Making God’s A-Team

Philippians 2:19-30

November 22, 1998 | Ray Pritchard

Let’s begin with a question that might be slightly embarrassing to some people. Do you like to read other people’s mail? When I asked that question on Sunday morning, I noticed quite a few sheepish grins in the congregation. Before you answer, let me clarify the question. I’m not asking if you should read someone else’s mail, and I’m not asking if you like it when other people read your mail. I’m not even asking if you do such a thing. The question is simply this: When you walk into a room and see a letter open on the table, are you likely to pick it up and begin reading it—at least for a few lines? (I confess that I would answer yes to that question.)

After surveying the congregation last Sunday, it’s clear to me that the answer is yes—at least for most people. It’s not hard to understand. After all, a good letter is a window into the soul of another person. It gives us an unguarded view of how someone views the world.

You may wonder why I raise the topic at all. Did you ever consider that when you read the Bible, you are reading someone else’s mail? Every book in the Bible was originally written to someone else. There isn’t a person alive who can say that a book of the Bible was originally written to him personally.

That fact becomes very relevant when you read Philippians, which has been called the tenderest letter Paul ever wrote. Certainly it is the most delightful … and the most joy-filled. Here the great apostle reveals his heart in a most unguarded and vulnerable manner. To borrow a phrase from television, Philippians reveals Paul “up close and personal.” In the beginning Philippians was nothing more than a thank-you note from Paul to the church at Philippi. It was his way of expressing gratitude for a gift sent to him in prison.

Paul and His Friends

You can generally tell something important about a person by his friends and by his enemies. Paul had plenty of both. We know that he had lots of Jewish opponents and he had more than a few Christians who didn’t care for his style of ministry. He also had many friends in many places (witness the long list of names in Romans 16).

Our text tells us about two of his closest friends—two young men named Timothy and Epaphroditus. Timothy was like a son to Paul (v. 22) and Epaphroditus was like a brother (v. 25). Together these two friends ministered to him in prison, keeping his spirits up and encouraging him in his work for the Lord.

I pause to ask another question. Who are your friends? Suppose a man from Mars watched you for two weeks, how would he answer that question? Your friends are important because all of us tend to become like the people we associate with. If you hang around complainers, pretty soon you’ll start to complain. If your friends are selfish, their attitude will rub off on you. But if your friends are noble, their nobility will make you noble too.

Howard Hendricks says that a Christian man needs three men in his life—a Paul, a Barnabas, and a Timothy. Paul represents your spiritual mentor, Barnabas a close personal friend, and Timothy a disciple who looks to you for leadership. We need mentors, friends, and disciples to be well-rounded Christians.

One more question, if you please. Who are your heroes, the people you look to as role models? Tell me your heroes and I’ll tell you your values. When a visitor comes to America, he or she soon discovers that this nation reveres George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Come to Oak Park and you hear people talking about Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright. Heroes teach us history—and they impart values to the next generation.

All those questions are relevant as we study Philippians 2:19-30, for in this passage we are reading a very personal note from Paul as he discusses two of his closest friends. Pastor Andy McQuitty developed five principles for effective ministry based on this passage. I’m going to use those five principles as the outline for this message .

I. People before Profits 19-21

“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (vv. 19-21).

Timothy came from a mixed marriage—ethnically and spiritually. His father was a Greek who evidently was an unbeliever and his mother Eunice (as well as his grandmother Lois) was a Jewish convert to Christianity.

Over time Paul came to trust Timothy so completely that he became a kind of stand-in for the apostle, his right-hand man who represented Paul when he himself couldn’t go to a certain city or church. One writer says that Timothy was FAT—Faithful, Available, and Teachable! Paul seems to imply something like that in verse 20 when he says that he has no one “like him.” The Greek word literally means “same-souled.”

Timothy stood out in Paul’s mind as a man who cared more for others than he did for himself. He illustrates the principle Paul laid down a few verses earlier when he spoke of having the mind of Christ and “in humility consider others better than yourselves” (2:3-5).

