The Severity of Epaphroditus’ Illness
“Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow” (v. 27).- Philippians 2:27–28
Living in the modern world, we enjoy the benefits of centuries of technological and scientific progress. Take medicine, for example. Although many people have concerns about the cost of healthcare, the vast majority of people in our culture still have access to antibiotics and other medications that can cure ailments that were almost certainly death sentences only a few decades ago. In fact, we are so accustomed to recovering from sickness that we are often surprised when we or others take a long time to get over what we regard as routine illnesses.
First-century life, however, was far different. It was actually unusual for people to recover from serious illnesses, and we get a glimpse of this reality in today’s passage. Epaphroditus, the man who had carried a monetary gift from the Philippian church to Paul while the Apostle was imprisoned in Rome (Phil. 4:18), fell ill around the time Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:25–26). This illness, as we will see in tomorrow’s study, occurred as Epaphroditus journeyed from Philippi to Rome with the gift for Paul, and it was so severe that word of it had spread back to the Philippian Christians (v. 26). Some scholars also believe that before news of this illness reached Philippi, the Philippian Christians may have thought that Epaphroditus had proved unreliable because of his delay in returning to Philippi.
It is impossible to be sure whether the Philippian Christians thought Epaphroditus had purposefully failed in his mission. What we do know for sure is that Epaphroditus’ illness was so severe that he almost died (v. 27). But, Paul explains, “God had mercy” on Epaphroditus. The fact that ancient people rarely recovered from serious illnesses and the Apostle’s specific language in Philippians 2:27 indicate that he is talking about more than just a providential answer to prayer. Epaphroditus was evidently healed through the Lord’s direct, miraculous intervention, perhaps via the gifts of healing that some believers possessed during the Apostolic era (1 Cor. 12:9). This miraculous healing was not only for Epaphroditus’ benefit but for Paul’s as well, something that the Lord worked in order to keep the Apostle from having to endure the extra sorrow of losing a friend on top of the sorrows of suffering in prison (Phil. 2:27).
God’s sparing of Epaphroditus’ life was a tangible expression of His abundant grace to Paul. Not only did He save the former Pharisee, but He also gave Paul extra gifts to help the Apostle bear his sorrows. The Lord does the same thing for us today, although the little blessings He provides often go unnoticed. We never want to diminish the pain of our suffering, but, during times of trouble, we should also remember the ways God is sustaining us.
Passages for Further Study