Epaphroditus—Envoy of the Philippians
“GIVE him the customary welcome in the Lord with all joy; and keep holding men of that sort dear,” wrote Paul to the Philippians. No doubt we would be happy if a Christian overseer were to speak about us in such glowing terms. (Philippians 2:29) But who was Paul talking about? And what had the person done to deserve such a warm recommendation?
The answer to the first question is Epaphroditus. To answer the second, let us consider the circumstances that motivated Paul to write these words.
In about 58 C.E., the Philippians heard that Paul had been dragged outside the temple and beaten by a vicious mob in Jerusalem, had been arrested by the authorities, and, after an inconclusive detention, had been transferred to Rome in chains. (Acts 21:27-33; 24:27; 27:1) Worried about his well-being, they must have asked themselves what they could do for him. They were materially poor and far away from Paul, so the help they could give was limited. Yet, the warm sentiment that moved the Philippians to support his ministry in the past was still motivating them; even more so, since he was in a critical situation.—2 Corinthians 8:1-4; Philippians 4:16.
The Philippians must have considered whether one of them could visit Paul with a gift and assist him should he need anything. But it was a long and fatiguing journey, and assisting him might be dangerous! Joachim Gnilka notes: “Courage was needed to visit a prisoner, and what is more, one whose ‘crime’ must have appeared extremely ill-defined.” Writer Brian Rapske says: “There was the additional danger of simply being too intimately associated with or sympathetic toward the prisoner or his views. . . . A chance word or act might lead not only to the prisoner’s but also the helper’s doom.” Who could the Philippians send?
We may well imagine that a journey of this kind could have aroused worry and uncertainty, but Epaphroditus (not to be confused with Epaphras of Colossae) was willing to carry out that difficult mission. Judging by his name, which incorporates that of Aphrodite, he may have been a Gentile convert to Christianity—the son of parents devoted to that Greek goddess of love and fertility. When Paul wrote to the Philippians to thank them for their generosity, he could rightly describe Epaphroditus as “your envoy and private servant for my need.”—Philippians 2:25.
From what the Bible says about Epaphroditus, we are able to understand that despite his praiseworthy readiness to use himself in this service for Paul and his own congregation, Epaphroditus had the same kind of problems that we might have. Let us consider his example.
“Private Servant for My Need”
We do not know the details, but we can imagine that Epaphroditus arrived in Rome tired from his journey. He probably traveled along the Via Egnatia, a Roman road that traversed Macedonia. He could have crossed the Adriatic to the “heel” of the Italian peninsula and then gone up the Appian Way to Rome. It was a tiring journey (750 miles [1,200 km] one way) that likely took more than a month.—See box on page 29.
With what spirit did Epaphroditus set out? He had been sent to render a “private service,” or lei·tour·giʹa, to Paul. (Philippians 2:30) This Greek word originally referred to work for the State undertaken voluntarily by a citizen. Later, it came to mean that kind of service the State compulsorily required of citizens who were particularly qualified to perform it. On the use of this word in the Greek Scriptures, one scholar says: “The Christian is a man who works for God and men, first, because he desires to, with his whole heart, and second, because he is compelled to, because the love of Christ constrains him.” Yes, what an excellent spirit Epaphroditus showed!
‘He Exposed His Soul to Danger’
Using a word borrowed from the language of gambling, Paul says that Epaphroditus had ‘exposed [pa·ra·bo·leu·saʹme·nos] his soul to danger,’ or literally, “gambled” his life for the service of Christ. (Philippians 2:30) We need not think that Epaphroditus did anything foolish; rather, the fulfillment of his sacred service involved a certain risk. Did he perhaps attempt the relief mission during a harsh time of the year? Did he persevere in the attempt to complete it after falling ill somewhere along the way? In any case, Epaphroditus “fell sick nearly to the point of death.” Perhaps he was to have stayed with Paul to serve him, so the apostle apparently wanted to excuse his returning earlier than expected.—Philippians 2:27.
Nonetheless, Epaphroditus was a courageous person who was willing to expose himself altruistically in order to bring aid to those in need.
We might ask ourselves, ‘To what extent would I go out of my way to assist my spiritual brothers who are in difficult circumstances?’ Such a spirit of readiness is not optional for Christians. Jesus said: “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34) Epaphroditus carried out his service “nearly to the point of death.” Epaphroditus, then, was an example of a person who had the “mental attitude” that Paul encouraged the Philippians to have. (Philippians 2:5, 8, 30, Kingdom Interlinear) Would we be prepared to go that far?
