Pray for us
We now arrive at five verses which bring to a conclusion the apostle’s teaching before he goes on at some length to speak of the personnel that are with him (Col 4:7-17), concluding with a hand-written note which seems to substitute for a seal of authenticity (Col 4:18).
One might be forgiven for thinking that the verses are no more than a few ‘last thoughts’ and that Paul is adding them simply to make his letter end more corporately than individually - but they stand as an important thought which pushes the believers in Colossae to look forward to the future rather than to dwell on the past.
Urging the believers to pray propels Paul to urge his readers to support them in prayer, that the advance of the Gospel might go forward unhindered. He doesn’t pray that millions might come to know Jesus through the Gospel proclamation but his request certainly makes the way open for that to happen and so brings the Colossians into a partnership with him in the message - even though they may not have any amongst themselves who are actively trying to get the message of the Kingdom into areas that haven’t yet heard, they can be a part of the continuing ministry of the apostle through their prayers which win the victory ahead of time for him to establish.
The final couple of verses can easily be taken to be general in outlook, that Paul is encouraging the believers to be careful how they deal with outsiders - but, if the context of Col 4:2-4 is accepted as being the basis for his words, we should rather see them as an encouragement for the Colossians to proclaim the Gospel among the people they live.
Although Paul has laid a secure foundation of the Gospel in his letter, exhorting them to put aside the old order for adherence to the new and dealing with individual sections within the believing community that needed reminders about their conduct and lifestyle, he ends looking forward rather than back - that is, he doesn’t remind them to stay faithful to the words which he’s just written - or had written - but to look to the future that the Kingdom might advance.
Even if this letter had been started to correct matters within the church which were less than satisfactory (which I don’t believe it was, of course), the apostle doesn’t reflect on his exhortations and direct them to change their views as he does in another letter (II Cor 13:11) but he points them forward to give them a direction, a future and a hope.
For a discussion of the association of thanksgiving with prayer, see my previous notes on the subject here.
Paul has already mentioned the subject of prayer earlier in his letter (Col 1:3,9) but, in both places, he’s recording only what both he and Timothy are doing for the Colossian fellowship. In the former, they note that their continuous prayer for the believers is coupled with thanksgiving - something that’s included here as well - for those things which have been reported to them concerning the church at Colossae.
In the latter, they again speak about praying without ceasing for the believers but go on to outline more of the content of their prayers that the fellowship might perceive those things which they would have the fellowship enter into an experience of.
It’s only here that Paul exhorts the believers to pray themselves and, in Col 4:2, the instructions are general enough to include any subject possible - from the conversion of the Emperor of Rome down to the sickness of one’s pet cat (figuratively speaking, of course). That Paul gives no bounds to the subject of their prayer means that it can be all-inclusive and not restricted to those things which one considers to be worthy of the believer’s attention (Colbrien notes that the word used for ‘prayer’ is more specifically used for petitions presented to God than general prayer - I’ve taken this understanding of the word to represent Paul’s intention).
Both previous times that prayer’s mentioned, it’s coupled with a continuance that knows no end and the point is made clearly here as well. The RSV’s translation ‘continue steadfastly’ represents just one word in the Greek (Strongs Greek number 4342) and is a strengthened form of a word which conveys perseverance and endurance in the subject to which it relates. Colcar comments that the opening phrase of the verse
‘...is not merely to maintain a habit. There is the note of diligence and persistence for this is a task from which a man is easily deflected’
Paul’s instructions, then, go beyond the simple idea of praying when circumstances are conducive to doing so and point towards a continuance even when there are problems which would pull away from a sincere commitment to petition God on behalf of both people and situations.
It’s the same word that’s coupled with prayer in Rom 12:12 and, in Acts 1:14, Luke notes that, following Jesus’ departure into Heaven, the group of believers
‘...with one accord devoted themselves to prayer...’
where, even though they didn’t see the outpouring of the Spirit immediately, they continued praying until it was fulfilled in their midst on the Day of Pentecost.
