You may recall that in Philippians 2:25-30 Paul described a certain Epaphroditus who risked his life for the work of Christ. "Honor such men" (v. 29b), said Paul. Tragically, today we honor people in whom we find none of the characteristics of an Epaphroditus. It is the pompous, arrogant athlete, or the self-indulgent Hollywood actress, or the unscrupulous Wall-Street financial wizard who wins our praise and adoration.
Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate the criteria by which we deem one "honorable." Consider Epaphras. Although this is a shortened version of Epaphroditus, virtually all scholars agree he is different from the man of that name mentioned in Philippians. But he was of the same character and virtue.
It's important to recall the background that accounts for his being mentioned in Colossians (in 1:7-8; 4:12-13; see also Philemon 23). Paul most likely wrote Colossians while imprisoned in Rome (Caesarea is another strong possibility). Epaphras, a native of Colossae, probably heard Paul preach in Ephesus and was converted. He evidently volunteered to take the gospel to his home town and faithfully preached there and in the neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis (see Col. 4:13). He traveled to Rome to bring Paul news of events in Colossae and, for whatever reason, was imprisoned with him (Philemon 23). Paul now sends greetings from Epaphras (4:12) and commends him to the church that he had so faithfully served.
So what was it about Epaphras that accounts for such glowing praise? What is it that moved the heart of the great apostle to commend him so passionately? Let's note ten things.
First, he was an evangelist. The Colossians "heard" the gospel from him (v. 6b). Try to envision the sort of courage and boldness required for a man to return to his home town preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ for the very first time. The threat of ridicule and rejection carried no weight with Epaphras. Such was his love for Jesus and his fellow Colossians.
Second, he was a teacher. They not only "heard" the gospel from Epaphras but "learned" (v. 7a) it from him. This suggests that he labored among them not simply by preaching but by expounding the truths of God's work in Christ and building them up in their faith.
Third, he was Paul's "beloved fellow-servant" (v. 7a). Paul loved him. So, too, no doubt, did the Colossians. He was joined in mission and ministry and heart affection with the apostle. He was more than a servant. He was a "fellow" servant.
Fourth, he was a "faithful minister of Christ" (v. 7c). He was trustworthy. His word was his life. His devotion to Christ was unqualified, unconditional, and constant.
Fifth, he was devoted to the Colossians and their spiritual welfare and growth, for Paul says his ministry was "on your behalf" (v. 7d). Some Greek manuscripts have "on our behalf," which would suggest that Epaphras was Paul's representative to the church there. But if the former is correct, as I believe it is, Paul's point is that Epaphras labored with the Colossians in mind, expending himself for their sakes, not his own.
Sixth, he was more than a minister, he was a "bond-slave" of Christ Jesus (4:12a). Whereas being a "slave" in the first century was, in most cases, grounds for reproach, Epaphras considered it an honor and blessing, for he was owned by Christ Jesus, a purchased possession, bought with his precious blood.
Seventh, he was a committed intercessor on their behalf (4:12b). He "always" prayed for them. I can envision Paul listening each day as Epaphras brought the Colossians, by name no doubt, to the throne of grace. His commitment to intercede on their behalf deeply impressed the apostle. What love!
Eighth, his prayers for them were characterized by a determination to fight through all resistance and a refusal to give up when it became demanding, painful, and inconvenient, for Paul says, he was "always struggling" (4:12c) on their behalf in prayer. No perfunctory, casual requests here. He worked hard at prayer. He persevered through temptations to quit. He was tolerant of no distractions.
Ninth, he didn't pray for frivolous things or worldly fame or material prosperity. His focus was their spiritual maturity and discernment and satisfaction in Jesus. Paul describes it this way: he was always praying "that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God" (v. 12c).
Tenth, he has "worked hard" (v. 13a) for the Colossians, counting no cost too high to pay so that his fellow-Christians might flourish spiritually (the word here carries the thought of pain and distress). He didn't use his imprisonment as an excuse for self-pity or to justify turning his attention to his own welfare or concerns. He seized this time of imprisonment as a great opportunity to intercede incessantly for others!
So let me close by asking two questions. Who has been an "Epaphras" in your life? Have you taken steps to honor them? Have you thanked God for them? Have you expressed your profound gratitude to them for having sacrificed so much for your spiritual well-being?
Lastly, in whose life have you been an "Epaphras"? If you have no answer for that question, you can start today. I doubt if you are imprisoned or are suffering in any way comparable to what Epaphras endured. So why not commit yourself right now to "struggling" on behalf of others whom God has brought to your attention or into your life? Will you "work hard" so that they, by God's grace, might "stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God?"
Struggling with you,