Prayer in Colossians

Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written by the apostle to a group of people that he had never met. He knew the Gospel had worked effectively in Colossae, and that a church had been gathered there, but he never made it to the city to personally teach those believers. News of their faith reached him through his coworkers, but along with that good news, he heard reports of false teaching that was starting to pull some of them aside. Paul wanted to write to remind those believers what the truth of the Gospel was that they had believed, and to give them instruction how to remain firm in that truth. Part of his instruction about a sound Christian life was on the topic of prayer. Throughout the letter, Paul either records his own prayers for them or teaches them about prayer. It is an important part of this book. Prayer is just as important for believers today as it was for those believers almost two thousand years ago. By answering four questions about prayer, Paul teaches that it is an indispensible part of a believer’s life.

What is prayer?
Quite simply, prayer is talking to God. While this fact may seem overly basic, is it vital for Christians to remember who it is that they’re speaking to when they pray. Colossians 1:3 states, “We give thanks to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and 1:12 agrees, “Giving thanks to the Father.” Believers can go directly to the creator of the universe. You can talk directly to the person who holds the future of everything in his hands. Remember, no man or animal, priest or idol, rock or building is the recipient of your prayers. God is! There were false teachers in the city of Colossae, and Paul had heard that some of their heresy was making its way into the church. One of his reasons for writing this letter was to stop that infiltration. Part of the disease that was beginning to infect the church was the teaching that you needed things other than Jesus to get to God. By reminding the Colossian believers that they could talk directly to God, Paul was telling those Christians that they didn’t need a man or idol to stand between them and God. They could talk to God just like they talked to the people around them. As you talk to God in prayer, remember what a privilege it is to be able to go directly to the One who made you and to talk to him without ever having to take a number or make a reservation. But never take that privilege lightly or treat it flippantly. On the one hand, the One who hears your prayers is the Holy God of the universe about whom Isaiah said, “Woe is me,” when in his presence. On the other hand, he is “My God,” as David referred to when writing, “Oh God, you are my God.” There is fear and trembling on the one hand, and joy and reverence on the other. You must never forget the tremendous privilege you have as a Christian to be able to speak directly to God. God our Father wants you to pray to him, he wants you to bring your troubles and worries to him, and he openly and happily receives those, because you are his child and he is your Father.

Prayer is not just talking to God. It is also work. Colossians 2:1 states, “I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf,” and Colossians 4:12 describes one of Paul’s coworkers Epaphras as, “Always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers.” The words ‘struggle’ and ‘laboring earnestly’ indicate that there is more to prayer than casual conversation. “How great a struggle I have” could also be translated as “How great a contest I am having.” In Paul’s mind, prayer took effort—great effort, he says. Prayer takes concentration, thought, active participation and engagement of your mind so that you don’t wander off and end up planning your next project instead of talking to God. It takes diligent effort to think about what you’re asking for so that you’re not just mindlessly repeating phrases and sayings that don’t really mean anything. On the one hand, God tells us to bring our requests, but on the other, he’s not Santa Claus. Think about what a department store Santa hears all day, “I want, I want, I want . .” God also wants to hear our praises and thankfulness, along with our requests, but it takes work to get out of a rut so that we’re not endlessly repeating trite, common phrases. Remember, you’re talking to God when you pray. Put your mind in gear. It might help to remember some specific Psalms where David mentions characteristics of God that he was thankful for. It takes work to be prepared to pray. It takes work to keep your mind engaged in prayer.