The idea of ‘watchfulness’ is also added to the exhortation, the word being employed on previous occasions (Strongs Greek number 1127) to mean ‘stay awake’ where Jesus bids His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane to remain awake with Him while He prays (Mark 11:34). Figuratively, Kittels notes that it means ‘to be vigilant’ where it conveys the idea of spiritual alertness and perception in the matters to which it pertains.
The believer isn’t just being exhorted to mutter words that have no real content and purpose but are being encourage to pray perceptively into situations and for people - and that means being able to discern the real underlying problems that need dealing with and not what often passes as those superficial affairs which scratch the surface.
I remember, many years ago, being asked to attend an evening meeting of local leaders in a specific area and, reluctantly, going along to represent the fellowship that I was currently attending. Opening the meeting was one who asked another, more respected, member to pray and he began
‘Lord, we pray for such-and-such a person...’
and I had this picture of God opening the cover of a ring notebook, clicking on the top of a biro and writing down the person’s name. Then, without any mention of the reason why the person was praying for this one being mentioned, he continued
‘...and we pray for such-and-such a congregation...’
In fact, he continued this for a few minutes without mentioning so much as one situation that needed dealing with. I could see God crossing out the first name and replacing it with the second - then crossing out the second and replacing it with the third - until, at the end of the ‘prayer’, all God had was a list of names that had lines through.
You may call this irreligious if you like - after all, does God use a notebook and biro when we pray? - but it helped me see that just mentioning people in prayer was completely pointless if we didn’t ask God for something for them. We do the same when we ask God to ‘bless the missionaries’ because He’s perplexed as to ‘how’ we want it doing (figuratively speaking, of course) - do we want them to have more money, more opportunity to witness, more helpers? What exactly are we praying for?
John’s observations should help us here for he writes (I John 5:14) that we have confidence in God to perform all that we ask Him to do
‘...if we ask anything according to His will...’
so that perception in the matters that need addressing in prayer is vital if we’re to be encouraged and not lose heart.
So Paul here urges his readers to pray ‘with alertness’ and ‘with spiritual perception’ - yet always with thanksgiving (which implies that one is perceptive about the way God is answering previous petitions) - so that they might see the advance of the Kingdom rule of Jesus Christ through their own ministry of prayer.
Pray for us
For the concept lying behind the ‘mystery’ see my notes here and for the ‘word’ see my notes here.
Having instructed the Colossians that they’re to continue in prayer, the apostle turns his attention to his own particular need and brings it before his readers that they might pray for him. In so doing, he elevates them into the unique position of co-workers alongside him in the Gospel.
Just as, like a father, he’d been praying with Timothy for their spiritual advancement and enrichment (Col 1:9-11), so now he turns to what benefit they might be able to impart to him through the simplicity of remembrance before God as they pray.
This isn’t the only place in Paul’s letters where he brings to his readers’ attention the need to support either himself or the apostolic band in prayer and we’d do well to briefly consider the other occasions when such a request takes place. They mainly fall into two specific camps, but the apostle does simply request prayer without giving any guidelines in I Thess 5:25, an indication that his situation and ministry was well known to those in Thessalonica and that they would be expected to know how to pray.
In Heb 13:18, the author urges his readers that they would
‘Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honourably in all things’
an indication that the people to whom the original letter came would have known exactly who it was who was the author of the teaching. Unspecific requests for prayer support would indicate familiarity in the writer’s situation because no guidelines are being given which inform the recipients about any change in them that would need addressing.
But the majority of places where Paul requests prayer have reasons attached to them - and these fall into two specific categories. Firstly, there’s prayer for the advancement of the Gospel (II Cor 1:11, Eph 6:18-20, Col 4:3-4, II Thess 3:1-2) which one would expect - but what’s strange in the second and third references is that, although the apostle is imprisoned, he doesn’t request prayer to be offered up to God for his own release.
