Our next inspiring associate of the Apostle Paul, is a man called Epaphras who actually only gets three mentions in the New Testament. The fact that there are so few references means that we will need to read a little between the lines, but that in itself should not take away from the great things that are said about him!
Epaphras is a commonly shortened form of the longer name Epaphroditus. There is mention in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:19, 25 & 4:18) of a man called Epaphroditus, but I find no consensus to suggest that these men were actually the same person. The name Epaphras means lovely or handsome and he is mentioned in two of Paul’s letters, namely Colossians and Philemon. The letter to the Colossians was addressed to God’s people in Colossae and as a circular letter would have been read in Laodicea and Hierapolis also. We know from Colossians 2:1 that Paul never visited these towns. The letter to Philemon was more personal. Philemon was a wealthy businessman and the letter regarded his runaway slave Onesimus who was facing harsh consequences for his actions.
Our first destination as we consider Epaphras is actually in Acts, but Epaphras himself is not mentioned. Instead this is about Paul’s work in Ephesus. Note however what it says in verse 10 about the people living in Asia:
8 Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9 But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.Acts 19:8-10
Given that Paul had not visited the towns of Colossi, Laodicea and Hierapolis, I think we can infer that it’s likely the gospel came to them through those who had heard Paul’s preaching in Ephesus. The letter to the Colossians identifies this messenger as Epaphras. It also tells us that he was one of them, suggestion that he was actually from Colossi. He was also a gentile (Colossians 4:11).
6…In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world – just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. 7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.
12 Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. 13 I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis.Colossians 1:6b-8, 4:12-13
Just take a moment to look at what these verses say about Epaphras. Paul describes him as he and Timothy’s dear fellow servant (1:6), a faithful minister of Christ on their behalf (1:7) and a servant of Christ Jesus (4:12). Later in Paul’s letter to Philemon, Epaphras is identified as Paul’s fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus (1:23) and it is clear from the following verse that he was one of Paul’s companions and known to these other people he mentions.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.Philemon 1:23-24
After that unusually long introduction to a character who has so few Biblical references I will offer three brief reflections about his life:
1. Gospel Carrier (Colossians 1:6-8)
The expansion of the early Church came as the Gospel was passed through networks of relationships. Many of us also will have heard the gospel from others – relationships have played a big part in how we come to hear about Christ. Each of us who know Jesus are also gospel carriers, taking the gospel to the people who live, work and operate around us. I recently heard a talk from my friend and colleague Phil Watson on this, and he encouraged us to consider five passages which talk about five ways that we carry the gospel:
13 ‘You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.
15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,
15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.Matthew 5:13, 14-16, 2 Corinthians 2:15, 1 Peter 3:15, James 2:15-17
Phil’s observation about these passages was that they mirror the five senses: (1) Salt of the earth = taste, (2) Light of the World = sight, (3) Aroma of Christ = smell, (4) Hope in Christ = hearing and (5) Responding to physical need = touch. It’s very challenging to consider how we personally might take the gospel to the people around us, most likely in some combination of methods! For Epaphras, we read that they heard the word of truth, the gospel and understood the grace of God in truth. He was an effective gospel carrier and was likely responsible for planting churches in Colossi, Laodicea and Hierapolis.
2. Wrestling in Prayer (Colossians 4:12-13)
The second thing I want to draw out is Epaphras’ commitment to pray for them. The word used here is labouring or wrestling and it implies that Prayer is hard work which we will all surely know that it is. This was especially important for the Colossians who were facing the danger of false teaching – one of the big motivations for Paul to write to them. A significant element of our investment in others will come through others because ultimately unless God is at work we will not see people transformed.
We are not just told that Epaphras prayed but we are also told what he prayed. Paul tells us that Epaphras prayed that they would “stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.” Our prayers are often so full of requests regarding everyday things. Whilst at one level that is certainly no bad thing and I am sure Paul prayed for everyday things also, we would also have to acknowledge that the prayers of Paul and others in the New Testament often concern much bigger things. Look for example at Paul’s prayers for the Ephesians (1:15-23, 3:14-21), Colossians (1:9-11) or Thessalonians (1 Thess 3:11-13, 2 Thess 3:16-17) which are great examples of this.
When I think about my own prayer life this is a massive challenge for me too. Three questions are helpful for us here: (1) How can we commit ourselves to pray big prayers for others? Would we consider ourselves to be wrestling in prayer for the sake of others? How can we use the words of these prayers to fuel our own prayers for others?
3. Mission Partner (Various)
Finally, we also need to comment on some of the ways that Paul affirms the oneness of Epaphras’ work alongside him. First, it is really interesting that Paul tells Philemon that Epaphras was his fellow prisoner with him in Christ (most likely in Rome). It is also worth noting that Paul mentions four fellow workers, namely Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, both here and in Colossians 4:10-17. This suggests that Philemon was probably also resident in Colossae.
Paul uses a variety of terms to describe his ministry partners including “co-worker”, “apostle”, “brother”, “minister”, “fellow servant”, “fellow-soldier”, and “fellow-prisoner”. We have seen that quite a few of these descriptions have been used for Epaphras telling us that he was a close associate of Paul’s. This was really Paul’s vision for ministry – to invest in a growing army of labourers who would continue to carry the gospel further-a-field. Paul simply could not do it all.
This reflections help us see the inspiration we can see from Epaphras who carried the gospel back with him an planted churches in Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis. God also wants us to co-labour with Him and be part of seeing the gospel going out to the ends of the earth, and starting right where we are with the people living, working and serving all around us.
See other posts in this series