4 Life Lessons from Epaphroditus

Today I’m sharing a Bible study at Noonday at the Baptist Student Union of Mississippi State University (#HailState). Since I went to already went to the trouble of collecting my thoughts for them, I thought I’d share them with you as well.

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My assignment was to do a character study of Epaphroditus from the New Testament. Never heard of Epaphroditus? Don’t worry, no one has! He gets fifteen seconds of fame in the book of Philippians. And yet from those few short verses, we can learn some timeless truths. Let me set it up this way: how many of you have an older sibling? How many of you grew up in your older sibling’s shadow? How many of you are secretly convinced that your parents had a favorite child growing up, and it wasn’t you?  That’s a little tougher because your parents will deny it, but you know . . . you know.

The reason I bring all this up is because I sense a little of this relationship when I read the passage in Philippians 2, the only time in Scripture where Epaphroditus is mentioned.

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.

Paul wants to send Timothy to the church in Philippi as his ambassador/surrogate to check on them, and Timothy will return and give Paul an update on the church.

20 I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. 21 For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.

“I have no one else like him.” Paul knows a lot of people. He’s about to mention Epaphroditus, but about Timothy he says, “I have no one else like him.” Paul loves Timothy. He says, “everyone looks out for their own interests.” The context is that Paul is talking about other ministers. He’s saying out of all of his surrogates, Timothy is the most faithful, because he’s completely sold out to Jesus Christ.

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.

As a son with his father. That’s where Paul makes the father/son reference. Paul loves this guy! So, to sum up: Timothy is awesome, he’s sold out to Jesus, he’s like Paul’s son. Now, we’re about to get to Epaphroditus. I’m going to read it straight through, and I want you to actively listen and see if you can tell any difference about how Paul writes about Timothy and how he writes about Epaphroditus.

25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. 27 Indeed 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. 28 Therefore 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. 29 So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, 30 because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me. Philippians 2:19-30

I mean, he compliments Epaphroditus. He’s a brother (not like a son to him), co-worker, fellow soldier. Compliments, but not the warmth. His task was to take an offering from the church in Philippi in modern day Turkey to where Paul was imprisoned in Rome to help him with his expenses. So the picture is of Epaphroditus being sent to help and minister to Paul, and it was just short of an epic fail. Yes, he got the money to Paul that he needed, but Epaphroditus got deathly ill while in Rome. He almost died. So Epaphroditus was sent to take care of Paul because Paul was imprisoned under house arrest, and in the end Epaphroditus became a burden to Paul because he almost died and Paul had to bring him back to health. Now obviously it wasn’t Epaphroditus’ fault. Health conditions were bad back then. But it’s not like Epaphroditus would ever look back at that trip to Rome, to minister to the great Paul and say to himself “nailed it.” He almost died. And you almost get the sense that Paul is relieved to be sending Epaphroditus back to Phillipi, that Epaphroditus was a burden to Paul. He says, “Timothy, he needs to stay with me. Epaphroditus, you can go back.” Who seems to be more important to Paul?

Now, Paul is very gracious about the whole thing by saying at the end, “Welcome him in the Lord and honor men like him,” but if you had to pick the favorite son out of these two, we’d all say it was Timothy. That’s why there are millions of people named Timothy walking around this earth (currently ranked #125 in US births. Highest ranking was #11 in 1967) and hardly anyone named Epaphroditus. If we had choose between the two, I think all of us would rather say, “I’d want to be Timothy.” So, just to keep things interesting (and because there are already a million sermons on Timothy), I want to give you 4 lessons from the life of Epaphroditus.

 

1. Serving doesn’t exclude you from suffering.

Here Epaphroditus is doing something great, something meaningful, something in service of God. And he almost dies. God is sovereign. He could have kept Epaphroditus from becoming ill, but in his sovereign wisdom and choice, he chose not to. There is this prevailing myth out there that if we just love Jesus enough, he’ll take all of our problems away and it will be nothing but rainbows and unicorns. So when life gets tough, we figure we’re doing something wrong or God doesn’t love us that much. Serving doesn’t exclude you from suffering.

2. Failure is a normal part of life, including serving God.

Epaphroditus’ mission was by many accounts a failure. That doesn’t mean that Epaphroditus was a failure. You will fail. If you allow failure or the fear of failure to cripple you, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and you’ll actually become a failure. I pastor a healthy, vibrant church. Now I can whitewash my past and leave out the part where several years ago I was fired from my church. I just wasn’t working out for them. Failure is a part of life. Failure doesn’t make you a failure. Failing to learn from your failures makes you a failure. Failure will be one of the most incredible teaching tools you’ll ever have in life. No one wants to fail. No one plans to fail. But when you fail, learn from it.

