Partway through his letter to the Philippian Christians Paul expresses his deep thankfulness for Epaphroditus, a member of their house church (2:25-30). In particular Paul urges these believers “to hold Epaphroditus in honour” because he was willing “to expose his life to danger…to the point of death” as he fulfilled his mission to serve Paul on their behalf. Paul’s comments give us insight into the kind of selfless, loving service that proved so necessary to the life and growth of the early church.
In describing Epaphroditus’ serious illness and God’s merciful healing, Paul acknowledges that in antiquity threats to life came from many quarters, especially disease. We do not know the details of Epaphroditus’ sickness, but the prevalence of maladies such as malaria in first century Rome gives credence to this incident. In 2:30 Paul says that his “brother, fellow-worker, and fellow-soldier” and the Philippian church’s “messenger (apostolon) and servant (leitourgon)” (2:25) “came near to death” and in so doing put his life in grievous danger (paraboleusamenos tẽi psuchẽi). He chooses a term that occurs only once in the New Testament.
In the literature there is dispute as to whether Paul has coined this word for this occasion or whether it was already in use. A.Deissmann refers to an inscription found on the coast of the Black Sea, which he dates to second century A.D. It describes a person named Carzoasus who “in the interests of friendship…had exposed himself to dangers (kindunous…paraboleusamenos) as an advocate in (legal) strife (by taking his clients’ causes even) up to emperors.”1 He also mentions an earlier inscription dated to c. 48 A.D. from the same geographical context. This evidence indicates that Paul was not creating a new term in this context. Further , there is a cognate noun (parabolanoi) which describes people who “risk their lives to nurse those sick with plague.”2
A parallel to the idiom Paul used occurs as early as Homer’s Iliad.3 The verb paraballesthai (“expose onself to danger”) can be used in the sense absolutely, or followed by a noun in the dative (indicating in what respect one is exposed to danger) or in the accusative (indicating what is put at risk). For example, Polybius (third-second century B.C.) describes an armed force from Gaul that attacked Italy. When the Roman armies counter-attacked, the Gallic leaders had to decide whether to give battle and “risk the fortune of their whole enterprise (paraballesthai tois holois)” or return home with their rich plunder.4 Later in the same publication he describes interaction between Fabius, a Roman general, and Hannibal, indicating that Fabius did not want “to hazard a general engagement (paraballesthai tois holois).”5 A century or so later Diodorus Siculus (first century BC), a cultural historian, used the idiom to describe the capturing of a large snake for the second Ptolemy. Those engaged in this escapade “decided to hazard their lives (parabalesthai tais psuchais) and to capture one of the huge snakes and bring it alive to Ptolemy at Alexandria.”6 In 2 Maccabees 14:38 a Jewish man named Razis, an elder in Jerusalem, is said to have “been accused of Judaism, and he had risked body and life for Judaism (kai sōma kai psuchẽn huper tou Ioudaismou parabeblẽmenos) with all possible zeal.” The story ends with Razis committing suicide as his enemies were about to arrest him for execution.
Within Jewish tradition to risk one’s life for the cause of Judaism was an honourable thing to do. Within the general Hellenistic tradition one ventured life and limb in war, in commercial enterprise, in protecting clients. In Romans 5:7-8 Paul writes that the Messiah risked his life and actually died so that he might reconcile rebellious, sinful human beings to God. Jesus himself indicated that he willingly surrendered his life “as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The expectation in the New Testament is that Jesus’ followers would be willing to risk life for Jesus, as well as for one another. This is a very high standard that Jesus sets for discipleship. Paul indicates the Epaphroditus willingly embraced the dangers associated with representing Jesus and the Philippian church in order that he might bring comfort and help to another believer, namely Paul himself. Whether Epaphroditus understood the extent of the risk he was engaging by being the Philippians’ emissary to Paul is not clear. However, to identify with a prisoner of the empire took courage. By choosing the language he did in Philippians 2:30, Paul emphasizes the extent to which Epaphroditus was willing to hazard his life for the sake of the Gospel and God’s people. This is how in practical terms he demonstrated a real, tested faith.
- what are we prepared to risk for the sake of Jesus? If suffering is such a significant aspect of a disciple’s obedience, then risks of various kinds must be endemic to a believer’s experience. What would we dare to risk for the sake of another believer?
- in North American evangelicalism we study how to live ‘balanced’ lives so that experience little risk for Jesus. I wonder what advice today Epaphroditus might receive from Christian leaders for his actions? Would he be celebrated and honoured, or chastised for being too fanatical?
- 1Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, translated by L.R.M.Strachan (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1978), 88.
- 2Entry in Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1966), 1305. How early this noun occurs is uncertain.
- 3Two different verb forms express this idiom. One is parabolouomai followed by the dative case and the other is paraballesthai followed by the accusative case (Homer’s usage, et al). According to Liddell and Scott the simple form boleō is an earlier, alternative form of ballō.
- 4Polybius, The Histories II.26.6. It seems that Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon in the entry for paraboleuomai mistakenly list this reference as II.26.3.
- 5Ibid., III. 94.4.
- 6Diodorus Siculus, III.36.4.