Formations 05.26.2019: Timothy and Epaphroditus

Saint Epaphroditus

Philippians 2:19-30

In the last two years of his life, my grandfather Bill and I often talked about the last verse in the book of Judges. It says, ”In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25). In the larger Deuteronomistic narrative, this refrain precedes the establishment of the monarchy in 1 Samuel. But the editor doesn’t comment directly on it, and Bill thought that at an earlier time, he would have read this statement as an indictment. Later, this predicament seemed the best that could be hoped for in free communities.

This tension between self-interest and communal interest sits right at the heart of Philippians 2. Before this week’s lesson text, Paul quotes an early hymn about Christ to reinforce his teaching: “let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (v. 4). Jesus models this by setting divinity aside, becoming a slave, and dying on a cross.

Setting Christology aside, Paul takes up apparently more practical concerns in verse 19. In this week’s passage, he announces travel plans for Timothy and Epaphroditus. Paul will send Timothy “so that [Paul] may be cheered by news of you” and because Timothy “will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” (vv. 19-20). And Epaphroditus “has been longing for all of you” (v. 26). Paul also recognizes that “you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that [Paul] may be less anxious” (vv. 26, 28).

These justifications position people in community in ways that are subtly different than earlier in the passage. In his description of Christ, it isn’t hard to hear a command to total self-negation. But slavery and execution are evils that shouldn’t be idealized as steps toward glory. For what worthy debate there is regarding the virtues of self-interest or selflessness, we also know that the elevation of Christian sacrifice has in too many cases hurt or further marginalized those who were already vulnerable.

Paul’s concrete experience here points to another way. Instead of concern only for others, Paul models a way that holds up his own needs, along with those of others. This in-between posture, despite its challenges, might fruitfully guide our reflections on teamwork in the coming week.

Discussion

• What needs are going unmet in your community of faith? What is your relationship to these needs?

• What gifts can you bring to help meet these needs?

• What practices can help us to build a community that serves all people, others as well as ourselves?

Reference Shelf

The Travelers

On the surface, the transition from the hortatory section (1:27-2:18) to the travelogue seems abrupt. What provokes the shift to Timothy’s visit at 2:19, and why is Timothy mentioned before Epaphraditus, who presumably would be the first to arrive at Philippi? The answer to both questions can be found in the Greek phrase ta peri humōn (literally “the things concerning you,” “your affairs”), translated in the nrsv as “news of you” (2:19) and “your welfare” (2:20). The same expression occurs at the beginning of the hortatory section in 1:27, where Paul expresses the desire to hear of “the things concerning you” or “your affairs” (nrsv: “about you”). Timothy then has a special role as messenger to convey to the Philippians Paul’s “affairs” (2:23) and to report back to him about their “affairs.” Rather than being an abrupt change of topic, mention of his visit flows somewhat naturally from the hortatory section, because he (and not Epaphroditus) is the means whereby Paul expects to be reassured about the well-being of the readers.

Often in the Pauline letters the inclusion of travel plans does more than provide interesting or necessary information. For example, Paul makes a case with Philemon that his slave Onesimus should be received back no longer as a slave but as a brother. The body of the brief letter then concludes: “One more thing—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you” (Phlm 22). The mention of Paul’s coming visit rhetorically functions as both a carrot and a stick, an enticement to Philemon to do what he knows is right before the apostle’s arrival and to serve notice that Paul intends to follow up on the matter at hand.

In an analogous fashion, mention of the visits of Timothy and Epaphroditus rhetorically serve more than a single purpose. At one level, they are included because Timothy is to be Paul’s messenger bearing news back to him about the Philippians and Epaphroditus, their ambassador to Paul, who is returning home after a serious illness. And yet the way both are described indicates that they also serve as models to the readers, as examples of the very Christ-like practical reasoning that Paul has urged in 1:27–2:18.

Charles B. Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 161–62.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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