Paul and People – Epaphras
What kind of reputation does each of us have in our local church? Are we known as a person who knows the Word of God and can teach it? Or, are we known as a person of prayer? Or, are we known as a person who helps others in times of need and can counsel those who have problems and comfort the broken hearted? What is our reputation?
There was an elderly gentleman, who has since gone to be with the Lord, in the church that I fellowship with, named Ted Bolkema. He had a solid reputation of being a man of prayer, and could he ever pray! It was always interesting to hear him pray at the Thursday night prayer meeting. He would pray geographically. He would start by praying for the needs of the assembly at Valley Bible Chapel in Washington Township, NJ. Then he would pray for the outreach into the surrounding communities in Bergen County. He would then turn his attention to missionaries. Starting in Mexico, he would pray down Central America to South America, praying for missionaries by name and the specific needs that they had. These needs were gleaned from the prayer letters read earlier in the prayer meeting, or from “Missions” magazine or his own personal knowledge of the missionaries. He would then hop over to South Africa and pray up to the Mediterranean coast interceding for missionaries and the work in Africa. Then he would then go to Europe, praying for that spiritually Dark Continent. His attention would turn east and he would pray for those behind the Iron Curtin (this was before the fall of the Soviet Union) and further east to Asia as well as the Subcontinent, India and Southeast Asia. He would either cross the Bering Strait in Alaska or hop to Hawaii on his way to the mainland in order to pray for the home workers in the United States. All this in ten to fifteen minutes! He had a well earned reputation as a man of prayer.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the saints in the Lycus Valley commending one of their own, Epaphras of Colossae, as “always laboring fervently for you in prayers” (Col. 4:12). What brought Epaphras to the point of being such a devout man of prayer, earnestly praying for the people in the Lycus Valley?
The Bible gives few biographical clues to this fascinating individual. Epaphras’ name is mentioned only three times in the Bible (Col. 1:7; 4:12; Philemon 23). There are six verses that actually make reference to him (Col. 1:7, 8; 4:12-14 and Philemon 23). From these verses and the historical-geography of the Lycus Valley, we can glean hints about this man with a reputation for praying for specific needs in the churches where he ministered (Morgan-Gillman 1992: 2: 533).
Colossae was located in the Lycus Valley. This valley was situated on a very strategic road that went from Ephesus on the Aegean Sea eastward to Syria. It is located at the eastern end of the Meander River. Within this valley there are two other major cities, Laodicea and Hierapolis, within the region of Phrygia.
Epaphras’ Ethnicity and Hometown
The name Epaphras is a shortened form of the name Epaphroditus, the meaning of which is “handsome” or “charming.” The Epaphras mentioned in Colossians and Philemon should not be associated with, or confused with the Epaphroditus mentioned in Philippians 4:18.
The Apostle Paul hints at the fact that Epaphras was a Gentile in Colossians 4. In the verses preceding the mention of Epaphras, Paul lists three individuals: Aristarchus, John Mark, and Yeshus called Justus, and identifies them as “my only fellow workers for the Kingdom of God who are of the circumcision” (4:10, 11). Those of the circumcision are Jewish individuals. The three that are mentioned next: Epaphras, Dr. Luke and Demas, would not be included in the “only” of the “circumcision”, thus they were Gentiles.
Paul also points out that Epaphras is “one of you” in the epistle written to the Church at Colossae (4:12), indicating that Colossae was his home town and that he was in fellowship in the assembly in that city.
Epaphras’ Relationship to Christ
When Paul and Timothy penned the epistle to the Colossians about AD 62 they gave four descriptions of Epaphras. He is first called “our dear fellow servant [sundoulos]” (1:7a). Then he is called “a faithful minister [diakonos] of Christ” (1:7b). The third designation is “a bondservant [doulos] of Christ” (4:12a). And finally “my [Paul’s] fellow prisoner [sunaixmalotos] in Christ Jesus” (Philemon 23). Twice Epaphras is described as a servant, or slave [doulos]. The emphasis of this word seems to be on the relationship between the slave and his master.
William Hendriksen eloquently describes this relationship: “A servant of Jesus Christ is one who has been bought with a price and is therefore owned by his Master, on whom he is completely dependent, to whom he owes undivided allegiance and to whom he ministers with gladness of heart, in newness of spirit, and in the enjoyment of perfect freedom, receiving from him a glorious reward” (1964: 191).