3. Value in the Kingdom will always spring from community.

Why did Epaphroditus make Scripture? Because he was so vital to the community in Philippi. They were genuinely concerned about him. He had spent years faithfully serving, leading, helping, teaching. The church at Philippi was his family. Don’t drop from community when you’re in college. Get involved in a local body of believers. Plug in. Teach middle schoolers. Sit next to senior adults. Value has always sprung from community. It you want to make a difference, you have to be plugged into community.

4. The majority (or all) of your life will be out of the limelight.

Are you okay with that? We all want to be Timothy. In reality, we’re more like Epaphroditus. It’s tough for us. You’re the ‘selfie’ generation. Our fascination with ourselves. You want to change the world, but you want the world to watch you do it. What if you serve God with all your heart, but don’t get any earthly recognition for it? Are you okay with that? You may never be famous. You may never be up in front of people as a pastor. If you are, maybe you’ll always serve in smaller churches. Maybe your life will be something out of the limelight, like a nurse, an engineer, an accountant. Not exactly the flashy roles like missionary or pastor. But you still have a role to play. Are you okay if your role is out of the limelight?

If we ever want God to do anything through us, there has to be a death to self. It’s not easy, it’s painful, but it’s the price tag for being used to do something meaningful in your life.

What’s the Purpose of the Old Testament Today?

If you’re a Bible reader, the Old Testament presents a bit of a quandary. There are some amazing stories in the Old Testament, but also pages and pages filled with prophecies, genealogies and laws that don’t apply to New Testament Christians any more. By sheer volume (nearly 75% of the Bible), the Old Testament demands relevance. But as New Testament Christians on this side of the cross, a fair question is: what purpose does the Old Testament serve today?

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Paul himself answered that question in his first century letter to Roman Christians when he wrote, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). I absolutely love Paul’s words here because in one short statement he gives us an incredible lens through which to view the Old Testament. First, Paul tells us that the Old Testament was written to teach us. It still has meaning today.

Secondly, Paul gives us the two main lessons we should derive from the Old Testament: endurance and encouragement. Reading the Old Testament, you see story after story of God interacting with, caring for, redeeming and providing for his people. Even in judgment, God was faithful to the promises and warnings he had given his people over generations. Reading the Old Testament, you’ll see this recurring theme: God is faithful. God can be trusted. God cares for his people. This relentless, pursuing, enduring love should give encouragement today because the nature of God doesn’t change.

Finally, the result of the Old Testament in our lives today should be hope. Hope is an amazing place to land because it is so desperately needed today. We need hope in a reality bigger and better than our own. We need hope in a loving God in control of the chaos around us. We need hope for a better life after this existence. When we read the Old Testament with story after story of God’s divine nature, supernatural control over the earth and absolute love for his people, we should overflow with hope. The God of the Old Testament is alive and well today. He still reigns supreme, he still loves his people, and he offers us salvation through the fulfillment of the Old Testament: Jesus.

Is This a Compliment or a Put-Down About Our Church?

Recently the staff at Mt Vernon got together and talked about who we’d met the previous Sunday. It’s a common occurrence for us, trying to keep up with names and faces as they come in. But I got tickled (yes, tickled. I never got tickled before moving to the South but apparently that’s what we do down here) when one of my staff told me about someone they met. After she finished describing the encounter she said:

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“And I could tell that they were new to Mt Vernon.”

My response: “How could you tell they were new?”

She said, “Oh I could tell they were new because they dressed up nice and brought their Bibles!”

At that point I got officially tickled. I love it! How do you know who stands out? Look for the ones dressed up in their Sunday best with their oversized Bibles in their hands! Now, many well meaning Christians might take this as a put-down of our church, but I take it as a compliment. We intentionally dress down, like a family reunion, because for us formality is a barrier to relationships. Informality breeds community. Part of that informality is the fact that when our sermons (which are obviously very biblically-based) are preached, the Scripture is available on the worship guides, on the screen, and on our YouVersion Bible app live event. We don’t care how they get into the Word, as long as they’re in it.

We have over 60 Baptist churches in a thirty mile radius aiming for the dressed up Christians with the Bibles in their hands. Mt Vernon is going for the rest of the population: the dechurched and unchurched who are still seeking God but are burned by and/or skeptical of organized religion. When my staff member made this comment, I realized that for better or for worse, we’d hit our mark. The super-church-looking folks stand out in our crowd. Amen!

