Well now if you would take a Bible in hand and turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 4; Colossians chapter 4. Sunday mornings we’ve been working our way steadily through the letter to the Colossian Christians. We are in a section toward the end of the letter now where Paul is applying to the Colossians’ lives the implications of what it means to be united to Jesus Christ, to be “in Christ.” Last time, beginning in verse 18 of chapter 3 through verse 1 of chapter 4, Paul spoke about the Christian family, the household, and the implications of being united to Jesus for family life. Now he turns our attention, as it were, beyond the walls of the church to think about our burden for and witness to the world. He does that in verses 2 through 6 of chapter 4 where our attention will fall this morning; page 985 in the church Bibles, if you would follow with me as we read it.
Just a few words about the passage before we do so. Verses 2 through 4, the focus is on prayer, though you’ll see prayer focused on the ministry of the Word to the world, prayer for the advancement of the Gospel. And then in verses 5 and 6, the attention falls on our witness. So first is prayer, then witness. This week we’ll focus on prayer; next week – or actually not next week – three weeks from now we’ll come back, because next week we have Nate Shurden preaching, then it’s Easter Sunday, then we’ll come back to Colossians, God willing, and pick up verses 5 and 6 where we’ll think about witness and mission and telling the world about the Lord Jesus.
So today we’re going to think about the place, the pattern, and the priorities of prayer from Colossians 4:2-4. Before we read the passage, let’s pray.
O Lord, give to us the illumination of the Holy Spirit so that we can see the truth, know the truth, feel its force, trust Your grace, and live in new obedience. Do this, please, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit for the glory of the name of Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Colossians 4 at the second verse. This is the Word of God:
“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. 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 – that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
You know the expression “to be stuck in the doldrums”? I asked the earlier congregation and I’m not sure whether that’s an expression you use or not. Some of them looked like maybe that was true; some of them looked like maybe they were stuck in the doldrums! You know I know it as a metaphor for sort of melancholy, for feeling discouraged. I discovered this past week it’s actually a nautical term. It refers to a region, a zone, that circles the globe called the Intertropical Convergence Zone where the northeast and the southeast trade winds, they converge. It creates all sorts of unpredictable weather patterns, one of which is a flat calm and a sailing boat can drift for days or weeks in the doldrums. That’s what it refers to – the doldrums. And sometimes I think that the church of Jesus Christ, sent by the Savior to reach the world with the Gospel, can be a like a sailboat stranded in the doldrums, drifting, aimless, powerless, without direction and without force.
Well in the passage this morning, Paul gives us in verses 2 through 6, two helps for a church to get out of the doldrums. Two helps. The first is prayer and the second is evangelism. They must always go together and they must always come together in that order – prayer and then witness. We’re going to think about the first of them today and then as I said a moment ago we’ll come back in a few weeks’ time to think about the second.
Instrumentality of Prayer
So the place of prayer, first. And here, I simply want you to notice in verses 2 through 4 that Paul really believes, doesn't he, in the instrumentality of prayer. He wants the Colossians to pray. He really believes that if they will pray, God will act. Now if you know Paul, you will know that lacing all this writing is a very high doctrine of the sovereignty of God. He can write Ephesians 1:11, that "all people have been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will." He has chosen a people to save and He has ordered everything, all His creations and all their actions, according to His sovereign decree. He's absolutely sovereign. How do you square that with an equally high doctrine of the instrumentality of prayer. Prayer is an instrument. When the church prays, God acts. Paul seems utterly convinced of both truths. How do you fit them together? What's the place of prayer if God is sovereign?
Perhaps one helpful way to get at that is to remember that God has ordained not only the outcome, the ends; He’s ordained the means and the conditions upon which those outcomes rest. He’s ordained that the Gospel go to the ends of the earth and that a people from every tribe and language and nation will be gathered into His kingdom worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ. He has ordained to save a distinct number out of the mass of fallen humanity by sovereign, electing grace. And He’s ordained to get it done in response to the prayers of the church. He has ordained that sinners would be saved through the Gospel and He has ordained that as you pray for that unconverted covenant child, or that unbelieving colleague, as you pray and as you keep on praying, He’s ordained that the Word would come into their hearts and answer in response so that His decree to save and your activity in prayer are married together as the condition upon which He fulfills His holy will.
