By Gordon Franz
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers to imitate (follow) him as he followed the Lord Jesus Christ (I Cor. 11:1). Paul, in his epistle to the church at Philippi, set forth several examples of believers who had the mind of Christ – the lowliness of mind, and esteemed others better then themselves (Phil. 2:3, 5). Paul intended for the Christians at Philippi to imitate these examples: one of whom was one of their own – Epaphroditus.
On the inside wall of the Church of Lydia (currently standing just outside the archaeological park of Philippi), is a mosaic icon of Epaphroditus. He is depicted as a young man dressed in a purple garment, holding what appears to be a scroll. That is not the impression I get from the book of Philippians. Epaphroditus was a veteran, a battle tested soldier, who gambled his life for the sake of the gospel.
Philippians 2:25-30; 4:18
Yet I consider it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my needs; since he was longing for you all, and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I sent him the more eagerly, that when you see him again you may rejoice, and I may be less sorrowful. Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness, and hold such men in esteem; because for the work of Christ he came close to death, not regarding his life, to supply what was lacking in your service toward me
…having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God.
Epaphroditus in Philippi
I suspect, but can not conclusively prove, that Epaphroditus was a veteran of the Roman Legion, and possibly of the Praetorian Guard. If so, upon his discharge from the army, he would have been given land in Philippi so he could retire to that Roman colony. It was in this city that he came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. His former military training and lifestyle would have served him well in his Christian life because he volunteered for a difficult and dangerous task, thus risking his life for the sake of the gospel. There are several lines of reasoning that have led me to this conclusion.
First, Epaphroditus name means “charming, lovely, or fascinating” and has at the root of his name Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. According to Greek mythology she was born in the sea and washed up onto the shore of the island of Cyprus on a sea shell. In fact, Greek mythology could point to the very rocks off the beach where she came ashore. There was even a temple dedicated to her outside the ancient city of Paphos that had a black basalt rock that was worshiped as the goddess. [If you believe this Greek mythology stuff, I will be glad to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge]!
Apparently Epaphroditus’ parents may have been pagan devotees of the goddess and therefore named their son in her honor. If true, they were probably not from Philippi because no temple or shrine to Aphrodite has been uncovered in the extensive excavations in the city. None of the ancient sources that mention Philippi attest to her presence in the city, nor is there any evidence for her, or her cult, on coins or inscriptions that have been excavated in the ruins of ancient Philippi (Koulouli-Chrysantaks 1998: 22-27).
I would conclude that Epaphroditus was not born or raised in Philippi but that he came to the city of Philippi as a retired solder. After the battle of Philippi in 42 BC, the victors settled a number of veterans in the city and gave them fertile land to farm (Strabo, Geography 7, fr. 41; LCL 3:363). In 31 BC, after the battle of Actium in western Greece, more veterans were settled in the city upon their retirement from military service. Even in the First Century AD there were retired soldiers living, and eventually dying, in Philippi and its environs (Speidel 1970: 142-153). One of those who retired to the city could have been Epaphroditus.
Second, the apostle Paul calls Epaphroditus a “fellow soldier” (Phil. 2:25). It is obvious that he is using this term in a metaphorical sense because, as far as we know, Paul never served in the Roman army. But that does not preclude that Epaphroditus did not serve in the military. By using this term, the veterans who were in fellowship in the assembly at Philippi would understand the character of Epaphroditus and the nature of the spiritual warfare that they were engaged in (cf. Eph. 6:10-20).
Interestingly, during the reign of Claudius (AD 41-54) or Nero (AD 54-68), a coin was minted in Philippi with Nike, the goddess of victory, on the obverse side and three Roman standards on the reverse side. The inscription framing the standards said: “COHOR(tes) PRAE(toriae) PHIL(ippensis)” which means Praetorian Cohorts of Philippi (Burnett, Amandry, and Ripolles 1992:I:308; coin 1651). This suggests that some, if not all, of the veterans in Philippi were from the Praetorian Guards. Perhaps Epaphroditus had served in this elite unit composed of bodyguards for the Emperor. Coincidently, Paul mentioned the Praetorian Guards in his epistle to the Philippians (1:13; cf. 4:22). If the Praetorian Guards did retire to Philippi, the recent converts would be interested in hearing about Paul’s evangelism of their former comrades and Epaphroditus would have told the Philippians believers about this when he returned home.
Third, there is an axiom that says: “You can take a man out of the Marines, but you can never take the Marines out of the man.” It has been my observation of people who put in their 20, or 25, years in the military and retire still live a regimented military lifestyle. They still say, “Yes sir, no sir.” They still have a disciplined life as far as their time is concerned. They react in dangerous situations in the way they had been trained in the service.
You will recall the events surrounding Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot of US Air flight #1549, in the airspace over New York City in January 2009. He was a former US Air Force pilot and trained other pilots in emergency landings. When those geese clogged up and shut down both engines on his plane, he did not stop and think, “Oh my, we have a problem, what am I going to do now?” No, he calmly reacted, based on his many hours of training, and safely landed the plane on the Hudson River. Likewise, as a former soldier, Epaphroditus reverted to his military training and put his life in danger for the sake of the gospel and the Apostle Paul.
