The closing words of the majority of Paul’s epistles are very instructive, for they show us even further the personal side to this great apostle. As Paul concludes his letter to the Colossian church he sends greetings to the church from several individuals as well as sending greetings to some individuals in Colossae. I want to point out several things about these greetings.
First, note that Paul sends greetings from at least three men who are actually going to read these greetings to the church (Tychicus, Onesimus, and Mark—and perhaps we might include Aristarchus). Why is this?
Technically, this is called an epistolary aorist and it was a literary device that was common in ancient times. It is written in the present tense and yet it will only be realised sometime later.
But further, there is a relational significance here as well. The apostle Paul sent these greetings primarily for the purpose of personally commending these men. He used this literary device for the purpose of giving encouragement to them. As the bearers of this letter, these men would know the contents. What an encouragement!
Paul was a great encourager. He was not fearful of expressing his appreciation for fellow believers. He apparently was not afraid of kind words going to the heads of these brothers. He was the kind of believer who knew the power of encouragement. He knew that he could not do the work of the Lord alone and he was grateful for the loving assistance of others. He knew the power of being encouraged himself and repaid the favour. He was never threatened by the gifts of others. He was not threatened by the affection that others might have for his fellow workers. In short, he was large-hearted.
Let me apply this by saying that we should be careful of taking one another for granted. We should learn to express gratitude to and for one another. I know that this can get out of hand but we should not allow the fear of excess to keep us from doing the right thing.
The test of a real servant is how he responds when he is treated as a servant. But is it our duty to put them to such a test? I think not. Let us take the “risk” and show appreciation for others. Let us follow the example of our Lord who commended the woman with the anointment for all subsequent history (see John 12). Let us follow Him who has promised that one day He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21, 23).
A eulogy at a funeral can be a wonderful thing. It is great to speak well of those after their death when you really can speak well of them. But what is wrong with letting people know what you think of them (if it is good!) before they die?
As we return to this passage let me remind you that Paul names some 11 individuals in these closing 12 verses. Most (all?) of these people were run-of-the-mill believers. They were average church members. They were like us. But to Paul, they were special and precious. And for this reason they received honourable mention in this closing section.
I would suggest that these individuals offer a good cross section of a biblical local church. And except for one case, each character would make a worthy goal to imitate.
Previously, we looked at six individuals honourably mentioned under the headings “Dependable Disciples” and “Committed Companions.” In this study we will look at two more as “Caring Companions,” one who had a “Hospitable Heart” and one who was a “Disappointing Disciple.”
The first two individuals that we must consider in this study are Epaphras and Luke:
Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has a great zeal for you, and those who are in Laodicea, and those in Hierapolis. Luke the beloved physician . . . greet[s] you.
Those Who Pray
Epaphras, through his prayers, might be considered a physician of the soul. He was “one of” the Colossians; that is, a native of the Lycus Valley. Paul considered him “a bondservant of Christ” who “always labour[ed] fervently for [the Colossians] in prayers.” His prayer was that they might “stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.” Paul commended him as a man who had “great zeal for you, and those who are in Laodicea, and those in Heirapolis.”
John Calvin spoke of this as a “pastor’s model prayer.” No doubt it is. But I would add that it should not be reserved for those who serve in the office of pastor only but that it should the kind of prayer which each of us should have a concern.
But first, what do we know of Epaphras?
The name is a shortened form of “Epaphroditus,” and indicates that he was in fact a Gentile. The name itself may give a hint to his upbringing, for it is related to the name of the goddess Aphrodite, a well-known fertility goddess of pagan religions. Hence, this man was surrounded by paganism, and his family was most likely pagan in its religion. It is quite possible that Epaphras had been involved in the debauched perversions that attended such paganism and yet God by His grace had transformed him!
It was possibly this transformation that so motivated his prayer for the believers of his hometown; he desired for them to grow in Christlikeness. His experience of grace drove him to do all he could to help others to also experience this grace.