QUESTION: What do you think? Is this a compliment or a put-down for our church?

7 Things I Love About the YouVersion Bible App

9.23.14Several years ago Lifechurch.tv released a free Bible app that has revolutionized how people interact with Scripture. It’s the most downloaded Bible app out there, and there are some incredible features that can strengthen your own walk with Jesus. Here are some of my favorites:

 

1. You can listen to Scripture. On several of the translations available, including the NIV (which is my translation of choice), there’s a megaphone icon at the bottom. If you’re on your daily commute to work, you can listen to Scripture while driving. Listening (as opposed to reading) is a different way to intake Scripture. It’s great!

2. The Bible is always with you. Since I’ve got the YouVersion Bible app on my phone, and my phone is always with me, the Bible is always with me. As much as I still read and use the printed Bible, you’ve got to admit that a phone is a lot easier to fit into your pocket!

3. You can take online notes with YouVersion Live. There’s a “live” button within the app where you can search for churches near you that use the app to communicate sermon notes. Mt Vernon has been using it the past few months and people are loving it. There are several interactive features you can use within the “Live” option to get an audience to participate more than ever!

4. You can follow others. Like most social media sites, you can follow other people on YouVersion. When people read a Scripture or make a note, you get a notification. If you’re separated physically from close friends, you can still share in a spiritual journey together through YouVersion.

5. They have reading plans. A lot of folks want to be in Scripture more but don’t know where to start. YouVersion has a multitude of Bible reading plans that can help you get into the Word on a more consistent basis.

6. You can highlight and take notes. I used to highlight my Bible and take notes in it, which was a great way for me to remember things God taught me through Scripture. The hardest part of replacing a Bible was losing all the handwritten notes. With the YouVersion Bible app, you can take online notes that will stay with you forever!

7. It’s free! Lifechurch.tv could have made a ton of money off of this app, but they made the decision early on to make it free to the world. It actually costs them each year to maintain it and improve it. It’s their way of blessing the world and helping people get into the Word. It’s free (and always will be). Take advantage of it and download it today!

Five for Friday (7.18.14)

5Here are five great articles to keep you thinking through the weekend! Go to church (somewhere) this Sunday!

Balancing Justice and Mercy in Immigration Reform – A great perspective on this divisive topic.

Catalyst’s Brad Lomenick on Secret to Success – Great interview with the guy who helped build the Catalyst Conference, a conference I look forward to going to every year.

The Road to Jericho & the Border Crisis – Another strong perspective on the border crisis from the top Baptist mind on the subject.

The Pastor’s Wife Who Went Crazy – Amazing first-person perspective on mental illness.

Why Are So Many Christians Afraid of Hollywood Bible Movies? – With more and more Bible epics coming out, this is a good word.

BONUS Video – For the guys, a history of hair fashion over the past 100 years.

Why Attending Church Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

7.15.14Maybe you did it Sunday. Woke up, got the kids looking decent, scrambled out the door a little late, snuck into the church service a few songs into it, but at least you didn’t miss the main part (the sermon). Maybe you stay for the last song, maybe you sneak out early to beat the traffic (or just to avoid another awkward conversation with “Sister Betty”). In and out. Smooth. Clean. Hazardous to your health.

I would make the argument that attending church can be hazardous to your spiritual health. You attend shows. You attend ball games. You’re not supposed to attend church. When you attend something, you sit and watch as a spectator. If you like it, you offer some applause, perhaps you pay to get in or make a donation, but that’s as far as your involvement and commitment go.

The picture we see of the early church is just the opposite. They didn’t just attend church services, they did life together. They broke bread in each others homes. They got involved in each other’s lives. They gave to those in need. They sacrificed for each other. They practiced biblical community. They were the church for each other.

There is a difference:

  • Attending church is about you. Being the church is about us.
  • Attending church is about getting. Being the church is about giving back.
  • Attending church is about meeting your needs. Being the church is about also meeting the needs of others.
  • Attending church is about being entertained. Being the church realizes that you’re not the audience, God is.
  • Attending church stays skin deep. Being the church goes deep into the lives of those around you.
  • Attending church will eventually dry up your soul. Being the church will enrich your soul and those around you.
  • Attending church is easy. Being the church takes work.
  • Attending church is optional. Being the church is not.

Don’t settle for attending church this Sunday. Be the church.