We are called to live a life bathed in prayer and worship. This is something to persist in, persevere in, even when answers don’t come easily. We are to watch over and guard our spiritual lives, and pray also for the teaching and spreading of God’s word. We cannot do any of this on our own. We need the power of the Holy Spirit in us to live this way.
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COLOSSIANS #36. COLOSSIANS 4:2-4
After dealing with seven whole verses last time, we will turn our focus to three more verses: Colossians 4:2-4. As always, remember the context. This is part of what it means to do all things for the sake of Jesus, and in reliance upon Jesus. Chapter 3 started with the general idea: since our real life is hidden with Christ in God, focus on the things above, where Christ is, where our real life is. Then throughout chapter three, Paul began to spell out some specific scenarios, so that we could understand what that idea means in our relationships with other Christians, and then in our family relationships, and following that, in our relationships at our jobs. Now, he caps off the entire section with 4:2. The Greek uses only seven words in this verse, but four of those words are densely packed with meaning. So, I offer you my “amplified” translation. Again, I am not claiming to be a Greek scholar, but I want us to understand what this sounded like to the first people who read it:
“As to prayer and worship – in fact, your whole spiritual life – be always sticking with it, be continually persevering in it, staying awake and alive in it, guarding your spiritual life, all with thankfulness.”
I “translated” it this way so that we can see several important things that we might otherwise miss in English. First, the word for “prayer” includes more than bowing our heads and reciting words to God. It points to the entire life of worship and devotion to God, both for individuals, and for the church as a whole. So it isn’t only about “saying prayers.” It is also about worshipping God alone while you are driving, and worshipping God with other Christians while you sing with your church. It is about asking God to intervene in specific ways, and is also about keeping an informal conversation with God going at all times. It is talking about life with a Christian friend, and then praying about your concerns together before you move on. It involves reading the scriptures, and talking about God with fellow Christians, as well as those who don’t believe yet.
Second, in my translation, I make it clear (as the Greek does) that this should be an ongoing, never-ending process. This isn’t a religious duty that you do, and then you’re done. Of course, that should be obvious by now, since Paul has been applying faith to all of life. But these verbs are in the present tense, active mood, which means these are real, actual, actions that should be carried out continually. It isn’t theoretical, or abstract. It is also ongoing.
Now to a couple of the important words. The word translated by the ESV as “continue steadfastly” is the same word used in Acts 2:42, where it says “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and prayer.” The idea behind the Greek term is a that a group of people are together earnest, persevering, diligent and utterly committed to something. In other words, they didn’t just “say a prayer.” They were earnest and diligent about praying; they persisted and persevered in their prayers, even when they did not receive immediate answers. They didn’t just “listen to a sermon.” They diligently persevered in learning what Jesus said and did, and what it meant. They persisted in applying it to their lives, even when at first it didn’t feel like it made anything better.
I think this idea is very important. What we really believe as Christians is that spiritual reality is more real and important than what we call “physical” reality. I don’t mean the physical isn’t real, or that it doesn’t matter; but Christians believe the spiritual is the more powerful of the two and certainly the more lasting. That means we persist in our devotion to spiritual life even when the physical reality is whispering to us that we are stupid and silly to do so. We persist in this because it makes a difference in spiritual reality Eventually, that difference will also affect the physical realm, but even if it does not do so during our lifetimes, we trust in what we don’t see. That is what faith is: “the reality of what is hoped for; the certainty of what is not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1).
Next we have the term “being watchful.” This word is used fairly often by Jesus himself, when he teaches us to be alert and expectant about his return to earth. Peter uses it in his first letter:
8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith (1 Peter 5:8-9, ESV)
So the word means to remain awake and alert, to be diligent in guarding or watching over something. In this case, we are to be alert and diligent in watching over our spiritual life with Jesus, our life of prayer and worship, both public and private and all the time.