Remember that Epaphras was “one of [them]” and perhaps Paul commends him so that he would not suffer the all-too-common reality that “a prophet is not without honour except in his own country” (Matthew 13:57; Mark 6:4). This is a trait that has plagued the church throughout history. We tend to take for granted what we have. It is kind of like asking a fish to describe water. He is so surrounded by it that he does not notice it—at least until he ends up on dry ground!
Like Epaphras, there are many in each local church who are amazing gifts of God but who, because they are one of us, tend to be overlooked as the providential blessing that they are. My brother-in-law once preached his heart out on a particular Sunday morning, and that evening a church member came to him informing him that she had listened to “the greatest sermon I ever heard” that morning. Before he had any opportunity to respond, she continued, “Just before coming to church this morning I was listening to the radio . . .”
Believer, let us thank God for the “apostle Pauls” in our lives and be sure to give credit to whom credit is due. But let us be careful to not miss the obvious gifts that God has given to us. I have to wonder if, when Paul wrote this, he was perhaps suggesting, “What a blessing Epaphras is! And, you lucky church, he is one of you!”
Lest you misunderstand what I am saying, please note that there is no indication either here or elsewhere that Epaphras was the pastor of the church. This is significantly encouraging.
He may indeed have been a pastor, but I would surmise that Epaphras was perhaps the individual whom God used to plant this and perhaps other churches in the Lycus Valley. Many commentators believe this to be the case. But there is no indication that he was the leader of the church.
Our church was planted some 30 years ago by two “regular” church members. The man who started the church in his own home, though greatly respected in the church, served as an elder for only a relatively short period of time. For the vast majority of the years in which these dear believers have been members of the church, he has not held pastoral office. I imagine that Epaphras was a church member in this vein.
According to Acts 11:19-30 Barnabas and Saul were the early leaders in the Antioch church (until they were sent from the church as missionaries), but neither man had a hand in the initial planting of the church (Acts 8:1-4). Epaphras, similarly, was simply “one of you.” He was perhaps not particularly well-known, but was nevertheless greatly used by God, and this was no doubt because he was greatly passionate about God. And it was this which drove his prayer life.
A secretary once arrived at work late, and when the boss asked why she was late, she explained, “It was awful! I was walking down Elm Street and there was a terrible accident. A man was lying in the middle of the street—he was thrown from his car. His leg was broken, his skull fractured, and there was blood everywhere. Thank goodness I had taken a first aid course: All my training came back to me in a flash.”
“Did you apply a tourniquet?” asked the boss, enthralled by the tale.
“No, I sat down and put my head between my knees to keep from fainting!”
I fear that this is sometimes our response to trouble in the Body of Christ. Rather than hopefully coming to the aid of those who are in danger we put our heads between our knees and leave the patient to die. But what we should do is get on our knees and ask God for help. Like Epaphras we should ask God to keep others from fainting!
You will recall that Epaphras had apparently come to Rome (where Paul was imprisoned) for the purpose of getting some apostolic help to counter the errant claims of the Judaistic Gnostics who were harassing the church in Colossae. And, by the way, apostolic doctrine is always the best way to counter error!
Paul soon learned that this man was a faithful servant who carried a fervent desire for the spiritual wellbeing of his local church.
Epaphras knew something of the supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ and he wanted his fellow believers to grasp this as well. He desired that his local church come to appreciate the completeness of its salvation. He desired for his fellow church members to grow in maturity. He was burdened that perhaps they would slide back from the assurance that attends the doctrine of justification by faith alone to the legalistic bondage of a works-based approach to God.
No doubt, before making this trip to Rome Epaphras did all he could to help the believers in a practical way, but even at that point he was no doubt praying. And his prayers were partially answered by this encounter with Paul. This letter came out of the prayer closet of Epaphras. Truly he experienced the promise of our Lord that if we pray in secret we will be rewarded openly.
But it is interesting to me that apparently Epaphras, as grateful as he was for this apostolic epistle, nonetheless kept praying. At least this is what Paul tells us in vv. 12-13.
