We’re just about to read the next couple of paragraphs in Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. He’s discussing a couple of guys’ travel plans. From one angle Paul’s bringing up Timothy and Epaphroditus is simply the next thing in his letter. At this point he’s ready to talk about concrete plans that involve these two.
From another angle, though, the Holy Spirit uses these couple paragraphs that have to do with schedules and plans to communicate… what shall we call it…the tone, the atmosphere of gospel partnership. Gospel vibe.
There is doctrine – propositions and the arguments leading up to and away from them. There are commandments. There is the mission. But there’s also something less tangible, harder to describe: the mood, the ambience in which all the doctrine, commandments, and mission occurs. Sometimes you might enter a congregation and – the doctrine’s good. They have the proper convictions. They’re on mission. But something is off. What is it? They’ve lost something, something human. The gospel vibe, perhaps?
I believe this passage, and others like it, are intended to keep the atmosphere as it should be. Let’s read it:
19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. 20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, 24 and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also.
25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
Again, not so much doctrine here as there is atmosphere. I’ll simply make five observations:
· Notice how important physical presence is.
Paul is sending Timothy to the Philippians. He’ll do that as soon as he can spare Timothy being away from him. Also, Paul is sending Epaphroditus. He is eager to send him back to the Philippi church, who had originally sent Epaphroditus to Paul. And Paul is trusting in the Lord that shortly he will be set free from prison so that he can visit the church.
Now, on one hand there’s nothing to see here. Letters would often be relayed by personal acquaintance, and Epaphroditus was likely bearing this letter to the Philippians. And people in jail relied on outside help for survival, often counting on them for food. So, of course people would have to be traveling to and fro to fulfill these practical tasks.
But there’s something more. Think about it: Paul sends Timothy so he can hear back from Timothy how the Philippians church was doing. Not that Timothy would be bearing a letter, but he would return with his own impressions from being with them, and Paul would get from Timothy himself those impressions.
Epaphroditus had been sick and was now healthy and the Philippians knew of all that, but Paul thought it important that E rejoin the Philippians so they may rejoice at seeing him again. A letter with news was sufficient, but not ideal. I want you to be with him. Physical presence.
And this same sentiment in other places. You might recall in the first chapter of Romans when Paul says that he prays always that he might make it to the church in Rome: For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you. At one time I read this and it hit me: wait, Paul is writing the book of Romans to them! Isn’t sending them his magnum opus enough of a spiritual gift? And for Paul the answer was “no.” There’s something having to do with God’s grace possible when we’re together… that’s not while we’re apart.
To establish this point farther we could pan out farther over Scripture and take in the whole Christian message which underscores the high importance of physical presence: The apex of the history of salvation is God Himself coming to us, in the flesh, with a particular gait and nose hairs needing tended to. The doctrine of the Incarnation doesn’t allow us to be satisfied with, for instance, trading beautiful ideas from afar, but prioritizes physical presence and all of its requirements and effects.
For some reason, in order to do Christianity properly, we can’t simply watch Charles Stanley on Daystar. Or John Piper on YouTube. Greet one another with a holy kiss can’t be abstracted to merely like each other or even love each other from afar. Christians are not just to feel endearment but to express that affection physically in whatever form is currently culturally acceptable. These physical tokens of affections are ordinary and small, and also commanded.
Sometimes you come among a people and you get this sense: they like to be around each other. Or at least they think it’s important. High toned teaching and ideas aren’t enough. That’s the vibe of gospel partnership.
· Along similar lines, notice how important it is to stay up with fellow believers.
Don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, just point it out so that the Holy Spirit has something to work with: Paul wants to hear how the Philippians are doing. And he thinks the Philippians should hear about Epaphroditus, that they shouldn’t be walking around with inaccurate, uncurrent news about him. Notice the striking phrase at the end of v. 28: that I may be less anxious. Paul is anxious that the Philippians are anxious about Epaphroditus and so is big-time motivated to update them.
Here, I’m pointing out this stress on Christians keeping up with each other.
