5. Christian Character: Timothy and Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:19-30)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (27:30)

Edward Burne-Jones, detail of 'St. Timothy,' Vyner Memorial Window, Christ Church, Oxford.
Edward Burne-Jones, detail of 'St. Timothy,' Vyner Memorial Window, Christ Church, Oxford.

This week's lesson is shorter. We have here no major doctrinal issues to discuss. But this section is vitally important, nevertheless, especially if you are a leader in your church. The passage talks about the character of two Christian workers, Timothy and Epaphroditus. As we study them, we reflect on our own service to Christ.

Timothy's Background

Before we study the passage in Philippians, let's look briefly at Timothy's background.

Timothy's name means in Greek, "one who honors God." He was a native of Lystra, which Paul and Barnabas had visited in conjunction with the First Missionary Journey (about 41 to 47 AD), close by Derbe and Iconium, other cities on their preaching itinerary (Acts 14:6-21). Miracles took place and "they preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples" (Acts 14:8). One of these was apparently Timothy, then a young man. Paul considered himself Timothy's spiritual father, calls him "my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 4:17) and "my true son in the faith" (1 Timothy 1:2). By the time Paul and Silas returned to the area for the Second Missionary Journey (about 47-51 AD), "the brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him" (Acts 16:2). He had developed a good reputation in the Christian community. Paul asked him to join them on the missionary journey as an assistant (Acts 16:3).

But there was an obstacle. Timothy was the son of a devout Jewish mother, but a Greek (Gentile) father, and because of his mixed parentage he hadn't been circumcised. Perhaps his father had opposed it when he was young; we don't know. From a Jewish standpoint, the marriage was technically illegal.[123] Even the Christian church would have opposed the marriage of a believer to a non-believer (2 Corinthians 6:14). But his mother's spiritual influence was not completely frustrated. He had been tutored from infancy in the Old Testament Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15) and had examples of sincere faith in both his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (2 Timothy 1:5).

Paul was adamantly against forcing people to be circumcised as a prerequisite for salvation. He defended the right of another co-worker, Titus, to remain uncircumcised, since he had no Jewish parentage (Galatians 2:1-5). To Paul circumcision or uncircumcision wasn't important to salvation (Galatians 5:6; 6:15).

But Paul's mission was being all things to all men in order to save some (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). His missionary strategy was to go first to the synagogue in a city and preach Christ there. When he was eventually expelled from the synagogue for preaching Jesus as the Messiah, he would organize a church, made up of converted Jews as well as converted "God-fearers," Gentiles who came to synagogue because they were attracted by Judaism.

But if Paul went to a synagogue with an uncircumcised Jewish young man as his associate, he would have been immediately ejected over the issue of circumcision, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ wouldn't get a hearing. If Timothy were to travel with Paul, he must be circumcised, not for salvation, but so he wouldn't be an impediment to Jews hearing the Gospel. So Timothy was circumcised in Lystra, received the laying on of hands by the elders at Lystra (1 Timothy 4:14), and joined the Apostolic mission.

From this time on, Timothy is a close, trusted associate of Paul's. They have a kind of mentor-protégé, father-son relationship. As he grows in the faith, Paul entrusts him with the most delicate of missions. Hawthorne observes, "Timothy was a young man with exceptional potential for missionary statesmanship and church leadership."[124]

  • He is left behind in Berea to continue the work after Paul is forced to leave because of threats against his life (Acts 17:14).
  • During a time of persecution he is sent to Thessalonica to strengthen the believers in their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:1-3).
  • He is sent to Macedonia from Ephesus with a similar mission (Acts 19:22).
  • He is sent as Paul's emissary to bring teaching and healing to the troubled church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 4:17-21).
  • He is apparently sent to Philippi and perhaps returns with a monetary gift from that church for Paul (Philippians 2:19; 4:15-16; Acts 18:5).
  • He is instructed how to appoint elders and deacons in the churches (1 Timothy 3).
  • He accompanies Paul on his last trip to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4).
  • He is at his side during his imprisonment.

Paul seemed to gain special comfort, encouragement, and strength from Timothy's presence (Philippians 2:20-22). He is mentioned in the salutation of the letters to Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica, and the second Corinthian letter -- probably because he was well-known to those churches.