Some commentators have seen in Paul’s request that God might
‘...open to us a door for the word [of the Gospel]...’
a reminder that he’s currently imprisoned and that he needs the physical barrier of the locked door to be removed that he can, once again, proclaim the Gospel. But the fact that he asks for prayer ‘for us’ (which may immediately refer to himself and Timothy - Col 1:1 - even though it’s been a considerable amount of time since ‘us’ has been used) - that is, for those who are free as well as imprisoned - would point to a desire for there to be both opportunity and the receptivity needed in men and women’s hearts for there to be conversions.
There’s also Paul’s statements to be considered in I Cor 16:9 (see also II Cor 2:12) where he comments that
‘...I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries’
where the idea of a door being opened seems to match the way in which the phraseology is being used here.
It would be going too far to try and ascertain a reason for such a neglect of requesting physical deliverance but it must be noted that the only other subject that Paul mentions as needing dealing with in prayer is that of deliverance (Rom 15:30-32) or release from incarceration (Phil 1:18-20, Philemon 22).
The letters to both Ephesians and Colossians may have been written at approximately the same time, an assertion which is generally made by scholars and commentators alike because of the close similarities between the two. We might, therefore, expect that the request for prayer for the continuing proclamation of the Gospel would be a common factor in each. But, as I noted in my introduction to Colossians, Philemon was probably written at the same time as that to Colossae - or, at the least we can say that it was delivered at the same time - and Philemon 22 does note prayer about release from prison.
Perhaps all we can say about the lack of such a request in some letters is that it wasn’t something that weighed very heavily on the apostle’s mind - even that the continued spread of the Gospel through himself naturally inferred that he would be released from prison at some time to continue being a channel for its proclamation. Although Paul does mention his imprisonment alongside his request for prayer (Col 4:3), it’s only something which seems to be thrown in by way of explanation.
He does, however, see a need to be delivered from men who would oppose the Gospel so that, in Rom 15:30-32, he asks his readers
‘...to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company’
If we might place the writing of this letter in the context of Acts 21:17ff, we can see that Paul’s main concern isn’t so much to be released from prison as to be delivered from the plots of the Jews who were seeking to murder him before he stood trial before the Roman authorities.
That he eventually appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:11-12), sealing his despatch to Rome seems to have come about through the threats of the Jews which continued even after his removal to Caesarea (Acts 25:1-5). Perhaps, then, the answer to the prayers of the saints was that he should stand before Caesar and witness to the life of Christ?
Whatever the reason for Paul’s appeal, his request for prayer in Rom 15:30-32 seems not to be for a general release from imprisonment but for a deliverance from men who were seeking his harm and, therefore, it seems to relate back into his request for the advancement of the Kingdom - that is, in his deliverance he saw a greater freedom for the proclamation of the Kingdom than if he was restricted (even though he took opportunity even when he was imprisoned to preach the Gospel - Phil 1:12-18).
Col 4:4 is also an interesting verse because of one specific word (Strongs Greek number 5319) which occurs there and which is translated by the RSV as
‘I may make [it] clear’
Vines speaks of the ‘true meaning’ as being
‘...to uncover, lay bare, reveal...’
‘to make visible or...to become visible’
and the word is used in the NT to speak of revelation given by God, whether it’s something that’s implied by the content of the words (Mark 4:22, John 2:11, 17:6, Rom 3:21) or directly stated (Rom 1:19, 16:26). Jesus is also spoken of as being revealed after the resurrection (Mark 16:12,14, John 21:1,14) and as needing to be revealed to Israel at the start of His ministry to them (John 1:31). Indeed, it seems to be used in a great variety of applications where something which has been revealed is now made known.
