Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Paul's Prayer in Colossians 4

One of my convictions that I am writing more and more about is the difference between how we typically pray and what we pray for in our churches.  By comparing his prayer in Scripture to our prayer at church, I believe we can see why we are lacking in power and impact.

Prayer of Paul Colossians 4:2-6
“Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving. 3 At the same time, pray also for us that God may open a door to us for the message, to speak the mystery of the Messiah, for which I am in prison, 4 so that I may reveal it as I am required to speak. 5 Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. 6 Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.”

Sunday 1/22/12 we finished looking at this passage in The Pursuit College Class at Westside Baptist Church.  In the previous post, I broke down our discussion for vs. 2.

At this point, vs. 3, Paul begins asking for prayer for himself.  Considering his circumstances, what he asks for is unexpected.  He is currently in prison in Rome.

If I was in prison, especially unjustly or because of persecution, I would be asking people to pray for my release.  If I wanted a door to be opened, it would be the door to my cell.  I find it odd that he didn’t ask for this.

The Church and Paul had seen their share of prison doors being opened.  Peter was walked out of a prison cell even though he was chained and guarded.  Paul was set free by an earthquake after a night of praising God.  If Paul wanted out of prison, he knew his God could do it.

But an open prison door is not what he asked for.

Instead, he wants people to ask God to pray for an open door to the message of Christ.  He wants more opportunity to do the very thing that put him in prison in the first place: speaking the message of the Mystery of Christ.

What is that Mystery?  Paul says it as if he expects his readers to know.  It’s not supposed to be an unknown.  It’s not supposed to be a secret.  He is trying to “speak it clearly” (NIV) or “reveal” this great mystery.

This full disclosure of the mystery is a strong contrast to the heresy he was combating in this book: an early form of Gnosticism.  “Gnosis” is the Greek word for Knowledge.  This philosophy taught that there was a hidden and secret knowledge that had to be learned from them.  They taught that the message of Paul and the apostles was incomplete—you had to join their group, learn the secret handshakes and go through their rituals in order to learn the real secrets of salvation and the universe.  You needed these secrets in order to obtain salvation, to please God and truly accomplish anything in this existence.

Paul rejects this, which is why he repeatedly uses words like “all”, “every”, and “fullness” throughout chapter 1, particularly verses 9-10: “… asking God to FILL you with the knowledge (epignosis) of His will through ALL spiritual wisdom and understanding.  And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please Him in EVERY way: bearing fruit in EVERY good work, GROWING in the knowledge (epignosis) of God.”
We can be filled with experiential knowledge without anything held back or kept secret.   

Remember this was the original lie from Genesis 3—that God was holding out on you, He’s keeping some knowledge to Himself because He doesn’t want the competition of others “being like [Him]”.  We don’t need the secrets of the Gnostics to be able to please God, to bear fruit or grow in our relationship with Him.

What secrets or mysteries there are, Paul wants to reveal and bring out into the open because that is the basis and foundation of the Good News.  It is the same thing that Peter identifies as something even the angels long to look into—the efforts & lengths throughout history God has gone to in order to bring about salvation of sinful people & reconciliation--reconciliation between God and man, and Jew & Gentile.

Romans 16:25
“Now to Him who has power to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation about Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the •mystery kept silent for long ages 26 but now revealed and made known through the prophetic Scriptures, according to the command of the eternal God to advance the obedience of faith among all nations — 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ —to Him be the glory forever!•Amen.”

The Scriptures have been telling a story of what God is doing –“kept silent for long ages”—see also Ephesians 3:5 & 3:9 for similar statements of things hidden in past generations.

Paul says the “Mystery”, what has been unknown to previous generations, what the Patriarchs & Prophets were looking forward to, the Scriptures testifying to; he says this has now been revealed and made known—it is no longer hidden. 

It is the Mystery of how God could restore all of Creation to it’s true purpose before the Corruption, the seemingly impossible task of making sinful humanity a New Creation, reconciling and restoring relationship between God and humanity (Eph. 3: 12—“through faith in Him we may approach God with freedom and confidence”). 

Included in the Mystery is the reconciliation of the division between Jew & Gentile (Eph. 3:6—“this mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body…”—see also Romans 11:25) all of this is “accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord”.

