I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve connected to this letter more than others. I think it’s because it’s easy to hear this letter as a letter to us. It’s in the same historical-redemptive era as us (post-ascension). To a Christian church (as opposed to Titus), and to a congregation Paul hadn’t met personally. How encouraging it would be if we got this from Paul!
Look through the verses to see what he says to them. Imagine him speaking to us. I know of your faith in Jesus, your love for all the saints. I could point to every single person in this room (at least, everyone I know) and I could state evidence of the love you have for saints – giving of your time, money, talents for others, even when it’s not convenient. And even just purely delighting in others you might not normally find enjoyable.
Our faith in the Lord Jesus and love for the saints, it says, exists because of the hope laid up for us in heaven. Isn’t that funny? I thought it would be the other way around. Our faith in Jesus evidenced by our love for the saints is what gets us to heaven, right? Well, that may be true, but the way Paul is using it here, the “hope of heaven” is the reality to which our hope aspires. “The fact that this world is not the end is the basis for believing Christ (faith) and serving others (love)” (New American Commentary). The hope of heaven gives us confidence to trust Christ now because we will meet him then. And we can give of ourselves in love to others because “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”.
Then, look at how Paul says the Gospel came to them: not through a vision or golden tablets, but, though a faithful believer name Epaphras. As Whitney said last week, who brought it to them after hearing it from Paul. It is no different today. We’re just a few degrees removed from that but the gospel, the same message of, as Paul calls it here, the grace of God in truth came to each one of us, came to this church through someone who was faithful to share it.
This gospel is still bearing fruit and increasing all over the world, just as it was then. Paul tells them this to increase their confidence in their budding faith. We want to trust God more than we trust numbers, but Praise God, hearing of the growth of the gospel should give us much confidence. This is happening today! All around the world. Yes, there are still distortions of the gospel, persecution, and false teaching. But the true Gospel is bearing fruit and increasing all around the world even now just as it has here.
Now that we’ve looked at this letter written to them and that could easily have been written to us, let’s look at the theological content.
Even in this introduction, which is mainly to encourage and to pray for the Colossian believers, Paul is teaching them. If you’ve been a Christian and have been reading your Bible for any length of time, you’ll notice how many foundational Christian principles are found in just this section. He is packing it in. This is what? 14 verses! Amazing! Listen to this:
- The trinity – Jesus Christ as Lord, God as father, Jesus as beloved Son, the Spirit
- Faith, hope and love
- Heaven, inheritance
- The Word, the truth, the gospel
- Bearing fruit
- The grace of God and
- Good works
- Knowledge of God (God has revealed himself and can be known by all)
- Endurance, patience, joy
- Giving thanks
- Darkness to light
- Redemption, forgiveness
This is like Christianity 101! Even in these opening verses Paul is laying a foundation, to show contrast between this firm foundation which the Colossian believers already have and the flimsy teachings of the false teachers – as we’ll see later wasting their time (or worse) on worship of angels, visions, not eating certain foods. Here is all you need right here; we don’t improve upon it, we don’t move on from it. We hold fast to it.
He is teaching them what’s important through his encouragement of them (1-8) and he continues teaching them through his prayer in verses 9-14 as well as praying for them. I mean, why else would he have written his prayer down unless he wanted them to learn from it and be encouraged by it.
So after Paul opens by encouraging them in verses 1-8, he says “for this reason…we have not stopped praying for you”. Does that strike you as unusual? He’s saying “we’ve heard of all this good stuff going on among you Colossians, for this reason we have not stopped praying for you. Isn’t it more often for crises that we pray. Like “John lost his job…for this reason I have not stopped praying for him. Betty has a debilitating back injury….for this reason I have not stopped praying for her.” How rarely I think, “I have heard and have seen Jane really growing in love for the saints…for this reason I have not stopped praying for her” The work of our supported workers in Asia is going well and is bearing fruit, Praise God, for this reason I have not stopped praying for them.”
Please don’t misunderstand, in the Bible God tells us he wants us to bring our needs and our cares to him. But how invigorating and God-honoring it is to pray for areas where he is clearly already at work. If God is doing something somewhere, let’s get behind it with our prayers. And if we’re only going to him when we’re in a crisis, maybe that is evidence that we are falling into the same magical, mystical thinking of these false teachers. Like when I have a problem I just “pray to god” and like rubbing my magic talisman, maybe God will make it all better. Our trust is in God our Father, not our prayers.