Especially significant is the word’s close association with the concept of the ‘mystery’ in four separate occasions in the NT. In Rom 16:25-26, Paul speaks of
‘...the mystery which was kept secret for long ages...’
before continuing to note that it’s now ‘disclosed’ - that is, revealed when it was, at one time, hidden from perception. The same idea occurs in Col 1:26 where Paul says simply that the mystery was
‘...hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest [revealed] to his saints’
The association occurs a little differently in I Tim 3:16 for, having stated the greatness of the mystery of a believer’s ‘religion’, Paul uses the word to speak of the revealing of the Son of God in the flesh where it’s not being directly used to refer to the message of the Gospel. Finally, in Col 4:3-4, Paul speaks about declaring the ‘mystery of Christ’ and that he might
‘...make it clear, as I ought to speak’
Colbrien continues to think of its use here as being closely associated with a revelation which comes directly from God. He comments that
‘...when Paul’s activity is described as making known the mystery, its unique significance of being the proclamation of divine revelation is emphasised...’
using as a foundation that
‘...when used with reference to the manifestation of the mystery...[it] normally describes God’s revelation’
The point, however, doesn’t appear to be that Paul is trying to point at the necessity of a revealing of the mystery by God to men and women as he speaks (though this, of course, is just as necessary and is fundamental to the success of the proclamation taking root in the listeners’ hearts) but upon his own need to uncover the secrets of the Gospel in a manner which can be plainly and clearly understood by those to whom he goes.
Reliance is still upon God because perception is needed that he might present the Gospel in a way that meets the people at the place where they are. The apostle is praying, therefore, that he might be sensitive to the revelation of God as it comes to him and to declare it in a way that makes it open to those who are hearing. Presentation must also be in mind so that the culture to which it’s being brought doesn’t reject it through the words that are being heard - and it’s this that the Colossians are being asked to bring before God as they pray for him.
There’s no doubt that the expressions of the new nature (Col 3:12-17) are meant to overflow out into the world and that they’re not meant to be solely in evidence within the local church. Even the instructions directed towards the three pairs of groups of people (Col 3:18-4:1) isn’t meant to envisage a believing wife, child or slave obeying the rule of a believing husband, father or master because the instructions are seen to go beyond these to encompass even saved/unsaved relationships by another letter writer (I Peter 2:18-23).
But, having said that, these two verses are specifically directed towards an outworking by believers into the society in which they find themselves or, perhaps to give them their full weight, to be lived out whenever a non-believer is encountered, even if that’s within a fellowship meeting.
Paul’s first instruction (Col 4:5) is that the believers are to conduct themselves
‘...wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time’
I’ve defined the concepts of ‘wisdom’, ‘understanding’ and ‘knowledge’ on a previous web page and hopefully showed there that wisdom is best thought of as being the correct course of action in any given situation. I quoted Colcar who summarised the meaning as indicating
‘...the practical application of a divinely given knowledge...’
so that knowing what’s right to do doesn’t come through silent contemplation devoid of any real input but, rather, it springs supernaturally for the believer from a continuing experience of God and His ways. What the apostle is indicating in Col 4:5, then, is that their actions should be well-informed - spiritually speaking - and that what they do is based securely upon the foundation laid in their own lives.
So, there’s really no good purpose in consulting the tea leaves or trying to glean an acceptable course of action from magazines, tv shows or, even, from some Scriptures which have been hastily gathered together for the situation that’s being confronted. Rather, the believer is encouraged to react to and act before non-believers from the richness of their own continuing relationship with God.
Not only this but they’re also to make the most of their time as the second phrase urges. An identical phrase (apart from the Greek word order) occurs in Eph 5:15-16 (my italics) where Paul warns his readers to
‘Look carefully...how you walk - not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time because the days are evil’
Here, the idea of living as wise men is also being encouraged and the context of the verses is that Paul is wanting his readers to live out the way of Christ rather than to take part in the works of darkness that the unbelievers delight in (Eph 5:3ff). Even so, the phrase about making most of the time or, more literally, ‘redeeming (or buying) the time’ doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense if taken as it stands.
