Before electricity, a famous musician performed a sold-out concert on a pump organ. After the concert, the young man who pumped the organ said to the musician, “We had a great concert tonight, didn’t we?” “We did not have anything,” replied the offended maestro. “I had a great performance.” Nothing happened the following evening when the musician began to tickle the keys. He kept playing, waiting for the sound of music, but to no avail. The musician finally went behind the organ and asked the young man, “What’s going on?” He replied, “It looks like you’re not having a performance tonight!”
That maestro’s proud attitude was not the Apostle Paul’s disposition. Paul, a dominating personality in the New Testament and a leading figure of the early church, did not have a “one-man show” philosophy of ministry. His friends in the faith served with him to proclaim the gospel, defend the truth, and edify the church. Paul often gave his gospel partners a shout-out at the end of his letters. This is what we find in his final greetings to the Colossians. Paul mentions eleven people by name in verses 7-18.
- Verses 7-11 mention Jewish partners.
- Verses 12-17 mention Gentile partners.
Colossians 3:11 says, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” Paul was not into sects, cliques, or tribes. Jews and Gentiles were all the same to him as long as Christ was exalted. Paul’s diverse ministry team reminds us that the bond we share in Jesus matters more than racial, political, or cultural differences.
One name stands out in this extended list of ministerial colleagues: Epaphras. I am tempted to call him “a major player in a minor role.” But that would misrepresent his life, labor, and legacy. The name Epaphras only occurs three times in five verses. But what we learn about and from him in these limited references is of profound impact and import. The takeaway from Epaphras’ example is that he was a man of prayer.
D. Edmond Hiebert wrote: “Epaphras holds the unique distinction among all the friends and coworkers of Paul of being the only one whom Paul explicitly commended for his intensive prayer ministry.”
- This does not suggest that Epaphras did not do anything but pray.
- It also does not suggest that Paul’s other colleagues did not pray.
Epaphras’ prayer life stood out. Colossians 4:2 says, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” Epaphras embodied and exemplified this call to prayer. Verse 12 says he was “always struggling on your behalf in his prayers.” Epaphras traveled a thousand miles from Colossae to Rome to visit Paul. We do not know if he and the Colossians ever reunited. But at the end of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he testifies that Epaphras continued to minister on their behalf in his absence. It was an exemplary ministry of intercessory prayer.
A healthy church is characterized by mutual ministry to one another. There is a myriad of ways we can and should serve one another. Prayer is the best way to minister to others. What does Epaphras teach us about the ministry of prayer?
The Servanthood of Epaphras
Verse 12 begins with the name “Epaphras.” It is a shortened form of “Epaphroditus.” But this messenger from Colossae should not be confused with that messenger from Philippi. Epaphras was with Paul as he wrote this letter. At some point, Epaphras told Paul to greet the church on his behalf. That greeting is recorded in verse 12. It is preceded by two statements about the servanthood of Epaphras.
A Member of the Church. Paul first identifies Epaphras by his relationship to the Colossians: “Who is one of you.” He describes Onesimus in the same way in verse 9. Epaphras was a native or resident of Colossae. But “one of you”refers to more than his hometown. This letter was not written to the citizens of Colossae.
Colossians 1:2 identifies the intended audience of this letter: “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae.” “One of you” means Epaphras was also a saint and faithful brother in Christ at Colossae. What Colossians 1:4 says of the church was true of Epaphras. He had faith in Christ Jesus and love for all the saints.
- Epaphras was a genuine Christian disciple.
- Epaphras was also a faithful church member.
His ministry of prayer was not about prayer itself. It was an expression of his love for the saints. It is a sad indictment that many claim to be church members but boycott the gathering of the saints for prayer, praise, and proclamation. The church was not “out of sight, out of mind” to Epaphras. Because what happened to them happened to him, it was natural and necessary for him to pray for the saints.
A Minister of Christ. Epaphras was possibly the founding pastor of the church at Colossae. Colossians 1:7 says they heard the gospel from Epaphras. False teachers infiltrated the young church. Their heretical claims denied the sovereignty, supremacy, and sufficiency of Christ. Though Paul never visited Colossae, Epaphras’ report moved him to write this letter to the church. Tychicus delivered the letter to Colossae while Epaphras remained in Rome.
Philemon 23 calls him “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus.” It is possible Epaphras’ visit to Paul for the sake of the church got him in legal trouble in Rome. It was a risk worth taking because Epaphras was “a servant of Christ Jesus.” A “servant” is a “slave.” A bondservant was the property of his master and was compelled to obey his commands. The term denotes willful submission, total commitment, and joyful obedience to Christ. As a servant of Christ, Epaphras prayed for the saints. Intercessory prayer for one another is service to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Struggle of Epaphras
Verse 12 says Epaphras “greets you.” This is more than “Hello.” It means to welcome, receive, or embrace. How did Epaphras embrace people who were not present? Verse 12 answers: “Always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.”Epaphras put his arms around the church in intercessory prayer.
The Manner of Intercession. Paul tells us how Epaphras prayed for the church.