Epaphras is also called a “faithful minister.” The word minister is the Greek word for deacon. Perhaps Epaphras served in this office as one of deacon in the church at Colossae (cf. I Tim. 3:8-13). If that is the case, and Epaphras met the qualifications of this office, we can surmise that he was a family man with a wife and children. The fact that he held the office of deacon in the church at Colossae should not be confused with his exercising his spiritual gift of that of an evangelist in the Lycus Valley (cf. Eph. 4:11). Paul noted that he was faithful in carrying out his responsibilities as a deacon.
Paul also points out in his letter to Philemon that Epaphras is a “fellow prisoner.” Apparently Epaphras was put in prison along with the Apostle Paul for one reason or another and was incarcerated when Paul sent the letters to the churches at Laodicea and Colossae, as well as the epistle to Philemon, back to the Lycus Valley with Tychicus and Onesinus (Col. 4:7-9, 16).
The Bible does not state when Epaphras trusted the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior, or who shared the good news of the gospel with him. One can only speculate on the answer to these questions. Most likely we can say that the Apostle Paul did not lead him to Christ. Otherwise, he would have called Epaphras his son in the faith, like he did Titus (Tit. 1:4) and Timothy (I Tim. 1:2; II Tim. 1:2; 2:2). More than likely someone else shared the greatest news Epaphras had ever heard. This individual pointed out to Epaphras that he was a sinner and had come short of God’s mark of perfection (Rom. 3:23), and the wages of sin was death, or separation from God for all eternity in Hell (Rom. 6:23). Yet the good news is that the Lord Jesus died on Calvary’s cross to pay for his sins and rose again from the dead three days later. All Epaphras had to do, in fact, all he could do, was to trust the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior; and not his works, good deeds, or any merit of his own (Eph. 2:8, 9; Tit. 3:5). When he trusted Christ alone, he was given the righteousness of God, the forgiveness of all his sins, a home in heaven, and the free gift of eternal life (Phil. 3:9).
There are two possibilities as to who brought the gospel to the Lycus Valley. The first would be some Jewish pilgrims from the Lycus Valley (Phrygia, cf. Acts 2:10) who went to Jerusalem for the Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost) in AD 30 and heard Peter’s sermon that is recorded in Acts 2:14-41. They could have returned with the gospel message. The second possibility could be Peter or Silas (also known as Silvanus) if they came through the Lycus Valley on their way to Asia during their missionary journey to Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (I Pet. 1:1; 5:12). One of the early church fathers, Jerome, dates this journey to the second year of Emperor Claudius which would be the year AD 42 (1994: 3: 361). Peter was an apostle to the circumcision (Gal. 2:7-9) and there were Jewish communities in the Lycus Valley that he and his team would want to evangelize (Bruce 1984a).
Paul hints at others bringing the gospel to the Lycus Valley before Epaphras began his ministry there in the mid-50’s of the First Century AD. Paul reminds them of the grace of God and says: “as you also learned from Epaphras” (Col. 1:7 NKJV). The word “also” indicates that others, most likely Peter, Silas and John Mark, brought the gospel to the Lycus Valley first. At the end of the epistle to the Colossians, as well as Philemon, Paul gives them greetings from John Mark and tells them to prepare for his possible visit (4:10; Philemon 24), suggesting that they already knew him from a previous visit.
There is, however, a textual problem that would effects the interpretation of this passage. The text underlying the RSV, NRSV, NASB and the NIV all omit the word “also.” If that is the case, then Epaphras was the first one who brought the gospel to the Lycus Valley (Hiebert 1979:55; 1992:139). I believe that the word “also” has stronger textual support and belongs in the text, and that Peter and company were the first to bring the gospel to the Valley.
Ephesus was a thriving metropolis in the mid-1st century AD. People flocked to the city for business (trade and commerce), pleasure (the brothels) or pilgrimage and sightseeing. The Temple of Artemis / Diana was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and would have been the main attraction. Paul went there because it was a very strategic city for the furtherance of the Gospel. More than likely, Epaphras met the Apostle Paul while visiting Ephesus when Paul was there on his third missionary journey, sometime between AD 52 and 55 (Acts 19).
Paul and Timothy had set up a daily “discipleship training program” at the School of Tyrannus, next to the synagogue of Ephesus (Acts 19:9). As a result of this daily teaching program, Dr. Luke records: “And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10).
Paul and Timothy modeled an effective tool to reach a large area with the gospel. As Paul reminded Timothy, “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (II Tim. 2:2). They committed the Word of God to faithful men who returned to their own communities, or went out to other areas with the gospel in order to plant churches and establish a Christian witness, and these men were able to teach others also.
