2 Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. 3 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.
5 Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. i
Paul the apostle is imprisoned in Rome awaiting trial when he writes this letter to a little church he has yet to meet in person. Think of the powerful grace of God that drove the apostle’s passion for the glory of Christ! Rather than worrying about his own imprisonment, Paul is concerned that this small church in a small town in the Lycus Valley of Roman Asia is being led astray by spiritual gurus selling me-focused self-improvement programs. Their passion for Christ is being directed inward toward self and not outward toward God and neighbors.
Sanctification is personal, but it’s not private. To be sanctified, to be holy, is to be “set apart” for serving God by serving others. The spiritual gurus’ programs were all about personal improvement, personal happiness, personal “winning.” But Paul’s application of the total sovereignty of the Lord Jesus Christ in all things is that Jesus is building a new humanity in and through His Church where the Word is preached, sacraments are celebrated, and people interact with one another in songs and prayer and personal encouragement with the common purpose of glorifying Jesus and enjoying all his benefits together.
Jesus bids his people come die to self and live in the resurrection power of the new humanity. This is the opposite of the self-focus sold by the gurus. The goal of the individual Jesus follower is not “personal winning” but corporate life with God’ people.
One great evidence of the new humanity is the way we speak to others. Because what comes out of our mouths reflects what’s in our hearts. And Paul has instructed us repeatedly (3:12-17) to have thankful hearts. If Christ and all the benefits of his grace are before us, our hearts will be thankful and our lips will reflect that. If my unfilled wants and demands are before me, I will be discouraged at best and bitter at worst as I struggle to impose my will on everyone and everything around me.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise Paul chooses to wrap up his instructions to the little Colossian congregation by writing about how we speak. He addresses three different kinds of speech: speaking to God (4:2), speaking for the gospel (4:3-4); and speaking to others (4:5-6).
SPEAKING TO GOD (4:2)
The first kind of speech Paul addresses is how we speak to God. 2 Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.ii Remember how he began this letter to the little church?
3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you…9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding… 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.iii
Paul is falsely accused, unjustly imprisoned and yet he prays for others, and he prays with thanksgiving. Paul assumes that believers will naturally want to engage in prayer. That’s why he commands the Colossians to “Continue [Be continuing] …in prayer….” Read the opening and closing sections of Paul’s letters and you will find they almost always begin and end with the mention of prayer. One of the most important things the believer can do is pray because prayer naturally involves our trusting submission to the sovereignty of God in all things.
In English, we have two words to convey that for which Paul uses only one, continue steadfastly (“remain constantly,” “make intense effort to keep on”).iv It gives us an indication that spiritual maturity is a life-long process, not the immediate result of a guru’s program. “Most of us would be bound to admit we are mere infants in the business of prayer.”v Paul’s constant emphasis on prayer ought to convict us that if we are not willing to speak often to God, we have a very serious problem with both his sovereignty and our gratitude.
When a baby is born, we want to hear it cry to let us know there’s breath and life there. Prayer is one of the first signs of the new birth into the new humanity of God.vi Prayer is the breath of life for the Christian. If you read the book of Acts, you will notice how often the apostles prayed. So many of God’s actions are characterized by Luke as God’s responses to prayer. The office of deacon was created in response to the apostle’s need for more prayer time.
2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4). vii
Paul wrote to the Romans, “12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”viii He commanded the Ephesians to be:
…18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. ix
Paul instructed Timothy, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people….”x
Paul situates his commands to pray within the context of church life and gospel witness. It’s not that he’s against personal “organ recitals” where we tick off our aches and pains as prayer requests because he encourages constant prayer about everything. Paul himself prayed for his thorn in the flesh to be removed (2 Cor. 12:7). But, the primary context of his command is the gospel working within and without the life of the new humanity. Paul’s own “organ recital” for his fleshly thorn was met with God’s response that God’s grace was sufficient. So, if your “organ recital” prayers are not gospel focused, you are forgetting Step One (“It’s all about Jesus!”). Every ache and pain ought to be offered up first as a request to glorify God and to advance the gospel.