God had been pointing forward in the Old Testament Scriptures to the Promise and coming of the Messiah—it was a mystery because there was not full disclosure, but it was also something we could never have imagined. 

If I was going to plan a way to save the world—sending Jesus to the Cross would not have been how I pulled it off.  It truly is foolishness and a stumbling block.

Paul was asking people to pray that he have even more opportunities to explain this mystery.  It’s not something that is supposed to be kept secret but proclaimed from the rooftops.  He wants prayer for when those moments come, he will express it all clearly, reveal it powerfully in such a way that connects to the heart of the hearer(s).  This is despite the fact that it’s his efforts at explaining the Mystery is the very thing that has landed him in jail and got him in so much trouble—see 2 Corinthians 11:21-28 for a list of his experiences.
But those hardships also opened the door of opportunity.  For example see Philippians 1:12-13—“Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.  As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.”

Apparently, Paul’s guards were getting an earful; and in an opportune reversal, Paul was not the captive audience!  This is consistent with early church and Roman history that Christianity made significant advances among people in the military.

Paul is there being held for trial before Roman authorities, possibly Caesar himself because of his arrest in Jerusalem.  And he is not asking for justice or leniency but rather that he would be able to explain his cause, the Gospel, clearly: even to the officials deciding his fate.
In that regard, he returns to instructing and praying for his readers to “act wisely toward outsiders”.  He does this for a few reasons.  First, some outsiders to the cause of Christ are dangerous.  To them, we must follow the command of Jesus to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”—Matthew 10:16.  Second, while some outsiders are dangerous, not all of them are—do not turn everything into an “us v. them” mentality because that effects the third reason: 

All Outsiders are Potential Insiders

—and how you act toward or respond to them can make a difference.  If someone is going to reject the Gospel, Paul wants it to be because of the actual claims and teachings of Jesus—he doesn’t want to be the reason.  He understands, as we should, that many outsiders judge Jesus based not on Him or His teachings, but because of what they see out of us—the people who are supposed to be like Him.

Be wise, be discerning and attentive.  Make the most of every opportunity.  If you sense an openness to hearing about Jesus—do not let fear of what may happen to you or embarrassment keep you quiet.  If God opens a door—be paying attention enough to notice it, then ask for the boldness to step through that door.

This also implies that not every moment, not every encounter, not every conversation is an open door to share the Gospel because that door may be temporarily shut.  Be wise and discerning. 

Surely you know those people who turn every conversation into something about Jesus.  Many non-believers and even some believers find the person frustrating or annoying.  Now don’t get me wrong, I can be one of those people.  Many conversations can and should be turned to address spiritual needs or questions and can be done easily without feeling forced.  But there are times when such a transition is forced.  Sometimes you and I just need to enjoy a conversation about football or some other topic and demonstrate that we can be related to.

But again, if the Holy Spirit reveals a way to direct the conversation to the Gospel, don’t talk yourself out of it!  Make the most of the opportunity and the prompting of the Spirit—don’t worry about what you will say but trust the Spirit to give you the words.  Don’t worry about the results for truly only God softens hearts.  Do not fear your friends’ opinions, rather fear the LORD and concern yourself with His opinion.  Be a servant of Jesus and not a slave to your fear.

Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.”

If you want to make the most of the opportunity, how you talk, what you talk about, even the words you use does make a difference.  The conversation of a believer needs to be full of grace.  If we are constantly complaining, constantly gossiping about others, constantly tearing someone else down or blaming someone for things that are wrong—then our joy is not on display and we prove ourselves to be hypocrites.  Jesus himself said in Matthew 15:18—“but the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart…”.  The list that follows shows that our speech displays our hearts and thoughts of hatred, lust, lying and slander.

Our conversation must be gracious but also seasoned with “salt”.  On one hand, salt makes food and things more “tasty” or appealing & palatable.  But I believe in this context, salt represents the Truth.  Truth is not always something people want to hear but we as believers should not shy away from it. 

It is possible to be sharing the truth in a harmful or hurtful way.  Much has been said of “Bible thumpers” and people who are so harsh in their condemnation that the truth of what they are saying is lost.

An open door, an opportunity to share Christ must be met with both Grace & Truth.  If you lack either, then you are not making the most of the opportunity, nor proclaiming the Mysterious Good News clearly.  Some people are so “gracious” in their conversation that they never confront an uncomfortable subject or an inconvenient truth for fear of offending.  I can understand that. 

