Paul wraps up his admonitions to Christian living by turning the focus outside the church. To this point he has instructed the Colossians on how to live within the community and interact with fellow believers. Now he commands them to look outside the body as well. Every believer lives under the final words of Christ – “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:19). Paul reinforces Christ’s commission by instructing them to pray for open doors, conduct themselves wisely toward unbelievers, and speak in a way that makes the gospel attractive. All Christians have a responsibility to fulfill Christ’s words. Paul gives us more instruction on how to do it.
This verse could stand alone as an instruction about prayer. It is true even if it were lifted from this text. All prayer should be laced with thanksgiving and should have an element of watching and waiting. However, that it is part of a sentence that does not end until verse 4 means that it likely should be read in the context of the whole paragraph. Paul wants the Colossians to pray, but he specifically wants them to pray about spreading the gospel.
He tells them to devote themselves to prayer. Prayer for Paul is always a way of life. He tells the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing (I Thess 5:17) and tells the Philippians to pray about everything (Phil 4:6). Prayer is not an addition to life or something to do only in the very bad or very good times. It is a way of life. It is to be as much a part of the fabric of daily living for the believer as eating and breathing. Nothing is outside the bounds of prayer and no time is inappropriate for prayer. It is something to be devoted to: staunchly committed to continue at all times and never give up practicing on all occasions.
How to pray? Stay alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving. Pray with a watchful perspective. Pray always expecting God to act and always alert both to the power of God and the power of temptation away from God. Believers must never let down their guard against the world and against the schemes of the Enemy. Pray with an underlying attitude of desperation that understands Jesus’ words – “apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). The believer has to be ready to give an account of the hope within him, but only the renewed heart will be able to respond to the opportunities God provides.
Along with being alert, the believer should fill his prayer with thanksgiving. If the one praying understands God enough to be watchful and expectant, then he will understand how much he has to be thankful for. This goes along with so much of the rest of the book (1:3, 3:15-17) and also Paul’s opening prayer for the Colossians where he prayed that they would joyously give thanks for being able to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (1:11-12). Regardless of circumstances, the believer always has an enormous debt of gratitude to the Father because of the gospel. The ultimate trump card of salvation – And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son (I Jn 5:11) – surpasses any condition and should awaken in us a fountain of thanksgiving.
Giving thanks in prayer ensures the focus of the prayer is God rather than ourselves. Prayer should not entirely be made up of requests. We not only need Gods’ help and strength, we also need to continually remind ourselves of who and what He is. Praise and thanks need to be ongoing parts of prayer to make sure our perspective does not get skewed into treating God as the great genie in the sky who is there at our bidding. Remember that Jesus said God already knows what we need before we ask Him (Matt 6:8). God-focused prayer allows us to know God and commune with Him – and that kind of prayer should awaken in us praise and thanksgiving.
Paul asks the Colossians to pray at the same time for him. He asks them to pray for the furtherance of his ministry of spreading the good news. He has already laid out what his calling is – to proclaim the gospel and present every man complete in Christ (1:24-29). He now asks that they pray for God’s provision in it. He wants them to pray that God will open doors – give opportunities – for the word to be proclaimed and that he will proclaim it boldly and clearly.
Remember where he is as he writes this. He is under house arrest in Rome, likely chained to a Roman soldier. Yet he does not ask them to pray for his release. He asks that they pray for further opportunities to complete his calling. He is so committed to the gospel that prison does not change his sense of responsibility to it or his urgency to proclaim it at all (and he tells the Philippians that his circumstances actually facilitate the greater progress of the gospel – Phil 1:12-18). His main request is for God to open doors so more people can hear it, and that he speak it clearly so more can understand it. He even says he is imprisoned because of the gospel – yet he asks them to pray that he can proclaim it all the more. Prison is just a change of venue for his ministry – not a reason to suspend it. [This is not to say that he is not mindful of his status – he will close the letter asking them to remember his imprisonment (vs 18).]
