This evening we have reached chapter 2 verses 19-30 of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And our title is THE WORK OF THE GOSPEL. My headings, after some words of introduction, are first, AN IMITATOR OF CHRIST (vv 20-21); secondly, A SERVANT OF CHRIST (vv 22-24); and, thirdly, A WORKER FOR CHRIST (vv 25-30).
Tonight we are to think about workers for Christ as we think about the Work of the Gospel. God in his purposes of salvation for redeeming this messed up world, uses people. You should never forget that. For that should mean you and me. Years ago there was an old hymn often sung which had the refrain: “There’s a work for Jesus, none but you can do” - simple words, but true. So the challenge tonight for us is the question, “am I doing the work that God is wanting me to do?” and then, “am I doing it my way or God’s way?” And we are going to learn from three people – three gospel workers, Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus and the way they worked.
You must realise Paul is in prison in Rome when he is writing to the Philippians. In chapter 1 verse 13 he tells us he is “in chains for Christ.” He doesn’t say, “I’m in chains because the Jews don’t like my preaching.” Nor does he say, “I’m in chains because the Romans have the power to put me here.” Yes, he knows that some terrible circumstances (and people) are the immediate cause of him being in prison. But he realises that God is providentially in control and somehow this situation is for good. So he focuses on being “in chains for Christ” and God’s good purposes. Like a tapestry on the wrong side it seems a tangle of evil and folly. But from God’s side there is a wonderful picture.
Certainly from a 21st century perspective we can see some of the positives from Paul’s time in jail. Without having so much travel on missionary journeys and visiting churches, he had to remain in one place. There he could pray (and probably sing as he did in jail at the birth of the church in Philippi). And, of course, he could write letters, like this letter to the Philippians – for which we indeed thank God.
Who here tonight is going through a hard time at the moment? Well, remember that God is in control. And do not be self-absorbed. Be like Paul. Think about other people. And, as you can, get involved with them and help them, at least by prayer. Paul was “cheered up” and not depressed, as he interested himself in other believers. Look at verse 19. It says:
“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you.”
Well, so much for Paul by way of introduction. The rest of our verses tell us about Timothy and Epaphroditus.
So, our first, heading, AN IMITATOR OF CHRIST - for, as we shall see, that is what Timothy was becoming.
Who was Timothy? For a good number of years now Timothy had been Paul’s faithful missionary companion. He had been recruited in his home town of Lystra and travelled with Paul on most of Paul’s second and third missionary journeys. And he had been sent as Paul’s trusted delegate on several special missions. There was to be one now, up to Philippi from Rome – a 40 day journey on foot plus a sea crossing.
We do not read of any great conversion experience that Timothy had. But Paul can refer to him in 1 Tim 1.2 as a “true son in the faith”. Somehow he had come to a real faith in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit had opened his spiritual eyes. Paul writes of Timothy’s “sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice” (2 Tim 1:5). He was fortunate in having a believing mother and grandmother. His father was Gentile and probably not a believer. But, nevertheless, such was the good nurture of his mother and grandmother that Paul says in 2 Tim 3.15:
“from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
How important it is to help children from their earliest years to learn the Bible – its stories and its teaching. The government’s new “Five a Day” checklist on how to raise children of “play, read, talk, praise and feed” is right to have reading as one of the five. But that should include reading the Bible. I thank God that I was brought up on Bible reading at home, and, yes, at my State Primary School.
So now Paul can send Timothy to Philippi as his representative to find out the Philippians’ news. And he can do this because he has confidence in Timothy. Why? Because he is someone who is not only biblically literate, he is also seeking to imitate Jesus Christ. That is so important.
You see, there are two sorts of Christians. Look at verses 20-21:
“20I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. 21For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.”
On the one hand, there are those who, like Timothy, verse 20, “take a genuine interest in [other people’s] welfare.” And, on the other hand, there are those who, verse 21, “look out for [their] own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.”
