The Joy of Gospel Friendships
We live in a day marked by loneliness. It is, by most accounts, one of the most pressing emotional needs of our day. Most people who take their own lives through suicide are not simply depressed. They are alone.
While they might live in a house filled with people or work in a workplace buzzing with activity, they are isolated and feel that no one knows or cares whether they exist or not. It is a devastatingly painful thing to be alone—the ONE thing God saw in the perfection of the Garden and world He created that was “not good.” He said, “It is NOT GOOD for the man to be alone.”
Well, what is true of men is also true of women. While some are uniquely created to survive life alone, the vast majority are not. We need people. We need each other!
Nowhere is that truer than in Christian fellowship. In fact, it is very clear that we cannot please the Lord without serving others. We have no call to retreat into monastic existence and never interact with other souls God has made in His Own image.
In fact, it is arguable that you can’t even know yourself by yourself. Much of our self-understanding comes in our interaction with others. One of our first impressions in the world as infants comes as we see the face of our mother and father.
Of all the isolating experiences in life, (and we can think of nursing homes, hospitals locked down by Covid restrictions, and even college dorm rooms), one of the most difficult is the enforced loneliness of prison.
There is a social structure in every prison. There is a hierarchy of people, and even a grouping together of different crimes and convictions, that those imprisoned used to identify with others. But even in that, there are the outliers; the lonely; the solitary confinements.
A JOYFUL COMMUNITY
Even though imprisoned, Paul was not alone. Never, from what it sounds. Paul was constantly accompanied in his jail cell by members of the praetorium guard. These were usually soldiers retired or retooled from the battlefield. They were hardened, crude, and probably hated the work they now had to do.
But Paul saw each of his guards, as their shifts came and went, as opportunities for the Gospel of the Kingdom to advance. Rather than complaining about having to be chained night and day to one of these rough Roman soldiers, Paul began leading them to Christ one-by-one. They thought Paul was their prisoner when, as Paul began preaching to them and as they overheard Paul preaching to others, they were the captives!
“Many of Caesar’s household” greet you, Paul would later say. Many of these soldiers came to the hope of Jesus Christ on their shifts in the prison cell. And when conversion came, Paul began to disciple them one-by-one.
Think about people that God has, by His sovereign design, brought into your life. The rough, crass, crude, the hardened, the profane. Why do you think you moved next door to them, or work in the next cubicle or on the same team beside them? God didn’t put them there for you to ignore and avoid. They’re your mission field.
Here is a plan. Start with the worst person. Spend time with them, coffee breaks, maybe a lunch time. Befriend them. I know this works; I have seen it!
When she worked at Mayo Clinic, my wife Pam was the “patron saint of lost causes.” She drew the hardest, most difficult people into her circle. She brought them little gifts. She loved on them, prayed for them. And some came to Christ through that friendship she brokered—a friendship few others would pursue.
I did not realize until her funeral what an impact she had on her workplace. Person after person came to tell me what she had meant to them and what she had done for them. I knew a little before then.
We can be contagious with joy in our workplace or classroom, or a little dark cloud that rains on everybody! Which would you rather be known as when your life is over?
Paul did not accomplish what he did alone. A team of people supported Paul. It was not a lot of people, but each was significant. Remember, Paul did not work alone. His community of friendships included Barnabas, Luke, Silas, Titus, Euodia and Syntyche, Lydia, Tychitus, and Aquilla and Priscilla. Paul led a work group that changed the gentile world for eternity in only 20 years! What made it so effective and what made it joyful? Obviously, Paul had joy in what he did.
You need a team. I’m not saying a work team, but you need team mates to walk through life with you. People who can cheer you, and encourage you, and stand with you when your life is turning hard.
As I write this, I just finished engaging in a group prayer email to a friend in Virginia. He served a ministry I’m a part of, and was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor that was already metastasized when they discovered it.
He is a team builder. He is an encourager. He spreads joy. And now, the team he helped build is turning inward to encourage him and his wife; to bring them the same joy that he helped others find.
Who is on your “team?” You cannot do all that God wants you to do alone. We need each other. We need a team.
Paul’s Gospel Friendships
Paul had two friendships in particular that he takes time to mention in detail in this letter. Timothy and Epaphroditus had touched Paul’s life deeply, and in so doing helped in the sharing of the Gospel.
