Unlike Timothy, Epaphroditus is only known from this letter. Paul praises him highly as a valuable co-worker. We know virtually nothing about him from Acts other letters. His name was common in the first century and is related to the goddess Aphrodite.
Paul calls him “brother” and “fellow-worker.” To refer to a believer as brother is not unusual, Paul describes the body of Christ as a new family in many places. Epaphroditus is more than family, he is a co-laborer with Paul in the service of the Gospel.
He also calls him a “fellow soldier” (συστρατιώτης, cf. Phlm 2 to describe fellow ministers). Paul occasionally uses military metaphors to describe ministry, in this case the Philippian church would have understood the honor implied by this term since some in the church would have been retired soldiers. A soldier could be honored with this term, to be a fellow-soldier with a commander for example (Polyaenus 8, 23, 22).
Epaphroditus was a “messenger and minister” from the church at Philippi sent to help Paul during his imprisonment. “Messenger” is an apostle (ἀπόστολος). Does this mean Epaphroditus was an Apostle like Paul and the Twelve? It is unlikely he received a commission from Jesus as did the Twelve, Paul or perhaps James. Anyone who was sent as a representative of a group could be called “an apostle,” which simply means “someone who is sent,” a delegate or envoy. In Acts 11, Barnabas is sent from Jerusalem to Antioch in order to “represent” the apostolic community when the Hellenistic Jews begin expanding into the Diaspora. To avoid this confusion, the ESV translates the word “messenger,” which might imply a much lower status in English than Paul intended. The church heard Paul was under house arrest in Rome and in need of assistance, so Epaphroditus was sent from the church to Paul as their representative.
The second title Paul uses is minister, a word with certain connotations in American English that may not be helpful here. The word (λειτουργός) is not used for a Pastor, but for a civil servant or administrator, often in the service of a cultic center or temple (BDAG). Perhaps the term was used in order to give Epaphroditus more honor, since the word is used of Greco-Roman officials (cf. Rom 13:6). It is also likely the word was chosen to highlight what Epaphroditus did for Paul, he delivered a gift and at least intended to serve alongside him in Rome for some time.
Since Paul cannot return to the city and Timothy will be delayed for some time, Paul sends Epaphroditus back to the church. Why was Epaphroditus sent back to Philippi? The text says Epaphroditus was very ill and may not have recovered to full strength. He was “sick near to death,” although the nature of his illness is not specified. Travel from Philippi to Rome was dangerous, not only from brigands but also from all sorts of illness one would not encounter at home. This could be dysentery, for example, would be life threatening on the road to Rome!
Paul asks the church to receive him with joy, possibly a hint that his mission to assist Paul was not successful. We cannot know the terms of Epaphroditus’s original mission to Paul, but his return might be suspicious to some in the church (“we paid you to go help Paul and you failed.”) Contemporary Christianity may over-emphasize spectacular stories of missionaries who physically destroy themselves to serve God. Sometimes circumstances are such that a person cannot serve in that way, but this is not a “failure” at all!
Epaphroditus is another example of humble service, but in his case the service was cut short by physical shortcomings. Paul does not consider this a failure, Epaphroditus is serving others humbly to the best of his ability. Paul therefore offers both Timothy and Epaphroditus as examples of the attitude of service demonstrated by Jesus in Philippians 2:5-11.