Unsung Heroes: Epaphras

Tom Groelsema, Speaker

Colossians 1:7, 4:12 | July 24 - Sunday Morning,

Sunday Morning,
July 24
Unsung Heroes: Epaphras | Colossians 1:7, 4:12
Tom Groelsema, Speaker

Let’s open our Bibles today to the book of Colossians. We’re turning to two different places. First of all, chapter 1, verses 7 and 8. We actually begin our reading at verse 3, but 7 and 8 is our focus from chapter one. Then turning to chapter 4, we’ll be reading verses 12 and 13. Colossians chapter 1 and Colossians chapter 4 as we continue to think about unsung heroes, focusing upon Epaphras today.

Colossians chapter 1. Let’s begin at verse 3, again reading through verse 8, and this is God’s Holy Word.

“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.”

And then turning over to chapter 4, verses 12 and 13.

“Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.”

Let’s pray together. God, as we take a look at another unsung hero this morning, this time looking the ministry of Epaphras, we pray, Lord, that we will be encouraged. We pray that we will be inspired. We pray, Father, that we might learn what our ministry, whatever that is, ought to look like. We pray, Father, that most of all that Christ in all His glory would be served as we minister, but also now as we listen to Your Word. Come, Holy Spirit, come. We pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Dear people of God, I want you to imagine this morning that you’re on a search committee for our congregation. So heaven forbid that Kevin would leave us, but pretend that he left us and we’re looking for a new lead pastor, for a senior pastor who will preach and pastor to us. So you’re on the committee to search for him, and I want you to think this morning what one word would you use to describe the pastor that you’re looking for? You can’t use two, can’t use three, four, many words, but what one word would describe that pastor that you’re looking for?

I was talking to somebody a few years back when I was still ministering in Michigan and this person was considering switching churches, so they had visited another church, they had listened to the pastor, and I said to them, I said, “What do you think of the pastor that you heard there? What was preaching like? What’d you think of him?” and they said to me they appreciated him and then they told me this. They said he was engaging, he was entertaining, he was even funny. As I was in that conversation, I was thinking to myself, I’m not sure that those are the words that I would have come up with to describe a pastor who was effective or a pastor that they appreciated.

When I was leaving First Byron, the question was asked of me, they said, “What should we look for in a new pastor?” Well, I didn’t have one word, but I came up with two words. I said I think you ought to look for a pastor who is faithful and effective. Faithful, true to the Scriptures, true to the Gospel, and effective, one who can communicate effectively and apply the Scriptures to your life.

Now if somebody had pressed me at that moment and said, “Well, you can’t pick two words, you’ve got to pick one work,” I would have picked the word “faithful.” Because what is effectiveness without faithfulness? You might be able to be faithful and lacking effectiveness, but you cannot be effective if you are not faithful.

Well, friends, that’s what we see here in the ministry of Epaphras, this unsung hero that we’re looking at this morning. The Bible describes him in a few different ways in these passages that we looked at. He’s also, by the way, referred to in Philemon verse 23, and here’s some of the descriptions for this pastor, Epaphras. He was a beloved fellow servant of Paul. So he was loved by Paul, he was a close companion with Paul, and a fellow servant of Christ alongside of Paul.

Philemon 23 tells us that he was also a fellow prisoner of Paul. So he was with Paul under house arrest in Rome when Paul wrote the book of Philemon and this letter Colossians. We don’t know why he was arrested. No doubt for the sake of Christ. We don’t know the circumstances about it, we just simply know that he was a fellow sufferer with Paul.

Another description Paul gives of him, he was, Paul says, one of you. So speaking to the Colossians, Paul says, “He was part of you, one of you.” He was from the church at Colossae. His ministry was to his own people. He was not an outsider. He was not above them. He was one of them, part of the congregation, and now ministering to the congregation.

And then this description, the one that we’re looking at this morning, we see it in verse 7 – he was a faithful minister of Christ. Epaphras was the pastor to the church at Colossae and of all the things that Paul could have said about Epaphras, this one I think stands out – he was faithful. What a commendation to the ministry of Epaphras.