Like all of us, however, Timothy was a person under construction by God. Paul has to encourage him against timidity (2 Timothy 1:7) and people despising his authority because of his youth (1 Timothy 4:12; 1 Corinthians 16:10). Sometimes Paul has to urge him to be diligent in spiritual matters and to persevere in the Christian ministry (1 Timothy 4:12-16; 2 Timothy 1:6; 3:14-15). Paul also instructs him how to behave towards various kinds of people (1 Timothy 5), controlling his passions (2 Timothy 2:22-23), dealing with error (2 Timothy 3:1-18), and keep himself from godless myths and speculations (1 Timothy 1:4; 4:7). Paul encourages by his own example to love, faith, and purity (1 Timothy 4:12), to fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 1:18), and to keep the faith and a good conscience (1 Timothy 1:19).

Paul longs for Timothy at the closing days of his life (2 Timothy 4:9). Later, apparently Timothy himself is imprisoned and then released (Hebrews 13:23). Of his later life we know little, but that tradition says that he succeeded the Apostle John as Bishop of Ephesus and was beaten to death at age 80.[125] All in all, Timothy made a remarkable contribution to the ministry of Paul and to the First Century Church.

Timothy's Selfless Love (2:19-21)

After considering Timothy's life and ministry, let's meditate on what Paul says about him here, as it gives us a picture of character befitting a church leader:

"19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. 20 I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. 21 For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." (2:19-21)

Timothy was a great comfort to Paul in his imprisonment. But Timothy was more than just a familiar companion. He was a Christian statesman that Paul could send to deal with the most sensitive of church problems. Paul is seeking recent news of the Philippian church, but even more he is seeking news that their divisions and bickering had ceased. Perhaps Timothy can help them through that.

Look at what makes Timothy an effective leader: He "takes a genuine interest in your welfare." He isn't self-absorbed. He doesn't have a hidden agenda. He cares about those he ministers to. "Genuine/ly" (NIV, NRSV) or "naturally" (KJV) is the Greek adverb gnēsiōs, "sincerely, genuinely."[126] The interest he shows is not some professional exercise -- he really cares. "Interest" (NIV), "care" (KJV), and "concerned" (NRSV) is the Greek verb merimnaō, which means here, "to attend to, care for, be concerned about something."[127]

Paul has had lots of experience with church leaders by now. Paul says, "I have no one else like him." "Likeminded" (KJV) or "like him" (NIV, NRSV) is the Greek adjective isopsychos, "of like soul or mind."[128] How sad, when you think of it -- the rareness of genuine concern, which is a synonym, of true agapē love.

Others are trying to further[129] their own interests. This isn't merely a conscious motive of self-aggrandizement. It is often a hidden psychological neediness to be loved and accepted, or underlying desire for power and control that is the real motivator. It isn't that others besides Timothy weren't earnestly trying to serve the Lord. But they weren't mature, in the sense that had allowed Jesus to thoroughly work through their issues with them and refine them.

If you've walked with the Lord for a while, you know that he has a way of surfacing our flaws and making them obvious to us. Then we can deal with them and bring them before him and let him heal us.

Too often we have allowed leaders to control our churches who are not spiritually and emotionally mature. How can they be true "servant leaders," like Jesus was, if they haven't been refined and chastened and reworked by God?

Q1. (2:19-21) Why was Timothy's selfless concern so rare among church leaders? Rather than pointing the finger at others in your church, consider yourself. What things has Jesus had to deal with in your life that has helped you to become genuinely selfless and focused on the concerns of others? How has he refined you? (Of course, he is still at work in us!)

Proving Oneself (2:22a)

Paul goes on to describe Timothy:

"22 But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. 23 I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. 24 And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon." (2:22-24)

Timothy is no novice to ministry. He has proved himself. "Proved/proof" (NIV/KJV) or "worth" (NRSV) is the Greek noun dokimē, "test, ordeal." Here it has the idea, "the experience of going through a test with special reference to the result, standing a test, character."[130] This word group is used of assaying ore to see if it is of mixed alloy or pure metal. This is like "gold refined in the fire," tested, purified, proved.

In a later epistle Paul instructs Timothy about selecting overseers (bishops) and deacons:

[An overseer] "must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil." (1 Timothy 3:6)

[Deacons] "must first be tested (dokimazō); and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons." (1 Timothy 3:10)

Too often our selections of church officers is more about popularity (or "Who can we get to say 'yes'?") than spiritual maturity and tested character. Shame on us! We trivialize positions of church leadership when we are so desperate to fill a slot on the board that we take anybody for any motive. Instead of being considered an imposition, church leadership should be considered an honor and a sacred calling.