Which sort of Christian are you? We all fail; so if you are honest, of the two what sort are you more like? That is a question that has been relevant ever since the writing of this letter in the first century. So what is the difference between these two types?
First, those that take an interest in others, have to think about them and imagine themselves in their shoes. And that takes effort. However, looking out for, or literally “seeking”, your own interests, requires much less effort. It is much easier, for example, not to volunteer for some duty at church, or elsewhere. But if you do not volunteer when sometimes you should, that means others have to volunteer too often, when they should not. So the first difference is between thinking about others and not thinking about them.
The second difference, is that the first sort of Christian is “an imitator of Christ” in grateful response for all Christ has done for you. Look back to verses 4-5 of chapter 2:
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”
The next verses tell us how that meant for Christ leaving the ease and the good life of heaven and taking a hard option. And that was the life-sacrificing option when he was, verse 8, “obedient to death – even the death on a cross!”
But God is no man’s debtor. That “not looking for his own interests” meant an amazing reward. Look at Philippians 2 verse 9:
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.”
For you any reward will be different but appropriate. So what sort of Christian are you? Are you taking a genuine interest in others’ welfare, and so, like Timothy, seeking to be an imitator of Christ? Or are you only looking out for your own interests, which means you are not looking out for those of Christ? That is the challenge of these verses 20-21.
Let’s now move on secondly, to A SERVANT OF CHRIST.
Timothy was also a “servant of Christ”. Look at verses 22-24:
“22But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. 23I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. 24And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon.”
Obviously, Paul was trying to commend Timothy to some at Philippi. Things never change. It probably was like an incident when I first came to JPC. Word got round that a certain elderly congregational member claimed she had never been visited and needed a visit. I wanted to make sure there was pastoral cover and so made enquiries to find out the facts. “Nobody has visited me,” the lady repeated. The question then was, “What about Roger?” – who was responsible for pastoral visiting. “Oh!” she said, “he visited me - but he is only the curate.” Well, probably some people in Philippi were saying, “Timothy is only Paul’s assistant.”
So how does Paul commend him? He says he is “as a son with his father”. This is not just a good filial relationship of father and son. In the ancient world and until relatively recently, a son would have been an apprentice to his father to learn his trade or skill. This is learning by, so to speak, osmosis. You learn just be being around your “teacher” or “master”.
I was privileged to be a curate at St George’s, Leeds, in charge of the student work after ordination. When I arrived (for this my first job in a parish church), my vicar, an amazing man, Raymond Turvey, said virtually,
“I haven’t time to teach you anything. John Wallis, the other curate, will teach you all you need to know.”
And John did. But I learnt a huge amount from just working alongside Raymond. It was the culture of the church and its vision which I absorbed. And we had grown to be a large church. So when I came here I just assumed that is the way you operate. Well, it was like that with Timothy, but more so.
Paul, however, like Raymond Turvey, seems to have worked every hour of the day and night. In one place (we read about this in Acts 20), when Paul was teaching he “kept on talking until midnight.” He was three storeys up in a room where one young man, Eutychus, fell not only asleep but also out of the window. So Paul went down, sorted him out (he was not dead), brought him back up, then, we are told, “broke bread and ate”, and still talked until daylight. That was when the meeting ended. Don’t worry - it is not going to be like that here tonight!
Now, we know from elsewhere that Timothy was not a robust young man. So he may have found it hard to keep pace with Paul. But Paul is confident that Timothy has proved in his apprenticeship sufficient stamina. For Timothy is now having to make that forty-day journey on foot from Rome to Philippi and forty days on foot back. But more important than learning to be a little more robust, Timothy learnt from his apprenticeship servant-heartedness.
Having a servant heart is literally to have a “slave” heart, for such is the meaning of the word “served” in verse 22. And servant-heartedness means at least two things.
