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.
Colossians 4:2-6 ESV
In this penultimate section of our study through Colossians, Paul continues his dive into applying the theology of chapters one and two. Chapter three established that Jesus is our life; therefore, we will strive to love one another, kill our sin, and display Jesus to those around us. Now Paul turns his attention to how Christians should treat nonbelievers around them. Paul’s evangelistic heart is on full display in this text as he prays for greater boldness to proclaim Christ, even though he was already in prison for preaching Jesus.
WATCHFUL & STEADFAST PRAYER // VERSE 2
As Paul begins to conclude his letter, he urges the Colossians to be steadfast in prayer. This is significant because there is likely nothing so crucial (but often neglected) in the Christian’s daily life as prayer. At its core, prayer is communication with God. Because of Jesus, we come to God as our Father in prayer, seeking His will, giving thanks, and making requests. Indeed, prayer is one of the greatest graces given to us in Christ. How often we take for granted our unprecedented access to speak with the God of the universe! Each time we pray, it is nothing short of a miracle that God lovingly listens to us. Praying with thanksgiving, then, is entirely logical. If we do not deserve to be able to pray but God has made a way for us to do so, then we should be exuberantly gracious in regards to prayer. The Creator of all things has given us unbridled access to speak with Him; pray then with thanksgiving!
Of course, discussing the marvelous grace of prayer does not remove the fact that prayer is, at times, quite difficult. The apostle acknowledges the difficulty of prayer by encouraging steadfastness and watchfulness. Arguably the greatest enemy of prayer is concentration—or more accurately, the lack thereof. Paul is not naïve to think that no Christian will ever struggle with having a focused prayer time. In fact, recall Jesus’ disciples in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was wrestling in prayer with His Father about His crucifixion, and he brought Peter, James, and John along to pray with Him. The three disciples continuously fell asleep instead of praying (Matt. 26:36-46). The issue of concentrating on prayer has always been an issue, but I argue never more so than today. With the advent of the smart phone, modern society is constantly connected to the world via the internet. Especially given the rise of social media such as Instagram and Twitter, much of our content is now available in bite sized chunks, so we can quickly move on to our next piece of entertainment. This has left our society, in general, with an increasingly goldfish-sized attention span. This means that it is more important than ever to be watchful in prayer. Intentionally setting aside the phone for a time each day to pray is crucial for walking with Christ well. “Vigilant prayer provides the spiritual fortitude to face down temptation” (Garland, 271).
PRAY ALSO FOR US // VERSES 3-4
After challenging the Colossians to make prayer a priority, he now urges them to pray specifically for him and his comrades in ministry. These are fitting verses for the end of Colossians because at the beginning of the letter, we saw how Paul prayed for the Colossians. Now Paul is telling the Colossians how they can pray for him. We have the benefit of knowing how the apostle prayed for others and what he wanted others to pray for him. Let us observe Paul’s two requests for prayer.
First, Paul tells them to pray for open doors for the word. By this phrasing alone, we might have some debate as to the apostle’s meaning, but fortunately, he clarifies by stating, “to declare the mystery of Christ.” Thus, Paul wants them to pray for opportunities for him to proclaim the gospel. As a minister of the word, it makes sense that Paul would request prayer for such a matter. In Acts, we find Paul reporting his missionary work a church by declaring “all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). By speaking in this manner, Paul is placing the weight of his work on God. The apostle knew that he could share the gospel all day using the most persuasive arguments possible, but unless God opened a door for people to understand, nothing would happen. Evangelism is God’s doing; He only invites us to come along for the ride. This is a liberating principle. We are merely called to be faithful; God will produce fruit.
Also, notice Paul’s final phrase in verse 3: “on account of which I am in prison.” This informs us for the first time in the letter that Paul wrote Colossians from a prison cell. Paul was held in an ancient prison because he preached the gospel. The apostle makes that abundantly clear. Knowing my heart, if I were in Paul’s situation, I would certainly be praying for my release. Ancient prisons were not nearly as humane as our current system is, so we would understand if Paul desired to be free from his imprisonment. However, the apostle does not ask for prayer to be freed or even for more comfort in his circumstance. Paul prays for more opportunities to do what placed him in prison in the first place. This resembles the arrest of Peter and John in Acts 4. After Jewish leaders warned the two disciples against proclaiming the name of Christ, they returned to the church and prayed “to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). We must understand that God never promises ease and comfort for disciples of Christ. Instead, the Bible warns many times about the presence for trials and hardship for believers (John 16:33; 2 Tim. 2:8-9, 3:12; Ps. 34:19, 119:71; Matt. 5:10; Mark 13:13). A life of ease is not the norm for Christians but rather an oddity. Paul’s words to Timothy forever ring true: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound” (2 Tim. 2:8-9)!
He asks their prayer not so much for himself as for his work. There were many things for which Paul might have asked them to pray—release from prison, a successful outcome to his coming trial, a little rest and peace at the last. But he asks them to pray only that here may be given to him strength and opportunity to do the work which had sent him into the world to do. When we pray for ourselves and for others, we should not ask release from any task, but rather strength to complete the task which has been given us to do. Prayer should always be for power and seldom for release; for not release but conquest must be the keynote of the Christian life.Barclay, 167.
