Grateful Words to God, Gracious Words to People
The Bible has a lot to say about words. Why do we speak? Why are we humans characterized by communication?
The Bible indicates in a variety of ways that we communicate because God communicates. God speaks! Eternally, before creation, God was a communicating God. Within the eternal bliss of the Trinity, the Father was in continuous communication with his Son. I think that’s true because of what Jesus said once about the Father’s love for him; Jesus was praying, as recorded in John 17, and he said, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). Love is always expressed in communication of some form.
Do you want to know the wildest, most unbelievable truth about that verse? If you’re a Christian today, Jesus, about 2000 years ago, was praying that prayer for you (see John 17:20).
God is a loving, communicating God. Therefore, we, his adopted children, are to be loving, communicating people. Within the pages of Scripture, God has told us in many ways how our speaking should be. If communication is fundamental to human existence—and it is—then what should communication be like for those in Christ?
Addressing this question seems to be the apostle Paul’s aim as he concludes his letter to the Colossian Christians. Please open your Bibles with me to Col. 4. Last week, we listened as Paul painted a beautiful picture of how it should look for Jesus to be Lord over our relationships, particularly in the home. As we pick up this morning with Col. 4:2, we find Paul returning to something he had mentioned immediately before he began addressing specific kinds of people (wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, masters).
Look back at Col. 3:16-17: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. When we looked at these verses a few weeks ago, Pastor Barry pointed out the interpersonal focus in the verse, which suggests that Paul is calling for the “word of Christ” to dwell among the people of God, guiding their interactions together. Notice that he then mentions several forms of speaking: teaching, admonishing, and singing. Teaching and admonishing involve us speaking to each other, while singing could be addressed either to God or to each other; in fact, Eph. 5:19 specifically refers to “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.”
In Col. 4:2-6, Paul clearly elaborates on how Christians ought to be speaking, both to God and to other people. I also think he still has this theme of speech in mind through the end of the book, and I hope you’ll see it too as we bring our study of Colossians to a conclusion today.
So, let’s start with Col. 4:2: Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. We think of prayer as any speech addressed to God, but the word used in the New Testament specifically refers to petitions or requests most of the time. Paul commands the Colossian Christians to be devoted to prayer; that is, he wants them to regularly, habitually, and perseveringly ask God for the things they need. This same phrase is used to characterize the disciples after Jesus ascended to heaven in Acts 1:14: All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. Likewise, after the Holy Spirit came to live in the disciples on the Day of Pentecost and 3000 Jews became Christians, Luke describes them like this: And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42).
What does this look like? Well, Paul characterizes the devotion to prayer that he’s calling for with the words “watchful” and “thanksgiving.” The idea of “being watchful” in prayer recalls Jesus and his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane. The night before Jesus died, he takes his three closest friends, Peter, James, and John, away from the rest of the disciples, and he says to them, My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch (Mark 14:34). That word “watch” is the same word Paul uses here, and it basically means “stay awake.” If you remember the story, that’s exactly what these three disciples did not do. After Jesus had prayed, asking his Father to remove the cup of wrath from him, but also asking for the Father’s will to come to pass, Mark 14:37-38 says, And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Jesus wanted his friends to stay awake with him.
While they were sleeping, Luke’s Gospel says, And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground (Luke 22:44). On the night before Jesus died, in agony he prayed. Paul tells the Colossian Christians about their pastor—or at least the one who had organized the church in Colossae with his preaching—Epaphras, using similar language to describe his praying for them. Look down at Col. 4:12-13: Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. The Greek word translated “struggling” is agonizomai, and the phrase translated “he has worked hard for you” can also be translated “he is experiencing pain on your behalf.” Perhaps when Paul saw the exertion of Epaphras and the obvious concern of Epaphras for the Colossian Christians, he was reminded of Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane, and Epaphras is being held up as a model of one who devoted himself to prayer, remaining watchful in it with thanksgiving.
The word “watchful” has another important significance; it was often used to describe the task of a guard on duty for the night shift; he was to remain awake, vigilantly alert, ready for any kind of danger the night might bring. With the idea of expectant readiness, this word appears in the New Testament to indicate the posture we ought to maintain concerning Jesus’ return. In Luke 12:35-38, Jesus says, Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! With that in the background, Paul calls for the Colossian Christians to remain awake and alert to catch any opportunity to pray, knowing that our Master could return at any moment, and their praying should be characterized by an expectancy for God to respond and a longing for Christ himself to return to provide our deepest need: his presence.
