The ripple effect: Epaphras

After Jesus’ ascension, believers spread the gospel around the world in widening ripples.

Daniel N. Balge

It is a blessing of sharing the gospel that—by the Holy Spirit’s power—the work produces more workers. What other human endeavor can claim that? Sharing the gospel adds miles and years to the ripple effect that Pentecost set in motion.

The apostle Paul’s work produced many more workers, among them Epaphras of Colossae. We don’t know much about him. The Bible mentions him only three times. But from those few words we get the impression of a man of action.

A slave for the gospel

Under God and as Paul’s representative and colleague, Epaphras founded the Christian congregation in his hometown (Colossians 1:7). We don’t know how this Gentile first heard the gospel, but reasonable speculation puts him in Ephesus (more than 100 miles east of Colossae) during the time of Paul’s residence in that major trade center. Paul spent the better part of three years there. At the very least, Epaphras and his work in Colossae underscore what Luke meant when he wrote that during Paul’s time in Ephesus “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia [the western third of modern Turkey] heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10). Paul couldn’t get everywhere, but Ephesus was well connected by land and sea to just about everywhere.

Epaphras toiled in a tri-city area—in Colossae of course, but also in Laodicea, 10 miles to the west, and Hierapolis, 13 miles to the northwest (Colossians 4:13). The Greek word summing up his ministry there implies hard work and mighty labor. Epaphras prayed the same way. Paul reported to Epaphras’ Colossian congregation that “he is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (4:12). For Epaphras, these prayers for his congregations meant exertion and strain. It’s no surprise then that when Paul calls Epaphras a “fellow servant” (1:7) and a “servant of Christ Jesus” (4:12), the words are strong and emphatic. The Greek means “slave.” Epaphras worked like a slave for the gospel, like Paul himself (Romans 1:1).

An encourager in faith

Epaphras spared no effort for his tri-parish. He traveled some 1,200 miles—a bit less if he made part of his journey by ship—from Colossae to Rome to visit Paul. The apostle was under house arrest and Epaphras’ visit encouraged him (Colossians 1:8). But that was not the main reason Epaphras had come. He was there for advice and instruction on how to deal with false teachings that threatened his congregations.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians addresses those problems, though without labeling the heresies. It’s from Paul’s answers that we deduce the questions disturbing the faith of these fairly new Christians. The issues were mostly familiar, local recipes of doctrinal poison that had hurt other young congregations: confusion of law and gospel, misunderstanding about who Jesus is, and claims of a better knowledge than the foolishness of the pure good news. Paul also needed to condemn the worship of angels (2:18).

Paul’s letter went back to Colossae ahead of Epaphras. Epaphras sent greetings with it (4:12) and lingered for a time as Paul’s “fellow prisoner” (Philemon 23). Apparently there was work for him in Rome too.

Contributing editor Daniel Balge, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. Paul, New Ulm.

This is the seventh article in a 12-part series on lesser-known New Testament witnesses.


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Author: Daniel N. Balge
Volume 103, Number 11
Issue: November 2016

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