Paul states that he had not been to the Lycus Valley (Col. 2:1). Most likely Epaphras met Paul in Ephesus when Paul was ministering in the School of Tyrannus. Perhaps Epaphras was visiting Ephesus on business and met Paul, or he heard of the school via travelers through the Lycus Valley and sought out the apostle so he could learn more of the Word of God. More than likely, Epaphras was trained by Paul and Timothy in Ephesus before he returned home with a new zeal, and better knowledge, for sharing the gospel.
Epaphras Exercised His Spiritual Gift as an Evangelist in Planting Churches in the Lycus Valley
Jesus, when He sent out His disciples, sent them out two-by-two. Peter and Paul followed that example as well when they went on their missionary journeys. In the New Testament, there are no “Lone Ranger Missionaries” (even the Lone Ranger had his side-kick Tonto!).
I am sure that Epaphras followed this pattern as well. More than likely he returned to the Lycus Valley with, a fellow Colossian, named Philemon. Paul knew Philemon well. In fact, Paul rescued him from physical harm at one point in his life (Philemon 19). Where and when this event took place, and the nature of the harm, we are not told, but more than likely it occurred in Ephesus. Perhaps Philemon was studying in the School of Tyrannus as well.
Paul reminded the saints in the Valley that the truth of the gospel came to them “as it has also in all the world, and is bringing forth fruit, as it is also among you since the day you heard and knew the grace of God in truth; as you also learned from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf” (Col. 1:5b-7).
There is another textual problem in verse 7. The text underlying the KJV and the NKJV identify Epaphras as a “faithful minister of Christ on your behalf.” If this is correct, perhaps the churches in the Lycus Valley sent him and Philemon to the School of Tyrannus to get further education from Paul and Timothy so they could be more effective in their outreach in the Valley. On the other hand, the text underlying the NIV, RSV, NASB have the word “on our behalf.” This would seem to indicate that Paul sent Epaphras (and Philemon) back home as his personal representative because he was heavily engaged in the work at Ephesus (Hiebert 1979:56; 1992:140, 141). I think the former usage, “on your behalf” is correct, and Epaphras went to Ephesus to sharpen his knowledge in the Word of God from Paul, and his skills in evangelism from Timothy (cf. II Tim. 4:5).
When Paul wrote his epistle to the church at Ephesus, he developed his thoughts on spiritual gifts (4:7-16). He has already written about spiritual gifts elsewhere (Rom. 12:6-8; I Cor. 12:6-10, 28-30), and so had Peter (I Pet. 4:11). He states that the Ascended Lord Jesus “gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelist, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (4:11, 12). These gifted individuals to the Body of Christ were given so that the individuals in the local church could be taught to carry on the ministry in the local church and that the church would be built up numerically as well as spiritually.
The local church has only two offices (Phil 1:1): elders (I Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-11) and deacons (I Tim. 3: 8-13). These are not to be confused with spiritual gifts that God, in His sovereignty, has given to individuals in the church. Apostle, prophets, evangelists and pastor / teachers are gifted individuals that God has given to His Church, not offices in the local church.
One must also distinguish between the gift of evangelist which some believers may have (Eph. 4:11), and the command to evangelize which was given by the Lord Jesus to all believers in Him (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15, 16).
Eusebius (ca. AD 260-340), described the evangelist in his Ecclesiastical History this way: “[They] took up the work of evangelists and were zealous to preach to all who had not yet heard the word of faith, and to transmit the writing of the divine Gospels. As soon as they had no more than laid the foundations of the faith in some strange place, they appointed others as shepherds [poimevas] and committed to them the task of tending those who had been just brought in, but they themselves passed on again to other lands and peoples, helped by the grace and co-operation of God” (3: 37; LCL 1:287).
One scholar suggests that “the role of evangelist included the preservation of true foundational doctrine. This could be the reason that ‘evangelists’ are found among the ‘equippers’ of Ephesians 4:11 just before Paul warns them not to be deceived by false doctrine (4:14) and is listed in 2 Timothy 4 just after Paul emphasizes the preservation of doctrine (vv. 3-4)” (Berding 2006: 327, footnote 9).
Epaphras ministered with Philemon in Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col. 4:12, 13). They used Colossae as their home base and traveled to the other two cities conducting evangelistic campaigns. Their walk from Colossae to Laodicea was about ten miles. From Laodicea to Hierapolis was about six miles. “The three cities lie so near to each other, that it would be quite possible to visit them all in the course of a single day” (Lightfoot 1892: 2).
