A Study of the Book of
“Philippians” Unity. Humility. Joy.
“The Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise”
For many years Monterey, a California coast town, was a pelican’s paradise. As the fishermen cleaned their fish, they flung the offal to the pelicans. The birds grew fat, lazy, and contented. Eventually, however the offal was utilized, and there were no longer snacks for the pelicans. When the change came the pelicans made no effort to fish for themselves. They waited around and grew gaunt and thin. Many starved to death. They had forgotten how to fish for themselves. The problem was solved by importing new pelicans from the south, birds accustomed to foraging for themselves. They were placed among their starving cousins, and the newcomers immediately started catching fish. Before long, the hungry pelicans followed suit, and the famine was ended.
An example in a person’s life can be a very powerful thing. This morning we will look at two examples that help us to understand how we can be a life changing example for others, and can look to others who are faithful to encourage us in our walk with the Lord.
The Example of Timothy (vv. 19-24)
19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. 20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, 24 and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also.
(v. 19) “I hope in the Lord Jesus to” – Paul hopes to do something but everything he does, is “in the Lord” or under God’s direction and control. We have seen several times, in Acts 16 and in the opening verses of Philippians, that Paul has a plan, but then has to change his plan as the Lord leads. In today’s passage he plans to send Timothy back to them. He plans to be released from prison, but he doesn’t know for sure.
He planned to plant churches in one area, but God in a vision, told him to go to Macedonia, completely ignoring the areas he planned to go to. Paul had a strategy of going to Jewish synagogues and showing how Jesus fulfilled prophecy, but when he got to Philippi there were not even 10 Jewish men, much less a synagogue; so his plans had to change.
James 4:13-16 “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance.” With Paul we see a principle that we can apply to our lives;
Plan and be active in the Lord’s work,
but as the Spirit leads, be willing to change your plans.
Paul has people with him that are helping him in the ministry of defending the gospel, and serving together while he is in prison, and he first highlights Timothy. Paul describes Timothy as “no one else is like him,” Timothy is truly concerned about the Philippian church, he was a person who seeks the interest of Jesus Christ, and he has proven himself to be a co-worker in the kingdom.
Earlier in this chapter, Paul is saying that there are people in the Philippian church that are looking after their own self-interests, that they are selfishly causing division in the church, “Timothy will be an antidote to this spiritual toxemia infecting the Philippians. In his concern for them, they will see a man who seeks not his own interests but those of Jesus Christ. In effect, Paul writes, ‘When I send Timothy to you, you will see in his selfless concern for you the very attitude that you should all extend to each other.”
So Paul is going to send Timothy to the Philippian church, but the language allows us to see that he is not going many miles “on a multi-week journey simply to ask, ‘so, how are you?’ Rather Timothy will ascertain the spiritual state of the church vis-à-vis a hostile culture and in terms of their internal unity (1:27-30).” Paul is concerned about the issues the church is facing, and Timothy is just as interested (or concerned). Paul’s love is expressed for the church in that these issues (disunity, splintering, selfish ambition, conceit, etc.) need to be addressed.
Love is being willing to deal with the unpleasant hard stuff. When I say, “deal” I mean talking with a person who is sinning, and in love point them to Scripture – it is not love to accept sin in a person’s life.
(v. 22) “how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel,” – “It is not that Timothy serves Paul, as ancient fathers would expect to be served by respectful sons; rather, Timothy serves with Paul in the gospel.” The word for served here, refers to the service of slaves (1:1 “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus”).
In recruiting people to do the work that needs to be done in the church, I have heard it said many times, “Can you come and do this for me?” Or “I’m going to help out so-and-so do this task of that task.” The danger of this way of saying something is that the person is going to do this to serve the person. We all serve the Lord with each other – side-by-side. If a leader asks you to do something, they are asking you to come along side them to serve the Lord. We have leadership, like Paul was Timothy’s leader, but Timothy and Paul served together, with each other (just on different roles).
By Paul describing Timothy as a son, serving with him, “assures the Philippians that Timothy would have the same concern as Paul for their welfare: he will show genuine concern for their welfare.” They share the same heart and concern for the gospel and for the church’s health. Why does Paul emphasize this?
He has already mentioned earlier, that 1:15 “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry,” that they “proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me (Paul) in my imprisonment.” Timothy is not like these leaders, he has the same heart as Paul in wanting them to be unified in advancing the gospel (and to solve this, is to root out sin).
The Example of Epaphroditus (vv. 25-30)
25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
Paul wanted to wait until he heard the decision from the emperor (either his death or his release from his “chains”) until he sent Timothy back to Philippi. However, he wanted to send Epaphroditus back immediately. As soon as the ink dried on the letter – he would be sending him back.
Paul refers to Epaphroditus as “my brother and fellow worker (yokefellow) and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need.” In discussing him with the church the emphasis is on their relationship, Paul says that Epaphroditus is my brother, etc. There is a closeness that comes from being a fellow brother, worker, soldier, messenger, and minister in Paul’s ministry of expanding the gospel. As Christians serve together, each seeking to do their best for Jesus, there are relationships that grow and develop.