It is interesting to notice that ‘struggle’ and ‘laboring’ are actually translated from the same Greek word. Paul also used that word in Colossians 1:29 to describe his entire earthly ministry, not just prayer, when he writes, “For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” ‘Striving’ is from the same word as both ‘struggle’ and ‘laboring.’ What was it that Paul was striving to do? He answers that question in the previous verse where it says, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ.” The goal Paul was working towards was to present mature believers to God. He accomplished that goal by striving: working at teaching and proclaiming the Gospel so that unbelievers would hear and be converted. His teaching ministry was work. He had to travel to different cities and spend time speaking so that people could hear the Gospel. But in Paul’s mind, prayer was a ministry of work, too. Remember, Paul was never in the city of Colossae. He never met the Colossian believers or personally taught them, but he expected the same results as if he had been there. To Paul, it was just as effective to travel to a city and teach, as it was to send someone there and pray for their effectiveness. Why? Because he knew that by striving in prayer for the Gospel to work his goal would be accomplished. So he spent as much time working at prayer as he did working at teaching. Paul was not casual about his prayer life. Believers should not view prayer casually either. If you are a Christian, Colossians teaches that you should be working hard at prayer. Prayer is talking to God, and prayer is work

Why should I pray?
Paul gives the Colossian believers four reasons for participating in prayer.

God commands us to pray.
The first is found in Colossians 4:2, “Devote yourselves to prayer.” In other words, if you are a Christian, you should pray because you are commanded to. It is a matter of simple obedience. The priorities of your life should reflect your commitment to prayer. There are some commands for believers in the New Testament that are straight-forward and unavoidable: to pray is one of them. There is no getting away from the fact that if you are a follower of Christ, you are supposed to pray. But just like with kids, as they get older, and are able to understand the ‘whys’ of a command, Paul goes beyond the simple “Do it,” to explain why it’s so important. These believers were more mature, and could handle more than just the command to do it. So Paul provided more reasons for them to pray. As you look at what Paul said he prayed for through out the letter, you can see what he thought prayer could accomplish, and therefore, why he thought it was so important.

Prayer advances the Gospel.
Colossians 4:3–4 states, “Praying at the same time for us as well, that God may open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; in order that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak.” As you pray for foreign missionaries, American church planters, your local body as a whole, and for other believers individually, one of the things you should pray is for the Gospel to have open doors. Paul wanted the Colossian believers to pray in that manner for him because he understood that God would hear this request and cause people to be saved as a result. Colossians 1:6 describes this Gospel process as, “Constantly bearing fruit and increasing.” The end of v. 6 says that this process was going on in the Colossian Christians’ lives. Paul knew that prayer was accomplishing the power of the Gospel in those believers, and he knew it would accomplish it other places too. He knew that prayer was the key to providing opportunities for him to preach the Good News that Jesus died for sinners, and that Christ’s righteousness could be credited to sinners who believed. Paul knew that he could not open those doors himself. He relied on God for open doors and you should too. Prayer is the way to open those doors.

Prayer causes spiritual growth.
Colossians 1:9–11 states, “For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience.” Colossians 2:2–3 puts it this way, “That their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” But it doesn’t end there. In Colossians 4:12, Paul writes, “That you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God.” The spiritual maturity of believers is the result of prayer. Why pray? It causes Christians to grow up. As you are praying for the physical health of another believer, pray for their spiritual health too, and use these verses as a guideline for what God views as spiritual health. Ask that they would be able to rightly apply the knowledge of God’s will to the situations in their lives. Ask that their mindset wouldn’t be like that of someone who was unsaved, but rather like someone who knows God and what his will is for their life. Ask for their spiritual strengthening so that their faith will not be shaken or destroyed when they face trials or difficult situations in their lives.

Prayer prevents heresy and error from advancing into the church.
In Colossians 2:4, Paul writes, “I say this in order that no one may delude you with persuasive argument.” Delude here means, ‘to deceive by false reasoning.’ The art of persuasion is something that successful salespeople know very well. It’s also something that false religious teachers know all too well. The false reasoning and deceptive persuasion from teachers who deny the truth of God’s word have led many people away from the certainty of Scripture and ensnared them in crafty lies. Paul believed that through his prayer, other believers would be strengthened in their faith so that they wouldn’t be pulled aside from the truth of the Gospel. There are many false teachers today that seek to gain a following for themselves instead of pointing people to God. Their teaching can sometimes sound like it’s Biblical, but when examined under the lens of Scripture, it is found to be seriously lacking. A discerning believer will compare what they read and hear with the Bible to see if it’s true or not. Paul believed that through prayer he could build the walls of the church to defend it from the kind of corruption that would tear it down and keep God’s word from spreading. Colossians teaches us that prayer is the response of an obedient believer, it advances the Gospel, it causes believers to grow, and it defends the church from heresy.

