For a fuller introduction on these ‘outro’ lists, see the last two web pages here and here where we’ve looked at the composition of them in the former and, in the latter, the explanation of what ‘greetings’ implied and what they tell us about the penal set up in which Paul found himself.
We know from Paul’s statement in Col 4:11 that all these three men mentioned here were Gentile converts rather than them being Jews. They may also have been Paul’s fellow prisoners even though none of them are stated as such here. But Paul notes Epaphras as a prisoner alongside him in Philemon 23 and such an omission in Colossians may not be sufficient to suppose that the worker was at this time free. The implication of the Philemon verse, however, seems to make out that Epaphras is the only one who was a prisoner in the list that’s being recorded there (which includes both Luke and Demas).
Apart from this, little can be said that’s not already been found in the two previous introductions mentioned above. I’ve already dealt with these three individuals on a couple of previous web pages, the most extensive of which is the introduction to the entire letter.
Epaphras is mentioned only three times in the NT (Col 1:7, 4:12, Philemon 23)and, if it’s accepted that both Colossians and Philemon were written at almost the same time, his mention is confined to just a short time period and he’s never heard of again.
I’ve dealt with the person of Epaphras on two previous web pages. In the introduction to the letter, we thought about the beginning of the Colossian fellowship and Epaphras’ ministry amongst them along with his continuing work at the neighbouring cities of Hierapolis and Laodicea. In the one previous place where Epaphras’ name occurs in Colossians (Col 1:7), we looked at the relationship of the believer to Paul and the apostolic band which stayed at Ephesus for a couple of years.
The reader should access both these pages for a fuller treatment of these subjects. In this section, we shall only briefly deal with them and add some further comments.
Epaphras was definitely a non-Jew (Col 4:11), a man who was resident in Colossae (Col 4:12) and one who was imprisoned at the same time as Paul (Philemon 23). The apostle tells us nothing about his imprisonment together with him in Colossians and, as previously noted, it hints that it wasn’t inevitable that those who were sharing incarceration would get a mention in one of Paul’s letters.
Epaphras is mentioned as being an instrument of God to the city of Colossae who either brought the message of the Gospel there or who made it possible for the believers to grow in maturity (Col 1:7-8, 4:12-13) where Paul speaks of him continuing to pray on their behalf (Col 4:12). He was probably the reason why Paul is aware that a congregation of believers existed in that city to which he’s never once recorded as having gone in the Book of Acts and to whom he declares in the letter that he has yet to visit (Col 2:1 is definitive, Col 1:4 infers it).
We also know from Acts 2:10 that some of the region’s inhabitants were among the crowd of Jews present in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost when the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit took place (Acts 2:1ff). We might conjecture that the presence of believers in the city in Paul’s day was due to the fact of that initial act of God years prior to Paul’s writing and to Epaphras’ subsequent ministry, but we have no way of knowing whether the Jews present in Jerusalem heralded from such a city.
One might have supposed that such a minister to the city would have been sent by Paul to carry the news letters to the city but it’s only in Philemon 23 that we note that Epaphras was imprisoned alongside Paul on account of the Gospel. Paul’s fellow-worker doesn’t appear in the list of travelling companions in Acts 20:4 and we may be right to assume that Epaphras’ presence with Paul at this particular time was because he’d come to visit or speak with him, had stood alongside him to minister and so got arrested.
Paul is clear in his statement that he’s never visited the church in this city and this gives us a good indication as to why so few people resident there are mentioned by name. No doubt he did meet many of them in the course of his journeys - his personal message to both Archippus (Col 4:17) and Philemon seems to presuppose this (especially Philemon 19 which appears to demand some prior personal contact) - but most of his knowledge about the church had come from the details supplied to him by Epaphras (Col 1:7-8, 4:12) who was also being used by God to edify and encourage the fellowships in Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col 4:13).