Epaphras Confers with the Apostle Paul in Rome about the Theological Problems in the Lycus Valley
About five years after Epaphras and Philemon started their evangelistic work, planting churches in the Lycus Valley, some theological problems arose. Epaphras had a good handle on the Word of God, but there were some issues he could not deal with. He sought out his mentor, the Apostle Paul, who was older, wiser and more knowledgeable then himself in the Scriptures. After making some inquiries, he found out Paul was in prison in Rome (Philemon 1, 9, 10, 13). Epaphras took the long journey to the Eternal City in order to consult with Paul about the “Colossian Heresy” because he was concerned for the spiritual well-being of the churches in the Valley.
Scholars have debated the nature of the Colossian Heresy (DeMaris 1994; Bruce 1984b). An important study was done by Dr. Clinton Arnold of Talbot School of Theology, entitled The Colossian Syncretism. The Interface Between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae (1996). He points out that the people of Colossae “lived in an environment of religious pluralism. They coexisted with people who worshiped Anatolian, Persian, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian deities and with Jews who were devoted to the worship of one god and the observance of Torah. The manner of devotion and religious expression were quite varied among the different groups” (1996: 310).
Rather than use the word “heresy” to describe the “philosophy” (Col. 2:8) that was permeating the churches in the Lycus Valley, Arnold prefers the word “syncretism.” This is the blending of the different thoughts and practices of the various religious beliefs in the area to make a comprehensive belief system, sort of like a theological hobo stew. Each group brings a little of this and a little of that from their religious beliefs and drops them into the kettle, stirs, and hopes that they all blend well and that the stew is tasty to the eater.
Arnold describes the syncretism this way: “Some of the beliefs and practices held in common can be attributed to the strength of the local Phrygian religious traditions. What many scholars have called the ‘Lydian-Phrygian spirit’ permeated many of the cults, and to some degree, even Judaism. This local tradition included a tendency toward the worship of one high god served by many intermediary beings, ecstatic forms of worship that sometimes led to the abuse of the body, a strong belief in dangerous spirits and powers, and the practice of invoking divine intermediaries for deliverance, protection and assistance” (1996: 310).
Arnold goes on to say that this “new teaching emerged within the Christian community at Colossae. Referring to itself as ‘the philosophy,’ the leaders of this faction had adapted the Pauline gospel to aspects of Phrygian-Lydian beliefs and practices as well as to the local Judaism. The advocated the invocation of angels for protection from hostile powers. They appear to have overemphasized the transcendence of God and under emphasized the exalted position of Christ, functionally viewing him as a mediator, perhaps on the same level as the angels” (1996: 311).
The solution to this syncretism, according to Arnold, is a “cosmic Christology” by the Apostle Paul. In this theology, “Jesus existed before the powers, he in fact created them, he defeated the hostile powers on the cross, and he will intervene in the future and bring about a universal peace in heaven as well as on earth” (1996: 311).
Scholars have debated the origin of the “Colossian Heresy”: What was its real cause? One summer I was visiting Turkey with some friends. As we approached Colossae I could see from a distance a thin line of purple covering the top of the acropolis of the city. I thought that strange and wondered what kind of flower could produce such a beautiful color. On my previous visit, the acropolis was covered with wheat. Once we got to the top of the site, I could see it was a field of opium with the purple flowers in full bloom. The neighbors did not seem too pleased with our visit, so we took our pictures and left. When I got home, I sent Clint Arnold a photograph of the opium plants with a note, “Here is the real cause of the Colossian Heresy!”
Paul realized that the Colossian syncretism was more than Epaphras could handle on his own. So he wrote several letters back to the Lycus Valley attempting to straighten out the problem and ground the believers in sound doctrine. His desire was “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2, 3).
Tychicus and Onesimus took the three letters back to the Valley. One letter, which no longer exists, was dropped off at Laodicea (Col. 4:16), and the other two were read in the church that was meeting in the house of Philemon at Colossae (Col. 1:2; Philemon 2).
Epaphras Prayed Fervently for the Lord to Intervene Concerning the Problems in the Churches in the Lycus Valley
While Epaphras was in Rome, he spent many hours with the Apostle Paul as well as Dr. Luke. Something he learned about the Lord Jesus from Dr. Luke was a statement that Jesus made, “Men ought always to pray and not to faint” (Luke 18:1). Epaphras took this to heart because when Paul wrote back to the church at Colossae and said: “Epaphras … [was] always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Col. 4:12).