Last week we took an offering for our Russia Relief Project. We’re joining with a sister church in Moscow to provide funds for a soup kitchen to help the Russian Christians get through the hard winter ahead. A month ago the elders approved taking $5000 from the Benevolence Fund for this purpose. Last Sunday I asked you to give another $5000. You far surpassed my expectations by giving another $11,500. I heard about one woman who told her husband, “My birthday is coming soon. I want you to take the money you were going to spend for my present and put it in the offering for Russia.” What a wonderful spirit of giving. That’s what I mean by “People Before Profits.”

Write it down in large letters: The world looks for winners … God looks for servants. Yesterday a local TV station had this call-in question: “Who was the loser this week—Bill Clinton or Ken Starr?” Is that not a revelation of the spirit of this age? After all those hours of testimony last Thursday, all people want to know is, Who won and who lost? Who cares who is telling the truth? Truth, what’s that?!?!

When we get to heaven, we aren’t going to be asked if we were winners or losers on the earth. Forget about your won-lost record. The one thing we will want to hear Jesus say is, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

II. Character before Conformity 22-24

“But 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. I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon” (vv. 22-24).

Paul said that after many months (and perhaps years) of apprenticeship, Timothy had “proved himself.” The word means to be approved by passing a test. It has the idea of demonstrating under pressure that you have the “right stuff.” How did Timothy prove himself? By sticking with Paul through thick and thin. By volunteering to tackle the hard jobs. By refusing to cut and run under fire. By doing the menial tasks, the “dirty work” so that Paul was freed up to do what he did best.

Note that this kind of “proving” doesn’t happen overnight. Too many people want “instant” spirituality and overnight maturity. God doesn’t work that way. Producing Christian character takes time and effort. Here’s a simple equation: T + D = G. T = Time, D = Discipline and G = Growth. This formula works in every area of life, whether it be weight lifting, piano playing, Scripture memory, or learning to speak Ibo. Nothing worthwhile can be conquered in one evening. You can’t “blitz” your way to spiritual leadership. You’ve got to do what Timothy did—put yourself under a good leader and then pay the price over time.

When will we learn that God is not looking for superstars? We already have too many superstars in the Christian world – people who build their careers on hype and glitz and marketing pizzazz. God wants faithful people who have proved their worth over the long haul. Remember … you can buy talent, but you can’t buy faithfulness.

III. Teamwork before Competition 25

“But 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” (v. 25).

Epaphroditus was a leader in the church at Philippi who was sent by the church with a gift for Paul. His name is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. He doesn’t seem to have been a preacher in the usual sense of the word. He fits more into the mold of a deacon—a godly layman willing to serve, willing to go, and willing to risk everything for the cause of Christ.

Paul uses three terms to describe Epaphroditus:

A) BROTHER—Members of the same family (We are one)

B) FELLOW WORKER—Members of the same team (He is my equal)

C) FELLOW SOLDIER—Warriors for the same cause (He is sold out to Christ)

Verse 25 contains one more term that you might miss if you read the text only in English. When Paul calls him “your messenger,” he uses the Greek word for “apostle”—which literally means “one who is sent officially representing someone else.” Usually the term means an apostle designated by Jesus Christ—as in the “12 apostles” or the “Apostle Paul.” Here Paul uses the same term in a more general sense—that Epaphroditus is an “apostle” sent by the Philippians to aid another apostle in Rome. High praise indeed!

By piling these terms together Paul makes clear that he holds this layman from Philippi in high esteem. Sometimes kids today will say to one another “You da man!” In essence Paul was saying that Epaphroditus was “the man” and thus worthy of every respect.

I find it encouraging that Paul didn’t “pull rank” but instead went out of his way to praise Epaphroditus to his hometown people. It is said that President Ronald Reagan had a slogan prominently displayed on his desk at the White House that read “There is no limit to how far a man can go if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.” The Apostle Paul had certainly learned that crucial lesson.

On Friday the pastoral staff joined with 500 others at Moody Church in Chicago to listen to Jim Cymbala, pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. He spoke with passion and plain speech about the need for pastors to inquire of the Lord regarding what God wants to do in their churches. It was a powerful message that touched my heart. At one point he commented that when we stand before the Lord, Jesus isn’t going to ask who had the biggest church. All the trappings of earthly greatness that seem so important now won’t matter then at all. In that day all our competition will be seen for what it really is—sinful striving for earthly glory.

IV. Kingdom before Comfort 26-27

“For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed 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” (vv. 26-27).

