Date: April 7, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Colossians 4:2–4:6
There are many aspects of Christianity that are considered out of step with the world today. Christianity, for example, is exclusive – the Bible declares that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ. Christianity is absolute – the Scriptures claim to be not only true, but absolutely true for all people in all places. And Christianity is comprehensive – the Bible claims authority over every aspect of human life. In each of these ways, Christianity is supposedly out of step. Our relativistic, individualized world has no use for the exclusive, absolute, and comprehensive worldview of Christianity.
But there is another way in which Christianity is out of step with the world, and it’s one that is increasingly controversial. Christianity is, by definition, evangelistic. Ours is a converting faith, an outward-looking faith that aims to see people brought from unbelief to saving faith in Christ. Think of the Lord Jesus’ final instructions to the church – “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” That’s a call to mission. What’s more, the entire history of the church – from Pentecost down through the modern mission movement – is arguably the history of gospel advance. Christianity is inescapably evangelistic.
And in the world’s eyes, this is unacceptable. Our culture will tolerate nearly any idea, but it will increasingly not tolerate the notion of Christian conversion. Even that word conversion strikes against our modern sensibilities. Why would anyone need to change their worldview, since all that matters is what works for you? Furthermore, why would any group be so audacious as to claim that their faith is the one to which other people ought to convert? It’s nearly unthinkable in the world’s mind that there would be such a thing as evangelism.
As Christians, that leaves us in the midst of two realities. On the one hand, we cannot deny the evangelistic nature of our faith. We confess that Jesus is Lord, and therefore, we are called to proclaim his lordship to the world. But on the other hand, we also cannot deny that the world we live in is increasingly hostile to that conviction. To put it bluntly, the world doesn’t want to be evangelized. To quote Francis Schaeffer – “How should we then live?” How can we, as Christians, be faithful to our calling in the midst of an unbelieving world?
Our passage today provides clear, helpful instruction on precisely this question. Here in Colossians 4, Paul teaches us what it looks like to pursue gospel mission in the context of an unbelieving world. You can see this emphasis quite clearly in the text. Notice v4, where Paul talks about declaring the mystery of God. That’s the language of mission and evangelism. And then notice v5, where Paul instructs the Colossians on how to live among outsiders. That’s language that takes seriously our context in an unbelieving world. This is the kindness of God to us. Paul wrote this letter some 2,000 years ago, and yet, in the Lord’s wisdom, this text gives us the very insight we need to face our world with faithfulness to Christ. It’s true our world finds evangelism unacceptable, but God is not surprised. Here in his Word, he equips us with what we need to live faithfully.
In the flow of the letter, this passage is something of a climax to Paul’s teaching. He began in chapter 1 by declaring the supremacy of Christ – how he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. Then in chapter 2, Paul applied the supremacy of Christ to the claims of the false teachers, showing the Colossians how they must not be taken captive by empty philosophy and human tradition. Chapter 3 focused on the supremacy of Christ in our daily lives – how we must put sin to death and put on godliness in community with one another. And now, here in chapter 4, Paul turns his focus outward – to the world and how the gospel of Christ must continue to spread out from the church. Contrary to what we might assume, these verses are not simply tacked on at the end of the letter. No, this passage is essential to Paul’s purpose in writing. The gospel declares that Christ is supreme, and the gospel, then, calls us to proclaim that supremacy to a lost world in need of Christ.
In terms of an outline, we’re going to consider three ways the supremacy of Christ calls us to live in the midst of an unbelieving world. The Supremacy of Christ calls us to Pray Steadfastly – that’s v2. The Supremacy of Christ calls us to Minister Humbly – that’s vv3-4. And the Supremacy of Christ calls to us to Live Wisely – that’s vv5-6. Let’s look at each one more closely, beginning with the call to Pray Steadfastly.
The command in v2 comes quickly. Notice again what Paul writes – “Continue steadfastly in prayer.” The idea here is persistence. It’s not that believers are to pray literally every minute of the day. Rather, the point is that believers should persistently pray with a persevering spirit. If you think about the life of the early church in Acts, you’ll find a good example of this kind of prayer. In Acts 1, Luke tells us that the apostles were all together, and they devoted themselves to prayer. They persistently sought the Lord’s will together. Or, if you think about Paul’s instructions on the Christian life in Romans 12, you’ll find the apostle telling believers to be “constant in prayer.” That’s the emphasis here. It’s not so much intensity, but consistency and steadfastness. Christians ought to be people marked by a persistent prayer.
And if you think about what prayer is, then the call for persistence is fitting. At its heart, prayer is an expression of devotion to and dependence on God. When we pray, we demonstrate that our lives are not fundamentally oriented toward ourselves, but towards God. It’s actually a striking testimony if you think about it. The act of prayer is the confession that we do not belong to ourselves. We do not live solely for ourselves. We belong to God, and we live for the will of the One who made us and redeemed in Christ. Prayer, then, makes visible that devotion that defines us as believers.
