Note from the authors:
“The Parables of Epaphroditus” is a historical fiction story written for children of Cedar Heights. Its original intent was to accompany Pastor Jeff’s sermon series on Philippians in 2021, though we hope it is helpful to any future readers as well.
– Avery Johnson and Carter Brown
Part 3 – The Soldier and the Gardener (Walk Humbly)
Epaphroditus and the kids found a nice tree to sit under as the hottest part of the day passed around them.
Hungry, the kids tore into their packs. They were dismayed to see their food was dwindling.
“We only have half a loaf of bread left, so I guess it’s a good thing we’re going back to town,” Thinker said as she divided the bread into three even pieces.
“And our water is low too,” Chief noted.
“It’s hard being a bandit,” Sidekick said. “I thought it would be easier than this.”
“Why did you choose to be bandits?” Epaphroditus asked.
The kids didn’t say anything. Eventually Chief said, “Let’s just say we couldn’t stay in town. We outgrew it.”
“I see.” Epaphroditus leaned against the tree trunk and closed his eyes. His stomach grumbled.
The kids looked at each other. “When was the last time you ate?” Thinker asked.
Epaphroditus opened his eyes. “I finished my bread yesterday morning, but I found some honey and fresh water last night. God provides for me, and I thank him for that.”
“Oh,” Thinker said. “That reminds me of the parable you told us about the boy and the map.”
“What about it?”
“That God knows everything about the road we’re on. He knew you needed food and water.”
“That’s a good connection,” Epaphroditus said.
“Maybe to keep our minds off food, you could read the next section of the letter?” Chief asked.
“And I want to hear the next parable!” Sidekick said.
Epaphroditus agreed. “This section is about walking humbly,” he said.
Then he started reading.
• • •
Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. Then, whether I come and see you again or only hear about you, I will know that you are standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News. Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. We are in this struggle together. You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am still in the midst of it.
Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? 2 Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.
Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.
Do everything without complaining and arguing, so that no one can criticize you. Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people. Hold firmly to the word of life; then, on the day of Christ’s return, I will be proud that I did not run the race in vain and that my work was not useless. But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. Yes, you should rejoice, and I will share your joy.
If the Lord Jesus is willing, I hope to send Timothy to you soon for a visit. Then he can cheer me up by telling me how you are getting along. I have no one else like Timothy, who genuinely cares about your welfare. All the others care only for themselves and not for what matters to Jesus Christ. But you know how Timothy has proved himself. Like a son with his father, he has served with me in preaching the Good News. I hope to send him to you just as soon as I find out what is going to happen to me here. And I have confidence from the Lord that I myself will come to see you soon.
Meanwhile, I thought I should send Epaphroditus back to you. He is a true brother, co-worker, and fellow soldier. And he was your messenger to help me in my need. I am sending him because he has been longing to see you, and he was very distressed that you heard he was ill. And he certainly was ill; in fact, he almost died. But God had mercy on him—and also on me, so that I would not have one sorrow after another.
So I am all the more anxious to send him back to you, for I know you will be glad to see him, and then I will not be so worried about you. Welcome him in the Lord’s love and with great joy, and give him the honor that people like him deserve. For he risked his life for the work of Christ, and he was at the point of death while doing for me what you couldn’t do from far away.
• • •
“Epaphroditus? Is that you?”
“Ha! We know your name now!”
“You almost died?”
Epaphroditus couldn’t help but laugh to himself; it was good the kids asked questions. “Yes, that’s me,” he said.
“Wait a second!” Sidekick stood up. “You’re not a messenger. He said you’re a soldier!”
“What else aren’t you telling us?” Chief asked accusingly. He held his stick tightly and stood as if ready for a fight.
Epaphroditus held up his hands. “We’re not trained soldiers like the Romans. Paul says we’re soldiers because of our humble and faithful service to Jesus Christ.”
“Is that all?” Sidekick asked, disappointed.
“That is all! We serve the highest king for the greatest cause: spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. But we shouldn’t expect it to be easy. Jesus himself said it wouldn’t be, but thankfully he set the example for us to follow and obey. He’s the King of Kings, and he’s in control.”
Sidekick frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“I didn’t at first either. Here, let’s pray and ask God to help us understand. Then I’ll tell you the parable of the soldier. Gather around.”
After Epaphroditus showed them how to pray, he told them the next parable.