Why would He do it that way? Why would God connect the outcome of His purposes to bring the Gospel to the world to a praying church, to our poor lisping, stammering tongues as we haltingly mumble out our prayers, not always even knowing fully how to pray as we ought. Why would He do it that way?
I found some help in 2 Corinthians 1:11. Second Corinthians 1:11 – it's a passage somewhat parallel to the one we're reading right now. Paul is in prison there too. He's in chains and he's soliciting the prayers of the Corinthians on his behalf and he says this. Second Corinthians 1:11, "You also must help us by prayer." So here's the instrumentality of prayer. Prayer is going to help. Please pray. "So that" – so here's the outcome of that prayer. Here's why he wants them to join him in prayer. "You must help us by prayer so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many." "I want more and more people praying so that when God answers your prayers we can join together in a great song of gratitude and thanksgiving and praise as God answers, and He, therefore, gets all the glory."
You see the connection? Paul thinks God has ordained His purposes; His purposes will surely come to pass. But He’s also ordained that the coming to pass of His purpose should follow upon the prayers of the church because when we bend the knee, when we say, “We’ve come to the end of ourselves, we can’t get it done, we’re weak and powerless. We need You, Lord,” and then He answers. And we see that the arm of the Lord is not shortened that it cannot save. That He is mighty to save, to bring new life to dead hearts, to hear us when we cry to Him. He gets glory. Our hearts swell with gratitude and praise. Psalm 50:15, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble. I will deliver you and you shall glorify Me.” “Call on Me. I will answer. And when I answer, I get the glory and you give Me praise.” It’s a linked chain. Do you see it?
Here’s the place of prayer – God has ordained that we take the Gospel to our community, our friends, our families, our loved ones, our neighborhood. And He’s ordained that ordinarily the Gospel would be given power and force and effect only insofar as we give ourselves together as a church, severally as families and individuals, as we give ourselves to prayer. That’s how people get saved. That’s how the church grows. That’s how you will grow. God has ordained your growth and mind upon condition of our prayerfulness. The place of prayer. Do you see it? How important it is that we become a church, a people, of prayer. The place of prayer.
Pattern of Prayer
Secondly, look at verse 2 again and notice now the pattern of prayer. Paul gives us some instruction about what our praying should be like. The pattern of prayer. Three things to see in this connection. First, he says “continue steadfastly in prayer.” That phrase, “continue steadfastly,” is really a translation of one Greek verb. It was used of a boat, tied up, moored beside a jetty, reserved for use, always prepared to launch out into the sea at any moment. Or it was used of someone who was unavailable for other work because they were dedicated to and constantly employed in this specific task. It’s used in Acts 6:4. You remember the situation? The Greek-speaking widows have been neglected in the daily distribution of food and the needs are so great the apostles can’t meet them all, so they ordain the seven, the group the is the origin of the diaconate in the church, to see to the mercy ministry needs. And then the apostles say this. “We will devote ourselves” – that’s the same word translated here as “continue steadfastly” – “We will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.”
I actually think “continue steadfastly” is quite a helpful way to translate this because I know my own heart and I know some of you and our struggles tend to fall into two camps. Don’t they? On the one hand, there are those of us who have a hard time being consistent in prayer. I would say put your hand up if that describes you, but since Presbyterians don’t raise their hands I’ll give it a pass! But don’t you recognize that in yourself, some of you? Consistency is your struggle. So the word “continue” is a challenge, is the rebuke to us, is the word for us – “continue.” The word that’s translated, the verb that’s translated here has the sense of persevere – start and go on. Prayer is not like a little red box on the wall of your Christian life with the words, “For Emergency Use Only” written across the front. Prayer, as one old hymn put it, is “the Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air.” It’s oxygen. You’re going to live? You’ve got to breathe. You’re going to live as a Christian and grow as a Christian and bear fruit as a Christian? You need the help of the living God. You need the supplies of His Spirit. You need to know the Lord Jesus. You need to pray. And so he says, “continue.” Start and continue. Persevere. That’s part of the sense of this verb. So some of us have a hard time with consistency. We need the challenge, the reminder to persevere.