Epaphras, you see, demonstrates for us what a faithful ministry looks like, and that means there’s a particular word here this morning for pastors, elders, deacons, seminarians who are moving towards ministry, other ministry leaders in the church, those who spend their days in formal ministry.

How would people describe what your ministry is like? But I think there’s also a message here for all of us, because we’re all involved in ministry to some degree, or extent. Maybe we’re a Sunday School teacher, we’re a parent who is discipling our children, maybe we’re leading a Covenant group, maybe you’re mentoring a young person in the church. Would faithfulness describe how you go about doing your ministry?

There’s four characteristics of a faithful ministry that we see here in the life of Epaphras that we’re looking at this morning.

Here’s number one – a faithful ministry involves sharing the Gospel, a faithful ministry involves sharing the Gospel.

What Paul is describing here in these early verses of the book of Colossians is the birth of the Colossian church. Just as he does in many of his other epistles, Paul opens with words of thanksgiving. He’s writing to a church that he loves and he thanks God for what is occurring in the church. So here in the book of Colossians he thanks God for the faith of the Colossians. He thanked God for the love that the saints in the church had for one another. Paul had been hearing about it. Their love for each other within the church, and he thanks God for it. He thanks God that the Gospel was bearing fruit and growing in Colossae. He says that as in the all world, it’s bearing fruit and increasing so, also it is among you.

In other words, God was at work in the Colossian church. How did the Gospel take root there? How did it get a foothold in this city? Or in this church? Paul tells us in verse 7, chapter 1, he said the Gospel and God’s grace is something that you learn from Epaphras.

Epaphras was the one who brought the Gospel to the Colossians. You see, that makes this kind of a unique epistle in Paul’s writing. In so many of his other letters he was writing to a church that he founded, to the church at Ephesus, and Philippi, and Thessalonica, and Corinth… Paul had been to all of those cities, passing through on his missionary journeys, preaching the Gospel in those places, and then a church formed. People believed in Christ and a church got established.

But that was not true here in Colossae. We don’t know that Paul ever visited this city. The Colossians had learned the Gospel from Epaphras. He was the church planter. He was the one who took the Gospel there and a church was established. It happened as we learned in the Bible on Paul’s third missionary journey. Paul spent three years teaching and preaching in Ephesus and Epaphras make the short journey from Colossae to Ephesus to hear Paul preach, and he was converted as he heard the Gospel. He believed and he turned around he brought the Gospel to his home.

Paul puts it this way specifically in verse 7. He says, “You learned it from Epaphras. You learned it from him, the Gospel.”

The word “learn” there is a particular word. It’s the Greek word “manthano,” closely related to the Greek word “mathetes” which means disciple.

What this word simply does it indicates to us that Epaphras didn’t just go to Colossae and evangelize there. He didn’t just go and preach the gospel to people who had never heard it before and then they became Christians and then he finished his work, but he rather discipled the church in Colossae. He shared the Gospel. He taught the Gospel. He catechized the church in the Gospel. In other words, he did all the things that a faithful pastor would do to build up the church and to help his people grow in the faith.

Remember, he did this as one of them, as one of their own. Sometimes the hardest place to share the Gospel is with those who are closest to us, isn’t it? Those that we know well, those who know us well. Remember how Jesus put it, He said a prophet has no honor in his own country. Prophets are not received well when they go back home, is what Jesus is saying.

Maybe some of you have had that same kind of experience, that it’s often hardest to reach those in your own family with the Gospel. They know us so well, they know our foibles, they know our failures, they know our faults, they know our inconsistencies. We think about bringing the Gospel to them and we say, “But what if they don’t receive the Gospel, accept the Gospel? Is that going to damage my relationship with those who love me and those whom I love?”

But something we learn from Epaphras is not to neglect those that God has put us among, our families, our friends, our city, the place where Epaphras immediately went upon hearing and believing the Gospel himself was to turn around and say, “I need to bring it home.” He brought it back to Colossae.

It reminds us of other people in the Bible who did this very same thing. When Jesus first called Andrew to Himself, to be a disciple, a follower of him, the Bible tells us that he first found his own brother Simon. Who needs to hear this? Who else needs to follow Christ? And Andrew said, “I know who. It’s my own brother,” and he said to him, “We have found the Messiah.”