Paul in Philippi
The church at Philippi was one of Paul’s favorites. He had been to the city, fellowshipped with the saints, and ministered to them on at least three occasions and one of his travelling co-workers, Dr. Luke, was most likely from this city.
On the Apostle Paul’s second missionary journey (AD 49-52), he was accompanied by Silas and Timothy. In response to the “Macedonian Call”, they went to Philippi and planted a church in that city (Acts 16:9-40). Dr. Luke, apparently a native of Philippi, stayed behind and continued the work in the newly established church in the city (AD 50).
During Paul’s third missionary journey (AD 52-57) he had a lengthy, almost three year, stay at Ephesus (AD 52-55; Acts 19). The ministry of Paul and his co-worker Timothy, was so effective that “all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (19:10). After the near riots in the theater, Paul thought it best to leave Ephesus so he departed to Macedonia (Acts 19:23-20:1). More than likely, his first stop was Philippi (AD 55). After a ministry in Macedonia, and apparently Illyricum (Rom. 15:19), he went to Greece (Achaia). After three months in Corinth (winter AD 57), he returned to Macedonia and rejoined Dr. Luke in Philippi (spring AD 57). They, and six other brethren, accompanied them to Jerusalem with the collection for the saints in the Holy City (Acts 20:3-6).
The church at Philippi was dear to Paul’s heart. He enjoyed the “fellowship in the gospel” (Phil. 1:5) that they shared for over ten years and knew they cared for him (4:10). One of the individuals he valued in this fellowship was Epaphroditus. When they first met, and when and how Epaphroditus came to faith, we are not told as well. Most likely it was not the apostle Paul who led his to faith in the Lord Jesus as his Savior because he would have called Epaphroditus “his son in the faith” as he did Timothy (I Tim. 1:2; II Tim. 1:2) and Titus (Tit. 1:4). Paul only calls him a “brother” (Phil. 2:25; cf. John 1:12).
Paul also identifies Epaphroditus as a “fellow worker” (Phil. 2:25), as he does Clement and other saints from the church at Philippi (Phil. 4:3). These were individuals who labored with the apostle as he and his team proclaimed the gospel in Macedonia on various occasions.
The Gift to Paul from the Church at Philippi
The saints at Philippi sent a financial gift to the Apostle Paul while he was under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:30). He had lost everything when he and Dr. Luke were shipwrecked on Malta and rent was probably high in the Eternal City. This was not the first time the believers in Philippi sent Paul a gift. They sent him two gifts while he was in Thessaloniki (Phil. 4:16), and then again when he was in Corinth (Phil. 4:15; cf. II Cor. 11:9). Each time they gave sacrificially out of their poverty (II Cor. 8:2).
The church at Philippi appointed Epaphroditus as their “sent one” (apostle) to take the money to Paul (Phil. 4:18). Most likely he would have had others go with him, not only for accountability, but also to protect the money, since this is the pattern in the early church (cf. Acts 20:4; Lenski 1937:696-697). More than likely, they would have walked the Via Egnatia from Philippi to Dyrrachium on the Adriactic Sea (367/8 Roman miles; Adams 1982:280), and then cross the sea by ship. They would have continued walking on the Via Appian from Brundusium to Rome (360 Roman miles). This trip, covering 729 miles, most likely would have taken 57 days, with a rest on each Lord’s Day, a trip of almost two months. If Epaphroditus and his friends made this trip during the winter, he might have picked up pneumonia, or he could have eaten tainted food at one of the inns. These conditions might explain why he got deathly sick and almost died (Phil. 2:27, 30).
Paul Under House Arrest in Rome
The Apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome and more than likely confined to a rented apartment near the Camp of the Praetorian Guards on the Viminal Hill (Richardson 1992: 263, fig. 58; 325, fig. 72; 431). Ministering to him was Dr. Luke and some other brethren (Col. 4:7-14; Philemon 23-24).
The Philippian church sent a financial gift with Epaphroditus and his team and referred to him as “one who ministered to my needs” (2:25). The implication of that statement was that Epaphroditus was to stay in Rome and join the Apostle Paul’s team and work with him, even though he was under house arrest. There was one problem: Epaphroditus got deathly sick when he arrived in Rome or while he was in the city working with Paul. The Apostle had a dilemma on his hands. He was preparing for his defense before Nero and he also had a person with a near fatal sickness on his hands who may have also been homesick (“… since he was longing for you all” Phil. 2:26) and worried about the believers at home because they heard he was sick. What to do? Fortunately for both Epaphroditus and Paul, God was merciful and intervened in the situation by healing Epaphroditus. That was one less thing Paul had to be concerned about (2:26-27).
Paul also had another concern on his heart. In that he had heard about the seeds of division that had been planted in the church at Philippi. Two sisters, Euodia and Syntyche, were at odds with each other and Paul needed to implore them to be of one mind in the Lord (4:2).