Others of us, however, routine is not our issues. We like routine. We’re good at routine. But the word “steadfast” is a useful challenge for us because routine gets comfortable and safe and easy; rather run of the mill. And that’s the way we like it. But it’s harder for us to be fully engaged. Our hearts are dull. Our minds are elsewhere. We’ve got our list – “Lord, bless Mrs. So-and-So. Be with Mr. Such-and Such.” We tick it off and then we’re done. We need to be reminded that more is required. We are to stir up our hearts with zeal and determination to meet with Christ and to plead with Him for things agreeable to His will with thanksgiving. “Continue steadfastly.” GIve yourself, Paul is saying, to this great ministry of prayer.
Then notice the next thing he says about the pattern of our prayer. “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it.” What does that mean? It brings to mind, doesn’t it, of that great scene on the night when our Savior was betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. And he took with him Peter, James, and John as He turned aside to pray. And He told them to remain behind as He went a little distance away and He poured out that great agonizing prayer in Gethsemane. And He told them when He left them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even unto death. Remain here and” – what? “Watch with me.” And after He had prayed He returned to them and He found them sleeping and He rebuked them and said, “So could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” So watchfulness goes together with prayerfulness because of the reality of predatory temptation.
In the 1680s in Scotland, it was a period known as “The Killing Times” where it was illegal to be a Presbyterian. The Presbyterians then went under the name of Covenanters. They had made a covenant with God to uphold the Reformed faith. And so the preachers, the Presbyterian ministers, had been ejected from their pulpits and were taking refuge in the hills and the glens of southern Scotland, and they were hunted. But many of the faithful would go out to meet them at a prearranged time out on the hills, often large crowds of many thousands, to worship together on the Sabbath Day and to receive the Word from the Covenanter preachers. And there was a real threat of the Dragoons, who were given freedom to shoot to kill, to shoot on sight. Many thousands lost their lives for the sake of the Gospel and the cause of King Jesus in Scotland during that period. But in order to alert the Conventicles, as those gatherings were called, of the approach of the Dragoons, they always had lookouts posted on the ridgeline all around where they had met – in a valley or a glen somewhere.
Paul is saying to us, “Look, you need to understand the predatory character of sin and temptation. Prayerfulness looks up to God, cries out to God, adores God in worship, pleads with God for His mercy and grace. Watchfulness looks out to the world and in at the heart. It looks out to the world knowing that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. We have an enemy – that our Dragoons, as it were, ready to come against us, and so we need to be watchful, on our guard, to stand firm in the evil day, and having done all to stand firm. But also, we need to take watch over ourselves, our own hearts, which are desperately wicked and deceitful above all things. Who can understand them? Our hearts are twisted and perverse, and so we need to keep watch over our hearts. We need to keep watch for the attacks of the evil one, even while we are being prayerful. There’s a spiritual vigilance necessary; it’s part of the Christian discipline of prayerfulness – spiritual vigilance about the schemes and stratagems of the devil and about the subtle deceptions of our own hearts.
And then the third part of this pattern of prayer – “continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” Do you see that in the text in verse 2 – “with thanksgiving”? Watchfulness that acknowledges that we have an enemy and we have deceitful hearts, watchfulness without thankfulness might result in anxiety or discouragement. I mean look at the challenges! Watchfulness knows that at any moment we may come under terrible spiritual assault. “However will I withstand it?” That’s why we need to be watchful, but we must also be thankful, because thankfulness, gratitude, garrisons faith against the attacks of sin and temptation. Watchfulness married to thankfulness strengthens faithfulness in prayer.
And so we are to give thanks. We are to rehearse the ways in which God has showered His blessings upon us in the past that we might believe Him yet for faithfulness in the future. “Give thanks,” Paul says. Give thanks for the providence of God that’s led you. And though you may at times have stumbled, you have never yet fallen beyond recovery. Give thanks to God for His discipline. Sometimes painful, but it is producing the fruit of righteousness and peace in your life. He is treating you like His beloved child – disciplining you, growing you. Give thanks to God for the Gospel. He has given His Son for you. For the cross. Give thanks for the empty tomb. Give thanks for the victory of King Jesus that our enemy, though mighty, is defeated and Christ is Lord, that salvation belongs to Him. Give thanks! Give thanks for daily bread, that “My God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Give thanks that He has never vacated a single promise – never. Give thanks. And as you do, what happens to faith? In the middle of the spiritual battlefield, what happens to your faith? Isn’t it strengthened? Aren’t you helped to persevere, not to give up in the thick of the battle, in the fray? But to press on. To continue steadfastly in prayer. The place of prayer, then the pattern of prayer.
