New Testament Words and Verses
Philippians 2:19-30, Two: Epaphroditus
This twelve-verse section (2:19-30) of Philippians 2 describes Paul’s plans to send people to his beloved congregation in Philippi. The sub-section I consider in this essay (2:25-30) appears to suggest that Paul has already sent Epaphroditus, despite the fact that Epaphroditus had been sick, even to the point of death. We learned in the last essay that Paul hadn’t yet sent Timothy but was planning to do so. Yet, the matter was more complex than this, because Paul seemed to hope for a speedy release from prison for himself so that he could visit the Philippians. The most that therefore can be said at this point is that 1/3 of the team has departed for Philippi (Epaphroditus—perhaps he was even waiting to carry this letter or a prior version of it); 2/3 of the team is still in Rome, with Paul probably waiting to see if his current imprisonment situation would change before either sending Timothy or going himself back to the Philippians.
Thoughts and Words
Paul’s warmth towards his co-worker Epaphroditus is evident in vv 25-30. Whereas he hoped to send Timothy to the Philippians (v 19), he says it is necessary (Ἀναγκαῖον) to send Epaphroditus. The necessity was driven not only by Epaphroditus’ role as a missionary but because of the Philippian church’s concern for his well-being. Paul uses several words to describe Epaphroditus’ special role: He is a “brother” and “fellow worker and fellow soldier” (ἀδελφὸν, συνεργὸν, συστρατιώτην), one “sent to them as an apostle” (ὑμῶν δὲ ἀπόστολον, which may say something about a rather loose definition of that term for Paul) and “a minister of my needs” (λειτουργὸν τῆς χρείας μου).
Paul then uses a rare verb, ἀδημονέω, to describe Epaphroditus psychic condition. He was, literally, “away from the people/not at home,” which suggests he was troubled or distressed at not being able to see the Philippians. His distress arose because the Philippians had heard he was sick, even to the point of death. The word describing this near-death situation is a NT hapax, παραπλήσιον, which literally is a “near-neighbor” to something.
Epaphroditus was sick to the point of death, and this gave Paul “pain upon pain/sorrow upon sorrow” (λύπην ἐπὶ λύπην). But, using the same word, Paul’s pain might certainly be released/lessened (ἀλυπότερος, another NT hapax) when Epaphroditus is united with the Philippians. That is why Paul has already sent him.
An Interesting Verb
One would think that the warmth of this description would suffice Paul at this point. But in verse 29 he not only gives us another rare Greek verb but suggests a fascinating and unclear theological concept that obviously entered into the Pauline or post-Pauline theological bloodstream, because it was repeated in Col. 1. I am referring here to the verb παραβουλεύομαι and the concept of filling up what is lacking (ὑστέρημα) in someone’s service.
A word on each. The verb παραβουλεύομαι appears in verse 29. The verse states, in relevant part:
ὅτι διὰ τὸ ἔργον Χριστοῦ μέχρι θανάτου ἤγγισεν παραβολευσάμενος τῇ ψυχῇ
“Because he drew near to death on account of the work of Christ, acting contrary to the interests of his soul”
If we take apart the two sections of the verb, we have “contrary” (παρα) and “counsel/give advice” (βουλεύομαι). That is, literally, Paul suggests that Epaphroditus was so deeply involved in the
his self-sacrificial work on behalf of the Philippians that he acted “contrary to counsel” or that he disregarded his own life/the interests of his own life. Epaphroditus is the ultimate servant, and Paul wants to send him to the Philippians as a way of honoring both him and the Philippians.
An Interesting Theological Issue
But even more interesting than Paul’s careful and eloquent choice of words here is his suggestion that Epaphroditus disregarded his own interests so that he might “fill up what is lacking (ὑστέρημα) in your service towards me.” Though the phrase is far from crystalline it suggests that Epaphroditus’ presence with the church at Philippi will allow them an opportunity to give some kind of gifts or service to Paul, either while he is in prison or if he happens to be released. Their service to Paul, in a word, had been lacking but Epaphroditus’ presence with them would allow them the chance to communicate either good wishes or money or some kind of support to Paul that had been lacking.
This notion of making up or fulfilling what had been lacking in the Philippian service to Paul then is taken up in a most interesting way in Col. 1:24, where Paul talks about his filling up what was lacking of the afflictions/trials of Christ in Paul’s (i.e., his own) body. Somehow his service to the Colossians will bring suffering, and this suffering “fills up” in his own life that which is deficient in his sufferings that would, when added with the suffering already experienced, bring him into full sharing of the sufferings of Christ. Paul’s deep understanding of the way that congregations can partner with him in the Gospel means that they can fill up their own service lacks to him, and that they can help fill up some of the deficiencies in his own suffering on behalf of Christ (Col. 1:24). That latter idea is not the focus of this essay; it suffices here to highlight the unusual turn of phrase about filling up what is lacking in (the Philippians’) service to Paul. It will enter deeply into Paul’s mental space as he, or a disciple, writes Colossians. But it bespeaks a profound sense of sharing in ministry of loss, pain and joy in the joint service to and in the identification with Christ.
This twelve-verse section centers on the visits of Timothy and Paul (possible) and Epaphroditus (already sent) to the Philippians. Epaphroditus plays an important role for Paul, not simply in bringing news and instructions from Paul to the Philippians, but also in allowing the Philippians to do things to fill up what had been lacking in their service to Paul. This mutuality in the Gospel is one of the most endearing traits of Paul’s understanding of his ministry.
Philippians 3:1-7, One
Back to NT Page