So verses 2-4 are all about taking the unsaved to God (see parallel passage in Eph 6:18-20). We devote ourselves to prayer for others. We do not give up (no matter how hopeless the situation or anti-gospel the person). We stay watchful and thankful as we pray for God to open doors to the gospel and to give us clarity and boldness as we proclaim it. We never stop praying for the lost and for God to give us opportunities to reach those around us. We stay devoted to the task knowing that God has to open doors and change hearts – we cannot do it. But what we can do is persevere and keep watchful diligence over our hearts so we are always prepared for when the doors open.
In November, 1844, I began to pray for the conversion of five individuals. I prayed every day without a single intermission, whether sick or in health, on the land or on the sea, and whatever the pressure of my engagements might be. Eighteen months elapsed before the first of the five was converted. I thanked God and prayed on for the others. Five years elapsed, and then the second was converted. I thanked God for the second, and prayed on for the other three. Day by day I continued to pray for them, and six years passed before the third was converted. I thanked God for the three, and went on praying for the other two. These two remain unconverted.
The man to whom God in the riches of His grace has given tens of thousands of answers to prayer in the self-same hour or day in which they were offered has been praying day by day for nearly 36 years for the conversion of these individuals, and yet they remain unconverted. But I hope in God, I pray on, and look yet for the answer. They are not converted yet, but they will be.
– George Mueller [He prayed for them a total of 52 years until his death – they both were saved after he died]
Paul instructs the Colossians on how to interact with outsiders – unbelievers. The context suggests this is a continuation of his thoughts in verses 3 and 4, so what he says here all has to do with taking the gospel to the lost. He first wants believers to conduct themselves with wisdom toward outsiders. Wisdom would seem to mean living righteously – keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles (I Pet 2:12) – and in a way that seeks to know and understand the lost (this is implied by the rest of verse 5 and by verse 6). The wise man looks to bring people to God and so always has this mission underlying his interactions with the unsaved. He wants to know them in a way that he can speak to their lives with the gospel. As part of this he also understands that he must have a testimony that does not contradict what he proclaims. It is impossible to talk about the gospel if a lifestyle shows it has very little impact.
Believers act wisely toward outsiders so they can be ready when God provides open doors. When the opportunity arises to proclaim the gospel the disciple must react with a sense of urgency and make the most of the time. It is what he prays diligently for, so he must be ready when God answers the prayer.
When he proclaims the gospel he must speak with grace – kindness, love, mercy, politeness, pleasantness. Peter says the believer must speak with gentleness and reverence (I Pet 3:15). Paul later tells Timothy to correct unbelievers with gentleness and kindness (II Tim 2:24-26). All have to do with avoiding an argumentative style. The gospel is to go out with love – not as a weapon.
To further this idea he says the presentation of the gospel must be seasoned with salt – spoken in a way that attracts others. Salt in conversation carries with it the idea of being winsome or stimulating (not what we think of when we describe someone’s language today as ‘salty’). Here it likely means making the gospel attractive – not putting others off with its presentation. This would seem to preclude forcing it on others or presenting it in inappropriate ways or at inappropriate times. The believer is not called to continually hammer people with the gospel or to ensure he becomes socially ostracized by making himself unbearable. If he prays for God to open doors then the believer responds to opportunities in a gracious and thankful manner.
As God opens doors, each opportunity and circumstance and person will be different. The believer needs to know how to respond to each one (he needs to act wisely toward them). No two people are alike and no two people are in the same life setting. Thus the believer must communicate the gospel in a way that addresses different people differently. The message does not change – the gospel is the gospel. But the method of communicating it or the specific needs addressed might change with each person. And the believer must be plugged in enough to those around him and acting in such a way that when God opens the door he knows how to enter in. This verse seems to presume that believers will be engaged and connected with unbelievers around them.
We are to be evangelistic in our focus. Christ’s last words to His disciples were, “Go and make disciples” (Matt 28:19) and “You shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We may not be called to be pastors or teachers, but we are called to evangelize whatever our gifts.