At Ephesus, Paul had remained for a period of around two years (Acts 19:10) in which time it’s recorded that
‘...all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks’
and which may be the reason for the fellowship in Colossae. Much hinges on the correct interpretation of Col 1:7 that could be read either as ‘our behalf’ (as the RSV) or ‘your behalf’. At the one point where we need a clear statement as to Epaphras’ relationship to the apostolic band, we have a variety of possible meaning which forbids us from stating anything definitive!
The manuscript evidence, however, seems to favour the rendering ‘our behalf’ which gives the reader the impression that Epaphras was one who’d been sent out by Paul during his stay in Ephesus to bring the message of the Gospel to the neighbouring cities and regions, no doubt being content to return to his own city with the message and finding success in his work through the establishing of the church there. As Paul notes in the first part of Col 1:7, the believers had learnt the Gospel
‘...from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant’
the indication being that he was first and the cause of the group of believers to whom Paul was addressing his letter (though we can’t go so far as to say that he was the first individual to ever have brought the message of the Gospel to this region). Epaphras’ work, however, wasn’t confined solely to his home city but, as Paul notes (Col 4:13)
‘...he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis’
these last two cities forming a group of three which may have merged into one large semi-independent region which still retained their individual identity as cities in their own right but which were often grouped together as one settlement. Epaphras, therefore, seems to have been God’s worker in the Lycus and Maeander valleys, sent out by Paul while preaching the Gospel for over two years in Ephesus.
Even though separated from the fellowships for which he was caring, Epaphras is still anxious for their well-being and edification. Perhaps this was the reason why the letter to the Colossians was primarily written for, being in prison with the apostle, he turned his attention to request that something be sent to them to establish them more fully in the truth of the Gospel while he was absent from them and, as Paul was probably well-known even in Colossae, it seemed right for the letter to be written by him to the fellowship.
Besides, Paul had some other business to do with Philemon in attempting a reconciliation between himself and his runaway slave, Onesimus (Philemon). As I noted in the introduction, this latter reason may have been the original explanation of why Paul also included letters to both Laodicea and Colossae along with the note sent to the fellow believer, rather than for us to think that the letter to the fellowship came first.
Whichever was primary, Epaphras could possibly have encouraged the apostle to write and his care for his fellow believers back in his home city is evidenced by Paul’s observations in Col 4:12 that he always remembered them
‘...earnestly in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God’
It wasn’t ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for Epaphras but, even in prison, he continued to bring their spiritual welfare to remembrance before God the Father that, when he returned, he would find that they’d moved on in their relationship with Christ. Paul and Timothy had also engaged in prayer (Col 1:9) from the moment that they’d heard of the reception of the message of the Gospel.
The content of his prayers is that they might become ‘perfect’, an identical word used to that which occurs in Col 1:28 where Paul reveals his own desire that he might (my italics)
‘...present every man mature in Christ’
(see my notes here in the section entitled ‘The Goal’ for an explanation of the word). To summarise, it means that the worker wants them to come to wholeness and to find themselves fulfilled in all that the promises of God point towards. Epaphras’ other desire is that they might be (my italics)
‘...fully assured in all the will of God’
where the italicised words are probably better translated ‘filled’ (as Colcar and Colbrien). This also echoes the desire of Paul and Timothy in Col 1:9 where they comment that they pray for the believers that they might be
‘...filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding’
(see my notes here in the section entitled ‘Filled’ for an explanation of this concept). The importance of being filled with God’s will is, of course, that the believer might do it - where the idea may be less of a specific word for an occasion but that the believer might know what God requires of them even when no such ‘word’ comes to them. It speaks, therefore, of a life that’s set to be pleasing to God in all things.
The worker, then, had the same desire for the fellowships in the Lycus valley as the apostle also had - that they might grow into the fulness of Christ and to know and do the will of God for their own lives.