Or the Samaritan woman as she heard the Gospel, she went back to her own hometown and she said to those that she was living with, “Come see a man who told me everything that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”

So you see a faithful ministry prioritizes the Gospel of God’s grace. It proclaims it. It shares it. It keeps returning to it. It declares it over and over and over and over again and it spreads it as opportunity arises with those close to home.

Is the Gospel the center of your ministry? That’s what marks a faithful ministry.

Secondly, a faithful ministry warns and corrects. It warns and corrects.

The book of Colossians, as you’re well aware, no doubt, is a prison epistle. In other words, Paul wrote it while he was under house arrest in Rome. You can find the details of that in Acts 28. It’s like Ephesians and Philippians and Philemon in that regard.

Well, Epaphras came to visit Paul in Rome while he was a prisoner. That’s why in the book of Philemon Paul calls Epaphras a fellow prisoner with him. At some point or another, Epaphras also is under house arrest. He’s a prisoner alongside of Paul. And he came to visit Paul while he was in prison out of love for Paul but also to report how things were going in the Colossian church.

He brought good news. You see that in these early verses of the book of Colossians. Paul says Epaphras has made known to us your love in the Spirit. There was love happening in that Colossian church. Believers, love for one another, all of it arising from a movement and the power of the Holy Spirit. So Epaphras same and brought a good report to Paul about the church in Colossae.

But he also brought bad news. He told Paul about false teaching that was threatening the church. We know it as the Colossian heresy. It’s kind of hard to put your finger exactly what was happening in the church of Colossae, but there’s some kind of heretical teaching that was occurring, probably a mix of pagan religion and Jewish religion. This is why Paul in this letter refers to angel worship, refers to secret knowledge, refers to an emphasis upon holy days and laws about food and drink. Kind of put it all together to summarize, there was a drift from Christ as presented in the Gospel in the Colossian church that Epaphras knew needed to be addressed.

And he came with that report to Paul and Paul wrote this letter to combat that. Epaphras, you see, was concerned about the threats to the church. Epaphras understood that the church needed to be warned, false teaching needed to be confronted. He understood that if the believers in Colossae were to grow and mature in their faith, they needed correction. They not only needed the good news, they also needed the bad news, and as a faithful minister who loved his people, he shared this with Paul so that the church might hear from the great apostle.

Now, friends, this is the harder part, isn’t it? To gospel faithfulness. We love the call of Christ to go and share the Gospel, to go to people and bring the good news of Jesus’ saving grace to sinners. And yet there’s another side of Gospel faithfulness and Gospel ministry and that is sometimes to level the bad news.

Remember how Paul puts it in 2 Timothy 3:16 as Paul is writing to Timothy about the inspiration of Scripture. He begins to talk, of course, about what Scripture is useful for. And it’s important for us, when we hear that text, to think about all the dimensions of Scriptures’ value and use. All Scripture, Paul says, is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching. We say, “Aha, I knew that. I love to use God’s Word to teach.”

But remember what also God’s Word is profitable for. God’s Word is profitable for reproof. Sometimes God’s Word brings reproof to people and needs to be brought to bear in the lives of God’s people in that way, to show us where we have gotten off track. It is profitable for correction. God’s Word does that, right? It puts us back on track. And for training in righteousness that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

God’s Word does all of those things. And we need all of them at various times in our life.

Sometimes I need God’s Word to teach me, sometimes I need God’s Word to reproof me or to correct me, and people of God, if you are in ministry, these are the various ways that God’s Word ought to be used, as you vary in ministry in various contexts.

During evening sermons, or evening services, we’ve been looking together at the church as the communion of the saints. That calls God’s people to live together, to walk together, to serve together. Well, we’re going to take a little different turn tonight and over the next few weeks as we look at a number of “one another’s” in Scripture. How are we supposed to go about “one another-ing” each other? Well, tonight we’re going to hear from Derek that we are to bear each other’s burdens. We’re going to hear in a few weeks that we are to stir up and encourage one another.