• • •
There was a king in a far away land who held the loyalty of all his people. He was a good king and they loved him greatly. The whole land was at peace and all things were just as they should be.
But one day, another king decided he wanted their land. So he brought his armies to the land and demanded that everything be given to him. The good king refused, and told his loyal people to pick up their swords and go to battle. It was dangerous. But no risk of harm could stop them from serving their king.
The battle lasted for days, and as it raged on the people fought valiantly. But one soldier fought more valiantly than them all. He was not a general or a lieutenant. He didn’t ride in a chariot or on a horse. He was just a regular soldier who volunteered to serve on the front lines fighting alongside everyone else. But he was brave and tireless. When everyone else was tired and ready to give up, he kept fighting and led the way. When everyone else was scared and sure they would lose, he would encourage them.
Everyone fought harder because of him. They followed his example and fought for the king. He was considered a hero and beloved by all.
Eventually, they won the battle and defeated the bad king. It was a joyful day and the good king ordered that there be a celebration in all the land. Feasts were made and parades took place. As the parade came near the good king’s castle, he walked out on his balcony to wave at everyone. The people were surprised, for standing next to him was the hero. But he wasn’t dressed in soldiers’ clothes, he was dressed in royal garments—for he was the prince, the son of the king.
People started talking to each other. “Why did the prince come fight with us?” “He could have stayed in the castle where it was safe and we would have fought for him.” “Why risk his life?”
They started cheering his name and celebrating the great prince who left the castle to fight. They cheered because they thought he had shown them how to be good soldiers. It was only later they realized he had really shown them how to be good servants.
• • •
“Wait, so it’s not about being a soldier?” Sidekick asked.
“That’s part of it. But we can’t be good soldiers unless we’re humble servants first,” Epaphroditus said. “The prince willingly sacrificed his position to obey the king. He wasn’t seeking his own good, but the good of others.”
“That sounds familiar,” Thinker said.
“You’re right. Because that’s what Jesus did. He was God, but he humbled himself and took the form of a man when he came to earth.”
“Why would he want to become a servant? I would rather be a king,” Chief said.
“I thought that once too. I used to want to take control. But whenever I tried to take God’s place, I was always frustrated or disappointed. Jesus is the only true, rightful king of our lives. He obeyed perfectly when we couldn’t. He did it because he loved us. And he went all the way to the cross where he died in our place.”
“He was crucified?” The kids asked. They shivered. They were well familiar with the Roman death penalty. It was torture.
“He was,” Epaphroditus said. “Yet he was innocent. In fact, he did what we couldn’t do: he never sinned. That’s why he’s our Savior. Death had no power over him. He’s still alive. God raised him from the grave and all the way up to his side in heaven!”
Epaphroditus paused to let the kids process what he was saying.
Eventually, Chief spoke up. “Was it really true what Paul said? About Jesus having the name above every name?”
“Yes it is,” Epaphroditus said.
“Just like what Paul wrote in the letter,” Thinker said in awe.
“Exactly. Truthfully, everyone is going to bow to him eventually,” Epaphroditus said firmly yet gently. “So then the question is: are you going to be forced to bow, or are you going to bow happily and willingly because you trust, love, and obey King Jesus?”
“Hmph,” Chief mumbled. He gazed off in thought. “So you obey Jesus because you love and trust him?”
“I do,” Epaphroditus said. “He’s also my savior and king, so I want to obey him and follow his humble example and serve others. Not only that, but he changed me and still is changing me. Let me tell you one more parable. This is the parable of the gardener.”
• • •
There was a town that had a garden in the middle of it. It was next to all the shops and the businesses—right downtown where everyone would go. The problem was that for years no one had taken care of the garden. It was overgrown and dying and ugly. It was filled with weeds and thorns and was an eyesore. Everyone in the town wished the garden was prettier. But no one was willing to do the hard work of taking care of the garden. They complained about it all the time, but they never did anything.
Then one day they looked out and saw a man in the garden. He was pulling weeds and tilling the ground. The people were confused because it wasn’t just any man—it was the mayor of the town! He had heard everyone complaining about the garden, but instead of instructing someone to fix it, he just started working on it himself.
