Welcome Him in the Lord (Phil 2:19-30)

Updated: Aug 26





For many months now, perhaps a year, the opening slide in my PowerPoint presentation has consisted in one word. “Welcome!” Sometimes when we have class downstairs on Sunday mornings we don’t get finished up until after people start arriving upstairs for the 11 o’clock service. And so, if I’m not using my laptop downstairs I like to leave it running upstairs, displaying this one word to all those who enter. Welcome, as a greeting, is a warm word; it expresses generosity and hospitality. And if there is anything I want folks to experience in our presence it is to feel welcome.


One of my greatest joys as your minister has been those moments when I witness you welcoming the stranger into our midst. It warms my heart to see you authentically reach out to the person who has slipped in at the last moment and offer them a warm handshake and an open door to conversation. You do that well, church, and I encourage you to excel in this more and more. Few things are capable of touching a hurting heart as profoundly as an authentic welcome. I have been told personally on several occasions by visitors that they have felt so welcome here. That, my brothers and sisters, is music to my ears.


Today I want to take the gift of welcoming which we have and seek to invest it with its full significance. We are doing more than we know we are doing when we warmly embrace the visitors who enter into our midst. You and I may not realize this folks but when we welcome people into our midst, Jesus welcomes people into our midst. He speaks through your words, his hands reach out through your hands, his interest in the stranger is expressed in your interest in the stranger. I believe this to be true, brothers and sisters, and my task this morning is to convince you that this is so.


I didn’t dream up this idea and then decide to preach a sermon about it. I was spending time in our next text in Philippians and out of that conversation with Scripture this idea surfaced. It is Paul’s letter to the Philippians that compels me to believe that when I welcome you Jesus is welcoming you. Does that sound just a little over the top? “Lee thinks that his welcome is the welcome of Jesus Christ??” Yes, I do. And I also believe that when you welcome me, Jesus Christ welcomes me. That’s no less radical, is it? What is it in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that compels me to believe this? Here is our text for today:


Philippians 2:19–30 (NIV)

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. 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. 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.

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.


Paul has been pouring his heart out to the Philippian church from a jail cell in Caesar’s prison. He has been encouraging, consoling, and comforting the Philippian believers from afar. With simple words on paper Paul is breathing life and hope and joy and truth into the lives of these early believers in the Christ. But this encouragement arrives via more than just words on paper. He’s sent them a letter, yes, but he’s sent them much more than just a letter. Lydia didn’t send one of her family members down to the Post Office in Philippi to get the mail and they came back with Paul’s letter in hand. No, this letter arrived via a personal courier. Paul wrote it but he didn’t then put a stamp on it and drop it in the mail. He sent it with a dear, dear, friend who would read it to the church in Philippi. The friend, the brother in Christ who carried the letter of Paul to the Philippians, was Epaphroditus. He is the same man that they had sent with their gift to Paul in prison sometime earlier. And in taking their gift to Paul, Epaphroditus’ task was more than to simply hand Paul the gift. When he embraced Paul at the other end, he gave them the embrace of the Philippians. And now when Paul sends Epaphroditus back with a letter to the Philippians his role is to return the favor; his task was to present them with not only Paul’s letter but Paul’s heart. There’s a big difference there, an important difference. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg; there is something much more profound even than that taking place here, and that “other thing” is what I want us to zone in on today.


We think that our modern technology is something to ‘Ooohhh’ and ‘Aaahhh’ about. And it is. It is an astounding thing for me to be able to sit in a room in Malibu, California and send words back home to my dear wife in an instant! And not only can I send words, but I can also send images, or a video clip. If you’re a texter you know that one of the important skills to learn in texting is the use of the emoticons. For those of you who don’t text these are little icons, little symbols that communicate an emotion, emot - icons. So, you can send smiley faces, or sad faces, a face with a wink or one wearing sunglasses. The point is that these icons, or images, help the texter to communicate his message. And we think this is soooo cool. And it is! It’s great! I’m glad we have this. But this is a huge step back from what Paul was doing as he wrote to the Philippians. Granted his message didn’t arrive instantaneously. And granted that Paul couldn’t insert cool little emoticons, into his letter. But Paul did something much more profound than that. He sent his letter with a personal and dear friend who knew his heart, someone who would have read and rehearsed this letter in Paul’s presence. Paul would have instructed him how to read it, where to put the emphasis and the tone of voice to use throughout. And in and through all of that, what Epaphroditus brought to the Philippians was far more than words on a scroll, he arrived with Paul’s heart itself.


