It’s so easy to skim over the ‘minor characters’ in Scripture, isn’t it? Men and women whose names are mentioned only once or twice – about whom very little is said. Epaphras is one of those names that only appears three times in the whole Bible (Col 1.7, 4.12; Phm 23), and yet he was a spiritual giant whose example we would do well to follow. He was a church planter and the pastor of the churches in at least Colosse, Laodicea and Hierapolis, if not in other towns in the Lycus valley of Asia Minor. Paul describes him in Col 1.7 as a ‘beloved fellow-servant’ and a ‘faithful minister of Christ’. In Col 4.12 he is referred to as a ‘servant of Christ Jesus’ – a phrase that Paul uses of only two other men: himself and Timothy. So this is a man who was exceptionally highly regarded by the apostle Paul. Why? What marked him out as a ‘faithful minister of Christ’? Paul mentions three things:
1. Faithful preaching. Paul says that the Colossians heard ‘the word of truth, the gospel’ (Col 1.5) and that they ‘understood the grace of God in truth’ (Col 1.6). How did they come to know these things? Col 1.7: ‘…you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant.’ When Epaphras preached the gospel to these people he didn’t just give them a few bullet points—he taught the gospel comprehensively and deeply, carefully explaining its truths and unpacking its applications. This is probably one of the reasons why Luke could say in Acts 19.10 that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord—because men like Epaphras came to hear Paul declaring the whole counsel of God at the hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus (Ac 20.27) and then re-preached what they heard back at home. This should be one of the marks we look for in a faithful minister of Christ—he preaches the word of truth, the gospel so that people understand the grace of God in truth.
2. Frequent pains. Epaphras poured himself out for the sake of Christ’s people. Col 4.13 literally says, ‘He has much toil on your behalf and on behalf of those in Laodicea and Hierapolis.’ The word ‘toil’ is not the usual Greek word for work, but a word that we only find three other times in the New Testament, all in the book of Revelation. It’s a word from the battlefield—a word that throbs with painstaking strain and exertion. Epaphras spent himself on behalf of the Christians in the churches under his care. He laboured hard in preaching, praying, combatting false teaching, travelling around the Lycus valley to visit the churches, counselling late into the night, debating with false teachers, and on and on. His life and ministry revolved around these people. Since it’s likely that Paul wrote Colossians from prison in Rome, it means Epaphras travelled 1200 miles to seek Paul’s help in responding to the false teaching threatening the Colossian church. In fact, it seems from Philemon 23 that Epaphras was even imprisoned along with Paul for a time. Whether this imprisonment was voluntary or not, this was a man willing to sacrifice his freedom and his rights for the good of others—the mark of a faithful minister of Christ.
3. Fervent prayer. Col 4.12 describes Epaphras as ‘always struggling on your behalf in his prayer, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.’ This word ‘struggling’ is another word that pulses with effort. It refers to wrestling and hand-to-hand combat. That’s how much toil Epaphras poured into his work of interceding for the saints at Colosse. And he did this ‘always’—the people of God were constantly on his heart and mind and he gave himself to pray for them, that they would grow to maturity in their faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ. This is what all faithful ministers of Christ do—they pray for the congregations under their care.
Why was Epaphras marked by these things? Because these were the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry on earth. He preached faithfully to crowds and to individuals, in season and out of season. He poured himself out on behalf of others—can you imagine a more appropriate description of Jesus’ earthly ministry, from birth to death, than Col 4.13: ‘He has much toil on your behalf’? And he prayed constantly for his people, day and night. In fact, according to Heb 7.25 he still prays constantly for his people, that we may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.
Pray that your minister will embody these marks of a faithful servant of Christ, reflecting the marks of Christ’s own faithful ministry, more and more.