Second, Paul urges them to pray for clarity of speech. He not only wants opportunities to be opened for him to proclaim the gospel; he wants to be clear in presenting the gospel. Though Paul understood that God ultimately does the work in evangelism, he still felt the responsibility to make the message known as clearly as possible. The apostle thought of it as his duty to speak the gospel clearly. In fact, Garland points out, “A better translation might be, “as I am bound to do.” Paul is bound more by his commission to preach the gospel (1 Cor. 9:16–23) than by his chains” (Garland, 273). The chains of prison could not keep him from proclaiming the gospel every opportunity that he had.
Of course, to do this text justice, we must apply Paul’s words to our own lives. How frequently do we pray for opportunities to proclaim the gospel? Are we bound to speaking the mystery of Christ clearly, as Paul was? Do we pray for our pastor as he proclaims the Word each week?
A visitor at Spurgeon’s Tabernacle in London was being shown around the building by the pastor, Charles Spurgeon.
Would you like to see the powerhouse of this ministry?” Spurgeon asked, as he showed the man into a lower auditorium. “It is here that we get our power, for while I am preaching upstairs, hundreds of my people are in this room praying.” Is it any wonder that God blessed Spurgeon’s preaching of the Word?
You, as a church member, can assist your pastor in the preaching of the Word by praying for him. Never say to your pastor, “Well, the least I can do is to pray for you.” The most you can do is to pray! Pray for your pastor as he prepares the Word, studies, and meditates. Pray that the Holy Spirit will give deeper insights into the truths of the Word. Pray too that your pastor will practice the Word that he preaches so that it will be real in his own life. As he preaches the message, pray that the Spirit will give him freedom of utterance, and that the Word will reach into hearts and minds in a powerful way. (It wouldn’t hurt to pray for other church leaders too.)Wiersbe, 147.
WALK IN WISDOM // VERSE 5
After urging prayer for himself, Paul returns to giving the Colossians principles for how to live for Christ. The apostle encourages the Colossian believers to live wisely toward outsiders. By outsiders, Paul most certainly means non-Christians. His plea for wisdom is well-founded, especially in the first century church. Persecution of believers was common and widespread for the first three hundred years, and most of the governments’ hatred for Christianity stemmed from a misunderstanding of the religion. The Christians’ practice of taking in discarded children and weekly gatherings for their “love feast” were viewed by the Roman Empire as being quite cultish. Add to this the fact that Christians refused to proclaim the Emperor as lord, and you have a recipe for conflict. Paul, therefore, urges them to walk wisely, so they do not needlessly put off any nonbelievers. We do not want any aspect of our lives to hinder the credibility of the gospel.
While walking in wisdom, we must also make the best use of our time. The brevity of life is no secret. We possess today, but there is no guarantee that tomorrow will come. Whether by our own deaths or by the coming of our Lord, our life as we know it could end at any given moment. Our wise demeanor should be punctuated by a sort of feral earnestness that understands how short our time is. The time that we have left is on a countdown clock, and we must make the most of the time we have left. Paul likely has in mind something similar to Jesus’ words: “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16).”
This story has often been told about Dr. Will H. Houghton, who pastored the Calvary Baptist Church in New York City and later served as president of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute till his death in 1946. When Dr. Houghton became pastor of the Baptist Tabernacle in Atlanta, a man in that city hired a private detective to follow Dr. Houghton and report on his conduct. After a few weeks, the detective was able to report to the man that Dr. Houghton’s life matched his preaching. As a result, that man became a Christian.Wiersbe, 147-148.
GRACIOUS & SEASONED SPEECH // VERSE 6
Paul’s attention now turns from our behaviors to our speech. First, the apostle urges gracious speaking. It stands to reason that if we have experienced the marvelous grace of Christ in our lives, then our actions and speech should also be gracious.
Contrast the case of those “of the world” who “therefore speak of the world” (1 Jn 4:5). Even the smallest leaf of the believer should be full of the sap of the Holy Spirit (Je 17:7, 8). His conversation should be cheerful without levity, serious without gloom. Compare Lu 4:22; Jn 7:46, as to Jesus’ speech.Jamieson, 382.
Second, our speech should be “seasoned with salt.” Jesus mentioned the importance of His followers being like salt: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? Its is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matt. 5:13). I believe salty speaking refers to two things: flavor and preserving. Just as salt adds flavor to food, so should our speech be flavorful. In fact, most commentators view Paul’s usage of salt here to mean a degree of wittiness. As followers of Christ, we should strive to be enjoyable people to converse with. No one wants to here “good news” from a bore. Also, as salt acted as a preservative, keeping the food wholesome, our speech should be the same. In Ephesians, Paul mentions the corrosive effect of filthy speech: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 5:29). This corrupting talk is not exclusively reserved for cuss words. In fact, Paul does not have in mind particular words here; instead, salty or corrupting speech are contingent upon what we are saying. Are we building others up with our words or tearing them down? Are we, with our speech, preserving the character of an individual or ruining them?
Third, we should speak graciously and with salt in order that we can know how to answer every person. Paul understands that each person is a individual with their own thoughts, feelings, emotions, joys, sorrows, fears, etc. Therefore, we should not speak about Jesus the exact same way with everyone. This is, in my opinion, one of the great dangers of gospel tracts. Too great of a reliance upon tracts to share the gospel can lead to seeing people as projects instead of as people. We must remember that every person is a unique individual with an eternal destiny. Peter writes in his first epistle that we must always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). Our hopeful and gracious deeds and speech should lead those around us to ask questions about why we act the way that we act. We must always be ready to answer, with grace and gentleness, that Jesus is the hope.