I imagine doctors hate having to tell their patients the bad news of their diagnosis.  However, that doctor would be a failure if out of fear of a hard conversation rather told their patient that “everything was alright.”  On the flip side, many doctors can reveal the truth of a diagnosis without any sense of a “bedside manner” and they come across cruel and heartless.

Jesus said it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.  He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.  The diagnosis is that a person is a sinner and in need of the cure that comes through Jesus’ work on the Cross.  If your conversation has all grace, you may never point out this truth.  If your conversation has no grace, the truth of their situation may contribute to them avoiding the needed cure.

Grace and Truth must be a necessary part of making the most of every opportunity.  We as a church need to be praying and asking God for these things and when we do, we will be able “to answer everyone.”
  1. God, please open a door of opportunity for me, our church to share Jesus 
  2. God, please help me reveal the truth of the Good News Clearly 
  3.  God, help me be wise toward those who do not yet know You 
  4. God, help me recognize those moments of opportunity and have boldness to speak 
  5. God, fill my conversation with grace and truth. 
  6.  God, I know I don’t have all the answers, but You do.  Help me answer and respond to everyone—always being prepared (see 1 Peter 3:15-16)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Three Lessons on Prayer from Colossians 4

In the college Sunday school class at Westside Baptist Church, we’ve been going through the prayers of Paul.  It’s been a good class.  As always, I don’t always know where it’s going to end up.  And several of the students made good contributions.

Today we were going over Paul’s prayer in Colossians 4:2—“Devote (diligent or steadfast) yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.”
We learn three things about prayer in the passage.

1.    Prayer requires devotion/diligence/steadfastness
2.   Prayer requires Watchfulness/Alertness
3.   Prayer requires Thankfulness

1.    Prayer needs deliberate attention and a part of our daily existence. 
Not to be neglected, taken for granted or ignored.  We have the opportunity to approach the throne of grace by God’s invitation.

Prayer can be easy—there are times when it comes naturally and flows from the heart just like breathing.  Sometimes waking up in the morning is like that.  In many instances, difficulty or trouble causes prayer to roll off the tongue because we are asking for help.

But prayer can also be hard.  There are times when I don’t want to go to God in prayer.  It’s usually after I have messed up in some way.  Praying when I know I need to repent is difficult.  It’s sometimes hard when He is not doing what I think He should—when I’m angry, confused or upset.  It’s hard when 

I’ve been asking or praying about the same thing for a long time, but not seen any movement or activity from Him (that I can tell).

We must be devoted to Prayer, steadfast and diligent in it—showing commitment and perseverance.  We should not quit or give up because to do so is a sign that you really don’t believe God is going to hear or act—or you do not trust His answer.  For example, sometimes I pray like a child asks a parent for permission—I try to figure out which one will give me the answer I want and I’ll ask them first.  Well, if I think I know God is not going to answer, or think He’s not going to give the answer I want, I won’t want to pray.

Prayer doesn’t always come easily or naturally, so we must be diligent in it.  It should be a part of your nature and who you are, like in the movie
Shadowlands where Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis says of prayer:

"I pray because I can't help myself.  I pray because I'm helpless.  I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping.  It doesn't change God.  It changes me."

2.  But why do we need to be Watchful or Alert in prayer? 
How is that possible since we typically close our eyes during prayer (at least in our culture)?  Maybe it means something more than physical sight.

One of my college students brilliantly pointed out that maybe our prayer time is a moment to be practicing and honing our “ninja senses”.  We all laughed at the comment, but maybe it’s not as far off as you might first think.  There are two ways I think he is on to something.

First, we need to be watchful or alert in prayer for the opportunity to pray and bring something before God.  People are hurting all around us, people are in need.  Moments of ministry and encouragement are there right before us, but if we are not paying attention, the door of opportunity will slip by. 

We have not because we ask not, Jesus said.  Paraphrasing… we see not (no answer to prayer) because we do not see the opportunity to pray and ask.
There are many more things that we should be praying for and bringing before God but we don’t see them as a need or something that merits praying about.   
Maybe we see them as trivial and insignificant, maybe we’re so caught up in our own life and what’s happening in that moment, that we don’t allow our mind to move toward prayer.

