In this eighth posting, we are continuing the blog series with content from biblical scholar Scot McKnight. McKnight has recently published the New Testament Everyday Bible Study series with HarperChristian Resources. McKnight combines interpretive insights with pastoral wisdom for all the books of the New Testament. Each volume provides original meaning, fresh interpretation, and practical application.
In this blog series, we’ll be sharing Scot’s insights and wisdom on the book of Philippians. It is available as a book as well: Philippians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians: Kingdom Living in Today’s World.
For twelve weeks, Bible Gateway will publish a chapter from the Bible study book, taking you through the full text of McKnight’s study on Philippians. For this week, here is the eighth study, A Common Life of Co-Workers | Philippians 2:19-3:1a
19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. 20 I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. 21 For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 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. 23 I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. 24 And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon.
25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.
27 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. 28 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. 29 So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, 30 because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.
3:1 Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord!
An outsider in Philippi, after observing Paul and those in his inner circle, would describe that circle as “friends.” Friendship was deeply valued in Philippi. Furthermore, it was discussed endlessly among the elite male circles. Friendship has been discussed for centuries. The two best thinkers in the ancient world about friendship were the Athenian philosopher Aristotle and the Roman orator Cicero. I quote only Cicero:
For friendship is nothing else than an accord [or unity] in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual goodwill and affection, and I am inclined to think that, with the exception of wisdom, no better thing has been given to man by the immortal gods (Cicero, De Amicitia 6.20).
Friendship is about unity and emotional affection and is prized above all of life’s blessings. Notice that “no better thing has been given” to humans than friendship. That’s how high the Romans valued friendship. The word “friend” in friendship translates philos, which was one of the most popular terms for love in that world.
C.S. Lewis famously talked about four loves, one of which was friendship. Friends voluntarily love one another and through that love for one another grows in virtue. It’s a pity the writing about friendship has fallen off in the last half-century.
But Paul never once called those in his inner circle “friends.” Sometimes sit down for an afternoon and read especially the end of Paul’s letters and compose a list of his “friends.” There are dozens of names, but he never calls them “friends,” while all those watching him thought they were his friends.
Paul’s top-of-the-list favorite term for Christians of all sorts was siblings or “brothers and sisters” (NIV), and his favorite term for his inner circle was “co-workers” (sunergoi). In this passage, a window is opened on Paul’s relationship with two of them, Timothy and Epaphroditus.
When I travel with students in Turkey and Greece, and one time to Rome and Pompeii, I give short talks on various co-workers of Paul. The list includes Priscilla and Aquila, Urbanus, Timothy, Phoebe, Titus, Epaphroditus, Epaphras, Clement, Jesus called Justus, Philemon, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. We find in vignettes of his co-workers the relational heart of Paul, three of which chambers in that heart can be seen here.
Co-Workers Affirm One Another
Men, given as too many are to compete with one another, struggle to affirm other men. I’m not saying that’s not true about women, but I do know a few fellow professors who seem never to be able to affirm the scholarly work of others. It’s like if they do, they will lose some kind of status. The only ones such persons tend to affirm are those who praise their own work! Ugh. Paul knew a culture like that among the Romans. As one who cared about
God’s glory and who recognized God’s gifts among us, the apostle practiced public commendation and affirmation of others. One can read Romans 16 to see numerous examples.
We who are men need to learn from Paul. Starting today.
Paul had no trouble affirming his co-workers in public. Here’s what he says about Timothy in our passage: “I have no one else like him” and he has “genuine concern” for others, and he has “proved himself” as a “son” (2:20–22). In saying there is “no one like him,” Paul uses a wonderful term: iso psychos, an equivalent person, a total equal, equal in the soul.
Now add verses like 1 Corinthians 4:17: “Timothy, my son [or child] whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord” and recall Paul thinks the younger man can be trusted to pass on Paul’s teachings. He was often Paul’s substitute (1 Thessalonians 3:2, 6).
Again, 1:1 of Philippians shows just how close the two were: though the letter is in Paul’s voice he makes Timothy a co-sender and co-author of the letter. That’s how close they were: Paul’s words and Timothy’s words were so intermingled one could not discern who said what.
About Epaphroditus Paul says this: “my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier” whom the Philippians sent on to Paul (either to Rome or to Ephesus) to care for Paul. He’s also one who “longs for all of you” so much that he is “distressed because you heard he was ill” and almost died. Paul loved the man so much that he says about Ephroditus’s surviving a death scare, he was spared “sorrow upon sorrow.” Epaphroditus’ arrival in Philippi will relieve them of “anxiety” and they are to “honor people like him” because he “risked his life” so he could aid Paul when they could not (2:25–30).