So, we must pray with watchfulness and also with thanksgiving, Paul says. Our words to God, our requests of God, must be spoken out of grateful hearts. Paul mentions thanksgiving about 40 times in his letters, and this particular word for “thanksgiving” has appeared 5 times in Colossians. We won’t review all of them now, but back in chapter 3, in verses 15-16, we read, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” As I was reflecting on this verse, I had the question: “What does Paul say about not giving thanks to God?” And I remembered Paul’s characterization of human beings outside of Christ in Rom. 1:21: For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. God has shown himself to be the good creator of the universe, but we naturally suppress this truth and explain the good things in this world by giving credit to “mother nature” or pagan gods or evolutionary processes. Not giving thanks to God is condemnable. So, Paul insists that thanksgiving must characterize and saturate our prayers; even as we make requests to God, we should not forget to thank God for what he’s already done for us.
Following this general call to persevering and grateful prayer, Paul adds a specific request he’d like the Colossian Christians to make on his behalf. Verses 3-4: 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—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. He wants them to ask God to open a door for him and his associates to preach the word. Now, Paul reminds them at the end of this verse that he is in prison, but notice that he doesn’t ask for them to pray that God would bust him out of jail. No, he’s wanting the Colossian Christians to pray that God would provide him opportunities to preach the gospel even while he’s in prison. If Paul is imprisoned in Rome as he writes this, which is probable, by this point he had already spent a lot of time in a lot of different jails, and we ought to remember the famous story of Acts 16, where Paul and Silas are “praying and singing hymns to God” in the middle of the night, there was an earthquake that broke the doors of the prison and the chains off the prisoners, but no one left the cell. Instead, the Philippian jailer comes in and asked that famous and all-important question, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas were given an opportunity to proclaim the gospel to this man and his family, and, in that instance, God did in fact open the doors of the prison (Acts 16:25-34). At the end of the book of Acts, we find Paul imprisoned in Rome, and we read these words: He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance (Acts 28:30-31). It was probably during those two years that Paul wrote this letter to the Colossians. I’d say that it looks like God answered the Colossians’ prayers for Paul’s ministry quite favorably.
And, don’t miss the implication of this prayer request: “Paul implies that it is God who prepares the way for the message of the gospel. He provides opportunities; he softens the hearts of listeners by his grace.” We often talk about “open doors” as opportunities of various kinds that God provides for us when we need to make a decision. We say things like, “God opened the door for me to get this job.” However, when Paul makes this prayer request, we shouldn’t think that an open door means things are easy. On one other occasion, Paul speaks of a door that God opened for him like this: But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries (1 Cor. 16:8-9). Open door, but many adversaries. So, an open door doesn’t necessarily mean God makes everything easy and there are no obstacles or hindrances. Rather, when God opens a door, provides an opportunity for his word to advance, there may be great opposition; nevertheless, it is God who prepares the way, opens the door, and advances the gospel on through.
Paul wants an opportunity to declare the mystery of Christ, that is, the gospel message that the Jewish Messiah is the divine Son of God who has provided salvation for Jew and non-Jew alike, by living a full life as a human being without sin, offering himself as a perfect sacrifice by being executed as a criminal, rising from the dead, ascending to his rightful place on the heavenly throne, and coming to live in all those who trust him as the risen King of the Universe. Verse 4, in the ESV, says that Paul wants to “make it clear,” to make the mystery clear. This is probably an occasion of “over-translation”; the Greek word simply means “to reveal” and is an appropriate thing to do with a mystery, something that had previously been hidden.
In verses 5-6, he turns to instruct the Colossians how they ought to engage non-Christians: Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. Where is wisdom to be found? Well, Proverbs indicates that “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10), but what if I want all wisdom? Paul is instructing the Colossian Christians that their daily conduct—their “walk”—should be characterized by wisdom, every step of the way. Back in Col. 2:3, Paul had already taught them that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ, God’s mystery. The fear of Yahweh, recognizing God for who he truly is in his holy splendor, is truly the beginning of wisdom, but if you start there and keep moving toward this magnificent God, you will find Jesus Christ, no less holy, but somehow approachable. Look to Christ for wisdom.
To “walk in wisdom,” Paul says you’ve got to “redeem the time,” as the KJV puts it. The idea is that walking in wisdom happens as we pay attention to every opportunity God brings our way. My mother-in-law is a great bargain hunter and coupon user; a few weeks ago, she had spotted a sale Wal-Mart was having for paper towels, and she had a coupon that she could use that would make them even cheaper. So, what did she do? She cleaned them out! She bought every package of that particular brand of paper towels they had on the shelf! That’s what’s in view with this phrase; Christians ought to be “noticers,” as Andy Stanley has written. We ought to be paying attention to the people around us; Paul focuses here on “outsiders,” those who are not Christians. We have opportunities every day that God provides for us as his children to illustrate or demonstrate how great our God is. Let’s snatch them up!