Traveling from Philippi to Rome wasn’t easy. It meant taking an 800-mile journey by boat across the Mediterranean Sea. When Epaphroditus got to Rome, he fell ill with a serious disease (something more than “Caesar’s Revenge”) and nearly died. In those days something called “Roman Fever” took many lives. If you’ve ever traveled abroad, especially to a third-world country, you know that you have to take extreme medical precautions. Before we went to Nigeria recently we had to get shots for everything from Yellow Fever to hepatitis. I’m still taking malaria medicine and will have to watch for signs of the disease for the next 12 months. Epaphroditus faced all the dangers of travel without the benefits of modern medicine. As a result, the disease he contracted nearly took his life. When the Philippians heard about it, they were worried and sent a message to Rome. That made Epaphroditus distressed—that they were so worried about him.

Think about this for a moment. Epaphroditus left home, made a dangerous journey to an unfamiliar country with a new culture where he was exposed to a deadly disease. Far from family and friends, he nearly died. Why would he put himself in such a position? It doesn’t make sense humanly speaking. I think there is only one explanation. He did it “for Christ and his kingdom.” He did it for Jesus’ sake. No other explanation suffices. Epaphroditus had stepped out into harm’s way, and harm had hit him head on!

How far are you willing to go for the Lord? This week I heard from Ken Aycock who lives in Mobile, Alabama. Ken and I have been friends for over 30 years. He wrote to say that someone donated a C-130 transport plane to his church to be used for disaster relief in Honduras. In a few weeks he is going to go with a team to Honduras to help distribute the goods they have collected. He added this word of explanation:

I want to spend the “second-half” of my life devoting more time, energy and money to the mission field. I’m convinced that is the greatest “bang for the buck” in the world today.

That’s precisely the spirit of this text. That’s what the phrase “Kingdom Before Comfort” really means.

How would you respond to this ad?

Wanted: Understudy for well-traveled but trouble-prone missionary. Must be able to suffer illness and hardship without complaining; to travel to distant countries and be separated from your loved ones for long periods of time; to teach and be taught; to evangelize, organize, and be flexible when nothing goes right. Must put up with low pay, long hours, high stress levels, and intense opposition. Often attacked, occasionally stoned, beaten weekly, frequently arrested. Interested applicants should contact the Apostle Paul.

Any takers? The ad is fictitious, but the position was real. It was filled by a young man named Epaphroditus who put the Kingdom of God before comfort. Few are willing to take such a step.

Do you remember what G. K. Chesterton said? “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

V. Service before Security 28-30

“Therefore 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. Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me” (vv. 28-30).

The message is simple. Paul is sending Epaphroditus back to Philippi even though he needed him in Rome. He does this because he doesn’t want the church at Philippi to be worried about him. His key message is clear: You’ve got a great man here. Give him the honor he deserves. He risked his life for me—make sure you show him your appreciation.

Note that phrase in verse 30—”risking his life.” The Greek verb is paraboleuomai, which means to expose oneself to danger, to risk, or to gamble. It was used of people who spoke up for their friends at the risk of their own safety and security. Sometimes it was used of a fighter who exposed himself to danger in the arena. Several hundred years later—during the time of Emperor Constantine – there arose societies of Christian men and women who called themselves “The Parabolani,” meaning “the riskers” or “the gamblers.” They ministered to the sick, the imprisoned, and the outcasts. They saw to it that martyrs received honorable burial. History tells us that they were considered an odd group, eccentric and somewhat “on the edge.”

What are you willing to risk for Christ? When was the last time you took yourself out of your comfort zone for the sake of the gospel? It is the curse of Western Christianity that we have constructed a Christian culture that effectively keeps us from risking anything for sake of the gospel. Sometimes I think we don’t take risks because we’re afraid of losing our advantages. But as Oswald Chambers remarked, “When you fear God you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God you fear everything else.” Perhaps that’s our problem—we fear God too little and everything else too much.

Here is the bottom line of my message. God is looking for a few gamblers. He is searching high and low for some sanctified risk-takers. I wonder if we shouldn’t start a new ministry at Calvary: Gamblers for Jesus.

Everyone gambles their life on something. I’m putting my money on Jesus. Where are you putting yours?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?