In the Apostle's Absence

Philippians 2:19-30

David VanDrunen

Philippians 2:19-30 is somewhat unusual among Pauline passages. It gives a detailed account of Paul's personal happenings and travel plans. This itself is not unusual—Paul includes such information in nearly every epistle. What is unusual is where we find this information in Philippians: not at the beginning or end of the letter as is Paul's ordinary custom, but in the middle, sandwiched between passages of rather deep theological importance. Yet this update on the affairs of Paul and his associates is no parenthesis or irrelevant tangent. Rather, it paints a compelling portrait of what life in Christ is all about. Before the Philippian's eyes it flashes one frame from the motion picture of life, one that affords us a glimpse of heaven by exemplifying the practical outworking of the theological matters Paul has just discussed. As such, it brings the second chapter of this epistle to a dramatic and appropriate close.

The actual details of Paul's travel report are not difficult to gather. But they are worth briefly reciting to ensure a fuller understanding of this passage's biblical-theological significance. Paul had visited Philippi during his missionary journeys and ministered to the first believers in the city. Now separated from them and languishing in chains, Paul apparently kept up an intimate communion with them. We learn from this epistle that the Philippian church had actually sent a man of their congregation, one Epaphroditus, to give aid to Paul in his need. He obviously provided personal help, and chapter 4 informs us that this Greek also came bearing a gift. While with Paul, Epaphroditus became so seriously ill that they feared for his life. When word of this got back to the Philippians, Epaphroditus grew anxious at the anxiety he knew his brothers back home were feeling. So now Paul writes to Philippi and updates them on these events. Paul promises to send to them Timothy, his most trusted and zealous co-laborer. He whets their appetites in expectation for a personal visit of his own sometime soon. And he relieves their minds by announcing the recovery of Epaphroditus, whom Paul wishes to send back to them

As we read Paul's account we cannot but be struck by the way he describes everything as happening "in the Lord." This phrase itself is of course common in Paul's writings, but it is repeated with special frequency: three times in these twelve mundane verses. Everything that happens here is done in the Lord. Everything these Christians undertake reflects the union which believers enjoy with Christ, the mysterious and intimate fellowship which animates life day by day. In describing everything as happening in the Lord, Paul draws our attention both to the benefits bestowed upon us as we enjoy this communion with Christ and to the appropriate response on our part as we live out of this relationship.

Let us first focus upon what these concrete events reveal about the benefits which Christ lavishes upon us by means of our union with him. In order to properly appreciate this we must understand the special role which Paul plays as an apostle of Jesus Christ. As in so many of his epistles, the character of Paul's apostolic ministry plays a key role in the unfolding of Philippians. In the pericope just prior to the one we are now considering, Paul encouraged the Philippians to obedience and sanctification so that his labor would not be in vain. Paul clearly alludes to Isaiah 49:4 and the Servant Songs. What is remarkable is that here (as he does in several other places), he applies this prophecy, always attributed by the church to Christ, to his own ministry. No presumption has led him to do this, but a consciousness of the remarkable significance of his status as an apostle. The Servant Songs repeatedly foretell that the coming Messiah would be a light not for the Jews alone, but also for the Gentiles, that he would carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. In his earthly ministry Jesus never accomplished this for he never left the confines of Palestine. But in his wisdom Jesus accomplished this through his apostles, through Paul preeminently. Christ appointed Paul his representative, his agent, his spokesman. When he came bearing the light of the gospel, the Gentiles, those at the ends of the earth, were to receive him not simply as a man, not even simply as a minister of the word, but as—dare we say it—Christ himself. His words were Christ's. His sufferings for God's people resembled Christ's. He too was unimpressive in person yet powerful in word. His actions too were so exemplary that he could often encourage his readers to imitate him even as he imitated Christ. Paul could apply the Servant Songs to himself because he was the Servant—not Christ himself really, but Christ's appointed representative who carried his very authority. In Paul's apostolic ministry the worldwide vision of the Servant Songs marched on to fulfillment.

All that Paul said and did, then, he said and did as one standing in loco Christi. And among the things necessary for the Philippians to learn about Christ and their relationship with him was how to live in union with him while they were apart from him. They had been called into the most intimate bond of fellowship with Christ, yet he was dwelling in heaven and they on earth. It is here, in Paul's own absence, that he concretely displays to them what life in Christ's absence is like. In the apostle Paul's absence from them, the Philippians experienced the blessings which the absent Christ bestowed through their union with him.