And yet, Paul prays – he prays to the heavenly Father in whom he trusts for them. This is verses 9-14. I’d like to spend the remainder of our time making 3 observations about this prayer. I hope they will help us as we consider the content of our own prayers.
First, consider Paul’s priorities in this prayer. He is a great example of Col 3:1 – setting his mind on things above, not on things that are on earth. He asks that they would be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding, which is found in knowing Christ (2:3). He asks for this so that they will “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord”. Does this principle remind anyone of another epistle? Maybe one that says “knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness” – right belief leading to right behavior? You thought we were done with that, didn’t you???
Paul’s priority is that people are increasing in the knowledge of God so that they’re bearing fruit in every good work, that they’re strengthened with all power for endurance and patience with joy (not moving on from one spirituality, or book or church to the next, always looking for more, not content with Christ alone), he prays that they would be a thankful people – thankful to God for saving them. When we’re thankful it’s evidence that God’s deliverance of us from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of his beloved Son hasn’t grown old to us. Because when it does, that’s when we’re tempted to move on to some other method or spiritual practice that will fill us instead of being filled in Christ. Let’s let Paul’s priorities in prayer shape our own.
Second, I want us to notice the corporate nature of this prayer. We live in an individualistic age and culture and that colors how we apply this passage. I think I’ve always applied this prayer of Paul’s individually asking that you (Ashley, Elizabeth, etc.) would be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, etc.
And that’s not wrong to do, but when we apply our Bible study tools of asking who, what, where, etc. questions that seem so obvious and rote, it can shed new light on this passage. Because you see, this letter isn’t written to you Elizabeth, you Ashley, you Oesimus, you Nympha, it was written to y’all – the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ at Colossae. You – the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ at Hinson. It was written to the church.
We know this not only from the introduction to the letter but through some of the content. In verse 8 he talks about their love (together) in the spirit. Then in the prayer, he says that the Father God has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. This is a Jewish phrase meant to call to mind the OT people of God coming into the promised land. This prayer is for the people of God. Now we are the people of God, we are the body of Christ together. We discern his will in al spiritual wisdom and understanding together – there are no guru-type figures, no individuals who attain higher levels of spiritual revelation. We have all that we need in Christ together and can help each other grow in wisdom and understanding in the knowledge of God together (just like we are doing right here, right now, on Sunday mornings as we hear God’s word together, as we spend time with one another throughout the week) helping each other walk in a manner worthy of the Lord together. For the sake of God’s glory and reputation we endure together with patience and joy the increasing disapproval of our culture, and as we pray for other churches around the world who face more severe persecution. And let’s be strengthened in our faith as we give thanks to Him together.
Paul’s prayer challenges us with a lot to think about, a lot to do. But who is actually doing it. Each of us? The church? No, it’s God accomplishing all these things behind the scenes, so to speak. Our walking in a manner worthy of him, our growing in the knowledge of him and his will is all his work. Finally, let’s notice how God-centered this passage is.
I know I’ve frequently said to people – thank you, you’ve encouraged my faith. Or thank you for your faithfulness. Look how Paul does it – “we, meaning him and Timothy, always thank God when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, etc.” God is the originator of their faith, so Paul thanks Him, not them.” Look down a little further – he says the gospel bears fruit and is increasing in the world and among them. It’s not that they are doing it, the God’s word is.
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)
If that weren’t enough, look carefully at how Paul uses mainly passive verbs in his prayer (ESV) – he asks that they “may be filled” that they “may be strengthened according to His glorious might”. It’s God who is filling them, who is strengthening them according to His glorious might, then it says He has qualified them to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.
The only action I see is for them is to give thanks. How fitting. We give thanks for what we receive, not for what we have accomplished on our own. It is all God’s work and we rightly give thanks to Him. This is not about us or our works as (look at verse 13) He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Because you, who were dead in your trespasses…God made alive together with Christ, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its’s legal demands. This He set aside nailing it to the cross. And if He had not spared his only son for us, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things. He who began a good work in you, in us, will bring it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus.
Do you want to pray like Paul? Do you want to grow in the knowledge of God? Do we want endurance and patience with joy? Do you want to be bursting with thanks to God? Do you want to walk in a manner worthy of Him? Ask him, like Paul did. Let these be the priorities of your prayers. And let the grace of God in truth be the song of your heart!