What’s more, prayer also demonstrates our dependence on God. We are not self-sustaining creatures. We may pretend we’re self-sufficient, but deep down, we all know that’s not true. We are dependent beings – dependent on God, in fact, for life, health, and breath. And when we pray, we make that dependence visible, both to ourselves and to the world. Prayer is the confession that above all else, we need God.
And this is why prayer is so central to the Christian life. This is why Paul calls us to steadfast prayer in v2. It’s because prayer is connected with our witness before the watching world. A prayerful person is a God-oriented person. Or, to use the language of Colossians, a prayerful person is someone who displays, day-by-day, the supremacy of Christ. We pray to the Lord because we confess that in him – not in ourselves! – in him, all things hold together. We are pray steadfastly because it expresses our devotion to and our dependence on God.
But Paul continues in v2 and further clarifies the need for steadfast prayer. Notice what else he writes, v2 – “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” Here the idea is vigilance, to be alert for something. The apostle Peter uses the same language in 1 Peter 5 when he exhorts believers to be watchful against the evil one who prowls around like a roaring lion. That’s a good image. If you knew that a mortal threat lurked outside your front door, you would live differently, wouldn’t you? You’d be checking the windows, locking the doors, keep a close watch outside. You’d be vigilant. And that is Paul’s point in v2. Prayer is God’s means of cultivating vigilance in these last days. The Lord Jesus is returning very soon, the evil one prowls around, and we want to be found faithful. We want to remain true to Christ, and part of how we do that is through steadfast, persistent prayer.
Paul is reshaping our view of prayer at this point. He’s reminding us that prayer is more than making our requests known to God. Now, to be sure, prayer is not less than that. God delights to hear his children when they pray, so we should never shy away from bringing our needs before our Father in heaven. I want you to hear me on that, brothers and sisters. If you belong to Christ, then the Father gladly welcomes you into his presence, and he delights to receive your requests. He is a good Father who gives good gifts to his children, and prayer is one of those good gifts. So we should never think of prayer as less than making our needs known to God.
But at the same time, we should also recognize that prayer is much more than making our needs known. Prayer not only reveals my heart to God, but it also binds my heart to God. Prayer actually strengthens us in the faith. How so, you ask? By focusing our attention on God and by reminding us of his faithfulness to us.
In fact, this is why Paul tells the Colossians to be watchful with thanksgiving. Did you catch that at the end of v2? Thanksgiving kind of sneaks in there, but it’s more than an afterthought. Thanksgiving is a response to God’s faithfulness in the past, and it is a confident expectation of God’s faithfulness in the future. Again, catch Paul’s point. Why should we devote ourselves to watchful, thankful prayer? Because in God’s kindness, this is one of his means to strengthen us in the faith, so that we might live faithfully in the world for the glory of Christ.
Before we go on, I hope you see the encouragement from this verse on how we can grow in prayer. I would say that many Christians feel badly about their prayer life. Perhaps that’s true of you this morning. Perhaps there is a sense of guilt that you don’t pray enough, or that you don’t pray the right way. I understand that thinking because I often experience it myself! But what I hope you’re hearing at this point is that the way to grow is actually to focus less on yourself and more on who God is in Christ. I would contend that the most prayerful people you know also happen to be the people who have the biggest vision of God. Their steadfastness in prayer is telling you less about them and more about their view of God. They’re not persistent in prayer because they are strong. No, it’s the opposite. They are persistent in prayer because they know God is strong, and they need his strength to endure. Do you see how it works? We grow in prayer as our view of God grows larger according to God’s Word.
Perhaps it seems counterintuitive to say so, but if you want to grow in prayer, think less about yourself – how you need to change, how you need to grow – and think more about who God is in Christ. As your view of God grows larger, your heart won’t be able to help but respond in persistent, steadfast prayer.
As we continue on in the text, we find the second way the supremacy of Christ calls us to live in an unbelieving world. Christ’s supremacy calls us to Minister Humbly. Now, you’ll notice that prayer remains Paul’s focus. You can see that in v3. Notice how v3 flows right from v2 – “At the same time, pray also for us.” The call to prayer is not solely for the Colossians’ sake. Paul also needs their prayer, and he asks them to pray on his behalf.
Don’t miss that. Paul views the Colossians as vital partners in ministry. The Colossians actually share in Paul’s work by laboring for him in prayer. This is the point of referring to the church as the body of Christ. None of us is a member to ourselves. None of us is a minister to ourselves. We belong to Christ together, and therefore, we also belong to one another. We share in each other’s joys and sorrows, and we share in each other’s ministry as well.
