Look for the Helpers
When reading through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, it becomes clear quickly that life is not going smoothly for Paul or for the believers in Philippi.
In Philippians 1:13, we discover that Paul is being held as a prisoner in the imperial jail. In Philippians 1:19-26, Paul discusses his uncertainty as to whether he will get out of jail alive. In Philippians 1:28, we find out that the Philippians are facing opponents who are trying to intimidate them. In Philippians 1:29, we learn that the Philippian Christian are suffering in similar ways to how Paul has been suffering. In Philippians 2:17, Paul alludes to the fact that his life may be sacrificed.
In the face of such troubles and dangers, where should the Philippian believers focus their attention?
On his television show, Mr. Fred Rogers offered a recommendation to preschoolers who were frightened by a calamity: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Paul seems to follow Mr. Rogers’ tactic in Philippians 2:19-30; he draws the readers’ attention to two helpers: Timothy and Epaphroditus.
Up to this point in his letter, Paul has been challenging the Philippians and us to be like-minded, to have the same love, to be one in spirit and purpose, to look out for one another’s interests, and to have the attitude of Jesus Christ who took the very nature of a servant for our sake. When we get to verse 19 of the second chapter, it is as if Paul declares, “Instead of just writing about these qualities, I am going to send you an example, so that you will not just be reading about these things but seeing them in action.” Paul sends Timothy to the Philippians with this description, “I hope in the lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel” (Philippians 2:19-22).
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is filled with many great spiritual gems, but the greatest spiritual truths are spelled out best not with ink on paper but in lived-out relationships. God did not just send us a book; he came to us as Jesus Christ. Paul did not just send a letter; he sent Timothy. And God does not just send us sheets of instructions on how we should live out the Christian life; God gives to us a church—a community of brothers and sisters–with whom we can learn and struggle, fail and forgive, love and be loved.
Edwin Hodder wrote about Sir George Burns, the founder of the Cunard Steamship Company, “If the Bible were blotted out of existence…and if there were no visible church at all, I could not fail to believe in the doctrines of Christianity while the living epistle of Sir George Burns’ life remained in my memory.”
We need people like that in our lives. May God help us to be people like that to others.
The second helper Paul points our attention to is more complicated. Paul was sending Timothy to Philippi to be a “living epistle” to the Philippians, but the reason Paul is sending Epaphroditus to Philippis is that Epaphroditus has been very sick and needs to go home.
The Philippians had sent Epaphroditus to Rome to care for Paul’s needs, but Epaphroditus had become sick, and Paul ended up taking care of him. Some in Philippi are upset with Epaphroditus for being a burden to Paul rather than a help to him, so Paul writes carefully to the Philippians, encouraging them to exercise mercy toward Epaphroditus: “Still, I think it necessary to send to you Ephaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me” (Philippians 2:25-30).
Up to this point in his letter, Paul has been writing about grace, mercy, kindness and goodness. But what good are great theological treatises on God’s grace and mercy, if we cannot live out God’s grace, mercy, kindness and goodness with one another? Paul doesn’t just write good theology, Paul demonstrates it in practice. Everything he says about Ephaphroditus flows out of Paul’s grace and mercy and compassion toward Epaphroditus. How great it would be if we would practice such mercy and compassion toward each other.