Let me pause and say that the Christian life is built upon the two pillars of prayer and the Word. Believers need apostolic doctrine but they also need the anointing and the revelation and the empowerment of the Spirit.
We need to pray for one another that we become both exposed to right teaching about Christ and also become experiential with Christ. This is one reason that we as a church heavily emphasise Sunday and midweek prayer meetings (most particularly Sunday evening prayer). It is also a major motivation behind our eventual move to midweek small group ministry.
But let’s now glean some practical lessons from Epaphras at prayer. (We should note that Epaphras proved he was a bond-slave of Christ by his burden for those who belonged to Christ. That is, he saw himself as a servant of the household of Christ. Oh that we shared such a worldview!)
His Praying was Persistent
Epaphras was a man who was “always labouring fervently for [the Colossians] in prayers.” He prayed faithfully rather than fitfully. His burden was continual and so his prayers were consistent. The concern was always present so his praying was always persistent. He exemplified Paul’s exhortation in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing.”
How can we have such persistence in prayer?
Essentially, by seeking first the kingdom of God. Prayer is a major theme in the book of Acts. The early disciples were frequently at prayer for the growth of the kingdom. They sought God’s will in all things, and this drove them to their knees. And, of course, they were highly effective in the task to which God sent them.
Practically, let me suggest scheduling a specific time of prayer. Let me suggest praying with the help of a list, both making a list of requests and praises and crossing off requests as God answers them. It is a great encouragement to look back at a set list and see how God has answered prayer over time. Another good way of praying—at least in our church—is to pray through the church directory. Our directory is a booklet of families in the church with names, addresses, contact details and birthdays and anniversary. Also included is a photograph of each family. All church members and families are listed in the directory, and so praying systematically through the directory is a wonderful way to pray for the church as a whole.
His Praying was Painful
Epaphras was a man whom Paul knew was “labouring fervently” in prayer for the Colossians. The phrase “labouring fervently” literally means “to fight,” and it is used that way in 2 Timothy 4:7. Curtis Vaughan writes that the phrase “suggests heavy toil to the extent of pain. Here it may refer to the emotional distress Epaphras had experienced in reference to the people at Colossae.” Luke 22:44 uses the term to describe Jesus being in “agony” as He prayed in Gethsemane.
When Epaphras prayed, it cost him something. He entered into warfare on the behalf of his brothers and sisters in prayer. He agonised. He perspired. He fought for them! Would to God that our churches would be filled with such prayer warriors! When the yet unconverted Augustine’s mother begged Ambrose to pray for her son’s conversion, Ambrose saw her passion and assured her, “The son of such tears can never perish!”
We should observe that it is usually easier to do just about anything but really pray. To really pray is to get naked before the Lord. It is to wrestle with Him, and this is usually painful. Just ask Jacob!
Prayer for Epaphras was no mere ritual. It flowed from relationship. We do not pray because it is simply the “Christian” thing to do. It is a living relationship with a living God that drives us to our knees. Or so it should be.
His Praying was Personal
Paul assured the Colossians that Epaphras was at prayer “for you.” What a joy it is to hear someone say, “I prayed (or am praying) for you.” I have been blessed to be the recipient of those words as well as the speaker of them.
An interesting question at this point is, how did Paul know this? I doubt that it was because Epaphras told him that he had been praying for them. I suspect that he must have seen and heard it. Epaphras was, after all, Paul’s “fellow servant” (1:7) and his “fellow prisoner” (Philemon 23). No doubt Paul had spent much time in prayer with Epaphras, and Epaphras, as he did privately, no doubt prayed with Paul for the Colossian saints.
Let me ask at this point, do you have a prayer partner? Do you pray with others? We learn here, if nothing else, that Epaphras was not a lone ranger in the church. He was no doubt relational, as we must be. And yet at the same time we want to be careful of trying to fit everyone into the same mould as to how this is to look.
His Praying was Particular
Epaphras prayed that the Colossians might “stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.”