Do you remember Israel’s battle against the Amalekites in Exodus 17? The Israelites fought the Amalekites a lot, but this battle stands out. This was the battle were Moses stood on the mountaintop, and as long as Moses held his arms up, Israel won. But if Moses lowered his arms, then Israel began to lose. Do you remember that battle?
As you might expect, Moses got tired. But listen to what Scripture tells us. Exodus 17, v12 – “But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So Moses’ hands were steady until the going down of the sun.” It was Moses’ ministry to oversee Israel’s battle, but Moses’ ministry was upheld by Aaron and Hur. Moses may have gotten the headlines, but without those men holding up his arms, there would be no headlines.
That is what Paul is getting at here in v3. Yes, Paul has a significant role in proclaiming the gospel where it has not been named, but his ministry depends on the prayer of God’s people.
And so it is today, brothers and sisters, in the Lord Jesus’ church. You may not have a Moses or Paul-like position. You may not be responsible to hold your arms up and oversee the battle. But each of us is called to be like Aaron and Hur. Each of us is called to be like the Colossians – to hold one another up in prayer, to participate together in the ministry of the gospel. Practically speaking, this is why we pray for missionary work around the globe. This is why we pray for other churches. This is why we pray for our members who have the opportunity to preach and speak outside of our church. We may not be out there in person with them, but we are working with them in prayer. It’s our ministry together as the body of Christ.
But we should notice also the specific focus of Paul’s prayer request. The humility continues in what Paul asks for. Notice again, v3 – “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open a door to us for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison.” For someone as significant as the apostle Paul, this is a strikingly humble request. He asks for God to open a door for ministry. Paul understands that unless God acts, there will be no ministry. Unless God takes the initiative, the work will not go forward. We can have the best strategies, and we can pursue the most faithful methods, but unless the Lord works, we will have no way forward. We need the Lord to open doors, just as Paul reminds us here in v3.
But the humility continues. Notice specifically what this open door is for. It’s not for Paul per se, but for the Word. Paul asks for an open door so that he may declare the mystery of Christ, which is the gospel message. The open door is for the gospel. In some sense, Paul views his ministry as not so much his ministry, but the Word’s ministry through him. It’s the Word that gets the focus, even to the point of asking God to open doors for the Word itself.
In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul makes this point even more clearly. Listen to Paul’s prayer request in 2 Thessalonians 3, and notice how it illustrates the point here in Colossians. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored.” Open doors are for what? For the Word to speed ahead and be honored. We need God to act, and when he does, we respond by putting the gospel front and center.
Brothers and sisters, I hope this encourages you as you think about your own ministry of evangelism. Whether it’s a family member, neighbor, or co-worker – whatever the situation, our greatest need is for God to work, for God to open doors. And therefore, perhaps the best way to cultivate an evangelistic outlook is simply to begin praying from 3 – that God would open doors, that God would go ahead of you and prepare the way for the Word to be made known. That’s the kind of humble dependence that Paul modeled in his own ministry, and it should encourage us to do the same – to begin first with the humble request that God open doors for his Word to speed ahead and be honored.
Even so, let’s say God answers that prayer and provides open doors. Then what should we do? How should we respond? Notice what Paul writes in v4. Again, there is a humble dependence here we shouldn’t miss, v4 – “that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.” Now, notice what Paul does not say here. He does not ask that he might make the word effective. He does not ask that he might make the word fruitful. He doesn’t even ask that he might make the word successful. No, Paul prays for the humility to simply make the word clear. When God opens the door, our responsibility is to simply but clearly speak of Jesus Christ. – to make Christ known. We’re not responsible for the results – that’s God’s responsibility. And we’re not responsible to make it effective – the Word has power in itself. Our responsibility is to make it clear. Or, to say it another way, our responsibility is to be faithful, to speak of Christ and what he has done.
Again, brothers and sisters, I hope this encourages us as we think about our own ministry of the gospel. Most Christians are somewhat apprehensive about evangelism because they’re honestly afraid of not doing it right. And by right, we mean getting results. But as Paul reminds here, results are actually not our job. Faithfulness is, and then in God’s timing, he brings the fruit. This is what is often missing in our conversation about evangelism and discipleship. The Word itself is the power. This is why Paul wrote in chapter 1 that it was the Word that was bearing fruit and growing throughout the entire world – because the Word itself has the power to bring life.