Ephlin points towards the phraseology as being particularly at home in the market place and that the word translated ‘time’ (Strongs Greek number 2540) is more likely to refer to time
‘...in the sense of the opportunities it offers, each of which is to be capitalised upon, to be exploited...’
and cites Gal 6:10 where the same word is used and translated by the RSV with the word ‘opportunity’. In Col 4:5, then, from speaking about being wise about how one lives before unbelievers, the apostle turns his attention to the opportunities that such relationships, meetings and associations give to the believer, but he stops short of encouraging them to ‘ceaselessly evangelise’ - that seems to be covered by the instructions that they’re to be wise in their conduct. Even so, Colwright paraphrases the Greek by explaining Paul as saying that
‘...every opportunity is to be snapped up...like a bargain’
The apostle’s second exhortation to the Colossians (Col 4:6) is for them to let their speech
‘...always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one’
where, again, the idea seems to be specifically in believer/unbeliever relationships. The parallel in Eph 4:29 points towards relationships between believers for it speaks about removing ‘evil talk’, replacing it with words which are only
‘...good for edifying, as fits the occasion...’
As such, the verse doesn’t explain the words in Col 4:6. I Peter 3:15 may also be taken to underlie the meaning in a very specialised way for the author comments that believers are to
‘...Always be prepared to make a defence to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence’
But the bottom line here is a response that’s being urged upon the believer by an unbeliever, where the follower of Christ isn’t going out of his way to declare the Gospel but is questioned about some aspect of his life that warrants an adequate response. Again, this is going a bit further than the present verse takes us and, although it might describe one aspect of it, it fails to encapsulate the main meaning that Paul’s writing concerning.
The apostle’s concept of ‘salt’ in metaphorical usage is something about which it’s difficult to be certain. When we looked at Jesus’ statements concerning His disciples being the salt of the earth (Mtw 5:13), I noted that there seemed to be as many interpretations as there were commentators. Even so, Jesus, being a Jew in Israel, would have more likely to have meant that a Rabbinic understanding be placed upon His words than something which was more alien than an integral part of Jewish life.
For this reason, the idea of ‘salt’ being a term used of ‘wisdom’ was particularly clear in Rabbinic usage of the time (see the previously linked web page under the section ‘A Rabbinic interpretation’) and may bleed over into Paul’s use of the term here seeing as he was also a Pharisee before being converted to Jesus Christ (Phil 3:5). Colwright, however, understands the phrase to imply that
‘...their witness [is to be] interesting, lively and colourful...’
a statement which makes it sound as if something approaching entertainment is being impressed upon the Colossians. While ‘witness’ should be weighted with the Holy Spirit, Paul isn’t concerned to speak about techniques but about being careful to select those things that need to be (or shouldn’t be) spoken in conversation. Colbruce observes - somewhat differently - that
‘In pagan usage, “salt” in such a context means “wit”; here perhaps it is rather the saving grace of common sense’
Indeed, judging by the multiplicity of suggested interpretations, we could take any one of a score of interpretations and get something from Paul’s words which may or may not have been intended to be there! It seems more logical to give it a Jewish flavour and to accept the apostle’s words as imploring that wisdom be mixed in with what’s being said so that the believer might know the right words with which to deal with the unsaved.
Perhaps it’s best to summarise the statement as vaguely as possible and note that the believer is being urged to
‘speak appropriate words, appropriately’
and leave it there. A life which is dependant upon God and which is reflecting the nature of God into society should be only a small step away from perceiving what the correct way to deal with people is when encountered.
The words which follow, speaking of the need to know how one might answer each person encountered also lend weight to this view that Paul’s speaking about wisdom, and the believer, from having the attitude that he must portray kindness and compassion in his conversation, should also consider the best way to speak with unbelievers that a ‘word in time’ might be heard.
This doesn’t mean that the cross must be proclaimed at each and every opportunity but that there’s a way of dealing with the unsaved that’s meant to demonstrate the life of Christ both in the manner in which the believer deals with them and in the things which are spoken. Colcar notes that the believer is being encouraged to
‘...exchange the filthy conversation of the world which corrupts both speaker and hearer for the word which is pure and edifying’
so that the believer can be thought of as truly fulfilling the previous command of Paul to make the most of the opportunities that come their way.
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