“For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Jesus had just cast a demon out of a man, and the Pharisees saw it take place. Instead of being amazed at Jesus, they instead belittle Jesus, saying he received his power not from God but from the devil. Jesus never lets these accusations cloud his thinking, so instead he clearly affirms that his power is from the Holy Spirit. It’s the Pharisees who are speaking evil, and it’s because they have hard hearts. For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, Jesus tells them.
That’s just an illustration of the fact that God cares deeply about our words and our thoughts. And that means that he cares about our hearts, because our words are simply the heat that comes from the fire within our hearts. Whatever kind of fire you have in your heart, whether it’s a controlled fire used for good things like safety or cooking, or a chaotic fire used to kill and destroy, your words will not betray what’s in your heart. As heat is the overflow of fire, so words are the overflow of the heart.
This is true in both our prayers to God and our conversations with others. So if we believe that we should be evangelistic in our world, we should start by making sure we have a deep and abiding understanding of the gospel. We need a good understanding of the basics of the faith. Proverbs 19:2 tells us that “Desire (or zeal) without knowledge is not good.” We should have a deep knowledge of the things of God so that when we do speak the good news to those around us, we are speaking from both knowledge of God and experience of his goodness.
And I don’t mean to speak in vagueness. Do you know the ten commandments? If you were pulled into a windowless van and your kidnappers said the only way you could be freed is if you correctly wrote down the ten commandments, would you make it out alive? Do you know the Lord’s prayer, not just for points, but to be the way that Jesus taught us to pray? Could you trace the storyline of Scripture from creation, to cross, to new creation?
As he closes his brief letter, Paul is concerned that the Colossians might lose steam in their prayer life. They have a desire to see others know the Lord as their Savior, but where does that start? Do you just send people out with brochures to walk the streets? Or, is your witness begun before you leave the house?
The depth of your witness is tied to the height of your prayers.
Paul has written about what the redeemed life looks like. He describes the new self. In Colossians 2:20, he tells us that if we have died with Christ to the spiritual powers of this world, then we should not be bound to any other kind of untouchable tradition. Then in Colossians 3:1, he tells us that if we have been raised with Christ, then we should seek a heavenly way of living. That means putting some things to death, like sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness or idolatry.
He then leads directly into how the new life in Christ changes the home. Wives submit to their husbands. Husbands sacrifice themselves for their wives. Children obey their parents. Fathers encourage their children. And while it’s not as common today, slaves or bondservants obey their masters. Masters treat their servants justly and fairly.
Now, Paul extends the realm of the new life both deeper and broader. And in both directions, our words must be clear and gracious. In going deep, we need not just more knowledge about God but a clarity about God. God should not be a fuzzy, shapeless being who has a general tie-in with the world, but the Almighty, eternal, invisible, personal creator of all things. Who God is should be the defining mark of your prayers. And as we go broad in our witness, to our families and friends, we should be able to present a compelling, clear picture of the darkness of sin and the light of Christ.
First, Paul commends regular prayer.
v.2: Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
This is how the letter started, and it’s how the letter ends. After he introduces himself in chapter 1, the letter itself begins in verse 3 with the words, “We always thank God…” The Christian always has something to be thankful for. Gratitude is a wonderful medicine. Many of us walk around as though we had a black cloud hovering over us at all times. Gratitude toward God for his daily provision, however much or meager, is more than we deserve. So we are thankful. Today, if you are deep in grief and all you have to be thankful for is your salvation and nothing else, then you have the same glorified future as every believer, the same Redeemer as every believer, and the same Spirit as every believer.
“Steadfastly” describes a firm and unwavering commitment to prayer. While that means dedicating time for prayer, it goes beyond that to mean paying attention to what you’re praying for. Many people keep a prayer journal so that they remember to pray for certain things in the future or what they have prayed for in the past. Philippians 4:6 tells us to pray for everything. Nothing is out of bounds in prayer. Pray for yourself, the church, and the world. Pray for the growth of the kingdom. 1 Timothy 2:2 tells us to pray for those in authority. Pray for your leaders, both in the church and in the government. Once you start to see how much Scripture calls us to pray and on whose behalf we should pray, prayer becomes less of a daunting task.