Here in Colossians, Paul not only commands the Colossians to be persistent in prayer (4:2a), but also to be “watchful in it….”xi He bids them remain fully awake, “alive to such matters as: a. [their] own needs and those of the family, church, country, world, b. the dangers that threaten the Christian community, c. the blessings received and promised, and (last but not least) d. the will of God. Cf. Acts 20:31; 1 Cor. 16:13; 1 Thess. 5:6; 1 Peter 5:8; Rev. 3:2, 3”xii Early Christian parents were partial to the name “Gregory” because it derives from the Greek word here translated “watchful” (γρηγορέω) and it suggested someone who kept an eye out for the needs of God’s people and was vigilant in praying for God’s Kingdom to advance and ever-looking for God’s answers to his prayers.
Finally, Paul adds that diligent, watchful prayers must be offered up “with thanksgiving.” It’s impossible to be thankful when you are constantly battling God over who has the power to write your story. When my observations top God’s revelation, then thanksgiving only happens on the rare occasions when I get “MY way;” and it is as fleeting as the satisfaction my latest idol promises to provide. When I am immersed in the illusion of my own sovereignty I am agitated with every news cycle, angry over other’s opinions, jealous of someone else’s success, and generally a disruption to the life of the Church.
Remember, Paul is a prisoner. He is a character in a very unfair story line; yet he uses some form of the word “thank” 7 times in this letter because the apostle rests in the fact that he is united to Christ, the sovereign ruler of absolutely everything and everyone and the lavish provider of every good and necessary grace for our lives. Thankfulness is the fruit of gospel sanity; gospel sanity is trusting the reality defined by God’s Word and his sovereign will rather than trusting MY observations or personal goals.
I wish I could come up with a nifty list of doable steps to follow to achieve Paul’s level of gospel sanity and thankfulness. But the only steps I note from Paul are that he studies God’s Word to know God so that he can trust more and more into the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Plus, one final “step”: God supplied exactly what Paul needed to accomplish the work he called Paul to do. Thankfully. trusting into Christ’s rule is one of the many benefits that are already yours if you are in union with Christ.
Is thankful prayer coming out of your mouth? It’s a characteristic of the new humanity.
SPEAKING FOR THE GOSPEL (4:3-4)
The apostle moves from thankful prayer to specific prayer for the gospel to spread. “…pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ….”xiii A door is an opportunity to enter; it’s a means of approach or access. In Paul’s context, it is an opening for the word or message of the mystery of Christ. He uses “door” imagery in 1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12. John sees a door opened in heaven in Rev. 3:8.xiv In his gospel account, John quotes Jesus saying, “9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved….”xv
The key to this door, says Paul, is prayer. Notice the prayer Paul requests is a submission to God’s agenda. He doesn’t ask to be released from custody so he can share the mystery of the resurrected Jesus’ perfect life and sacrificial death wherever PAUL sees fit. Paul, remember, had seen prison doors literally open for him (Acts 28:30-31). No. Paul asks for a gospel door to open up right where he is in Roman custody. That is the fruit of his trust in God’s absolute sovereignty. Paul trusts he is exactly where he is supposed to be.
Further, he recognizes that God himself must open the doors of human hearts and God does this in response to prayers. Do you pray that God will open up doors into the lives of people around you so that you can declare the mystery of Christ (4:3) and that you may make it clear (4:4)?
Paul has been stressing thankfulness so much in these last two chapters precisely because thankfulness drives mission-mindedness. Witnessing in the NT doesn’t begin with a legal command done out of drudgery and obligation; it begins out of thankful joy that the crucified Messiah Jesus is alive. There is a Man in heaven! And he has delivered you from a kingdom of darkness into his glorious light! Who could remain silent about that?
And Paul isn’t asking that his message be made eloquent like the professional speakers of his day. He doesn’t want the simplicity of the gospel shrouded in entertaining rhetoric. He makes that point in 2 Corinthians:
…we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. … 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord…xvi
Paul’s passion is to make the gospel clear. In fact, he HAS made it clear. That is why Paul is in prison (4:3b). The message that all humanity stands condemned before the one, true, holy God and there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING man can merit before God is offensive. It offends the lost. It offends the religious Jews of Paul’s day. It offends Christians who want to bring their self-improvement to the counter in exchange for a shiny participation trophy. It offends the spiritual gurus who make their living off the gospel-industrial complex of Paul’s day and our day by selling spiritual victory methods for personal achievements.
