epaphroditus. Few in that day would have recovered spontaneously from a sickness that severe, and Paul seems to have counted his friend’s recovery as a miracle. Paul himself was relieved, grateful to have been spared one more grief in his captivity.
His mission complete, Epaphroditus longs for the folks back home. But even here, his humble and loving character shines through. He’s the one who nearly died — but he’s worried that his friends are worried!
Epaphroditus’ humility reminds Paul of Jesus. “He nearly died,” Paul says. “He came close to death…risking his life,” he repeats. And all of this “for the work of Christ.”
So, again, is that what it takes to be a disciple, putting your life on the line for Jesus?
Sometimes. But let’s not forget the context of what Paul is saying to the church.
. . .
The Philippians, remember, are already facing pressure from their neighbors, probably for declaring Jesus to be Lord instead of Caesar. They are already suffering for the gospel just by being dedicated believers in a hostile environment. That’s why Paul puts such an emphasis on unity: for their sake and the sake of the gospel, in their situation, they can’t afford to fight among themselves.
To encourage them toward the necessary humility, Paul holds up the example of Jesus. He holds up the example of Epaphroditus, who deserves not only the expected warm welcome, but to be honored for his service to Paul, to the Philippians, to Jesus himself.
The point is to serve God with humble obedience and devotion. But such discipleship is not one-size-fits-all.
For some of the Philippians, the call to humility meant to rein in their egos. They may not have been aware of how their occasional in-fighting betrayed selfish ways of thinking. Much of that behavior, after all, would have been as automatic for them as it is for us. Paul knows that they are already faithful people who love Jesus and care about the gospel; their mission at the moment is to stop reflexively putting their needs ahead of the needs of others.
For Epaphroditus, humility meant volunteering to be the courier for the church’s love-gift to Paul. That was his mission; a life-threatening illness wasn’t on the itinerary. But when sickness threatened the mission, he soldiered on, earning Paul’s admiration and gratitude.
The language here matters. Paul calls Epaphroditus “your messenger and minister to my need.” The first word is typically translated “apostle,” particularly in the book of Acts, and is one Paul only reluctantly applies to himself (1 Cor 15:9). The second word is the one from which we get the English liturgy and liturgist — Paul is suggesting that Epaphroditus, by fulfilling his mission, has performed a priestly service on the Philippians’ behalf.
Here’s the point. We can rejoice in the ways some believers are indeed called to incredibly sacrificial service for the cause of Christ. But there is an ironic element of pride to insisting that every follower of Christ have a heroic mission worthy of memoir. Service to the gospel may take the form of Paul’s apostleship, a life filled with danger and the threat of death, physical pain and emotional anxiety (2 Cor 11:23-28). It can take the form of doggedly bringing help to a suffering friend. It can even take the form of right here, right now, deciding to stop arguing my point and humbling myself to listen instead.
All of these are offered up to God as willing sacrifices; all of them are made holy by God’s grace. Such is the everyday apostleship to which we, as followers of Jesus, are all called.