But don’t forget this other “one another.” It comes right out of the book of Colossians, Colossians 3:16 – teach and admonish one another.

So a faithful ministry, you see, it warns, it corrects/

Third, a faithful ministry involves prayer. Friends, this is maybe what stands out most about Epaphras. At least it’s an endearing characteristic of his ministry.

Chapter 4, verse 12: “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.”

Epaphras shared the Gospel, Epaphras discipled the church, and then Paul tells us that Epaphras prayed. And Paul witnessed it, right? Paul is writing to the Colossians and saying, “Hey, I want to tell you about the prayers of Epaphras.” Probably while he’s with Paul in prison in Rome, he saw Epaphras pray for the Colossian church. He heard Epaphras pray for the Colossian church. Paul says, “I want to tell you about his prayers for you.”

What did he pray? Well, Paul gives us an answer. He said Epaphras was praying that the Colossians would stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. He went to the Lord asking that the Colossians would spiritually grow, that they would become more like Christ, that they would run away from sin, put on holiness. That they would be sanctified, that they would be fully mature. That they would move from this point in the Christian life to this point in the Christian life. That’s how Epaphras had been interceding for the church.

And he also prayed that they would be fully assured in the will of God. In other words, convicted, convinced, of God’s will. Not His secret will, I don’t think, that’s what Paul’s talking about here. I don’t think it’s God’s secret will, you know, what is God’s will for my life in this or that? It was God’s revealed will, that they would be fully assured in the will of God as it has been revealed to us in His Word. In other words, they would become convicted and convinced of what God’s Word says to them, and that they would follow it.

Paul was praying that they would be in line with the will of God, obedient to the word of God, growing in obedience to God.

But it’s important to notice here not only what he prayed for, but this is what is so endearing about Epaphras, is how he prayed. And Paul puts it like this, he said, “He is always struggling on your behalf in his prayers.”

The word for struggle is the Greek word “agonizomanos,” agonizomanos. Maybe you can hear it an English word in there, “agony.”

He agonized, Paul is saying, in prayer for the Colossian church. He struggled in prayer. He wrestled with God in prayer for this church.

This was a pastor who just didn’t kind of pray surface-level prayers for the church, but he went deep in prayer for the church.

You ever agonized in prayer for something? What is agonizing in prayer look like? Well, here’s maybe a few descriptions of it. There’s a certain kind of intensity to that kind of prayer. Pleading with God in prayer, arising out of a sense of desperation that, “God, if You don’t do something, if You don’t act, You have to do it, I can’t do it.” It’s like throwing up your hands, “God, You must accomplish this.”

Epaphras praying, “God, would You mature the church? It’s not mine, it’s Yours, O God.”

There’s a certain kind of persistence in this prayer. Paul says Epaphras was always struggling. You see, his prayers, this was not a one off kind of thing that Epaphras prayed for the church, but he was praying it over and over and over and over again. The tense of the word here is not an isolated struggle but an enduring prayer, prayer that is repeated to God, “God, would You do this? God, would You come and act this way? God, would come in Your power?” And over and over and over again laying hold of God.

And a heart unloading. Thoughtful prayer, of course, but heart-rending prayer. Maybe like Paul says in Romans 8, groaning prayer. Groaning in prayer for God to move.

Find examples of this sometimes in our own life and in the history of the church. John Knox, the reformer in Scotland, who is known, of course, for his preaching but also for his prayer, and he’s reputed to have said this: “Give me Scotland or I die.” And of course what he meant by that was, “God, would You save my people?” Of course, through the preaching of the Gospel, “God, give me Scotland. Save them, or I die.”

Mary, Queen of Scots, said about John Knox, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe.” I fear his prayers more than put all the armies together. That was a man who agonized in prayer.

I think about a woman I knew from my own, my last church, who was telling me about her son coming to faith. He was probably 65 to 70 or so and he came to believe and she was so excited to tell me that her son John had returned to the church and trusted Christ. Then she told me this. She says, “I have prayed for this very thing for 50 years.” I was taken aback. Fifty years. That is a mother who agonized day after day and year after year, praying that her son would come to faith and she was so rejoicing when he believed in Christ.