“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also.” Philippians 2:19-24 ESV
I am always struck by the things said about and to Timothy because, obviously, that’s my name! I have always taken the words of the two letters called by his (my!) name to heart. I hear them personally and have for the entirety of my Christian walk.
Paul had poured his life into Timothy. From earlier years, he met and was impressed with the young Greek man. Paul did for Timothy what we need men to do for other men today.
One of Timothy’s problems was a spiritually absent father. He did not have a godly father to look to as an example and model of the faith. So Paul’s willingness to take Timothy on as a protege has served as the basis for countless discipleship ministries through the years.
But as important as Paul was for Timothy as he grew in faith, and walked with Paul in some hard places, at some point the relationship became more collegial and friendship-based. A true Gospel friendship.
It was Christ Who united Timothy and Paul, and knit them together in Christian fellowship. But as Paul aged and became more limited in what he could do, Timothy was able to step in and be there for him.
In one of his last written works, 2 Timothy, Paul requested that Timothy come and stand with him in prison and even to the day of his “graduation” to heaven! Timothy was the last person Paul wanted to see on earth. That is not a negative statement. It is the greatest compliment Paul could pay.
Whose eyes are the last you would want to look into before saying goodbye to this world? That is the person Timothy was to Paul. “I have no one like him,” Paul said, “who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.”
Paul saw a selflessness in Timothy that was unique. Timothy did not have his own personal agenda. Paul could trust him with an assignment like no other. He knew Timothy’s priority was “the things of Jesus Christ.” He cared for people, but he cared first for Jesus.
Obviously Timothy knew personally about the Philippians. “You know…” Paul said. You personally have seen with your own eyes how he cares for me as a son for a father. You have watched him as he did it.
But Paul really did not want to release Timothy too quickly. He wanted to see “how it would go with me.” Again I suspect that Paul’s wish was not to face death without Timothy there if possible. So his reluctance was borne of how important Timothy was to him as he was in prison.
I truly hope you have someone like that in your life. You won’t have a lot. Some will not have anyone. But great joy comes in knowing someone like Paul had in Timothy and, I’m certain, as Timothy felt about Paul.
“I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 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. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.” Philippians 2:25-30 ESV
Paul mentions Epaphroditus by name as well. Epaphroditus was likely a well-known and much trusted layman in the Philippian community, and was the carrier of their gift to Paul in prison.
Seldom do we hear Paul heap more praise on a man than he does on this relatively unknown individual. He called him “my brother,” “my fellow worker,” “my fellow soldier,” “your messenger,” “a minister to my need,” and his sacrificial ministry “risking his life” to complete this assignment.
Apparently the rigors of the trip to Paul’s place of imprisonment almost took the life of Epaphroditus. Paul said “he was ill, near to death.” And though news did not travel quickly in Biblical times, the church had obviously heard of this illness.
“But God had mercy on him, and on me…” and brought him to recovery. The Apostle also knew that they were anxious to hear about his well-being and so Paul said, “I am more eager to send him…” that they might be relieved to see him doing well.
There must have been dozens or perhaps hundreds of people who came alongside Paul in his ministry. They would come in and out of his life and become life-giving friends to the Apostle. These were not trained ministry professionals, but Christian lay men and women.
It was not their ability that commended them to Paul, but their availability to be used by God. Some, as with Epaphroditus, paid a steep price for their sacrifice.
“Honor such men,” Paul said. The Gospel cannot go forward without them.
Maybe, like Timothy, you are called to ministry at some point or in some fashion. If so, serve well as he did.
Maybe, like Epaphroditus, you are a person with a different vocation but look for ways that God can meaningfully use you. Serve faithfully, both in your daily work, and in opportunities provided for you to encourage and serve a missionary or a pastor or your local body.
“Honor such men,” Paul said. There are few greater honors than being recruited in the Kingdom as “a fellow soldier and fellow worker” in Kingdom matters.
And beside all else, find a way to be a friend! The world needs a lot of those. Pastors, ministry professionals, missionaries are crying out for a Timothy or an Epaphroditus to come alongside them.
I pray you can find one…and I pray you can be one!