Servants of The Gospel

In the first chapter of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink! he talks about the concept of “thin-slicing”. Basically, it is the idea that you can make an accurate judgment about something after seeing a very “thin slice” of the overall picture. For instance, psychologist John Gottman can watch a 15 minute clip of a married couple having a disagreement, and with 95% accuracy, he can determine whether the couple will still be together in 15 years.

Another example he gives is how we make first impressions. Hollywood producer Brian Grazer cast Tom Hanks in the movie Splash and Apollo 13—two radically different movies, because of Hank’s “likability”. When no one could imagine Tom Hanks playing an astronaut Grazer said, “Well, I didn’t know whether Tom Hanks was an astronaut. But I saw this as a movie about a spacecraft in jeopardy. And who does the world want to get back the most? Who does America want to save? Tom Hanks. We don’t want to see him die. We like him too much.”

What are your first impressions of the Apostle Paul? Do you think he would have been easy to get along with? Was he authoritative, demanding, and always serious? In this passage we get an authentic glimpse of Paul that will either affirm or correct your first impression of him.

We now come to the occasion for the letter. Paul plans to send Timothy so he can receive an update from the Philippians and he is sending their messenger Epaphroditus back to them. The passage doesn’t contain any theological arguments, but it is significant because it shows us how Paul applied the gospel in the context of his closest companions and ministry partners. What we find are three model servants worthy of emulating.

We tend to develop relationships only with those who further our own interests. And because we are only concerned about ourselves, we rarely speak encouragingly about others.

Paul shows us that we ought to Honor those who humbly and sacrificially serve Christ with affirmation and commendation.

Read Philippians 2:19-30

I. A Servant Who  Commends  Others

Paul speaks well of others. He says something encouraging about Timothy and Epaphroditus. These men were living in a manner “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27). They were examples of humility; men who “count others more significant than [themselves]” (Phil 2:3). They embodied the attitude Paul exhorted the Philippians to have.

After considering the example of Jesus Christ (Phil 2:5-11), he briefly discusses his own willingness to be “poured out as a drink offering,” (Phil 2:17). And now he commends Timothy and Epaphroditus. Essentially, he encourages the Philippians to imitate these men. Why doesn’t Paul encourage them to imitate Christ? 

In Ephesians 5:1 Paul writes, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children.” We get that. It sounds less threatening to our legalism detectors. We hear “imitate God,” and we respond, “Right, that’s impossible. You might as well tell me to jump over the Grand Canyon.” But, because we find it impossible, we are less offended because now we can apply grace.

However, in Philippians 3:17 Paul says, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (cf. 1 Cor 4:16 “I urge you, then, be imitators of me.”; 1 Cor 11:1 “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”; 1 Thes 1:6 “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord.”

The goal is to imitate Christ—perfect obedience. Think that’s impossible? Imitate those who show Christlike attitudes. Notice how the gospel impacts others.

Paul doesn’t feel the tension that we might when we read this passage. He does not hesitate to say what he says. He doesn’t defend or clarify himself. He points to Christ then Timothy and Epaphroditus—servants who exemplify Christ’s humility.

How often do you commend others? Run a quick inventory of the past week considering all of the people you have talked about to someone else. How often have you said something that was positive? We have no problem bringing up other people in conversation, but unfortunately it is oftentimes filled with gossip.

Have you ever thought about why your blood boils when you scroll through social media or read the news? Marketers have learned that outrage is addictive. Anger provokes further engagement. We are far too easily swayed by a spark of negativity.

Negative words spread quicker than positive words in the Christian community. That’s a horrible way to characterize the church, but it’s true. For the sake of the gospel, we should commend and edify one another with words of affirmation.

Throughout this letter Paul has evaded opportunities to point to himself. He is vague about his suffering, but passionate about the advance of the gospel. He has even painted his personal adversaries in a positive light because they proclaim Christ (Phil 1:18).

How could Paul maintain such a positive outlook upon his circumstances? He learned to be content in every situation (Phil 4:11)! His contentment in Christ caused him to be aware of the opportunities he had to affirm and encourage others.

When we are content, we can form relationships that benefit others—rather than being preoccupied with how it serves our own interests. That ought to free us to edify others in our relationships (family, church, neighbors).

Thankfully, that was Christ’s attitude towards us! He was perfectly content within the Trinity. Then, out of that contentment, he committed to redeem a people to magnify the glory of the riches of heaven. He did not die for you and me because we were admirable folks. We did not deserve God’s favor. Christ died for us in order to make us commendable before God.

And he has given us his Spirit to enable us to encourage others with this same hope and love. Because we have already received the highest commendation from God, we can seek to commend others.

› The first servant Paul commends is Timothy…

II. A Servant Who Considers Others (19-24) 

Paul wants to send Timothy to bring word back abut the Philippians (19). Notice how he states it, “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy.” According to v.23, Paul is waiting to see “how it will go with me” before he sends Timothy. What is he saying? Basically, it depends on what Nero determines at his trial. But he explicitly avoids using such language. Nero does not determine ANYTHING, God will determine whether or not Timothy is sent to the Philippians. Jesus Christ is the one in whom Paul trusts, not Nero.

