Monday, January 31, 2022

What Lessons Can We Learn while Being Sick?

After a full year of ministry, I was tired and looking forward to a rest. Instead, I just spent two of my three weeks of vacation in the Dominican Republic in bed trying to recuperate from the influenza. We figured I was contaminated before I left or while traveling through the New York or Santo Domingo airports, three days before my symptoms of a congested head and bodily weaknesses began to appear. After six days I began to improve and, then, to my dismay, I began to get worse. Our friend and doctor in the Dominican Republic had been sick too, but she got better after a week while I got worse. She arrived shortly thereafter at our condo with the famous traditional criolla tea[1] for me to take and other local medicines which quickly began their work, so that I could begin what would become a blog I promised Bill I would do this January.

What topic would be good? In my context, how about, sick people in the New Testament who were not healed instantaneously? (Because Bill and I were surely praying for such an instantaneous healing to glorify God’s name and give me a happy vacation!) I found four New Testament examples: Epaphroditus, Timothy, Trophimus, and Paul who demonstrated that illness happens to all, even to wonderful and faithful Christians.

Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25-30) was sent to Rome to represent the church of Philippi, bringing a generous donation to help pay for Paul’s expenses since he was under house arrest. He took a lengthy trip by land and sea not only to deliver some money but also to join Paul in his ministry. And what happened? Paul had to take care of Epaphroditus who fell seriously ill! How frustrated Epaphroditus must have felt! Paul came to care deeply for him. Epaphroditus almost died, but with Luke’s care and God’s ultimate intervention, Epaphroditus survived.

What do we learn from this incident? Christians under important pressing altruistic ventures can still get sick! Their time plans can be torn to shreds. If Epaphroditus had died in this venture to help Paul, Paul may have felt guilty that he indirectly caused this amiable Christian worker to die. God had mercy on Epaphroditus, and he avoided death and was able to return home. Even people who get sick while doing ministry, according to Paul, should be welcomed with joy and honored.

In the midst of the many charges of the evangelist pastor at Ephesus, Timothy (1 Tim. 5:23) had frequent stomach ailments from avoiding drinking any wine. Usually in ancient times some wine was mixed into water to purify the water. So, Timothy had “frequent illnesses.” That means that, while he was trying to stop the Ephesians’ push to heterodoxy, he was frequently not feeling well. Possibly Timothy as a model for this imbibing church (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:3, 8) had determined to take the Nazarite vow to avoid all grapes and grape products.[2] Nevertheless, in this case, Paul charges Timothy just to go ahead and drink a bit of wine. Idealism at times has to be tempered with practicality. Well-intentioned goals may have to be adapted because of illness, which sets up its own demands.

Not much is said about Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20) except that he did not deny the faith like Demas (2 Tim. 4:10) or work actively against the Christian faith like Alexander (2 Tim. 4:14-15). Paul may have been on his way to Rome when he left Trophimus ill at the port city Miletus near Ephesus. Maybe Trophimus planned to accompany Paul all the way to Rome, but sickness kept him from doing so. Did Paul mention him to Timothy in this letter so that Timothy could check up on him? Paul uses a participle to describe Trophimus: “being sick.” However, Paul does not expect Timothy to wait around until Trophimus is better. In Rome, where Paul is, Luke is there with him. This time Paul is under arrest probably at a Roman military camp. Paul only expects Mark, with his many Roman connections, and Timothy, his long-term ministry partner, to be nearby (2 Tim. 4:9-11).[3] Because of Trophimus’ illness, Trophimus could not become one of Paul’s close Roman companions, but Trophimus for the time being avoided persecution from the Roman authorities. Sometimes an illness keeps us from our goals and impedes our time schedules, but we will continue in our plans when we feel better.

Paul himself suffered from some intermittent illness that affected his eyes (2 Cor. 12:7-10; Gal. 4:13-16). Some medical staff consider that the symptoms might align with ophthalmia, such as Retter’s condition, or intermittent glaucoma, which can be painful.[4] The Galatians treated Paul the way Paul wanted the Philippians to treat Epaphroditus. They welcomed him and eagerly listened to his message. They did not scorn or despise him because he was ill. Because this illness impeded his ministry, Paul appealed to the Lord to have it completely healed. But, to the apostle, who had been spiritually brought to heaven itself (2 Cor. 12:3-4), God responded “no” because he wanted Paul to remember that, in the midst of all the traveling difficulties, spiritual and physical hardships, and persecution Paul underwent for Christ’s sake, Paul remained strong and whole because of the indwelling Christ (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

So, what did I learn from this biblical study to enlighten my situation?

1.   Illness can occur anytime in our earthly fallen world. It is rarely convenient, never welcomed, and it almost always impairs our time schedules. However, all efforts should be made for its eradication, even if an illness does lead to death.[5]

2.   People should not be judged negatively if they become ill. Instead, they should take care of themselves, be taken care of, ask for God’s intervention, and heed good advice. Jesus taught that every sick person should be treated as if she or he were Jesus himself and “looked upon” and “taken care of” (Matt. 25:36, 39-40, 43-45). And they should be honored even though they become ill.

3.   Ministry can be done in the midst of illness. Epaphroditus made it to Paul. Timothy and Paul kept on serving despite their illnesses. God’s grace is sufficient in all situations (2 Cor. 12:9; Phil. 2:27).

I was disappointed to get influenza on my own long-awaited vacation, but I was thankful to be in the Dominican Republic with Bill who took care of me everyday doing all cooking and cleaning. I was staying in our lovely condominium where we had plenty of space in a warm, sunny environment and where our local friends and the condominium managers showed concern. I was able to rest and eventually get better. I was glad that when I fell ill, I had completed all my recent work and I did not have an urgent ministry endeavor to do in the midst of my illness like my New Testament Christian coworkers did!     


[1] Bill describes how to make the tea in our novel Cave of Little Faces, House of Prisca and Aquila Series (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2318), 83.

[2] See further A. B. Spencer, 1 Timothy, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013), 140-41.

[3] See further A. B. Spencer, 2 Timothy and Titus, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014), 146-47.

[4] A. B. Spencer, 2 Corinthians, People’s Bible Commentary (Abingdon, UK: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2001), 209.

[5] John 11:4; James 5:14-18. See also A. B. Spencer and W. D. Spencer, Joy through the Night: Biblical Resources on Suffering (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007 [1994]), chs. 1-2.