To “stand” means “to place the feet firmly.” It is used of the apostles standing before the Jerusalem crowd on Pentecost to preach the gospel to them (Acts 2:14). It is used again in the command of the angel to the apostles to stand and preach the gospel to the crowds (Acts 5:20, 25).
“Perfect” speaks of those who are mature. It is used in 1 Corinthians 14:20 to describe maturity as opposed to infancy, and in Hebrews 5:14 to speak of those who are “of full age.”
“Complete” is a key word in Colossians, in which Paul argues for the sufficiency of Christ.
Epaphras wanted his brothers and sisters to be like this “in all the will of God.” As N. T. Wright says, “Epaphras is praying (like Paul) that the young church will understand what it is that God is doing, and order their lives accordingly, growing into well-grounded Christian (and human) maturity.”
In short, Epaphras was burdened that the believers in his church would stand firm in their conviction that they were complete in Christ and that they would become completely conformed to Christ. What are you praying for?
Epaphras was concerned that the church avoid cheap substitutes; that she avoid any teaching or lifestyle which would minimise the supremacy of Christ. A. T. Robertson commented, “Epaphras evidently took the Gnostic peril seriously and was wrestling with God constantly that they might stand firm against the wiles of the plausible deceivers.”
His Praying was Passionate
Epaphras had “great zeal” in his prayers for the Colossians, Laodiceans and those in Hierapolis. This has already been evidenced in what has been said and yet it bears repeating. Like Jesus, when it came to the church of God, it could be said of Epaphras, “Zeal for Your house has eaten me up” (John 2:17).
Epaphras, like Paul (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:2), was jealous for the spiritual welfare of his church. His passion was catholic. His vision was large. “Though not physically present there, Epaphras has a vision for God’s work in the Lycus valley, and is working hard to bring it to reality” (Wright).
Those Who Stay
Epaphras was in many ways a physician of the soul. Luke was a physician of the body. Paul spoke of him as “the beloved physician.”
Luke is only mentioned by name in Scripture here and in 2 Timothy 4:11. He was a physician, as this verse clearly tells us. But he was not merely a physician, but a “beloved” physician. He was probably beloved to many, but to none more so than Paul.
In the book of Acts, which was penned by Luke, we deduce that he was Paul’s frequent travelling companion. At least 42 times we read find the term “we” in Acts. Luke stuck to Paul’s side in his missionary journeys. As a physician and a brother this was no doubt greatly necessary. Unlike our secretary above, Luke not only knew first aid but he applied it as well—to Paul! We know that Paul was frequently beaten and ailed, and Luke no doubt tended to the apostle with great care. Luke experienced some mighty perils at Paul’s side, and yet he stuck it out.
Luke was a “professional” man who perhaps left the prospects of a lucrative practice to serve the Lord by serving Paul. And his reward, amongst other things, was the privilege to write both the Gospel of Luke and its sequel’ the book of Acts.
What can we learn from this man? For one thing, we learn that real friends stick closer than brothers (cf. Proverbs 18:24).
We learn furthermore that the church rolls on the wheels of all sorts of talents and gifts. Let us guard against envy! You may not have a gift that you covet, but you no doubt have gifts that God will use in your church that others lack. “Luke . . . was a beloved Christian, a skilful physician, a devoted friend, and a careful historian—all wrapped up in one!” writes Warren Wiersbe.
The issue is not what you do but why you are doing it.
Luke teaches us further that meeting physical needs can be as necessary in the Body of Christ as meeting spiritual needs. In other words, they need not be seen as mutually exclusive. Prayer and prescription may often go hand in hand. Physical health is important for the church of God.
Finally, we can learn from Luke that professionals can be—must be—humble servants of Christ. Position in society, as the world defines it, means nothing!
In summary, we learn from Epaphras that caring friends are praying friends, and from Luke that caring friends are staying friends.
