All that we know of Epaphroditus is from Paul’s mention of him in the Epistle to the Philippians, 2. 25-30; 4. 18. In relation to the apostle he was a brother, fellow-worker, and fellow-soldier. Paul’s “my” in Philippians 2. 25 covers all three relationships. To the church at Philippi he was their messenger and minister to Paul’s need. The figures lying behind these five epithets describe the work and spiritual character of Epaphroditus. Let us take them in order, since a story of devoted service on behalf of an assembly toward a servant of the Lord now far distant from them in body lies behind this beautiful and touching passage of Holy Scripture.
1. “My Brother”. Family relationship comes first. The term is a favourite one with Paul, who esteemed each child of God as being “above a servant, a brother beloved”. Our love should go out firstly, to those united to us in Christ Jesus, and following upon that, our esteem to such as show themselves faithful servants of the Lord.
2. “My fellow-worker”, R.V., or “companion in labour”, A.V. For the word is used of hired service, work done as an obligation, either in workshop or field. It could equally denote an artificer or an agricultural labourer. So it has a different shade of meaning from “deacon”. A cognate form of the word is applied to the silversmiths of Ephesus, Acts 19. 25, the labourers in the vineyard, Matt. 20. 1, and a workman using tools, hence a craftsman, 2 Tim. 2. 15.
Since labour of this kind is often directed to a common task calling for co-operative team work, Paul speaks habitually of his “fellow-labourers”, thus recognising that the project engaged in is of greater importance than the part he himself has in it. He large-heartedly speaks of “the rest of my fellowworkers” as of a number too great to mention by name, Phil. 4. 3, R.V. Happy the worker, whether in the gospel or in any other form of Christian labour, whose vision reaches out beyond his own allotted task, and who sees himself as but one in God’s great team of workers.
3. “My fellow-soldier”, an epithet elsewhere in Paul’s writings shared only by Archippus, Philemon 2. He exhorted Timothy to “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ”, and also “to war a good warfare”. Paul knew what this meant, for he himself had suffered affliction for the gospel’s sake, and when in imprisonment valued the support and sympathy of the saints. “Fellow-soldier” here probably means that Epaphroditus had shared with Paul in some experience involving hardship.
Epaphroditus is, as a good soldier, mentioned in dispatches. He hazarded his life in carrying out his commission, and for the work of Christ came nigh unto death. But, also soldier-like, he turned his eyes longingly homeward to his beloved Philippians. May we say from verse 28 that he was granted “sick leave”? What a homecoming must have been his! How much to talk over and relate!
4. “Your messenger”, (lit. apostle - one sent on a mission). The mission, in this instance, was temporary, and had regard to a specific object. The word “apostle” is similarly used elsewhere in the N.T, and in such passages does not signify an office of more permanent character like that held by the Twelve.
The special service here was that of conveying to Paul a gift from the saints at Philippi. The church there had more than once shown loving care for Paul’s temporal needs, Phil. 4. 15-16, and now again was concerned for him, but had had no opportunity of sending a gift, 4. 10. The words in Philippians 2. 30 “to supply your lack of service toward me” do not therefore imply reproach, but rather indicate that he understood their dilemma, and that he all the more appreciated that, for their sakes as well as his own, Epaphroditus had come forward to fill their lack. Thus he was indeed “their” apostle.
5. Your “minister to my need”, R.V. In describing the quality of service rendered by Epaphroditus Paul here uses a beautiful word with fine overtones of meaning. His was a “liturgical” action, a priestly activity. The word in its secular use denoted, according to Grimm, some free-hearted service to the state, “a public office which a citizen undertook to administer at his own expense”. It was the act of a public-spirited man.
The word is used in Scripture of angelic ministry, Heb. 1. 7; also of the ministry of the priests. And since gifts for the work of the Lord or relief of the saints are “spiritual sacrifices”, Heb. 13. 16, the act of offering them may be described as priestly service. The ministration of Epaphroditus on behalf of the church is so described, as also is that of the saints in 2 Corinthians 9. 12. Paul speaks of the gift itself as “a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God”. Not that such service was literally “sacerdotal”, for the language is that of metaphor. Jewish ritual was not replaced in the New Testament by a similar outward Christian one but by the spiritual realities of which the ancient Levitical worship was only a figure.
This gracious and delightful action on the part of the Philippian church and of their messenger Epaphroditus provided the occasion of this letter, which in the will and providence of God has been preserved as part of Holy Scripture, thus bringing before us a vivid picture of apostolic times and providing an example for our own.