When Epaphroditus embraced the members of the Philippian church, Paul was embracing them. When they experienced the warmth in Epaphroditus’ eyes, they were experiencing the warmth in Paul’s eyes. This you don’t get in a text message. Even if you send a video, it’s not the same as an authentic human embrace. Paul sent his hugs and his heart to Philippi with Epaphroditus. But something much more profound than even that was going on here as well. And that “other thing” is what I want us to get a hold of this morning.


Let’s begin to flesh out this “other thing” I’m talking about. Early in the letter Paul says something that I want us to pay very close attention to.


Philippians 1:8 (NIV)

8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.


The word affection here is a visceral word. If I said that I had a visceral response to a scene in a movie, or to an experience with a friend, or to a crisis in life, I would mean that I felt it in my gut. The old King James says it this way, “For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.” That might communicate the wrong message to the modern reader, but it reminds us that Paul is talking about a deep, visceral emotion. You could translate it here as, “God can testify how I long for all of you with the heart of Christ Jesus.” Some translations use the word compassion here or “tender compassion.” They’re all trying to say the same thing. The point is that as Paul writes he is communicating the depth of his desire to be with the Philippians. “I yearn to see you again!” But that’s not all he’s saying. And here’s the point I want us to pick up on. Paul is saying that he longs for them all with the affection of Christ Jesus. Paul is claiming to be the agent of Christ’s affection for his people. Do you hear this? Christ is loving his people through Paul. Paul is administering the affection of Jesus Christ to the people of Christ. “I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.”


Is that true? Is it true that in Paul’s longing for the Philippians Jesus is longing for the Philippians? Is it true that when Paul writes this lovely letter that Jesus is writing this lovely letter, that Paul is somehow an instrument in the hand of Jesus administering his grace and mercy – Jesus’ instruction and encouragement to the Philippians? I think Paul would say Yes. And it’s bigger even than that, brothers and sisters. I think Paul wants the Philippians to believe that when they, as a community in Christ, cooperate with the Spirit of Christ; when they think like Jesus thought and empty themselves in service to one another that they administer to one another the love of Jesus Christ. They become instruments in the hands of Jesus. Paul did not believe that this capacity to administer the love of Jesus to the community of Christ was something only for the elite. This is for every Christian to fully participate in. Together we form the community of Christ and together we administer the love of Christ to one another in that community. I believe this is what Paul is talking about in Philippians 2:1-4


Philippians 2:1–4 (NIV)

2 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.


It is important that we hear these few verses not from the perspective of me and my personal relationship with Jesus but of our communal relationship that exists in our union with Christ. Clearly the issue that Paul is concerned with here is how they… we… treat one another. And his point is that we treat one another in a manner that is fitting for a community that exists “in Christ”. Paul’s opening statement, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ,” is a statement about our experience of Christ in the community of Christ. Paul is saying, “If, within the community that exists in Christ, you have experienced any encouragement, any comfort of love, any fellowship of the Spirit, any tenderness and compassion, then get on with it and give yourself fully in service to one another!


Clearly Paul is urging the believers in Philippi to give themselves to one another, to put the other first, to let go of vanity and pride, and like Jesus to empty themselves for the other. That’s clear and inescapable from the text. Why Paul? Why would we do this? Why would we put the other first? Well, because that’s what it looks like to follow Jesus. Yes, but it’s more than that.