When should I pray?
Beginning with Colossians 1:3, Paul describes the frequency of prayer in four ways. He writes there, “Praying always for you;” then in Colossians 1:9, “We have not ceased to pray for you;” and in Colossians 4:2, “Be devoted,” and finally in Colossians 4:12, “Always laboring earnestly for you.” In other words, there is no avoiding the fact that a believer’s life is to be characterized by prayer. To be devoted to prayer means that you are diligent about it, you pay persistent attention to it, you busy yourself with, or that you are busily engaged in it. The words ‘perseverance’ and ‘tenaciousness’ should describe your attitude toward prayer. Remember, prayer is talking to God, it is communication with him. Any relationship requires communication for that relationship to grow. How will your relationship with God grow? By spending time in prayer. Someone who is devoted to prayer will want to talk to God any chance they get. Someone who is persistent in prayer will not stop praying even when a request goes unanswered for a long period of time. Someone who is tenacious in prayer will spend their free time communicating with God. Maybe your free time is in the car every day. You could spend that commute talking to God instead of listening to talk radio. Maybe your free time is while you’re doing the dishes every day. A card up on the shelf under the window could help you remember specific requests to pray for as you stack the dishwasher or scrub the plates. No where in Colossians does Paul tell you to give up your earthly duties and responsibilities and instead spend all your time in some sort of a commune praying. Rather, he seems to be promoting a life that is full of prayer no matter what circumstance you find yourself in. He want you to have a life that doesn’t treat prayer as an after-thought, but as the ‘first thought.’ Don’t let your day go by with the realization that you haven’t talked to God at all. Make sure you pray. Make sure you start and end your day with prayer, and that throughout the day you are devoted to talking to God.

How should I pray?
Paul teaches that you should pray with thankfulness and watchfulness. Five times in Colossians he either demonstrates thankfulness in his own prayers, or commands believers to pray with thankfulness. For instance, in Colossians 1:3 he describes the way he prayed as, “We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you.” And he tells us that we are to be thankful in our prayers in Colossians 3:17 where he writes, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” He also tells us in Colossians 2:7 that our entire life should overflow with gratitude toward God. Our prayers are to be characterized by thankfulness. Paul was even thankful for suffering. We are not just to be thankful for the things we consider to be good, but also for the trials. According to Colossians 4:18, Paul was writing this letter from prison. Even in a difficult situation like that, he demonstrated thankfulness, not bitterness or despair.

Your prayers should not only be characterized by thankfulness, but also by watchfulness. Colossians 4:2 directs you to keep alert in it. Paul writes there, “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving.” Alert means to keep awake, or be on guard. It is similar to Christ’s command to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane in Matt. 26:41 where he said, “Keep watching and praying.” The disciples were unable to obey that command. Perhaps Paul had heard about the disciples falling asleep while waiting in the garden, and would use that as a warning when he taught about prayer. This watchfulness is what a military guard is supposed to be characterized by. A soldier who fails to remain watchful and alert while on duty will quickly find himself under the discipline of his officer. As a Christian, if you fail to remain alert and watchful in prayer, you are ignoring a basic command from God for your life. Colossians teaches that your prayers are to be thankfully watchful.

In Colossians, Paul answers four questions about prayer. What is prayer? Why should I pray? When should I pray? How should I pray? Prayer was a vital part of Paul’s life and he wanted the Colossian believers to be committed to it too. Christians today need to be just as devoted to prayer as Paul was. Through prayer, you can talk to God and accomplish his work in this world.

July 2010

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