“Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you, always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.” Colossians 4:12
The apostle Paul is regarded as the greatest missionary of all time. His boldness, diligence, and courage are demonstrated by his ability through the power of God to establish churches in hostile cities under difficult circumstances. He was not alone, however. No great theologian or missionary ever is. There is always a support system—an individual or network of people who stand by their side—who are used to carry out the same goal. This was certainly true for the apostle Paul.
Of the apostles in the New Testament story after the death of Christ, Paul is one of the main characters. He is the main preacher, teacher, and writer, one whose letters make up half of the New Testament books. But scattered throughout the pages of his epistles are the names of minor characters, lesser known men and women, whose names are mentioned a handful of times and whose place in the development of the churches during the Apostolic Age may seem insignificant to us readers. A beautiful truth flowing out of the infallibility of Scripture is that every part of the Bible has meaning and purpose; no part of the Bible is insignificant. The Holy Spirit gave great purpose to all that was written down for the church of all ages. These men and women, while not receiving the same narrative as Paul, are nonetheless significant in their support and labor on behalf of Paul and the churches. A man who fits this description is Epaphras, and this article will tell his story.
Epaphras’ name is mentioned three times in the Bible (Col. 1:7; 4:12; Phile. 23). Just a few brief descriptors are given in these verses to one who appears to have been an obscure companion of the apostle Paul. This is all the Spirit gives us, and yet it is enough to give us a small glimpse into Epaphras’ faith and character. While his story involves some connections and conjecture, the truth about his spiritual character remains based on the truth of God’s Word.
The story perhaps started when Epaphras, a native of the city of Colossae, traveled to Ephesus during Paul’s third missionary journey during the mid-50s A.D. During Paul’s long stay in Ephesus, the gospel went forth throughout Asia Minor (Acts 19:10), and during this time the gospel most likely would have spread to Colossae, located in the Lycus River Valley, some 100 miles inland from Ephesus. It seems likely that Epaphras was converted during Paul’s time in Ephesus, and then traveled to his native Colossae to bring the gospel. Epaphras, not Paul, became the founder of the church at Colossae (Col. 1:7). Interestingly, the narrative of Acts gives no record of Paul traveling to Colossae on any of his journeys. He had never been there before writing to them (Col. 2:1) but, in addition to the guiding hand of the Spirit leading him during the journeys, the reason for this absence may be found in the city’s history.
With this in mind, understanding Colossae will be important for us in understanding the story of Epaphras. In Greek and early Roman history, Colossae was once a great and mighty city, located in a beautiful river valley with its neighbors Laodicea and Hierapolis nearby (Col. 4:13). In the centuries leading to the time of Paul’s journeys, Laodicea and Hierapolis slowly surpassed Colossae in significance and population, leaving Colossae out of the main trade loop that connected the east and west. Politically speaking, Colossae represents one of the most insignificant cities to which Paul wrote a letter. But significance is never found in numbers, as Epaphras would no doubt testify.
There is an important lesson for us here, too. What defines a true church for us? What criteria determine whether the pastor is faithful? We know a true church has the marks laid out in the Reformed confessions. And we know a faithful pastor is a man called by God who preaches the gospel found in God’s Word. What Epaphras brought back to Colossae was the true gospel, and he knew that God was able to work mightily in the hearts of those living in this small, “out-of-the-way” city to form a true church.
Maybe you can imagine Epaphras making this long journey back to Colossae during the mid-50s A.D. He traveled difficult terrain, but no doubt had a spring in his step, for he was a new man, renewed in his heart by the power of the cross that Paul had preached to him! We can imagine the excitement, but also the anxiousness he must have had for sharing that good news with those whom he knew and loved. He may have wondered if his native Colossae would be led to receive this gospel message, but, by the work of the Spirit through this man of faith, a Christian community was born. Interestingly, Philemon, a wealthy resident of Colossae, benefited either directly from the work of Paul in Ephesus or indirectly through Epaphras as he brought the gospel message to him in Colossae (Philemon 19).
Although a true church in Colossae was born, there may still have lingered in Epaphras’ mind whether this newly established church would be free of the temptations of the surrounding false worship of that day. Unfortunately, a few years after the church was established, Colossae developed a mysterious heresy that was a melting pot of various religious influences—Judaism and superstition (Col. 2:16). According to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, the worship of angels was also mixed into this heresy (Col. 2:18), and an early form of Gnosticism developed, which taught that material things are evil (Col. 2:23).
So troubling to Epaphras was this influence-turned-her- esy, that he left his fellow saints in Colossae and traveled to Rome to seek advice from Paul while he was under house arrest awaiting trial before Nero in the early 60s A.D. Now Epaphras, some five years or so after being converted in Ephesus, comes to Paul in Rome to give him a positive report of the church’s faith, love, and hope (Col. 1:4–5), but also troubling news about the Colossian heresy (Philemon 23; Col. 2:8). He arrives, elated to be reunited with Paul, yet saddened by the purpose of his visit to Rome. As the seasoned missionary listened to the young pastor, Paul put the words of instruction and advice on paper, being inspired by the Holy Spirit to write a letter to this Christian community in Colossae, of which he was not the primary founder. As Paul deals with the Colossian heresy with the truth of the supremacy of Christ over the whole universe (Col. 1:16–17), his letter to them would be one of his more personal letters.
With regard to Epaphras, however, we can see remarkable commitment to the gospel message! Leaving his Christian community in their infancy and in an age of time-consuming travel, Epaphras seeks out the great apostle for his advice and instruction. He was seeking truth, and risked his life for it, ultimately ending in imprisonment in Rome. The words of Colossians 1:7 may then have more meaning for us as Epaphras is described as a “dear fellowservant, who is for you [the Colossians] a faithful minister of Christ.” What spiritual courage this man possessed!
Furthermore, in the continued dialogue between Paul and Epaphras in the early 60s A.D., we see another spiritual characteristic of Epaphras: he was a man of prayer. Paul expresses in his letter to the Colossians that Epaphras was fervent in prayer for them (Col. 4:12). Paul wanted the Colossians to know that their beloved pastor was concerned for their spiritual well-being, continually praying on their behalf. Is this not something we often say to those who are in a difficult way?—“I’m praying for you.” In this case, Paul is telling the Colossians that their faithful pastor is diligently praying for them while he is away. What added comfort for these new Christians!
But now the story of Epaphras comes to an end. As the letter to the Colossians is penned by Paul, it was time for delivery to this local church in Asia Minor. What better candidate to be the letter-carrier of this inspired letter of Paul to the Colossians than Epaphras himself. Sadly, this was not to be the will of God, for as was stated earlier, Epaphras, like Paul, became a prisoner in Rome (Philemon 23). And what became of Epaphras?
We do not know his future, whether he was released from prison or died for the cause of Christ; but we do know that Epaphras risked his life for the gospel, traveling long distances to seek advice and instruction for the sake of truth in the church.
Therefore, we know that the story doesn’t end here. For even as our understanding and knowledge of Epaphras’ earthly future ends, we know that his story continued. For, like each of God’s chosen and faithful saints, there was laid up for Epaphras a crown of righteousness given to him by the righteous Judge, from whom he heard the words of his Savior to him, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”