So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him . . .
– Philippians 2:29
In today’s reading, Paul continues the travel report that began in Philippians 2:19. Previously, he expressed his hope to send Timothy to the Philippians in the near future. Now, he tells them of his decision to send them a man named Epaphroditus for the time being. Unfortunately, we do not know a great deal about Epaphroditus. Unlike Timothy, who is mentioned by name 24 times across 12 books of the New Testament, Epaphroditus is mentioned just twice, and all in this one letter. What we do know about him is that he had been sent by the Philippian church to take care of Paul while he was in prison (Philippians 2:25; 4:18). We also know that he became deathly ill at some point during his stay with Paul (Philippians 2:26-27).
Though the details on Epaphroditus are few, we can be sure that this was an agonizing ordeal for him, and for many reasons! It was agonizing because of the pain he would have endured with his sickness. It was agonizing because it caused those who loved him to worry for him: “He longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill” (Philippians 2:26). It was also agonizing because of the significant social implications this would have had for him and his home church. In the honor and shame society in which the Philippians lived, Epaphroditus’ seeming inability to tend to the needs of Paul would have been perceived by some as a grievous failure and great source of shame.
Because of this, Paul uses this part of the travel report as a teaching opportunity. First, he presents Epaphroditus as an illustration of Christ-like living as he had just done with Timothy. Using the same Greek words he had used to describe how Jesus became obedient “to death,” Paul points out that Epaphroditus “almost died” for the work of Christ (Philippians 2:8, 30). Second, he instructs his readers to “honor” people like Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:29). In this way, Paul reminds his readers that the values of the kingdom of heaven are not like those of the empire of Rome. Where they may have been inclined to heap shame, Paul challenges them to bestow honor.
In modern America, we may not live in a traditional honor and shame society, but there are similarities between our cultures. We know how good it feels to be celebrated. We also know the agony of feeling exposed, embarrassed, or humiliated. Our challenge is to make sure our values are in line with Jesus’ values so that we don’t let shame prevail where there should be honor, especially for those who have sacrificed in the service of Christ.
25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. 29 So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, 30 because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.