The apostle must have had some first hand knowledge of Epaphras’ work for he bears witness to this fact in Col 4:13 where he brings all three of the cities together in one statement that sees Epaphras as a fervent worker in each of them. Perhaps the reports of his work had reached Paul’s ears long before he’d ever met the returning worker, for it seems more than unlikely that he could have demonstrated his zeal practically in the area in which they now both found themselves. Colbruce, however, announces that
‘Praying is working...’
and goes on to note that the mention of Epaphras’ working on behalf of the three churches was caught up with his praying while he was present with Paul. Although we might think that prayer was a continuation of what he was doing in those cities, it seems a little tenuous to link only his prayers with the evidence that Paul now affirms as proving that he’s working hard for them all.
One final note needs to be made about the Greek word lying behind the RSV’s translation ‘worked’ in Col 4:13 (Strongs Greek number 4192) and which is intensified by the presence of the other word translated ‘hard’. The AV has the word more commonly associated with ‘zeal’ at this point (Strongs Greek number 2205).
The word only occurs in three other places in the NT and each of them in the Book of Revelation. The RSV translates them as ‘anguish’ (Rev 16:10) and ‘pain’ twice (Rev 16:11, 21:4) and it should be noted that what’s being conveyed here isn’t something which is necessarily acceptable to the body’s limits but goes beyond the more natural boundaries.
When Paul uses it in Colossians of Epaphras, therefore, he isn’t thinking that, somehow, his fellow prisoner has done all those things within his power and left it at that, but that he’s gone beyond the expected to put himself into a position where he either has personal pain or anguish for their own fellowship and for those in both Laodicea and Hierapolis. Colbrien notes that the word was a common one for
‘...struggle in battle...’
and there is, perhaps, a fair degree of that word-picture meant to be understood by its use.
This section has contained a great many ‘perhaps’ and ‘possiblys’ but, unfortunately, we have scant information about Epaphras to be able to state with a great amount of certainty what it was that he was doing both with Paul and in the cities of the Lycus valley.
The ‘Luke’ mentioned in Paul’s letters is generally accepted as being the author of both the Gospel which bears his name and the follow-up work called ‘Acts’ (this seems to have been established in the churches only by the second century, however). Perhaps, though, the break in the midst of the two was simply because the length of a scroll in those days would have made the commitment of both works into one to have been impractical - the reader may feel that the last observation is rather flippant but ease of transportation must have been a serious consideration for the writer. It could even have been from the practicality that one scroll was more expensive than two individual scrolls which equalled the same length - perhaps, even, Luke wanted his recipient, Theophilus (Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1), to have something to begin to read while he prepared the second volume.
For all of Luke’s importance, there’s only three specific references to him in the NT (Col 4:14, II Tim 4:11, Philemon 24). Indeed, so ‘important’ has his name become to the present day believer that we should stop for a moment and remind ourselves that we have more direct information about Epaphras and his work than we do about Luke.
Paul calls Luke a ‘fellow worker’ in Philemon 24 and places him alongside three other individuals and, in II Tim 4:11, Paul seems to write with some sadness that
‘Luke alone is with me’
though it may be that Paul is only conveying to Timothy the whereabouts of those believers that he would have been interested to know about. It would appear, therefore, that the group of people which had been so close at the time of writing of both Colossians and Philemon had been subsequently broken up through both calling and backsliding (though this might be too strong a word - see below) so that the mention of their whereabouts remained important. If Luke really was the only one present with Paul and not just the only one from the fellow workers that Timothy knew, then Luke may well have been functioning as Paul’s amanuensis in the writing of II Timothy.
Allusions to Luke’s presence amongst Paul’s apostolic band seems clear from passages such as Acts 16:10 (my italics) where we read that
‘...immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them’
the first place where such an observation is made. Just two verses prior to this in Acts 16:8 (my italics), Luke writes that
‘...they went down to Troas’
and we might suppose that Luke was a resident of this city (that they were still in Troas is proved by Acts 16:11 where they set sail from there to be obedient to the vision) for it was here that Paul receives the vision of the man of Macedonia (one commentator - who I refuse to mention - actually believes that the ‘man’ was none other than Luke himself. How he could have been a ‘vision’, I have no idea) and, from there, Luke seems to include himself in the travelling group of believers. Such an assertion about Luke’s residency is purely fanciful, of course, but it provides the basis for a decent enough theory if held very loosely.
