The previous section of the letter – the exhortation to holiness so characteristic of Paul’s letters to churches – concluded at 2:18. Paul now returns to an account of his circumstances and plans – his missionary report, as it were – picking up the interrupted thread of this account from 1:26. We will see, however, that these verses are not unrelated to what has gone before.
Remember, Timothy was well-known to the Philippians, having been with Paul on that first visit when the church was founded. That explains the inclusion of his name in the first verse of the letter. Paul had a circle of assistants or deputies who traveled with him and whom he would dispatch from time to time to various places either to conduct ministry or to encourage the saints or to evaluate the circumstances of an particular church concerning which Paul had received news of some kind and to bring back a report.
The NIV’s rendering of the sentence is possible, but so is this: “I have made this decision – i.e. not to send Timothy to you right away – because I have no one as close to me as he is; but he is genuinely concerned about you.” [Silva, 135-136, 137] Paul, remember, was still in prison and it is not difficult to believe that he especially relied on this close friend and loyal deputy. That is the suggestion of the verses that now follow.
Apparently all of Paul’s other dependable aides had been dispatched elsewhere and he was left with the sort of men he has described in 1:15.
It was not uncommon in those days for the relationship between a rabbi and a disciple to be described as that of a father and a son.
Again, it is Paul’s own circumstances that have caused him to delay Timothy’s visit to Philippi.
Once again, Paul seems to expect a favorable outcome to his legal troubles.
Remember, Epaphroditus was the Philippians’ emissary to Rome to inquire after Paul’s welfare and to bring to him their gift of financial support. En route to Rome he had fallen ill and almost died but, by God’s mercy, he had in fact completed his journey.
The more sensitive commentators on Philippians ask the obvious question: if Paul thought it better to die than to live – because to die is to depart and be with Christ, as he said in chapter 1 – then why is Epaphroditus’ healing attributed to God’s mercy? Calvin puts the question: ‘Where, then, is the mercy of God, when it merely lengthens our miseries?” But, of course, this is the Bible’s way. This is the way of life is it not? There are ways in which death is a blessing and ways in which healing is. We both mourn a beloved Christian’s death and rejoice in what we rightly think of as his “home-going.” It was certainly a blessing both to the Philippians and to Paul that Epaphroditus had not died.
We have before us as passage that is like many others in Paul’s letters to churches in the New Testament. It is full of personalities and their comings and goings. And no doubt there are several important reasons why the Holy Spirit should have seen to including this kind of information like this in Holy Scripture. After all, might think it largely irrelevant. It concerns plans that have nothing to do with us, these 2000 years later; in fact, it concerns plans we don’t even know were ever fulfilled. Did Epaphroditus make it safely home? Did Timothy visit the church in Philippi sometime later? Did Paul himself? We don’t know. All we know is that this is what Paul intended to happen at one particular moment. But a section like this is valuable nonetheless.
It roots the revelation of God given to us in the New Testament in real history, in time and space. It locates the life of Christians and the progress of the gospel in the world of history, not mythology. We read a passage like this and know at once that all that the apostle Paul was talking about applies to people just like us and to life situations like our own: somebody got sick, someone couldn’t come right away because he was needed elsewhere, people had friends and counted on them the way we count on our friends, and so on. Paul and the early Christians lived in our world, the account of the gospel and its progress outward into the world is real history, involving actual human beings with ordinary life stories. Christianity is not some theory dressed up to look life-like; it is itself history, the record of the extraordinary things that happened to ordinary people. Like the gospels before them, the epistles of the New Testament are a record of what happened before they are an account of what we are to believe and how we are to live.
There is something more in these historical and personal details. Scholars have wondered why this section concerning Paul’s plans for Timothy and Epaphroditus should be located here. It seems to be out of place. Shouldn’t it have been part of the missionary report that Paul gave in what is our chapter 1? It is not obvious that it should have broken that report into parts and separated it by a lengthy exhortation. But here is the reason that Paul did that. Both Timothy and Epaphroditus serve as sterling examples of what Paul has just been talking about, that is, as examples of the love of others and putting the interest of others before our own. Timothy and Epaphroditus illustrate the exhortation to love and unity that Paul has just completed. Paul is as much as saying, “If you want to know what I’ve been talking about, and how I want you to live, consider the examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus, two men who have both lived just this way putting your interests and the interests of others ahead of their own. Both loyal servants of the gospel in the church, and neither of whom allows difficulties to distract him from living a life of Christian love and generosity and faithfulness to the work.
