You never want to underestimate the value of a true Christian friend. A Christian friend is the rare jewel of life, someone you can fully trust and confide in because this individual has proven to be uncompromisingly safe. I argue that this kind of confidant is vital to anyone’s spiritual and mental equilibrium. A few weeks ago, nearing the close of our summer an old friend from Virginia came up to visit me in Alaska. He had called me in July to tell me that his wife suggested she would find the money in their budget to send him to spend time with me. She had noted, I had called a few more times than usual and felt compelled for him to make a spontaneous visit as a mission of encouragement. So, my friend Bill, the day after marrying off his youngest daughter, hopped on a flight to spend the last week and a half of summer with me and my family.
I should add that Bill is someone I count as a lifelong friend, tracing back to Jr. Highschool when we first met on the wrestling mats as 13-year-olds. We were buddies who spent time everyday after school at each other’s homes and during long summers, we surfed a lot. On a deeper level, Bill considers his conversion to Christ (both of us came to Christ in our later teens) was wrought by God placing him under my family’s Christian influence. Bill went to college to become a commercial artist and would later receive the call to fulltime ministry as a church planter and has served his last ten years of ministry as an executive pastor in Richmond, Virginia. To say the least, we still have a lot in common and find we still have a lot to talk about in life, marriage, raising adult children, and ministry. All these dynamics set this up to be a great trip to Alaska.
Bill’s personality is generally deadpan, where he will pull jokes and party tricks mixed with spontaneous harmonica riffs on trending music which engaged my teenage boys and college kids. We also got out some into the wilds of Alaska. He and I were flown by small aircraft to Chickaloon, AK (beyond Palmer) to visit a missionary bush pilot camp called “Kingdom Air Corps.” We got to experience amazing beauty on the flight over with Denali lit up by a morning sunrise. Not to mention all the rugged mountain scenery, lush and green from a lot of summer rain. We were mutually encouraged there in the Word and fellowship, making new Christian friends, driving around their adventurous grounds, and eating incredible camp food at their lodge! This experience (along with a few trips to Girdwood for hiking and watching bore-tide surfing) did have a sudden turn of events when, without warning, Bill was suddenly in the throes of passing a kidney stone. One day at the hospital later, he was all good.
My purpose in sharing about this visit is to dignify the significance of mutual encouragement that comes from Christian friendship. To take this a few layers deeper, allow me to take this theme back to Bible times, when Paul spoke about two of his Christian friends as he wrote to the believers at the church of Philippi. Remember, at the time of writing Paul was under house arrest, serving probation (Rome’s anklet bracelet firmly attached), for preaching Jesus Christ as Lord instead of Caesar. Suffice it to say, Paul needed true Christian friends and the two he mentions in his letter are Timothy and Epaphroditus:
19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. 20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know Timothy's proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, 24 and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also. 25 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, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 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. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me. (Philippians 2:19-30)
From this brief paragraph in Philippians 2, I want to lift out of the text two meaningful by-products of Christian friendship.
1. Friendship meets a personal need
Reading the New Testament, it is reasonable to assume that Timothy was the most significant Christian friend Paul ever had. Paul and Timothy’s friendship was mutually encouraging but it also multiplied encouragement to others. The above paragraph begins with Paul’s plan to “send” (send is used 4x cff. vv. 19, 23, 25, 28) Timothy to bring reciprocal “cheer” both the Philippian church and Paul (v. 19). This dynamic fruit of pure friendship is God’s designed means to build up Christians through personal relationships. In this case, Timothy was sent by Paul to this church, only to boomerang back to Paul with a soul-cheering report.
One practical test for whether someone is truly a Chrisitan friend is to ask yourself after meeting with that person, whether you feel personally drained or filled. This test is not meant to judge other people as particularly needy as much as it will find out what your respective roles in each other’s lives. Most people God brings into your life will either give to or take away from you. However, on rare occasions, you will find that the Lord provides a friend who both gives and receives encouragement in reciprocal fashion.
Paul expressed what made Timothy so special to him, saying, “For I have no one like him” (v. 20), who has “proven worth…as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel” (v. 22). Paul trusted Timothy’s integrity because they were bonded together by Jesus in life and in mission. They were so close that Paul knew sending Timothy would inevitably mean that blessing would cycle back to him which would meet his personal need.
2. Friendship extends love to meet personal needs
Paul’s second Christian friend he brings up is Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus was someone the Philippians knew very well but this did not stop Paul from decorating him with glowing accolades. Paul called him “my brother” and “fellow worker” and “fellow soldier” and “your messenger and minister to my need” (v. 25). Epaphroditus, like Timothy, played a multi-faceted role in Paul’s life. Paul’s descriptors dignify him as both a ministry multiplier and defender of truth. Someone willing to put himself in harm’s way for the sake of Christ.
It is important to see that Paul is classifying Epaphroditus as their “messenger and minister to [his] need,” meaning that this church had first sent Epaphroditus as their proxy to Paul on their behalf. Christian friendship does this sort of thing, where your investment into your friend is literally sent through this friend to bless someone else. And this investment is felt. Remembering Jesus’ model and commission, we know that when someone makes a disciple, they replicate themselves inside of someone else. Paul summarized this effect when he wrote, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1). When your relationship is based on being fellow Christians, then this relationship not only reflects what Christ taught but likewise reflects Christ himself.
Practically this means when you encourage others, you invariably pass on the encouragement you’ve felt from the investment that’s been made into you by your Christian friends. In the case of Paul, whatever it was that the whole church wished it could do for Paul (who was in prison), Epaphroditus, by extension, was doing it on their behalf. Epaphroditus carried a whole church in his heart to Paul. Paul felt their affection through Epaphroditus on such a scale that he felt it necessary to send him back to them to return the favor.
Epaphroditus was also concerned for the Philippians to know he was okay. They heard he was severely ill and both Paul and Epaphroditus were concerned to allay their fears over Epaphroditus’ well-being. Paul set the conditions for a solid return with a solid report in essence saying, “Epaphroditus could have died on the field, but didn’t.” Show him honor and joy because: “…for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me’ (v. 30). He could have died (but didn’t) while finishing your mission on your behalf. Mentioning Epaphroditus’ close call with death is not Paul’s way of laying a guilt trip on the church but instead encouraging them that their chosen friend was able to finish what they wanted to do.
The rare jewel of the Christian life is gaining a real Christian friend. Do not feel guilty making a significant investment to make and maintain a Christian friend. For this is God’s designed way of meeting your needs as well as God’s designed way of meeting the needs of others.