We read in v. 15 of “the brethren who are in Laodicea, and Nymphas and the church that is in his house.” Some translations refer to Nymphas with a feminine pronoun; we cannot be absolutely sure whether Nymphas was in fact male or female. We do know, however, that whoever he or she was, he or she was known for his or her hospitality. He or she opened his or her home for and to (literally) the church. And to do so is not always easy. It requires humility. It requires sacrifice. It requires a willingness to share. It requires vulnerability.
I am grateful for a particular family that opened its home when I embarked on my first church-planting venture in South Africa many years ago. This family opened its home for Thursday night Bible studies initially, and when the group grew, the family gave its garage for Sunday services. There were no doubt some challenges for that family. It was no doubt a difficult thing at times to welcome strangers into the home. It forced the family, to an extent, to be vulnerable and transparent. But God, we discern from v. 15, is pleased when a family makes such a sacrifice.
Of course, in New Testament times, long before churches met in buildings, home meetings were the norm for church gatherings (see Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Philemon 2; 2 John 10; see also Acts 1:12-14; Acts 12:11-13).
As noted above, the church rolls on the wheels of both relationships and diverse gifts. Homes are a wonderful means towards this. In fact the Scriptures mention the word “house” over 2,000 times. A lot takes place in the home. We should be open to using our homes to minister to others (e.g. meals, Bible studies, prayer meetings, small groups, etc.). Our openness to having others in our homes is an indication of Christian humility and love.
We bring our study to a close with the consideration of a rather disappointing disciple: “Demas” (v. 14).
We read of this young man here as well as in Philemon 24 where he is called by Paul a “fellow labourer.” Here, he is mentioned almost in passing. J. B. Lightfoot observed, “There is perhaps a foreshadowing of this contrast in the language here. While Luke is described with special tenderness . . . Demas alone is dismissed with a bare mention and without any epithet of commendation.”
To be fair to Demas, we should note that, at least at this point, he was still with Paul. Paul was in prison in Rome, where few had stood by him, but Demas was at least with him. Sadly, however, this is not the last word on Demas.
In Paul’s last inspired epistle, we read these sad words: “Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica.” We know that Paul felt this deeply for he preceded those words by saying to Timothy, “Be diligent to come to me quickly” (2 Timothy 4:9-10). As Sam Storms says, “Is there a more painful experience than being abandoned by a friend? One struggles to find words adequate for the distress that is felt when a close, trusted companion and fellow-worker (see Philem. 24) walks away.”
Demas may have started out well, but it appears that he finished badly. One of the saddest things I have read was the comment in Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. Under the name “Demas” are recorded these words, “A fellow disciple of Paul who abandoned him, having loved this world more.”
What a pathetic way to be remembered! “It is sad to see a man break down at the end,” noted Robertson.
As we come to the end of our study of those honourably mentioned let us note a couple of lessons from Demas.
First, experience should teach us that there is hope for those who may at the moment be slipping. Paul here at least does mention him. Demas was with Paul in Rome. At this point at least he was identifying with the apostle as a prisoner of the Lord. Paul perhaps was hopeful at this point.
We have a tendency to give up far too soon on people. It is quite possible for a Christian to slide back for a time and then return to the Lord at a later time. Whilst we do not want to ignore the sin of professing believers, we must learn to be patient and trust God’s grace to do its slow work.
Second, we should learn from the story of Demas that not all who start well finish well. And not all who start slow finish last! “The Christian life is a marathon,” wrote Storms, “not a sprint! So let’s be careful and not place excessive responsibility on those who do well at first, nor give up entirely on those who appear to have slipped at the starting line.”
Brother, sister, you may never be well-known outside your own local church. You may never be a famed name in the historical annals of the church. But those who are faithful will have the thrill of being honourably mentioned at the Judgement Seat when they hear Christ say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
As Storms exhorts us, “Don’t be caught up in the feigned adulation of superficial and self-indulgent folk, whether they be in Hollywood or the church down the street. Seek out and support ‘beloved brothers and sisters’ who are ‘faithful ministers’ and ‘fellow servants’ of the Lord Jesus and ‘fellow workers’ for the kingdom who extend themselves and intercede for the saints. These are the true superstars!”