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Epaphras, the Home Missioner
We often think of Christian missionaries as people who have been chosen to go and live in a distant country. There, they learn the local language, tell the people about Jesus and help them in many ways, preaching, improving health by building and servicing hospitals, or educate by building schools, teaching children, and then training local people to take over these services.
The word 'mission':
- This word is now used in non-Christian ways, especially in business, when the 'mission' of an organisation means that it chooses and sets out its aims.
- In terms of time, this word, as applied to missionaries, is not old. It was first coined in 1598 when a group of a Roman Catholic order called Jesuits, sent some of its members out to other countries. Forms of the Latin word 'missio' were used to describe the act of sending.
- Forms of missio were used in the Latin translation of the Bible to describe the time when Jesus sent his disciples out to preach and heal in his name.
After Jesus' death and resurrection, he appear to his disciples and told them to wait until something special would happen. That was the coming of the Holy Spirit and it occurred at Pentecost (Acts 2). Many people who attended that Pentecost in Jerusalem travelled long distances to join the celebration. After witnessing that amazing event, they went home to tell everyone about it. Just before his ascension, Jesus appeared and commanded his followers to 'go and make disciples of all nations' (Matt. 28.19). From this time, those timid, frightened people, received strength and courage from the Holy Spirit to go and spread the Good News by preaching, teaching and healing. As they obeyed, Christian missionary activity expanded and continues to do so as followers, even today, obey that Great Commission.
Paul, the Missionary
As Christianity spread in those early days, a young Jewish zealot, then named Saul, contributed to the dispersal of Christians by obtaining authority to have them thrown into prison or killed, so many left the area to escape persecution. Later, after his conversion, his name was changed to Paul and he worked even more enthusiastically, growing a team to spread Christianity into many surrounding countries.
In an area known then as Asia Minor, one of those countries was Phrygia and it was part of what we know today as Turkey. Some of the people who became Christians had their homes in the smallish town of Colossae in Phrygia, and formed Christian communities that met in homes there. One of Paul's friends was known as Epaphras.
More about Colossae
- Colossae was about 180 km east of Ephesus, and southeast of Laodicea. In the fourth century BC, Colossae had been one of six large cities of Phrygia; it was mainly populated by people of Greek and Hebrew origin. Centuries before, a Greek king, Antiochus the Great, had relocated to Colossae two thousand Jewish families from Babylonia and Mesopotamia, as well as people of other ethnic and cultural groups.
- Colossae became a busy trade centre, especially for wool processing and transport as it was located on a tributary of the Meander River, the Lycus, and also because it was near an important military and commercial route from Ephesus to the Euphrates. However, by the time of Paul and Epaphras, it had become reduced in importance.
At Last We Meet Epaphras
Eventually Paul and some of his team were apprehended as Christians and thrown into prison.This happened several times. While Paul was in prison in Rome for the final time before he was killed, he wrote a number of letters. Two of those preserved for us in the New Testament were addressed to the Christians in Colossae. There was a general one to the Christian church there, 'The Letter of Paul to the Colossians,' and a private one, The Letter of Paul to Philemon. Both of these mention Epaphras:
In Colossians 1, Paul wrote that he had been thanking God ever since he had heard how they came to faith in Jesus when they learned about him from Epaphras. Paul referred to him as a 'beloved fellow servant' and praised Epaphras as a 'faithful minister of Christ' (Col.1.7). In his final greetings, Paul mentions that Epaphras also sends his greetings as 'one of you' (4.12), so we deduct that Epaphras was a Colossian. In this part of his letter, Paul again refers to Epaphras as a 'servant of Christ Jesus', adding that he is always struggling for the Colossians in prayer. Paul acknowledges how hard Epaphras has worked in the cities of Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis, a city north of Laodicea.
In his letter to Philemon, Paul mentions greetings from Epaphras, who is a fellow prisoner of Paul (23) and Philemon's fellow Colossian. We do not know how Epaphras came to be in prison with Paul, but we do know from the other letter that he spent much time there in prayer.
More about Epaphras
Some Bible scholars suggest that this name was a friendly, joking abbreviation of his full name, Epaphraproditus, whom Paul mentions twice in The Letter of Paul to the Philippians. If that is so, the full name suggests the meaning of his being surrounded by beauty, while the abbreviated version suggests that he foams at the mouth!
Perhaps both were true, as he emanated the beautiful love of Jesus to those around him, and preached and prayed so hard that he foamed at the mouth!
Epaphras, the Home Missioner
Although the word 'Missioner' denotes that the person has been sent, from the earliest times of Christian missionaries, there were some who were chosen to stay at or near home to share their faith and love of Jesus there.
Epaphras was one such man. We don't know a lot about him, but, as we have seen, he was mentioned by Paul and was known by his preaching and praying in his hometown and nearby cities. We have learnt that it was Epaphras who took the gospel message to the three cities of the Lycus Valley, that is, to Colossae, to Laodicea, and to Hierapolis.
Both of Paul's letters to Colossae were written at about the same time, 62 AD, and probably carried and delivered at the same time by the one carrier, our old friend Tichicus. He was accompanied by Onesimus, who had been a servant of Philemon, had become a Christian and had been helping Paul in prison. Now Paul was sending him back to his former master to work with him as a brother in Christ.
We Christians cannot all be missionaries working in distant lands, but we can still obey that Great Commission by being Home Missioners and carrying the Good News of Jesus' love to those around us, praying for them and caring for them.
We Christians cannot all be missionaries, living and working in distant lands, but we can still obey that Great Commission of Jesus. Like Epaphras, we can be Home Missioners, obeying the Law that Jesus gave:
'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your mind...and your neighbour as yourself' (Matt. 22.37-39).
We do that when we share the Good News of Jesus' love with those around us, praying for them and caring for them.