Nothing is too trivial.  But we are way too distracted.  We don’t like uncomfortable silences, so we are not comfortable with our own thoughts.   

We’ve always got to have noise, the TV on, music playing… while those things are not wrong, they do often prevent our mind from thinking and considering its own thoughts and concerns.

And because of that, we need to be Watchful and Alert for the Opportunity for Prayer.

Second, we need to be watchful and alert because Prayer truly is the front lines of the Battle.  We do have an enemy that is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  We do have armor that we are supposed to put on in fighting the battle that is not against flesh and blood.

In that context of the Armor of God from Ephesians 6, Paul brings up the subject of prayer.  Ephesians 6:18—“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”

Paul urges us to pray in the Spirit because it doesn’t happen automatically and doesn’t come naturally.  Our mind does wander, our worries do overwhelm us.  We don’t necessarily take the situation or our enemy seriously so we just go through the motions.

That last point is worth hitting a little harder.  Think of the experience of our military personnel.  When the enemy is openly firing, everybody is tense and paying close attention to the battle.  When you know the enemy is there and you just haven’t found him yet, you’re listening for any stray sound, watching for any stray movement, careful for traps and ambush points. 

But the longer the enemy has been inactive or not a threat, the more relaxed our guard becomes.  We don’t listen as carefully.  In essence, we are not taking the enemy seriously and so we are less watchful and alert.

That is the state of many believers today.  We do not directly feel threatened by the enemy.  Too many of us dismiss the spiritual battle and old superstition from people who didn’t know how to explain what’s going on the world.  In some cases, that’s true. 

But the enemy is very real and demands our full attention.  In the moments that we lose that sense of battle, when we think everything is fine, we lose the urgency of prayer.

And so we are not devoted to it and we are more likely to be going through the motions if we go through them at all.

3.  Lastly, we must be Thankful
Thankfulness requires recognition: recognition that what you have or where you are is not merely a product of your own accomplishments and ingenuity.   

Thankfulness requires that we acknowledge that Active involvement of someone greater than ourselves for our existence and circumstances. 

The old expression of 2 Certain Truths, comes to mind.   
1.  There is a God.   
2.  I’m not/You’re not Him

If you really believe that, then you will acknowledge that with Thankfulness.  Thankfulness is giving Him credit, honoring Him, acknowledging that He is the greater, the Sovereign Power before whom you have been granted an audience.

Realize that God is not obligated in any way to hear our prayer.  He is not obligated to respond in any way to our prayer. 

He could consider them a nuisance much like Jim Carrey’s character did in Bruce Almighty.  In the movie, Jim Carrey thinks he can do a better job than God at running the universe.   So God gives him a shot at it. 

In one brilliant scene, Jim is supposed to answer people’s prayer.  When he listens, all the voices overwhelm him, so he sets up a computer system, like e-mail to respond.   He works as fast as he can but the number of prayers and requests keeps on climbing to which he responds, “What a bunch of whiners!”

That could be God’s opinion of us.  Most other religions, especially ancient Babylonian depicted their gods being annoyed by the noisy humans.  But our God does not want us at a distance.  He wants us close and invites us into His presence (Hebrews 4:16, 10:19-22, 1 John 3:21-22).  He considers the prayer of His people a pleasing aroma rising to Him like the burning of incense (Revelation 5:8).  Even when we don’t know what to pray for, we have the Holy Spirit interceding on our behalf with more than we can express (Romans 8:26-27).

We have an audience with the King, the Creator of the Universe.  We owe Him our very existence and every day is a gift.  The relationships we have with family and friends are gifts.  Our possessions, our opportunities, are all for His Glory. 

If we really understood that, believed that, and lived that… Thankfulness would pour out of our mouths and prayer wouldn’t really be all that hard.  We would be compelled to pray because we know we have the audience of the king—

Such moments cannot be squandered or wasted.  We must take seriously that time before Him.  We must be watchful and alert or risk disrespecting the awesome power and authority and dignity He possesses.  And we must be thankful for those precious moments, when the Authority lowers His guard and invites us up into His lap as a Father who truly loves us.

May we be evermore Devoted to Prayer
May we be evermore Alert & Watchful through Prayer
May we be evermore Thankful in Prayer

Our lives, our churches and this world would truly be changed.

Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life