I believe the answer goes back to the opening line. “If, within the community that exists in Christ, you have experienced any encouragement…” I’m maintaining that Paul is saying that the way we experience Jesus Christ is by the utter giving of ourselves to the community that exists in union with Christ. What will thrill Paul to no end is to see the Philippians as one, serving one another, loving one another. But I don’t think that Paul’s joy is only so that he can point to the church in Philippi and say to the world, “Look at those lovely Christians!” I believe that Paul understands that when Christians come together as one that they administer the love of Jesus Christ to one another. And it’s our text in Philippians 2:19-30 that helped me to see this.


Philippians 2:19–30 (NIV)

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. 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. 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.



What is Paul doing here in this paragraph? He is sharing with the Philippians how he’s hoping to send Timothy to Philippi. Why does Paul want to send Timothy? So that he can be cheered in prison; and so that he can be assured that the welfare of the Philippians is in good hands. Paul in sending Timothy is confident that he will send someone who will faithfully represent him. But it’s bigger than that isn’t it? This is about more that Paul and Timothy and their desire to serve the Philippian church. This is centrally about Jesus Christ. In actuality it is not Paul who is sending Timothy it is the Lord who sends him. Paul is merely the agent, acting in the name of, or under the authority of the Lord. Paul says that he hopes “in the Lord” to send Timothy. And consequently, when Timothy eventually arrives, he won’t arrive with his own agenda, he will arrive with the agenda of Jesus. Jesus will minister to the church in Philippi through Timothy. And Paul is confident as well, that despite his chains, he too will be dispatched by the Lord once more to minister to the church in Philippi. He is eager to be there in person so that he can once again through his hands and his words be the voice and touch of Jesus for the sake of the church in Philippi.


It seems clear to me that this is how Paul sees himself. He sees his entire life in Christ as a full partnership in the work of Jesus. He doesn’t just talk about Jesus, he embodies Jesus. He doesn’t just proclaim the cross of Christ; he carries it wherever he goes. And I believe Paul would urge us to see ourselves the same way. This is born out to in the next paragraph concerning 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.


Paul intends eventually to send Timothy to Philippi. But that news arrived in Philippi via a man named Epaphroditus. Notice Paul’s description of him. My brother, co-worker, and fellow soldier. Paul sees Epaphroditus, like Timothy, as a partner in the work of Christ. And we’ll remember that this is also how Paul describes the Philippian church itself.


Philippians 1:4–5 (NIV)

4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,


Epaphroditus, like Timothy, models a Christ like spirit. These two men are examples of how to walk out the Christ Hymn in our lives. Epaphroditus was willing to empty himself; almost died, said Paul, for the work of Christ. But the thing that captures my attention most in the story of Epaphroditus is how he functions as a go-between, encouraging both Paul and the Philippians. He is Paul’s co-worker but he’s also Philippi’s messenger. He partners with them both. They sent him to Paul with a gift; and in so doing Epaphroditus embodies the love of the Philippians for Paul. Then Paul sends him back to the Philippians where he embodies Paul’s love for them. But that’s just what we see on the surface. We know this in human terms. But it is not just the Philippians who send Paul a gift in prison, the gift is a gift from Jesus himself.[1] And it is not just Epaphroditus who bears it to Paul and embraces him there in his dark and lonely place of trial. Jesus was present in the embrace of Epaphroditus. And when Paul sends Epaphroditus back to Philippi bearing his glorious letter of encouragement it was Paul’s letter to be sure, but Jesus’ fingerprints were all over it, weren’t they?


And this glorious soldier in the work of Christ, our Epaphroditus, embraces all of this. Eager and willing he chooses to be a vessel to bear the love of Christ back and forth between the church of Philippi and Paul in prison.


Am I making this stuff up? Or is this truly what was going on? Does it just sound nice to say these things or was Jesus truly present in this glorious exchange between Paul and the Philippians? Notice verse 29. Paul encourages the Philippians to welcome and honor Epaphroditus. Well, that’s rather nice isn’t it. It’s only fitting after all, for Epaphroditus almost died in his service to the Philippians. Of course, that’s true but that’s not exactly how Paul said it is it? Paul said, “Welcome him in the Lord with great joy!” What does that mean??


