This is the second post in my series about lesser known believers mentioned in Paul’s epistles. Today I want to talk about Epaphras. He is not to be confused with Epaphroditus mentioned in Philippians. I wrote about him here. Epaphras is introduced in the following passages in Colossians:
“just as you learned it [the gospel] from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.” Colossians 1:7-8
“Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.” Colossians 4:12-13
He then is mentioned at the end of Philemon:
“Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you…” Philemon 23
First, Paul calls Epaphras a faithful minister, a servant of Christ Jesus. The Greek word for minister is diakonos, from which we get our word deacon. In certain denominations, a deacon has come to mean something different than what it actually is. If you grew up in some Southern Baptist circles, the deacons were the decision makers, they were the ‘yes men’ surrounding the pastor. This is not the original meaning of the word. A deacon is a minister who serves. He cares for the needs of the church of God. Notice the object of Epaphras’ service – he is a faithful minister on their behalf, working hard for them. He isn’t working for his own sake. He does not desire power or a platform. His goal is to serve the needs of the saints. The first need they have is to be taught. Paul describes how Epaphras taught the Colossians the gospel. And this gospel Epaphras taught was bearing wonderful fruit in them. They truly understood the grace of God and their love and faith was evident to all. Epaphras had made that known to Paul and the others.
We also see that Epaphras shared in the risks of the gospel. In Philemon we learn that he is a fellow prisoner with Paul. Just as Paul risked his life in bringing the gospel to others, Epaphras is following Paul’s example and incurring the same risk. They both have the same goal, which Paul states in Colossians 1:28 – “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”
Epaphras worked for the good of others, teaching them and suffering on their behalf. But there’s even more to this man. At the end of Colossians we learn another characteristic of a faithful servant and minister of the gospel. Remember, Epaphras was in prison with Paul when this letter was written. So he is not with the saints he has been ministering to and serving. What does he do while absent from them? He continues to serve them by praying for them. Paul was a witness to and participant in these prayers and it’s plain that Epaphras learned how to pray from Paul. In this little verse, Colossians 4:12, we learn that the substance and strength of his prayers align perfectly with Paul’s. His aim in praying for the Colossians was that they would stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God, just like it says in Colossians 1:28. His prayers were full of the kind of Pauline language we see in the beginning of the letter:
“…that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father…” Colossians 1:9-12
The strength of his prayers also match Paul’s. Distance hasn’t cooled their fervor. He struggles in prayer on their behalf. The Greek word for struggle means to strive and toil, to contend as with an adversary, to compete so as to win a prize. In Colossians 2, Paul tells them how much he has struggled on their behalf, and on behalf of all he has not seen face to face. In Romans 15:30, he appeals to the saints to strive together with him in prayer on his behalf.
Paul regarded prayer as hard work and Epaphras has yoked himself with the great apostle and learned how to compete in prayer for the souls of the saints. I am convicted and encouraged when I ponder the example of Epaphras. What is the substance of our prayers for others? Do we struggle in prayer on their behalf? Do we even know our fellow saints well enough to be able to do this? Struggling and toiling on behalf of others in prayer presupposes a certain depth of relationship. How deep are our relationships?
These are questions certainly worth pondering as we look at the example of Epaphras. Like Epaphroditus, we see another co-laborer of Paul’s learning the ways of Christ at his side, and emulating his example. This is pure discipleship, working and praying side by side for the furthering of the gospel in the lives of others.