So how do we fulfill the mission? First we must pray. We must pray continually and devotedly. Pray without end for the lost and for God to give us opportunities to minister to them with the gospel. Without prayer evangelism is hopeless. We pray for God to open doors and we pray that when presented with those open doors we will speak boldly and clearly. Note that Paul in verse 4 seems to ask for both – clarity and courage. He wants the Colossians to pray that he will speak the truth so it is understandable but also that he will in fact proclaim it. So as part of our devotion to prayer we should pray both for the lost and for ourselves, that we recognize the opportunities God gives us and have the boldness to speak when the opportunity arises.
But we must also conduct ourselves appropriately with those outside the faith (and we cannot conduct ourselves wisely with those we do not know – Paul assumes we will connect with the lost). Always be cognizant of our testimony and how our choices and words reflect on the gospel and our Savior. Speak always with grace but especially when discussing anything that has to do with what we believe and why. Never lose sight of how our lives are a living testimony to the gospel. We are called to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven and so must put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus (3:12,17).
And be ready – when God opens the door we must be ready and willing to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you (I Pet 3:15). Proclaim the gospel when the time is right and proclaim it graciously and lovingly – making the most of the opportunities God gives us. Respond to each person as is appropriate to his condition and respond in a way that makes the gospel attractive.
There is obviously great encouragement in these verses – we have prayer at our disposal in ministering to the lost and ultimately it is God who opens doors to the gospel – but there is also great responsibility. Paul seems to assume that the Colossians will engage the unsaved and seek to bring them to Christ. He implicitly speaks against an insular Christianity. He does say to respond (similar to what Peter says in I Pet 3:15) rather than preach, but along with that says we should act with wisdom toward the lost and make the most of the opportunities God gives us. We are always dependent on God to move hearts and give openings to the gospel, but that does not mean we are passive observers to its spread. We must live with the gospel at the heart of everything we do, and that includes fostering relationships with the lost just so we can minister to them with it.
The prayerful man with his mind attuned to God will likely find there are many more opportunities to talk about the gospel than he would ever recognize on his own. We are not responsible for opening doors but we are responsible for continually watching for when they open and having an attitude of vigilant readiness. It is too easy sometimes to give ourselves a pass and go for months and years without every testifying to the hope within us because we assume it is a divine responsibility to bring people to us and we do not have to worry about it. We are in fact to respond, but the response is ultimately to God and His Spirit working in those around us. The one who rarely thinks about the lost will find that he sees fewer and fewer open doors to minister to them. We must be careful not to become complacent after we place all the burden for the gospel’s spread on God. Jesus said to ‘go’ and ‘make’ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore Christianity has from the very beginning been an aggressively evangelistic way of life—for the sake of life, and love. Jesus commanded it as his parting passion for the church: “Go and make disciples.” He said just before he ascended into heaven, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses” (Acts 1:8). The early disciples of the Lord had this word burning in their hearts, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (Jn 20:21). So they took up their cross and laid down their lives to be fruitful and multiply.
The result recorded in the book of Acts is amazing.
- Acts 2:41: “There were added that day about three thousand souls.”
- Acts 4:4: “The number of the men came to be about five thousand.
- Acts 5:14: “All the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number.”
- Acts 6:1: “At this time . . . the disciples were increasing in number.”
- Acts 6:7: “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly.”
- Acts 9:31: “The church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace . . . [and] continued to increase.”
- Acts 12:24: “The word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.”
- Acts 16:5: “So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.”
This is what Jesus had meant when he said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19). As the Father sent me to seek and to save those who are lost, so I send you.
Christianity is a soul-winning, out-reaching, mind-persuading, heart-entreating, rescuing, missionary faith, or it is not true Christianity. We need to be reminded of this, because it is almost incredible how listless we can become while calling ourselves Christians. Little by little our whole orientation can become inward. We can go for months and years and not think about those who perish. We become so dull and spiritually callous that we don’t even ask if we believe in hell or lostness or the preciousness of Christ and the power of the cross and the freeness of the gospel and the command of Jesus. We just go about our in-house religious business like a medical clinic that sees fewer and fewer patients and has more and more staff meetings, until there is nothing left but a smooth running program for the doctors and nurses and their families. That is what happens to many churches.
(John Piper, Walk in Wisdom: Seize the Moment; Sermon on Colossians 4:2-6, 02/11/1996.)