Let’s back up a bit. In verse 19 Paul says that he hopes “in the Lord Jesus” to send Timothy to the Philippians. What does that mean? I think it means that in Paul’s eventual sending of Timothy it is not he who sends but the Lord. Paul sees himself acting as an agent of Jesus Christ in this. Jesus will send Timothy, but it will be Paul who prays over him as he departs.


Now back to the Philippians and Epaphroditus. They are urged by Paul to welcome Epaphroditus “in the Lord”. That means that the Philippians are to act on the Lord’s behalf, under the authority of Jesus Christ, to welcome Epaphroditus. In other words, in their warm embrace of Epaphroditus, in their celebration and in their honoring of him, the Philippians will be embodying Jesus’ welcome, Jesus’ embrace, Jesus’ celebration. Is that true? When Lydia gave a big old hug to Epaphroditus was he to receive it as the hug of Jesus Christ? When the Philippian church celebrated Epaphroditus arrival was he to receive it as the celebration of Jesus himself. I believe this is what Paul is advocating here.


So now we’re no longer in the 1st Century speculating on how Christ works in the midst of his people in this wonderful exchange between Paul and the Philippians. We’re in the 21st Century in Lloydminster and I’m standing in front of you preaching. I’m seeking to encourage you, to give you hope and comfort; I’m seeking to administer the grace and love of Jesus Christ to you.


So, when you are encouraged who encouraged you? Is not Jesus present in those moments? And you know how it works; the more I empty myself to be filled with Jesus Christ the more present he is. When I phone you up in the middle of the week and we go for coffee is it true that Jesus phoned you up to go for coffee? Does that sound arrogant for me to say it that way? When you phone me up and I join you for coffee I expect an encounter with Jesus Christ. When you give me a word of encouragement, I believe it is Jesus through you giving me that word. In your embrace I embrace Jesus. And when I come with my pain and struggle and confess my sins to you, guess what I believe. I believe that in and through your eyes and touch, through your warmth and embrace, I receive the love and compassion, healing and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.


Church, these things are true. We are to welcome one another “in the Lord”. My task is to make myself available to Jesus Christ so that he can welcome you through me. And your task is the same.


And this doesn’t stop with welcoming. If you want an authentic encounter with Jesus Christ, yes, I encourage you to pray, and yes, I encourage you to read Scripture. But I also encourage you to come to the community that is “in Christ” and expect to encounter him in and through the touch of a brother or sister in Christ. He dwells in our midst. We believe that. This is why it is not just a suggestion but an imperative that we confess our sins one to another. What weighs heavy on your heart? It’s time to be free from the burden.


If Jesus Christ Himself said that he would be here in this building next Sunday, would you come and seek him out? Would you come trembling before him seeking to lay down your burdens and be free? Would you confess your sins to him? Would you trust him with your deepest pain? Of course you would! We would never come to merely sit on the sidelines, cautiously holding him at a distance!


Brothers and sisters, Christ dwells in the midst of his people. Come, I urge you. Come, enter deep into relationship with your brothers and sisters, because in that relationship you will receive the embrace of Jesus Christ. Through my hands he reaches out to you. Through your hands he reaches out to me. Can we believe that? I know it’s true. My brothers and sisters, if you have received any encouragement in the community of Christ, you know that this is true too.


As we mill about after service would you permit Jesus to work through you to encourage your brother and sisters. Would you receive the encouragement of Christ through your brothers and sisters? And would you let this moment be just the first step in your insistence that you will draw near to Christ in and through the community of Christ.

Be a vessel for Jesus Christ. Welcome one another in the Lord with great joy!


[1] Note 2:17, where Paul views his giving of himself to the Philippians as a gift to God. And in 4:18 where he views the Philippian’s gift to him as a gift to God. Paul recognizes that it is the Lord who provides for him (4:13) and yet in terms of the present circumstance that provision has come from the Philippians. And Paul is eager, he “hopes in the Lord” (2:19,24) to be used by God to look out for the interests of Christ Jesus (2:21) in Philippi.



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