The Priorities of Prayer
Then finally, think with me about the priorities Paul offers for prayer. The priorities of prayer. Look at verses 3 and 4. And here, his focus very clearly is on prayer for his ministry. Yes, pray for the sick. Yes, pray for guidance. Yes, pray for daily bread. Yes, pray for forgiveness and grace to press on. Yes to all of that; don’t neglect them. But he says, “At the same time, pray also for us.” Now did you notice Paul’s circumstances as he writes? What does the text say? Where is he? He’s in prison for the sake of the Gospel. His ministry has landed him in difficult circumstances indeed. He’s suffering in Jesus’ name and for Jesus’ sake. He might have asked them to pray for his release, for some relief of his trials and his sufferings. He’s under a terrible burden. He might have prayed entirely legitimately and asked them to join him in praying quite legitimately that all of this might be overturned and he might be set at liberty again at last. But here he has an opportunity to ask for prayer and the thing that comes to Paul’s mind, his terrible circumstances notwithstanding, are not his chains, but the progress of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what he wants more than anything else.
That’s instructive for us. Isn’t it? Because when somebody asks me what I can pray about, I think immediately about myself and I think immediately about health issues and personal struggles. I once heard Derek Thomas describe so many of our prayer meetings as “organ recitals.” You know, “Please be with Mrs. Smith and her kidney stones,” and so on and so forth. Not to belittle that. If you have kidney stones, I will pray for you! But you see the balance of Paul’s prayers, the priority he’s giving to the advancement of the Gospel? You see, I can pray that the Lord make you well, and He does, but unless and until you come to know the Lord Jesus Christ, you may be whole and healthy and still headed to hell forever apart from faith in Jesus. Yes, let’s pray by all means for the welfare of our city. Let’s pray for the welfare and health of our loved ones and neighbors. We should. We’re commanded to do so. But oh, let’s pray that God’s kingdom would advance through the preaching of the Word and the salvation of the lost.
And so he prays, notice, for another three things. First, for Gospel opportunity. Look at verse 5; sorry, at verse 4. Excuse me, at verse 3! We’re working backwards here. We’ll find it eventually! Verse 3, “At the same time, pray also for us” – for Gospel opportunity – “that God may open to us a door for the Word.” It’s interesting to me that quite often in the New Testament the Word is spoken of almost like an active agent all its own, like a person. So the Word multiplies. The Word prevails. The opportunity here is really not for Paul; it’s not for us. It’s for the Word! “Let a door be opened for the Word.” The Word grows. The Word multiples. The Word saves. The power is in the Word. So, O Lord, open a door for the Word. The Word of the Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.”
Your prevailing personality, your winning smile, your amazing story of the way God has worked in your life – those things are not irrelevant; please share them. But the Word of the cross, the good news about Jesus, is the instrument by which people pass from death to life. And Paul is saying, “Please open for me opportunity, a door for the Word.” That’s what we ought to be praying for in our city, in our community – that God would open a door for the Word.
Then secondly, he asks them to pray not just for Gospel opportunity but Gospel content. The content matters. Truth matters. Look at what he says. He wants to be a faithful witness who declares the mystery of Christ. Do you see that in verse 3? “That God may open a door for the Word to declare the mystery of Christ.” He doesn’t mean, “I want to make Jesus look mysterious.” Back in chapter 1 verse 26, he used the same vocabulary and he tells us what he means by “the mystery of Christ.” The mystery of Christ, he says, is the good news that was hidden for ages and generations but has now been revealed with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. So it’s a mystery in the sense of something that was hidden and the types and shadows and prophecies and promises of the Old Testament. But now we know what it means. Now we see it clearly. It’s all in Jesus Christ. It’s all about Him – who He is, why He came, and what it means to follow Him.