Cast your eye over the last paragraph of this letter: Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. I am fascinated by, I am touched by how Paul wanted to remain in contact. Moreover, he thinks it an important ingredient of gospel proclamation that the churches are constantly greeting each other.
Please listen as I read the end of Ephesians: So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychius the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord will tell you everything. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage your hearts.
Turn over to Romans 16. Just scan over the first half. When I preached through this book at our old church, I called this the Facebook chapter. But actually it’s not quite that: because on social media you put your content out there passively, for people to anonymously engage with it. But Paul says, tell ________ hi. Tell _________ hi. Personal. Directed.
The gospel has as its goal that the human creature be brought into a deep, knowledgeable fellowship with the Triune God. That I may know Him is our great aim. And we will someday know Him even as we are already known by Him. So, of course gospel people value personal relationships and the knowledge that improves them.
And through Jesus Christ we have a kinship with fellow Christians that is just as actual when we’re away from them. We honor that kinship, we act realistically, accordingly to our faith when we keep up with Christians… even when they’re out of sight. This takes work.
The eager interest…can we call it friendliness?… coming out of faith that extends even to those away from us isn’t as important as gospel proclamation, but it becomes part of the atmosphere of fellowship that draws people to the Church and eventually to God.
Sign up for missionary prayer letters. Make sure you read the weekly prayer list. Text people from your old church and bring him up to speed on your life. Let’s not lose the habit of sending letters. A culture of interest in others.
· Shifting a little here, but not much: Notice the importance of – not only good directions – but good examples.
Recall the flow of Paul’s thought beginning in 1:27 – Church, let your public reputation be worthy of the gospel…which has a lot to do with the Church unified in her trust in God, not becoming distraught under suffering. About that unity: it is established as each member works at it. Church member, if you’ve experienced the grace of God, respond with grace of your own toward one another, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own [stuff], but also to the [well being] of others.
Ok, sounds good. But what does this look like, Paul? And so, as we’ve seen, Paul sets forward Christ Jesus as the ultimate example of looking to the well-being of others. But after that: still, Paul, what would it look like for an ordinary man to look not only to his own interests but to the well-being of others? And so Paul presents Timothy in just those words, in v.20.
Timothy is an example for the Church of someone dedicated to the partnership of the gospel. Epaphroditus is too. It’s important you notice that: Paul wanted to offer them up as examples. He says (in so many words): don’t ignore how they’ve conducted themselves: You know Timothy’s proven worth…Honor such men [as Epaphroditus]. It’s one thing to know the right directives. It’s even better when you know the right directives and then have examples of them lived out.
That’s not new to you, but I’d like us to consider again how important this was to Paul for the whole process of gospel proclamation.
Look ahead to 3:17: Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. And then again in 4:8,9: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
With this observation and the first one – about the importance of physical presence – it’s being drummed into us that Christianity has a big incarnational side to it. There are concepts that are absolutely crucial…but it’s also important that these concepts be presented in person and played out before us in real life. You know Timothy’s proven worth. You know Timothy. You’ve seen him under pressure. You’ve seen him work effectively over time.
This passage is giving us a feel for church life, a culture shaped by the gospel. Where people value being in the presence of each other, where there is teaching that is supported by examples.
I stress, where there are examples, that is, people know each other well enough to perceive those who are – not just agreeing with the doctrine – but themselves walking according to apostolic example. This implies a church where people know and are known. Where there is sufficient knowledge of each other over time to learn of people’s proven worth.
Let me say that more clearly: Examples imply knowledge, and knowledge requires exposure. Not remoteness, but familiarity.
Church can become remote and impersonal in several way. It can be transactional – I go to church in order to attend to that nagging guilt. So enter and exit with as little interaction as possible. Church can become impersonal by being large in such a way that people go to be unobserved. Church can be impersonal by the leadership being aloof, and one sees onlynthe sermon presenter and not the man in his home. The church can be impersonal by the membership uninterested in each other. But that’s not the gospel vibe: look at those words: as a son with his father…Epaphroditus my brother.
God establishes us with one another in Christ. God has done this, setting us into Christ and thus into one another. Look at your mothers. Look at your fathers. Look at your brothers and sisters.
