If you were to be known for just one thing, what would you wish it to be?
After (possibly) an entire lifetime of being a successful warrior and king, the only thing I really remember about King Harold was that he was the guy who got the arrow in his eye at the battle of Hastings (and my dad saying “I think he got the point”).
Or imagine being Colin Firth being endlessly referred to as the fellow with the wet shirt in Pride and Prejudice.
You might wish for a more substantial claim to remembrance.
Epaphras was known as a man of prayer. That’s what people remembered about him. It’s a “claim to fame” I wouldn’t mind having myself.
The Bible describes him in several ways, as Paul’s “fellow-servant” and “servant,” his “fellow-prisoner,” and a “faithful minister.” (Col 1:7; 4:12; Philemon 23) He was also one of Paul’s Go-to guys, a small band of dedicated and tough field-workers whom Paul would send on special problem-solving assignments.
Titus, for example), was one of that group:”The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” (Titus 1:5). So was Timothy “I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer.” (1 Tim 1:3). What was the brief given to Epaphras? It was similar, in many respects, to that of Titus and Timothy, being concerned with holding things together in the church at Colossae (his home town), and watching for the incursion of false teaching.
Epaphras had started the work there (Col 1:7) and had sought Paul’s advice about how to combat the prevalent heresies, but it was clearly an uphill fight.
And this is the point where Epaphras moved into gear, into the action for which he was remembered. There is no doubt that he was torn between his desire to stay with Paul, (encouraging him in the prison-existence which must have been a profound frustration to the whole team) and going home to Colossae, where there was much needed work to be done. Paul too, on his side, expressed much affection for Epaphras, wanting him to stay and yet believing that he had to go….
So Epaphras moved into prayer. Whenever you get towards making an important decision, you have to get into prayer, don’t you? Epaphras brought the whole area of difficulty and emotional pull into God’s hands.
Paul speaks of him as conspicuous in this regard. He knew how to bring it all -the bits and pieces, the tangle of situations and all the attendant emotional responses- before the Lord.
Paul himself told the Colossians: “I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally.” That word “contending” is important. It’s a physical, athletic metaphor suggestive of wrestling. “Fully engaging” on every level. And Paul didn’t even know these people, but was simply responding to what Epaphras had told him. They must have prayed together about the situation there, and each “laboured in secret.”To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.”
And Epaphras prayed too. He knew how to trust, and wait, and call on the Lord. He knew how to be specific. He named names. He brought specific requests and trusted for prayer-answers.
The big prayer underlying all others was that this group of people whom he loved and to whom felt totally committed might really make it into a mature understanding of who Jesus was and who they were in consequence.
So when Paul prayed (in Colossians 1) and used the word “We,” we know that the word refers to Paul the speaker, Timothy the scribe (1:1) and Epaphras the pray-er. And Paul prayed their prayer together in words that resound through twenty centuries as the perfect heart-cry for young believers everywhere:
“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you[f] to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
And this is what Epaphras is remembered for. He brought the church to Paul and he brought Paul to the church. He cared for both and brought both before the Lord.
And though he stands in the background of the New Testament, and has no celebrity status, yet he stands tall. The KJV has a marvellous sequence of word-pictures of one who “strove earnestly in his prayers” with “a great labour of anxiety” about the spiritual welfare of people who looked to him for leadership. He wrestled in prayer that they might be “perfect in the perfection of Christ“, and “fully assured in all the will of God.” Paul also testified to the perseverance as well as the prayers of Epaphras. He knew how to toil on behalf of the saints of God. He was practical as well as prayerful.
His prayers for the stability and maturity of others were numerous, continuous and strenuous. That was his work. That’s what made him great.