Continual Prayer. Paul says Epaphras was “always” struggling on your behalf in his prayers. “Always” does not mean Epaphras did nothing but pray. It was not unending formal prayers. It was regular and repeated prayer. How many people in your life never hear you pray? Paul testified he always heard Epaphras praying. “In his prayers” indicates the Lord did not just hear from Epaphras when he needed something. He prayed all kinds of prayers – prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication, and intercession.
Fervent Prayer. “Struggling” translates the Greek word for “agony.” It is the picture of strenuous exertion in athletic competition or military conflict. The term is used in Luke 22:44 to describe the agony of Jesus as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.
- It describes Paul’s preaching in Colossians 1:29.
- It describes Paul’s prayers in Colossians 2:1
Paul and Epaphras were kindred spirits. They stressed, strained, and struggled in prayer. Many of us struggle at prayer. Few of us struggle in prayer. That may be why we do not see our prayers make a difference in our lives, family, or church. Your prayers will never mean anything to God until they mean everything to you. James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
Selfless Prayer. Paul says Epaphras was “always struggling on your behalf in his prayers.”
- It is one thing to struggle in prayer for yourself.
- It is another thing to struggle in prayer for others.
Farmers used to pray, “Hear not the prayer of a traveling man.” The traveling man wants fair weather for his journey. He does not care about the community he passes through that desperately needs prayer. Epaphras prayed like a family man, not a traveling man. How do you pray?
James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your own passions.” A healthy prayer life consists of supplication and intercession. Job 42:10 says, “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he prayed for his friends.” Some things will never change until you forget about yourself long enough to pray for others.
The Motive of Intercession. Verse 12 tells us what Epaphras prayed: “that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” This was not the content of his prayers. It was the concern of his prayers. Epaphras’ prayers did not focus on physical, material, or circumstantial matters. Spiritual priorities governed and guided the prayers of the saints.
Stability. Epaphras prayed the saints would “stand.” It means to “stand firm” in doctrinal integrity. The errors of false teachers threatened to cause the saints to stumble in their beliefs and behavior. Epaphras prayed that the Lord would place and plant the church firmly in the truth. Ephesians 6:11 says, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.”
Maturity. Epaphras prayed the saints would “stand mature.” We will not reach sinless perfection. We should read spiritual maturity. 2 Peter 3:18 says, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Authentic Christians are growing Christians. Colossians 1:28 says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”
Certainty. Epaphras prayed the saints would “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” We should be persuaded and convinced of the truth of the gospel that no wind of doctrine can blow us away from Christ. If the gospel of Christ is the will of God, what else do you need? Colossians 1:9 prays: “That you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”
The Sacrifice of Epaphras
- Verse 12 is Epaphras’ greeting to the Colossians.
- Verse 13 is Paul’s commendation of Epaphras.
Verse 12 explains verse 13: “For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and Hierapolis.” Paul uses courtroom language here. He only speaks this way when he makes a solemn declaration. Paul takes the stand to bear witness on Epaphras’ behalf. He testifies that Epaphras worked hard for the local and global church.
Hard Work for the Local Church. Verse 13 says, “For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you.” “Worked hard” suggests great toil or strenuous labor that causes severe pain. Epaphras may have been physically confined to house arrest with Paul. But his struggle in prayer for the saints was mentally, emotionally, and spiritually painful. You’ve heard it said, “Give till it hurts.” Have you ever prayed till it hurts? Many claim “church hurt” for abandoning the church. Disregarding his personal situation, Epaphras prayed for the church until it hurt.
He knelt long that the saints would stand firm. It is easy to criticize the church. Are you praying for the church? Pray what Paul prayed in Colossians 2:2-3: “That their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
Hard Work for the Global Church. Verse 13 says, “For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.” Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis were the three major cities in the Lycus Valley. Paul wrote this letter to the church at Colossae. Colossians 4:16 says, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.”We know nothing of this letter to the Laodiceans. But the Lord wrote in Revelation 3:14-22 to warn them to repent of their lukewarmness. Verse 13 is the only biblical reference to Hierapolis in the Bible.
- It is possible that Epaphras started each of these churches.
- It is certain that he worked hard in prayer for each church.
Epaphras was a part of the Colossian church. However, he did not view his church to be in competition with other churches. 2 Corinthians 11:28 testifies to the daily pressure of Paul’s anxiety for all the churches. Epaphras shared this holy anxiety and worked hard in prayer for all the churches. The world at its worst needs the church at its best. Pray for churches in our city, across the nation, and around the world.
In Stories for the Journey, William R. White wrote of a professor named Hans who escaped Europe during World War II. He became a respected faculty member of a seminary in America. When his beloved wife Enid died, Hans suffered a crisis of faith. The seminary president and three others visited to pray for him. “I am no longer able to pray to God,” Hans confessed. “In fact, I am not certain I believe in God anymore.” “Then we will believe for you,” the seminary president replied. “We will pray for you.” The four men met daily to pray for Hans. One day, months later, Hands greeted them with a smile. “It is no longer necessary for you to pray for me,” he said. “Instead, I would like you to pray with me.”
I repeat: Prayer is the best way to minister to others. Join the struggle!