A Study into the life of a biblical character named Epaphras
Introduction: Annie Davies wrote a recent article in Women’s Health Magazine, entitled: “I Was Living An Awesome Life—But I Had No Purpose.” She said: “If you had asked me to describe my life 5 years ago, I would have cited a trifecta like ‘driven, full, and fun.’ I was 30, working a cool job, and moonlighting as a young-adult novelist. Not to mention training for a marathon, raising funds for charity, and going on at least 3 dates a week. If I had any free time, I’d slip in a yoga class, attend a lecture, read book—anything to get smarter, faster, better. Beneath this flurry of achievement, though, I sometimes asked myself if I was on a treadmill to nowhere. Rather than feeling satisfied and accomplished, I secretly felt stressed and burned out. Something was missing… (a) reason to live… having a sense of purpose in life—something that propels you out of bed each morning.”
I read the article and came away feeling Anna Davies had described the problem perfectly but didn’t have a biblical answer to it. Our culture thinks we are momentary molecules in a perishing and merciless universe. But Jesus-followers know we are made for eternal significance, which gives us a basis for finding a personal mission to propel us out of bed each morning.
For example, notice this “minor” character in the Bible – Epaphras. He is mentioned twice in the book of Colossians, and these references give us dual insights into finding a meaningful purpose. We all have different skills and jobs to do, but in general terms our personal mission in life can be summed up by looking at these two references. Every one of us who follows Jesus Christ has a two-fold mission in life.
1. Talk to People About God
Our first task is reflected in Colossians 1:6-7: The Gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf.
We don’t know the details behind this story, but we can make inferences. During the years when the apostle Paul worked in Ephesus, some from the interior of Asia Minor heard the Gospel, received the message, and took the Good News back to their towns and provinces. Apparently, Epaphras was one of them. He returned to his city of Colossae and told them what God had done for him, and a church was planted there. This is what followers of Christ have been doing for 2000 years—spreading the Gospel in ways great and small.
I just read the book, Just for a Moment I Saw the Light, by John Duckworth. The opening chapter delighted me. Duckworth said (I’m paraphrasing him—his own words are much better, but for the sake of time I’ll give the synopsis):
When I was a boy, my father took me to Sunday School at the First Presbyterian Church of Flushing, New York. He didn’t really want to. He was an agnostic. But my mother wanted me in Sunday School. So dad took me to Mrs. Loeffler’s beginner’s class. I was 3 years old, and I was terrified. The first Sunday I turned around and ran back to my father and wrapped my arms around his legs and held on for dear life. Mrs. Loeffler came to the rescue, suggesting my father stay in the room and stand up in the back where I could see him. He did. I sat down on one of Mrs. Loeffler’s little chairs but I kept looking back to make sure my dad was there.
Mrs. Loeffler had a flannelboard and she used paper figures to tell stories from the Bible. We went week after week, and I sat in the little chair and listened to Mrs. Loeffler’s flannelgraph stories, but I kept looking back to make sure my dad was nearby. I suppose she told stories about Adam and Eve, and Noah, and David and Goliath, and Zacchaeus, and, of course, the Lord Jesus. I became absorbed by those stories, but I kept looking back to make sure my dad was there. What I didn’t realize was that he was listening to. He had never known anything the Bible, and for 6 weeks he learned the Gospel from Mrs. Loeffler.
I was 3, and my father was 10 times my age—30. But as he listened, my dad came to understand the story of a loving God who had entered human to and become a man to offer us a priceless present—the gift of eternal life. After 6 weeks, I was secure enough to stay in Mrs. Loeffler’s classroom by myself, but by then my father had been captured by the story of the Gospel and shortly afterward he stepped fully into the Light, asking Jesus Christ to be Savior. My mother had done that shortly before, and I did shortly afterward, and so we were all beginners together.
