It is difficult for most of us to enter into the worldview of the first century, especially regarding matters like communication and medicine. By way of telephone, fax or e-mail we can be in instant communication with people almost anywhere on the globe; and we are so used to the results of medical science that they now cease to amaze us. In our world most people expect to live through even the most dreaded of diseases, not realizing how recent such a worldview is. In the Greco-Roman world people expected to die of disease or illness and were amazed by recovery; and the only way one could find out about a friend from afar was through courier—and then only if someone happened to be going that way.
So one rightly wonders how the Philippians responded to seeing Epaphroditus again. Apparently he had suffered a kind of illness that ordinarily issued in death. That much they knew, but of the outcome they knew nothing. And that is why Paul thought it necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, and to do so as soon as he was strong enough to travel, rather than to wait until news of Paul's situation had been resolved. But before elaborating those reasons, the very mention of his now-recovered friend causes Paul to burst into accolades. Here is one who ministered to Paul at the risk of his own life (vv. 29-30), and Paul cannot help himself. With three epithets he describes Epaphroditus's relationship to himself; with two more reminds the Philippians that his service to Paul was on their behalf.
First, he is my brother, the fundamental term of relationship within the believing community; he is to Paul what the rest of the Philippian Christians are as well. Second, he is Paul's "coworker" (NIV fellow worker), Paul's most common term for those who have labored with him in the gospel in some way, including Euodia and Syntyche and others in Philippi (4:3). But in this case, third, he further defines Epaphroditus's role with a military metaphor; he is also my . . . fellow soldier. Whatever may have evoked this uncommon (for Paul) metaphor (his being surrounded by the Praetorian Guard, 1:13? or the fact that Roman Philippi originated as a military colony?), it images Epaphroditus as a wounded comrade-in-arms who is being sent home for rest. Since Epaphroditus was almost certainly present at the dictation of the letter, these words are probably in part for his sake; but they are surely for the community's sake as well, to emphasize the role their messenger has played on Paul's behalf.
Paul further designates Epaphroditus as your messenger (apostle) and ministrant to my needs. First, he was their "apostle," sent on behalf of the congregation to perform a given task. That task is then expressed with a sacrificial metaphor: he offered priestly service (to God, it is implied) on their behalf for Paul's needs. This is the first certain mention of their gift to Paul (although see comment on 1:5 and 2:17). Paul's present point is clear: in a culture where prisoners were not cared for by the state but had to depend on friends or relatives for food and other necessities, this is no small thing the Philippians have done. This present word about Epaphroditus anticipates the full acknowledgment in 4:10-20.