Agonizing prayer. Friends, it’s how Jesus prayed. It’s how he prayed in Gethsemane. The very same word is used of Jesus’ prayer that Paul uses here. Three times pleading with the Father to take the cup of God’s wrath from Him. If it’s possible, if it’s possible, if it’s possible, and yet not as I will but You will. And obediently, of course, He went from the agony of prayer to the agony of the cross, carrying our sins.

And you see, people of God, it’s right there. It’s at the cross of Christ where faithful ministry is born, and faithful ministry gets its energy and strength. The same kind of intensity that poured out of Christ flowed through Epaphras, whose deepest desire was to see the blessing secured by Christ to be realized in the lives of his church.

One author put it like this. He said, “It is so often what a person invests away from the public gaze and recognition that says most about their devotion to God’s people and His work.”

It’s not what people see that marks where our devotion lies, it’s what they don’t see, it’s what’s happening behind the scenes, that marks our devotion to God’s people and the work of God.

What’s happening behind the scenes in your life in ministry? Whatever kind of ministry you do, be known for your faithful wrestling with God, for the people that you’re ministering to.

Finally, faithful ministry involves working hard, or hard work. It involves working hard. This is the last thing Paul says here in Colossians, this is chapter 4, verse 13, Paul says, “For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.” Apparently, Epaphras was not only instrumental in planting the church in Colossae, but he took the Gospel from Colossae to Laodicea, to Hierapolis, and ministered to those churches and those cities as well.

And Paul says he worked hard. So all that we’ve been looking at this morning, his sharing of the Gospel, his correcting and warning the church, his agonizing in prayer, put it all together and Paul can say, “He worked hard. He was a busy pastor.”

I imagine so, right? Investing in three congregations from place to place to place, ministering the Gospel, Epaphras was known for his hard work.

And this was a mark of his ministry faithfulness, that he labored with all his might. He was not a lazy pastor. He was not a coasting pastor. He was not just kind of, of taking what he had done before and doing it over again.

Ben and I were chatting right on the bench here as we first got up here this morning. He said, “Have you preached on this before?” No, I’ve never preached on this before. I said I want to be careful not to use too much stuff I’ve done before because I think my own heart kind of just shrivels up.

But Epaphras, he was a dedicated pastor, hardworking.

There was a joke that people used to say to me, mostly early on in my ministry, they would talk about working hard and they’d say to me, “Well, you know you’ll only have to work one day a week.” And I kind of learned to get over the defensiveness of that and then I’d respond back to them, I’d say, “Only two hours.” Sunday morning, Sunday evening, that’s it.

Well, the joke is that, you know, pastors don’t work very hard and some pastors don’t. Friends, I’m very thankful to say that’s not true at Christ Covenant Church. And I’m not saying that because I’m one of the pastors. It’s true. They give themselves, our pastors, fully to the work of the Lord, but that’s what a faithful ministry does.

There’s a reminder here, isn’t it, that ministry is not easy. That ministry is labor. Ministry comes with a struggle. Paul said it himself, in another place here in Colossians, Colossians 1:28-29 as he describes his own ministry. He says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone, and teaching everyone with all wisdom that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all His energy that He powerfully works within me.”

Faithful ministry is hard work.

Well, friends, if you bring these four things that we have talked about together, what makes Epaphras an unsung hero? I would say it’s this – he ministered and labored with a goal of faithfully presenting the church mature in Christ. He ministered and labored with a goal of faithfully presenting the church mature in Christ. His aim was Christ and His glory in the lives of the people that he was serving.

So who has God called you to minister to? And how will you minister? Will you be known as being faithful to the Lord?

Let’s pray together. Thank You, Lord, for this faithful example of ministry in Epaphras. Praise You, Father, that he shared the Gospel, discipled it, prayed for the church, worked hard in his labors, and we pray, Father, that wherever we are ministering, whether it’s in some kind of formal setting or an informal setting, that we may be faithful. That’s what we long to hear when You come back, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” So Father, gives us the strength to do that. May Your Holy Spirit guide us in it and toward it. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.