Still, Epaphroditus became depressed. Why?
Put yourself in Epaphroditus’ place. Paul reported: “He is longing to see all of you and is depressed because you heard he had fallen sick.” (Philippians 2:26) Epaphroditus knew that the brothers in his congregation were aware that he was ill and had not been able to assist Paul in the way that they had hoped. In fact, it might seem that Epaphroditus had created more worries for Paul. Did physician Luke, Paul’s companion, have to neglect other matters to take care of Epaphroditus?—Philippians 2:27, 28; Colossians 4:14.
Likely as a consequence, Epaphroditus became depressed. Perhaps he imagined that brothers in his congregation were considering him incompetent. Maybe he was feeling guilty and was “longing” to see them to reassure them of his faithfulness. Paul used a very strong Greek word, a·de·mo·neʹo, “to be depressed,” to describe Epaphroditus’ condition. According to scholar J. B. Lightfoot, this word can indicate “the confused, restless, half-distracted state, which is produced by physical derangement, or by mental distress, as grief, shame, disappointment, etc.” The only other use of this word in the Greek Scriptures relates to Jesus’ acute agony in the garden of Gethsemane.—Matthew 26:37.
Paul concluded that the best thing would be to send Epaphroditus back to the Philippians with a letter explaining the unexpected return of their envoy. In saying, “I consider it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus,” Paul is assuming the responsibility for his return, thus dispelling any possible suspicion that Epaphroditus had failed. (Philippians 2:25) On the contrary, Epaphroditus nearly lost his life in order to complete his mission! Paul warmly recommends that they “give him the customary welcome in the Lord with all joy; and keep holding men of that sort dear, because on account of the Lord’s work he came quite near to death, exposing his soul to danger, that he might fully make up for your not being here to render private service to me.”—Philippians 2:29, 30.
“Keep Holding Men of That Sort Dear”
Men and women of the same mental attitude as Epaphroditus are truly to be appreciated. They sacrifice themselves in order to serve. Think of those who have offered themselves to serve far away from home as missionaries, traveling overseers, or at one of the branch offices of the Watch Tower Society. If age or declining health now prevents some from doing what they once did, they deserve respect and esteem for their years of faithful service.
Nonetheless, a debilitating illness may be a source of depression or guilt feelings. One would like to do more. How frustrating! Any who find themselves in such a situation can learn from Epaphroditus. After all, was it his fault that he had fallen sick? Certainly not! (Genesis 3:17-19; Romans 5:12) Epaphroditus desired to serve God and his brothers, but sickness limited him.
Paul did not reprove Epaphroditus because of his indisposition but told the Philippians to stay close by his side. Likewise, we should comfort our brothers when they are downhearted. Usually we can praise them for their faithful example of service. That Paul appreciated Epaphroditus, speaking so well of him, must have consoled him, alleviating his depression. We too can be sure that ‘God is not unrighteous so as to forget our work and the love we have showed for his name, in that we have ministered to the holy ones and continue ministering.’—Hebrews 6:10.
[Box on page 29]
The Discomforts of the Journey
These days a journey between two important European cities, similar to that undertaken by Epaphroditus, might not take great effort. The trip could be comfortably completed in a jet airliner in an hour or two. It was a completely different story to make such a journey in the first century. Back then, moving from place to place meant discomfort. A traveler on foot could cover between 18 and 22 miles [30-35 km] a day, while exposing himself to the weather and various dangers, including “highwaymen.”—2 Corinthians 11:26.
What about the overnight stops and supplies of provisions?
Historian Michelangelo Cagiano de Azevedo points out that along the Roman roads, “there were mansiones, full-fledged hotels, with stores, stables, and accommodations for their staff; between two successive mansiones, there were a number of mutationes, or stopover points, where one could change horses or vehicles and find supplies.” These taverns had a terrible reputation since they were frequented by the lowest of social classes. Besides robbing travelers, innkeepers often supplemented their takings with earnings from prostitutes. The Latin satiric poet Juvenal commented that any who found themselves constrained to stay in a tavern of that kind may have found themselves “lying cheek-by-jowl beside a cut-throat, in the company of bargees, thieves, and runaway slaves, beside hangmen and coffin-makers . . . One cup serves for everybody; no one has a bed to himself, nor a table apart from the rest.” Other ancient writers lamented the bad water and the rooms, which were overcrowded, dirty, humid, and flea-infested.
[Map/Picture on page 27]
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A traveler in Roman times
Map: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1995 Digital Wisdom, Inc.; Traveler: Da originale del Museo della Civiltà Romana, Roma