Epaphroditus and the Mystery

Question:

I was wondering if you could give me some help with the issue in Philippians 2:25-30 concerning Epaphroditus. It seems to be a passage that some folks who scoff at God’s word “rightly divided” point to in order to demonstrate that since God “had mercy on him” then God is still miraculously healing folks today. Was this done at a time in which the signs, miracles, and wonders of Israel’s program were still being performed as Israel was declining? or is there another explanation? Personally, I tend to think that this isn’t an issue of the often-called “transition” period but rather the explanation is to be found in that expression “God had mercy on him” – and the answer is to be found in just what way God had “mercy” on Epaphroditus. The text does not say that God “healed” him – so I’m wondering if there was something going on in his inner man in which God, through the effectual working of His word, fortified Epaphorditus’ heart and … (and that’s where my thinking trails off). I would very much appreciate your help with this.

Answer:

It’s good to hear from you. Well, without going into the extensive issues of the advanced section of our curriculum, let me try to give you very succinctly my understanding of it:

Firstly, I think you are right in not embracing the “transition” view concerning this incident. I will not rehash all the reasons for this, which you already undoubtedly know, and which have contributed to you rejecting it. The bottom line is that it would be inconsistent with what Paul presents even during that time. Where there is one of those unique issues, Paul always makes a point of highlighting that fact so there is no confusion in light of the standardized doctrine he is instructing the saints for this dispensation.

Second, Epaphroditus clearly wasn’t healed. What Paul gives thanks for, rather selfishly 🙂 , is that he didn’t die. He was still in less than “stellar” shape. “I sent him therefore the more carefully…” Especially when that is understood, keeping him on life support as it were (or whatever his sickly condition) hardly seems “merciful” if God is performing this “miracle”.

So then, the issue revolves around what exactly it means that God “had mercy on him”. This is a very unique phrase, especially to be used in this context.

First of all, “had mercy” would seem to be inappropriate if being used for God supernaturally healing him (whether fully, or as I think is clear, just keeping him from dying). In addition to the fact that this phrase would not be used in this context (and if it were would only highlight how limited and out of place healings are today), it has the further problem of not really making any sense doctrinally. If the word were effectually working in Epaphroditus, then being kept from death would in no wise be viewed as being “merciful” (to him anyway) and we indeed are not to view death this way. It is in this very epistle (no coincidence I believe) that Paul has given some of his best known statements concerning the outworking of the doctrine in how we are to view sufferings, the circumstances of life, and particularly death “far better”, etc. It would not make sense linguistically or doctrinally. Did God answer prayers that Paul instructs them not to pray and are at odds with His program today?

Further, “had mercy on him” wouldn’t really seem appropriate to describe the “strengthening” going on in his inner man. This undoubtedly was occurring, and is incredibly important in the context of the advanced curriculum, but generally would be described differently if this were the issue being highlighted.

So then, what would it mean. The mercy does seem to be specifically tied to Epaphroditus not dying. Mercy is a very specific and technical concept. It can have variation, but there are basic parameters to its meaning and the contexts in which it will be used. It goes hand in hand with grace and is an incredibly important aspect of the outworking of godliness and how we are to think of both ourselves and others. One of it’s most base and fundamental like concepts is pity, which says something about the person on the receiving end being in a position of needing help. The word “mercy” is often used in a more legal or judicial context, but is closely tied to the outworking of “love” and “charity” which is obviously a huge issue of the advanced epistles. This has many practical applications with respect to meeting needs, and of course is why you will often find certain organizations with names like “Mercy Hospital”, etc. One of the other places where it is used in a like way as Philippians is in 2 Timothy 1:16-18. In light of the mass apostasy in Asia, and the implications that would have for the actions taken by the “faithful”, Paul there gives a directive for mercy to be shown to a certain house. The difference being that in Epaphroditus’ case thanks was being given for what had already occurred “God had mercy on him”. In the other, Paul’s prays to focus the saints attention and labours on future work “The Lord give mercy unto…”

Paul of course had his own “mercy minister” in the form of “Luke, the BELOVED physician”, and no doubt “beloved” for that very reason. My understanding from the text is that Epaphroditus was the recipient of mercy. This ministering to his needs kept him from dying when he was very ill, for which Paul was extremely thankful (v25). The details of who did this we are not told but any number of people were aware that he was sick (v26) and would have wanted to do whatever they could as they found his own ministry “needful” (Phil. 1:24) . What we do know is that God’s word was effectually working in the inner man of certain saints who acted as ministers of mercy and responded in kind to Epaphroditus’ ministry (Phil. 2:25). Epaphroditus had laboured in ministering to the “wants” of the saints and now that had returned to him. Paul teaches us to be “content” and “glory” regardless of the “wants”. However, he equally calls upon the saints to labour with God and minister to those wants (Phil. 4:10-23). He is passionate about this, because he knows if the word of God does not effectually work in the saints then these “wants” will not be met. His inner man “need”, however, will always be met as long as the word is effectually working in him.

I will take it for granted that you are already familiar with Paul’s repeated phrases where he attributes all things to God and especially with respect to the working of His word being manifested in the saints. The particular effectual working in this instance was the shewing of mercy. That at least is my understanding, so hopefully you find this helpful.

Seated in heavenly places with Him,

-DWB

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