Text – Philippians 2:19-30
When the BAFTAs and the Oscars are held, there are awards for best film, best director, best screenplay, best music, best costume design, best make-up and hair, best leading actor and actress, best grip, best best boy, and, of course, best supporting act.
As Christians, we are used to speaking in glowing terms of heroes of the faith such as Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Billy Graham. But we’re here tonight to consider two nominations for ‘best supporting act’. They never strutted down a red carpet. They never saw their names go up in neon lights. They were never admitted to rehab. But the word of God says that they, and people like them, are to be honoured.
Paul, you will remember, is in prison in Rome. He is awaiting the verdict. Timothy and Epaphroditus have been by his side. They are the two nominations for ‘Best Supporting Act’.
In v22 Paul reminds the Philippians that they already knew Timothy. Acts 16 and 17 tell us that Timothy had accompanied Paul on his 2nd missionary journey, during which they evangelised this Roman colony on the mainland of Greece. So Paul only had to remind them of Timothy’s star qualities, as he plans to send Timothy to Philippi. What are they?
- Timothy really cared about other people. Many people conduct their lives cafeteria-style: self-service only. But not Timothy. V20 – ‘He will show genuine concern for your welfare.’
- Timothy was dedicated to the interests of Jesus Christ. V21 – ‘Everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.’ Everyone else spent all their time looking after Number One. Well, so did Timothy. But for Timothy, Jesus was Number One.
- Timothy was willing to stand in someone else’s shadow. In a recent survey, young children were asked what they wanted to be when they were older. A wapping 31% wanted to be celebrities – ‘I want to be famous’. V22 – ‘As a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.’ He was willing to play second fiddle, to be a junior partner, to be an apprentice.
Timothy was one of the best supporting acts you could ever find. Great-hearted Paul was willing to send the best; he was willing to send Timothy to Philippi. And kind-hearted Timothy was willing to be sent.
No wonder Paul says, v20, ‘I have no one else like him.’
If the Philippians knew Timothy and his star qualities, they also knew Epaphroditus. He came from Philippi, and he had been sent to Rome with a gift for Paul. Now Paul thinks it’s time for him to go back home. And he sends him back with this letter, and with a glowing commendation. Look at his star qualities.
- Epaphroditus was a team player. V25 – ‘My brother, co-worker and fellow soldier.’ The deep love of a brother, the energetic labour of a worker and the sacrificial loyalty of a soldier. Had Epaphroditus been scratchy and quarrelsome, Paul could still have called him a worker and a soldier, but scarcely a brother, co-worker and fellow-soldier.
- Epaphroditus loved people even though it sometimes hurt. v26 – ‘For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.’ The Chinese have a word in which one is required to say ‘pain’ and ‘love’ in the same breath: ‘pain-love’. A mother feels pain-love for her child. Husband and wife feel pain-love for each other. Inherent in such a pain-love is self-sacrifice. Epaphroditus showed pain-love. And in this he was like Christ, because the cross was the ultimate demonstration of pain-love.
- Epaphroditus was even willing to risk his life. He had been a wounded soldier. At some point, he had become very ill, and nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and he recovered. V30 – ‘He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.’ Well, not many of us will have to risk our very lives for Jesus. But we may well have to be willing to risk something, even if it’s only our street-cred or reputation.
No wonder Paul says of Epaphroditus, ‘honour people like him’ – they deserve an award.
These, then, are two leading nominations for ‘Best Supporting Act’.
The pages of the NT contain a number of other contenders for the award of ‘Best Supporting Act’, including a number of women:-
- Elizabeth: who in her old age bore John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ
- Mary: mother of our Lord – ‘I am the Lord’s servant.’
- Anna: who in her old age recognised that in the birth of Jesus the redemption of Jerusalem had come
- Joanna and Susanna: who provided for the material needs of Jesus
- Martha and Mary, friends of Jesus; opened their home to him
- Priscilla, who worked alongside Paul in Corinth and Ephesus
- Lois, Timothy’s grandmother, and Eunice his mother: at whose knees the young Timothy learned to love and follow Jesus.
This passage has a very strong horizontal dimension. It beautifully illustrates just how vital the relational aspects of the Christian life are. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. I have quoted before the words of Geoffrey Paul, who reminds us that ‘there is no way of belonging to Christ except by belonging gladly and irrevocably to that marvellous and extraordinary ragbag of saints and fatheads who make up the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.’
If I imagined that I could be a Christian on my own I would be like
- A student who does not go to school.
- A citizen who does not vote.
- A sailor on a ship with no crew.
- An author without any readers.
- A child without any family.
- A footballer without a team.
- A patient without a doctor.
- An instrumentalist without an orchestra, conductor, or audience.
Some of us more introverted types need to be reminded of this.
But we should not miss the vertical, the Godward, dimension either.
Paul hopes for Timothy and himself to come to Philippi are ‘in the Lord’, v19, 24
Paul is looking for those who serve, not their own interests, but those of Jesus Christ, v21
Timothy has served, not Paul, but with Paul in the work of the gospel, v22
When Epaphroditus recovered from serious illness, it was God who had mercy on him, and on Paul.
Epaphroditus is to be welcomed ‘in the Lord’, v29
He almost died ‘in the work of Christ’, v30
As we focus on the horizontal, relational aspects of what it means to be Christians, let’s not miss these vertical, Godward aspects. If we did that, the church would become a mere club. No: Timothy and Epaphroditus were not simply partners, they were gospel partners.
And, surely, were such excellent supporting acts because they believed that Jesus is worth it. They are model Christians because they modelled themselves on Jesus Christ. He was in very nature God, but did not think equality with God something to be exploited. He made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant. He humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!
So let us learn how to serve
and in our lives enthrone him
each others’ needs to prefer
for it is Christ we’re serving.