Paul is determined to share the gospel clearly regardless of the consequences. And he commands the Colossians to have that same goal. It’s not about getting “spiritually ripped” to win your personal participation trophy; it’s about Step One (“It’s all about Jesus!”).
SPEAKING TO OTHERS (4:5-6)
So, Paul writes “5 Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.”xvii Who are the outsiders? He means those outside the fellowship of Christ – those outside the Church (1 Cor. 5:12,13; 1 Thes. 4:12; 1 Tim. 3:7). To the Corinthians, Paul writes not to judge outsiders but rather those inside the church. To the Thessalonians, he says to walk properly before outsiders, specifically by holding a job and performing it well. To Timothy, he instructs that church elders are to have a good reputation among outsiders. To the Colossians, Paul commands wise conduct. All of this is for the sake of the gospel. The reputation of the gospel hangs upon your conduct outside the doors of the church. Your ability to reach people with the gospel, in practical terms, depends upon your ability to not be a sanctimonious jerk to the lost.
“…making the best use of the time” literally means “… buying up the opportunity.”xviii Don’t just sit and wait for a chance to share Christ; buy it. To buy it implies a cost to you; you must spend something of yourself to see outsiders become insiders. You are to buy every opportunity to be a blessing to others. Paul elsewhere writes of the limited time every believer has in their life to share the gospel and their pressing need to “get busy” (Cf. Rom. 13:11, 12; 1 Cor. 7:29; Gal. 6:9, 10; and especially Eph. 5:16).
“6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”xix Just what is “gracious speech”? Non-Christians of Paul’s day used the same expression, by which they meant sparkling conversation, speech dotted with witty or clever remarks. When Paul uses the term, he refers to the type of language that flows from the operation of God’s grace in the believer’s heart.xx He means talk that leads people into the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, the conduct he commanded of us inside the church (Col. 3:8, 9,16) is the very same conduct he commands for us outside the church. Don’t be a jerk. Be gracious to others as God has been gracious to you. Grace is God’s one-way love for his people. So our love for outsiders is to be one-way, unpredicted upon their conduct.
Salt was a precious commodity in Paul’s day. He’s commanding your speech to have value, to be welcome and tasty rather than bitter or bland. It means speaking the right words at the right time to the right person – “so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”xxi
When the new humanity breaths out constant prayers of thanksgiving and asks God to open doors of outsider’s hearts, then we may even find people who ask us why we live with such thanksgiving in our hearts and speak with such savory, grace-filled words. That seems to be the measure Paul applies to the little church of Colossae.
It’s not how spiritually shredded they can become through Sampson CrossFit, how much personal ecstasy they reach through visions brought on by the Daniel Diet, how many participation trophies they can display on their individual shelves. The measure of their lives individually and corporately is how they speak to God; how they speak for one another to advance the gospel; and how they speak to a lost and dying world.
When Jesus begins to work in our lives, he even washes out our mouths and changes our speech. He gives us a longing to speak with him and to speak about him. Do you measure up to Paul’s commands? No. But you can. He graciously supplies all that he graciously commands. May he make us thankful people who long to see outsiders brought in, the dead raised to life.
i The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:2–6.
ii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:2.
iii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 1:3–12.
iv Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 662.
v Sinclair Ferguson, Praying Always, Living Wisely (Col. 4:2-5). Accessed 1/2/17 at: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=fpc-101506am
vii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ac 6:2–4.
viii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 12:12.
ix The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Eph 6:18–20.
x The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), 1 Ti 2:1.
xi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:2.
xii William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of Colossians and Philemon, vol. 6, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 179.
xiii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:3.
xiv Hendriksen and Kistemaker, 180.
xv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Jn 10:9.
xvi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), 2 Co 4:2,5.
xvii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:5.
xviii Hendriksen and J. Kistemaker, 182–183.
xix The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:6.
xx Hendriksen and Kistemaker, 183.,
xxi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 4:6.