You keep hearing this phrase pop up in the world: a crisis of loneliness. But the church is a place where we know each other, where we know each other well enough to know who are the good examples, not just the ones who have the answers to the questions. (Though the good examples should also know the answers!).
You also hear this statistic popping up: the #1 killer of men under 50 is suicide. And here’s the thing: it almost always takes people by surprise. Didn’t see that coming. Let that not be in the church. Make the coffee rounds. Show up at someone’s house with yogurt and coffee or something…
· Briefly: Notice the depth of engagement.
We are in a battle. This is why Paul calls Epaphroditus his “fellow soldier.” The stakes of this battle are the highest possible. It’s a battle to believe the gospel. We’re called to strive side by side to believe the gospel, believe it better, finding better purchase by better understanding, allow its implications to stretch themselves out into all of our embodied life: our child rearing, our internet browsing, our diets, our travel plans, our view of holidays…
So, how goes the battle for faith? And some…maybe a lot of that question is answered by how we view one another in the church. Do we view one another with Adam’s lens: are they likable, do we have shared interests, how can they improve my life? This is how everyone thinks: ego-centrically. Everyone is there to serve us. Even our service in the church is so that we leave a legacy, so that we’re fulfilled, so that we can have the privilege of being appreciated.
Or, do we love these people for Christ? We’re after their welfare? We want the gospel to form them, Christ to be shaped in them, even if we have nothing to do with it? Do we love one another?
That’s what comes out in these couple of paragraphs: brotherly love. Timothy is genuinely concerned for the church’s welfare. Epaphroditus has been longing for you all. Paul says, if I lost Epaphroditus I’d have sorrow upon sorrow. These are the packaging of people who’ve been shaped by Jesus Christ.
Philippians 4:1 – Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown.
1 Thessalonians 2:17 – But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face…you are our glory and joy.
Imagine if Paul had never met Epaphroditus, that the gospel hadn’t brought them together so closely. Epaphroditus gets sick, then dies. And since Paul doesn’t know him, or at least doesn’t know him well, is spared from grief. Doesn’t have to go through Sorrow upon sorrow. Wouldn’t that be better for Paul?
And, of course, the answer from Paul is no. Even though the people he threw his affection behind sometimes disappointed him, abandoned him, betrayed him. It’s what Paul called the suffering of disciple making. The partnership of the gospel takes you into close relationships which means you will get hurt. Just like Epaphroditus risked his life for the gospel, one also risks his poise and composure for the gospel. Risk here, risk there. That’s the partnership. Safety is not the highest priority. Neither is comfort. It’s a battle and the battle has a lot to do with love and you will sometimes get yourself some wounds.
C.S. Lewis: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
We should be smart. There’s no need to rush headlong. Emotional hype should be taken with a grain of salt. Yes. Yes. Yes. And yet, the thing always to do is to love one another more. Work harder at this. Love more. Don’t stand aloof, but engage. My joy. Whom I love. Brothers.
TRANSITION: Well, all this talk of deliberate interaction, close relationships, taking risks – this could all go weird pretty fast. From the outside, looking in, perhaps it already is weird. Truly, this could go too far, become something like a cult, where people have to give up any sense of privacy, personal space and property. Our last observation is what keeps things orderly, what makes this Gospel vibe work:
· Notice the conspicuous presence of Jesus Christ.
In these two paragraphs our Lord Jesus is mentioned five times. The Gospel Vibe depends on a growing awareness of the life and presence and will of our Lord.
That’s all I’ll say about that today. Maybe developing that will be our next sermon.
My Lord, in bringing you in at the end I don’t diminish you but would present You as the Vine, the Kitchen of the Church, the Heart, the One in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, the One who is before all things, the great Bridegroom, the Indispensable. The unstoppable. The King of kings.
Love, the embodied life, the Church in all its relationships, the new heavens and new earth, all exist and “work” only because of you. You are the Gospel – the great good news of a Good Man who is also the Eternal Son struck down so we can live, raised up so we are justified and will be again at the Last Judgment. You are our Life. You are our Future. We love you, our Christ. Send Your Spirit, so we love you, and yours more and more. AMEN