Robert Rendall, Orkney
Paul illuminates his Epistles with thumbnail sketches of his fellow-servants, each with individual excellencies of spiritual character. Their service for the most part is directed toward the welfare of the saints in their assembly life. Such a one was Epaphras, whose ministry was largely, though not exclusively, among the believers at Colosse. Like others, he was a gift bestowed by the risen Christ, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit fulfilled his ministry there, both in the preaching of the gospel and in fervent prayers for the building up of the church. What little we are told concerning him reveals the man. Paul describes him under five brief epithets in his Epistle to the Colossians.
1. “Our dear fellowservant”, I. 7. With customary grace and courtesy Paul seeks to avoid standing in isolation from others, and here associates Epaphras with himself in the service of Christ. Elsewhere he only uses this term “fellowservant” of his beloved Tychicus, Col. 4. 7. The association must therefore have been a close one. A bond of affection linked their hearts together in the work of the Lord. Dear to Christ, they were also dear to each other. For Paul’s sturdy habit of intellect did not preclude him from tenderness of heart and sensitive feeling. Strength and gentleness often go together. It is weakness that is sometimes cruel.
Their association in service looked back to a fruitful period in Paul’s ministry. He had spent three years in Ephesus, Acts 20. 31, but during this time had not visited Colosse; cf. Col. 2. 1; implied also by “heard” rather than “remembered” in Col. 1.4. Nevertheless, Acts 19.10 informs us that “all they which dwell in Asia heard the word”. And Colossians 1. 7 plainly says that it was from Epaphras that they of Colosse had been instructed in the truth of the gospel. Hence his ministry there was evidently a local extension of Paul’s in the province. Paul’s converts habitually carried on the torch, 1 Thess. 1. 8.
2. “ A faithful minister of Christ”, 1. 7. The word “minister” here is “deacon” and must be distinguished from other cognate words in the New Testament also translated “servant” or “minister”. See Vine’s Expository Dictionary, where the various distinctions are listed. Among other things he says.,“diakonos views a servant in relation to his work; doulos views him in relationship to his master”. The New English Bible therefore renders our epithet as “a trusted worker for Christ”., thus bringing into view the essential meaning of diakonos and abandoning a term associated with later ecclesiastical use.
For the word “deacon” in itself is a common noun, describing secular service (e.g., Luke 10. 40), and not., except in context, an ecclesiastical title. Grimm’s Lexicon defines diakoneo as “domestic service., waiting at table., offering food and drink to guests., supplying the necessaries of life, to attend to what may serve another’s interests”, and while quoting 1 Timothy 3. 10-13 and 1 Peter 4. 11 as “serve as deacons in Christian churches” cautiously adds, “Many take this in a general rather than an official sense”.
In the New Testament the word denotes a work rather than an office. In Romans 11. 13 the word “office” in the A.v. is rightly replaced in the R.v. with “ministry”. And Wm. Hoste, commenting on the phrase “use the office of a deacon” in 1 Timothy 3. 10, observes, “These six words represent one word in the original translated ‘serve’ “Let them serve”, R.V.
But this having been said, it must also be recognised that “there are differences of administration”, 1 Cor. 12. 5. All believers alike are deacons of Christ, but all are not so in the same sphere. The diversity is seen in Acts 6. Seven were chosen to “serve” tables, but the apostles were to give themselves to the “ministry” of the word. The terms are the same in both instances.
Although his service may be rendered toward the Lord’s people in a local church, the worker himself belongs to Christ. Epaphras was a faithful deacon of Christ. Note also the use of the indefinite article, as of one among many. Similarly, Timothy is called “a minister of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ”. Yet we can thank God that many who take the place exclusively of “the” minister of a given congregation are also, despite this, deacons of Jesus Christ, and that He acknowledges their faithful work. We, too, can rejoice in their “work”, although there is no scriptural sanction at all for their “office”. Conversely, not all who pride themselves on a non-clerical position are necessarily thereby faithful deacons of Christ.
3. “Epaphras, who is one of you”, 4. 12. Like Onesimus, Col. 4. 9, he belonged to Colosse. Though he reached out in his service, he was basically, like so many even today, “a local brother”, fulfilling his ministry in his own home town and immediate surroundings. Let not such feel that they are less truly the servants of the Lord than those who are, in a phrase commonly used, “out in the work”.
4. “A bondservant of Christ Jesus”, 4.12 R.v. marg. Lightfoot draws attention to the fact that, except once also of Timothy, Phil. 1. 1, Paul does not confer this title (which he uses several times of himself) on any other individual than Epaphras, and observes, “This probably points to exceptional services in the cause of the gospel on the part of Epaphras”. It certainly denotes wholehearted devotion and allegiance to Christ. Only by such willing bond-service can an unrepayable debt of love be met. The title has its obverse: “Become not bondservants of men”, 1 Cor. 7. 23 r.v.
5. “Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus”, Philemon 23 r.v. The cause of his imprisonment is not stated, but it was in the cause of Christ, and in fellowship with Paul. Was it in such circumstances that Paul could bear witness to the zeal of Epaphras for the church at Colosse, and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis, by his fervent prayers on their behalf? For he laboured (wrestled) in prayer for them continually, with one aim namely, their perfection in all the will of God, Col. 4. 12. Even in prison, Paul was not cut off from the fellowship of saints.