Timothy is concerned about their welfare like Paul (20). No one else is so “equal-souled” with Paul in this way. Why weren’t there more people like that? Because everyone was more concerned about their own welfare than they were for the cause of Christ. The other believers seek their own interests rather than Christ’s interests (21). 

Calvin comments, “They were so warm in pursuing their own interests that they were cold in the work of the Lord.” Motyer points out that this is a generalization (excluding Timothy and Epaphroditus at the very least), but it is still a sad generalization. The average Christian puts themselves above Christ. I doubt Paul would have phrased that any differently today.

Do you have friends like Timothy? Sure we all have close friends, but what is it that draws you together? Do you have friends that you would consider “partners in the gospel”? What are the barriers to these kinds of friendships? Seeking own interests, rivalry, counting yourself more significant, pride.

Good parents keep an eye out for the kinds of friends their children have. Kids are so impressionable and if they wind up in the wrong crowd it can be very damaging. As adults we often don’t think in these terms. We look for friends who we have a lot in common with. We look for those whose interests fit with our own.

Do you see how this is exactly the kind of attitude that Paul is discouraging? We actually pursue our own self-interests in the way we choose our friends. But it doesn’t have to be that way. What if yo looked for friends whose interests fit the interests of Christ instead of your own interests? We rarely consider our best friends to be those who build us up in Christ. We don’t consider our friend’s “heart for the gospel”. But that is exactly how we should go about making our closest friends.

That’s not to say we should ONLY have friends who encourage us spiritually. However, our closest friends—if our heart is being transformed by the gospel—will be those who encourage our faith. They will build us up in Christ. Pursue friends like that!

Christ didn’t pursue a relationship with us because of what we could do for him. He befriended us because he understood our need for him. He “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28).

What brought Paul and Timothy together was the gospel! Apart from Christ, they would not have possessed the relationship that they had.

› The second servant Paul commends is Epaphroditus…

III. A Servant Who  Compliments  Others (25-30)

We learn all we know about Epaphroditus from this letter. He was a brother, fellow-worker, fellow-soldier, and messenger sent from Philippi with a gift for Paul (25). 

Think about this! Prior to Christ, Paul would’ve thought of Epaphroditus as a Gentile dog. After Christ, Paul had absolutely no inhibitions about serving alongside him. 

It is simply unbiblical to harbor a grudge against another Christian for something they did not do (e.g. enslave your ancestors) or something they cannot help (e.g. the color of their skin). But Christ can bring reconciliation after generations of animosity!

Epaphroditus risked his life by taking this gift to Paul. He could have been assaulted along the way. He had been distressed (like Jesus in Gethsemane) because the Philippians knew he was ill (26). He wasn’t attacked, but he became ill to the point of near death. But God had mercy upon Epaphroditus (27).

But there is more to this verse. Paul says, “But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.”

Finally! Paul acknowledges his own sorrow (imprisonment, adversaries, rivals). This whole letter has been about joy, rejoicing, not worrying and complaining. He has challenged the Philippians to be thankful for their persecutions (Phil 1:29)! Rejoice in your suffering! Was Paul merely using hyperbole? Doesn’t he know this kind of contentment and joy is impossible? No. Paul is expressing the truth that there is a way to be joyful in your sorrow and suffering. There is a way to be hopeful in the midst of your trials.

We see more of this in the next verse, “that I may be less anxious”. What? Paul was anxious? What about Phil 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything…” The terms are not the same. The term in 2:28 is found nowhere else in the NT, but it shares the same root as the word translated “sorrow” in the previous verse.

Rather than keeping Epaphroditus with him to provide further ministry to Paul, he is sending him back to Philippi as soon as possible (28). Sending Epaphroditus home will not remove all of Paul’s sorrow, but it will reduce it. Regardless, Paul has maintained, and will continue to maintain, his emphasis upon joy—in the midst of sorrow.

Paul gives the Philippians two commands (29):

1. Receive Epaphroditus in the Lord with all joy.

2. Honor such men.

This takes us back to our first point. How do we honor such men? By imitating Paul. We speak highly of them to others. We encourage them by promoting their Christlike attitudes and commending them. Paul is practicing exactly what he is telling them to do.

Obviously, the Philippians would be excited to see Epaphroditus. But Paul wants them to throw a great feast in his honor, rather than merely say “thanks” at one of their monthly potlucks.

Paul’s repeated allusions to Christ come to a climax in v.30. This implies that honoring people like him is honoring Christ. While we ought to beware of loving the praise of men, we should not withhold it wherever it is due.

What was lacking in the Philippian’s service to Paul (30b)? Paul is not criticizing the church. He was simply acknowledging that Epaphroditus extended their ministry to him. We see this same phrase in his letter to the Colossians:

Colossians 1:24 ESV

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,

How does Paul fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions? By making the value of Christ’s afflictions known in the world. In a similar manner, Epaphroditus compliments the ministry of the Philippian church to Paul by completing it.

› What do all three servants have in common?


They all exhibit the kind of humility Paul exhorted them to have in order to experience genuine unity. If we want to enjoy that kind of community here, we need far more than the likability of Tom Hanks.

• We need to learn contentment in every circumstance, 

• We need to humbly consider the needs of others above our own, and 

• We need to work alongside one another in complimentary fashion. 

Apart from Christ, it should seem impossible. But in Christ, we know that we will persevere to the end together.