That’s a great story because it speaks of the simplicity of the Gospel and how sometimes we are changing lives when we don’t even know it. Don’t underestimate how God may use you whenever you have a chance to say a few words for Him. You may not know of the results, but God’s Word does not return void. We are on earth to tell people about God. He loves them. He has a plan for them. And they need to turn from their sins to Him through Jesus Christ. That’s the lesson we learn about our life’s mission from Epaphras in Colossians 1.
2. Talk to God About People
But there is a second aspect to all this in the last chapter of Ephesians. Paul mentioned Epaphras again. Colossians 4:12 says: 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 all those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. Our dear friend, Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings.
Notice the verb Paul uses. Epaphras is always wrestling. That word denotes strenuous activity. This man was pacing back and forth in his room. He was on his knees and on his face. He was praying aloud and fervently. He was praying with a tremendous burden. He was like a wrestler engaged in conflict.
And what was he praying? That the Colossians would stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. Over the years as I have prayed for my children and grandchildren, this has been a sort of theme verse for me. It’s one of my favorite verses about prayer. It tells us:
- When we should pray—always.
- How we should pray—wrestling
- What we should pray—that our friends and family and church will stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.
Earlier this year while speaking at a function in Sebring, Florida, I met a man named Barkley Fahnestock, who told me about his decades of service in Ethiopia. He gave me a book about the national Ethiopian evangelists who spread the Gospel during the days of Emperor Haile Selassie and the subsequent Communist revolution. It’s one of the most gripping books I’ve read . Each chapter was the story of a local, national Ethiopian evangelist who took the Gospel to the unreached.
One of these evangelists was Ekaso, a man devoted to prayer. Ekaso was physically weak, but he believed prayer was where the victories were won. Near Ekaso’s home was a mountain with a ledge that provided a natural platform overlooking the village below. Public announcements from that ledge could be heard by hundreds of people, and Ekaso used that place as a pulpit to proclaim the Gospel.
One day, war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea and an army camp went up in the valley along the river. Young men were conscripted and taken to this camp. Rumors spread that young men were being brutalized there and some were being killed. Communist soldiers from that camp were pillaging the valley. Ekaso became convinced that camp was an evil place. He began praying about it and, like Epaphras, he wrestled in prayer.
One day he took 2 of his colleagues to his mountain ledge and he told them, “Let us pray for God to destroy, to completely destroy the whole came today!” These 3 men were like Moses, Aaron, and Hur, praying on the mountain, wrestling in prayer. Looking down at that Communist base, they prayed against it. They called on God to show His mighty power and bring glory to Himself by removing this evil place from their valley. They prayed for the camp to be wiped out in a single day.
Ekaso lifted his arms and raised the palms of his hands and pushed. His two partners did the same, as if they were physically pushing the camp right out of existence. Finally at twilight they left the mountain, went home, and trusted God with the results.
The next morning, the men returned to the mountainside and looked across the valley. An amazing thing was happening. The camp was literally disappearing, melting before their eyes. It was just coming apart. The men didn’t know exactly what was happening, but they later learned the tide of war had turned against the government of Ethiopia, and all army units were in retreat. All the soldiers were being ordered to Addis Ababa to defend the capital. Overnight the camp was abandoned. The local residents, who hated that camp, learned what was happening and rushed to the place and began tearing it apart, walking away with doors and windows and shutters and roofing. They took cooking pots and tables and bunks. As Ekaso and his partners watched from above, the camp literally disappeared before their eyes.
The communist government in Addis Ababa collapsed. The army surrendered and the communist era came to an end in Ethiopia. Churches were reopened. The destroyed ones were rebuilt, and the Gospel spread with great power.
Prayer changes things, but we can’t simply pray gently or passively or half-heartedly. There are times when we must wrestle in prayer and gain the victory.
Conclusion: And there, my friends, is our ultimate two-fold mission in life. We are here on this planet to talk to people to God, and to talk to God about people. As we learn to do that, we will never find ourselves on a treadmill to nowhere. We’ll have a personal mission. Our lives will have meaning every day and we run the race set before us with perseverance, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.