Commentary on Philippians, 2:23-30 (Self-Sacrifice)

Philippians 2:23-30

“23 So then, I hope to send him promptly, as soon as I see how it’s going to work out for me.”

In regard to Timothy, Paul would send him to the Philippian church as soon as he found out how things were going to turn out for him, as he was writing from a Roman prison. I think he wished to keep Timothy around to assist him as long as the outcome of his circumstances remained undetermined.

“24 And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come shortly, as well.”

“confident”  (Gr peitho – 3982)

Trust; convinced.

Settled conviction; to be persuaded or convinced.

If Jesus had let Paul know that he would be set free from prison, then he would trust the Lord to fulfill his word. However, I don’t believe that is the type of “trust” that we have here. I think what Paul was saying is that – based on his close walk with the Lord – he had a settled conviction or belief that He would work on his behalf to get him released. Indeed, it’s commonly believed that Paul had been released from this particular time of imprisonment.

“25 However, I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow laborer and fellow soldier, but your messenger and minister to my need;”

Epaphroditus was one of them. He was a part of the Philippian church. They had sent aid to Paul via Epaphroditus while he was there in prison – “minister to my need” (Phil 4:18). Apparently it was via Epaphroditus that Paul had sent this letter. Thus he was not only a “messenger” of the Philippian church, but also of Paul.

Paul described Epaphroditus as “my brother and fellow laborer and fellow soldier.” He wanted them to know how he personally felt about this trusted follower of Christ. It’s not known all the ways in which he served Paul (and with), but he regarded him as a genuine servant of the Lord, as Paul explains in the next two verses. 

In describing Epaphroditus as a “fellow soldier,” he describes all of us as Christians. Those who are true followers of Christ are involved in spiritual warfare (Eph 6:10-18). We battle the flesh and self-will, we battle the allurements of the world, we battle those who oppose Christ, and we battle the powers of darkness. Those who don’t find themselves battling these things, don’t belong to Christ. 

“26 seeing that he was longing for you all, and was very distressed because you heard that he was sick.
27 Indeed he was sick, and came near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not on him alone, but also on me, so that I would be spared of sorrow upon sorrow.”

Somehow the Philippian church had received word that Epaphroditus was sick, and their concern for him somehow got back to him (Epaphroditus).

Seeing how Epaphroditus was longing for his church and friends back home, and because he was so distressed over their concern for him, Paul “considered it necessary” to send him back to them for the sake of both parties. 

“very distressed”  (Gr. ademoneo – 85)

Distressed; troubled; very troubled; sorrowful; full of heaviness; extreme anguish; upset.

All of these words describe a deep and troubling concern, a heaviness of heart. 

Same word used of Jesus in Gethsemane:

“And He took Peter, James, and John with Him, and He began to be troubled and deeply distressed (ademoneo).”  NKJV (Mk 14:33 – also Matt 26:37)

It’s clear that Epaphroditus had a close bond with his church back home. They had sent him on this mission to Paul, and perhaps he thought that they felt responsible for his sickness, and that grieved him. He didn’t want them to feel that way, but to realize that he was doing the work of the Lord, and was in His will. Paul indicates that very thing in verse 30. By returning home he would be able to convey that fact to them, and thus comfort their hearts.

It’s not known what his sickness was, but whatever it was, there’s an indication that Paul was not able to use his gift of healing in this case – because of the fact that he nearly died – which may imply that there was a prolonged illness. Thus it’s reasonable to think that Paul would have used his gift of healing before it had gotten to that point. However, we don’t know what the circumstances were, so I don’t think we can be dogmatic about the idea that Paul’s gift of healing was in the past or was diminishing – because Epaphroditus did recover. Therefore, it’s possible that Paul’s gift of healing was still operative at this time.

“But God had mercy on him, and not on him alone, but also on me, so that I would be spared of sorrow upon sorrow.”

God had mercy not only on Epaphroditus by healing him, but also on Paul. To lose his  beloved brother and fellow laborer and fellow soldier and minister to his need” (vs. 25), would have added sorrow upon his sorrows.

What other “sorrows” was Paul referring to? The tendency is to think that he was referring to the sorrows of being in prison, which is an understandable consideration. However, because of what he says in Phil 1:12,18; 2:1-2,17-18; 3:7-11; 4:4-13, I don’t believe he had that in mind at all. I believe it was the spiritual condition of others that he was referring to, as suggested by what he says in Phil 2:21 and Phil 3:18. Paul always had a greater concern about where people were spiritually (saved and unsaved), then about his own physical well being. That’s the heart of a true missionary. 

Paul may also may have been referring to the sorrow of not being able to enjoy the sweet fellowship of other believers, like those of the Philippian church.
“28 Therefore with increased haste do I send him, so that when you see him again you may rejoice, and I may be less sorrowful.”

“increased haste”  (Gr. spoudaios – 4709)

More speedily; more eagerly; more diligently; more gladly; with special urgency; more carefully; more anxiously.

“less sorrowful”  (Gr. alupoteros – 253)

Less concerned; less anxious; less anxiety; less disquieted.

Perhaps Paul intended to send Epaphroditus back at the end of his trial, but under the present circumstances, he decided to send him sooner. I think Paul wanted to make it clear to them that it was he who was sending Epaphroditus back, and not that Epaphroditus himself was cutting his ministry short – on the contrary, that he had served faithfully. The Philippian Christians could rejoice that they were getting their brother back in good health, and Paul could be less sorrowful or less concerned about them. In other words, I believe Paul shared Epaphroditus’ distress over their concern for him regarding his illness. 

Furthermore, by sending Epaphroditus back, he (Epaphroditus) would be able to minister them. Paul had much confidence in him as a servant, and so he was like an extension of Paul’s ministry to them. Paul knew that they were in good hands with him, and so that would put him at ease, and thus be “less sorrowful” or less concerned about them. 

“29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and hold such in honor;”

This may refer back to the idea that they may have considered Epaphroditus unfaithful in his service by returning so soon, cutting his ministry to Paul short. While they were concerned about him in his illness, at the same time, Paul apparently had reason to believe that they felt that he didn’t fulfill the purpose for which he was sent. Paul wanted to squelch that idea by letting them know that he was worthy of honor as a true servant of Christ. Thus as a servant of Christ, they were to “receive him in the Lord,” that is, receive him as one who has obtained the Lord’s favor or approval, that he is serving in the will of the Lord. Therefore, they had reason to welcome him back with “joy.”

“30 because it was for the work of Christ that he nearly died, risking his life to provide what was lacking in your service to me.”

Paul already told them that Epaphroditus had nearly died (vs. 27), and now he’s telling them why, that it was for “the work of Christ.” Again, he proved his faithfulness by a total disregard for his own life, in order to accomplish what he had been called to do. He was, indeed, worthy of high honor as a true man of God.

Epaphroditus “risked his life” – exposing himself to danger – for the name of Christ, in order to “provide what was lacking in their service to Paul.” Meaning, he was ministering to Paul on behalf of the Philippian church, who could not be there themselves to render this service of love to him. 

As already mentioned, it’s not known what his illness was, but it had to do with the fact that he served Christ. Perhaps serving Jesus and ministering to Paul at this time and place, put him in a situation where he was not able to eat well. Perhaps there was no one who could properly provide for his needs. Perhaps he was exposed to the elements, not having a decent place to live. Perhaps he was exposed to disease and poisonous spiders, bugs, and snakes. If that was the case, he sacrificed his own safety and needs in order to provide for Paul’s. As with Paul, he had a true missionary’s heart, putting the physical and spiritual needs of others ahead of his own.