The only other piece of information that we might glean about Luke is that he was a ‘physician’ (Col 4:14), a translation of a Greek word (Strongs Greek number 2395) that’s used only seven times in the NT (Mtw 9:12, Mark 2:17, 5:26, Luke 4:23, 5:31, 8:43 [AV only], Col 4:14) and always literally in its six occurrences outside Paul’s one use of it. Luke uses it himself three times in his Gospel which may be significant seeing as he was also labelled as being one who was recognised as such. We may deduce from the generally accepted omission of the word for ‘physician’ in Luke 8:43 as being not part of the original that he was still concerned not to overly undermine his profession for it would have been the only place where he could have used it negatively! This would be reading too much into the text, however.
Colbrien notes that, because of the mention of Luke as ‘physician’ here, some have understood it to mean that he was
‘...Paul’s doctor during his imprisonment’
but this, although fanciful, is unprovable. We could just as well suggest that his mention as ‘physician’ was more tongue-in-cheek than literal and that he was better renowned as one through whom God would heal - hence his nickname.
The name of Demas (an abridged form of a much longer name, according to Colbruce) only ever occurs in lists of names alongside Luke (and vice versa) and, even then, the information we have on this individual is rather scanty (Col 4:14, II Tim 4:10, Philemon 24). In the first and third of these, Demas is simply mentioned as sending his greetings to the recipients of the letter with the appendage that he’s considered to be a ‘fellow worker’.
The significant passage for Demas is II Tim 4:10 where, urging Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, he seems to give the reason that
‘...Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica...’
a point of importance also to Timothy who’s mentioned as the co-writer of both the letters to Colossae and Philemon at the very beginning (Col 1:1, Philemon 1). This observation seems to be written, in time, after both the first two references to him and there’s never a note by Paul that anything transpired at an even later date which saw him return to service to Paul.
I’ve stopped short of saying that Demas ‘backslid’ because the sentence is open to more than one interpretation. I once heard a preacher state with certainty that the worker had gone to Thessalonica because that was where the girls were ‘hot’ and that he’d turned his back on the way of Christ to seek some earthly pleasure. This is going far too far, of course, and Colbruce is perhaps best following here who summarises his desertion as implying that
‘...some temporal interest took him off at a time when the imprisoned apostle would have valued his continued presence’
In other words, we might assume that he had farms to care for, business interests to secure or just a family that he hadn’t seen in a long time and that he wanted to get back to - the apostle’s words don’t have to imply that Demas took a good look at the world and decided that it held more for him than the way of Christ.
It could mean that earthly interests were conflicting with his service of Paul and he chose to return to his ‘home’ fellowship so that he could deal with them. Timguth (opposed to Timou) notes that there is
‘...nothing to suggest that Demas became an apostate, although there was a later tradition to this effect’
Even so, that Paul speaks of Demas deserting him surely means something which was against what he’d envisaged so that he felt somewhat abandoned in his imprisonment. It’s the same Greek word which Mark uses in his Gospel (Strongs Greek number 1459) to translate Jesus’ question on the cross as to why the Father had forsaken Him (Mark 15:34) and we shouldn’t think of an amicable split but of something which had caused Paul some pain.
Apart from these few, short observations, little can be said about Demas. Some commentators who tend towards the belief that once a man or woman is saved, they can’t walk out on Christ and turn their back on salvation, assert that there’s good evidence to suggest that Demas wasn’t ever a true believer in the first place, but such assertions are purely fanciful - especially when the theory has to be built up on three short verses of Scripture.
Rather, the mention of Demas and his departure to Thessalonica should underline the fact that the letters - although doctrinal in content - were very personal notes from one to another and not lifeless and detached as many would like to make out. Paul was personally involved in those peoples’ lives who were around him and he felt the pain and joy when circumstances unfolded.
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