Under the umbrella of “walking in wisdom,” Paul focuses again on speech in verse 6, insisting that Christian speech must “always be gracious, seasoned with salt.” Whether proclaiming God’s word, teaching a Sunday school class, asking to borrow a cup of sugar, or talking about the weather, our “word,” our “speech” must be gracious. Let’s not gloss over that word “gracious” too quickly. In the New Testament, this word typically refers to God’s grace, and I think it refers to God’s grace here as well. Paul’s referring to the type of speaking “that results from the operation of God’s grace in the heart.” This also serves as a call to be like Jesus in our speaking, for Luke 4:22 says, And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.
He adds that this kind of speech is “seasoned with salt,” a common and flexible metaphor in the ancient world. The metaphor of seasoning something with salt occurs several times in the Bible, and it does not always mean the same thing. Here, I think Paul simply means Christian speech should taste good. When we talk to non-Christians, they should come away having enjoyed the conversation. Now, I think Paul might be focusing on telling people who don’t know Jesus about Jesus, and that makes this idea of good-tasting speech all the more significant. Think about it: if you’re a Christian, if Jesus has rescued you from sin, death, hell, God’s wrath, and if the Spirit of God lives inside you, changing your heart, drawing you closer to your heavenly Father and making you more like Jesus in the way you think, feel, and act, then why wouldn’t you talk about Jesus in a way that expresses how good he is? Whenever we have the opportunity to talk about what Jesus has done for us or is doing for us, do we get excited? Do we talk about him in such a way that “outsiders” would be interested?
In verses 7-18, Paul provides instructions for Tychicus and Onesimus, who will carry the letter to the Colossian Christians, and then sends a series of greetings. However, I think he still has in mind “gracious words” or “gracious speech” toward other people. Tychicus and Onesimus are both going to “tell” the Colossian Christians about Paul’s activities and situation. Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus (also known as Justus) are 3 Jews who send their greetings to the Colossian Christians, and Epaphras, Luke, and Demas are 3 Gentiles who send their greetings to the Colossian Christians, and a greeting is a good example of a “gracious word.” Paul even instructs the Colossian Christians to pass along his greetings to the Christians at Laodicea, and he wants them to share letters, Paul’s written words to each group of Christians. He even has a specific message that he wants the Colossians to pass on to a man named Archippus.
Let’s look at just a few details in this closing section. First, in verses 7-9, Paul explains why he is sending Tychicus and Onesimus. He refers to Tychicus as “a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord,” which is probably the most extravagant commendation Paul gives to any individual in his letters. And notice how he refers to Onesimus: “our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” Next week, we’ll look at the little letter Paul wrote to Philemon about Onesimus, and if you know the story that kind of comes out of that letter, Onesimus had been Philemon’s slave. But notice that Paul doesn’t call Onesimus a slave here; he actually uses the word “slave” to refer to Tychicus; the phrase “fellow servant” could be translated just as well “co-slave,” but Paul is careful not to use the word “slave” to refer to Onesimus. So, Tychicus is charged with carrying the letter we now call “Colossians” and delivering it to the Colossian Christians, while Onesimus will be carrying Paul’s letter to Onesimus’s master Philemon. We’ll stand in awe of the beauty of that reality next week.
Next, Paul sends along the greetings of three Jewish men, Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus (also known as Justus). He specifically draws attention to their Jewishness in verse 11: These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God. Commentators are quite divided on how to translate this verse and how to understand the reference to these men being “of the circumcision.” Nevertheless, it seems that the simplest and most likely understanding is that these men are Jewish Christians, and Paul may be expressing his sadness that only these three amongst his “kinsmen according to the flesh” are supporting his ministry while imprisoned in Rome. Then, he sends along the greetings of three Gentiles, Epaphras, Luke, and Demas. He draws particular attention to Epaphras’ praying for the Colossian Christians. We looked at Epaphras’ strenuous struggle in prayer earlier, and the language of “agonizing in prayer” undoubtedly is where we get the idea of “praying hard.”
What does it mean to “pray hard”? Well, for Epaphras, Paul, and Jesus, who are described with this kind of language in their praying, it meant a deep and genuine concern that moved them to plead with God for something. It involved a feeling of desperation, recognizing that God was the only one who could do something. Notice what Epaphras is asking God to do for the Colossian Christians. In the middle of verse 12, Epaphras is praying that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. One writer explains his request like this: “Epaphras is praying (like Paul) that the young church will understand what it is God is doing and order their lives accordingly, growing into well-grounded Christian (and human) maturity.”