But in this typically Pauline paragraph, heaping praise on two fellow workers, there is still something more. We have here – whether intentional on Paul’s part or not – a window on the Christian spirit. Not to put too fine a point on it, Paul was a gentleman in the old sense of the word. His was a gracious and large-hearted spirit, a spirit of praise, of complement, and of appreciation. He was always saying nice things and making generous characterizations of others; he was always giving others reason to admire and appreciate those whom he admired and appreciated. Listen to this from Alexander Whyte.
“The size and the substance and the spirit of a man’s soul is at once seen by the spontaneity and the generosity and the exuberance and the warmth of his praises. Just as the smallness and the stinginess and the sullenness and the mulishness of another man’s soul is all disclosed to us by his despicable ingratitude to all his benefactors. Almighty God himself inhabits the praises of Israel. And to praise, and with your whole heart, all those men and women and children who deserve praise at your hands; that, already, is a certain contribution toward your praise of God.” [James Fraser of Brea, 19]
I think that is exactly right and it is the proof of how large Paul’s spirit really was and why he was always taking opportunity to draw attention to the virtues and graces, the hard work, the sacrifices, the contributions of others. A very large percentage of the names of human beings that are found in the pages of the New Testament are found in Paul’s letters and in most cases they are the object of some compliment the Apostle wishes to pay.
I used to be bothered by the fact that, at our Thanksgiving Day service for example, or in our time of public thanksgiving at the evening service of the last Sunday of the month, people would offer their thanks not to God himself but to other people in the church for what they had done or what they had given to them. I thought it was really a kind of defect of faith on their part. They were failing to see the Lord who stood behind all the kindness that others may have done to them or given to them and they were failing to give credit to the one to whom it was most due the ultimate source of their blessings. But I now see that my spirit was wrong in that. In fact the Bible is full of compliments paid by one saint to another and of thanksgiving being offered by the saints to other saints for love, help, and support cheerfully and generously given. The church as described in the pages of the New Testament is nothing short of a mutual admiration society! The fact that God himself so often praises his servants without drawing attention – as he very clearly and justly could have done – to the fact that without him we can do nothing, is surely an example for us. The Lord loves to praise and compliment his people and in that he sets an example that we should follow in his steps. And so is Paul here, saying one generous thing after another about these two friends who had so encouraged and helped him and urging the Philippians to honor men like that.
If there is anything of consequence that the modern study of psychology teaches us it is the profound importance of being loved and appreciated. Of course we don’t need psychologists to tell us that, but their studies have verified in a striking way what grave and even bizarre consequences can ensue from the lack of love and appreciation in an individual’s life. Hardly anything has a greater influence upon a person’s emotional and spiritual welfare than the way in which he or she is treated by others and, in particular, to what measure he or she is appreciated by others. This is especially true in regard to children. Nothing so devastates the life of a child than the want of love, praise, and appreciation, especially by those close to him or to her. We have been made in God’s image and you know that in the internal counsels of the triune life of God praise, appreciation, love and compliment are circulating all the time. It’s what God is and what God does and human beings have been made to be like him in that way. Anger, frustration, disorderly conduct, promiscuity, drug use, and depression can often be traced back to negative impressions of oneself received in childhood.
I have a friend who is a gifted counselor. He will tell you that he cannot remember a time in his childhood when his parents expressed appreciation for something he had done or complimented him or even expressed their love for him in a personal and outward way. He will also tell you that he has spent his adult life digging out of the ruins of his shattered self-esteem and that if it were not for Christ meeting him with his unconquered love he probably would not have succeeded. Happy is the man or woman, the boy or girl who has been loved, appreciated, and complimented by his or her parents, siblings, teachers, and friends. No loss in life is more crippling than the loss of that! But such a loss should never be suffered by a Christian in a Christian family or a Christian community, where praise, affection, and appreciation are a principle of life and so are regularly to be given and received.
To be sure, the psychological community and even people in the church heavily influenced by it have sometimes drawn the wrong conclusions from the importance of expressing appreciation and love and have recommended steps to build a child or young person’s self-esteem that amount to nothing less than an encouragement to narcissism, a wrong kind of self-love and self-esteem. Holy Scripture does not permit us to appreciate people without regard to the facts, to overlook bad behavior, or to make no distinction between a proper and appropriate appreciation and an appreciation that is boastful or irreal or fawning. It is this failure to make appropriate distinctions that has led, for example, to the ridiculous and more than faintly pathetic custom of bumper-stickers celebrating one’s own children’s accomplishment at school. Imagine what you would think if instead of reading it on the bumper of the minivan, one of these parents sidled over to you at a school function and whispered in your ear: “By the way, did you know that my child is an honor student?” To appreciate, as Paul appreciates us and Timothy and Epaphroditus representatively, as Paul shows us how to do, does not require boasting or arrogance or self-congratulation.
