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of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy."*
After this commendation of Epaphroditus, as an active minister, and an affectionate friend, the Apostle gives an additional testimony, in the next verse, to the excellence of his character. His words relate to a signal proof, afforded by this primitive servant of God, of attachment to his Christian brethren. Attend to the affecting description. "For he longed," says the inspired writer, "after you all, and was full of heaviness, because that ye had heard that he had been sick." It appears, from these words, that the messenger of the Philippian church had been visited, while at Rome, with an attack of serious illness: and so deeply distressed was his mind, when he reflected upon the anxiety which this dispensation would cause to his flock at Philippi, that he could not remain tranquil; and earnestly desired again to present himself among them, and to soothe their affectionate apprehensions. The word rendered "full of heaviness," signifies extreme depression and misery of soul; and is used by the Evangelist with reference to the anguish of the blessed Redeemer, when with Peter, and James, and John, in the garden of Gethsemane. "He began," you are told by St. Matthew, "to be sorrowful and very heavy."+
In how engaging an aspect, my brethren, does this person, as thus described by the recording pen of the Apostle, stand before your view! You are here furnished with a striking exemplification of the extent of Christian friendship; and it may be declared, without hazard, that it is only the grace of the Lord God Almighty that can create within the heart a feeling, like that
* James, iii. 17.
+ Matt. xxvi. 37.
which is, in these words, so beautifully commemorated. Examine the real depth of the attachment, manifested by this primitive disciple. He is cast by Providence upon a bed of languishing, while at a distance from the people of his ministry, and from his brethren in the covenant of Christ. Forgetting his own affliction, he travels in spirit to Macedonia ; he thinks only of the fears and sorrows of those whom he had left behind; and, when he is restored, desires to comfort them with as intense an eagerness, as if they had been united to him by the ties of natural relationship. Thus it is that believers are linked to each other, as members of the same spiritual body, and travellers to the same eternal inheritance : and there is no affection so firm and strong, as that which has been originally produced by Christian principle, and is cemented by the same hallowed bond. It is with a like trembling anxiety on account of the sorrows of his brethren for himself, that St. Paul also is seen to be moved; when, in his Epistle to the saints of Ephesus, he thus tenderly expresses himself; "Wherefore I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory."* And, in the same manner, when his intended departure for Jerusalem drew forth the tears of his companions at Cesarea, he could not endure the spectacle; but broke forth into the importunate exclamation, "What mean ye to weep, and to break mine heart?"+ Unrenewed nature furnishes no such examples of lively and sympathetic concern, for the sorrows of other men. It is, indeed, true, that persons destitute of the religion of Christ are occasionally found, who manifest some portion of the spirit here depicted; and who, when thrown into afflictive * Eph. iii. 13. + Acts, xxi. 13.
or perilous circumstances, are in grief not for themselves only, but for those with whom they are connected by the ties of human friendship, and who are mourning over the wretchedness of their condition. But if you would know where this feeling is most active, and tender, and permanent, turn your eyes to the genuine disciples of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. There you will see love in its brightest earthly exhibitions; losing sight of self in solicitude for the happiness of others; and exemplifying the mind of that incarnate Master, who, when he saw the friends of Lazarus weeping, "wept"* likewise himself. It was because he was a Christian, that Epaphroditus was thus carried in imagination to his sorrowing brethren at Philippi; and it is characteristic of that blessed household to which he belonged, that if "one member suffer, all the members suffer with it."t
From this information, so gratifying to the Philippians, in regard to the lively interest taken in them by their absent minister, St. Paul proceeds to confirm the report which had reached them, in regard to his dangerous sickness; and expresses his joy at that valued brother's recovery. "For indeed," he remarks, "he was sick nigh unto death: but God had mercy on him; and not on him only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow." In this description of the restoration of Epaphroditus, there are two reflections suggested, to which I would, for a few moments, call your attention.
And 1. Is there not something at first sight rather singular in the observation, that the Lord Almighty, in raising up this excellent laborer from his bed of disease, and prolonging his residence in the world, performed towards him an act of indul
* John, xi. 35.
+ I. Cor. xii. 26.
"For indeed he was 'What
gence? Listen to the words before us. sick nigh unto death: but God had mercy on him." means this?' you are all ready to exclaim: 'for, if that primitive minister, by being then summoned away, would only have ascended from the field of battle to his eternal rest, where was the peculiar blessing conferred upon him, by thus extending his period of earthly existence? The expression seems appropriate only in the case of those unhappy beings, who are brought suddenly to the verge of the grave while in the midst of their natural alienation from God; and whom the compassionate Father, "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,”* spares for farther opportunities of faith in the Friend of sinners.'
Now it is, indeed, true, my Christian brethren, that, in respect of that everlasting recompense of reward which awaits the servants of God, it is the highest act of divine mercy to remove them from this present world, to the abiding enjoyments of the other. Here, all is labor and conflict: there, is uninterrupted repose. In this lower state, sin mingles bitterness with life's sweetest comforts: in heaven, pleasure is as unmixed in quality, as it is endless in duration. Still, however, there is a sense, in which that interposition of Providence by which a Christian is saved from death, and continued longer upon these earthly scenes, may be properly styled an act of tenderest kindness and love. Whoever, in the present assembly, is a renewed follower of Christ, knows that it is the habitual desire of a believer, to live to the service and glory of his crucified Master. He does not, indeed, attach the least merit to his feeble doings, nor found upon them the remotest expectation of
* II. Pet. iii. 9.
his final acceptance: but he feels that the Redeemer of sinners has laid him under such immeasurable obligations; he is so tenderly alive to the necessity of some answering acknowledgment from the creature; that he cannot abide the thought of passing into the land of spirits, without having, in some little degree, "shown forth the praises"* of his Deliverer by a career of useful exertion. This, therefore, being the prevailing wish of the servant of Christ, we may conceive the sadness with which he finds himself, in the very flower, or in the prime of his strength, brought to the borders of eternity: and also the light in which he will regard that interference of the Lord, by which he is permitted to live, and not, as was every moment expected, "taken away in the midst of his days." He will consider that the Almighty has dealt mercifully with him; because he has vouchsafed to him some additional space for doing good in his generation, and thereby promoting the honor of the Lord that bought him. It is on this account that St. Paul, in the former Chapter of this Epistle, looks upon the present existence as, in one view, a blessing; and, in the prospect of his future usefulness, exclaims, "If I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labor." Upon the same ground, then, in the instance before us, he describes the recovery of his friend as an exhibition of divine compassion; and when you consider, that the person to whom he referred was not merely a disciple, but a minister of Christ, the observations which I have made receive new force and value. The ambassador of heaven, even with the privilege of the longest life, can, of necessity, accomplish little towards extending the boundaries of his Master's kingdom. What, then, will not be his agony of + See Chap. i. 22.
*I. Pet. ii. 9.
† Ps. cii. 24.