First, it means “teachability”. That is knowing that you need to learn and wanting to learn. The word disciple, in the original, means a “a learner”. Timothy was a true disciple or learner. Paul can say to him in 2 Tim 3.14:
“continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it [his grandmother and mother and, of course, Paul himself].”
You cannot be a worker for the gospel, let alone a leader, if you do not know the gospel. Timothy had learnt and knew the gospel because, says Paul (as we have seen), Timothy knew his Bible “from infancy” which is “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Just to digress for a moment. It is amazing how many people get involved in Christian work (the work of the gospel) without knowing the gospel. I wonder if there is anyone here tonight like that. Let me assure you, the gospel is profound in detail but simple in outline.
For in outline it is simply about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the Saviour of the world - Jesus, the promised Christ or Messiah; the Son, the divine Son of the Triune God who was also fully human; and saving this world from the mess it is in, by living to teach us, dying for our forgiveness and rising again to bring new life by his Spirit. If you want to know more, take a copy of Why Jesus? from the exits or welcome desk.
But back to servant heartedness, which includes being teachable. It also, however, means accepting the cost of discipleship. In Roman times being a servant, or slave meant hardship and suffering. Timothy certainly knew all about suffering in the service of Christ. Paul’s visit to Lystra when he first met Timothy, ended up with Paul being stoned and left for dead outside the city (Acts 14.19). So Paul can write to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:11:
”You, however, know … my… persecutions, sufferings--what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.”
And Paul’s follow-up teaching at Lystra underlined, I quote, that “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14.22).
So Timothy – a servant of Christ.
We must move on to our, third and final heading, A WORKER FOR CHRIST.
Look at verses 25-30:
“25But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. ,sup>27Indeed 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. 28Therefore 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. 29Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honour men like him, 30because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me.”
All we know about Epaphroditus is in these verses. He brought a financial gift to Paul from the church at Philippi. But in doing this somehow he nearly died. And Paul now wants to send him back to the church at Philippi because they will be worried.
There were no mobile phones in those days or travel insurances for when you went abroad. And people could easily be misinformed. Some at Philippi may have believed Epaphroditus had died. His family probably wanted to be reassured. That is the gist of, and reason for, these verses.
But note how amazing all this is. Paul had been an arrogant Pharisee, who probably would once have treated a Gentile like Epaphroditus as dirt. Pharisees called Gentiles “dogs”. But Jesus Christ had brought Paul and Epaphroditus together as, verse 25 says,
“brothers, fellow workers and fellow soldiers [armed, of course, not with bombs and guns, but spiritually].
So Epaphroditus is a fellow worker for Christ with Paul. And being a worker for Christ will involve conflict as the word soldier implies. The world will hate you. Jesus said:
"If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. (John 15.18-19)
There will be conflict. But this must never be a worldly fight on your part where violence is used. You are to use, as we have said, spiritual weapons – such as faith, hope and love and other spiritual weaponry and armour. Paul says in another letter:
“our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6.12).
So Epaphroditus is a brother and a fellow worker but also a fellow soldier for Jesus Christ. Are you ready for conflict as a “fellow soldier”?
Some of you have had conflict in the church when there has been a denial of fundamental doctrine or ethics. Some of you are having conflict as Christians in the world, not least in the medical and educational worlds. But remember, God is always in control and working for good, as Paul taught.
However, Epaphroditus not only worked for Christ, he took risks for him. Look at verse 30 again:
“he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me.”
What that involved we don’t know. But it is another challenge to us today. Are you taking any risks for Christ? Or do you want everything so secure and buttoned up, you will never have room to trust God for anything?
I must conclude.
Look at verse 29 (still referring to Epaphroditus):
“Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honour men like him [Paul tells the Philippians].”
They are to value the sacrifice Epaphroditus made on their behalf. He risked not just money but his life. How the Philippians should honour him and not take him for granted.
So may we, too, at this church rightly honour one another and never take one another for granted.