Paul was not about inflating egos or publicly boasting in the accomplishment of those close enough to himself to reflect some credit on himself. But he was every much a man who appreciated the good work that others did and what was fine in their characters and did not hesitate to let others know of that appreciation. And real and human as these men were, no doubt Paul’s public praise was an immense encouragement and an inspiration to them; something that spurred them on lest they cease to be worthy of the great man’s admiration.
It is, after all, worth our noting that what Paul appreciates and compliments in these two men – Timothy and Epaphroditus. What he appreciates was their highly developed spirit of service and their practical contributions to the work of gospel and to the lives of other believers. He wouldn’t have said the same things about just anyone. Indeed, in all his letters, those he singled out for special praise are those who were making important contributions to the life of the saints and to the progress of the gospel. These were men who were making a difference and Paul loved to draw attention to and praise such men. That is, of course, supposed to make us want to be like these men; to be worthy of praise in the same way Timothy and Epaphroditus were worthy of it. I look out over this congregation and I see many who, like Timothy and Epaphroditus, deserve our appreciation and our affection and our compliment for the contribution they are making to the church and the kingdom of God. To be honest, I see some of whom I would be hard pressed to think of something to say akin to what Paul says here about Timothy and Epaphroditus. I would love to have some praise to offer, but I can’t think of anyone who is counting on you for some spiritual help, or who has been blessed by your generous love and ministry. I couldn’t say of you that you are one of those people who takes a genuine interest in others and longs to do them good.
Brothers and sisters, if you are Christians we esteem you for Christ’s sake. We owe you our love because we love your Savior. But there ought to be more than that to our esteem. We ought to be able to sing your praises for the life you are living on behalf of others and in the service of Jesus Christ our mutual Lord and Savior. Robert Murray McCheyne had a motto for his Christian life: “Live so as to be missed!” He did and he was. On the day of his death at 29 years of age, his friend and fellow minister and soon to be biographer, Andrew Bonar, wrote: “Never, never yet in all my life have I felt anything like this. My heart is sore. Life has lost half its joys, were it not the hope of saving souls.” For the rest of his life Bonar celebrated that day, March 25th, as an anniversary. And thirty years later, after a visit to the churchyard where McCheyne was buried, he would write, “There is still some peculiar fragrance in the air round Robert McCheyne’s tomb!” [Diary and Life, 400] Put it to yourselves – not that we think ourselves saints of the substance of a McCheyne surely we don’t. But put it to yourselves would anyone miss us for like reasons; because we were such fine Christians and contributed so significantly to their lives and to the life of the church and the progress of the kingdom of God in the world? Live to be missed.
Tuesday afternoon this past week I read Marc Mailloux’ God Still Loves the French. Marc, as some of you know, is a Presbyterian Church in America minister who spent years in France as a missionary with our Mission to the World, and who is now serving the French speaking population of South Florida and the Caribbean islands – a much larger part of the French speaking world than I was aware of. I don’t usually give book reviews as part of a sermon, but I encourage all of you to get this book and read it. It is instructive, inspiring, touching, and hilarious all at the same time. It was published on a shoestring and needed more editorial attention – there are too many typos, for example – but it is attractively bound, set in a nice type and easy to read and very well written. Amazon.com sells it for $11.
I mention this book because it contains a great deal of what Paul does here in our text this morning. Marc is generous in his praise of godly men and women who helped him or whom he admires for their ministry or who commend to others the truth of the gospel of Christ. And, he does that against the backdrop of a French culture that, he explains, is highly negative and critical and not given to appreciation, compliment, or generosity of judgment. I don’t say this to be critical of the French, nor does Marc, but rather to indicate how different and how much wider and larger is and ought to be the spirit of Christ and how inevitable it is that appreciative speech should mark a Christian community in the midst of an unbelieving one. Much of what Marc finds characteristic of the French he feels is the consequence of their rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ following the Reformation.
He tells of meeting a woman in one of the apartment towers in which so many French folk live, 80% of the population, and in several of which Marc lived with his family during their long sojourn in France. He found himself riding down the elevator with his upstairs neighbor one day, a neighbor with whom he had yet to speak. There is an unwritten law that one is to remain silent on the elevator, but Marc greeted her and trying to think of something to say that might provoke a conversation, began
“You live on the 10th floor? If ever the elevator cable snaps when you get on, you’ll have about 2 seconds – or half a second more than I would – to make peace with God before being crushed at the bottom.”