So, Paul is sending the letter in the hands of one freeman and one slave (Tychicus and Onesimus), and he sends along the greetings of three Jewish Christians and three Gentile Christians; I wonder if he does this as an expression of the truth he articulated back in Col. 3:11: Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Finally, Paul requests that his own “gracious words” of greeting would be passed along to the Christians in the nearby city of Laodicea. He mentions specifically Nympha and the church in her house, and this probably refers to a wealthy woman, either a non-married heiress or a wealthy widow, who hosted the Christians of Laodicea when they gathered together on Sunday mornings especially. We have evidence throughout the New Testament that the earliest Christians typically gathered for their weekly meetings in a home. For example, in Jerusalem we read about an assembly of Christians meeting in the house of Mark’s mother Mary (Acts 12:12), and Paul twice mentions Priscilla and Aquila hosting the assembly of Christians (Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 16:19).
When Christians assemble, there would normally be a reading of God’s word, where someone would stand and read out a portion of Scripture for the gathering of Christians. Here’s how it probably would have worked: Paul completes his letter by adding his personal, handwritten greeting at the end; then, he rolls up the scroll and seals it, handing it off to Tychicus, who then carries the scroll from Rome to Colossae, which is a very, very long journey. When Tychicus and Onesimus arrive in Colossae, they would have made contact with the elders of the church in Colossae and asked them to inform the Christians that the apostle Paul had written them a letter. They would gather the next Sunday morning and Tychicus (probably) would stand up before the whole church and read the entirety of Paul’s letter, as the people listened with rapt attention. After that, Paul instructs them in verse 16 to send his letter to the Christians in Laodicea, which they probably would have done after making a handwritten copy of it, and they were to request the letter that he wrote to the Christians in Laodicea (which God has not preserved through the years), so that it too could be read aloud to the gathered congregation, probably the following week.
Then what? Or let’s ask now what? As we come to the end of this message and the end of the book of Colossians, what now? Paul closes his letter with an emphasis on words: grateful words toward God in prayer and gracious words toward other people. Paul opened his letter with his own prayer, followed immediately by a major emphasis on the one who is the Word who became flesh (cf. John 1:14). How can our words—both in prayer to God and in grace to others—reflect what we see in Jesus?
Are we devoted to prayer, the way the earliest Christians were, the way Paul commands in Col. 4:2? Are we awake and alert, vigilantly hoping to grab at any and every opportunity to pray to God? God doesn’t necessarily expect our prayers to be long and comprehensive. How about simple, grateful, and pointed? Whenever we see a need in our lives or in the lives of others, why not simply, gratefully, and pointedly ask God to meet that need? Our words to God are to be grateful; that is, full of gratitude, not full of greatness.
What does it mean to walk in wisdom, particularly with non-Christians in view? If all the treasures of wisdom and understanding are hidden in Christ, then walking in wisdom must mean displaying Christ in our daily decisions and daily activities. Practically it means consciously making choices that highlight the attractiveness and the truth of the gospel. We must remember that “the reputation of the gospel is bound up with the behavior of those who claim to have experienced its saving power. People who do not read the Bible for themselves or listen to the preaching of the word of God can see the lives of those who do, and can form their judgment accordingly.” This doesn’t mean we have to make sure our “public face” is free of blemishes. Yes, Prov. 22:1 says A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold, but if you only have the reputation of being alive but are in actuality dead, what good is that? Walking in wisdom towards outsiders surely involves treating your own sin seriously; when you offend someone and you’re called on it, do you immediately begin trying to defend yourself? The gospel of Jesus has set you free from defending yourself; you are free to admit your sin and turn away from it.
People are always watching, especially if we publicly claim to be Christians. When something good happens in our lives, or when we accomplish something great, are we boastful, do we take credit and highlight how hard we worked and how much we deserve the good things we get, or do we give credit and thanks to God, explicitly and publicly? Jesus calls his followers to shine our light publicly so that others may see our good works and give glory to our heavenly Father. Godly wisdom gives God the credit.
Consider your words before you say them; examine them after you say them. Pursue gracious words when speaking to other people. God has spoken infinitely gracious words to each one of us. Words like forgiven, loved, chosen, rescued, adopted. Can we not speak gracious words to each other? When someone sins against us, can we not speak the word “forgiven” or the word “loved” to that person? And when we speak to those who don’t know Jesus, whenever we have the opportunity, can we speak tasty, seasoned, desirable words about our Savior?
We must admit, with James: no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so (James 3:8-10). But this does not leave us to despair; rather, it should drive us to pray.
So, pray with me some words from the psalmists:
(Ps. 141:1-4; 19:14)
Father, I call upon You. Come quickly!
Listen to my voice as I call upon You!
Consider my prayer as an offering of incense that rises before You;
when I stand with my hands outstretched pleading toward the heavens,
consider it as an evening offering.
Guard my mouth, Lord; control what I say.
Keep a careful watch on every word I speak.
Don’t allow my deepest desires to steer me toward doing what is wrong
or associating with wicked people
Or joining in their wicked works
or tasting any of their pleasures.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Yahweh, my rock and my redeemer.