It was not easy work. He had to pull the weeds and cut down the thorn bushes. He had to dig out the old plants and haul them away. He carefully tilled the soil, planted seeds and watered the garden. He made pathways to walk through the garden and benches for people to sit on. For weeks and weeks he would spend several hours a day in the hot sun working in the garden. He was filthy and sunburnt and sore, but he kept working. He never said anything and never asked for praise. He just worked.
When he was done, the garden was immaculate. And months later when everything bloomed, it was breathtaking. It was the most beautiful garden anyone had ever seen. People would go downtown to all the shops and businesses just so they could see the garden.
And when they saw the garden, they would see the mayor. Because now he wasn’t just the mayor, he was also the gardener. This was his garden, and even after it was beautiful and blooming, he continued to work for hours every day. He pulled weeds and raked the soil. He tied up sagging stems and trimmed wilting flowers. He didn’t just make it beautiful, he kept it beautiful.
From all his time working as the gardener, the mayor was filthy and sunburnt and sore. But of all the people in town, no one was more loved than him.
• • •
“Our grandma has a garden,” Sidekick said. “Sometimes we help with it.”
“Oh?” Epaphroditus said. “What do you do?”
“She asks us to fetch water for it. Chief carries the most. And he’s good with the plants.”
“I just know what they need,” Chief said gruffly. “Anyone could do it.”
“Maybe,” Epaphroditus said, placing his hand on Chief’s shoulder, “Or maybe you have a gift. It’s good of you to help. Keep at it.”
“So what does this parable mean?” Thinker asked.
“It’s good you have experience with gardening. That makes it easier to understand. Remember how earlier I said Jesus changes me? It’s because he’s the master gardener.”
“What does he garden?” Chief asked.
“Our hearts, if we let him.”
“What do you mean?”
“My heart is one of his gardens. When I was abandoned and dirty and filled with the overgrown weeds of sin, he came to do the hard work of making me clean. In fact, he saved me. I couldn’t do it. He was the only one who could. Now he’s changing me to make me more like him, and I love him for that.”
“And he did that because he loves you?” Thinker asked.
“Yes, and he loves you too. He would gladly go to work gardening your heart if you let him.”
The kids were quiet. Epaphroditus didn’t mind. He leaned back against the tree. And right on time, his stomach grumbled.
“You’re really hungry, aren’t you?” Thinker asked. She frowned slightly. “We’re almost out of bread, but since we’ll be in town tonight, you could have some of ours.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Epaphroditus said. “And that’s an example of what we were talking about: walking humbly as a servant and seeking the good of others before yourself. Thank you for that. However, I won’t need your bread today. Once again, God’s provided another way.” He pointed up. “What do you see?”
“I can’t believe we didn’t see those sooner.”
“I love figs!”
“That’s right! We’re under a fig tree.” Epaphroditus grinned and stood. “Chief, if you let me use your stick, I can knock some loose. I’ll need all three of you to catch them.”
After a few minutes, they had enough figs for each of them. The ones the kids caught, they stored in their packs for later. The ones that landed on the ground, they sat down to eat right away.
“Mmm figs are so good.” Sidekick said, his cheeks full.
“They are, aren’t they?” Epaphroditus said.
Thinker bowed her head and closed her eyes. “Thank you, God,” she said.
“Amen.” Sidekick said.
“Amen.” Epaphroditus agreed. Then he shouldered his pack. “Now that my stomach won’t grumble at us anymore, shall we walk again?”
“We’re loaded up and ready.”
As the kids picked up their packs, Epaphroditus said, “Now that you know my name, it’s only fair that I know yours.”
Thinker and Sidekick looked at each other, then at Chief. Sensing that he needed to make a decision, he shrugged at them. “Sure, go ahead.”
Sidekick smiled shyly. “I’m Pavlos,” he said before becoming preoccupied with the wrinkles in his shirt.
“I’m Sofia,” Thinker said, with a big smile.
“And my name is Kepheus. But you can still call me Chief if you want.”
“It’s good to meet you, Pavlos, Sofia, and Kepheus. Thanks for serving as my guides.”
Chief nodded. “You’re welcome.” He pointed with his stick. “Ready? We’ll go that way.”
The four of them set off. They had only taken a few steps when Epaphroditus said, “By the way, you know this area better than I do. How soon until we’re back to the road?”
“Just a few more hills,” Kepheus said. “We’ll make it back to town in time for dinner.”
“That’s a plan. I can read more of the letter to you on the way.”