We pray with a steadfast approach, bringing everything to God in prayer, then Paul tells us also to be watchful in prayer. What’s the difference? “Watchful” carries the sense of guard duty. The whole purpose of a guard at the gate is to keep his eyes open on behalf of others. When used as a metaphor in how we pray, it describes prayer as how we stay alert and awake in the Christian life. In Matthew 24 and Mark 13, when Jesus is teaching about the end of the age, he uses the same language of staying alert and awake, or being watchful. When the Lord returns, we should be excited and joyful, but we should not be surprised. We should be waiting actively.
When Jesus is praying in the garden at Gethsemane, right before he is arrested, he is being watchful in prayer. He tells the disciples that are with him, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Mark 14:38). Being watchful in prayer is putting a guard at the gate of our heart and mind. The doctrine of sovereignty stands guard, reminding us that God has ordained these very circumstances. The doctrine of providence stands guard, reminding us that God has a purpose for everything. The doctrine of the atonement stands guard, reminding us that God loves his enemies and provided a substitute for us. Being watchful in prayer moves us from not knowing where to start to having prayer filled with truth and assurance. Let your doctrine stand guard over your prayer.
Paul calling us to thankfulness in our prayers is a helpful qualifier to what watchfulness looks like in reality. We do not pray to God out of a sense of fear that he won’t answer us or anxiety that he won’t hear us, but we pray out of a thankfulness for his provision and his promises. That lends a new confidence in our prayers. Whatever we face, the one to whom we pray possesses the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8).
Paul then asks for a specific prayer request.
v.3: 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--
Paul began the letter by saying how much he had been praying for the Colossians, and now he’s calling for the Colossians to pray for him and his team. If Paul knew that God possessed all things and controlled all things, then it makes no sense to pray to anyone else. It only makes sense to bring every need to God, even the ones about himself. Jesus teaches as much in Matthew 6. Without even mentioning prayer, Jesus mentions all the mundane necessities of life, like food and clothing. But then he says, “For the Gentiles seek after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:32-33).
But take note of what Paul is asking for prayers about. He is praying that through him, the gospel might make its way to every place and every people. This is one way you seek the kingdom of God before anything else. Jesus gives his people priorities in prayers. The Lord’s prayer begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” You pray to God about God before you bring your needs to him. It’s not because your needs are not important, but your needs are indeed secondary to his glory. That’s not easy to hear in our self-indulgent age, but making the leap to living a life that seeks the kingdom of God first is the clear call for every believer. Christianity is self-denial, not self-indulgent.
Paul even mentions what the gospel has gotten him—a stint in prison. No contemporary theory of self-affirming belief would ever adopt a belief system that expects such debasement. When we are thinking of what discipleship looks like, we must be discipling people to be willing to endure prison and persecution. There were pastors in Canada recently who refused to stop ministering to their people because of lockdowns that went against the commands of Scripture to continue meeting and so faced arrest. The threat of prison was extended to many American pastors and church members, as well. There was such a backlash that they were eventually released and cleared. But do you think that’s the end of it? And I don’t mean that in political sense; I mean that Jesus says that we should expect to be hated by this world on account of following him. That doesn’t mean funny looks and jokes about us behind our backs. That means prison and persecution. A sentimental faith does not preserve you in prison and persecution. A deep abiding knowledge and experience of the gospel is required to stand up against a world that will hate us.