When you’re witnessing to people, haven’t you found it to be the case very often that they throw up red herrings in diversions and side tracks to try to trap you in some argument about something really largely irrelevant – Adam’s belly button, you know? The fossil record. The age of the earth. Paul is saying, “Pray for me that I stay on message. I want to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I want my mouth to be full of the good news about Jesus. I don’t want to waste my time in trivialities or petty arguments that don’t profit anyone. I want to make much of King Jesus.” You could say with Wesley – one of my favorite Wesley hymns, it’s not in our hymnbook sadly, but one of the verses says, “Him as my righteousness I show, His saving truth proclaim, ‘tis all my business here below to cry, ‘Behold, behold, the Lamb!’” But Paul could easily have said those words. “It’s all my business to cry ‘Behold, behold, the Lamb!’ I just want people to know Him.”
So look, you don’t need to have a knockout argument for the inspiration of Scripture or a watertight response to the problem of evil. It’s good to wrestle with those things. There are credible, helpful answers for them. But you don’t need to have been to seminary to be an effective witness to Jesus Christ. But you do need to know who He is and why He came and what it means to follow Him. You need to be able to declare the mystery of Christ, to get the content right, because truth matters. So he prays for Gospel opportunity. He prays about Gospel content, or rather he asks for prayer.
Finally, he asks for prayer that he might be clear. He prays for Gospel clarity. Gospel opportunity, Gospel content, Gospel clarity. Verse 4, “that I may make it clear as I ought to speak.” It doesn’t matter how orthodox you are. It doesn’t matter how coherent in your own mind your understanding of the truth may be if, when you share it with others, you are as clear as mud. Clarity is important. We could define clarity here as precision wedded to simplicity. That’s clarity – precision, accuracy, saying true things truly, wedded to simplicity, not overly complexifying anything.
Now how do you do that well? I find it very helpful to remember – though this sermon probably is the exception that proves the rule – I find it very helpful to remember that you don’t have to say everything every time. Right? A good way to be clear when you’re sharing the good news with others is to remember, “I don’t have to tell them the whole story every time.” Continue steadfastly, praying for them, believing in the sovereignty of God that He answers pray and intervenes in people’s lives. Pray for a door to be opened for the Word. And when it comes, drip a little. Drip feed just a little. Speak about Christ and then go back to prayer. Pray for a door to be opened again and then drip feed some more. And keep at it – drip, drip, drip, until the Gospel begins to seep in. Simplicity and accuracy make for clarity. Paul recognizes that he must be clear if he is to be effective, and so must we.
So do you see the place of prayer? Prayer is the instrument that God has ordained to bless in the greater scheme of His sovereign design. He wants to reach the world but He does it in response to your prayers and mine. So let’s give ourselves to prayer. The place of prayer. Then the pattern of prayer. Continue steadfastly. Be devoted to it. Begin and go on. It’s not for emergency use only. It is every day; it’s oxygen for our lives. Be watchful. The enemy is prowling around seeking whom he may devour. There’s a war on. Let’s be watchful. Our hearts are desperately wicked, deceitful above all things. Who can understand them? We have a liar in our hearts, deceiving us, twisting the truth, so we need to keep watch and we must not neglect gratitude, thanksgiving. It strengthens faith and helps us press on.
And then the priorities of prayer. The place, the pattern, the priorities of prayer. Gospel opportunity – "O Lord, open a door." Would you join me in praying that God would open a door here on the North State Street corridor, the greater Jackson area, and around the world? That's our vision statement. God will get it done if we give ourselves to prayer. That God would open the door, that God would give to us accuracy, Gospel content that is faithful and true. Let's study to know the truth. Who is Jesus? Why did He come? How do we follow Him? That's what we need to know. That's what we've got to tell. And then let's plead with God to make us clear, to drip-feed truth into people's hearts and lives, to plead with God for them and to preach good news to them – lovingly, patiently, winsomely. If we'll do it, if we'll cry out to God for these things He will answer and He will get the glory and sinners will be saved to the glory and praise of His name. Let's pray together.
Father, truth be told, I am inconsistent, often doubting in my prayers. I am a poor evangelist and I suspect many of us could make that confession their own. So as we bow before You, we ask You for forgiveness, but more, we ask that You would wield Your Word in our hearts so that by Your grace, Your enabling, we might become indeed people who continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. Would You open for us a door for the Word? Help us to declare the mystery of Christ and to make it clear as we ought to speak, not that we may make a name for ourselves, but that the lost may be found, the dead may be brought to life, sinners may be saved and You may get all the praise. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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