He had delivered the church’s contribution toward Paul’s expenses while he was in prison, and stayed to help Paul in other ways. In that service he became deathly ill, and the church had heard about it and were concerned. Paul doesn’t want the church to think that Epaphroditus was working against Paul, no he was like a brother he didn’t slack in the work, no he was a fellow worker; he did not cower in sickness, no he was a fellow soldier – he was faithul in delivering what was sent, he was their messenger and ministered to Paul on their behalf.
Epaphroditus was sent by the church to help Paul (he was representing those who could not go and help), however he was returning sooner than expected. Paul wanted the church to know that he was returning in good standing, he did what he was supposed to do – he almost died twice.
There are different ways to interpret Paul explaining what happened while he was with Paul, but I believe that best explanation is that Epaphroditus was sent by the Philippian church to take the money of support to him, to stay and help with the gospel – but instead of helping, he was deathly ill (twice), and Epaphroditus was concerned that the church would be disappointed in his service to Paul. So, Paul is explaining the seriousness of Epaphroditus’ condition.
Why would God allow Epaphroditus to be sent to help Paul, only to have battle two life-threatening rounds of sickness, and then to be sent back sooner than expected?
(v. 27) “But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.” The theme of joy runs throughout the story of the Philippian church. Remember how Paul and Silas were singing hymns and praying after they had been beaten and thrown into prison. Paul expresses the joy that the church has brought to him – but here there is mention of the reality of ministry – Those that allow themselves to feel deeply for others, fellow brothers and sisters in Christ do experience sorrow in the work. So Paul is saying that for him to lose Epaphroditus to death/illness would have been “sorrow upon sorrow.”
It would have been a wave of sorrow (these other preachers that Paul describes as “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry,” and how they “proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment) the near death of a dear friend, his imprisonment, what ever that first wave was, to then have it followed by another wave of sorrow would have been overwhelming for Paul.
The challenge of just living life, especially being a Christian and living life is you don’t know where people are in these storms. Have they been hit by a wave of sorrow, that you just didn’t see? Are they recovering from a wave of sorrow that has been life changing for them even from years ago? Are they about to enter a storm where they will be hit wave upon wave? God has called us to stand by eachother, to love one another in these storms.
When I was younger my family went to Mexico Beach, Florida every summer for vacation where we would spends many hours at the beach. My dad would take a folding chair and book and to cool off would wade into the water. But because I was little I couldn’t go as far as he could – so I would swim out into the deeper water, and I would put my arms around his neck and I was completely safe – even though the giant waves would sweep over us, no matter how big the waves that came, one after the next. Sometimes in life we need someone to hold on to when the big waves come.
Sometime we Christians will say to someone experiencing a wave of sorrow, ‘“You need to claim the peace of God to guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. You need to learn to be content even in the time of death.’ But Paul’s admission of sorrow is not a confession of sin. The emotion of sorrow is a God-given, Christ-like emotion, especially in the face of death, ‘the last enemy to be destroyed’” (1 Cor. 15:26).” Often times we need a person just to be there during the storm.
God has given us the church to be there when those waves of life come.
Paul mentions Timothy and Epaphroditus as fellow servants who are there with him, and have faithfully served beside him to advance the gospel. “In the NT, approximately one hundred people are named as associates with the apostle. If we narrow the list to those mentioned in his letters with some form of ministry designation or a particular role, we have a group of about thirty-six, who are referred to with nine different designations; coworker, servant, brothers, etc.” Paul always had people with him in his ministry, and they were sent from a particular church. Living for Christ is a group activity.
When I graduated from high-school I took some money that I was given for graduation and bought scuba lessons. I went through the process of taking the classes, we practiced in the pool and for the final test we went to Panama City, Florida, went out in a boat and went diving off of a jetty. You are told constantly “stay with your dive buddy,” well I was swimming along and turned around and my buddy was gone, and about that time I was swept up in a strong current.
It’s like trying to walk in a hurricane – no matter how hard you swim you are being swept backwards. Head over heals (or flipper) – disoriented and freaking out. Eventually, I just relaxed and let the current carry me, and I made my way to the surface to see if I could see the boat and the other divers. When I got to the surface, I was way away from everyone. But if I had continued to fight the current I would gotten tired, ran out of air, and bad things could have happened.
Paul had to be willing to let go of his strategies, ministry plans, and to be led by the Holy Spirit. Timothy had to be willing to let go of control and go or stay with Paul. Epaphroditus was willing to give his life for the sake of the gospel but Paul wants to send him home (he has to let go of the pride of staying and return) – he was a faithful servant, who probably wanted to stay until the end, but his health would not allow it. All of these men had to be willing to let go of their plans and to be guided by the Holy Spirit. It is our nature to fight the current, but God has put us in a church family so that we can support and be there for each other.
 Robert Burns, 1785, for the origin of the phrase “the plans of mice and men often go awry” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43816/to-a-mouse-56d222ab36e33
 Dennis E. Johnson, Reformed Expository Commentary, Philippians (Phillipsburg, New Jersey; P&R Publishing, 2013) 175.
 George H. Guthrie, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Philippians (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan Publishing, 2023) 205.
 Johnson, 178.
 G. Walter Hansen, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, The Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009) 194.
 Hansen, 206.
 Guthrie, 208.