Focusing on discipleship has never been more important because of that. The fact is we do live in a different day, and many churches seem to be unaware of it or ignoring it out of fear. So instead of teaching the Bible and the things of God, they play games. Here's one example of how I know this to be true. This past Friday, we had a booth at the Mistletoe Market as outreach and an act of goodwill to our community. We handed out information about our church along with a summary of the gospel and information about how to get in contact with us. We also had a Bible Christmas quiz just for fun. The five-question quiz was designed with elementary kids in mind, so the questions were along the lines of, "Who followed the star to see the baby Jesus?" Two pastors from churches in our town got that question wrong. One is a fluke; two is a problem. Another young man who was very proud that he went to Bible college got two questions wrong on an elementary Christmas trivia game. Nobody else got more than three questions right. But every kid from Mt. Pisgah who played it got every question right. And that was just Christmas Bible trivia. I can't imagine how much Tylenol PM I would have had to have taken to sleep if we had real doctrinal questions.
Every two years, LifeWay and Ligonier, two Bible curriculum publishers, join together and survey thousands of Americans who claim to be Bible-believing evangelicals about what they believe. If you want to spend an afternoon lamenting in sackcloth and ashes, just Google, "The State of Theology 2022". You'll wonder in amazement at the patience of God.
I say this to encourage you, because there's something going on in our homes and in this church that is putting the Bible in the hearts of minds of even our youngest children. Don't get discouraged. Don't give up. Fight the good fight. Don't let naysayers cloud your thinking. Pushback on the pushback. Stay focused on discipling your children.
Note, also, that Paul does not pray to be let out of prison. Wouldn’t that be your first request if you were unfairly imprisoned? Instead Paul is content with having a prison ministry, whether it’s short-term or for the rest of his life. Paul tells the church at Philippi, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (4:12-13). The circumstances might not need changed; they might need redeemed. This is a great example of the doctrine of sovereignty standing guard in your prayers. Paul did not pray to be let out of prison as if he was there by mistake. Soldiers arrested Paul, but God sent him to prison. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but God sent him to Egypt. The Romans pierced Jesus’ side, but God put him on the cross. Let your doctrine stand guard over your prayers.
The fact of the matter is, Paul knows that it’s his preaching that landed him in prison to begin with. If he does get out, is a real man like Paul going to stop preaching and take up chess? No; Paul is a realist. And because of that, Paul will preach wherever he is. So once that door is opened for the word to do its work, whether it is to the public or the prison guards, Paul wants this word to have one important trait.
v.4: that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.
When doctors talk to each other, they can use all the jargon they want. But when they’re talking to you in the consultation room after your spouse has just had surgery, you need to hear the truth on your level, as someone without an M.D. You want the doctors to talk clearly to you, using words you both understand. Robb and I are in the hospitals a lot, so people think we know a lot of medical jargon. I just look at them and nod my head. I know three medical terms, and one of them is band-aid.
But this is not the sense Paul means here. What the word “clear” means is “to reveal what was hidden.” It’s often used to describe what happened when Jesus performed a miracle—he “revealed” his glory. Jesus also came to “reveal” God’s name to us. Jesus “revealed” himself to his disciples after his resurrection. Our works will be “revealed” at the judgment seat at the end of the age. It carries the sense of all things becoming clear. There’s no mistake.
Paul’s ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles was to reveal that there is one God, from whom every nation on earth descends, who had sent his Son to atone for the sins of his people, and who would one day return and judge the living and the dead. This is how Paul says he “ought” to speak. That’s not an ethical requirement for Paul, like he ought to love his family or pay his taxes. It’s speaking of the divinely appointed course for Paul’s life. Preaching is his duty. That’s what preaching is—the proclamation of the plan of God set forth before time which is fulfilled in Christ.
You don’t need a pulpit to preach. But this also reminds us just exactly what the gospel is. Sometimes we can skirt around the gospel without ever getting to the heart of it. We can make the gospel out to be “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” all the while we can’t make our mortgage payment, our kid has cancer, and my job is downsizing. If that’s what we get people in the door with, then it’s just the bait-and-switch. When we present the gospel, whether it’s in worship or around the table, we must focus on the eternal plan of God fulfilled in Christ.