The abrupt nature of the conversation startled her as you can imagine and it went nowhere, but later she admitted to Marc that she had lived in the building for over ten years and had not spoken to one single resident once in all that time.  In one sense, Marc’s book is the story of grumpy people who aren’t terribly happy and don’t make a success of their relationships. Of course there are a great many people like that in the United States of America.
But shot through Marc’s insightful and often humorous account of French society, are appreciations just like the sort of appreciations Paul has given us here of Timothy and Epaphroditus so absolutely typical of a Christian spirit and a Christian observation of the world and the kingdom of God.
He writes of a small Baptist church in Paris where he worshipped while studying French culture at the Sorbonne. The saints there were kind to him and they were also kind to the unbelieving student friends he would sometimes bring with him. Those friends noticed the kindness of these people. Because they saw that he always wore the same pair of tennis shoes, they thought to give him money for a new pair of shoes. [47-48]
He writes of Jean-Philippe, a fellow seminarian at the Reformed Faculty in Aix where now our own Ron Bergey teaches though Marc studied there long before Ron arrived. Jean-Philippe, Marc says, was hard-working, generous to a fault with his time and money and committed 100% to the gospel. “I owe my success in passing seminary Greek in large part to Jean-Philippe…” He was a friend, a faithful brother, a confidant, and an advisor. 
Another figure in the story is the Paris pastor Pierre Mobar, with whom Marc did a short internship during his first year of seminary. Pastor Mobar was born and raised in a devout Muslim family and became a Christian suddenly when a Christian evangelist slipped a copy of the Gospel of Matthew under his door. His brother, a Muslim cleric, hastened to Paris to talk him out of his new faith and became a Christian himself and later pastored a church in the north of France. Pastor Morbar consecrated his life to gospel ministry among Paris’ desperate homeless population. [61-62]
There it is again in flesh and blood, just as we find it here in Philippians 2. Just as you find it everywhere in Christian biography and just as you find it everywhere in a well ordered life. Notice carefully the progress of Paul’s thought in chapter 2. Christ loved us and gave himself for us. In love and thanksgiving we should seek to imitate him in that love and selflessness. He appreciates us when, even very imperfectly, we serve him and we should appreciate others. This is all theological. In the previous verse he called us blameless; he said we shine like stars in the universe. What a compliment, all the more when he might just as well as drawn attention to our failures and our shortcomings. There is a straight line drawn from Christ to us, from his generosity to our generosity, from his wideness of spirit and largeness of judgment to our wideness of spirit and largeness of judgment. From his is grace, love and salvation to our way of life! The Christian life produces people whom other Christians – indeed, whom other people of all stripes – appreciate. They should. To the extent we are like Christ Jesus we ought to be admirable. And Christians, animated by a spirit of gratitude and appreciation, which people who have received extraordinarily great gifts must be, cannot help but express their appreciation, their admiration, and their thanksgiving. We know we must express appreciation and gratitude to God, but gratitude is a principle that once in the heart will find many different outlets. And so we find a representative Christian, such as the Apostle Paul, alternately thanking God and praising his fellow believers. And the same culture of appreciation should be found among us and for both reasons:
- Because we are serving one another in ways that are genuinely admirable and noteworthy; and
- Because when we see the good works of others, our faith requires us to draw attention to them in appreciation.
God always appreciates the little, the very little things we do for him; so it is no surprise that he also appreciates it when we take note of the good things that others do for us and others. That is why we have so much compliment and appreciation expressed in the Bible: of Christians, by Christians.
The paragraph we have read this morning is not simply some historical detail that was relevant when Philippians was first written but remains in the letter as a historical curiosity. This too is a summons, this too is the Word of God to be believed and obeyed. We are to be as Timothy and Epaphroditus – people who are generously and sacrificially serving others in the Lord’s name – and we are to be people who when we notice the good works of fellow Christians are quick to draw attention to them and appreciate them before others. What a healthy community ensues when these two things happen!
That generous spirit is immensely attractive to people. It is encouraging to the saints; it engenders a spirit of unity and mutual appreciation. When we honor those who are honoring the Lord with their lives we commend that kind of living to our children and we set before them examples for them to imitate. It is what the godly do. Paul did it and we must do it too. Criticism is sometimes necessary, but it often harms more than helps. Generous, appreciative words are always helpful: helpful to the one who says them, helpful to the one to whom they are said, and helpful to the one about whom they are said. This is, however, something that comes naturally to almost none of us. We have to remind ourselves to speak in appreciation of others. But when we do, we will scarcely ever be lacking immediate evidence of the good it does to speak as Paul spoke here.
You remember the great 15th psalm and its description, one of the most beautiful descriptions in the entire bible of the godly man. Remember what it says of that man in verses 4, the godly and righteous man: “he honors those who fear the Lord.”