And we are to do this, with thankfulness. This is the seventh time Paul has mentioned gratitude in this short letter of Colossians. I think we should pay attention. Our entire spiritual life – and even the guarding of our spiritual life – should be deeply soaked in thankfulness to God. Bible scholar R.C. Lenski says:
This indicates Paul’s meaning: our great thankfulness for all that Christ has done for us and all with which he has filled us (2:9); see also 3:15, 17. He has freed us from all superstitious fears; he has placed us into the pure and happy Christian life. Cling to him in prayer and watch that nothing removes us from him and constantly thank him for all that we have in him. (Lenski’s Commentary on the New Testament, Colossians 4:2)
I have said it before, but I even need to remind myself, so I’ll remind you too: Thankfulness helps us to take hold of spiritual blessings. Sometimes we don’t know exactly how grasp the wonderful promises of God in scripture. We struggle to make them real in our life. Thanksgiving is the answer. Thanksgiving makes us like sponges, so that we can absorb the goodness that God is showering on us through Jesus Christ. Sometimes, it seems to me that we pray for things that are deeply concerning to us, and when we are done, we feel no better. I wonder if perhaps that is because we are not thanking God at the same time. Perhaps if thankfulness was a part of all our praying, we might find a greater rest for our souls through prayer.
Paul adds something interesting in verses 3-4:
At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— 4 that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (ESV, Colossians 4:3-4)
In addition to the life of prayer and worship, Paul asks Christians to pray for him, and for his ministry of declaring God’s word. I do not think that we still need to be praying for the apostle Paul. But I think we can learn a few things from these verses. First, though Paul is gone, the ministry of declaring God’s word clearly remains. I think it is still good and right and appropriate for us to pray that God’s word will be made clear all over the world. All Christians should be interested and invested the spreading of God’s word, and all of us can be involved in that through prayer.
In addition, part of that includes praying for the individuals who are called to the ministry of teaching God’s word. In fact, I ask, without embarrassment, that you include me in those prayers. God has called me to make his word known, as clearly as I can, to the best of my ability. You may have noticed that the name of my sermon blog is “Clear Bible.” That comes directly from this idea here in our text. Obviously, I am not the only person called to this – not remotely so! But as you pray for God’s word to made known all of the world, I deeply appreciate it if you include me in those prayers.
I think this also gives us a standard for the declaration of God’s word. It should be done clearly. One of the reasons I was never able to become an academic theologian is because I am impatient with the tendency of such people to make the bible more obscure, rather than clear. The Bible was not written for scholars, but for ordinary people, and the ministry of the word should help make it more clear. That doesn’t mean there is nothing complicated or difficult in the Bible, but a minister of the word should be able to help others through those parts, not make it worse.
On the other hand, I do think that those who declare God’s word should have at least some education, especially training in how to interpret the Bible, and how to communicate with people, including how to adapt your communication to the people whom you serve. I have met many preachers who have no training in these things, and frankly, in their own way, they are as bad as the overly-academic types. They don’t understand the word well enough to make it clear in all of its fullness and grace. If you have never learned about the culture of Bible times, if you know nothing of the Biblical languages, or history, or if you don’t know the basics of how to study something, you are sure to misunderstand many parts of the Bible. If you are also a preacher, you are going to pass those misunderstandings on to others. You will tend to be more easily influenced by people around you. Instead of diving deeply into God’s word, you will tend to accept and repeat whatever interpretations are most popular among your peer group, and you won’t be equipped to evaluate whether or not they are true, good and helpful.
You see why Bible teachers need prayer? It’s a big and important responsibility. Along with praying in general for God’s word to be taught clearly, and along with praying for the specific Bible-teachers in your life, I think from these verses we can see that it is important to pray for the word of God to spread all over the world. Jesus told his followers to make disciples of all nations. He gave John a heavenly vision where people from all ethnic groups would be together in heaven. In order to make those things a reality, the word has to be brought to people who have never heard it before, specifically, people in places of the world where Christianity has not yet been present.
I believe God sometimes makes concrete changes in the world through prayer; that is, in response to our prayers, he makes things happen, or stops things from happening. What an honor we have to be part of God’s work in the world! But persisting steadfastly in prayer and worship also changes the hearts of God’s people. It deepens our connection with God, and, if we do it with thankfulness, increases our peace and trust in him.
As usual, all of this seems like a tall order. It is not something we can do on our own, with our own willpower. Our failings in the life of prayer and worship should draw us back to Jesus. We need to lean in on his grace, and lean on the power of the Holy Spirit to make us into people who are devoted to prayer. We can’t do it on our own, but the power of the Lord in us can make us into the people he wants us to be.