By sending Timothy to Philippi the absent Paul shows them how the absent Christ blesses them. If Paul himself could not be with them, he would at least send them someone else who could encourage them and report back to him how things were in the church. And Paul does not send just anyone, but his best. Everyone looks out for his own interests rather than Christ's, says Paul, but not Timothy. Timothy had proven himself as zealous for the things of the Philippian church as Paul was. In his absence Paul gave them one whose heart beat at one with his own.

And so Christ has treated us in his own absence. On the brink of his departure from this world, Jesus promised his disciples that he would not leave them as orphans, that they would never be alone. He assured them that he would send another, a counselor, an encourager, one who would remind them of the things which he himself had said and lead them into all truth. Jesus sent not scraps, but his best, his very Spirit. He sent one who would encourage them and remind them of himself just as Timothy would do for those under Paul's care. He sent them one who would intercede for them, raising their cares and needs and anxieties before the throne of grace just as Timothy would inform Paul of the cares and needs and anxieties of the Philippians. Christ might be bodily absent from the church. As Christ's agent Paul was absent from the Philippian church, but, like Paul, Christ has provided his church one who will supply the church with all its needs while he is away. Through this Spirit, and through Christ's lesser ministers like apostles and pastors, the bond of our union with Christ is preserved and strengthened during our earthly sojourn.

Yet in sending Timothy, Paul recognizes that it will never be enough for the Philippians to see only his delegate—no matter how zealous and godly—rather than Paul himself. From a remote historical perspective we can only try to imagine the affection which the Philippian believers must have had for Paul. He was the one who had brought them the light in the midst of their darkness, the one who had first spoken the name of Jesus Christ to their weary souls. Here was their father in the gospel. Here was the one who, as we discussed above, was Christ's chosen representative and conducted himself among them as though he were Christ himself. The bond which held them together must have been strong as steel. It is for this reason that there was something fundamentally wrong about the apostle being absent from these disciples. We might think about the character of our own relationships. When we are separated from loved ones temporarily we can endure it. Letters and telephone calls serve us well to stay in touch during such periods of separation. But if we were informed that the separation was not temporary, but permanent, the telephone would suddenly seem radically insufficient. When we love someone, when we are bound to a person by the depths of affectionate friendship, there is nothing that can replace the longing to actually be with that person. As effective as the mail or the telephone might be to keep loved ones in touch during temporary periods of absence, they are poor substitutes indeed for seeing each other face to face. And so Paul holds out before the Philippians the hope that he himself would visit them sometime. As wonderful as it would be for them to see Timothy, he would never be able to take Paul's place indefinitely.

Surely here again Paul, in his relationship with the Philippian church, is showing forth our relationship with the one whose agent Paul was. There was something wrong with the apostle being personally separated from the Philippians, and so there is most definitely something wrong with our separation from our risen Redeemer. If the Philippians could never be fully satisfied with Paul's absence, if human lovers can never be fully satisfied with their separation, then how can we ever be fully satisfied with our separation from him who has united us to himself with a love which far transcends the unsteady love we harbor in our hearts? Never, never, can anything but seeing our Lord face to face bring us the peace and satisfaction that our longing hearts desire. Only this can satiate our hungry souls. As rich and marvelous as is our present fellowship with Christ through his Spirit, still we commune with Christ and his Spirit only in part. How can we be content with our present condition, harassed and harried with the sinful man still clinging to us, when Christ has promised that we will one day see him as he is? On that day we will sit down to feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; not mere invitees to Christ's wedding banquet, but his bride. On that day we will eat of the tree of life, drink of the rivers of the water of life, recline in his ever-green pasture, experience the Spirit of Christ without measure. Let us pray that we will never forget that this is our destiny. Let us praise our God for how he has provided for us in the interim, but always remember that an interim is all it is.

We have seen how this passage concretely displays the blessings which we receive through our union with Christ. But this passage also unfolds before us a picture of how we Christians ought to live out of this relationship. As the actions of the absent Apostle reveal the actions of the absent Christ, so the conduct of the Philippian church toward the absent Apostle manifests the character which our conduct ought to assume toward our absent Lord.

