Background Passages: Colossians 1:7-8; 4:12-13; Philemon 23; James 2:14-16
The great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther learned the need for deep spiritual concentration in prayer from his dog, Klutz. Luther said, “If I could only pray the way this dog watches meat …(beyond that one thing) he has no thought, wish or hope.” Effective prayer requires a singular focus.
One such prayer warrior, casually mentioned in scripture, poured his every thought, wish and hope into his passionate prayers for the believers in Colossae. Consider the example of Epaphras.
I suspect the long journey to Rome gave him time to reflect on the troubles plaguing the Colossian church as it resisted the heretical attacks of those who misunderstood and misapplied the gospel of Christ. After his conversion experience in Ephesus experienced at the feet of Paul, Epaphras took his missionary zeal 100 miles west to the cities of Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis.
As it was in other areas, the spread of Christianity faced a host of problems caused by those who wished to assimilate Christ’s teachings into the prevailing religions or philosophies of the day. Some Jewish leaders embraced the teachings of Christ to a point, but insisted that Jewish laws, rituals and traditions be embraced as a condition of salvation. Some Gentiles attempted to blend Greco/Roman philosophies with Christian teaching, but proclaiming a “secret knowledge” that made them more in tune with God. Other philosophers tried to meld Christian humility and servanthood with the joyless stoicism of self-denial.
Faced with all of these pressures upon the churches he served, Epaphras boarded a boat to Rome intent upon sharing his concerns with Paul, his spiritual mentor and guide. When Paul heard of the difficulties in the church, he penned a letter addressed to the churches providing instruction from the apostle to the believers. In the book of Colossians, Paul encouraging them to set aside the false teachings and focus instead on the teachings of Christ.
As he closed his letter to the Colossian church, Paul spoke highly of Epaphras, one of only three times this dedicated pastor was mentioned in the Bible. In the brief biblical references to Epaphras, he is called “servant of Christ Jesus,” “our beloved fellow servant,” “faithful minister” and “my fellow prisoner.”
Paul held this man of faith in high esteem, considering him a valuable member of the ministry team and a personal encouragement in his life. However, Paul’s reference to his friend reveals a great deal about Epaphras that I find instructive. He wrote,
“Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those in Laodicea and Hierapolis.”
Epaphras understood what we tend to forget. Our prayers tend to be incident specific, offered during times of personal need or want. Our prayers tend to be generic as we intercede for “them,” those whose struggles we see, but never really touch. Epaphras prayed differently.
Paul said, “He is always wrestling in prayer for you…” He offered prayers of intercession, lifting his congregation to the throne of God, laying their needs at the feet of Christ. Knowing what they faced…knowing that great was their need for the Spirit’s presence at a time when false teachers were pulling them in all directions…Epaphras prayed.
I suspect he did more than pray for the generic spiritual health of his church. He knew his people, his friends. He knew the unique struggles each individual faced. He knew their personal hurts, their unique desires, their individual weakness. He knew their joy, their devotion, their strengths. He prayed for each member of his congregation that God’s presence might be felt. God’s voice heard. God’s will obeyed.
How much more effective would our prayer life be if our first thought was not for our own needs or for a faceless crowd, but for the specific needs of the one? Praying not just for the universal needs of the Christian community, but for specific friends and family we know caught between the loving arms of God and the selfish pull of the world. Praying for friends and family that God’s joy might be made complete in them.
We learn another truth from this passage. “He is always wrestling in prayer for you,” Paul wrote. Epaphras prayed persistently and continuously for his people, lifting them up constantly to the Father. So great was his love for his congregation, their situation remained at the forefront of his heart. Though miles separated Rome from Colossae, Epaphras could not take his mind off their struggles. When you know those you care for are under spiritual attack and you cannot stand physically by their side, prayer provides a connection one to the other, linking your heart to theirs.
Thessalonians reminds us to “pray without ceasing,” not so a forgetful God will be reminded of our requests, but that we remain connected to those we love through a spiritual life line. Persistent and continuous prayer for another never allows the needs of another to get buried beneath the bustle of daily life.
Epaphras knew that effective prayer is labor intensive. Paul said, “He is always wrestling in prayer for you.” This servant of Jesus Christ agonized over the souls of those for whom he was responsible. They were that important to him. He carried their burdens as his own and that heavy responsibility left him seeking answers day in and day out, desperate to discover what he could say or do to bolster their faith and give them strength.
The word “wrestle” found in this text comes from a Greek word meaning “to agonize.” In a real sense, it paints a picture of competing for a prize. Figuratively, it suggests fighting an adversary. Both concepts ring true. The false teachers threatened the work of God’s grace, eternity’s highest prize, in the daily life of the Colossians. Those Epaphras opposed stood as enemies of the faith. True adversaries. He would fight them with every spiritual weapon at his disposal. Praying for the Colossians brought heartbreak and pain. The danger to their faith was never more real.
Epaphras labored in prayer over Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. Stretching his mind, his heart, his spirit and his soul, Epaphras’ prayers consumed his time, drew upon his strength and challenged his commitment.
Prayer that fails to burden the soul echoes as a hollow sound. Epaphras teaches us that prayer should compel us to go to the mat for those in need and should define who we are and that for which we stand.
Epaphras prayed specifically and intelligently for the people. He prayed that in the face of all that opposed them, they might “stand firm” in the will of God. That their faith might be “mature” and “fully assured” as they withstand the assault on their beliefs. We might have prayed for God’s blessing upon them, or God’s peace and presence… and God would hear that prayer. However, Epaphras prayed for specific manifestations of their faith in a troubled time. His prayer came with a stated purpose for personal spiritual growth and confidence that they did not walk alone.
The most effective prayers we utter are those that are backed by our own hard work. Paul reminded the Colossians of their pastor’s tireless effort on their behalf. “I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and those in Laodicea and Hierapolis.” It wasn’t enough to lay his concerns before God, Epaphras set out to make those prayers a reality in the lives of those he loved. He worked. He worked hard as God’s hands and feet to make his prayers a reality.
James tells us of the link between faith and works. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?”
I suspect the same is true of our prayers. Casual prayers of blessing for those we know who are struggling sound like we simply wish them well. We need to back our prayers with our actions. In this way we serve as God’s conduit for the answers he provides.
Every day we encounter someone who lives life in turmoil. Will we wrestle constantly in prayer for the heart that is broken? Will we put ourselves to work to ensure that our prayers actually touch a life of another? Can we go to God with such fervor and focus there exists no greater thought, wish or hope beyond that for which we pray?
The lesson taught by this obscure Christian giant is a good one. Whose Epaphras will you be?
Author’s Note: This devotional thought is the third in a series of posts about some of the unsung heroes of the New Testament. These men and women, in many ways, carried the responsibility of the spread of the gospel in first 50 years after the ministry of Christ. By putting together the limited biblical references to their work and filling in the gaps with a little imagination, we find ways in which we, as ordinary Christians, can find in the examples they set our own heart for ministry.
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