Like a Son with a Father -- Mentoring (2:22b)

"But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. (2:22)

Timothy has worked with Paul "as a son with his father." What does that mean? The way boys learned to farm, or to be a carpenter, or a tentmaker, or whatever trade? They generally worked alongside their father for years, learning not only the skills, but the attitudes and values that are necessary to perform the work successfully. Timothy was an apprentice.

How do we train our church leaders today? Do we give them a task and leave them to fend for themselves? Or do we put them to work alongside someone else?

I can remember some of my own spiritual mentors and how valuable they have been to me. First, my own father, who taught me to love the Lord with faithfulness and obedience. One of my early pastors, Philip Stanley, took me under his wing and taught me about caring for the sheep. And a layman, Joe Parriott, taught me how to love people.

Q2. (2:22) Who has come alongside you to teach you? What potential leader in your church needs someone to come alongside them? Do you have a person or two that you are mentoring "as a son with a father" or "a daughter with a mother"?

Slaving in the Gospel (2:22c)

"But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel." (2:22)

There are several words in Greek for serving. One of the most common is diakoneō, "to serve," from which we get our word "deacon." But the word "served" in this verse is remarkable. It is the Greek verb douleuō, "to act or conduct oneself as one in total service to another, perform the duties of a slave, serve, obey."[131]

When we use the phrase, "slaving away," we use it in a negative sense of menial, unremitting, undesirable labor. But Paul means it as a humble privilege, to serve the Lord Jesus Christ as his willing slave is a high honor. Is it an honor for you or a chore? A lot has to do with the quality of our love for this Jesus. If we are just doing "church work," that can get old. But Paul tells slaves in his day,

"Serve (douleuō) wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free." (Ephesians 6:7-8)

In your church or your daily occupation, whom are you serving? Get this right and you can be a leader. Get this wrong and you will hurt the church of Christ.

Q3. (2:22) What is the significance of serving Jesus as a "slave" as opposed to serving him as a preference? What does it say about the quality of our service? Of our commitment? What is wrong with leaders who serve out of preference?

Paul uses an interesting phrase, "He has served with me in [the work of] the gospel." "Work of the gospel" (NIV, RSV) is the Greek noun euangelion, "good news as a proclamation."[132] What we are about is not administrivia. It is the vital work of proclaiming the Good News itself to a darkened, dying world!

After describing Timothy and his qualifications, Paul tells the Philippians,

"I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon." (2:22-24)

Paul expects to be released soon!

Epaphroditus the Man (2:25)

Now let's move from Timothy to Epaphroditus, a believer sent by the Philippian church to assist Paul in prison. His name means "charming."

"But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs." (2:25)

Look at the ways Paul describes Epaphroditus:

Brother (adelphos). He's part of the Christian family, the church family. Sometimes our leaders, sometimes professional clergy remain somehow aloof from the congregation. But the best church leaders are those who understand that they too are brothers and sisters.

Fellow worker (synergos). Paul is in prison. There are no cities to take for Christ. No glorious mission to the heathen. Just the everyday chores of going grocery shopping, helping with cooking, finding people that Paul needs to talk to and bringing them to his house. Perhaps helping him by transcribing letters. But Paul doesn't trivialize his time in prison. He doesn't see it as wasted. So Epaphroditus is a worker, a fellow worker with Paul. No matter that Paul is the famous apostle and Epaphroditus a humble layperson come to help. He has made a valuable contribution to the mission. He is a fellow worker in the great work of the Gospel.

Fellow soldier (systratiōtēs). Paul has no illusions about his situation. He is not comfortable in some church that seems to fit like an old shoe. He is a soldier in Christ's army. He is at war and does not hesitate to remind the troops of their status too. As he wrote to Timothy in a later letter:

"Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs--he wants to please his commanding officer." (2 Timothy 2:3-4)

We are not to be complainers or slackers. We are soldiers who expect to endure difficulty and hardship. To achieve the mission no matter what the personal cost. Epaphroditus is a fellow soldier.

Messenger (apostolos). Though the Greek word is apostolos, this doesn't mean that Epaphroditus is an official apostle. The word was commonly used of "messengers without extraordinary status, delegate, envoy."[133] He is a messenger of the Church of Philippi sent on a mission to help Paul. Epaphroditus is a messenger, the church's messenger, Christ's messenger.

"Minister" (NRSV) or "priestly minister" (leitourgos). The word can mean "one engaged in personal service, aide, assistant." But it can also carry the idea of priestly service, though it may not have that connotation here.[134] Epaphroditus is a minister, an aide-de-camp, an assistant.