There are three things to notice about Epaphras’ prayer life and prayers. First, it was constant. He was always praying. Does this mean he was shut in his prayer closet, down on bended knees, praying 24 hours a day for seven days a week? Probably not. But I am sure that Epaphras, Paul and the other believers that were with him in Rome had long prayer session where they prayed for specific needs of individuals and churches. But, his heart was always in the attitude of prayer and when the Lord prompted him with individuals or situations, he prayed for them. On the other hand, when Paul wrote to Philemon, he identified Epaphras as his “fellow-prisoner.” If they were confined to chains, they did not have too many places to go, or much else to do! But they could go boldly to the Throne of Grace and pray for the needs of the churches in the Lycus Valley (Heb. 4:16).
The second thing to notice about his prayers is that they were intense. He was “laboring fervently” in prayer. The Greek word “laboring fervently” is an athletic term for an athlete competing in some event and striving to win the prize. In Greek athletic competition an athlete either won or lost a competition, there was no second or third place. As Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers used to say: “Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.” The only ways to win an event was to labor, or strive fervently. Epaphras made it to the Bema Seat (rewarding stand) when Paul reminded the people in the Lycus Valley that Epaphras was laboring fervently for them in prayer.
The third thing that should be noticed about Epaphras’ prayers is that they were specific; they were “for you.” I am sure they were not the sort: “God bless the people in the churches in the Lycus Valley.” No, they were specific, for individuals and the situations they found themselves in. He would pray specifically for Brother so and so who was dabbling in the Colossian syncretism and Epaphras interceded on his behalf that the Lord would ground this brother in the Word of God and he would see the errors of the syncretism. Or he would pray for Sister so and so who was setting up images of angels in her house in order to worship them and invoke their protection. Epaphras prayed that the Lord would intervene and remove them and she would see the uselessness of worshiping mere objects when she could be worshiping the Creator of the Universe, the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I was a new Christian, I remember hearing the founder of the Slavic Gospel Association, Peter Deyneka, speak on prayer. One phrase he repeated over and over again in his Russian accent was “mucha prayer, mucha power!” Epaphras understood this as well. He was always praying for the work in the Lycus Valley and he expected God to do great things among the saints in the churches. He prayed specifically that they would: First, stand perfect in the face of heresy; and second, be complete is all the will of God (4:12). In essence, what he was praying for is that they would be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:27-30). Epaphras was Paul’s “true scholar in the school of intercessory prayer.” How is our prayer life? Do we spend time praying for specific individuals and specific needs of those being prayed for?
Paul concludes this section by using a legal word picture of a witness who appears before a court and gives testimony to an event (4:13). In this case, he testifies to the saints in the Lycus Valley that Epaphras had a “great zeal for you.” In other words, Epaphras gave 100% of his effort in prayer and work, for the people in the three churches in the valley: Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis.
Apparently Epaphras does not return with Tychicus and Philemon when they took the letters to the Lycus Valley. What happens to him after that, we do not know. Does he stay with Paul in Rome? Was he eventually martyred? Does he return to the Lycus Valley after Paul is released from his imprisonment? Scripture and church history are silent on these questions. There are, however, at least three things we can learn from the life of this man of prayer.
First, he exercised his gift as an evangelist in planting churches in the Lycus Valley. It seems that churches today hire somebody to be called the pastor and pay him to exercise all the spiritual gifts so they can sit back and be entertained! The New Testament Church did not function that way. God gave gifted men and women to the Body of Christ and each individual believer was given at least one spiritual gift that could be exercised in order to build up the local church. Epaphras had the gift of an evangelist. Not all of us have that gift. The gift is not to be confused with the command to evangelize. To evangelize is for all believers. Believers in the Lord Jesus should know their gift and exercise it.
Second, when he saw a problem in the church he made it his priority to pray about the situation. His prayers were not just, “God bless the people at Colossae,” but rather fervent, continuous prayers for the people and situation that arose in the churches of the Lycus Valley. Epaphras knew that God changes the hearts of men and women and that is why he labored much in prayer. How much emphasis do we put on intercessory prayer? What are our priorities for the mid-week prayer meeting?
Someone once remarked: “Have you ever heard of a church named the Church of St. Epaphras”? In all my travels, I have never seen one, nor am I aware of one in early Church literature or archaeological excavations. In fact, I Googled the name, “Church of St. Epaphras”, and got nothing! Now that does not mean there never was one. The ancient mound of Colossae has not been excavated … yet. Knowing those Byzantine church builders, however, there might be a church of St. Epaphras somewhere underneath the opium fields of Colossae!
Third, when he realized his lack of understanding on certain issues, he sought godly counsel from an individual who knew the Word of God better than he did and who knew what the issues were.
Well might we learn some practical lessons from this man of fervent prayer and apply them to our own lives and go out and build up the Body of Christ for His honor and glory.
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