And therefore, as Christians, we don’t have to dizzy ourselves looking for new methods or clever strategies, and we also don’t have to be fearful that we’re doing it wrong. Instead, we are free to focus on faithfulness. I hope we see that connection. The humility Paul displays in vv3-4 actually leads to freedom. We’re not burdened by what isn’t our responsibility. Instead, we’re free to simply be faithful. When God opens the door, my responsibility is to speak of Christ – how he is the Son of God who took on human flesh to save his people; how he lived the perfect life that I, as a sinner, could never live; how he died on the cross to pay for my sins against a holy God; how he rose from the grave to prove that sin has been paid for, once and for all; how he ascended again to heaven, where right now, he intercedes in prayer for his church; and how he’s coming again one day to judge the living and the dead. That gospel message – that Word about Christ – is what we’re called to proclaim. And praise God, we don’t have to spruce it up or make it effective. We’re free to simply and clearly make it known wherever God opens the door.
Brothers and sister, let’s follow Paul’s example. Let’s ask God to open doors for the Word, both in our lives and in the ministry of others. And with great confidence in the Word’s power to bring life, let’s ask God to help us be clear. And then in humility, let’s leave the results in God’s hands. The supremacy of Christ calls us minister humbly, so that God gets the glory.
That brings us to the final way we’re called to live in light of Christ’s supremacy, this time from vv5-6. The supremacy of Christ calls us to Live Wisely. In v5, Paul shifts to focus specifically on how the Colossians live their daily lives in the world. Notice again what he writes, v5 – “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.” Now, throughout the letter, Paul has made clear that wisdom is nothing less than the knowledge of Jesus Christ – who he is and what is done. The command to walk in wisdom is a shorthand summary for all Paul has said, particularly throughout chapter 3. Put off sinful practices, pursue godliness in community, live out your union with Christ – that’s what it means to walk in wisdom. It means to live a distinctly Christian life, day-in and day-out.
But what should get our attention here is that phrase making the best use of the time. Paul envisions life as a marketplace, and the number one commodity in the market of life is time. You’ve heard it said before – time is your most valuable resource. And that’s true – time is scarce, and therefore valuable. You can’t get it back when its spent, and you can’t make more it. In the marketplace of life, time is the most precious commodity.
And Paul’s point is that Christians ought to be experts in the time market. We should be the people most adept at buying up time and spending it wisely. Is there an open door for a conversation? I buy up the time to have it now, for the time is short. Is there a moment for purposeful prayer? I buy up the time to do so. Is there work to be done that can magnify Christ? Whatever it is, I buy up the time, and I do it. Of all people, Christians should be the ones who most understand the value of time, and therefore, Christians ought to use their time wisely to make much of Christ. Whatever the situation, we make the most of it by displaying the lordship of Christ.
Now, if that sounds perhaps too abstract, I want you to notice the practical connection Paul then makes in v6. How do we make best use of our time? Look at v6 – “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Here, Paul envisions our speech like a well-prepared meal. Our words should be seasoned in a way that invites a second helping, so to speak. Bland food may nourish the body, but it doesn’t invite a second helping, does it? Bland food is forgettable, but well-seasoned food draws you back in. You go back for seconds because it’s well prepared.
That’s the image Paul has in view here. Season your speech in a way that is compelling, that invites a follow-up question or a second conversation. Now, to be clear, we’re not changing the message or watering down the gospel. We’re still called to be clear. But we are also called to live wisely. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that gospel clarity gives us permission to be dull or thoughtless. God gave us brains for a reason, and he made language with an almost limitless ability of expression. With clarity as our baseline, we aim to be compelling. We don’t assume every situation is the same. No, we think carefully about what faithfulness looks like at this moment. We think about the person we’re talking to; we consider the context, the situation; and then we speak in a way that is compelling.
And let’s remember that the most compelling witness we can give is the witness of godliness. That’s why chapter 3 was so focused on godly character, including how we use our words. It’s because godliness stands out in unbelieving world. Godliness draws attention, and many times, it is through that godly witness that God opens the door for the Word. Of course, not everyone will find godliness compelling, but overall, it does hold true. A life of godliness, including how we use our words, presents the world with a compelling witness to the lordship of Christ. It invites that second helping, so to speak, and from that point, God may very well grant new life to those who hear our clear, salty speech.
But as we close, I do want us to see that Paul assumes we are interacting with the unbelieving world. Notice that last phrase – so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. Paul assumes we’re talking with individual people, that we’re interacting with the world around us. Perhaps the place to begin with application is with what Paul called for in v2 – with prayer. As a church body, let’s join together in prayer, asking God to help us see the open doors that already exist. And then let’s continue together in the pursuit of godliness, trusting that God will use the witness of our lives to provide opportunities to speak of Christ and what he has done.
There’s no escaping it, brothers and sisters. Christianity is inherently evangelistic. We were saved because someone spoke the Word of Christ to us, and now, by God’s grace, we have the privilege of being witnesses ourselves. May we be steadfast in prayer. May we minister with humility that makes much of Christ. And may we devote ourselves to godly living that provide a compelling witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Amen.