The Apostle Paul saw a win-win situation. He would write a letter to the church at Philippi about their fellowship in the gospel (1:3), being of one mind and having the mind of Christ (2:1-11), and have it directed at these two sisters who did not get along. The letter carrier that would take this epistle back would be none other than Epaphroditus (2:25, 28). The people in the assembly at Philippi who were worried about him would rejoice when they saw him again. Paul would be less sorrowful because Epaphroditus was one less concern for him as he prepared for his defense before Nero.
The Apostle Paul was probably aware that some in the assembly at Philippi would think that Epaphroditus did not accomplish the mission that the church commissioned him to do: join forces with Paul as they engaged in spiritual warfare in Rome. Paul gave a command to the veterans in the assembly to: “Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness, and hold such men in esteem.” Not only were they to receive him, but also to hold him in high esteem because he went above and beyond the call of duty for the cause of Christ and almost died in the line of duty (2:30).
One commentator points out that: “Epaphroditus was no coward, but a courageous person willing to take enormous risks, ready to play with very high stakes in order to come to the aid of a person in need. He did not ‘save’ his life, but rather hazarded it to do for Paul and the cause of Christ what other Philippians Christians did not or could not do” (Hawthorne 1983:120).
The Greek phrase that is translated “not regarding his life” is a gambling term coined by the Apostle Paul. A Greek gambler, before he rolled the dice, would invoke Aphrodite (or Venus in the Roman world), the goddess of gamblers, with the phrase “epaphroditos”, meaning “favorite of Aphrodite” (Lees 1917:201-203; 1925-1925:46; Hawthorne 1983:120). Paul made a pun on Epaphroditius’ name. Truly the dice were loaded when Epaphroditus put his life on the line for the Lord’s work. Instead of invoking Aphrodite, he invoked the true and living God, and He was merciful to Epaphroditus and healed him.
Paul concludes this section by stating that Epaphroditus risked his life “to supply what was lacking in your service toward me” (2:30). The Greek construction does not give the impression that Paul is trying to lay a guilt trip on the people in Philippi because they did not do enough for Paul. In fact, the opposite was the case; Paul was praising them because they had sent a trusted and beloved brother who in essence was an extension of their ministry.
There are at least four lessons we can learn from the life of this battle tested soldier of Christ.
First, he was a brother to the Apostle Paul. Paul used that term in a metaphorical sense to indict that they were in the same spiritual family, the family of God by faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ alone (John 1:12; Eph. 2:8, 9). Have you trusted the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior and do you know the assurance of sins forgiven and the guarantee of home in Heaven? Epaphroditus did and knew these truths.
Second, the Apostle Paul characterized Epaphroditus as a selfless person – one with the mind of Christ who esteemed others better than himself (Phil. 2:1-5). He demonstrated this selflessness by volunteering to go to Rome and help out the Apostle Paul in his time of need. When we consider the Christian life, do we ask ourselves, “What’s in it for me?” Or, do we ask ourselves, “How can I be of service to others?” Epaphroditus sought to serve other people.
Third, Epaphroditus worked on the philosophy, “I would rather wear out than rust out.” The word retirement was not in his vocabulary! Yes, he may have put his 25 years of service in the Roman army and he had his bronze retirement diploma. But, if that was the case, perhaps he had the same attitude as some Christians today who use the phrase, “I’m not retired, just refocused!” When Epaphroditus retired as a soldier in the Imperial army, he refocused his life as a soldier of the Lord Jesus Christ engaged in spiritual warfare. Have we refocused our lives in order to be engaged in this spiritual warfare?
Finally, Epaphroditus took great risks for the sake of the gospel. Exactly what he did in gambling with his life, we are not told, but I am sure he will be greatly rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ for his risk taking. Will we gamble our lives for the sake of the gospel?
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) eloquently expressed what may have been the motivation for Epaphroditus “gambling habit” when he penned the last verse of his famous hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”. He wrote:
“Were the whole realm of nature mine
that were a present far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.”
It was the divine love of the Lord Jesus that constrained Epaphroditus to risk all to follow Jesus because He died and rose again from the dead in order to pay for all Epaphroditus’ sins. It was only his reasonable service to live completely for the Lord Jesus (Rom. 12:1-2), and risking all he had, including his life, to follow Him. Will we be willing to do the same?
Perhaps Epaphroditus was the one Isaac Watts had in mind when he penned the words to “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?”
Am I a soldier of the cross, a follower of the Lamb,
And shall I fear to own His cause, or blush to speak His Name?
Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize, and sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace, to help me on to God?
Sure, I must fight if I would reign; increase my courage, Lord;
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain, supported by Thy Word.
Epaphroditus, the gambling veteran, bet all that he had and he hit the jackpot. He received the crown of life (James 1:12)!
Adams, John Paul
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Burnett, Andrew; Amandry, Michel, and Ripolles, Pere Pau
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1917 St. Paul’s Friends. London: Religious Tract Society.
1925-26 Epaphroditus, God’s Gambler. Expository Times 37: 46.
Lenski, R. C. H.
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Richardson, L. Jr.
1992 A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University.
1970 The Captor of Decebalus a New Inscription from Philippi. Journal of Roman Studies 60: 142-153.
1983 The Geography of Strabo. Vol. 3. Trans. by H. L. Jones. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 182.