Epaphroditus delivered to Paul a financial gift from the Philippians (4:18), and now returning home probably carried this letter and then pastorally and persuasively read it to the Philippians. Many wonder why such a strong commendation is given to this man. We do not know for sure but it’s just possible he was a “messenger” in the sense of an “apostle” who was sent to join Paul in the mission and through sickness or perhaps even lack of gifting was unable to sustain that mission.
Settle into your chair, and imagine you are in the church in Philippi. Now hear Paul speak of you like this when the letter is read. Does your chest not swell a bit? Do you not feel a sense of affirmation and a little rise in your self-esteem? Of course, you do.
We need to do this more in our own circles, whether in churches or in our homes, or in our workplaces. Public affirmations, so say the business leaders, make for a healthier work culture. The same is true for homes and churches. Not only can we learn to affirm one another, but we can learn to care for one another and to pitch in for one another.
Co-Workers Care for One Another
Paul says Timothy will “show genuine concern for your welfare” (2:20) in a world where “everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (2:21). But not Timothy. He was other-oriented. Timothy also “served with” Paul “in the work of the gospel” (2:22). The word is stronger: he was “enslaved with” Paul in that work. Slavery was the color of water in those days so it was easy for them to describe their own relationship to one another and to Christ as slaves.
Epaphroditus was a “messenger” for the Philippians, a go-between, who arrived to care for Paul’s needs, which probably indicates food and drink and clothing and news and conversation. Prisons didn’t provide such things.
When Epaphroditus heard the Philippians were sorrowed over his illness, he was sorrowed over their sorrow–such was the man’s empathy and care for others. Paul himself was spared his own empathic sorrow when his co-worker survived death. The Philippians will be filled with joy when Epaphroditus arrives, and they will publicly affirm him (2:29; 3:1). At the heart of this man’s care for others is that he risked his life because he loved Paul so much.
You may notice someone in your circle who hears what others do not hear. Someone is looking for a special kind of mask during the Covid-19 pandemic and sends them some. That someone loves a certain kind of coffee and so provides an anonymous gift card to their favorite café. That someone shows interest in Lil Copan’s novel, Little Hours, and so another someone drops one in the mail to that other someone. Christians care for one another like this. It’s the quotidian or routine stuff of life where care shows up.
Co-Workers Pitch in for One Another
Many attributes color the lines between co-workers, including learning the gentle art of pitching in when another needs aid. Paul says of Epaphroditus that he risked death “to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me” (2:30). The word Paul uses here could be translated as “fill up” the way one supplies the extra funds to someone when they are running short. Sunday School teachers do this; home Bible study leaders do this; parents do this for other parents; teachers do this for other teachers; neighbors do this; friends do this; and co-workers do this too.
When our friend Beth Allison Barr’s church, located among those without great resources or means, was dis- covered to be running low during the pandemic . . . well, here’s what happened. She passingly mentioned this on Twitter in the context of a not-so-pleasant situation and her “friends” all over the country–and let’s call them co-workers, how about it?–erupted into nothing less than an avalanche of generosity for the church. Beth messaged me after giving a lecture at a university with a “Praise God!” and the astounding dollar amount.
Just like Epaphroditus, except for the risking one’s life part!
Friends may pitch in like this, but co-workers do so even more. They form what Hawthorne and Martin call a “network of mutual service.” Why? Because Christians and co-workers share a common life shaped by the Way of Christ (2:6–11).
Our passage opened on this very tone: because Paul himself could not get to Philippi he planned soon to send Timothy to “fill up” what Paul had been doing and then to report back to Paul what was going on in Philippi (2:19).
True enough but notice the opposite, too. Some were instead looking “out for their own interests” (2:21; look at 2 Timothy 4:10). He is probably pointing us back to the envy and rivalry problems of some gospel workers (Philippians 1:15–17). In other words, not like Christ who did not look to his own interests! Back to the good examples among Paul’s co-workers. Before Timothy could be sent, Epaphroditus pitched in to take the long and hazardous trip to Philippi. Timothy and Paul would follow later (some think this may be recorded in Acts 20:1–6).
That’s what friends are for. No, better. That’s what Christians are for.
Questions for Reflection and Application
- How was friendship viewed in Paul’s world?
- What terms does Paul use for his friends instead of calling them “friends”? Why do you think he used those terms?
- What does Paul say about his close colleagues Timothy and Ephaphroditus?
- Who in your life has shown special care for you the way Ephaphroditus cared for Paul? Or who have you cared for in those ways?
- Have you had any special co-working relationships in your Christian life? What did you most value about those people and your interactions with each other?
The New Testament Everyday Bible Study is published by HarperCollins Resources, a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.