Risking His Life (2:26-30)

But useful as Epaphroditus has been to Paul, he must send him home.

"26For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. 27Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. 28Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. 29Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, 30because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me." (2:26-30)

We're not sure of all the reasons for sending Epaphroditus home. He had been seriously ill. Apparently, the illness wasn't just a random disease, but something resulting from his ministry to Paul, "risking[135] his life to make up for the help you could not give me" (2:30b). It was directly caused by "the work of Christ" (2:30a). Perhaps he needed to go home to recover fully. He could have been homesick -- "He longs for all of you." He is concerned that the Philippian church is so distressed about him.

Honor Such Men (3:29)

Whatever the reason, Paul's letter to the Philippians is designed to ensure that his church will honor him for his work rather than consider him a failure and washout. That is the reason for the words describing his service -- brother, fellow worker, fellow soldier, messenger, and minister. Paul commands the Philippians concerning him: "Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him" (3:29). "Honor" (NIV, NRSV) and "reputation" (NRSV) is the Greek noun entimos, "pertaining to being highly regarded because of status or personal quality, honored, respect."[136]

Q4. From what you've read in Philippians so far, what seems to be the Philippian church's chief problem? How does Paul's description of Timothy's character speak to this problem? How does Paul's call to honor men like Epaphroditus speak to this problem?

It is quite appropriate for churches to especially honor those who have served in ministry as pastors and missionaries. Sometimes they return to a home church at retirement. We should honor them! But sometimes they return to a home church after a debilitating illness or emotional burnout. Sometimes they return following a divorce that the stresses of ministry contributed to. Dear friends, we aren't to be their judges but their brothers and sisters and friends. We are to buoy them up and heal them by our love. We are to honor them and their families for Christ's sake and for their service to Christ, no matter what the outcome.

When our servicemen and women returned home from an unpopular war, they were often dishonored and forgotten. When they suffered injuries both physical and psychic, we tended to disregard them. We cannot afford to do this to our pastors and missionaries and Christian workers when they return from service. Let us outdo one another in honoring them!

Philippians: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, JesusWalk Bible Study Series
Available in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats

The brief passage we've studied today challenges as church leaders to be people of high character and calling. It also speaks to us of how to honor leaders who have served the cause of Christ. May we be obedient to the Word of God to us.


Father, your standards for leaders are high. Give us grace to rise to your standards rather than to fall to our own. Let our lives radiate the humble leadership of Jesus Christ. Where we fall short, have mercy on us and help us grow. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

Key Verse

"I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." (Philippians 2:20-21)


[123] Strack and Billerback, II, 741, is cited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, "Timothy," ISBE 4:857-858.

[124] Gerald F. Hawthorne, "Timothy," ISBE 4:858.

[125] "According to the ancient Roman martyrology, he died Bishop of Ephesus. The Bollandists (24 Jan.) give two lives of St. Timothy, one ascribed to Polycrates (an early Bishop of Ephesus, and a contemporary of St. Irenaeus) and the other by Metaphrastes, which is merely an expansion of the former. The first states that during the Neronian persecution St. John arrived at Ephesus, where he lived with St. Timothy until he was exiled to Patmos under Domitian. Timothy, who was unmarried, continued Bishop of Ephesus until, when he was over eighty years of age, he was mortally beaten by the pagans." (C. Aherne, "Epistles to Timothy and Titus," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV (Robert Appleton Company, 1912, online edition 2003).

[126] Gnēsiōs, BDAG 202.

[127] Merimnaō can have two senses: (1) "care for" as in this verse or (2) "be apprehensive, have anxiety, be anxious, be (unduly) concerned," which is its meaning in 4:6 (BDAG 632).

[128] Isopsuchos, BDAG 481.

[129] "Looks out for" (NIV), "seek/seeking" (KJV, NRSV) is the Greek verb zēteō, "strive for, aim (at), try to obtain, desire, wish (for)" (BDAG 428).

[130] Dokimē, BDAG 256.

[131] Douleuō, BDAG 259.

[132] Euangelion, BDAG 402.

[133] Apostolos, BDAG 122.

[134] Leitourgos, BDAG 592. We get our word "liturgy" and "liturgical" from this Greek noun, leitourgos.

[135] "Risking" (NIV, NRSV) and "not regarding" (KJV) is the Greek paraboleuomai, "expose to danger, risk" (BDAG 759).

[136] Entimos, BDAG 340.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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