A Biography of Humility

Like many people, I enjoy reading memoirs and biographies. It’s entertaining to learn what went on behind the scenes of a favorite movie or TV show, to delve into a criminal’s mind, or to investigate what made great men and women of history tick. Whether singers, actors, politicians, serial killers, war heroes, or survivors, subjects of biographies generally have one thing in common—significance. In some way every biography shows us how great someone was or how great a thing they did. Perhaps they used their greatness negatively, but they still did something worth writing about.

The Bible contains several pretty substantial biographies. We can read many details about the lives of men like Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, or David. Of course, even the lives of these “great” men are given to point us to the real Hero, Christ Himself. However, more often, we run across a character about whom we learn just a few sparse details. Their immortal legacy is incapsulated in the most fleeting of references. For instance, Euodia and Syntyche will forever be known as the gals in Philippi who just couldn’t get along (Phil. 4:2). Just about all we know of Enoch is that he walked with God and then suddenly “was not, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24). When we think of Demas, we think automatically of his forsaking Paul because he loved this present world (2 Tim. 4:10). And then there’s Epaphras, a man remembered for greatness that bears no resemblance to that of Caesar, Churchill, Lincoln, or Madonna; he was merely a humble servant of his Savior, living out what Jesus defines as true greatness (Mark 9:34-35).

We meet Epaphras in the opening verses of Paul’s epistle to the Colossians (1:7-8). Paul drops his name again at the end of the epistle (4:12), and one more time as he closes his letter to Philemon (v. 23). From these verses we can glean just a little about Epaphras’ life. We know that he was from Colossae and was a member of Paul’s mission team. He went home to plant the church in his hometown, as well as the one in Laodicea. Also, we find out in Philemon that he was imprisoned for the Gospel along with Paul. We’re given no details about his family, conversion story, education, social status, or talents. However, we are clued into a few aspects of his life that the Holy Spirit deemed more significant than the usual biographical tidbits.

Slave of Christ

In the just four verses that mention Epaphras by name, he is called a “slave” twice. First, Paul calls him a “fellow-bondservant” [servant should rightly be translated slave] (1:7) and then a “bond-slave of Jesus Christ” (4:12). Of course, this is a term that is shaded in our American minds because of our nation’s putrid practice of slave-owning. However, first-century slavery was a bit different. Here is a quotation from theologian Murray Harris:
               “In the first century, slaves were not distinguishable from free persons by race, by speech or by clothing; they were sometimes more highly educated than their owners and held responsible professional positions; some persons sold themselves into slavery for economic or social advantage; they could reasonably hope to be emancipated after ten to twenty years of service or by their thirties at the latest; they were not denied the right of public assembly and were not socially segregated (at least in the cities); they could accumulate savings to buy their freedom; their natural inferiority was not assumed.”[1]

Still, to be free was generally preferable to being owned by another human being. Therefore, to identify as a slave of Christ was to volitionally place oneself in the ownership and unmitigated service of another. John MacArthur puts it this way: “He [Christ] is the Master and Owner. We are His possession. He is the King, the Lord, and the Son of God. We are His subjects and His subordinates.”[2] He goes on to say, “True Christianity is not about adding Jesus to my life. Instead it is about devoting myself completely to Him—submitting wholly to His will and seeking to please Him above all else. It demands dying to self and following the Master, no matter the cost.” [3]

This is the reputation of Epaphras. Perhaps he would have said it of himself, but what is recorded for us is it being said about him. This wasn’t merely his aspiration or modesty; it was his reputation. Paul, also known by this moniker, sees Epaphras as one who had completely devoted himself to the Master, who submitted his will entirely to Christ, and sought to please Him above all else. Just as history doesn’t record the biographies of many slaves who loyally served their master, so the Bible tells us very little about this bond-slave. We know more about the churches he started than the one who started them. He was willing to lose his life to find it in Christ, his Master. Generally, we stand behind the title Christian with pride, but are we willing, like Epaphras or Paul, to take on the title slave and check all of our pride at the door?  

Prayer Laborer

Another component of Epaphras’ legacy is that he “labored earnestly in prayer” for the Colossians. As you may guess, “laboring earnestly” was not just a “God bless the Colossians”-type prayer. To “labor earnestly” is the same word used for contending at the public games.[4] The Olympics are not something that you sign up for and then participate in just to a get a t-shirt. No, athletes train for copious hours every day for years in preparation for their contest. It is grueling work, regardless of the sport. This is how Paul described Epaphras’ prayers for the Colossian church. He fought for them in prayer. I have no idea how long he prayed every day, but it got Paul’s attention—and that’s saying something. After all, Paul did a lot of praying!

I think we all want the reputation of prayer warrior, but prayer is hard work. We really have to labor to stay focused and pray with biblical specificity for other people and situations. And it’s certainly no cupcake to do it for prolonged periods of time. Fatigue, nagging schedules, needy people, and (gulp!) technology all beckon us away from the throne room. So how can we grow in this area? Three quick thoughts:

  1. Pray—Just do it. There’s no substitute for prayer but prayer.
  2. Pray Scripture—Look at the prayers of Paul or even the requests of Epaphras in Col. 4:12. Or pick a verse (or phrase from a verse) that you want to see lived out in another’s life; then pray it.
  3. Pray consistently. Maybe you don’t have hours to devote every day to prayer. But you probably do have some time that you can consistently redeem. Maybe while showering, exercising, doing dishes, commuting to work, mowing the lawn, raking leaves, shoveling snow, or folding clothes you can devote yourself to prayer.[5]

Servant

At this point, you’re scrolling up to the beginning, because you’re pretty sure I already talked about this one. Not quite. Paul calls Epaphras both a slave (doulos) and a servant (diakonos). While the first one refers to his attitude before Christ, I believe this other term describes his attitude toward other people. Epaphras served Paul by taking the Gospel to places he couldn’t go and reporting back. He served the church through his ministry of the Word and through prayer. Though Scripture doesn’t explicitly say it, I’d be willing to bet my socks that he served in other, far less public, ways as well.

Let’s face it, servanthood isn’t glamorous. Frankly, it’s anything but. Servanthood means being willing to be treated like a servant. It means doing thankless jobs literally without being thanked—and being okay with it. It means serving faithfully where you’re needed even though you don’t really love it. It means being inconvenienced and helping someone else when you’d rather veg out on the couch and watch Netflix. It means letting someone else have the spotlight when you did most of the work. It means forfeiting your own reputation. It means letting someone else make a decision—or maybe making a decision when no one else will! It means cleaning up a mess you didn’t make or solving a problem you didn’t create. It means sitting in silence with someone who doesn’t have words but needs your presence. It means having the mind of Christ who did not regard equality with God something to be grasped but made himself of no reputation and took upon Himself the form a servant and was made in the likeness of men. And being found in the appearance of a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. No, servanthood certainly isn’t glamorous, but it is one of the most tangible ways that we can, like Epaphras, imitate Christ.

He didn’t invent the lightbulb, star in a blockbuster movie, invade Poland, or rule the free world; yet Epaphras has a most enviable, albeit brief, biography—a biography of humility.


[1] Quoted by Justin Taylor, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/some-differences-between-first-century-slavery-and-modern-slavery/; accessed Sept 5, 2019.

[2] John MacArthur, Slave, pg 15

[3] Ibid, pg 22

[4] Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary, “ agonizomai,” pg. 78.

[5] There are lots of resources for prayer out there. My favorite is called A Praying Life by Paul Miller. You can find it on Amazon here.

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