We cannot help admire the stunning unity, love, harmony, and selflessness with which the actors in this passage interact with each other. It is so stunning because by the standard of any earthly expectation these actors—Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus—ought to hate each other. Their backgrounds are different ethnically, socially and religiously. Consider Paul. A Jew's Jew, trained in Jerusalem itself in the most zealous sect of the Pharisees. According to the righteousness of the law, as he will claim in the next chapter, blameless. And then there's Timothy. Half Jew, half Greek, we have learned elsewhere in Scripture. On his mother's side he was born to a line which knew the Holy Scriptures, which he was taught from his youth. And yet we know that he had not been circumcised as a boy. Half a Jew ethnically, half a Jew religiously—and a Diaspora Jew at that. And Epaphroditus. We know little about him, but we know his name, and that tells us so much. He bears the identification of a Greek goddess, Aphrodite. His background was apparently Gentile and pagan.

From an earthly perspective, would we have any expectation that three men such as these could even get along, let alone love each other so vigorously? The history of this world is a history of the wrath of men against men that are different. On the front page of the newspaper of the day this is written, we find news about the explosive Balkans and war-torn central Africa. For centuries the Catholic Croats, the Orthodox Serbs, and the Muslim Bosnians have been fighting each other. Not long after a United States brokered treaty purported to end the recent hostilities, the present Yugoslav army battles furiously with Albanian rebels. Guns, diplomacy, war-crime tribunals, and moral pleas seem to avail little. The same is true in the devastation of central Africa. Just a year after a successful coup in the Congo, the country is fighting rebellion again, and several neighboring nations seem intent on joining the fray. Here too the wounds are old, as the Hutus and Tutsis renew their perennial clashes. Even in the United States, the world's melting pot, racial and sometimes religious conflict remain a lingering concern. Human beings have tried every earthly means at their disposal to resolve such tensions, but ethnic, social and religious truces are rarely more than fleeting. No earthly explanation can answer the question of how three men as different as Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus could join in such an intimate bond of friendship.

Only a heavenly, a Christological explanation will suffice. Something beyond the comprehension of this world has brought these people together. They have been united with each other in their common union with Christ. A common Savior, a common mission, a common eternal home has transcended whatever earthly differences had once separated them. Their single commitment to Jesus Christ has produced this foretaste of heavenly unity and brotherhood. The world can neither explain it nor produce it, but here in the relationship between these Christians we see a concrete example of how our fellowship with Christ works itself out in practice. Here is what it means to live "in the Lord."

But in this passage Paul is showing us even more about how life is lived in Christ. These verses demonstrate how the commands given in the preceding verses ought to be applied. For example, in the opening verses of Philippians 2, Paul exhorts his hearers to be united based upon a mutual selflessness that looks out for the things of others rather than the things of one's own. In our passage this ideal is practiced. Timothy is specifically said to be different from the ordinary man who is concerned about personal things rather than about the things of Christ. And the Philippian church as a whole is described as following this way of life. Though they could not help Paul in person, they sent him one of their own—we know he was a valued member because of the concern they show when they learn of his illness. And they sent him with a gift, Philippians 4 tells us. What kind of gift we don't know, but it must have been significant, something that involved some kind of sacrifice, for Paul is nearly overwhelmed in speaking about it, not quite knowing how to express proper appreciation. A unity in selfless humility—Paul has commanded it and the Philippians have lived it.

We find another example in looking back to Philippians 2:5-11, where Paul encourages his readers to follow the example of Christ. Our passage shows the Philippians living out the command of Paul here too. Just as Christ has sent apostles to his church to provide what he cannot give in his absence, so the Philippians have sent to Paul, the one who was Christ to them, an apostle. This is indeed what Paul calls Epaphroditus: the Philippians' apostolos. And Paul's choice of words also identifies Epaphroditus himself as an imitator of Jesus. As Christ's obedience to his Father on behalf of the church was supremely demonstrated in his approaching unto death, mechri thanatou (2:8), so Epaphroditus has merited the highest honor from his brothers because he was willing to give of himself even unto death, mechri thanatou (2:30), for the sake of Christ and his church's well-being.

Not theoretical, not abstract, is the believer's bond with Christ. Mysterious perhaps, but not impractical or without significance day by day. Paul has told us this and offered his commands toward this end time after time. But in case we have not understood, not fully perceived, Paul gives us here this real-life picture of what life in Christ is like. It is a marvelous portrayal of the great benefits which we receive in Christ and of the dedicated obedience we render out of this relationship. Here indeed is a foretaste of life in the kingdom of glory. Let us press on toward a greater appreciation of this fellowship we enjoy with our Lord and seek, as individuals and as churches, to live in anticipation of this heavenly unity as Paul, Timothy, Epaphroditus, and the rest of the Philippian church have so movingly done.

Wilmette, Illinois