All we know of Epaphroditus comes from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. His name means something like “charming” or “fascinating” and was common in the Greek world, being derived from Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and sexuality. In chapter 2 we have the story of this man’s selfless contribution to the work of the gospel. The outline runs as follows: When the church at Philippi learned that Paul had been thrown in jail in another city, they decided that one of them should go and serve his needs. Prison in those days was a horrible experience and whatever a “convict” needed had to be supplied by family and friends. Epaphroditus was the one chosen for this task. After arriving, he worked so hard that he became seriously ill; in fact, he “almost died” (v. 30). What added to his distress was that he soon learned that the people back home in Philippi had found out about his condition and that was just too much. His physical problem, plus the emotional distress of learning how the people back home had heard about his condition, was just too much. The combination took him to death’s door (vv. 30 and 27).
What can we say about the character of a man like this? That he was totally committed to the work of the gospel is clear. Paul calls him “my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier.” Think for a moment what each of these terms suggests. A “brother” in Christ is one who has been brought so close in the pursuit of a common goal that they have become “family” in the fullest sense of the term. The bonds of love and loyalty bind the congregation together so that no one is left outside. Not only was Epaphroditus a brother, but he was a “co-worker” as well. Working together at the same task, they were encouraged by one another’s diligence. They were “in it together” and the result, good or bad, was theirs in common. As in work, so in war – they were “fellow-soldiers” in the battle for truth. Paul’s three-fold description tells the whole story.
The thing about Epaphroditus that impresses me the most is his deep concern for the friends back home who had learned about his illness. Here is a tenderness of soul rarely seen. To become deathly ill in a strange city is problem enough. But to learn that others with whom you have such a close relationship are saddened by your plight takes it to a new level. Epaphroditus was a shining example of a basic principle of early Christianity, that the needs and concerns of the other are now yours. We know that Jesus taught that the way to find life is to give it away, but we rarely see it put it into practice. Epaphroditus did, and we honor him for his Christ-like self-forgetfulness.