The simple gospel is what leads Paul to go on to say,
v.5: Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.
Paul wrote bespoke letters to all the churches in which he ministered. The Corinthians had all kinds of problems surrounding order in the church’s worship. Things were out of control, and there was no church discipline being done on unrepentant people. The Galatians had essentially forgotten the gospel completely and were in danger of becoming an apostate church. In Colossae, as we’ve seen throughout the letter, there have been groups trying to combine their own pagan teaching with Christian doctrine and practice. So Paul has been cleaning off the glass so they see the gospel more clearly this whole time.
When you’re in the minority, as these Christians were, it’s tempting to gain some credibility with the majority by giving just an inch. There were many bigger religious groups in Colossae, so you can understand the urge to mix and match doctrines so you didn’t seem so off the wall. But we’re not just called to walk among outsiders but to “walk in wisdom” toward outsiders. That means we have to keep our Christian identity even while others might mock us for not adopting an identity like theirs.
Carl Trueman recently wrote an article saying that there was a time when you could be a Christian and believe in the supernatural and still have any job you wanted. You could believe the whole Bible, all the miracles and morals, and even if people thought you were superstitious, as long as you got along, you didn’t lose your spot in society. I don’t know of anyone who has lost their job because they believe in the resurrection. You would still be invited to your neighbor’s home for dinner parties. Your kids could still play with their kids.
But the situation we find ourselves in today is different. You can still hold to all the supernatural claims of Scripture, but if you dare to hold to an orthodox Christian sexual ethic, there are those who actively seek to take away your livelihood. Maybe it’s not you today, but I recently heard of a Christian web designer who was sued for not making a wedding website for a couple whose lifestyle is outside the bounds of biblical morality. She’s not the first and won’t be the last. The Colossians were tempted to give an inch, and so are we. We must walk in wisdom, and where Scripture is unambiguous, so must we be.
But wisdom is not only clarity about the truth. Paul gives us one more description of how we ought to speak.
v.6: Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you out to answer each person.
Words that are wise are both clear and gracious. When we see such slander against the church and the Lord from the wider culture, it can be difficult to hold back and be gracious with our response. But what this actually does is serve to force us to trust even more in the sovereignty of God. After all, it’s never been our speech, our evangelism, or our witness that has brought about conversion in anyone. That is always and only a work of God. Our duty, as Paul has already pointed out, what we ought to do, is be gracious when we speak.
Gracious speech does not take slander personally. As when Jesus was charged with serving Satan when he cast out demons, he did not let those accusations cloud his thinking. He was always under control. Gracious speech is also seasoned with salt. This does not mean entertaining but invigorating and stimulating speech. One of the key areas we’re focusing on in our child and student discipleship on Sunday nights is apologetics, or the defense of the faith. We want them to be able to answer questions like, Why is the resurrection not only plausible but the obviously true scenario? How do other world religions contradict themselves while Christianity stays remarkably consistent?
One of the primary purposes of speech seasoned with salt, or apologetics, is to shape culture and make the Christian worldview a competitor in the minds of the people. That’s the notion behind speech that has been seasoned with salt. As salt adds flavor to bitter food, so biblical truth adds life to our neighborhoods. That’s precisely what Paul did as he traveled around the Mediterranean. He brought the Christian message, the gospel, to bear on every possible issue. His letters reflect that as he wrote on everything ranging from philosophy to ethics. Paul addressed marriage from a gospel perspective. Paul wrote on business ethics from a gospel perspective. Paul taught on charity from a gospel perspective.
The depth of your witness is tied to the height of your prayers. To see the world come to Christ, to see our neighbors repent and be baptized, we must be clear on the gospel message. We must know the basics of the historic Christian faith. It must be seared deep into our hearts and minds. Our prayers must be rooted in Scripture and God-exalting above all else.
First and foremost, we declare the preeminence of Christ. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:15-20).
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