Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.
– Philippians 4:1 –
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been examining each term of endearment that Paul lists in Philippians 4:1, by which he describes his relationship to the believers in the church of Philippi. By looking at this example, we are enriching our understanding of the true nature of the fellowship which fellow believers enjoy with one another. We’ve seen that we are brothers and sisters—marked by a unique, objective, familial bond as a result of our union with Christ. And we’ve seen that we are not merely to tolerate our brothers and sisters, but to love them.
A third term of endearment that teaches us much about the nature of Christian fellowship is best translated as a longer phrase: those whom I long for.
The Greek word, here, is epipóthetoi, a very strong word that is found nowhere else in the New Testament in this precise form. It derives from the verb epipothéo, which speaks of intense longing or yearning, of sincere affection. Commentator John Eadie wrote that the word “describes a strong desire, an intense craving of possession, a great affection for, a deep desire, an earnest yearning for something with implication of need. Here it describes the natural yearning of personal affection. Paul loved the saints at Philippi and had a longing for the joy of renewed fellowship with them face to face.”
That this sort of intense affection and desire to be reunited existed between Paul and the Philippians is so evident throughout this letter. Back in chapter 1, Paul says, “For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:8). This great desire and delight in their company was so strong that Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could describe it as the affection of Christ Jesus—nothing less than the visceral yearning of Christ’s own love expressing itself through Paul.
And the same was true on their part. We see an example of that on the part of Epaphroditus who was a member of that congregation. As Epaphroditus was making the 700-mile journey from Macedonia to Rome to minister to Paul on behalf of the Philippians, somewhere along the way he became sick—so sick he nearly died. And apparently word had reached Philippi that he was gravely ill, but not that he had recovered. And now that he’s better and the Philippians don’t know it, he’s worried that they’ll be experiencing unnecessary grief over him. Paul tells the Philippians that Epaphroditus “was longing for you all and was distressed because you heard that he was sick” (Phil 2:26).
This was an ache of the soul, borne out of tender affection and mutual delight, that longed to be reunited with one’s brothers and sisters—to once more see their faces, and bring a smile to their lips, and embrace them as members of the same family of God. Like a soldier on the battlefield, wearied from the explosions and the fire of heavy artillery, climbs into his foxhole at night, and takes out a picture of his wife and young children, and pines after them in his heart, longing to be reunited with them. The Apostle Peter uses this word to speak of how a newborn baby longs for the milk of nourishment from his mother’s breast. And in the same way that an infant child cries out from the pangs of hunger, Paul—this man’s man! this man who could endure one physical assault after another and would keep getting back up for more! this brilliant theologian with an intellectual capacity unequaled in the history of the church—longed for his dear friends at Philippi with all the affection of Christ.
Dear reader, can you see anything of yourself in these examples of Paul and Epaphroditus? Do you long for the fellowship of the people of God? One preacher put it helpfully; he said, “Where there is genuine love, there is genuine longing to be with the object of that love.” Is that your experience? Does the delight you profess to have in your brothers and sisters in Christ find expression in the desire for them when you aren’t together?
I know that it does for some of you. It is such a joy for me to hear many of my own flock speak about how they long to be at Grace Church on the Lord’s Day, how they can’t wait to gather with the Lord’s people and worship Him as their Savior and King. It’s a delight for me as their pastor to hear them speak about how anxiously they anticipate Bible study on Friday nights—how they look forward to the fellowship their brothers and sisters in Christ. And my prayer is that that number among them would continue to grow. And I would wager that your pastor, dear reader, prays the same for you in your church. I do know that it’s the Lord’s prayer for His people (John 17:21)—that every last one of us in the body of Christ might read of Paul’s affection and longing for his brothers and sisters and proclaim from our hearts, “By God’s grace I know what it is to experience that among my fellow believers.” That is the kind of unity and fellowship that we ought to be pursuing in our churches.
And part of pursuing that means at least one other thing worth mentioning. We need to labor, by the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to be the kind of people other believers can’t help but love and long for. One way to apply this portion of Scripture is to check our own hearts to see if we have the kind of magnanimity and large-heartedness that Paul has for his dear Philippians. But another is to strive, by God’s grace, to press so hard after holiness—and so hard against sin—that the glory of Christ is so clearly on display in your life that truly godly people can’t help but long to be in your presence. Because to be in your presence, is to see their Savior so eminently displayed in your life.
May God grant this kind of affection of Christ be in and among His people, for His glory.